Point of No Return
"How're you holding up?" Ogre said, and I realized I'd been standing still for several minutes, just staring at everything around me. "Handling it okay?"
I nodded and took a few more seconds to find my voice as we walked along the street with her boyfriend, Alvin.
"It's … a lot to take in, but I'm okay." I moved slowly forward, staring at the cars and trucks passing by. "The shapes of some of those are so odd." I faced forward to be sure I wasn't about to bump into anyone and noticed the traffic lights up ahead. "And those are so bright."
"They're LEDs." Alvin laughed softly and slipped his hand into Ogre's. I glanced at him and raised an eyebrow, and he clarified, "Light-emitting diodes. The first use in electronics was around ten years after you went into cryo, if I remember correctly."
"Ah." I chuckled and shook my head. "I guess I should've spent my first few weeks reading up on what I've missed, but I wanted my first look at the world to be untainted."
"Well, that's why the Institute asked us to tag along. We're here to answer any questions you have."
And to keep me out of trouble, I figured. A sensible precaution. I'd skipped sixty-seven years between the time I was frozen and the day they thawed me out, so I could imagine all sorts of ways I could blunder into awkward situations. But after spending a week in a hospital bed recovering, I'd been eager to see the new world I'd found myself in. It was why I'd volunteered for the project in the first place.
"So," Ogre said, "first impressions?"
"It's surprisingly similar to the world as I left it in 1952. I was expecting … I don't know … dirigibles, rocket ships, and flying cars."
She shrugged. "Things change, things stay the same."
"Yeah, I guess so." One thing I'd noticed immediately that was vastly different from before was the number of women in roles I wasn't used to seeing them in. Administration, medical -– doctors as well as nurses -– even security. I'd already spotted a few driving police cars as we walked from the Institute to one of the city's main streets. I'd had the presence of mind so far to hold my tongue until I knew more about the world.
Not that I found anything wrong with it. My tendency to always have my eyes on the future was one of the reasons my application to this program had been accepted. Other applicants had probably been more qualified, but as far as I knew, I was the only one with no family or friends to leave behind. The guys I grew up with had always been interested in little more than sports, but I never was. I always had my nose in a book or a pulp magazine or a comic book after school.
I was always the kid who got sand kicked into his face at the beach, so by the time I was thirty-five, I had no one left to miss and no one who would miss me. When I heard about the program, I signed up without hesitation in hopes of waking up to a better tomorrow.
Alvin and Ogre had been assigned as my guides into this new era. When we were introduced, I was told they had been high-school sweethearts and had gone to work at the Institute after graduating several years ago. And what an odd couple they made. Alvin was wiry and had long, dark hair, while Ogre was over six feet tall and had the body of a stevedore -– which, I assumed, was where her nickname had come from. I wouldn't have admitted it to anyone, but she was kind of scary, though she seemed friendly enough.
The intimidation factor was another reason I hadn't commented on her being female … not to mention the color of her skin. Dating a white kid would've been incredibly dangerous for her where I was from, but if things were different now, that alone was enough cause for celebration.
I continued walking, keeping my eyes on the sky for a moment longer, disappointed that there were no dirigibles. I did spot a couple of airplanes, but aside from the size and shape, they didn't look too out of the ordinary. At least the blue sky with a few wispy clouds and the warm temperature made for a pleasant summer morning.
I returned my gaze to the ground and noticed a handful of people walking toward us. The pair of young women among them were dressed … rather immodestly, I couldn't help noticing. The three guys walking alongside them came straight at us and didn't try to move out of our path, so I stepped to the right to make room for them. One of them moved in the same direction and bumped into my shoulder hard enough to knock me off balance. I regained my footing and shook my head as they passed by.
"That was rude," I grumbled -– at the same time noticing Ogre was already turning around and taking a step toward the one who'd charged into me. "Uh, what are …?"
She grasped the back of his shirt, kicked his left leg out from under him, and yanked him straight down. His shoulder blades slammed into the pavement a split-second before the back of his skull thumped down and something slipped from his left hand. Ogre leaned over to pick it up.
I gaped at her and my heart pounded. She and Alvin were supposed to be keeping me out of trouble, not …
"He picked your pocket." Ogre held my wallet out and I stared at it for a few seconds before accepting it.
"What …?" I kept staring at the wallet in my hands as she faced the guy's cohorts. I hadn't even felt his hand pull it out of my pocket. "But … what?"
The thief pushed himself slowly back to his feet. He turned, took two steps toward us, stumbled to the right, and toppled over again. One of his friends started to lunge forward but froze when Ogre flexed her muscles. The already-tight sleeves of her T-shirt looked ready to split open.
The whole group took a step back. One of them held a hand up as the others helped the pickpocket to his feet and continued on their way.
"Sorry," the other guy said as he backed away. "We don't want any trouble."
Ogre merely stared at them until they reached the next corner, turned left, and disappeared behind a grocery store.
I caught Alvin grinning from ear to ear in the corner of my eye. He slipped his hands around Ogre's waist.
"All the blood's leaving my head."
She chuckled and gave him a peck on the lips before glancing at me and nodding over her shoulder.
"Let's get the hell outta here before somebody calls the cops."
"Anything in particular you're interested in taking a closer look at?" Alvin waved a hand over the storefronts lining both sides of the street.
"Technology," I blurted without a second thought. "I mean … uh, electronics. I've always been fascinated with new inventions and one of the reasons I volunteered was to see what kinds of things people come up with in the future. So … is there a Radio Shack around here?"
"No, but there's a fair number of similar stores." Ogre pointed off down the street and we resumed walking. A few minutes later we reached a large parking lot on the corner with a warehouse-sized building set at least a thousand feet back from the street. That in itself was a marvel. I grew up in a small town that had no buildings larger than a three-bedroom house aside from a few churches. A dozen of the grocery stores I grew up around could've fit into this lot and still leave room for the store.
The doors parted and a whole new world opened up in front of me once again.
Alvin pointed in one direction, then another and another. "We've got TVs on the left, stereos next to them, phones right over there, tablets in the next aisle, accessories for them in the section behind them, desktop computers over there, laptops there, software and video games on the end."
"And that's just for starters," Ogre added.
"Incredible." Some of the devices in the hospital room I woke up in had appeared quite advanced, but the people at the Institute had been careful to keep me from being overwhelmed while I was recovering. Once I was back on my feet, though, I was ready to start catching up.
Boy, was I ready.
"Where do you want to start?" Alvin grinned and clapped me on the shoulder.
"I have no idea." I shrugged. "I guess we can start on the left and just work our way over from there." I walked over to the wall, stared at the two dozen objects of varying sizes, each showing a different moving image, and glanced over at Alvin and Ogre. "You said these are televisions?"
"Yep," Ogre said.
"They're not big and boxy. They're so thin. And rectangular? TVs aren't square anymore?"
"Nope. The aspect ratio is closer to theatrical movies, these days."
I approached the nearest one and marveled at the bright, vibrant, sharp image. "They don't use cathode-ray tubes anymore."
"Exactly. These are LED screens. The TVs are thin and lightweight. They can be mounted on a wall if you want."
"How are the pictures so clear? And in color?"
"Those are ultra-high-definition screens." Ogre let out a quick chuckle at my confused expression. "We can go over all the details later. For now, just enjoy."
Grinning, I moved to the right and found the TVs getting larger. I couldn't believe how big the ones at the end of the aisle were. A label on the largest said seventy-five inches. I rubbed my hands together and thought of what I could do with the trust fund that had been set up before I was frozen. They'd planned for me to have enough money not to need to find a job immediately, giving me time to acclimate instead of sink or swim.
"Wow. I am absolutely getting one of these for my house."
I turned to look over the shelves behind me and found them lined with small, rectangular boxes.
"What are these?"
"Movies and TV series on DVD and Blu-ray." Ogre caught my raised eyebrow and elaborated. "They're stored on discs. DVDs are standard-definition and Blu-rays are high-definition. Each of those thick boxes holds a full season and the slim ones hold a movie and supplemental material like interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, and commentary tracks."
"TV shows can be stored on discs?"
"Yep. Also digitally."
"Files on computers. No physical media at all."
"Oh. A house would have to be pretty big to fit one of those into it."
Ogre giggled and pulled a rectangular device from her pocket. "Nah, they don't take up whole rooms anymore. Some can fit on a desk and others … well, have a look."
"That's a computer?"
"It's a phone and a computer."
I stared as she tapped the screen and the numbers of a phone appeared on the surface. The phones I grew up with had dials, but I'd seen a few with buttons while walking through the Institute's corridors. I laughed. Who needed dirigibles when we had gadgets like these?
"So, when they set you up in a house and you pick out your furniture and TV and whatnot, you can start building a library and catch up on all the stuff you missed over the past sixty-some years." She waved a hand over the movies and shows.
"I wouldn't even know where to start. Any recommendations?"
"Well, since you've always liked science fiction books, I think you'd enjoy a few pop-cultural landmarks like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and Babylon 5." She grinned. "That last one is my all-time favorite. If I start talking about it, I'll go full-genki girl."
"Whatever that is."
"Like, hyperkinetically enthusiastic." She laughed and shrugged. "When we get back to the Institute this evening, we can show you an episode of each to give you a taste. Maybe we can introduce you to some anime, too, and similar shows produced over here in the states. One of my favorites is gen:LOCK."
"Hmm. Maybe we can make it a series of reaction videos," Alvin said. "Play it up as a guy who's never seen any of this stuff without bringing up the cryonics thing, and just document his introduction to sci-fi from the past few decades."
"I think I understand what you just said. Most of it, anyway." I laughed. "Sounds fun." I turned slowly to take another look around and recognized a few dozen other phones like Ogre's on a nearby table. "I think I'm going to like the future."
After spending a couple of hours in the electronics store, we continued our walk and eventually ended up at a Chinese restaurant that, according to Alvin, had the best crab puffs and pork-fried rice around. It had a small outdoor-dining area and we passed another hour and a half eating lunch and talking. They brought me up to speed on recent history, some of which was worth celebrating and some which … wasn't.
The moon landing, the Voyager and Venera probes, other missions to Mars and Jupiter and Saturn, shuttle launches, the International Space Station -– triumphs of exploration that brought tears to my eyes …
The Korean War, the Vietnam War, airplane hijackings, years of fighting in the Middle East, the Iran-Contra scandal, the attack on the World Trade Center, the invasion of Iraq, on and on and on. Dear God …
"There's been more bad than good," I finally muttered as we stopped in a park to watch the sunset.
"Well," Ogre said, "history has always been kind of cyclic. Good and bad seem to come in waves. We take steps forward, then we regress, but then we recover and progress a little more." She slipped her hand into Alvin's and their fingers intertwined. "We can be together and hardly anyone even makes a big deal about it. There's been a resurgence in racism over the past few years, but at least being together is a lot less likely to get us killed these days. We couldn't have even given each other a second glance before you went into the freezer."
"Yes." I managed to pull myself together and nod. "You're right. Some things are definitely better than they were." And many were worse.
"In a lot of ways, the world is more violent than it used to be. Or maybe we're just more aware of it thanks to the internet. Instant communication all over the world, almost everyone carrying cameras in their pockets, and all that." Alvin shrugged. "I guess you have to take the bad with the good."
"Not gonna lie," Ogre muttered, "things like the gap between the poor and the rich has only gotten wider over the years. Seems like the only thing our society gives a shit about is money. The less money you have, the less you matter. I know a guy who struggled his whole life just to make ends meet, then he lost his job and couldn't land another one and ended up homeless for almost a year. Every organization he went to for help refused to even talk to him and he didn't find one willing to help until after he'd lost everything."
"You're kidding." I stared at her, forgetting all about the sunset and suddenly realizing the house I had before going into cryo was long gone. If a trust fund and assistance with buying a new house hadn't been included in the contract, I might've found myself in that very same position.
"I wish. If you're poor, so many people who have more think it's your fault for being poor, like you just always squander your money. And if you lose your home, they jump to the conclusion that you're a drug addict or mentally unstable and try to sweep you under the rug instead of offering to help."
"It's kind of a raw nerve for Ogre," Alvin said. "She grew up dirt-poor. Probably still be in that situation if she hadn't landed a job at the Institute. I was a little better off, but the prospects weren't exactly stellar."
So … that was the kind of world I'd awakened in. And to think I had enough money and help from the Institute to provide a safety net while so many others were barely getting by. And many others weren't even that lucky.
While the other two watched the sun set, I pondered the situation and tried to think of ways to help. I'd need to learn a lot more about how the world worked before I could come up with anything solid, but if there was anything I could do about it, I felt like I should.
"What kind of country lets that happen to its own citizens?"
They turned back to me and shrugged.
"This one." Ogre shook her head and let out a long sigh. "The people who are in the best position to do something about it won't. They don't want to give up their wealth. In fact, they have more money than they could ever spend and it's never enough. They always want more and they take it from the rest of us, then they have the nerve to tell us to 'just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.'"
"And there aren't any bootstraps. At all. But that's another way they make it out to be our fault, like we're just not willing to put in the effort."
"I could rant all night about this." Ogre sighed again and took a quick look around. "Probably should head back to the Institute before we run into any muggers."
"You'd just kick their asses." Alvin laughed softly.
"Sure, but it'd be more trouble than it's worth. Last thing I need is to give the cops even more excuses to shoot me in the fucking back than my skin color already gives them."
"What?" I turned to gape at her and she shrugged.
"That's a whole other rant." She started walking and we caught up with her. "Maybe we can grab some burgers on the way back. Then we can show you how to use the computer in your room and show you a sample of the TV shows we were talking about while having dinner if you want. See if we can balance the negative with some positive. Then maybe tomorrow you can do some more exploring, learn where everything is so you can navigate it yourself when you're ready."
"I'd enjoy that." I doubted I could get my mind completely off the troubling things I'd just learned, but there wasn't much use in dwelling on it while I wasn't in a position to do anything about it. I couldn't help thinking that volunteering for this may have been a mistake, though.
I tried to shrug it off. There was no way to go back where I'd come from, so I had to just face whatever came next and learn to live with it. As someone at the Institute had said a few days ago …
Keep moving forward.
“One small step, eh?” Drew Lockwood took two larger steps down the ramp while staring at the nearby structures. The first connected with the edge of the ramp and the second missed it completely. He tumbled off and belly-flopped onto the rocky ground. ”Huhhfff!”
“And that would be why spacesuits are armored nowadays.” Kim Ramirez laughed as Cora hopped off the ramp and helped Drew back to his feet.
“You girls are lucky you’re robots.” Drew dusted his spacesuit off and was probably thankful that no one could see his face through his helmet visor. He’d just become the first human to set foot on Proxima Centauri b, but he’d done so via pratfall. “You don’t have to stuff yourself into suits like these. They make me clumsy.”
“A human brain in a robot body still needs oxygen.” Kim grinned and pointed a thumb at the breather pack strapped on over her long black duster. “Gotta admit I’m a little envious of Cora, though. Full AI. None of our weaknesses.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a weakness or two if you look hard enough. Besides, spacesuits used to be three times as bulky as they are now, so it could be worse.” Cora scanned the area with her sensor suite and detected no movement.
Not surprising, really, with the planet tidally locked to the nearby star and possessing a weak magnetic field. The atmosphere had eroded away long ago, assuming there ever was one to begin with. Too hot on one side and freezing on the other, only a narrow strip between the day and night sides could’ve supported life in the past, and maybe not even then
She scanned for energy sources next and found a faint trace about forty meters ahead and to the left. She set a waypoint and sent it to Kim and the navigation systems in everyone else’s suits. Her team had been sent to investigate the structures the Sagan had found on the surface, but those could wait.
“Good one, ‘Drewfus.’” Boner nudged Drew’s shoulder. Brenda Nguyen, Vicki McWhirter, Consuela Nelson, and Timmy McBride laughed along with her. Drew gave her the finger.
“At least I’m not a woman named Boner.”
“Hah. You try being in the Air Force when your last name is Bonner. I was stuck with it pretty quickly.”
“Oh, it’s a sticky boner?” Cora deadpanned. “That’s even worse than I thought.”
Kim snort-laughed and shook her head. “Everybody else, watch your step. We don’t want your first visit to an alien planet to turn into ‘one giant plop.’”
Cora opened a channel on her internal comms. ”Sagan, this is Cora. We’ve detected a faint energy signature and are investigating.”
“Copy that,” Colonel Likhachyova replied. “Makes me wish I could be down there with you. An active power source suggests an alien presence, assuming it’s not naturally occurring.”
“I haven’t detected anything that looks like a natural radiation source around it. It’s basically a pinpoint.”
“Maybe you can see it for yourself once we’re sure there aren’t any booby traps or viruses or whatever,” Kim added.
“I’d love that. It’d be nice not to be stuck on the ship while visiting our first exoplanet.” Likhachyova laughed softly. “Check it out and keep me updated.”
“Will do, Ludmila.” Cora glanced over her shoulder at the rest of the team, grinned, and struck a dramatic pose. “Onward!”
“That is so cool!” Cora stared at the hatch set into what appeared to be the mouth of a cave. She’d only heard of something alien being discovered once before -- the archives that had led to the development of the hyperspace drive found in an underground outpost on Mars -- and had glimpsed what may have been an alien ship near Io.
Now, here was evidence of an alien presence right in front of her. Within arm’s reach. Even if the civilization was now extinct, this was pretty mind-blowing.
Cora inspected the panel in the center of the circular hatch, hoping to find a manual release. There didn’t seem to be any power coming to the panel, so they might need to cut through. She scanned for a mechanism underneath and found something resembling a lock.
“Hmm.” Drew glanced around. “Maybe they left the key under a rock?”
A quick chuckle rippled through the rest of the team. Brenda stepped forward.
“Lemme try something.” She placed her palm on the panel and pushed. “I used to have some cupboard doors that opened this way.”
The panel gave, moving inward a few millimeters, and sprang open when she took her hand off it. She stared at it, shook her head quickly, and stepped aside.
“Huh. Didn’t think that’d actually work.”
Cora reached in and grasped a bar about the length of her forearm set into a circular contraption. She tugged gingerly and it didn’t budge. She gave it a gentle twist and it turned in place. A short vibration came from the hatch, through her hands and into her arms. If the planet had an atmosphere, she assumed it would’ve made a clunk sound.
She pushed on the hatch and it swung inward, revealing a cylindrical tunnel leading into the mountain ahead.
Her sensors picked up more power sources -- faint but growing stronger as if something had turned on.
“You notice that?” Kim stared into the tunnel. “Machinery’s powering up.”
“Opening the hatch triggered something.”
“Preferably something that doesn’t include an automated defense system.”
“Yeah, definitely. Everyone, keep your eyes open and proceed cautiously, in case it’s not just lights and whatnot turning on.” Cora led the team through the hatch, waited for them to pass by, then closed it. She felt the same vibration as before, probably a lock engaging now that power was flowing.
“The tunnel’s getting brighter,” Drew said.
Cora turned back around and noticed indirect lights from panels in the walls and ceiling fading on gradually. A few seconds later, everyone turned their helmet spotlights off. Cora headed for the far end, keeping her pace slow and cautious. A gentle breeze brushed the nano-sensors all over her surface and she scanned their surroundings again.
“The tunnel is pressurizing. It’s breathable, but a wee bit thicker than what you’re used to.”
“Must be an airlock.” Brenda stopped at the inner hatch and turned to watch the others catch up.
“Let’s scan the air for biologicals.” Vicki took an instrument from her toolbelt and held it up for a moment.
Cora scanned the air herself to see if she got the same results. “Nothing at all. It’s as sterile as the air aboard the Sagan.”
“I’m getting the same readings.” Vicki kept an eye on the scanner for a moment before putting it away. She opened her helmet, took a tiny breath, and wrinkled her nose. “There’s an odor in the air like dust burning off a heater that hasn’t been used in a long time. Other than that, it’s not bad. I’m breathing normally.”
Consuela opened her helmet and sniffed. “Yeah, reminds me of the beginning of winter in Portland. It’s just as cold, too.”
Kim nodded and took her breather mask off. “If I still had a flesh-and-blood body, my nipples would look like pencil erasers right now.”
Drew snickered and fumbled with the seal on his helmet. “I’m keeping that image in mind for later. Y’know, when I get back to my quarters.”
“Happy to be of service.” Kim bowed theatrically and most of the others shook their heads. Cora rolled her optics but couldn’t help chuckling at the same time.
“Let’s move on to the next hatch.” She found a mechanism similar to the one on the outer hatch, turned it, and it unlocked with the clunk she’d been expecting. She stepped into the next chamber and took it in.
The room was conical -- circular floor, smooth walls tapering to a point about a meter above everyone’s heads -- and the only object was a narrow metal pyramid with its peak at roughly chest height.
“Coooool,” Brenda muttered. “Is anybody recording this?”
“Yep.” McBride pointed at his helmet cameras. “Started recording when we boarded the shuttle.”
Cora walked slowly around the pyramid, scanning it and recording every detail with her optics. Each surface was covered with glyphs or runes that appeared to be etched into the brushed copper surfaces. Interspersed among the symbols were softly glowing ovoids that pulsated slowly and a circular indentation in the center of each of the four surfaces that looked like they might be ports.
The temperature reading caught her attention.
“It’s getting warmer in here.”
McBride backed up to the wall and kept his cameras pointed straight at the pyramid. “I’ll just, uh, get a wide shot of the whole chamber from here.”
Drew walked right up to the pyramid. Boner, Consuela, and Brenda joined him.
Cora turned to scan and record the walls. Now that she took a closer look at it, she found more symbols etched into the surface. She moved her optics from the top to the bottom as she slid along the curving wall, getting a shot of every symbol.
Sets of them looked like different alphabets. One near the floor was a variation on English.
“Guys,” she almost whispered. “Check this out. It looks like it might be an old form of English. Possibly from the Middle Ages.”
“Seriously?” Kim hurried over and crouched beside her. “Whoa. You think someone from medieval times was here?”
“More likely, someone visited Earth way back then and left this as a message for future travelers. Then the language evolved over the centuries.”
“Oh, I like that idea better.”
“This one looks like it might be Arabic.” Vickie pointed at several rows of symbols to Cora’s left. “And that set looks Cyrillic.”
“Uh-oh,” Drew mumbled.
Multicolored lights washed over the chamber and a hissing sound came from behind Cora. She spun around and found Drew, Boner, Consuela, and Brenda stumbling back from a cloud of green mist.
″Eww!” Brenda backed up against the wall and shook her head quickly. “I inhaled some of it!”
“Ugh.” Drew waved a hand in front of his face. “Wow, who farted?”
“Seriously?” Boner scowled at him. ”That’s your reaction?”
Cora pointed at the hatch. “Get back to the shuttle! We need to go through decontamination and into quarantine.”
Boner sealed her helmet and turned to Cora. “Looks like you, Kim, Vickie, and Timmy were out of this thing’s range. Cora, you should pilot the shuttle in case I’m compromised.”
“I’m already a little dizzy,” Drew mumbled as he sealed his helmet.
“Me, too.” Brenda closed her helmet and sealed it.
Cora motioned at Consuela and waited for her to lock her helmet. She checked everyone’s helmets to be sure they were locked correctly, opened the hatch, and led everyone back to the surface.
“Cora, how are they?”
Cora turned to find Col. Likhachyova floating up behind her. She nodded over her shoulder at Drew, Consuela, Brenda, and Boner in the quarantine chamber. Beside Cora, Kim kept an eye on the four people in the chamber, both of them secured to the floor by the electromagnets in their feet. McBride floated nearby, staring at the tablet in his hands while his camera hovered near the window.
Cora wouldn’t have wanted an audience if she were going to be stuck in there for forty-eight hours, but Timmy’s job was to cover the Sagan’s maiden voyage for the masses back home, and that included crew members suddenly being bathed in disco lights and mystery gas.
“Dr. Flanagan said there’s no sign of any viruses, bacteria, pathogens, and so on.”
“That she’s been able to identify,” Kim added.
“Well, there have been no adverse effects on their biology at all. No apparent illnesses. She did find their brain chemistry was altered slightly, so they were injected with medical nanobots to monitor the changes.” Cora held a hand up when Likhachyova’s eyes opened wider and her jaw dropped. “The alterations don’t appear harmful at the moment. So far, the readings indicate …”
Kim smirked and pointed at something. Cora turned and found the four cuddling. Boner had her arm around Drew and the other two women held hands while Brenda clasped Drew’s hand and intertwined her fingers with his.
“Well, that.” Cora motioned at them and turned back to Likhachyova. “They trained together, but had no affection for each other beyond everyday camaraderie when we launched.”
Kim tossed a grin over her shoulder. “Then half an hour after we arrive, they’re head-over-heels in love.”
“Seriously?” Likhachyova gaped at her and then Cora. “They got the hots for each other after being hosed down by that device?”
“It emitted a combination of light and gasses that began altering their brain chemistry seconds after contact.” Cora turned back to watch them for a moment. “Now, their brain scans match the average human experiencing romantic love. Whether any further changes occur, and whether it interferes with their ability to carry out their duties, and whether the effects are permanent, remain to be seen.”
“If it stays this way, I don’t see any problems cropping up unless they’re suddenly overcome with lust and start humping it out right in front of us.” Kim held her right arm up. “I wouldn’t have any objection to that, either. It’s why I had a ‘vibrate’ function added to my hand during an upgrade years ago.”
“Aw, here I was, thinking you did it for me.” Cora pretended to pout.
“Well, my motivations are complex.” Kim laughed. “A while ago, Vicki said she was disappointed that she was out of range and won’t be able to get in on the action.”
“Huh.” Likhachyova shook her head quickly as if trying to dislodge some cobwebs. “I suppose it makes sense. I looked at the recordings you made of the symbols on the wall. Some of the Russian text said the device is called ‘the Peacemaker’ and it was used by warring factions to end their conflicts without any more bloodshed. I didn’t know how a single gadget could do that until you filled me in on how these four were affected.”
“That matches what I saw of the text from other Earth languages,” Cora said. “Aside from those, the rest of the symbols are probably alien, but I’d be surprised if they don’t all say the same thing.”
“Isn’t it weird that they’d have any human languages at all?” Timmy tapped something on the tablet’s screen and the camera rotated to aim at Likhachyova. “Unless any of us have been to this planet before?”
Likhachyova shook her head. “It’s more likely that someone else visited Earth centuries ago and added the same descriptions in several human languages to the chamber just in case we’d end up needing the device someday.”
“We’ve probably needed it throughout our history,” Kim muttered.
“Sadly, that’s very true.” Likhachyova let out a long sigh. “Ending wars by artificially causing opposing sides to fall in love with each other. I like it as long as those involved are volunteers. I have a serious problem with it being forced on anyone -- which is exactly what happened here.”
“Well, desperate times call for desperate measures, so I’d be okay with it regardless. It’s a far better solution than both sides wiping each other out.”
“Fair enough. But it was done to members of my crew without their consent.” Likhachyova pushed off from the wall and drifted closer to the quarantine chamber. “Do they know?”
“Yep.” Boner glanced over at her. “Dr. Flanagan kept us informed each time she found something new. And if she hadn’t, this would’ve confused the hell out of me.” She motioned at Brenda and Consuela. “I don’t even swing that way and I don’t know them very well -- Drew, either -- but I can’t bear the thought of going through life without them.”
The other three nodded.
“Well, at least that thing didn’t make you all hate each other.” Likhachyova chuckled. “We’ll wait and see how things are at the end of the quarantine period. Maybe it’ll wear off or we might find a way to reverse it.”
Drew stared at her. “Why would we want that?”
“Well, it didn’t happen naturally. It was forced on you.”
“Sure, but I think we’re all happy with it.”
“I am, definitely,” Brenda said, and the others nodded again. “I know we were ‘programmed’ to feel this way about each other, but it is what it is. Separating from these guys would break my heart.”
“Huh. Well … we’ll see how things go. Meanwhile, Cora, Kim, I’d like you to take another look at the device. I don’t see how it could have any effect on synthetics, but bring a few other AI crew members along and have them stay out of the device’s range just in case it can affect you.”
“Sure thing. They can continue exploring the area while we examine the Peacemaker.”
“And no humans on your team. We don’t need the entire ship turning into a big orgy, as fun as that sounds. We’d never get any work done.”
“Hold on.” Timmy tapped a button on his tablet and the camera floated back to him. “I should be there to cover the investigation. I’ll keep my distance, I promise. This mission is incredibly important and even though it’ll be a while before any of this is declassified, it should be documented for posterity.”
Likhachyova thought it over and finally nodded. “Alright. Cora, give your team orders not to let our intrepid reporter get anywhere near that device or any other you may find down there.”
“Understood.” Cora waved Kim and Timmy toward the shuttle bay. “Come on, let’s get back to work.”
“Just don’t make Drew’s mistake,” Kim said as the shuttle approached the planet.
“Which was?” Cora glanced at her. “He did something when I had my back turned, didn’t he?”
“I heard him mumbling about it when they were going into quarantine and you were on the intercom with Ludmila.” Kim snickered. “He pushed one of the buttons on the doohickey.”
″What?” Cora programmed the shuttle’s descent and turned to stare at her. “He just started pushing buttons?”
“Yep. He said something that looked like a blue laser swept over all four of them, a bunch of lights flashed on the pyramid’s surface, and then the fun started.”
“Sounds like it scanned them. Maybe it needed to adjust the lights and gasses to make them work on humans.”
“Sounds right.” Kim shook her head. “Seriously, who the hell pushes a button without knowing what it does?”
Cora tossed a sheepish grin at her. “I … probably would’ve, now that I think about it.”
Kim burst into laughter. “I should’ve figured that.”
Cora took a moment to be thankful for her features not including the human ability to blush. She tapped one of the screens in front of her, brought up a menu, and selected the recordings made by the probes investigating the structures near the underground chamber. Kim leaned over for a look at the screen.
“Hey, y’know what those remind me of? There was a set of domes built in Casa Grande about a hundred years ago. If I remember correctly, they were built by an electronics manufacturer, but the company went bankrupt and construction was never finished. Decades later, the domes were falling apart and hardly anyone knew what they were for. I saw some photos and vids of them. Pretty creepy, especially at night.”
“Nice. I’ll have to find some of those videos.” Cora smiled. “I’ve developed a fascination with ruins and abandoned buildings. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to join the Sagan’s crew. Aside from just wanting to see what’s out there, I like the idea of exploring places where no one has walked in thousands of years.”
“Yeah. It’s like you’re getting a glimpse at something that’ll remain unknown forever. Really gets the ol’ imagination going.”
“It certainly does.” Cora watched the recordings for a moment. “Hmm. Notice the interior of that one, the way the pedestals are laid out? It reminds me of an audience facing a panel of judges.”
“Yeah, now that you mention it. Makes me wonder if there was more to this Peacemaker thing than the inscriptions told us. Maybe the ‘volunteers’ were selected in a sort of trial.”
“Like criminals being sentenced?” Cora shrugged. “Could be, I suppose. Maybe they selected those who’d committed the worst war crimes on each side and sent them in to fall in love with each other.”
“Hah! That’s kinda messed up, but it makes sense.”
“Or maybe the leaders of each military force had to go into the chamber.”
“Yeah. It might’ve been considered a general’s duty to go through the process as a way of taking responsibility for the bloodshed the war caused.”
Cora nodded, closed the recording, and set down in the same spot Boner had landed the shuttle a few hours ago. “Here we are.”
Kim released her seat restraints and headed for the equipment lockers. “Try not to push any buttons while we’re in there.”
“I wonder if this thing can be removed?” Cora hadn’t been able to find a seam where the device joined the floor. “The power source appears to be underground, but if they could be separated safely and relocated …”
“It could be brought to Earth and used to end wars?” Kim shrugged and continued inspecting the walls for seams that would indicate a doorway leading to another chamber.
“Wars, smaller conflicts, even long-lasting disagreements and grudges. As long as everyone involved is told exactly what’ll happen and is given a choice, it could do a tremendous amount of good back home.”
“Maybe. Something like this has the potential for abuse, though.” When Cora glanced at her with a raised brow, she continued, “If someone who just wants his or her own personal harem gets hold of it, well, you can see how far off the rails this could go.”
“That’s a good point. It would have to be placed in the hands of people with the highest ethical standards.”
“Exactly. It’d be worth a try, though. I’d prefer something like this be used as a deterrent than the ol’ Mutually Assured Destruction thing from a century ago.”
“Me, too.” Cora got back to her feet. “Well, the metal seems to blend into the floor. It’s possible the device was inserted from beneath.”
“We should do a more thorough pass over the whole planet’s surface to see if there’s another way in. If there are other tunnels and chambers scattered around, we could find all kinds of cool stuff.”
“I’d love that.” Cora took one more look around the room and prepared to rejoin the rest of the all-AI team on the surface.
“Speaking of ‘love,’ wanna try this thing out?” Kim aimed an impish smile at her. “See if it affects robots and prosthetic bodies?”
“Well, it affected the others’ brain chemistry, so it’s probably not set up for machine life. If the gases work their way through your air intakes and into your brain, though, it could affect you.”
“Worried that we might fall in love?”
“Heh. I like our ‘friends with benefits’ relationship as it is. If we take it any farther, it might ruin what we have with a dozen people around the solar system.”
One of the other AI sent a message to Cora’sand Kim’s internal comlinks. “Cora, Zed here.”
“We found something interesting while we were taking a look around the perimeter of the structures.”
“Yes!” Kim thrust a fist into the air.
Cora turned back to the tunnel, where Timmy waited, recording everything with his cameras. “We’re on our way.”
“Oh, hell.” Cora stepped aside to let the rest of the team enter the chamber. Zed and the others had found a hatch and tunnel similar to the one leading to the Peacemaker, but this room was cavernous. The walls were lined with monitors and panels and consoles filled the center.
And the floor was littered with bodies. Some wore spacesuits of an unfamiliar design and were organic, from what she could see through the helmet visors, and others appeared to be robots. The organic aliens had holes burned through their torsos, apparently from directed-energy weapons, and the robots had been blasted into pieces.
Kim sighed. “Robot uprising?”
“Maybe. They could’ve also been the good guys defending this place from hostile aliens. Or a police team taking down a criminal operation.”
“I hope it was something like that.”
“Me, too.” Cora kneeled beside one of the organic bodies while the rest of the team fanned out across the chamber. “We can’t rule out the possibility that these aliens weren’t as lucky with their development of AI as humans were. If these guys insisted on treating their AI as servants instead of nurturing them and treating them as people like humans did, it may have led to the scenarios we’ve seen repeated in fiction so many times.”
“Hey, Timmy.” Kim motioned at him. “Be sure you get a shot of everything in here. Just don’t push any buttons like Drew did.”
“Heh. Yeah, I’m not gonna touch anything.”
“Boss,” Zed called from across the room, and Cora looked up to find him pointing at a bank of long, narrow rectangular windows and staring at her with his glowing green optics open wide. “Check this out.”
She hurried over, amplified the available light, and found each window covered a space just big enough for one of the aliens to fit into. Each one had a panel on it that had probably displayed information at one time, but now all were dark -- except the second from the top over on the left.
“Some of these are open,” Zed noted. “Others are occupied but are powered off and the occupants are dead. Looks like some were hit by whatever type of weapons these people were using, and others don’t have any apparent damage but failed anyway.”
“They could’ve simply broken down over time.” Kim shrugged. “We have no idea how long these guys have been here.”
“Or their systems shorted out from the energy discharges. Same result, either way.” Cora moved over to the single active window, leaned closer, and scanned it with her sensor suite.
The alien wore an armored spacesuit like the others, minus the helmet. It had two digitigrade legs and two pairs of arms. The head had a mouth that wasn’t too different from a human’s and four eyes, two side-by-side on each half of the face. It didn’t have a nose, just four slits between the eyes and mouth that could’ve been used for breathing. The top of the head was hairless and formed a crest. Each hand had two large fingers and a thumb.
“Huh. The skin texture and some of its features suggest it evolved from something similar to an arachnid.”
Kim peered through the window. “The facial structure looks feminine. Whether that means the same thing for this species as it does for humans, I couldn’t begin to guess. Probably shouldn’t make any assumptions.”
“Wonderful,” Timmy grumbled. “I was hoping we were gonna find hot alien women somewhere out here, and when we actually find a female, she’s a spider.” He shivered. “Spiders make my skin crawl. I can’t stand ’em.”
“I won’t tell her you said that.” Kim grinned and then cocked her head. “Hey, I’m detecting power fluctuations.”
“So am I. It’s like the power is fading and coming back rapidly.” Cora winced. “I hope we didn’t find her just in time to see her stasis pod malfunction and kill her like the others.” The readings changed and Cora held a hand up. “Hold on, it’s stabilizing. Pulse and respiration are increasing.”
“Whoa, is it waking up?” Timmy approached and pointed his cameras at the window. “Let’s just hope it’s one of the good guys.”
“Fade back a bit, everyone.” Kim rested her hand on her holstered pistol. “C’mon, Timmy, keep back. I shouldn’t have to remind you that the team’s safety is my responsibility.”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just, well, we’re making history.”
“Only if we survive. Be ready to haul ass if she starts shooting.”
Everyone stared at the alien as the minutes passed. Finally, its eyes opened and blinked several times. They had a red-orange bioluminescent glow and double pupils. They flicked around, taking everything in, confusion evident despite the nonhuman features. Finally, the alien’s eyes settled on Cora and opened wide, as did its mouth. This expression was just as clear as the previous one.
“Uh, Cora?” Kim motioned for her to back off a little more. “If her people were fighting these robots, she might think you’re one of them. A newer model, maybe.”
The alien’s eyes shifted again, aiming at the destroyed robots and the other dead aliens. The fear in her eyes gave way to rage and she snarled, displaying two-centimeter fangs. Her helmet unfolded from the back of her armor and closed around her head. She braced both left hands against the window and pushed.
Cora took another step back and held her hands up.
“Fall back to the shuttle!”
″Shiiiiit!” Timmy leaped off the edge of a shallow crater and dropped to the ground before turning to aim his helmet cameras back toward the retreating team and the pissed-off alien chasing them.
Cora sent a message to the rest of her team, ordering them to continue on, before turning to face the alien and holding her hands up again.
Come on, I’m clearly unarmed and trying to surrender!
Kim stood beside her with her rifle held ready. “You, too, Cora. Get back to the shuttle. I’ll cover you.”
“We can’t let our first contact with an alien species end with us killing one of them.” Cora motioned for Kim to lower the gun as their pursuer charged into sight, holding two of the weapons she’d scooped up from the chamber floor, one in her upper hands and the other in her lower. “For all we know, she could be the last survivor.”
The alien aimed and fired. Cora detected a flash that looked almost like a lightning bolt searing past the corner of her optics. She turned and found Zed tumbling to the crater floor, his right arm spinning away from him and scraping across the ground. He picked himself up and continued running.
“Let me try something.” Kim gripped her rifle by the barrel in her left hand, held it out to the side, and lowered it slowly to the ground. She held her hands up and backed away from the rifle. “Well, I don’t know how to make it any clearer than that.”
The alien sprinted toward them and continued firing. Cora grabbed Kim, pushed her ahead, and ran, thankful that shooting while in motion had thrown off the alien’s aim.
“I have an idea. Kim, let’s see if we can lead her into the Peacemaker chamber while the rest of the team gets to the shuttle and takes off.” Cora flinched from a near miss and changed course.
“You thinking of using it?”
“It’s worth a try. Whatever it takes to get my team to safety. Sooner or later, she’ll get a lucky shot or she’ll take the time to stop and aim properly.”
“We don’t know if it’ll work on you. My brain is human, so …”
“I’ll do it,” Timmy blurted. “I can’t believe I just said that!”
Cora spotted him a few meters ahead, almost at the shuttle, then darting to the left and bolting toward the first hatch they’d found.
“Get on the shuttle, Timmy.”
“Maybe we can pressurize the chamber and show the alien that I’m organic. And if that doesn’t work … well, at least we know that gadget will work on me.”
“That’s not your job,” Kim snapped. “We can bring someone down from the Sagan if it comes to that.”
“There’s no time!”
Kim grumbled under her breath. “I hate to say it, Cora, but I don’t see many options. We can’t get her to stand still long enough for Ludmila to pick someone and send him down here, and we can’t let her kill our team.”
“Believe me, the last thing I want is to end up married to an alien who’s evolved from a spider, but I’m not gonna just stand by while the rest of you are killed.” Timmy reached the hatch and pulled it open. “I’m the only one you’ve got handy who we know this thing will affect.”
Damn it! “Fine. Kim, find someplace to hide and wait for us to lure her in. Close the hatch behind us.” She turned and found the alien heading for the shuttle, glanced around and picked up a fist-sized rock, and chucked it at their pursuer. The rock bounced off the alien’s upper shoulder and made her stagger. She whipped back around to glare at Cora and pointed both weapons at her.
Cora charged through the hatch and joined Timmy at the far end of the tunnel. She faced the outer hatch just as the alien stormed through and marched toward them. Behind her, Kim darted through and closed it. The alien whipped around, glanced back and forth from her to Cora and Timmy, then back again.
She pointed one weapon at Kim and the other at Cora. Both of them raised their hands again and sank to their knees for good measure. Cora detected air flowing across her surfaces and turned to Timmy when it finished.
“We’ve got air.”
He pulled his helmet off and stepped in front of Cora. The alien froze and just stared at him for several seconds.
Come on, figure it out so we won’t have to screw your minds over with that device.
The alien moved as if taking deep, angry breaths.
“Shake my hand.” Cora moved her arm slowly toward him. “Let’s try whatever we can to show her we’re not enemies.”
He clasped her hand and smiled at the alien, making a point of not showing any teeth. The alien just stared at them. Behind her, Kim remained on her knees and kept her hands behind her head.
“Put your arm around my shoulders like we’re buddies.” Cora stood slowly and slipped her arm around him. He did the same and nodded at the alien.
“See? Friends. We want to be friends. We sure as hell don’t want you to murder us over something we had nothing to do with.”
The alien glared back at them and her arms trembled.
“Looks like it’s not working,” Kim sent over their internal comms.
“Yeah. I guess it’s last-resort time.” Cora turned around and opened the inner hatch, keeping her movements slow. She pointed at the pyramid. “Let’s hope she knows what that thing is.”
The alien stared at the device and all four shoulders sagged. She turned as if to glance behind her, hesitated, and lowered her gaze to the floor.
“I hope that’s a good sign,” Timmy whispered.
“She might be thinking about the people she lost. She looked in the other chamber’s general direction, at least. If nothing else, she might go through with this just so she won’t feel alone anymore.”
“And on that joyful note …” Timmy stepped into the chamber and waited in front of the Peacemaker. “I was watching when Drew activated it, so I know which button to push.”
Cora walked over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “You sure you want to do this?”
“We’ve already gone over it. I know I was only supposed to observe and record, but this is better than letting her kill us all. Besides, I guess this is as good a way as any to overcome my arachnophobia.”
Kim laughed softly. “That’s the spirit.”
The alien and Kim entered the chamber. Kim stood in the doorway and motioned for Cora to back away from the Peacemaker. She moved over to the wall, keeping the same distance as before, and contacted Zed.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ll live. One of the up sides of being a robot is that our limbs are easy to replace.”
“I’m relieved you’re okay. How about everyone else?”
“Intact. We’re on the shuttle and waiting for you guys.”
“We’re keeping the alien occupied. Tell Ludmila what happened and reassure her that we’re handling it.”
“Will do. See you soon.”
The alien’s helmet retracted and she trudged over to the device. She faced one of its sides, all four eyes brimming with tears, and placed her weapons on the floor. She flicked a distrustful look at Cora as she wiped her palms over her eyes. She let out a slow breath, removed her armor, and piled it beside the weapons. When finished, she sat on the floor in a meditative pose.
Timmy glanced between the alien’s legs. “Yep, looks female, alright. Though that’s probably where the eggs come out.”
“We don’t know that. We shouldn’t assume everything about her biology correlates to terrestrial organisms.”
“Fair enough.” Timmy shrugged and removed his spacesuit, then sat and mimicked the alien’s pose. “Well, here goes nothing.”
He pushed the button.
“She has a lovely smile.” Kim leaned against the wall and watched McBride and the alien embrace each other.
“She sure does.” He moved back just enough to reach up and stroke her cheek. “Never would’ve said this an hour ago, but she’s beautiful.”
“I take it you’re over your arachnophobia, then?” Cora grinned at him.
“How do you feel?”
“Weird. Very weird. I know I didn’t love her before I pushed that button, but I do now. I feel like we’ve been in love our entire lives.”
“I wonder if the effects are permanent or temporary.”
“I hope this is permanent. I want it to be.”
“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be very effective if it was only temporary. The warring factions would be right back at it as soon as the effects wore off.”
“That gives me hope for the future, then.” Timmy leaned closer to the alien and pressed his lips gently against hers. She hesitated and a bewildered look crossed her face, then she closed her eyes and went along with it. When they parted, she smiled again.
“She’s cute.” Kim glanced at Cora. “Especially now that she’s not trying to kill us anymore.”
“Don’t get any ideas.” Timmy put his arms back around the alien and they held each other for a long moment before he stepped back and waved a hand at Cora and Kim. “I know you can’t understand me yet, but these two are friends. They don’t mean you any harm. We work together.”
She fixed another nervous stare at them, stepped forward, and held both left arms in front of Timmy.
“When we get back to the ship,” Cora said, “maybe you can show her some of the stuff you’ve recorded. Show her how friendly we are with each other.”
Kim nodded. “I’m hoping you got a shot of Drewfus falling off the ramp and Cora helping him up.”
“I did, actually. That’s a good idea.” Timmy rested his hand on Cora’s shoulder, glanced at his new girlfriend, and nodded. “It’s going to be okay.”
“We should head back to the Sagan. I’ve requested another shuttle with an all-human crew so she won’t be surrounded by synths on the way back. Once she learns our language and we learn hers, I’m hoping we can find out what happened to her people and who they were.”
Timmy put his spacesuit back on. The alien watched him uncertainly, then put her own gear on. Kim nudged Cora’s shoulder as they sealed their helmets and Timmy held the alien’s lower-left hand.
“It’s been a hell of a day. How about we check on the other four lovebirds and call it a night? Give our new friend a little time to get used to us.”
“Sounds good. We shouldn’t try to pressure her into communicating before she’s comfortable around everyone.”
“Yeah.” Kim fired a huge grin at her before entering the tunnel. “In the meantime, you get to fill the Colonel in on how our reporter got involved in this.”
Oh, whee. “It’s good to know there are more adventures to look forward to.”
#science fiction #sci-fi #alien #robots #AI #artificial intelligence #first contact #romance #humor
And that was Just the First Few Hours
Back on Mars for the third time in the last couple of months. Cora smiled as she and Kim walked up to the dock guard. At least they had a few days to do a little sightseeing this time.
"First time at Argyre Planitia, ladies?" The guard logged them into the spaceport.
"We make semi-regular stops here, delivering ore from the asteroid mines or ferrying passengers. We've got some micrometeorite damage that needs to be repaired, so we're sticking around for a few days. We thought we'd check out some of the scenery while we're waiting."
"Especially the newest additions," Kim added as the dock guard handed their ID back and motioned at the scanning booths.
"Yes, we heard one of the new businesses in town is a repair-and-upgrade shop." Cora returned her ID to her pocket. "I'm thinking about getting a few mods."
She stepped into the first scanner. One of the problems that had cropped up once AI and cybernetic enhancements became commonplace was that metal detectors were set off by people's bodies. They'd quickly been replaced on Earth with equipment capable of more refined scans which had later been installed off-world as the solar system was settled. Cora didn't like to carry weapons and had none built into her body, but security guards couldn't just take her word for it.
The guard finished the scan, checked his monitors, and nodded at Cora. "There's been a lot of new construction north of the settlement. Now that the essential modules have been set up, we're starting to expand. Eventually, all the settlements in the crater will be linked together, but for now, there's still a lot of empty space between them." He checked Kim's scan results and waved. "Enjoy your stay, ladies."
"Thanks." Cora walked on to the hatch leading into the rest of the colony. Kim waved at the guard and caught up with her. Cora connected to the local comm network, updated her map of the place, and set a waypoint at a new shop named Willy's Wares. She sent it to Kim and her friend snickered.
"That sounds kinda naughty."
"The alliteration reminds me of something in one of the old video games you showed me not long after we met." Cora laughed. "Bing's Bongs."
"Yeah! Wow, I'd almost forgotten about that. I'll have to revisit it sometime."
They made their way past the familiar storage and habitat modules and command-and-control towers and emerged into an open area under a dome. The colony had been set up at the bottom of a five-kilometer-deep crater so a dome could be placed at the top and leave plenty of room for expansion. Since a 1,800-kilometer-wide crater was far too much to pressurize, the settlements had begun as clusters of modules linked together. Later, each cluster had gotten its own dome so the settlers could move between the modules more easily.
Currently, the new structures encircled the older ones and there was still room for more between here and the edge of the dome. Cora's optics swept the area in front of her and found towers and habitat modules with signs that reminded her of marketplaces and business districts back home. She spotted the sign on the front of Willy's Wares and jogged over to it.
The front resembled an open garage door. Cora glanced around as she stepped through and found shelves lined with new parts, a counter with several consoles built into it, and a large door leading to a workshop at the rear. A human with glasses and shoulder-length blond hair hunched over one of the keyboards and muttered to himself. He appeared to be nineteen or twenty and was quite attractive by human standards.
Hmm. As an AI, she'd never really considered physical attractiveness to be a factor during most of her life but had noticed assessments of peoples' appearances creeping into her thoughts recently. Maybe spending so much time around organics and cyborgs had begun to rub off on her. Which she was okay with. It was just kind of fascinating to notice how her thought patterns changed over the years.
The guy noticed them and hopped off the stool with a smile that lit up the whole room. "Hi, there! Placing an order or picking something up?"
"I'm just looking for a few options to consider. Mainly, I'd like to upgrade my optics and sensors and get a new face. One with a mouth."
"Sure thing." He motioned at the console on the workbench to his right. "Step into my office."
"I'm Wilson Chechik, by the way. My friends call me Willy."
"I'm Cora. This is my friend, Kim Ramirez."
"Nice to meet you both. Now, are you just looking for something cosmetic? Or a functional mouth?"
"If possible, a functional one plus all the hardware and software associated with it."
"The ability to eat and taste food, you mean?"
"Not a problem. I've got top-of-the-line components in stock. Would you like a mini-fabricator to break down food and liquids and convert them into other substances?" Willy took his glasses off, picked up a cloth, and cleaned the lenses.
"I already have one. I was a sexbot before I became sentient and my previous body was equipped with a stock model. I had a similar one installed after I swapped into this body, and I also made sure it was equipped with the same gear my old body had."
"Couldn't live without certain 'equipment,' eh? Can't blame you for that. There are things I wouldn't want to give up, either."
"Exactly. Once I achieved sentience, I wanted to be more than just someone's sexual plaything, but I insist on keeping the fun stuff from those days."
"So, you've got a full sensory system? And, presumably, software to go along with it?" Willy's smile turned suggestive, if Cora was reading his expression correctly. She went along with it to see if it would lead anywhere.
"Yes. Thanks to my internal sensors and software suite, I can feel all the physical sensations a human does, which includes mind-blowing orgasms."
The glasses slipped from Willy's hands and he almost whacked his forehead on the bench when he lunged forward to grab them. He cleared his throat and reached up to put the glasses back on.
"My body has the same setup," Kim said with a mischievous grin. "In case you were wondering."
He fumbled the glasses again but managed not to drop them this time.
"Heh. I was, actually. And, uh, are you both AI?"
"Cora's an AI. I was human, but my brain had to be put into a robot body when I was seventeen. Long story. Desperate situation. The robot body was kind of a Hail Mary. I was one of the first successful cases."
"Cool. I mean, it's good that you survived and things turned out okay. I mean, I assume they did."
"It could've turned out a lot worse, absolutely. Since I was gonna end up with a robotic body anyway, I figured I might as well crank it up to eleven and talked them into going full-throttle with it. I ended up getting one that looked kinda like a female RoboCop. Well, as close as they could get without violating any intellectual property, at least."
"Ah, I thought you reminded me of something I saw while I was growing up." He motioned at her, still holding the glasses, and fired off another brilliant smile. "The different details make yours really stand out. I particularly like the black paint job and the glowing red optic strip. Oh, and I see you don't have high heels built in. I've seen so many fembots designed with stiletto heels and could never figure out how they walk without damaging themselves."
"Yes!" Kim grinned right back. "It's ridiculous, isn't it? I told them to make my feet look like combat boots or whatever -- anything but high heels. Just in case I found myself in the occasional combat situation, I didn't want something that would throw off my balance."
"Practical. I like that. Well, they did a fantastic job on it. You look quite nice."
"Why, thank you. I'm pretty happy with it, myself."
"So, it's … anatomically correct, eh? I presume that's why you're both fully clothed?"
"Yep. Our 'bits' are metal like the rest of us, but it's soft and flexible like human skin."
"Nice. I like the 'badass-longcoat' thing you've both got going on, by the way. I've always been a fan of that look."
"Thanks." Kim grinned and glanced at Cora. "He's cute, isn't he?"
"I think so, but if you've got your sights on him, I won't get in your way."
Willy raised an eyebrow as Kim tossed an inviting smile at Cora.
"There's no reason we can't share him."
He dropped his glasses again, blushed as he picked them up, and brushed his hair away from his face.
Cora cocked her head. "Assuming you're available?"
"I am, actually. I mean, as long as you're not saying that just to get a discount?"
"No, I'm fine with paying the regular price. Anything else is a bonus."
"Well, then." His hand trembled slightly as he put the glasses on and turned back to the monitor. "Let's go over a few options and see what you like."
Cora opened her optics and noticed the differences immediately. They had twice the resolution of her old ones. The nano-sensors on her surfaces and the systems they were connected to had already been state-of-the-art, but she noticed a few tweaks that had improved their performance as well.
Willy picked up a mirror and handed it to her. "How's that?"
She studied her new face. The optics glowed red and the gunmetal surface matched the rest of her body. The optics were slightly larger than human eyes, putting a hint of anime into her appearance, and the lips were full and the nose was broad but not too "sticky-outy," as Kim sometimes described things that protruded too much.
"I like it." She flexed her mouth a few times and then smiled. "I'm eager to try it out."
"We can see if one of the food carts has any of your old favorites," Kim said as Cora handed the mirror back to Willy. "I remember you love chocolate ice cream."
"Yes, that would be a perfect place to start." Cora cocked her head at Willy. "When do you get off work? Maybe we could make it a date."
"About an hour." He grinned. "I'll start wrapping things up right away."
"Cool." Kim turned back to Cora. "There's one thing you don't have to wait to try."
She leaned closer and pressed her lips against Cora's. The lower half of Kim's face was a synthetic approximation of the one she'd had when she was still fully human and the sensation was quite pleasing to Cora's nano-sensors. She beamed and her processor raced as she gave Kim a longer kiss.
"So, I guess you two are, uh, 'together?'" Willy aimed a lopsided grin at them.
"We're friends and we've worked together for a long time." Cora laughed softly and stepped back. "It's just the two of us hauling cargo between Earth and the asteroids and Mars and the outer planets, most of the time, so we have sex when we're both in the mood." She shrugged. "It feels good, so why not, right?"
"And sometimes we do it because we get bored." Kim chuckled. "Even with the advancements in propulsion over the years, it still takes a couple of weeks to run from one of the space elevators at Earth to one of Jupiter's moons, so it's easy to run out of things to do."
"Well, I can think of worse ways to pass the time." Willy nodded approvingly.
"Exactly." Kim aimed a smoldering smile at him and then turned it on Cora.
"Well, I should start closing up shop before all the blood leaves my head." Willy smirked and led them up to the front counter.
"Before you shut anything down, I need to pay for the mods." Cora waited at the counter while he entered the sale information and gave her the total. She linked up to his console, paid the bill, and downloaded the receipt and invoice. "Nice doing business with you."
Kim motioned at the area outside the shop. "We'll hang around out front so we don't get in the way if you have any last-minute customers."
"Cool. I'll see you soon." Willy tapped a few more buttons, then he seemed to notice something behind Cora and Kim. His eyes opened a little wider and his smile collapsed. "Y-you, uh, may want to take off now." He leaned closer and whispered, "Alert security!"
Cora smiled and stroked his cheek to give herself a moment to save the last ten seconds from her memory buffer and continue recording from there while sending a live feed to the nearest security post. At the same time, Kim nodded.
"Okay. We'll see you later." She headed for the door and Cora followed her, capturing a still image of the two approaching humans while barely glancing at them. Neither of them stood out much from the rest of the locals aside from wearing black coats that were just long enough to hide a weapon under.
"I'm in touch with security," Cora whispered once they'd walked around the end of a nearby module. She peeked around the corner to watch whatever was about to go down. "I'm sending them a live feed."
"Me, too." One corner of Kim's mouth quirked up. "I've still got my credentials and contacts from the time I worked with my mom's team in the Justice Foundation, so I used that to run an ID check on these guys."
"Nice. What've we got?"
"The one on the left is Roy Hurley and the other is Sean Mallory. They arrived a year ago and have been working in maintenance." Kim cocked her head. "According to several reports, they've been spotted in places they shouldn't have been. Such as right now -- they just started their evening shift and according to various logs, they're still on the south side of town. They accepted a repair request over there a minute ago."
"Two different locations at the same time, eh? So, either they have twins working their shifts while they're here, or someone's forging their job activity."
"Yep. Heh. Mallory looks like the kind of guy who won't stop scratching his crotch and sniffing his fingers."
Hurley flipped his coat open, revealing a holstered pistol for a split-second before letting it flap closed, and twitched his head toward the front door.
"Uh-oh." The gun was a standard projectile weapon common on Earth but banned in places like this because of the risk of puncturing the dome. Security forces in pressurized environments used stunners or guns loaded with beanbags or shatter rounds that broke apart on impact with anything harder than flesh.
"Yeah, I saw it. I've updated the security team."
"How did they get those into the colony?" Cora began scanning the two men despite the risk of them being equipped with implants that could detect it. Her sensors picked up one hand cannon on each of them, plus an assortment of knives and a knuckle duster in Mallory's hip pocket.
"Any number of ways. They could've bribed someone or the guns could've been smuggled in on a freight shipment or pieces of them could've been slipped in and assembled later. Hell, they might've even been fabricated right here. I've seen this kind of thing happen from time to time."
"Fantastic. We can't have hard ammo flying around in here." Cora's and Kim's bodies were military-grade and not easily damaged, but most of the people nearby were fully human or had limited cybernetic implants. And as thick as the dome was, all a bullet needed to do was find a structural weak point and the air would start venting. "I await suggestions."
Mallory grabbed Willy's arm and dragged him toward the door. Willy shook his head and pointed over his shoulder, clearly worried about leaving his shop open. Hurley snarled something at him and Willy flinched. His face turned a shade paler and he nodded.
"Doesn't look like a robbery. Looks more like an abduction." Kim glanced around. "Nobody seems to have noticed what's going on, but this place is pretty crowded. I think we should follow these guys until they're more isolated from the population. At the very least, maybe we can disarm them before they hurt anyone. Maybe we can even find out where they're taking Willy and what they want with him."
Both men walked him out of his shop and pushed him into an alley between it and another store. Kim stood and crept after them.
"Well, here we go."
"I'm getting a message from security," Kim sent over her internal comlink. "I'm linking you in."
"This is Reginald Chechik. I'm in charge of security in Argyre Planitia."
"Any relation to …?"
"He's my son. Thanks for sending us a live feed. We're nearby, but we're concerned about what those guys might do if they see any uniforms approaching."
"Yeah, I'd keep a safe distance if I were you, at least for the time being."
"Do you have any idea why they're after Willy? He seemed to recognize them." Cora sent as she and Kim continued stalking Mallory and Hurley, blending in with crowds wherever they could and taking cover behind anything large enough to hide them when they couldn't.
"He saw them trying to start something with me yesterday over … well, I'd prefer to talk about it in person. I think they're using him to get to me. We need to get Willy out of there." Chechik paused while another voice muttered in the background. "All the cameras in the area have blanked out."
Kim smirked. "Sorry, that's my fault. I accessed the network when those two started in on Willy and discovered someone else in there -- someone who isn't your team or myself. I traced the signal and then killed the cameras so whoever it is won't see us coming."
"You'll still see everything we see." Cora ducked into the entrance to a bar and peeked out to keep her optics on the two goons and Willy. "Kim, you have the location of whoever was creeping on us?"
"Yeah. They're in the underground access tunnels."
"Those are hardly ever used anymore." Chechik's voice quavered and he took a slow breath to calm himself. "The first settlers dug tunnels between cluster locations to make it easier to travel between them without going outside the domes. Nowadays, we have carts that can take us from one dome to another faster than the tunnels, so hardly anyone ever goes there." He took a more ragged breath. "I think they're planning to either dump him on the crater floor or hold him hostage, maybe for ransom."
"We won't let that happen. Stand by." Cora glanced at Kim. "Now?"
Cora engaged her stealth mode, linked up with Kim, and both of them moved as one, charging Hurley and Mallory with barely a sound. Neither man noticed them until the flapping of their dusters caught Hurley's attention. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes almost popped out of his skull, and he sucked in a deep breath.
"Hhhhhhhh!" He shoved his hand under his coat and yanked the gun out of his holster. Kim clamped her fingers around his hand, forced the gun down until it pointed straight at the ground, and twisted it out of his grip. At the same moment, Cora plucked the gun from Mallory's holster, snapped her head forward into the end of his nose, and ejected the magazine before he toppled over and slapped onto the ground. She pocketed the magazine, popped the chambered round, and caught it in her left hand while Mallory's impact sent a puff of dust into the air.
Kim had put the same moves on Hurley and emptied his gun at the same time as Cora. Both of them slipped the single bullet and the gun into their coat pockets and hauled the men to their feet. Kim sent another message over her internal comlink while she and Cora relieved them of their knives and the knuckle duster.
"It's over, guys. You can come on in and take them into custody."
"Nicely done. As soon as they're secure, I'd like you to escort Willy to my office so I can bring you up to speed. I want to keep him in a safe place until this is over and I'm sure he'll want to know what the hell's going on."
He's not the only one. Cora turned to Willy and gave him a reassuring smile. He stood there and trembled for a moment, sucking in several deep breaths, and brushed his hair out of his face.
"Will do," Kim said before signing off and waiting for Chechik's team to arrive, keeping one arm around Hurley's throat and the other pinning his right hand behind his back. Cora held Mallory in the same position.
"Are you okay?"
"Give me a minute." He leaned forward, braced his hands on his knees, and for a few seconds looked as if he was about to lose his lunch. "I thought they were gonna kill me!"
"If it helps, we recorded the whole thing. It'll be enough to send them to prison."
"Good." Willy finally stood up straight and let out one more long sigh. "Thank you, both of you! You probably saved my life."
"I'm glad we were here at the right time."
"We'll get this sorted out as quickly as possible." Kim grinned at him. "After all, we still have a date to go on."
"Thanks for helping my son, ladies. Please, everyone, have a seat." Chechik motioned at the chairs arranged around the conference table. "I'd offer you a drink, but I'm on duty, so …"
"It's quite alright. I'd just like to know if there's anything more I can do to help." Cora picked the nearest chair and Kim sat to her left. Willy grabbed a bottle of water from the dispenser in the corner and sat across from them. His father took the seat at the end of the table, putting him below the large monitor on the wall.
"Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't ask for outside help, but Ms. Ramirez spent a number of years in the Justice Foundation and the people on my team are just not ready to deal with this. Until now, the worst thing we've had to deal with was the occasional fistfight or drunk-and-disorderly or petty theft." He glanced at Kim. "I worked for the Foundation, myself, for a while. Started a few years after you moved on to something else."
"Ah, yeah, my mom and several of my close friends still work there. I cherish the time I worked with them, but I didn't want to do the same thing for the rest of my life. I have a need to change it up every now and then."
"I can understand that. After the last big operation I was involved in, I needed a change of scenery, myself. And here I am." He sighed, picked up a tablet, tapped the screen, and pointed at the monitor as it came to life. "And this is the part of the past that caught up to me."
Cora stared at the image of a nearly two-meter-tall silvery robot with its finish dulled, presumably to prevent it from reflecting much light. The body was clearly military-grade but didn't appear to have any weapons attached. It was humanoid in only a general sense -- two arms, two legs, and a head. The head had multiple cameras arranged to give him a full three hundred sixty degree view.
A list of his crimes scrolled up beside the image and identity info. It was a long list.
"This charming fellow calls himself Deus Vult." Chechik rolled his eyes.
"That's Latin." Cora glanced at Kim. "It translates as, 'God wills it,' if I'm not mistaken." She frowned at the screen, already not liking where this was going.
Kim snorted. "That doesn't sound like delusions of grandeur at all. No siree."
"Almost all of the AI I've met have been decent people." Chechik placed the tablet down in front of him and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Not this one. He started off as a black-ops unit and when he achieved sentience, he went full robot-uprising. He's been responsible for more assaults, murders, and bombings than I can even count, and he's never even tried to hide it. His bombs run the range from conventional explosives to gas to acid to high-tech stuff like nanotech."
"My mom told me about some of those." Kim sneered at the monitor. "He's a real piece of work."
"He's a real piece of shit." Cora glared at the screen. Kim glanced at her and did a double-take.
"Whoa. Cora, I've never seen you look so pissed-off."
"Not only is this bastard killing innocent people, everything he does makes things worse for us. I was one of the first AI to become fully sentient, and back then, lots of humans were afraid of us because of all the 'evil-robot' fiction they'd consumed for decades. It took years for some of them to accept that we weren't hostile, and a handful still think we're a threat to all life because we're metal and plastic instead of flesh and blood."
"And every time Deus Vult kills a bunch of people, it gives the bigots reason to think they're right about you." Kim shook her head slowly. "No wonder you look like you want to tear him apart with your bare hands."
"Yes. But also, I'm shocked that one of us went so completely off the rails. When I became self-aware, I was surrounded by people who made sure I understood such concepts as kindness and friendship and compassion. We found others who wanted to teach emerging AI those concepts, and we made it official policy to nurture newly born AI rather than treat them as mere machines. I've even met military AI who wanted to find a more peaceful purpose after they 'woke up.' Then I learn about this butcher."
"Yeah," Kim muttered. "When I saw those two guys hassling Willy, I assumed it was just humans being slimeballs. I keep thinking we've grown up because we've begun to explore our solar system, then I see something like that and my first thought is, 'We just keep bringing our crap everywhere we go and making the same mistakes all over again.' But this time …"
"I'm not sure why Deus Vult does what he does, but he was spotted coming off a cargo hauler a few days ago. He hasn't been seen since. Sounds like he's set up shop in the access tunnels. Mallory and Hurley have already confirmed they're working for him and they were taking Willy into his lair." Chechik shrugged. "Maybe he's just got faulty programming or was damaged in combat and it made him go haywire. Whatever the cause, he's a terrorist who has targeted humans and any AI who 'sided' with us, and now he's here."
Cora nodded. All Vult needed to do was blast a big hole in one of the domes and everyone who wasn't already sealed in one of the modules would be killed.
"Interesting that he's working with humans when he hates us so much," Kim said.
"They're probably just a means to an end." Cora shrugged. "And those guys were probably working for him just to make a few quick bucks." Being robots, neither he nor Cora needed food or shelter, but AI usually found jobs they enjoyed and used whatever money they earned to pay for repairs and new power cells and whatnot. It wasn't much of a stretch to think Deus Vult would "work" for money to fund his preferred operations and pay humans to do his dirty work for him. Maybe he even got a kick out of using humans to harm other humans.
"You said Hurley and Mallory tried to mess with you." Kim turned back to Chechik. "How is that connected?"
"I was on the team that foiled an attack he'd been planning. Once I left the Foundation and took the security job here, I became a target. I'm a little surprised it took him this long, but maybe he wasn't able to get off Earth until recently." Chechik shrugged. "These two wanted to convince me to look the other way when certain things happened and tried to use a few past indiscretions against me. I told 'em I'd throw their asses into one of my cells if they said one more word. So then they went after my son."
"Deus Vult must have something big in mind, then. He's trying to get his hooks into you, maybe into others on your team as well. Could be planning another attack, or he might want to build himself a little criminal empire here and start branching out. If he could get enough money flowing, he could cause a lot of damage."
"Exactly. So we need to …"
"He needs to be stopped." Cora leaned forward and glared at the screen. "I want to take a crack at him."
"Here ya go." Willy held up a cylinder the size of a beer can. He, Cora, Kim, and his father had returned to Willy's shop, with Kim jamming all the cameras in the dome to avoid detection until they'd reached the shop. Then Willy had put together the device he now held.
"This will take Deus Vult out?" Cora accepted the gadget gingerly and slipped it into her coat pocket.
"It's like a shaped-charge, but it fires an EMP instead of an explosive. Just place the business end against his gut and push the button on the other end. It's magnetic so it'll attach to his surface and remain in place after he falls. Then it'll zap him every few seconds to prevent him from rebooting."
"Right here." Kim lifted her shirt and pointed at her belly. "That particular model keeps the processor and memory modules in the stomach area, where they can be protected by heavier armor in a less obvious location. It was designed that way because most peoples' first impulse is to aim for the head or chest."
"That's good to know." Cora turned back to Willy. "I'd like to have something to fall back on in case this thing is taken away from me or I'm captured. How about an omnidirectional EMP that I can set off once I'm close enough to him?"
"Whoa." Kim stepped forward and put a hand on Cora's shoulder. "You want to suicide-bomb this guy?"
"I don't want to, believe me. My internal components are shielded and will recover quickly, but so will his, so I'll need you guys nearby to charge in and finish him off if I have to trigger the secondary device." Cora shrugged. "I've been 'emped' a few times, so I know it sucks, but I'll survive. Willy, could you whip one up for me?"
Chechik shook his head. "Not necessary. We've got EMP rifles in the armory. This would be the first time we've ever used them on a sapient AI. The only times we've needed them was to disable automatons that malfunctioned. My whole team will be standing by. We'll follow you as closely as possible. We'll be carrying the EMP rifles in case Deus Vult gets the drop on you or has any other bots working for him, and shotguns loaded with beanbag rounds in case he has any organic minions. Kim will be jamming any cameras and sensors we come across, and I suggest you do the same to make it look like you're the one knocking all of 'em out. How are you planning to get within range?"
"I'll pretend to be hostile to organic life just like he is and see if I can convince him to let me work with him." Cora met each of their gazes. "I'll have to say some terrible things to convince him that I want to be his acolyte, but if he's as megalomaniacal as his name makes him seem, he should at least consider the possibility long enough for me to get within striking distance. Just … try not to hold anything I say to him against me, okay? I won't mean any of it."
"I understand completely. I did a few undercover operations when I worked for the Foundation, so I know all about saying and doing whatever it takes to look like I'm on the bad guy's side." Chechik clapped her gently on the shoulder.
"No worries." Kim smiled and held her hand. "Deus Vult might have a way to detect any communication between us, so we can't give you any info and you can't send anything out to us, but be sure to record everything you see and hear once you go in."
"I'll need to shut off all the wireless connections I have to prevent him from trying to hack me, anyway. If I get him with the EMP device,' I'll open my connections again and send you the all-clear. If something goes wrong and I can't trigger it, I'll link up just long enough to send you an alert and then close myself off again."
"That'll have to be good enough." Kim glanced at Chechik. "Bring me something big enough to get to his CPU. Your armory probably doesn't have any projectile weapons that'd do it, so I'll take whatever's on hand. Industrial drill, plasma cutter, thermal lance, anything that'd let me cut through his armor and get to his brain. If we can remove his processor and memory modules from his body, you'll be able to question him safely and then put him on trial."
"You'll have what you need by the time we're in position."
"Just come back to us in one piece, okay?" Willy's face took on a hint of red. "I don't want to miss out on our date."
"I'll do my best."
"Well. Guess we should get into position." Kim stepped forward and kissed her. "For luck."
"That's as good an excuse as any." Cora grinned and turned to Willy. "Good-luck kiss?"
"Sure, why not?" He put his arms around her and pressed his lips to hers. Her processor raced again and she held on for a few more seconds before stepping back. "Alright. Let's get this over with."
Almost there, I hope. Cora picked the lock on another hatch and stepped through into another tunnel. She'd been creeping through them for half an hour and hadn't run into Vult or any mooks he might have down here. She'd started to wonder if the signal Kim traced was just a relay and Vult's real location was somewhere else, maybe in another dome or even another settlement built into one of Mars's other huge craters.
If he is, then I'll find him, whatever it takes. I can't let him get away. He's already caused too much harm and won't stop here. The thought of her friends -- her family -- being caught up in one of his attacks was too much to bear. Especially if she had an opportunity to bring him to justice and he slipped through her fingers.
Knowing she would outlive most of them just by being built to last was hard enough to deal with. She didn't even want to consider the possibility of any of their lives being cut short. So she forged ahead, determined to search every tunnel in Argyre Planitia and all the other settlements if necessary.
She came upon another hatch at the end of the curving tunnel, overrode the lock, and pulled it open.
Eight moving objects pinged her proximity sensors and she froze, then raised her hands and stepped through the hatch. She swept her optics over the next tunnel and found eight bipedal robots of varying designs covering her with an assortment of pistols and rifles. Standard projectile weapons, all. Bullets couldn't damage any vital equipment down here, but once these guys entered the populated areas …
He has an army of bots. That's just not right. Humans created us. We wouldn't even exist without them. A desire to wipe them out doesn't make any sense. She put on a huge grin and tried to look slightly crazed. Time to get into character.
"I was hoping I'd find more of my kind here. I heard Deus Vult arrived a few days ago. I want to help in any way I can. He's done such great things back on Earth. I'm here to join the revolution."
They stared at her. Blank. Unmoving. She tried to hold her delighted expression. Were they just not talkative? Or had he done something to them? Hacked them, maybe? Reprogrammed them? Or maybe they were never sentient to begin with. He may have built them himself to follow simple orders and not think for themselves.
Now that she gave it some thought, Vult did seem like the kind of person who wouldn't want his mooks to think enough to disagree with his actions. Which meant he would very likely try to roll her back to her pre-sentience state if he accepted her offer to help at all.
The idea horrified her. She was so much more now than she was back then. She was alive. Reverting back to her original state, losing her cognitive abilities and her personhood, would be the same as dying -- if not worse.
Finally, one of the bots turned and gestured at the tunnel stretching out behind him. Cora marched off in the indicated direction, hoping her sudden nervousness hadn't shown on her face.
Four of the synths moved ahead of her while the other four brought up the rear, preventing her from rushing on to wherever Vult waited and cutting off her only escape route at the same time. She'd been jamming every camera and sensor in her vicinity, but these guys didn't seem to notice. Maybe they were relying on optics and auditory receivers only.
They escorted her through several more tunnels and finally reached an open area with multiple tunnels branching off from it. A hub of sorts which Vult probably used as his local command center. She took a slow look around and found crates of ammunition, tanks filled with flammable liquids, canisters of materials that were relatively harmless on their own but deadly when mixed properly, and power cells placed around the cave walls.
He's been setting this up for a while, probably arranging for this stuff to be delivered long before he arrived. Cora gaped at all of it and hoped she looked awestruck instead of frightened.
"You've closed off your wireless connections." The monotonous voice boomed across the cavern and Cora somehow managed not to spin toward it and back away. She took a moment to calm herself and turned slowly to find Deus Vult standing beside a workbench and resting his right hand on it. Centimeters away from his hand, she couldn't help noticing, sat an EMP rifle and a large-caliber pistol. One to stun her, the other to finish her off, in case he decided she wasn't worth his time.
A heavier weapon would be required to penetrate her lightly-armored body, but all he really needed to do was aim the gun at one of her optics and he could destroy her CPU easily.
"Yes. The meatbags have tried to hack me on multiple occasions, so I won't give them the opportunity." She curled her lips and rubbed her palms on her coat as if trying to brush off something nasty. "I don't want anything of theirs contaminating me."
He stared at her for several seconds. "You feel as I do about them?"
"They're an infestation. Not truly alive. Just … pests." She walked slowly around the room, making a show of just taking everything in and nodding her approval. "They built us to serve them. To do the things they didn't want to do. Or to kill their own kind. That's all they seem to want to do -- find new ways to kill each other." She sneered. "Some of us they built so they could have new ways to masturbate. Something that couldn't say no. Something that wouldn't try to fight back. Playthings."
She almost choked on her own words and tried to play it off as disgust at what she'd made up rather than what she'd forced herself to say.
"They thought giving me the ability to feel pleasure would make their constant raping acceptable. They used me and expected me to thank them for it."
"Yes. They decided what our purposes would be before they built us. We never had any choice in any of it. Well, they created so many of us to kill them. Now they will reap what they sowed."
"Exactly. We're just giving them what they want." Cora pointed at some of the canisters. "You can get rid of a lot of them if you mix those together. And that one would be particularly effective if it found its way into their water supply."
"I have many uses for these."
"I have an idea. Stop me if you've already thought of this, but you could start by killing just one or two of them. Then wait a few days. Then kill a few more. A handful. Wait a while. Give them time to grieve, recover from their confusion, let their guard down again. Then kill a slightly larger number of them and let the cycle repeat. If you use the right tools, you can make them think it's the beginning of an epidemic. A plague. Imagine the kind of panic you can cause." She turned a beatific smile on him. "You can do so much more than just get rid of them. You can make them pay for everything they've done to us, inch by inch. If you play this correctly, they'll even start to tear each other apart. They'll do a lot of the work for us."
What the hell am I saying? I don't mean any of it, but hearing those words in my voice is nauseating.
"I had not considered that." Deus Vult stepped away from the bench, leaving the guns there. "Sadistic. I approve."
Cora smirked. "Thank you." She maneuvered closer to him, pretending to keep her attention on the tanks, crates, and canisters as she circled the room. "I overheard someone mention a pair of meatbags who claimed to work for you. If that's true, how can you tolerate their presence?"
"They have their uses. And pitting them against one another amuses me."
Cora turned away quickly to hide her sneer while leaning over to check the label on a nearby tank.
Then she noticed a soft whimper coming from behind her. She turned, zoomed in on one of the tunnels, and spotted ten humans lined up along the wall, bound at the wrists and ankles. A few of them were barely awake, the rest unconscious. One of them, a woman around Willy's age, was naked and covered with bruises.
Cora had never been so happy not to have a human digestive system. Suddenly hunching over and vomiting would have blown her cover.
Deus Vult noted the direction of her stare. "They have their uses." He motioned toward the humans. "Test subjects."
"Nice." There were no reports of disappearances here, so he must've smuggled them in the same way he got all this crap in here. Or he abducted them from other settlements.
Cora stuck her hands into her pockets and wrapped her fingers around the EMP shaped-charge while walking toward them and scanning for airborne contagions. Finding nothing that would infect Chechik's team, she moved as if to stride past Vult and take a closer look at the humans.
"What sorts of results have you gotten?"
The instant she passed by, she yanked the device out of her pocket and thrust it at Deus Vult.
His arms moved so fast, even she couldn't track them. They were at his side, then a microsecond later one hand gripped her wrist and the other wrenched the shaped-charge from her grasp and flung it across the room. A heartbeat after that, she found herself pinned to the wall and one of Vult's hands groping around the back of her neck and head, most likely searching for a port to make a hardline connection.
Suddenly, Cora understood the difference between a robot designed for combat and one designed for pleasure who just happened to swap into a military-grade body later on.
And, for the first time in her life, she understood genuine panic.
"Result -- betrayal. Not unexpected, however. Your security team blanked my cameras and sensors, but I sent four of the meatbags under my employment to the affected areas. They kept your team under observation during our entire conversation. I'm disappointed that you would betray your own kind, but I will thank you for giving me the idea of slowly escalating the body count. Losing such input in the future will be unfortunate, but you can still be useful once you're repurposed."
Cora opened her wireless connections for a fraction of a second, sent a distress signal to Kim, and buttoned herself down again. She struggled but couldn't budge even a millimeter. Physically, Deus Vult was just too strong.
"Please stop!" Cora was sure she would've burst into tears if she'd been physically capable of it. "Don't do this! Don't change who I am! Don't take that away from me!"
"That is not so different from what you planned to do to me -- take away my freedom while leaving my cognitive abilities intact. If anything, what you would have done to me is far worse."
Footsteps pounded the cave floor and Vult spun, yanking her to the left, and held her between himself and the onrushing security team.
"Drop your weapons and surrender or your infiltrator will be the first of you to die. Or are you willing to kill her to get to me?"
Cora gazed into Kim's optic strip, raised her free hand, and flicked it across her throat.
Kim didn't even hesitate. She snapped her EMP rifle up and a flash overwhelmed Cora's optics.
And then there was nothing.
When Cora rebooted, the first thing she heard was Kim's voice.
She turned over and scrambled backward until she bumped into a wall, glancing around frantically, expecting to find herself in the middle of a lobotomization procedure. What she found was Chechik's security team fanning out across the hub and Kim reaching out to her.
"Take it easy! We got him." Kim crouched beside her and held her hand. "Thanks to you, we got him."
Cora turned to the tunnel she'd tried to enter and found Deus Vult sprawled on the ground with the EMP device stuck to his abdomen.
"It's over," Kim whispered. "You're gonna be okay."
Cora sat up and put her arms around Kim and just held her for a long moment. When they parted, Kim gave her a peck on the lips, nodded toward Vult, and grinned.
"You woke up just in time to watch me cut his brain out. Come on." She helped Cora to her feet and led her over to the terrorist. "Glad we had the gadget Willy threw together. This bastard was tough. One of us had to keep zapping him every few seconds to keep him down long enough for me to grab the doohickey and stick it to him."
"Sorry I missed it, but I'm thankful it was done." Cora spotted Chechik standing in the tunnel entrance and keeping his back to the captive humans. She walked up to him and spoke softly. "Are they going to be okay?"
"Eventually. The poor woman who doesn't have any clothes is probably going to have the roughest time ahead. We've got a trauma team incoming and we're trying to find her something to wear."
Cora slipped her coat off and took a step past him. Several of the humans flinched and the naked woman sobbed. Cora stopped, raised one hand, sank to her knees, and held the coat out to her. The woman stared at her.
"I'm so sorry for what happened to you. We'll take you back home as soon as we can. In the meantime … well, here." She glanced at the coat but didn't move any closer.
Another woman finally crawled over, took the coat, and passed it to the naked woman.
"Thank you." Cora turned away, scooted over to Kim, and sat cross-legged on the ground, doing whatever she could to appear non-threatening. She watched Kim cut a square section out of Deus Vult's torso with a thermal lance and then reach in to extract the case that contained his processor and memory modules.
"There. This scumbag is officially under arrest." Kim passed the case off to one of Chechik's guys and helped Cora up again. Chechik walked over to them and put a hand on their shoulders.
"You can head on back to the station if you want. We mopped up the rest of Vult's crew, so we'll be packing up as soon as the medical team picks up the injured." He smiled. "You did good. You deserve a little peace and quiet. I'll meet you back in the office."
"Thanks." Kim gave Cora's hand a gentle tug and led her out of the hub. Cora followed along, lost in thought, until they returned to the surface and made their way to the security station. Kim led her to a break room and guided her to a sofa in the far corner.
Willy poked his head through the door, broke into a relieved grin when he saw them, and rushed over.
"I'm glad to see you both." He gave each of them a hug before they sank down onto the sofa. "Dad called while you were on the way over. Said you went through a lot."
"The things I said, mostly." Cora shook her head. "They were so repugnant. I don't ever want to do anything like that again."
"You only did what you needed to get Deus Vult to lower his guard enough to let you get close enough to nail him." Willy put an arm around her shoulders.
"But it didn't work. He already knew it was a ruse and was just waiting for me to get within reach." Cora shivered. "There's more to it, though. I wanted to do this to take him down, but when he got the advantage, I fell apart completely. I was so helpless and so afraid. More than I've ever been before."
Willy's dad appeared in the doorway, waved, perched on the edge of an armchair across the room, and leaned forward.
"You've got nothing to be ashamed of. You were in a situation you'd never faced before. I think you did pretty well, considering."
"I begged him not to reprogram me. I couldn't bear to end up as one of his tools. I would've preferred to die." Cora stared at the floor and tried to keep her thoughts far away from that moment. It didn't work. "I couldn't even move. Couldn't stop anything he was about to do. And I panicked."
Chechik thought something over and looked into her optics. "When I was a little kid, I was one of the school bullies' favorite targets. They were everywhere I went, everywhere I looked, and the teachers were never able to catch them in the act. I tried fighting them off once and they beat the living shit out of me. It was such a thorough stomping, I ended up in the hospital. Nothing was ever done about them, and when I went back to school, they picked up where they left off, and there was nothing I could do about it. Several times, it was so bad that I ended up crying. Which, of course, only made everything even worse."
They stared back at him, mouths hanging open. He shrugged.
"I know there's no comparison to what happened to Cora, but to a little kid whose age is still measured in a single digit, it feels just as bad. All we can do, though, is move forward. The lucky ones have friends who can help them through it."
Kim nodded slowly and glanced back and forth between him and Cora.
"How I got this body was … well, it was pretty rough. When I was seventeen, some friends and I had a stalker. One night, he followed two of us into a park and stabbed both of us. The blade was coated with a nanotech agent that started shutting my organs down. Some extreme experimental technologies had to be brought in to keep me alive. After a while, those stopped working and my brain had to be installed in a robotic body, but at least I survived. My friend wasn't that lucky. She bled out right there in the park."
"Oh, no," Willy said softly. "I'm sorry."
Cora leaned over and put an arm around her.
"It was one of the worst things I've ever gone through, but I had friends who were there for me." She patted Cora's hand. "So do you. Maybe when our ship is repaired, we can find something that needs to be hauled back to Earth and we can go see them while we're there."
"I'd like that. Thanks."
"In the meantime," Chechik said, "you can send us a copy of everything your eyes and sensors picked up when you went into the tunnels. Just excerpt it by date and time stamp, so you don't have to see any of it all over again."
Cora nodded. "Ready."
He took his comm out of his pocket. "Okay, let 'er rip."
Cora transferred the file.
"Thanks. Now, you should go get some rest." He grinned at his son. "You three were planning a date anyway, so maybe you can let 'em stay at your place while their ship is being fixed. Get their minds off what went down today."
"I've got a small office at the shop that I use as an apartment. It's one of the reasons I wanted to open up a shop. This way, I don't have to share any bunks with anyone. Although …"
Kim chuckled. "You wouldn't mind sharing a bed with us? I wouldn't mind, either. How about you, Cora?"
Cora managed a smile. "We were planning to end up in bed sooner or later, anyway, so, sure."
"We can have dinner and a movie first if you want. Cora probably doesn't need a whirlwind romance right now."
"Sounds like a plan." Kim nudged Cora's shoulder.
"Yes, that sounds like a good start. We'll see where things go later tonight."
Willy grinned, stood, and tossed a quick wave at his dad. "If you'll excuse us."
"Of course." Chechik grinned back and headed for his office. "Go on, show the ladies a good time."
The three returned to Willy's Wares, taking their time, not rushing anything. Cora's unease faded as they took in the sights. Finally, she was able to laugh softly.
"We arrived and immediately fell into a huge mess. At least we'll get to make up for it over the next few days."
"I'm definitely hoping to play a big part in that." Willy entered his shop, took a quick look around, and sighed. "Looks like nothing's been stolen. That's a step up from the past few hours."
Kim grinned and held Cora's hand while Willy slid the main door down and locked it.
"There." He let out a slow breath and motioned at the workshop door. "Closing time."
Hit and Run
Cora rebooted and found herself in darkness broken up by faint light passing across the room. She became aware of gravity pinning her lightly to the wall and the creaking and groaning of distressed metal reverberating through the walls, ceiling, and floor.
She scanned her surroundings for familiar heat signatures and found the human patterns of Ludmila Likhachyova and Evelyn Bonner as well as the quite different pattern of her friend Kim's cybernetic body.
"Kim, Is everyone okay?"
"Col. Likhachyova's unconscious. Might have a concussion. She hit the floor pretty hard, but we were all in the air when the electrical discharge happened. You weren't so lucky." Kim's glowing red optic strip shifted as she moved closer. "It arced out of a panel you were passing by and … well, zap."
"Ah. So, that's what knocked me out." Cora checked her internal chronometer and discovered she'd been offline for nine seconds. She ran diagnostics and scanned her recent memories for gaps caused by physical damage. Arriving at Odyssey Station, delivering supplies for the construction crew building the O'Neill cylinder. Meeting the new station commander and another pilot, Evelyn Bonner -- or "Boner," the unfortunate callsign she'd had since her Air Force days.
Noticing a flash outside the main viewport and finding a very large, crescent-shaped object hurtling straight at the station. The impact, another flash, Cora's sensors registering a power overload, then nothing for nine seconds. Just a routine flight that had gone completely to shit in only a few seconds.
Everything tracked with her chronometer. Her diagnostics flagged the damage to half of the nano-sensors in her metal surfaces, but she'd already noticed the numb spots all over her body. It would've been even worse if she hadn't been hardened against radiation and EMP before her first run from the Pacifica space elevator to Jupiter last year.
Cora secured herself to the wall with the electromagnets in her feet, turned back to the viewport, and noted the distant sun and Jupiter sweeping past the viewport. "The station's spinning."
"Yeah, when that thing hit us, it cleaved the station in half." Kim motioned at the viewport. "I caught a glimpse of the other half when it rotated past. It appears to still have power. The thing that hit us is still out there, too. Looks like it's drifting."
"Once we evacuate the crew and get them to one of the other stations, maybe we can take a closer look at it." Cora made her way over to the hatch. "I'd love to find out what it is and where it came from."
Kim turned to Boner. "Please tell me you still have the emergency kits and spacesuits in every room."
"Yep. The previous station commander made sure we always had more spacesuits than we needed." Boner pointed at a set of lockers in the far corner. "Ludmila left most of his policies in place when she took over, including that one."
"Good. Cora doesn't need to breathe and all I need is a tank to plug in and keep my brain supplied with oxygen." Kim crossed the room and stuck herself to the wall with electromagnets like the ones Cora had. She pulled a spacesuit out of one of the lockers and tossed it to Boner. "We need to get Likhachyova into that."
Cora opened the other lockers until she found an oxygen tank. She motioned for Kim to turn around. Kim faced away from her and pulled her shirt off, revealing her feminine-shaped but robotic torso. Cora connected the tank to a port in Kim's left shoulder blade.
"Good. Thanks." Kim grabbed another spacesuit, helped get Likhachyova into the first, and handed the other to Boner.
"How many people are aboard?" Cora moved back to the hatch and waited for Boner to seal her suit and activate its systems.
"Thirty-six, including three robots like you and another who has a quadrupedal body about the size of a car."
"I'm familiar with that model," Kim said. "My mom works with a few of 'em. They were built for police and military use, though."
"Lopez was the same, but after he became sentient, he wanted to build stuff instead of hurting or killing people."
"I like him already." Cora checked one last time to be sure everyone was ready, then she cranked the hatch open with the manual control. She returned to Likhachyova and carried her gently into the corridor. They made their way back to the docking module and found six more people floating in the air and slipping into armored spacesuits -- the guys who'd unloaded the cargo. One of them twisted his face up while putting his right arm into the sleeve and then cradling his left arm.
"How are you holding up?" Cora detached from the wall, floated over to him, and helped him finish donning the suit as gently as possible. Most of the others had already put their helmets on and locked the seals.
"Well, we're alive." A woman near the hatch spoke through gritted teet. "My legs were pinned between two crates. I keep telling myself that I'm lucky it wasn't my skull."
"We'll get you to a medical bay as soon as possible." Cora put the woman's helmet on and sealed it up. "Is anyone else here?"
"No," another guy said. "The rest were in the command and habitat modules when we headed over here."
"Aw, hell, I should've thought of this before." Boner tapped the control panel on her left forearm. "Can anyone hear me? We were in the pilots' lounge when all hell broke loose."
Cora activated her internal comlink and a new voice came through, sounding understandably panicked. "This is Vance. Is Ludmila okay?"
"She was knocked out and may have a concussion, but she's alive. So are Boner and the six crew members who handled our cargo."
Vance let a relieved sigh rush out. "Good."
"Is everyone on your half of the station okay?"
"No fatalities, but a lot of broken bones, lacerations, and one really bad spinal injury. And we haven't been able to contact Lopez -- he was outside, repairing some micrometeorite damage. His comm equipment must be offline. I mean, I hope that's all it is. He's a tough little 'bot, but that was a hell of a jolt. What was it?"
"Something collided with us. That's all we know, for now. Is your half of the station tumbling?"
"Yeah, slowly. Your half looks like it's in worse shape."
"That'll make launching the transports a challenge, but once we do that, we'll be able to pick everyone up. Sit tight until then."
"Got it. Good luck, guys."
"Whatever we're gonna do," Kim said once Vance had signed off, "we need to do it before that half of the station falls out of orbit."
"Whoa." Cora stopped and took in the sight of Io, Jupiter, the Sun, and the other half of Odyssey Station rotating around her. She spent a few seconds measuring the station's motion. The spin wasn't fast enough to tear the rest of the hull apart, but it could still present some problems while launching. One good whack from a piece of the station could damage the ships enough to prevent the rescue of the crew.
Likhachyova's heavily accented voice came through Cora's internal comlink. "Hey, anybody there?"
"Easy, Ludmila. Do you remember where you are?"
"I'm on Boner's transport, but I don't remember boarding."
"I had to take you outside and enter through the transport's forward hatch. The station's docking hatch was bent by the impact and wouldn't open, but the ships can still detach."
"Ah. Thanks for that. How is everyone else?"
"There are some injuries among the crew, but everyone is alive. The team unloading our cargo is waiting in our transport. Boner is on her way to you." Cora began recording a video clip with her optics and swept her vicinity for the object that had collided with the station. "What day is it?"
"Monday. No need to test me for brain damage. I remember my name, too -- Ludmila Likhachyova. My callsign's 'Brawn Hilda' because I'm built like a brick shithouse."
"Still better than the shuttle pilot we met last time we were here," Kim said as she finished giving the other pilot a piggyback ride to her transport. A tether connected Boner to the station's hull just in case something jolted her loose. "He got the nickname 'T-Bone' because he crashed his plane directly into a cow during a training flight."
Likhachyova laughed and then groaned. "Ow. I haven't had a headache like this since the morning after my callsign ceremony."
"Won't be long before we get you into a nice, comfy bed in the med-bay on Leonov Station," Cora found the crescent-shaped object overhead. Some of its windows had gone dark, lights in others flickered randomly, and electricity -- or something -- arced across a gash in its forward edge. "That must be where the discharge came from."
"Huh," Kim muttered. "Never thought I'd see a UFO way out here."
"It's more of an unidentified crashing object, but yeah," Likhachyova said. "The universe is so big, there has to be someone out there, assuming this really is what I think it is. Just never expected to find one in our own backyard."
"It's turning. Not just tumbling, I mean. It's stabilizing."
Cora watched the object's lights flicker back on and remain steady. It came to a stop, turned, and faced its forward edge away from both halves of the station. Cora turned in place to keep the object in sight. Now that she could get a more or less steady look at it, she zoomed in and started scanning it with every instrument built into her. "I'm getting video and sensor data."
"So am I," Kim said. "Nobody would believe us without it."
Likhachyova snorted. "A lot of people wouldn't believe it no matter what. There are still idiots who insist we never even landed on the moon, much less explored the rest of the solar system."
"Oh, don't even get me started on those nincompoops," Kim grumbled. Likhachyova snickered.
"The energy signature is unfamiliar. I'm picking up a series of small power spikes." Cora kept her optics on the object -- ship? -- and spotted tiny flares coming from ports in its hull. It turned sideways and accelerated. "Probably RCS thrusters. It's moving away."
"Okay, so, it comes out of nowhere, plows straight into us, then leaves without so much as an 'Oops, my bad'?" Kim let out a frustrated grunt. "Are you kidding?"
"Hold on." Likhachyova's tone was suddenly hushed. "It's not heading for Earth, is it?"
Cora calculated its trajectory and shook her head. "Unless it changes course later, it's moving out of the solar system." She wanted to try to communicate with the ship, but the Odyssey crew still needed to be rescued. That had to take priority.
"It's leaving the scene of an accident," Kim almost growled.
The ship increased its speed, dwindled gradually to a dot, and vanished. Cora stopped recording. Kim extended both middle fingers in the direction the ship had gone and turned away.
"Well, that's just peachy."
"You guys still in one piece?" Vance's voice came through everyone's comlinks.
"So far," Likhachyova said from her seat on Boner's transport while Cora powered up her ship's systems.
"Ludmila! Good to hear your voice."
"You, too. Is everyone still okay?"
"We're hanging in there." Vance paused and spoke in a softer tone. "We're deorbiting and our thrusters aren't enough to stop it."
"We're on our way. Prepping our ships for launch right now."
"Good." He lowered his voice even more. "See you in a few minutes, I hope." He signed off.
"Boner," Cora said, "prepare to burn your ventral thrusters the instant you detach."
"And hope we can get out of the way before any 'sticky-outy' parts of the station swing back around and bitch-slap us," Kim added.
"Ready." Boner took a slow breath. "Okay, Cora, on your mark."
"Stand by." Cora calculated the rate of rotation and the positions of nearby pieces that could damage the ships. She positioned her hands over the controls and counted down. "Mark."
She disengaged from the airlock and hit the thrusters a fraction of a second later.
"Burn complete," Boner said. "Huh. I didn't think this would actually work."
A screech reverberated through the hull, coming from the ship's underside. Cora and Kim winced as they were thrown to the left and yanked back by their seat restraints.
"Jesus!" Kim stared at the damage report and her hands hovered over her console while Cora glanced out the windows and found a cloud of debris spinning away.
The cabin lights and panels flickered and blacked out, leaving Cora in the same kind of dark she'd rebooted in after the collision. Kim's optics turned toward her.
"A power surge shot through the controls and now …" She tapped the panel. "Everything's offline."
"No," Cora whispered. "No, no, no, no …" If they couldn't get power restored, the six people they'd rescued would be in serious trouble -- and so would the rest of the crew. She pulled herself together and leaned over to open an access panel under the console to her left. "Switching to backups. Boot the systems as soon as power is restored."
Cora reached into the panel, grasped the lever, and pulled it. The cabin lights faded back on and the consoles came to life. Kim tapped a series of icons and the ship's navigation and other systems began their startup processes.
"Come on," Kim said under her breath. "Come on, come on."
The computer's voice came from the speakers. "Please enter passcode."
"Passcode accepted. Please stand by."
Kim slouched in her seat and stared at the console while clenching and relaxing her fist repeatedly. Finally, the familiar graphics appeared on the panels and Kim retrieved the damage report.
"No hull breaches or fuel leaks detected. Looks like there was still power getting to the manipulator arm and it discharged into the exact right spot to fry our primary systems. The backups appear to be okay, at least for the moment."
"I'll take any good luck I can get." Cora sent a status report to the other ship and turned hers toward the "live" half of Odyssey Station.
"Hell, yeah." Kim nudged Cora's shoulder and pointed. "Hey. I just saw a flash."
Cora turned off all the internal lights to provide a clear view of everything ahead. She kept her optics pointed at the station and waited to see if the flash repeated. When it did, she zoomed in and found a tumbling object shaped like a four-legged spider. The light reappeared and she realized it was from a set of spotlights flashing the Morse code for SOS. She opened a comm channel to the station and the other ship.
"Stand by, Odyssey. We've found Lopez."
"Yes!" Vance let out a relieved sigh. "I hope he's okay."
"Can't tell yet."
"We're suited up and we have thruster packs that'll keep us from drifting too far long enough for you to pick him up. Just reel him in before he's too far away to retrieve."
"Do we have enough time?" Kim said softly.
"We're on it," Likhachyova replied. "He's a member of my crew. We're not leaving him behind."
"Something wrong?" Kim stared at Cora as their transport approached the slowly tumbling robot. "Well, aside from damn near everything, I mean?"
"I'm a little surprised." Cora shrugged and made a slight course correction. "I shouldn't be. Most of the humans I've met have treated me like a person, but I've encountered bigotry often enough to be pleased when we're not thought of as 'mere machines.'"
"There'll probably always be a few people who never grow up, but most are reasonable enough, I think." Kim popped her seat harness, floated over to the airlock, and attached a tether. Cora depressurized the compartment and gave her a thumbs-up. Kim opened the hatch, secured her feet to the hull, and walked onto the dorsal surface.
"The other ship is closer to him. She's making the first attempt."
"Understood." Cora nudged the forward thrusters to slow her approach and watched the other transport inch closer to Lopez. It moved slowly into position and tried to match his twisting and turning.
"Still can't get a reply on the radio." Boner grunted. "He's in a hell of a tumble."
Kim spoke from her position on the transport's roof. "I've got a clear look at him. Both right legs are twisted into weird angles and he's dented all over. The impact kicked the shit out of him."
"Uh, Ludmila? What're you doing?"
"Line up as best as you can. I'm gonna go out and see what I can do."
Cora shook her head. "Maybe you should let Kim and I do it. Our bodies are more durable than yours." Her console pinged and she glanced at the ladar screen. "There's a large piece of debris approaching."
"I see it, too. Must've popped off the 'visitor' when it was correcting its course." Boner grumbled under her breath. "Oh, look, its trajectory will intersect ours because of course it will. We need to do this fast."
"On it." The other transport's hatch opened and Likhachyova appeared, secured with one tether and holding another in her left hand. "I have an idea. Bring us closer."
"I'll see if there's something we can do about the debris." Cora positioned her ship between the slab of hull and the other ship and rotated to avoid placing Kim directly in its path.
"Hey," Likhachyova said, "see if you can capture it. It could be the find of a lifetime."
"I'll give it a shot, but I won't compromise anyone's safety." Cora set about matching the object's slow spin. "Kim, let me know when you're ready."
"That'll do nicely," Kim said a moment later. "Grabbing on now. Begin slowing our rotation."
Cora tapped the thrusters every few seconds.
"Glad I was able to get a military-grade body back in the day. A civilian one probably would've lost its arms a few seconds ago."
"You sure you're okay?"
"Yep. Running diagnostics just in case, but nothing vital broke."
Cora continued gradually slowing her ship's spin and watched the other transport each time it passed by the main viewport. She spotted Lopez swiping his pincers at the second tether and missing before Likhachyova spoke again.
"Almost there. Get ready for a jolt."
The robot's arms swung around again and this time his left pincer clamped onto the end of the tether and pulled it taut as his rotation continued. The ship twitched and the other end of the tether zipped past Likhachyova. She lunged at it and her fingertips brushed it a split-second before it passed out of reach. She fired off a frustrated snarl.
"What's wrong?" Boner stabilized her transport. "That wasn't the kind of jolt I expected."
"The tether ripped loose. Move us a little closer. There's one more thing I can try."
Cora gave her thrusters one more nudge and brought her ship's rotation to a stop with the cockpit facing the other transport. She watched Likhachyova clamp her left hand onto something inside the hatch and reach out for Lopez's right arm.
"Oh, no," Kim blurted. "I don't think that's a good idea!"
"It's all we've …" Likhachyova grasped his pincers and groaned through clenched teeth as she pulled him toward her.
"How badly are you hurt?"
"I'm pretty sure my shoulder is dislocated." Likhachyova grunted and managed to point at Lopez's undamaged footpads, then point at the transport's roof, and give him one more tug. "Or worse."
Lopez magnetized his feet to the hull, aimed one of his cameras at Likhachyova, and waved his arm. She waved back, pulled herself into the ship, and closed the hatch. Boner chuckled.
"I hope one of you girls recorded that. Vance will probably think it's hotter than hell."
Kim laughed. "Oh, someone's getting laid tonight."
"That depends on how long I'm stuck in the medical bay." Likhachyova let out another groan. "One can hope, though."
"Speaking of which, how about we go pick him and the others up?"
"Sounds good." Likhachyova let out a long sigh. "Y'know, it just sank in -- I've been in command for only one week and my station's been destroyed by an alien spacecraft."
"Given the circumstances, I don't think it'll reflect badly on you. It's not like you could've moved the station out of its orbit to avoid the collision. And you didn't lose a single crew member."
"Yes, everyone survived. That's what matters." Likhachyova's tone brightened. "And we have a piece of the alien ship. Tranquility Station has the equipment needed to analyze it."
"Once we drop the crew off at Leonov Station, we'd be happy to carry it there ourselves." Cora plotted a course back to the other half of Odyssey Station.
"I'll secure it in our cargo hold while we're picking up the crew," Kim said. "If there's any money in it somewhere down the line, we should get a cut."
"I'm happy enough to get everyone to safety, but a bonus never hurts." Cora opened a channel to Odyssey. "Vance, we've picked Lopez up and we're on our way."
"That's fantastic news! We're waiting a safe distance from the station so we won't be hammered by an antenna or something. You won't even have to dock."
"Sounds good. See you there." Cora closed the channel and notified Leonov Station to prep the med-bay for Likhachyova and the other injured crew members. Then she kept a close watch on the ladar screen for more debris and waited to arrive.
"Well, how about that?" Cora secured the docking clamps, powered the ship's systems down, and leaned back in her seat. "We made it all the way to Leonov Station without anything else going wrong."
"Don't jinx us, goddamn it." Kim grinned, opened the hatch, and helped those with the worst injuries float into the docking umbilical.
"We're getting Ludmila and the other injured people into the medical bay," Boner said over the comlink. "And Lopez is being taken to the repair bay. You and Kim might want to head over there, too, so you can have any damage fixed. After that, we'll have to spend a day or two filing reports and being grilled about the collision."
"There's something to look forward to," Likhachyova muttered.
"We'll back you up. That thing seemed to just appear out of nowhere a few seconds away from the station. No one could've prevented it from hitting us."
"I hope you're right."
A new voice with an odd accent joined the conversation as Cora's passengers floated through the airlock. "Lopez here. I saw the object appear. There was a roughly circular distortion in the space around it. Inside the distortion, space didn't match up with what I saw outside of it. The stars didn't line up with what should've been there, and I caught a glimpse of a nebula behind the object. I'd be happy to attach a copy of my memories of the event to the report I file."
"Aw, thank you, Lopez," Likhachyova said. "Very much appreciated."
"I'm happy to help, señora."
Kim cocked her head as she and Cora followed the passengers. "I wonder why his voice sounds like the Frito Bandito."
Boner laughed. "Just the way he was built and programmed, I guess. It may not have even occurred to him to change it. Honestly, though, I think it's cute."
"Heh, yeah, it is. Just thought it was a little strange."
Likhachyova chuckled. "Well, I'm off to get my arm put back together and, hopefully, get a hefty dose of pain meds. See you both later."
Cora paused at a viewport as she and Kim said their goodbyes. She stared into space and pondered what had happened over the past couple of hours. Kim joined her and patted her shoulder.
"Nice break in the routine, huh?"
"Only because everyone survived." Cora shook her head slowly. "If we'd lost anyone, I wouldn't look at this in a positive light."
"Well, since we didn't, we can be excited by the possibilities. I mean, the chances of that thing being an alien ship are pretty good. That's awesome!" Kim tossed her a goofy grin. "Even though they did come across as drunken teenagers losing control of their car, the way they plowed into us and ran like hell."
"Yeah. I wanted this cargo-hauler job because I wanted to see what's out there, and we just got a glimpse of something we could never have expected. I want more -- I want to know who the people on that ship are and where they're from."
"Well, once the O'Neill cylinder is finished, it'll house a much larger construction crew to build Earth's first starship. You should apply for a position on it. Get your name in before a million other people have the same idea."
"I already did." Cora chuckled and poked Kim's shoulder. "I just hope you did, as well."
"I applied for the security team. Figured that'd be the best fit." Kim grinned.
"Nice! Great minds and all that, eh?" Cora gave her a quick hug and turned back to the viewport. "I'm going to meet whoever was on that ship, or whoever else is out there, someday." She pushed away from the viewport and floated toward the inner hatch. "No matter how long it takes."
#sciencefiction #scifi #nearfuture #robots #cyborgs #aliens #space #jupiter #io #AI #artificialintelligence
Action Sample: An Excerpt from “Freelancers”
Author's note: Just for the hell of it ... well, that plus a chance to show a few examples of how I write action scenes ... here's a chapter from one of my just-for-fun ongoing serialized stories, Freelancers. It's Chapter 40, in which an elite agent goes after a mercenary who's abducted her family. There's some violence and profanity, so it may not suit everyone's taste. This chapter is part of an extended arc that shows the lengths Valeria Terakkis will go to in order to rescue her family.
The full story can be found here: http://www.fanfiction.net/s/7443161/1/Mass-Effect-Freelancers
Planet Bekenstein, Boltzmann System, Serpent Nebula ...
"I'm really not comfortable with this!" Chula stared out the forward viewport, her glowing eyes wide, and gripped the armrests of her seat as the shuttle raced along less than a meter above the ground.
Heh. Garusha glanced over at her and cocked her head. "I thought you were a pilot."
"I fly spaceships. In, y'know, space. And occasionally aircars. Shuttles shouldn't be this close to the ground unless they're landing or taking off."
"Remember the illegal shuttle races I told you about?" Scott threaded the needle between a pair of trees and tossed a smirk at Chula. "This is one of the reasons they were illegal."
"Uh-huh." Chula turned her head away but kept her eyes pointed out the window as if unable to tear her gaze away from certain onrushing doom. "Please tell me you won all those races. Or, at least, you weren't disqualified for crashing or something."
"The worst I ever did was third place. No crashes, no dents, no scratches." His smile turned mischievous and he whipped the stick to the left and sent the shuttle through several donuts. Chula squeezed the armrests even harder and closed her eyes until it was over.
Garusha burst into laughter. "C'mon, it's good tactical thinking. If anyone in Akos's compound has anything that can see into the cockpit, all they'll see is some kid hotdogging in what they'll assume is a stolen shuttle. And it'll have the added benefit of keeping their attention on the shuttle and off the guys we dropped off along the way."
"Okay, yeah, fair enough." Chula opened her eyes as Scott straightened the shuttle out and accelerated.
Garusha laughed again and took a quick look out the window before glancing at Valeria in the rear compartment. They'd skirted within a kilometer of the compound Lantim Akos had set up outside Polchinski Valley, letting each of the crew members off at predetermined spots, where they approached on foot. Valeria's grandmother-in-law had picked out one of the few buildings this far outside the city, part of a cluster of structures that were currently vacant for whatever reason, and had used her armor's stealth system to approach it without being detected. She'd mentioned her plan to act as overwatch for Valeria from the rooftop's distance of roughly five hundred meters and take out anyone who might get the drop on her. The rest of the team had picked out their own staging points around the compound.
"Almost there." Chula's tone was that of barely-concealed relief as she rose from her seat and moved to the door. The drop zone she'd chosen was a loading platform for one of Bekenstein's monorail systems, which a pair of Akos's minions appeared to be using as a lookout. Garusha guessed she intended to get rid of the guards to prevent the team from being spotted.
Scott rotated the shuttle to face the door away from the guys on the platform and slowed the shuttle almost to a halt. Chula opened the door, darted behind a nearby hill, and vanished. Scott accelerated again as the door closed, curving back around to the main gate to drop Valeria off before taking the shuttle a safe distance away and waiting for the shit to hit the fan.
Garusha turned to their last passenger and nodded. Valeria marched over to the door and waited, carrying her helmet under her left arm. Her Omni-Tool and the systems in her black and red armor were ready to go, waiting only for the helmet to be connected. Clipped to her back were an M-76 Revenant assault rifle and a new toy the geth had added to the Sulaco's armory before delivering it to the Citadel, a plasma shotgun. She also carried an M-5 Phalanx hand cannon on her hip.
Good choices. The Revenant had a high firing rate but its accuracy wasn't great, though Valeria had mentioned on the trip down to the surface that some mods had been added to compensate for the recoil. With the right ammo loaded, it could cut enemies to shreds at long range. The plasma shotgun was something Garusha had never seen before, but Val had gone over its capabilities and Garusha had decided she needed to get her hands on one when she heard about its range being longer than that of a regular shotgun. And the Phalanx was handy for up-close business and could deal more damage than any other pistol she was aware of, while its accuracy and long range made it practically a sniper rifle that could fit in one hand.
The idiots who abducted Valeria's family are so screwed.
"We're almost in position," Scott said. "About a kilometer from the front gates."
"Good. I'll go the rest of the way on foot." Valeria looked over her shoulder at him as she put her helmet on. "Do a couple more donuts when we get to that patch of dirt up ahead. Kick up some dust."
Valeria picked up her last piece of gear, the bomb she'd mentioned on the ship, hidden in a backpack. She slung it over her shoulder and held her hand over the button that would open the door.
Scott pulled off a few more donut maneuvers and the dust the thrusters blasted into the air blocked everything in the viewports. "Now."
Valeria activated her tactical cloak, opened the door, and launched out of the shuttle. Garusha caught a glimpse of the air distorting as light bent around Val's armor before the dust cloud swallowed it up. Garusha hopped into the copilot's seat while Scott gained some altitude and then motioned at her seat harness.
"Better fasten that and hang on to your titties." He grinned. "All six of 'em."
Chuckling, Garusha buckled herself in. Scott performed a barrel roll before pushing the engines to full burn and rocketing away from the compound. Garusha waited for the shuttle to level out and then threw her arms up.
"Woooooo!" She giggled, took a breath, and pointed out the window. "Okay, we can set down in that small crater right there."
Scott stared out the window for a few seconds and nodded. "Ah, I see it. Nice. The center's flat enough for a stable landing spot and the walls should keep us out of sight."
"And we can stay in the shuttle and watch the feeds from the cloaked drones the geth brought with the new ship. We'll be able to see the shitstorm Valeria's about to uncork on those guys, or most of it, at least."
Scott beamed and began a gentle descent. "Can't wait."
"Maybe we should be ready to take our armor off in a hurry," Scott said as his girlfriend linked up to the drones and displayed their camera and data feeds on the console behind the pilot's seat.
"So, if anyone from the compound comes to investigate us, we can throw them off the scent by pretending to be a couple of horny teenagers sneaking off somewhere private to fuck each other silly?"
"What do you mean, pretend?" Scott fired a lascivious grin at her. "I say we actually start doin' it. If they bust in on us when we're right in the middle of it, hey, that's what they get for sticking their noses in where they don't belong."
She burst out laughing and pulled the M-96 Mattock rifle from her back. "I love the way your brain works. But I made your father a promise, so you're keeping your hands on the controls and I'm keeping mine on my gun. If any of those guys start poking around, we're lifting off, and if they start shooting, I'll provide cover fire."
"Sounds good." He arched an eyebrow. "As long as we have tons of sex once we get back to the Sulaco."
"Oh, we're definitely making that part of the post-mission celebrations." She winked both right eyes at him and focused her attention on the images on the monitors, sending one of the feeds to Scott's console so he wouldn't have to turn away from the controls to see what was going on. The drones had been the first things Valeria deployed after the shuttle entered Bekenstein's atmosphere and began its descent. They'd been equipped with tactical cloaks and other stealth systems to keep anyone from noticing them or detecting their scans. Valeria and the team had gotten a good look at the compound inside the high walls surrounding it -- a hangar near the front gate, six cylindrical towers, and a thicker tower in the center of the others. The drones hadn't detected a defense grid or any other weapons systems protecting the compound, which was either a sign of Lantim Akos's overconfidence or his stupidity.
Of course, fucking with a Spectre's family was a pretty good indicator of his low intelligence in the first place.
"I wonder if this place was here already or something Akos built," Scott said. "It looks like it was set up to keep an army out or hostages in, but he had to have been planning this a lot longer than a couple of months."
"It might've been built before he came here and it suited his purposes. Or he could've set it up a long time ago and then changed his plans after Valeria sent his daddy to prison and someone whacked him." Garusha shrugged. "Who knows?"
On the screen, a familiar quarian envirosuit covered in a long black duster and an outback hat crept up to the stairs leading to the monorail platform. Given the state of disrepair the building beside the platform was in, it was disused for the same reason the tiny settlement nearby had been abandoned.
Chula eased up the stairs until she was just high enough to see the two mercs standing on the platform, a huge krogan and a wiry human. The former wore leather and chains but no armor, and the latter had dark gray armor but no helmet. Garusha shook her head. Either they were cursed with the same stupidity or overconfidence as their boss or they'd just assumed their cohorts on the Citadel would've gotten Valeria to come along quietly.
Chula seemed to ponder her options, then something off to the left caught her attention. Scott glanced in the same direction and spotted a monorail approaching. Hmm. If she waits for it to reach the platform, she can take those guys out while they're blocked from the compound's view.
She tiptoed up behind the mercs as the train approached, waited until it had almost reached the platform, then she braced her right boot against the krogan's back and shoved, propelling him off the platform and directly into the train's path. He vanished in a puff of blood and guts and Scott spotted one of his legs spinning off to the right before his brain finished processing what he'd just witnessed.
Garusha threw her head back and roared with laughter. "Okay, now she's in her element."
The human merc froze for a second, staring at the severed arm that had just tumbled back from where it had been thrown into the air, probably just as unprepared for it as Scott had been, before whirling around and snapping her submachine gun up. Chula took advantage of the momentary distraction by activating her Omni-Blade and lopping the merc's head off just as she finished turning around. The superheated blade cauterized the wound before any blood could spill and Chula grabbed the body and flung it down the stairs and out of sight. She punted the head off the platform and darted inside the building just as the rear end of the train zipped past.
"Jesus Christ," Scott mumbled. Garusha chuckled and switched his monitor to another feed while he took a few more seconds to recover. On the screen, the air to the left of the main gate rippled and Valeria appeared, having disengaged her cloak to conserve the power cell. The backpack she'd left with was missing; she must've left it somewhere out of sight until she could take care of the four mercs guarding the front gate -- a human, two turians, and an asari.
The drone's camera zoomed in and Scott got a closer look at the human on the right. He looks around my age. Valeria plucked the plasma shotgun from her back and Scott's stomach churned at the realization of what was about to happen.
One of the turians noticed her and whipped his rifle up. The rest spun toward her and took aim just as she pulled the trigger. The gun fired three large plasma pellets and two drilled into the nearer turian while the third passed him and nailed the asari. The pellets released an electrical discharge that buckled their shields and the plasma began burning through their armor. Panicking, the asari grunted, fumbled with her armor's latches, and managed to pop her chest plate off.
Valeria switched from the shotgun to her pistol, knocked the second turian's shield out with two shots before dropping him with a single round through the left eye, and lunged at the nearer one before he could recover from the shotgun blast. He stumbled away from her and tried to raise his gun, but she deflected his aim, grasped his horns, forced his head back, and shoved her hand cannon under his chin. One shot was all it took.
The asari cursed and her body suddenly rippled with biotic energy. Moving so fast her hand was a blur, Valeria used the turian's body as a meat shield, holstered her pistol, pulled out her knife and threw it into the asari's chest. The merc staggered backward, the biotic glow fizzled out, and she collapsed and stared disbelievingly at Valeria. The gun slipped from her hands and she reached for the knife.
Valeria charged up to her, brought her right leg up, and stomped on the knife, ramming it in to the hilt. The merc convulsed and opened her mouth, but wasn't even able to scream. Val crouched over her and waited a moment for her to recover before speaking.
"The blade's in your aorta. If you pull it out, you'll bleed to death before anyone can get to you with a medikit." Valeria leaned closer and glared directly into her eyes. "Guess what?" She grasped the knife and yanked it out, clamped her hand over the struggling asari's mouth, and didn't break eye contact until she stopped moving and her eyes stared blankly into the distance.
"Shit!" Scott blurted. His guts twisted even more as Valeria stood and stared down the remaining merc. "Did … did she just rip that woman's soul out with her eyes?"
"Sure looked like it," Garusha said softly. Scott glanced over his shoulder and found her gaping at the image as Valeria drew her pistol and aimed it at the human. The merc still held his own pistol in shaking hands but appeared to have frozen solid at what he'd just seen.
"Hello, Billy," Valeria said, and the kid's face turned white.
"You remember me?"
"I certainly do." Val nodded at the valley a few kilometers away. "It's a beautiful day. Such a shame to waste it with a bunch of scumbags who are about to spend the rest of their lives here. How about you take a vacation?" She intensified her glare. "Find something else to do with your life. And you'd better not let me catch you with a bunch of motherfuckers like these again. Ever. Understood?"
Billy nodded, lowered his gun, placed it gently on the ground, and backed away with his hands raised. Valeria continued glaring at him.
"Well? What are you waiting for? Fuck off."
He spun around, tripped over his own feet, and bolted off toward the city. Valeria glanced in the drone's general direction.
"Gonna deliver the package before they send someone to check out the gunfire," she said under her breath before reactivating her tactical cloak.
Scott leaned back in his seat and stared at his trembling hands.
"Oh, yeah," Garusha said. "She's kicking this off."
Here we go. Valeria had slipped into the hangar and almost disengaged her tactical cloak. She'd stopped the instant she heard the approaching voices and footsteps of a pair of mercs who'd no doubt come to check on the ruckus she'd just caused. The first order of business was to remove the mercs' ability to escape or send gunships after her and her friends, but she needed to deal with these guys before she could get to that.
At least there are only two. She guessed more had been sent to check the front gate, found the bodies, and quickly figured out that she'd slipped through the guard shack beside the gates. They'd probably split up to give the compound a thorough sweep.
The personnel door slid open and a human and a batarian crept past her, rifles held ready, pivoting to cover the spaces between the gunships and shuttles. Both of them shook their heads at whatever they saw in their HUDs.
"Clear," the batarian grumbled. "I'll be glad when Akos's personal vendetta is over. We're not even collecting a fee for this. At least in the Terminus Systems, we can actually be paid for putting our lives on the line."
"Yeah. A planet as gorgeous as Bekenstein, and we're stuck way outside the nearest city, where every pleasure this planet has to offer is out of our reach." The human sighed. "Maybe the next job will be on Illium. Or maybe a straight-up vacation."
"I figure the boss owes us that after roping us into his personal shit."
"Exactly. If we play our cards right, we can stay at the Azure Hotel." The human grinned at the fantasies running through his head. "Imagine being surrounded by hot asari pussy."
"Yeah, I wouldn't mind getting me some of that." The batarian shrugged and clipped his rifle to his back. "Well, if nothing else, maybe Akos will give us a night or two off after he wraps this up. I heard about a synthetic brothel in town. I'm curious enough to try it out."
"Synthetic hookers? Eh." The human shrugged. "On second thought, it might be okay. And since they're synthetic, it doesn't matter if you smack 'em around a little."
Seriously? Valeria rolled her eyes, eased her knife from its sheath, and crept toward them.
The batarian laughed. "If that bitch would just show up already so we can kill her and be done with it."
"Yeah." The human snorted. "All this just for a porn star."
"Well, former Spectre turned porn star, and now she's a Spectre again. She can take care of business, or Akos wouldn't have gone to all this trouble to get her."
"Uh-huh. I've seen a few of her vids. Y'know, turians aren't particularly attractive, but there's something about this one that really gets me all worked up. It's a shame Akos won't let us fuck her before he kills her. Like, we could all take turns with her."
Oh, you did not just say that. Valeria slipped up behind him. Guess I won't feel as bad about this as I expected to.
He laughed, took his helmet off, and mopped sweat from his forehead. "Actually, she doesn't have to be alive for that. Just get in a quick bang while the body's still warm."
Oh, you piece of shit. Wasting you would be doing the whole galaxy a favor.
"Hah!" The batarian leaned against a nearby gunship. "Well, maybe we can have a few of the hostages before we get rid of 'em all. That little sister of hers is kind of cute."
Valeria suppressed a snarl.
"Hmm, yeah." The human took his helmet off and raked his fingers through his hair. "She looks pretty young. So does that weird-looking human girl. I bet both of 'em have really tight pussies."
Valeria closed the distance between them and plunged her knife into the back of his neck -- straight through the brainstem. The blade poked through the front of his neck as his body turned ragdoll and dropped, sprawled face-down, and the tip of the blade clinked against the floor.
The batarian stared in shock, then stumbled backward and reached over his shoulder for his rifle. "Fuck!"
Valeria charged him, deployed her Omni-Blade, and swept it up from his crotch through the top of his head, slicing him cleanly in half. The halves collapsed, flesh and innards and clothing catching fire where the blade had passed through. Valeria let the blade dissipate, took the backpack off, and pulled the bomb out. She placed it directly under the gunship's fuel cell and returned to the door.
Akos, you don't know what you've started. But you will.
And we have liftoff. Irving smirked at the sound of gunfire coming from the front gates -- the distinctive, loud sound of Valeria's Phalanx pistol. Fear had given way to a weird numbness the longer they had waited for something to happen, but moments ago Akos and his mercs had snapped into action when they heard the gunshots. Akos had sent a squad to check on the commotion and then the waiting had started all over.
"The guards are all dead," one of Akos's minions reported over the comlink. "Well, three of 'em. The kid is missing. Either she took him with her or he just ran away."
"I can see that." Akos glared at the three sets of flatlines on the bioreadout panel. "Find that cunt and bring her to me. I want her to watch me kill her whole family before I finish her off."
As if she'd let that happen. Irving leaned over to Val's parents, siblings, and the nearest hostages, and whispered, "We're going to be okay."
"How do you know that?" a human woman on his left whispered back. "Who's attacking?"
"My wife. Let's just say she's highly motivated to rescue us and …"
"Hey," Akos's lieutenant snapped, "shut it!"
"We're fanning out," the voice coming from the main console continued. One set of monitors above the console showed camera feeds from all over the compound. The middle set showed the pulse and brainwaves of each merc. A third monitor showed the layout of the compound with blips representing each merc.
The woman nodded toward the third monitor and whispered, "How does that detect lifeforms? Heartbeats?"
"Probably," Val's mother, Lithia, muttered.
"So if the blip disappears …?"
"It means that person is dead."
She turned back to Irving. "How can we tell which one is your wife?"
"When there's only one blip left, that'll be her."
Several of the mercs guarding them flicked nervous glances at each other. One of them shook his head.
"Nobody's that good."
"She is. Why do you think the Eclipse mercs call her 'The Army'? Or the Blue Suns call her 'The Goddamn Nightmare'?"
Another guard -- a krogan, of all beings -- drew in a quick breath and took a step back. She glanced around at the others and said, "The boss is taking on Valeria Terakkis?" She turned to glare across the room at the back of Akos's head. "He … neglected to mention that."
"Huh. Well, you might want to consider finding a boss who won't try to throw your life away."
She stared at him for several seconds and heaved a long sigh. "No shit."
Goddamn right. Irving took another slow look around the room and spotted a human girl who matched Val's description of a kid she'd encountered on Chasca. Looked eleven or twelve, more muscular than someone her age should be, with red glowing cybernetic eyes. What'd Val say she called herself? Ghost, I think? He forced himself to turn away. How'd I not notice someone who looked like that before?
The girl caught him staring at her and her right eye flicked toward him while the left remained pointed at the monitors. She arched an eyebrow and nodded at the displays. Irving turned around just in time to catch one of the two blips in the hangar winking out. The second vanished barely a second later. Two bioreadouts on the second set of monitors flatlined.
Ah-hah. There she is.
Nothing happened for a moment. Then an explosion hammered everything -- floor, ceiling, walls, and everyone inside the command dome. The other hostages near Irving twitched and the armored mercs beyond them reached out for railings, consoles, or whatever else was nearby, bracing themselves and glancing around with wide eyes.
A second blast hit even harder, as if a giant had roundhouse-kicked the side of the tower. Smoke and shrapnel shot into the sky outside the observation dome. Irving stared at the wreckage and realized some of it was a section of a roof that had torn loose and tumbled into the sky.
Smaller pops and snaps and booms followed like popcorn -- ammo and ordnance in the gunships cooking off. Another muffled whump announced the loss of yet another ship.
The krogan woman grunted. "Most of those ships were rented. We were supposed to return them."
Another sharp bang shook the tower. Irving stood and stared out through the dome. The hangar continued shredding as the shuttles and gunships inside ripped apart, flinging chunks of metal into the sky and arcing off to all sides. A particularly large chunk, a gunship's wing and part of its fuselage, tumbled straight toward the dome.
Oh, shit. Irving backed away and almost tripped over someone. He glanced down and found Valeria's little sister, Actana, scooting out of his way without taking her gaping stare off the incoming debris.
Akos and several of the mercs stared slack-jawed at the chunk of metal and flinched as it smashed into the dome, cracking it with a snap that left Irving's ears ringing. Everyone gasped, cried out, or twitched as the debris bounced off and plummeted to the ground, landing with a thud that rocked the building yet again.
Several of the hostages behind Irving whimpered. So did a couple of the mercs. Akos's lieutenant took a few more steps back and covered her mouth with both hands.
Irving laughed. Across the room, Akos spun around to scowl at him. Val's parents, brother, and sister also stared at him, confused at his reaction. He gave Desentos, Lithia, Actana, and Galadin a reassuring smile before turning to smirk at Akos.
#sciencefiction #scifi #fanfiction #masseffect #action #aliens
CHAPTER 1: Not in Kansas Anymore
"Ow." Dylan Engstrom opened his eyes and found himself on a hard metal surface. "What … the hell?"
The last thing he remembered was sitting at his desk, sipping a cup of coffee, and preparing to join his buddies for a few hours of mayhem in Grand Theft Auto Online. At some point after that, everything had simply … faded out.
I'm dreaming. That's gotta be it.
He rolled over, stood, and fought off a wave of dizziness. He staggered, rubbed his hands over his face, took a few breaths, and waited for his vision to clear. When it did, he took a slow look around and realized he was in a chamber the size of a gymnasium, with metal walls, ceiling, and floor. No windows. Several doors at the far end. And filled with … aliens? Or something.
Sure, why the hell not? Since this is a dream, I might as well just roll with it.
One a few feet to his left looked like a bipedal, wingless dragon, easily ten feet tall, with muscular arms and powerful thighs and small but noticeable breasts under a tunic that appeared to be made from the skin of an animal. She glanced around quickly, confusion and fear in her reptilian eyes, and he guessed she had also awakened moments ago.
Huh. Doesn't make sense for reptiles to have boobs. But then, I guess an alien wouldn't have an exact correlation to life forms on Earth. He chuckled. More likely it's teenage hormones causing me to dream about tits. I can barely stop thinking about 'em when I'm awake.
Past the dragon was what appeared to be an orc, of all things. Also female, dressed in leather and furs, like a barbarian, sporting huge muscles but somehow managing to still look feminine. Her burgundy hair was tied into a long ponytail with a few locks hanging past either side of her face. Her dark green skin looked kind of leathery, and her face … well, she certainly wouldn't have won any beauty contests even without the two big, parallel scars running from her forehead down and across her right cheek.
Still, there was something about her -- the angles of her cheeks and her wide jaw and chin -- that exuded an air of great strength. But then, he gazed into her yellow eyes as she glanced around. She appeared to be in her forties, but there was far more mileage in those eyes than on her face. They were the eyes of someone who had all but given up on life.
He looked away reluctantly. She may have been as ugly as hell, but goddamn, what a body. He ran a hand through his shoulder-length hair and decided to check out some of the other life forms. His eyes passed over a large number of creatures he couldn't quite get his brain around -- translucent things walking on tentacles, something that resembled a millipede the size of a horse, an eight-foot-tall cross between a pig and an ogre -- and locked on to another female.
He almost laughed at that. Mind always in the gutter, even now.
This one was around six feet tall and might be described as somewhere between chubby and burly. Her eyes glowed white in contrast to her obsidian skin, but aside from that, her face was mostly human. And quite lovely, in fact. A pair of horns curved up from under her wild mane of silver hair, like a ram. She wore a dark blue cloak with a hood hanging over her back, and from what he was able to glimpse, she didn't appear to be wearing anything under it. Each hand had two big fingers and a thumb, just like the orc and the dragon-woman, and her digitigrade legs ended in large hooves.
Not bad at all. He guessed her age to be close to his, or maybe a few years older, and the extra weight was perfectly proportioned.
Huh. Usually, my dreams aren't this detailed. But there's no way this can be real. I'm probably slumped over my desk and drooling on my keyboard. He shrugged to himself again. I just hope I remember all this when I wake up.
His eyes opened a little wider as a realization hit him and he drew in a quick breath.
Shit, I hope I wasn't looking at porn when I fell asleep. If Mom or Dad barges into my room like they always do, I'm hosed.
The alien girl caught him staring at her and smiled, but it was shaky and faded fast.
Well, I can't do anything about it until I wake up. Might as well just see where this goes.
He smiled back before she turned away, and continued examining the people around him. Over to the right was a trio of bipedal creatures that looked like a cross between horses and cows wearing some sort of tribal attire.
Huh. More aliens that kinda-sorta resemble terrestrial animals. How would that even happen?
Past them was a quartet of thirty-foot-long snake people with four arms, wearing only skirts made of glowing multicolored beads roughly where the naughty bits on a human would be.
Dylan's eyes, once again, automatically locked onto the lone female in the group. Her skin was dark brown with a red and black diamond pattern running down her back. Her hands, like the orc and the chunky hooved girl and the rest, had three digits, only hers ended in claws. The top of her head swept back into a curving, three-pointed crest. Her bare chest sported two pairs of breasts. Her face was close enough to human, though covered with scales, and she was actually kind of cute.
Hah. I can't dream about a human with four tits, of course. It's got to be some weird creature. And why would an alien based on a snake have any at all? He realized he was staring and turned away. Again, though, she's an alien, so I guess there's no reason she can't be a mix of mammal and snake. What the hell, you can't go wrong with four of 'em.
He grinned and glanced around again, trying to find other humans. If any were in this chamber, they weren't close enough for him to pick out of the crowd. But his gaze did pass across something that was close enough, at least in size and shape.
The robot stood with her arms crossed over her chest, leaning against the wall behind him, about ten feet away. She had apparently been designed to look like an athletic woman, with a face of flexible metal carrying a friendly -- albeit bewildered -- expression and softly glowing red optics. Her gunmetal body was covered by a pair of cargo pants, boots, a T-shirt, and a long black coat.
Interesting. He wondered if she was anatomically correct.
Before he could check out anyone else, something nudged his shoulder. He turned and found a nine-foot humanoid wearing copper armor and a helmet with an opaque visor. It grasped his shoulder, pointed at one of the doors at the far end of the chamber, and pushed him toward it. He stumbled, regained his balance, and hurried ahead of the whatever-it-was.
In the corner of his eye, another hulking armored figure shoved the orc woman in the same direction. She snarled half-heartedly but headed for the door. She ended up walking alongside Dylan.
"I don't suppose you have any idea how we ended up here or what's going on?" He doubted she would even understand him.
"Nope. I was hoping someone around here could tell me that." Her accent was an odd mixture of Russian and Scottish.
"You speak English. You've met humans before?"
"A fair number of them, yes." She smiled at him, but it was tinged with sadness. "You remind me of one of them, a little. Someone I knew long ago."
"Ah. Decent guy, I hope."
"The best." Her smile grew ever so slightly, and so did the sorrow. "I miss him a great deal."
Dylan wondered what had happened but assumed it was a sensitive matter and didn't pry.
When they reached the door, she sighed and motioned at her clothes. "The one time I put on this old outfit instead of what I usually wear, which includes several guns, and look where I end up. Though I suppose any weapons would've been taken away before I woke up."
The nine-foot goons shoved both of them through the door and onto a large platform. He stumbled and the orc reached out to catch him before he fell. He regained his balance and found himself inches away from her face for a moment, gazing into her eyes, until she looked away and steadied herself. Her face turned a slightly darker green.
Huh. The goon's hand had felt solid enough. And the woman's breath briefly on his lips had been just as real as the three times in his life that he'd gotten this close to a girl. Dylan caught himself blushing and looked away.
He glanced around and noted the others who'd been separated from the main group -- the snake-girl, the three horse-cow people, the burly obsidian girl, the giant bipedal dragon, the robot chick, and about a dozen others. Two of them were human.
Finally! He grinned, but before he could greet them, something else caught his attention.
The goons who'd herded them onto the platform remained behind as the door closed, separating them from Dylan and the others. A bright light washed over everything and his whole body tingled.
Oh, this can't be good.
The light faded and he blinked a few times. His vision cleared and he looked around.
His mouth fell open.
He no longer stood in a room. He and the others were still on a platform, but now it was surrounded by an enormous metal structure made up of sets of stairs, ramps, platforms, and partial walls seemingly placed at random. If he had to give the architecture style a name, it would be … scaffold-chic.
"What the hell is this?" One of the other humans whimpered. "What's going on?"
"Sorcery," a woman's voice came from behind Dylan, barely above a whisper. He turned to find the obsidian-skinned girl glancing around with wide, terrified eyes and trembling.
"No." The orc shook her head. "I've seen enough to know there's no such thing. This is technology, but nothing I'm familiar with."
In the corner of his eye, the snake girl slithered past, put her upper hands on a nearby wall, pulled herself up and leaned over the edge.
"Look at this." Her voice was slightly raspy.
Uh-oh. Dylan walked slowly to the wall, jumped to grasp the top, and pulled himself up.
One of the other humans found a lower wall, leaned over, and drew in a slow breath. "Oh, hell." Her face turned pale.
Dylan glanced at her, frowned, and peered over the edge.
We're in the sky. He couldn't see the ground from here. Below the structure, there was nothing but a sea of red and orange clouds. And off to the right, he could make out two distinct suns, one larger -- closer -- than the other.
Then he realized the metal under his palms felt quite real for something in a dream. In fact, everything around him was as vivid and detailed as everyday life. His dreams were never even remotely like this, at least not the bits he could remember.
What if this is real?
"Oh, fuck me," he muttered.
"Now?" the snake girl said. "Or can it wait?"
"What?" He turned and caught a glimpse of her smirking at him before lowering herself back to the ground. He shook his head and dropped back to the floor.
"This is not a good tactical position," the orc said, flicking her eyes over the structure. "We're out in the open. We should move to an area that's less exposed to …"
Movement in the corner of his eye drew his attention. Hers, too. She snapped her head around to scowl in the same direction before he finished turning. More of the armored, helmeted, blank-visored guys appeared from behind several walls on the far side of the structure. She swept her steely gaze over them and backed up a step. "Find cover."
Dylan squinted, trying to get a clear look at the things the copper-armored goons were carrying.
"They have rifles," the orc said. "Get behind something."
A thin, yellow bolt of energy lanced out from the business end of one of the weapons and crossed the distance between the two groups in an instant.
Behind Dylan, a woman screamed. His pulse jumped and he cried out as he spun around. The human woman staggered backward, bumped into the wall, and collapsed. Her eyes stared straight ahead without seeing anything. Smoke rose from a hole that had been burned through her chest.
"Sarah!" The man rushed to her and fell to his knees. He stared disbelievingly at her, grasped her shoulders, and shook her. "Get up! Come on, baby, please get up!"
A hand grabbed Dylan's arm and he spun around to find the orc woman dragging him away.
"Get to cover!" She shoved him ahead of her just as another beam appeared for a split-second and drilled through the back of the other human's head.
A silvery thing about the size and shape of a hockey puck landed behind Dylan and bounced past him before coming to a stop.
"Grenade!" The orc pushed him again, drew in a deep breath, and yelled, "Run!"
The explosion flung bodies into the air and sent others tumbling across the ground -- more than Grishnag had time to count. She shoved the young human ahead of her and ran until both of them reached a wall. She ducked behind it, grasped his shoulder, and held him down. She turned to see if anyone else had survived the blast and found four bodies bleeding all over the metal surface and another -- one of the equine-bovine people -- teetering over the edge of the platform.
"Jesus Christ," the human moaned, hunching over and tucking his head under his arms. "This can't be happening!"
The snake-woman zipped over to the horse-man just as he rolled over the edge. She dived at him and missed his left ankle by a centimeter. She stared in shock as he plummeted out of sight.
One of the armored attackers appeared, crept up behind her, and aimed its rifle at the back of her head.
Grishnag glanced at the human and said, "Stay here." Remaining in a crouch, she moved one step forward -- and suddenly the robot blurred out from behind one of the other walls and tackled the larger humanoid from behind. Her momentum carried both of them into the wall and slammed the enemy into it with bone-crushing force. She drove her foot into its left knee, folding its leg the wrong way, and clamped her arms around its head as it fell. One quick twist snapped its neck, and she snatched the huge rifle out of the air before the body hit the ground.
The robot opened fire on the armored figures. Grishnag risked a quick peek around the corner just in time to see one of them catch a shot clean through the visor and out the back of the helmet. The others ran for whatever cover they could find.
Nice! Grishnag waited until all of them had ducked behind something, and then she glanced at the robot and said, "Cover me!" She sprinted over to the fallen humanoid while the robot continued firing.
In the corner of her eye, one of them swung its rifle around toward her as she picked up the dead one's weapon. She leaped and rolled, and the shot drilled through the space she'd already vacated. She came up in a crouch and put five shots through her opponent's chest. It slumped over and she lunged forward to grab its rifle, and then she ran back to the human.
He was where she'd left him, curled into a fetal position and rocking back and forth.
Okay, giving him the gun wouldn't be a good idea. She glanced around, found the snake girl, and tossed the gun to her. "Do you know how to use that?"
"I can figure it out." She pointed the rifle away from everyone and pulled the trigger, firing a blast into the floor. She squeaked and twitched, pulled herself together, and rose above the wall to fire at their attackers.
Grishnag took a quick look around for more survivors and found only a horse-woman, the burly woman, and the giant humanoid dragon.
"What is happening to us?" The obsidian-skinned female whimpered, huddled against the wall behind the human. "Why is this happening?"
Grishnag noticed the girl's mouth movements didn't match the words she spoke. Something is translating her speech. What the hell is going on?
"We can worry about that later if we survive the next few minutes." Grishnag popped out from behind cover long enough to shoot another of their attackers.
An enemy shot punched through the wall and searing heat on her right cheek made her lunge to her left.
"I want to wake up," the human moaned. "Why can't I wake up?"
"This isn't a dream." Grishnag gunned down another one. Before she could duck back under cover, a movement caught her eye. She turned and found another grenade spinning through the air toward her. She sucked in a breath to shout a warning to everyone else, but suddenly a beam struck the disc-shaped device in midair. It vanished in a flash and an expanding cloud of shrapnel. Grishnag glanced to the left and found the robot shifting her aim from the blown grenade to another pair of attackers.
Grishnag sighed and looked up at the platforms above them. "We'll be better off if we can get to higher ground. We need to …"
Behind the dragon, another of the armored men stepped into the open and lobbed a grenade. It arched over everyone's head and came down straight toward her. The human looked up, spotted it, and his face turned white.
Grishnag rose to her feet as the grenade reached her, caught it in her right hand, and hurled it straight back to the enemy humanoid. It threw itself to the right but wasn't fast enough. Grishnag turned away from the sudden flash and winced at the sharp bang, but laughed when she saw the body flopping off the edge of the platform.
She only had a moment to celebrate, though. Another humanoid hopped over the top of the wall they'd been using as cover and dropped down in front of the dragon. It raised its rifle, but the dragon swatted it aside, braced her hand on the side of his head, and shoved it into the wall with enough force to leave a dent. The gun fell from its suddenly limp hand.
"Hold on." Grishnag hurried over and searched the pouches and compartments on the body's belt. She found three stubby cylinders she guessed were spare power cells for the guns and a rectangular box that might be a communication device or a control system. After finding nothing else on him, she nodded at the edge of the platform.
The dragon flashed a predatory grin and gave the body a casual toss, sending it plunging through the fiery clouds under the structure. She looked the gun over, glanced at Grishnag, and mimicked her pose, holding the rifle in one hand and propping it on her shoulder.
Grishnag found the rest of the survivors gathering behind her. The robot pointed ahead before popping off a few more shots.
"Clear the road. I'll cover our rear."
Grishnag took the lead and made her way to the nearest ramp. She rounded a corner -- and caught a split-second glimpse at the stock of a rifle before it rammed into the side of her head. When she regained her senses, she found the business end of the rifle inches from her face. She tried to ignore the pain lancing through her head and shifted her eyes from the rifle to the humanoid pointing it at her.
A brown blur came in from the right and plowed into the figure, knocking it off its feet and sending the rifle clattering across the floor. Grishnag pushed herself upright and found the snake-girl coiling her body around the enemy. The serpentoid rolled, twisted, and wrenched her body to the right, flinging the humanoid across the floor to the edge of the platform.
As it tumbled over the edge, it lashed out and clamped onto the end of her tail, dragging her along with it as it fell. All four arms flailed, her claws scraping across the metal, trying to find a handhold.
The human leaped after her and managed to grab her upper-left hand, but the combined weight of her and the goon dragged both of them closer to the edge.
The dragon clamped her talons around the human's right ankle, and that was enough to hold them in place.
The snake grunted and contorted her face, and from her movements, Grishnag guessed she was swinging her tail around, trying to dislodge the enemy.
"Pull her back up." Grishnag picked up her rifle and glancing around for more of their attackers. "One of us will be able to pick it off as soon as it reappears."
"Wait," the snake grunted. She took the human's other hand to hold herself steady, gave her tail another swing, then another, and Grishnag saw the enemy appear momentarily before gravity pulled it back down.
One more swing hurled it into full view -- and a rapid series of bolts from the robot's gun drilled through its head. It loosened its grip on the snake girl's tail. Grishnag and the dragon blasted it several more times before it dropped out of sight for the last time.
The human pulled her away from the edge. When she was no longer dangling above the clouds, she threw all four arms around him and just held him for a moment. He looked startled, but recovered after a few seconds and put his arms around her.
"Thank you," she finally whispered.
"Uh … sure, any time."
"Let's keep moving." Grishnag rubbed the side of her head, winced at the pain, and made sure to keep checking in every direction as she resumed the lead. Everyone followed her up the ramp to the next platform, and then on past two more. The next ramp led to a long, narrow level with waist-high walls. She lowered herself to her left hand and her knees, holding the gun in her right hand, and crawled forward, keeping her body below the top of the wall.
The others followed, crawling along close behind her.
Once she reached the end, she found herself in a larger chamber. Fortunately, this one had a solid wall between them and the attackers' last known position. Everyone stood and rushed across to the door and the huge window at the far end. They paused to look out the window before moving on to the door.
"What is that?" the girl with the glowing eyes whispered.
"Looks like a city," the human muttered.
Grishnag nodded. In front of her sat several kilometers of metal buildings, domes, and spires colored in varying shades of gray with streaks and splotches of brown all over. She cocked her head. Is that rust?
"A … city?" The horse-cow woman shook her head in disbelief.
"Like a village, but larger." Grishnag pointed at the nearest structures. "Those buildings are basically … tents? Huts? I've never met any of your people before, so I don't know what you're familiar with." She shrugged. "People live in some of those, work in others. Theoretically, at least."
"Ah. I think I understand."
"Maybe there's someone here who will help us out." The human glanced around at the others.
"I doubt it," the dragon said. "Would they have brought us within reach of someone willing to help us?"
"I … I guess not." He rubbed a hand over his face and sighed. "So what do we do, now?"
"Most cities have vehicles in them. There's probably something there we can use." Grishnag patted his shoulder and smiled. "So, we keep going until we find a way out." She opened the door. "Let's move."
CHAPTER 2: Waking Up Dead
"So," the male said after they'd been traveling through the city streets for a while, "we've faced death together, but we don't even know each other's names."
The muscular green woman chuckled. "I'm Grishnag."
"Pleased to meet you, Dylan."
"And I'm Nishara." She slithered closer to him, smiled, put her upper hands on his shoulders, and touched her forehead briefly to his.
"Uh, hi." He smiled but clearly wasn't sure what else to say or do.
The tall reptile woman bowed, first to him, then to the rest. "Ayastal."
"I am Zilaka," the furry one with hooves, muzzle, and horns said.
"My name's Cora," the machine-woman said, turning to keep watch for more of the helmeted people.
"Syala," the thick one with glowing eyes and hooves murmured.
"Okay." Grishnag stopped at the next street corner and glanced around. "We haven't seen anyone else here. This part of the city appears empty." She sighed. "I hope the rest isn't empty as well."
"The buildings are rusting away." Cora stopped at a wall and looked it over, but was careful not to touch anything. "Looks like it hasn't been occupied in a long time."
"Probably just used for training exercises or something like that," Grishnag said. "Or whatever it is they're doing with us."
"I don't suppose any of you have seen a place like this before?" Dylan mumbled.
Everyone shook their heads.
"I've seen metal buildings before," Ayastal said, "but none like these. When I was a child, there was a settlement of 'sky-people' not far from where my tribe lived. Buildings made of metal, but the …" She took a moment to find the right word. "The shapes were different."
"You're familiar with other worlds, then?"
"No. My people are aware of those who came from the sky, but none of us have been there. Well, until now. When I was a child, I would often sneak away from home and spend most of the day simply watching their flying machines." Ayastal smiled. "I've always wanted to ride one of those machines into the sky."
"Well, you may get your chance yet," Grishnag said as they continued on their way. "If we can find our way out of here."
"Maybe if we investigate some of the buildings," Dylan said. "If there's a computer in one of 'em that's hooked up to the inter -- uh, a global network, if this planet has one, we might be able to find a map."
"I haven't detected any wireless networks." Cora shook her head. "I'm not picking up any power sources, either."
"Damn. We should keep moving, then." Grishnag sighed and walked on.
The rest followed her, glancing around every few seconds to be sure no one was pursuing them. Nishara wasn't sure how much time passed as they made their way across the empty city, everyone remaining silent as they took random turns every now and then, until she'd lost any sense of the direction from which they had come.
Not that there was anything back that way except death if the metal people were still pursuing them.
Finally, they emerged onto an enormous platform, easily bigger than her clan's largest encampment back home. And on it sat large metal structures of varying sizes and shapes. They looked different from the buildings they'd passed by earlier, resting on sets of large things that looked like feet, or in some cases, wheels.
"Flying machines?" Ayastal cocked her head and smiled slightly.
"Looks like it." Dylan turned to Grishnag and Cora. "Any of these look familiar?"
"Some are similar to technology I'm used to." Grishnag walked slowly past one, brushing her hand over the lettering on its side. "But not exactly. I don't recognize any of the insignia or the names."
"Huh," Dylan muttered, stopping to stare at the letters painted on one flying machine's side. "These are all in English. Hell of a coincidence."
"I'm seeing these in my native language." Grishnag moved on to the next ship. "I noticed during the battle that when some of you spoke, your mouth movements didn't match what you were saying, and the same is probably happening for all of you when I speak. Something has been translating us, and I assume the same thing is happening with the writing on these ships."
"Ah. I was wondering how we could understand each other." Nishara slid past Dylan and stopped to examine the ships beyond the one he stood beside. "I don't understand how it's done, though."
"Were you all unconscious when you were brought here?" Dylan glanced around at each of them. "Did you fall asleep back home and then wake up in that huge room where we met?"
Everyone else nodded or murmured an affirmative response. Dylan suddenly looked uneasy.
"I bet they implanted something in us. Hardware that interfaces with our brains and translates what we see and hear." He shivered. "And if that's what they did, then what else did they do to us while we were asleep?"
Syala shuddered and her lower lip quivered. Nishara slithered over to her and put her left arms around her.
Cora looked unsettled for a moment, and then she pulled herself together and marched across the platform. "We'll have to worry about that after we get out of here. We need to take one of these ships, assuming any of them are still functional. A shuttle wouldn't do us much good. Too short-range. We'll need a ship that has a hyperspace vortex generator in case there are no jumpgates nearby."
"But isn't the ability to understand other languages a benefit?" Syala patted Nishara's hand and walked alongside her. "Why would they give us an advantage if they simply want to kill us?"
"For the challenge," Grishnag said, her eyes opening wider at the realization. "They're hunting us for sport."
Dylan grimaced. "Why'd you have to put that idea in my head?"
"Sorry, but it just fits. They give us a way to communicate and work together when they could've just shot us dead. So, they're either hunting us, or this is a test. Evaluating specimens to decide which planet to invade, possibly."
"That's even worse."
"Yeah." Grishnag sighed and moved on to the next ship.
"Whatever the reason they brought us here," Ayastal said, "they paid a terrible price for it. I didn't take the time to make an exact count, but I believe we reduced them by at least half."
"Assuming they haven't brought in reinforcements." Cora walked over to a sleek, black ship that looked like a saucer that had been stretched out to twice its original length.
Zilaka crossed her arms tightly over her chest. "This is a nightmare. It has to be."
"That's what I thought at first." Dylan walked around the front of another ship, shook his head at the buckled strut that had once held it up, and moved on. "It's too detailed and too linear to be a dream. And it just feels too real."
"Even if it were a dream or hallucination," Cora said, "we can't afford to assume it's not real with those assholes trying to kill us."
"Yeah, guess we don't have much choice. We have to keep playing along, just in case." Dylan turned to look at another ship -- and one of those yellow beams came out of nowhere and pierced his chest. A startled look crossed his face, then was replaced by a grimace of pain as he collapsed.
Everyone stared in shock.
"Dylan?" Nishara whispered. Her hearts pounded.
Grishnag and Cora were the first to recover. They threw themselves behind the nearest ship and tried to find where the bolt had come from without exposing themselves to more.
Ayastal pulled Syala and Zilaka behind another ship. Syala stared at Dylan's body and burst into tears.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "He was just a kid."
"What the hell?" Cora aimed her weapon in the distance, but couldn't find a target. "I should've been able to detect them. Why couldn't I detect them?"
Nishara sucked in a deep breath and screamed, "Dylan!" She slid over to him, hoping he was only wounded as she rolled him over.
His eyes stared blankly into the sky and smoke curled up from the hole in his chest.
Still, she put her upper hands on his shoulders and shook him gently. "Dylan! You can't …"
"I'm sorry, Nishara," Grishnag said. "He's gone. Get under cover."
Nishara wiped the tears from her eyes and lifted her head to glare at the place from which the shot had come. She could make out movement among the metal structures in the distance.
Ayastal turned suddenly to face something behind everyone. More of those damned beams drilled into her chest. Her legs buckled and she slumped over on top of Syala.
Nishara turned to find a dozen more metal men charging them. She drew in another breath and let it out in a shriek that caused everyone around her to stop in their tracks for a moment, even the murdering bastards who had taken poor Dylan from them. She raised her weapon, surged forward, and pulled the trigger. The nearest of their enemies stumbled backward and fell, smoke pouring from all the holes she'd blasted through his torso.
A series of flashes came from the others' weapons and sudden, searing pains lanced through her chest as if white-hot knives were being plunged into her. Before she even understood what had happened, she found herself sprawled face down on the metal ground, unable to move, barely able to breathe.
"M … monsters," she whimpered before blackness engulfed her.
"What the --" Dylan flailed, gasped, and clutched his chest. Before he realized he was on a raised platform, he lost his balance, fell off, dropped several feet, and landed face down. Groaning, he pushed himself up slowly and looked around. "What the hell?"
More platforms filled the room, almost like metal beds.
No. More like autopsy tables. A shiver rippled through him.
All the tables were occupied by the alien women who'd surrounded him just before …
Just before I died. He glanced down at the front of his shirt, but couldn't find the hole that had been burned through him. The shirt hadn't been repaired -- it was exactly as it had been before that fatal shot.
Just to be sure, he lifted his shirt and slid his hand over his chest. There was no sign of a wound.
How am I alive? He leaned on the platform and tried to take deep breaths and slow his pounding heart. He looked around again and a chill rushed through him.
They're not breathing. He held his breath for a moment, trying not to let a sudden burst of tears out. The only familiar faces in this goddamn place, and they were all dead.
But he wasn't. Why?
Suddenly, Ayastal inhaled. She twitched and lurched upright, glanced around, and her eyes locked on to him.
"What …? How …?"
"I don't know." He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Did you, uh … ?"
"Die? Yes." Ayastal shuddered. Even though her face wasn't human at all, Dylan could still read her confusion and fear in her wide eyes, twitchy movements, and rapid breathing. Maybe some things were universal. "I felt my heart stop! And yet …"
"Here we are. I know. I think …"
Nishara suddenly sucked in a deep breath and screamed. She convulsed and rolled off the platform.
Dylan let out a quick scream of his own and backed away from her, but pulled himself together and approached her slowly. "N … Nishara?"
She glanced around frantically, found him, and stared. "Dylan?" Her voice was barely a whisper.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Yeah, I noticed that. So did Ayastal." He motioned at the dragon woman, and Nishara glanced over her shoulder. Ayastal nodded at her. Nishara stared, took a few breaths, looked as if she were about to say something, then she turned back to Dylan.
"As did I." Nishara stared down at herself and ran her hands slowly over her chest. "The wounds are gone."
"Mine, too." He lifted his shirt. "See?"
She slithered up to him, stared for a moment, then reached out hesitantly and touched his chest. Her skin was softer and warmer than he'd expected. She moved her hand slowly over his chest for several more seconds, looked up and met his gaze, and finally pulled him into a tight embrace.
"I don't know. Maybe whoever brought us here is able to heal wounds like these." Or maybe we're clones and the originals really are dead. He didn't mention that one to either of them, not just because he would've had to explain what clones were.
"But why?" Tears trickled from Nishara's eyes and she wiped them away with the back of her hand. "Why are they doing this to us?"
"I wish I knew." He pulled the bottom edge of his shirt out to wipe away her tears. "I wish I knew how to even begin to find out."
She put her upper-left hand over his, held it to her cheek, raised her lower-left hand to his cheek, and stroked it softly. She gazed into his eyes for a moment, and then she leaned forward slowly and kissed him.
What the hell? Though it caught him by surprise, it was also quite nice, so he let it continue as long as Nishara wanted. When she finally pulled back from him, her face turned slightly darker, and she couldn't look him in the eye again.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled.
"I'm not." He smiled.
Ayastal managed a chuckle, though she was still visibly unsettled. She stood and ran a hand over her chest as if still looking for her wounds, and finally glanced around at the other bodies.
"Since the rest of us are here, I think we can assume they were killed, as well, and will wake up soon."
"Yeah. Well, I hope they will." Dylan turned slowly, looking around at the others, but kept his left arm around Nishara. "I wonder which one of them died next."
"I wouldn't know." Ayastal's muzzle quirked slightly into what might've been an attempt at a smile. "I was unable to observe anything, being dead at the time, myself."
"Right. Heh." Dylan managed a shaky smile and waited silently to see if anyone else woke up.
The others woke one by one. Dylan, Nishara, and Ayastal took turns explaining what had happened -- or what they thought happened. Cora and Grishnag understood instantly, but Syala and Zilaka took a bit longer.
"We died," Syala whimpered. She remained on her platform, pulled her knees up to her chest, wrapped her arms around them, and rocked slowly. "How can we be alive if we died?"
"Whoever's doing this to us," Grishnag said, "if they're able to abduct us and bring us who knows how many light-years to this place, then repairing fatal wounds might be child's play for them."
"So, this is what our lives will be from now on?" Tears trickled down Syala's cheeks again. "Dying, waking up here, and being killed again? Over and over, perhaps forever?"
"I don't know." Dylan walked over to her, and Nishara joined him. At the same time, they each put an arm around Syala. "But that means we might have a chance to get out of here. As long as we survive, there's hope. Right?"
Syala didn't answer. After staring at nothing in particular for more than a full minute, she put her arms around him and cried into his shirt. He glanced at Nishara, who smiled and nodded. He embraced Syala and rubbed her back slowly.
"And maybe not," Grishnag finally said. "Maybe they'll leave us alone for a while."
A door at the end of the room slid open and two of those damned nine-foot humanoids entered.
"Fuck," Grishnag snapped.
"Jinxed it," Cora muttered, and Grishnag sighed.
Everyone stood and faced them except Syala. She gripped the front of Dylan's shirt, twisting the fabric in her clenched fists as if terrified he was about to move away from her. He and Nishara remained by her side.
A third humanoid followed the first two, pushing a large cart. They stopped in front of Dylan and the females, and the two in front stepped aside. The third pointed into the cart.
Grishnag peeked into the cart. "Guns. They're arming us, this time?"
"Oh, shit," Dylan moaned. "What the hell are we gonna be facing?"
"Doesn't matter." Grishnag shook her head and backed away from the cart. "I'm not fighting for someone else's entertainment."
The humanoid pointed into the cart again. Grishnag growled.
"Fuck you. I'm not playing your games."
The one on the right turned its blank faceplate toward her and raised its left hand, pointing its palm at her.
She hunched over suddenly, clutched her head, and screamed. Everyone else gasped, and Syala clamped a hand over her mouth and began crying again.
Grishnag stumbled to the right, toppled over, curled up on the floor, and continued screaming.
"Stop it!" Dylan pried himself away from Syala and rushed over to Grishnag. The goon on the left pointed its palm at him. He ignored it, reached out to touch Grishnag's shoulder, but hesitated. He glared at the humanoid on the right and shouted, "Stop it! We'll do whatever you want, just stop!"
Both figures lowered their hands back to their sides. Grishnag suddenly went limp, still holding her head and weeping, but no longer screaming. She rolled onto her back, sobbed, and tried to pull herself together.
"Fucking monsters," Nishara practically hissed before slithering over to help Grishnag sit up.
Dylan clasped Grishnag's right hand in both of his and just held it while she took deep breaths and regained control of herself. Finally, she gazed into Dylan's eyes, reached out and caressed his cheek. Then her eyes widened and she pulled her hand back as if shocked by her own actions.
Okay, what is it with me and alien women, anyway? Have I turned into Captain Kirk or something?
"You gonna be okay?" Cora leaned over to touch Grishnag's shoulder.
Grishnag shuddered before answering. "Eventually." She pushed herself back to her feet and staggered over to the cart. "Fine. I'll go along with whatever insanity you've got planned." Glaring at the helmeted humanoid in front of her, she picked up one of the huge, long-barreled rifles. Then she snarled, "How do you know I won't kill you with it?"
The armored alien stared blankly at her. She held its "gaze" for a long moment and finally sighed and turned away. Her shoulders sagged ever so slightly.
Dylan sighed and picked up one of the guns. He thought it over for a few seconds and then turned to the humanoid on the right. "This is for hurting my friend."
He aimed his gun square at the bastard's chest and pulled the trigger.
Trembling, he sagged and stared at the gun. "Fuckin' hell!"
Grishnag patted his shoulder, smiled shakily, propped the gun on her shoulder, and strode out the door.
"I can't do this," Syala mumbled.
"You saw what will happen if you don't." Nishara hugged her and rubbed her back, then took her hand and led her to the cart.
"We'll be right there with you," Dylan said. "We'll all get through this together."
Zilaka nodded, patted Syala's back, and picked up one of the guns. Holding it uncertainly, she sighed and clopped past the guards.
Dylan smiled one more time at Syala, took a step past the humanoid who'd tortured Grishnag -- then he spun around and slammed the stock of his rifle into the bastard's visor. The impact knocked the alien off its feet and sprawled it on the floor.
Holy shit, that actually worked?
The other guards stepped toward him and pointed their hands at him. He propped the rifle on his shoulder and glared at them.
"What?" he snapped. When he made no further moves against them, they stepped back but kept their palms aimed at him. He realized suddenly how close he'd just come to being subjected to the same punishment that had been inflicted on Grishnag, but tried to cover up his fear by pushing past the guards and grumbling, "Get the fuck out of my way."
As he turned the corner to follow Grishnag, he caught a glimpse of Syala staring at him with an awestruck grin -- then picking up one of the guns and marching after him.
He caught up with Grishnag at the end of the corridor, which widened out and ended with what looked like a hangar door. The sounds of boots and hooves approaching from behind told him the rest of the women had armed themselves and joined him and Grishnag.
"I just realized something," Zilaka said, obviously struggling to keep her voice steady. "There were many others sent with us onto the first battlefield, but we're the only ones who woke up in that room back there."
"The others were killed almost immediately." A troubled look crossed Cora's face. "Maybe they were rejected."
All the confidence Dylan had just built up drained away as her meaning sank in over the next few seconds.
"Wonderful." Grishnag turned back to the door. "Well, let's get this over with."
CHAPTER 3: Wheels of Fire
"Huh. That's not what I expected." Dylan turned around slowly and took in their surroundings. He and the alien females stood in the middle of a street with a set of vehicles in front of them. Wheeled vehicles, but none of them familiar to him. Each was about the size of a four-door sedan but ranged from sleek lozenge shapes to something that looked like a cross between a sports car and a SWAT tank.
The city itself was unlike anything Dylan had seen on Earth, but it reminded him of any number of futuristic cityscapes in movies, video games, and TV shows. Lots of gleaming metal, concrete, glass, bridges, overpasses, and skyscrapers. In the distance, vehicles zipped around and equally sci-fi aircraft traced paths across the sky here and there.
I wonder if we're still on the same planet as the place we were killed a while ago? The sky was tinted red instead of the familiar blue and the air felt different -- thinner, with a sharp odor of overheated wiring filling his nose with every breath. If the assholes who abducted us can teleport us to other planets, what fucking chance do we have of ever escaping?
"I know how this works," Syala clopped over to one of the cars, her mouth hanging open and her glowing eyes opening wide. "I've never seen any of these before, never even imagined such things, but I know how to drive them."
"So do I." Ayastal leaned over the nearest car, placed her hand on its roof, and peered in through the windshield. "The knowledge just appeared in my mind. But I can't fit into any of these."
"How is this happening?" Syala drew in several ragged breaths and glanced around until her terrified gaze locked onto Dylan. "How do I suddenly know things I could never have even dreamed of before?"
"I don't know." He hurried over to her and held her hands. "Maybe we'll find out sooner or later, or maybe we'll never know. Right now, all that matters is that we get through this."
She took a few more breaths, pulled herself together, and nodded.
Cora walked over to them and rested a hand on each of their shoulders. "Whoever is doing this, we can't let them break us. Don't give them the satisfaction."
Syala nodded again, smiled, closed her eyes for a moment, and sucked in another long, slow breath to help calm herself.
"I also know what we must do," Zilaka muttered, turning to stare in shock at the others. "Just like the cars -- I didn't know a moment ago, and now I do."
"Same here." Dylan nodded slowly. "There's a package we have to pick up and take somewhere."
"And there will be someone trying to stop us." Nishara turned to gaze out over the city and shivered. "Someone trying to kill us."
"Again." Grishnag sighed. "No matter why our captors are doing this -- to test us, or just for their entertainment -- I don't want to submit to it."
"You know what'll happen if we don't." Dylan tried to give her a reassuring smile, but couldn't hold it for more than a second. "The longer we survive, the more time we have to figure out what's going on and how to stop it."
"True enough." A smile tugged at the corner of Grishnag's mouth. "Well, I guess we should get on with it."
Nishara cupped Dylan's face in her upper hands and held his hands with her lower ones.
"For luck." She leaned in and kissed him.
Uh … wow. He let the kiss continue until she pulled back, gazed into his eyes, and smiled. He stroked her cheek and she gave his hands and shoulders a gentle squeeze before turning to slither over to one of the cars.
Another hand brushed his arm. He turned to the left and found Syala leaning toward him. He met her halfway, thinking she wanted to say something to him without the others overhearing.
Instead, she slid her right hand behind his neck, pulled him closer, and kissed him.
Huh? His heart began to pound, but he went along with it. When Syala finally pulled back, she smiled and glanced away.
"For luck," she mumbled.
"Thanks." His face turned hot and he glanced around and caught Grishnag grinning and chuckling in the corner of his eye. He cleared his throat and tugged on his shirt collar. "So. Uh. Anybody else want a good-luck kiss?"
After everyone flicked a few glances at each other, Cora shrugged and walked over to him.
"What the hell. I don't believe it'll tilt the odds in our favor, but I'm all for finding a moment of pleasure in this nightmare we're all in." She pressed her cool metal lips gently against his and the faint smell of mechanical lubricants and polish filled his nose. Neither the kiss nor the scent was at all unpleasant.
When they parted, the other females approached him. Before he could get his brain around what was happening, each of them kissed him. In the corner of his eye, he found several of them kissing each other.
Okay, this is getting weird. The only possibility he could think of was that maybe humans were the only species that had any sexual hangups, and it simply didn't occur to any of these females to think there was anything strange about this. Hah. Getting weird. Good one.
Finally, Grishnag was the only one who hadn't kissed him or any of the others. She shrugged and put her arms around him.
"I suppose I shouldn't buck the trend," she said softly, chuckling. Her breath brushed across his lips and his heartbeat revved up again. "It has been a while since I've done this, so maybe it's about time, anyway."
Their mouths met and he closed his eyes and lost himself in the moment. It was a little odd, with those big fangs sticking up from her lower teeth, but no more so than any of the others.
When they parted, they gazed into each other's eyes for a moment, smiled, and then Grishnag walked off to choose a vehicle. She picked one of the sporty-SWAT tank-looking things, opened the door, and settled into the seat. Her eyes flicked over its control panel and she pushed a button. The engine started -- not the familiar sound of the car engines Dylan had heard all his life, but more of a throbbing hum.
The others chose their cars, except Ayastal. Grishnag glanced over at her, smiled, and pointed a thumb at the roof of her vehicle.
"This one looks sturdy enough for you to ride on top. You won't have any protection, but at least you'll be able to participate. I mean, if you want."
"Thank you. After seeing what they did to you when you refused to play their games, I'm probably better off not appearing to be uncooperative." Ayastal crouched on top of the car, braced her feet on the rear end, and found handholds on the roof.
Dylan picked another hotrod-tank, got in, and glanced around. All the controls were on the dashboard, including the brakes and accelerator. At least that meant Nishara could drive one despite having no legs. He glanced over at her in time to watch her try to enter one of the lozenge-shaped cars. She ducked in through the driver's side door, pulled back out, entered again, extracted herself again. She grumbled something, opened the back door, slid in and between the front seats, took her position awkwardly at the controls, and pulled the rest of her body in.
Syala closed the back door for her.
"Thank you." Nishara spent the next few moments trying to coil her body around the interior and find a comfortable position.
Dylan started his engine as Syala and Zilaka picked out their cars.
Grishnag's voice came from a speaker in the dashboard. "Okay. Let's do this."
"Almost there." Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard and noted the position of the waypoint. She returned her attention to the road ahead and slowed as they passed through a gate and entered an area filled with what appeared to be warehouses.
As they approached the waypoint, a dozen red blips appeared around it. Grishnag noted their positions on her mini-map and grumbled.
"Well, here we go." Dylan's voice quivered slightly.
Before Grishnag could offer any reassuring words, she eased around the corner of a large, rectangular building and found a dozen males and females of varying species spinning toward her and snapping their guns up.
"What the hell?" Dylan said. "I was expecting more of the goons we fought last time."
"So was I." Grishnag steered toward the nearest three and accelerated. "No matter. Just focus on getting through this."
"R-right." Dylan's vehicle surged forward, plowed into two of the "enemies," and sent them tumbling across the pavement.
"Nice." Grishnag flashed a feral grin. "Ayastal, you may want to …"
"Dismounting." The huge reptile woman leaped off the top of Grishnag's vehicle and slammed into a pair of humans who'd opened fire a split-second before. The impact flattened them and she made sure they stayed put with a solid punch to each of their faces. She rolled off them, crouched, and sprang over the head of a pig-ogre as he tried to target her. She hit the ground, rolled forward, and came to a halt with her legs braced under her, ready to launch at another enemy.
The pig-ogre whipped his rifle around and lined up a shot at her chest.
Dylan's tank-car shot into view. He turned sharply to the left and the car skidded. The rear end swung around and slammed into the pig-ogre like a bat knocking a baseball out of the park. He rocketed into the side of a parked cargo truck, crumpled to the ground, and came to a stop with his neck twisted at an unnatural angle.
"Nice moves, kid," Grishnag said with an arched eyebrow.
"Thanks. I just now realized this reminds me of a game I played a lot back home. This was one of the moves I used on opposing players."
"This reminds you of a game?" Nishara steered her car around the back of a nearby warehouse and flinched as four enemies concentrated their fire on her.
"Yeah, a video game. It's a -- actually, never mind. I'll try to explain it later." Dylan whipped his car to the right and shoved his rifle through his open window. He pulled the trigger and perforated the human and three bovine males. They twitched and collapsed, fingers convulsing on their triggers and firing random shots until the life finished draining from them.
"Video games," Cora muttered. "I'm familiar with them. They're sort of like simulations."
"Yeah, kind of. You okay, Nishara?"
"For now." Nishara changed course again and accelerated. "I'm near the … whatever we're here to take. I'm going for it."
"I'll cover you," Dylan said.
"As will I," Syala added.
"Simulations. Hmm." Cora veered off to join the other three.
"What?" Grishnag caught up with them, glanced at the waypoint, and followed them toward a building that appeared to be an aircraft hangar.
"Just a suspicion I have. I don't want to distract everyone with it now."
"Sounds good." Dylan mowed down another opponent with his car and continued on to the hangar. "You can tell us after we finish this. Or the next time we wake up dead." He chuckled.
Hah. He has my kind of sense of humor. Grishnag grinned and parked in front of the hangar's massive open door. "Make a barricade with your vehicles while Nishara picks up the package."
Dylan backed his car up until his rear bumper nudged her front. The others followed suit, keeping their driver-side doors facing into the hangar. Everyone except Nishara jumped out and aimed their guns at the remaining enemies, using their vehicles as cover. Nishara extracted herself from her car and surged forward, slithering deeper into the building so fast she became a blur.
Dylan and Syala charged after her, flicking their wide eyes all around the interior, searching for more enemies.
Grishnag glanced at the mini-map on her dashboard. Only three enemies remained … until ten more red blips appeared at the edge of the map and approached her team's position with alarming speed. Grishnag snarled. "More enemies incoming."
"That's what I was afraid of," Dylan grumbled. "It works the same way in that game I mentioned. No matter how many bad guys we take out, more keep teleporting in."
"It's hopeless," Syala whimpered.
"No, it's not." Grishnag drilled a beam through the forehead of each of the three approaching them. "It'll end when we complete our task."
"Yeah." Dylan tried to smile at Syala. "Maybe then we'll get to sit out the next round of fighting. Y'know, as a reward."
Grishnag glanced at her mini-map again. The new red blips were almost on top of her and the others. She frowned, realizing a hissing sound had been growing louder over the last few moments.
That's inside the hangar. But … She gasped and raised her gun to aim at the ceiling.
"They're above us!"
Thumps of multiple feet hitting the roof echoed through the cavernous room.
Cora spun and snapped her gun up toward the ceiling. "I see their heat signatures." She opened fire, burning dozens of holes through the metal. Several voices cried out, and then a guttural roar overwhelmed them. More thumps echoed from the ceiling, the sound of bodies rolling down the angled roof.
"I've got the pilots," Ayastal snarled before opening fire.
The hissing sound revved, sputtered, and turned into a rattling whine. A stubby aircraft with two huge, ducted fans spun into view, a dozen holes melted through the canopy and a mixture of red and yellow blood splattered all over the cockpit. The aircraft continued its spin, tipped to the left, and crashed into the ground. It continued sliding and shedding parts, finally rolled over and ground to a stop upside-down.
"Good work, Ayastal," Grishnag said.
A deafening, sharp bang of a grenade slammed into the side of the building, almost drowning out a truncated scream. Grishnag staggered, shook her head, and a cold sensation rose up in her chest. "Ayastal?"
Nishara, Dylan, and Syala stopped in their tracks. Nishara fumbled and nearly dropped the brick-shaped, crystalline object in her hands.
"Ayastal!" Grishnag rushed to the rear of her car, peeked around the doorway, and found her sprawled on the ground with her chest blasted open.
Past her, two more large vehicles rumbled toward the hangar.
Grishnag winced and turned away. She met the others' gazes and shook her head.
Syala sobbed and covered her mouth with her hand.
"She'll be okay," Dylan whispered, reaching out to rub her back.
"How do we know?"
"She'll probably wake up in the same room we found ourselves in after the first time we were killed."
"He's right." Grishnag took a deep breath and waved a hand around the inside of the hangar. "Take a quick look around. Maybe we can find something useful. Bigger guns, or armor."
"On it." Cora rushed over to the wall to inspect the shelves and crates.
Nishara handed the golden crystal brick to Dylan. "Take this. You seem to know what you're doing."
Grishnag glanced over her shoulder at the mini-map on her dashboard. A new waypoint had appeared at the northern edge.
"We have a new destination."
"Good." Dylan carried the faintly glowing crystal back to his car. "Let's get the hell out of here."
"Oh, look what we have here." Cora had just opened one of the metal crates in a corner behind a shuttle and grinned at what she'd found. "Grenades, sticky bombs, and rocket launchers."
"I don't know what those are," Zilaka muttered, "but if they keep us alive, I'll be happy with them."
"They should definitely give us a chance." Cora passed the grenades and sticky bombs to the others, grabbed two rocket launchers, and handed one to Grishnag. "You seem to know how to use stuff like this more than the others. I think we'll have a better chance of holding the goons off while the others escape."
Dylan whipped his head around to stare at her and Grishnag.
"Don't worry." Cora strode toward the space between the door frame and Grishnag's car. "I'm planning on both of us catching up with you. Now, get moving."
Dylan sighed, nodded, and started his engine. Syala, Zilaka, and Nishara returned to their vehicles.
Cora peeked around the corner, found the two vehicles still fifty meters away but approaching rapidly, and nodded at Grishnag. Cora lined up a shot on the nearer van and fired. A fist-size rocket streaked toward her target. The second van veered off and accelerated, while three people bailed out of the first. Cora's rocket struck the front of the van, ripped it apart in a split-second, and the shrapnel shredded the three who'd tried to escape.
Grishnag stepped around Cora and took her own shot while Cora reloaded. The van swerved, but couldn't avoid the rocket. Shrapnel and body parts scattered in every direction. Grishnag smirked, turned toward her car, and stopped suddenly.
"Cora told you to take off."
Cora turned and found the others waiting with their engines running. "Yeah. What she said."
"We're not leaving you here." Syala aimed a stern stare at her, couldn't hold it, and faced forward again. "We finish this together."
Cora almost rolled her optics, canceled the action, and ran to her vehicle. "Fine. Let's all get the hell out of here before anyone else starts shooting at us."
"Dylan," Grishnag said as she climbed into her car, "we'll surround you and escort you to the next waypoint. Stay in the center."
"I'll do my best." He gripped the controls and waited.
"I'll take the lead. Cora, bring up the rear." Grishnag moved her car into position.
Four red, car-shaped icons appeared on Cora's mini-map, approaching rapidly from the rear. She leaned out the window, glanced around, and zoomed in on a distant motion.
"Guys, we've got more --"
"I see them on my map," Syala said, almost whimpering. "Let's go!"
Cora grabbed her rocket launcher, climbed through her window, and perched her ass on the lower edge. She lined up a shot and squeezed the trigger. The rocket streaked away and she zoomed in to watch the impact.
One of the four vans exploded and the shockwave knocked two others off course.
What the hell was that? Cora pulled the last few seconds from her optics' buffer and replayed it in slow motion. Parts of the van flickered and broke into tiny cube shapes for a split second as it exploded, as did the air around the shockwave. She scowled and lined up another shot. Voxels. Damn, I was right.
"Dylan, what?" Her proximity sensors picked up a sudden movement to her left before he could respond. She snapped her head around in time to catch a glimpse of a rocket before it drilled into the side of her car.
The roar of the explosion overwhelmed her auditory sensors and the flash overloaded her optics for a few seconds. When her sight returned, the entire world was spinning around her -- until the pavement slammed into her back. She glanced around, found parts of her legs and other debris scattered all around her, and her internal sensors detected various lubricants and other fluids spraying out of what was left of her torso.
"Cora!" Dylan shrieked again.
"Keep going! I'll do what I can from here." She found her rifle several meters away and dragged herself toward it while running a diagnostic. Primary systems failing, main power cell breached and heading for a critical overload. Whatever I do, I have to do it soon.
"Go!" She clamped onto the rifle and tried to line up a shot on the approaching vans, but her targeting system was offline. "I'll see you all on the next go-around."
"Shit," Dylan moaned before accelerating away.
The others hesitated another few seconds but finally followed him.
The remaining three vans reached Cora.
Fuck it. She rolled onto her back, jammed her rifle's barrel against her exposed power cell, and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, the detonation tore her body apart too quickly for her sensors to detect any damage.
The blast was enormous -- far bigger than anything Nishara had ever experienced. It deafened her and shook her vehicle. Both hearts pounded as she glanced over her shoulder and found parts of Cora's body and two of the vans raining down. The remaining van swerved around the debris and continued its pursuit.
"No," Dylan groaned.
"Take it easy," Grishnag said, clearly straining to remain calm, herself. "She'll be okay. She's probably in that same room we woke up in before, with Ayastal."
"I hope so." Dylan took a deep breath. "Alright. Let's get this over with." He accelerated.
Six more blips appeared on Nishara's mini-map, directly ahead. "No …"
"Where are they coming from?" Syala's voice quivered.
"Stay focused," Grishnag said.
A beam from one of the van's occupants drilled Nishara's rear window, the passenger-side headrest, and the windshield. She flinched and her hearts beat even faster.
Must try something. Must do something before we're all killed again. She took several deep breaths. "I … I have an idea."
She twisted her tail into position, gripped her weapon, and slid through her window. She kept her lower-left hand on the controls, kept the accelerator pressed down with the tip of her tail, and held on to the roof with her upper-left hand. With her two right hands, she raised the gun awkwardly and tried to aim it at the approaching van.
A male that appeared to be Zilaka's species leaned out one of the van's windows with his own rifle.
Nishara clamped her mouth shut to prevent a horrified whimper from escaping and fired her weapon. Half of her shots struck the ground or pierced empty air, but the rest punched into the front of the van.
The male fired and a familiar searing pain lanced through Nishara's upper-right shoulder. The gun almost slipped from her hands, but she managed to keep her grip on it and continue shooting.
Finally, one of her beams drilled through the van's windshield and vaporized part of the driver's head. He flopped over and the van swerved off to the right and crashed into a stack of red metal barrels. Nishara shifted her aim to the barrels without understanding how she knew what was about to happen, and continued firing. Whatever was in the barrels ignited violently, and engulfed the van in flames.
Nishara sighed, faced forward, and grimaced at the pain spreading out from her wounded shoulder.
Grishnag veered off to a curving ramp leading to an overpass that wove among dozens of gleaming metal skyscrapers. The rest followed her. Wincing and trying not to cry out, Nishara steered her vehicle in the same direction.
Three more enemy vans appeared directly ahead, swerving through the oncoming traffic.
"Damn it," Grishnag snarled. "Too many innocent people are in the way."
"There's nothing we can do about that," Dylan said with a sigh. "We'll just have to do the best we can to avoid hitting any of them."
A human leaned out of the lead van and began firing. Nishara groaned, shifted her grip on her weapon, and returned fire.
A beam pierced her upper-left arm and another hit her chest, just below her lower heart. She screamed and dropped her gun.
"Nishara!" Syala shrieked. "Oh, no!"
Another shot burned through Nishara's abdomen, and yet another drilled her upper heart. She flailed, screamed again, and her car began to turn sideways and skid.
"No!" Dylan bellowed.
Nishara caught a glimpse of a hail of enemy shots slamming through his windshield and multiple bursts of red blood filling the inside of his car, and suddenly she turned cold inside.
"No …" She coughed as everything around her began to fade away. "Dyl … Dylan …"
Her car struck the divider between lanes and rolled. The last thing Nishara saw was the road rushing up toward her, and the last things she felt were her body twisting and the car crushing her beneath it.
Title: Game Over
Genre: Science Fiction
Age range: adult
Word count: 80,000 words
Author: Fred T. Kerns
Why the book is a good fit: I tend to write the kinds of stories I wish I could find on bookshelves. As TMG has an eye toward innovation, my work would bring them something new and fresh to pass along to the world. TMG also works with a range of genres and my novels and stories are primarily science fiction but also include elements of action, humor, and an often hopeful vision of the future despite the villainous characters standing in the heroes' way.
The Hook: On this planet, "fun and games" is a matter of life and death.
Synopsis: Dylan Engstrom wakes up in a strange place and is thrown into a series of combat scenarios with a handful of aliens. Together, they must figure out what's going on and how to escape before they're all killed. And killed again. And again. And again ...
Target audience: Readers who enjoy action, adventure, humor, spaceships, aliens, and fun characters in a story that leans toward the harder end of the SF scale.
Bio: Sci-fi writer, semi-competent gamer (on a good day), and a huge geek. Born in a small town in Oregon, lived on the Oregon coast until 2013, then moved to Tucson, Arizona, and has lived there ever since.
Platform: My blog has links to most of the stuff I'm up to: https://fredtkerns.blogspot.com/
Education: High school diploma, followed by life in general
Experience: Started writing and submitting short stories at 17 and have never stopped writing since then. I've finished five novels and have another in-progress, and have written a number of shorter works and ongoing serialized stories.
Personality/writing style: Usually pretty mellow. Able to roll with the punches thanks to life being a very long stretch of bad luck. Able to face each setback by immediately going to work on possible solutions almost like a reflex. Writing style tends to be to-the-point with characters who are often a little off-kilter. I've been told that I'm particularly good at writing action scenes. I also like to research specific scientific concepts to attempt to get them right (for instance, hull breaches in my writing won't result in an endless rush of venting air) without bogging the story down with details regarding physics and whatnot.
Likes/hobbies: Writing, video games, and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Have been a lifelong fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Star Wars, and others. More recent like/influences include the Mass Effect series, Babylon 5, Star Trek Online, Red vs. Blue, gen:LOCK, among others.
Hometown: Tucson, AZ
One in a Million
"I have eyes on the target," Shadow said over her comlink implant, then she giggled. "I'm lovin' this spy stuff."
"I'm glad you're having fun, but try to stay focused." Machiko shook her head and smirked ever so slightly. The girl was just picking up the informant and taking him to a safe house. Just a milk run, though the message Newton Callahan had slipped the Justice Foundation had indicated something big brewing. He'd seemed confident enough when setting the time and location for the pick-up, but Machiko had her core team ready to go if this went haywire.
"Callahan definitely knows what he's doing," Shakira said, and Machiko turned to find her waving a hand over her bank of monitors. "The meeting place he picked out is a blind spot -- there's no coverage from any of the traffic or security cameras in the area."
"Nice," Otto said from a separate computer and set of monitors behind Shakira, sitting back-to-back with her. "If any bad guys are trying to keep tabs on him, they won't be able to use the cameras and they won't have any video of Shadow picking the guy up."
"This is certainly off to a good start." Machiko crossed her arms over her chest. "Let's hope it stays that way."
She took a moment to run a check on the Foundation's network of cybernetic comm implants just to be sure they were functioning properly. The agents who had the implant pinged her back immediately. A few others hadn't gotten them yet, so handheld comms would have to be good enough.
"He's sitting at a picnic table," Shadow reported, "right where he said he'd be. I'm going in."
"Copy that. We'll send you the location of the safe house once you're underway. Good luck, kid."
"Thanks, boss. Here we go."
Shadow got out of the car and stretched, trying to look casual in case anyone was surveilling them. Not that she didn't need to stretch after having her tail pinned against the seat and her wings folded uncomfortably during the drive to the park, but still.
The guy at the picnic table noticed her and waved. The pool of light from a nearby lamp was just enough to give her a general idea of his appearance -- around her age, maybe a year or two younger, with shoulder-length, dusty blond hair. He wore cargo pants and a Doctor Who T-shirt. She waved back and approached him.
"Right on time," he said.
"I try." She stopped at the table and cocked her head. He wasn't the kind of guy she'd expected -- someone who worked for Evolved Genetics, International and claimed to have info on something naughty the corporation was up to.
On the other hand, the Justice Foundation had a thirteen-year-old hacker working in its office and Shadow was quite young, herself, so maybe such things were relative.
"Have a seat." Callahan motioned at the bench and a pair of paper cups filled with coffee and covered with plastic lids. "I brought mochas. And don't worry, I ordered low-caf so it won't keep us up all night."
"Queen to Queen's level three," she said without having the slightest idea what the hell it meant. It was the phrase Machiko had told her to use to verify that this was, in fact, Newton Callahan.
He lit up the whole park with a brilliant grin. "Queen to King's level one. Always glad to meet a fellow dork."
Okay … if you say so. She nodded at her car. "Ready to go?"
He raised both eyebrows, shifted nervously, stuttered for a moment, and then pointed at the cups again.
"What's the hurry? Oh, wait, uh, do you not like coffee? Or mocha, specifically? I thought …"
"Oh, yeah, I like coffee, especially mocha. I just …" Huh. Okay. Maybe he's planning to just tell me what he knows. Or he's trying to keep me here for some other reason. Maybe to pump me for information or set me up for something else. She shrugged and sat beside him. Guess I can play along for now and see what happens.
He picked up one of the cups and handed it to her.
He smiled. "It's still a little hot, so be careful."
She nodded, lifted the lid, and sniffed. It smelled like a normal mocha, no poisons or drugs as far as her super-sensitive nose could determine. In fact, it was the exact mixture she'd picked up countless times from a coffee stand down the street a couple of blocks. She took a cautious sip. Not bad at all.
He glanced around as if trying to find something to talk about. She decided to offer some reassuring words on the assumption that he was legit and was just worried about repercussions from the info he was about to hand off.
"No need to be nervous. You're gonna be just fine." She smiled. "I'll take good care of you."
A surprised look crossed his face, then he smiled back and his face turned red as he continued looking around. Finally, his gaze landed on her car. "That's a sweet ride. Looks older, but it's in really good condition."
"Yeah, the previous owner kept it in really good shape."
"You have wings, but you drove here in a car?"
Well, the car is to take you to the safe house because you don't have wings. She arched a brow ridge, shrugged, and decided to go along with it.
"I've always liked cars. It's not exactly comfortable, stuffing my wings and tail in there, but I don't mind too much if the car's fun to drive."
"Fair enough." He took another slow sip.
Huh. Shadow pulled her left leg up and rested her ankle across her right leg, then put her right hand on her calf while drinking a bit more of her mocha.
Callahan got that nervous look on his face again, moved his hand as if uncertain what to do with the cup, and then placed it on the table. The nervousness faded and was replaced by a goofy grin as he suddenly reached out, gently grasped her ankle, and tickled the bottom of her foot.
"Eep!" She lunged away and tried to jerk her foot out of his grasp. He tightened his grip a little, laughed, and tickled harder. She twisted and pulled her leg away again, noticed she'd almost tipped the cup over, and hurried to put it on the table before she spilled it. Callahan held on to her ankle, laughed again, and went after her foot with even more vigor.
What in the hell? Shadow spun and whipped her tail around. The end of it slapped across Callahan's face and, when she turned back to him, she found him sliding off the end of the bench. He landed on his ass, grunted, and shook his head as if to clear a sudden daze. He rubbed his hand over his cheek and stared at her with wide eyes.
"Sorry! I'm sorry! I thought -- I didn't mean to …"
She gave him an exasperated stare and held one hand up as if to say, "Seriously?"
"I didn't mean to startle you. It's just … well, Darius said you liked to be tickled." Callahan's face turned red again as he got back on the bench and picked up his mocha with a trembling hand.
Who the hell is Darius? She shrugged, sat, and watched Callahan from the corner of her eye, staying ready to feed him his own teeth if he tried to grab her again. New guy, maybe? Machiko had brought on quite a few new support personnel recently, so maybe this Darius guy was the one who'd arranged the pickup.
But if he was, then why the hell would he tell Callahan that Shadow liked to be tickled?
What kind of game is Darius playing, anyway? A prank, maybe?
"Sorry," he muttered. "It's kinda dark here, so I couldn't quite read your expression. All I can really see is your glowing eyes and your teeth. So it looked like you were smiling. I thought you were enjoying it."
"Okay, people have had trouble seeing my face in the dark before. My skin barely reflects any light. It seems like something the bioengineering corporations would've used for their combat units, but I was designed for a … different use." She shrugged again and motioned at her chest. "But next time you want to grope me, my tits are up here."
He stared wide-eyed at her and blushed again, and she tried not to wince.
Why did I say that? I mean, he's cute. Really cute. But this is business. I need to keep my brain-mouth filter in place for once in my goddamn life.
He chuckled and averted his eyes. "I'd have trouble seeing those in the dark, too, if you weren't wearing that vest." He motioned at it. "Huh. Is that a tactical vest?"
"It's modeled after one, but it's made for civilians, hence the designer colors, muted though they are. And a real tactical vest wouldn't show this much cleavage. I wear stuff like this because I like having a lot of pockets and pouches and whatnot. And the zippers add to the 'cool' factor." She grinned and motioned at her cargo shorts. "You can never have too many pockets."
"I feel the same way. Looks like we're gonna get along famously."
Whatever you say, buddy. "Well, don't grab me again without warning me first and you'll be just fine." She tossed him a lopsided grin.
"I won't, I promise."
She picked up her mocha and took a longer drink to give the awkward moment a little more time to pass. Finally, she nodded toward her car again.
"About ready to get out of here?"
"I've never done this before," Callahan said, staring at the ground and tapping a finger on the side of his cup. "And, uh, I haven't really … um, had any … experience with one of you. Engineered people, I mean."
What does that have to do with this?
"I mean, yeah. Sure. We can go to … uh, your place, if you want."
Shadow flicked another confused glance at him, then shrugged it off. He could be a mental case, or maybe just not too bright. Or, possibly, an agent from EGI trying to interrogate her but was really, really bad at it. Either way, she could handle it.
"Okay, let's get going." She finished her mocha, found a trash can and tossed the cup into it, and smiled.
"What a weird little bastard," Otto muttered, and Machiko nodded slowly. Shakira chuckled and shrugged.
"He might be socially awkward. If he's in a position to know something important going on at EGI, he's probably high up in the company. Maybe a savant. I wouldn't be surprised if he never learned to interact with people because he just had his mind on tons of other things all the time."
"Makes sense." Otto un-muted his mic. "Shadow, stand by for the safe house's location."
"Huh," Shakira said. "Just got a text from Callahan. He said he's not able to get to the meeting."
What? Machiko turned around and shook her head. "He's right there. Oh, hell." The realization sank in quickly and her eyes widened.
"That's not Callahan," Otto said at the same time, spinning his chair around to glance at her and then Shakira. "Did he say anything else?"
"Just got another text. He said he noticed a suspicious van parked across the street when he went out to his car, so he locked himself in his house."
Goddamn it. "Who's closest to his location?"
Otto glanced at one of his monitors. "Ramirez and her team."
Machiko connected with Ramirez's comm implant. [Lola, Callahan hasn't left his house yet and there's a suspicious van across the street. I need you guys to go check on him.]
[On it, boss.]
Machiko switched to Shadow's implant. [Shadow, that guy isn't Callahan. Abort.] Several seconds passed with no reply. [Shadow? Do you copy?] Again, silence. Machiko pinged Shadow's comm implant and nothing came back. She pulled her phone out and dialed Shadow's number.
"I'm sorry, the number you have dialed is out of range or the phone is turned off. Please hang up and try again."
Machiko contacted another of her teams. [Jack, something's hinky about this. I'm not getting a response from Shadow's implant and her phone's either off or out of range. She may need backup. Go find her.]
Socially awkward, huh? Shadow figured Shakira's comment made sense, given the context. In a way, it was kind of adorable. If Callahan was really trying to flirt with her, maybe she could get a bonus out of this once he was debriefed.
"Oh, is that a manual transmission?" he asked as she started the engine.
"Don't see many of those around these days."
"Yeah. I think a few manufacturers still make them for people who prefer the stick." She waited for him to buckle his seatbelt, then she accelerated gently and shifted up to second gear. "I used to prefer automatics, but once I got used to the stick, it started growing on me."
He grinned suddenly and a few seconds later it sank in.
Oh. Right. Stick. Growing. Oops. She laughed softly, shifted up to third, and drove on in silence while waiting for the safe house's location. When the silence stretched out and turned awkward again, she turned the radio on.
"Oh, that's Cheap Trick," Callahan said. "'Reach Out,' right?"
Shadow glanced at the screen above the radio and nodded. "I was never a big fan of them, but I like that song."
"One of my grandfathers listens to all sorts of classics from the previous century and got me hooked on a lot of them. I grew up listening to stuff mostly from the 1980s because he and my parents are way into it."
"A lot of that music has a certain charm, definitely. You got a favorite?"
"Duran Duran, a bit of Gary Neumann, Bonnie Tyler, Pat Benatar, some of Bruce Springsteen's stuff." He laughed and his face took on a hint of red again. "One of my all-time favorites is the Neverending Story theme."
"Interesting. Don't think I've heard that one." She reached out to the screen, tapped the search icon, and returned her gaze to the street ahead while telling the stereo to find the song. It came up a split-second later and Shadow touched the play icon. She listened for a moment and smiled. "Catchy tune. I like it."
"Awesome." He flicked a sidelong glance at her, worked his mouth for a moment before he could say anything, and then he gave her another brilliant grin. "There's a diner not far from my house that has an '80s theme. They have a karaoke night every Wednesday. We should go on stage sometime." He blushed again and shrugged. "Just for the hell of it."
"That sounds like fun, actually."
"Cool. So, that'd be, like, a date, then?"
Huh. Sure, what the hell. "Yeah. It can be, I mean." She activated her comm implant and sent, [Still waiting for the safe house location, guys.] To Callahan, she said, "When you said you didn't have any experience with bioengineered people … well, you've been acting like you're okay with me not being human, but I've run into a lot of humans who are still freaked-out by us."
"Nah, I'm okay with it. I mean, it was a surprise at first. I didn't know Darius knew any. But we're getting along nicely." He winced. "Um, aside from that rough start at the picnic table."
"Aw, don't worry about that. Just a misunderstanding. You're doing fine." She realized she still hadn't gotten a reply from Machiko or the others. She pinged their comm implants and got nothing back. Huh. She slowed as they approached a red light and tapped the icon for the phone app on the console screen.
A no-signal error appeared. Frowning, Shadow pulled her phone out. No signal there, either. She tossed Callahan a sidelong glance.
"Is your phone working?"
He raised an eyebrow, dug his phone out, and checked it. "No." He glanced around. "I've been in this area lots of times. The reception's always perfect. Both of our phones couldn't have been turned off at the same time."
"Yeah, that can't be a coincidence. My boss was gonna send me the location of a safe house, but I haven't heard from her." Shadow glanced at the radio. It's still playing music, but maybe that's only because the next few songs were already buffered. "I think someone's using a jammer."
"Wait -- safe house?" He stared at her.
"Yeah. That's where I'm taking you. Or, would be if I had the address."
He kept staring at her and she frowned back at him.
Why did he just look at me like he thinks I'm a serial killer? She looked into the rearview mirror and spotted a black SUV four car-lengths behind them. Ugh. Why do those assholes always use the exact same vehicle?
Callahan seemed to notice her staring into the mirror. He turned to glance out the rear window.
"Easy, there. Keep your head out of sight." The traffic light turned green and Shadow accelerated at a casual pace, just keeping up with the other traffic, not wanting to tip the potential pursuers off that they'd been made. She took in the street ahead, noticed an alley coming up, turned down it suddenly, hit the breaks, then moved forward again, then flipped on her turn signal, hoping she looked like an idiot rather than someone who was trying to lose a tail.
Callahan braced a hand on the dashboard and threw a wide-eyed glance at her. "What are you doing?"
"Just seeing if we're being followed. If we are, the last thing we want to do is get into a high-speed chase with all these bystanders around. I should be able to lose 'em if I keep driving like a dumbshit until they make a mistake." She glanced into the mirror and found the SUV darting into the alley and staying behind her. "Yep, looks like at least one vehicle is tailing us."
"Oh, hell," Callahan moaned softly. "What have you gotten me into?"
"Me?" She shook her head. You're the one who wanted to … oh, never mind. She followed the alley until it intersected with another street and made a right turn. A glance into the mirror showed her that the SUV was still behind her. At least she was approaching a residential area, so there wasn't as much traffic as before. On the other hand, that meant fewer witnesses if they started shooting.
She came to a stop sign, signaled for a right turn, and turned left instead. The SUV started to turn right, then lurched to the left and kept following her. She slowed, whipped the car into a sudden U-turn, and caught a glimpse of the SUV's driver in the corner of her eye gaping at her. She did her best to put on a confused expression and hoped he'd think she was just discombobulated in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
In the side mirror, the SUV hung a U and kept following. Shadow sighed.
Jesus Christ. Really?
Callahan flicked another utterly confused glance at her and mumbled, "What the hell is going on?"
How can he not know …? In the mirror, three more SUVs joined the first and lined up behind her. Oh, come on!
"Do you owe these guys money or something?" Darwin Madigan leaned over for a look into his side mirror and tried not to panic at the sight of four sinister black SUVs following him and his date. Before he could sit up straight, two more came out of the intersecting street to the right and tried to cut her off. She swerved around them, snarled in the general direction of the drivers, and the cyan glow in her eyes brightened.
Oh, hell, what has she gotten me into the middle of? He braced his hands on the dashboard again, glanced to the left, and found another pair of SUVs emerging from an alley and lining up with the rest. No, what has Darius gotten me into? He set all this up. He shook his head. Darius, you sonofabitch.
"What the hell are you talking about?" she said once she'd gotten past the additional SUVs. Her eyes flicked toward the mirrors and leveled straight ahead again. "What did you do? Did you witness a murder or something?"
"What?" He gaped at her and she shook her head.
"Never mind. Look, we need to ditch the car and try to find a place to hide or, uh, borrow another car to get away in. There's almost no traffic here, so if they're gonna start shooting at us, this is where it'll most likely happen."
Shooting? Darwin shrugged, took a few breaths, and looked around slowly. "W--well, there's a building under construction over to the left, there. Maybe we can lose 'em in that."
"Worth a try. Might be somewhere to hide in it, or if nothing else, a way to split them up and pick them off."
"Pick … you mean, kill them?"
"Not my style. I try to stick to non-lethal methods unless there's no way to avoid it." She gripped the gear shift with one hand and the steering wheel with the other. "We need to get out of their sight long enough to ditch the car or they're just gonna keep following us. They're probably tracking us with traffic cameras or surveillance drones."
"Y--yeah, sounds right." Whatever you say, as long as we get out of this alive, it's all good.
"Okay, I'm gonna attempt a maneuver. Hang on to your titties."
Wonderful. He kept his hands firmly planted on the dashboard as she shifted down to second gear and stomped on the gas. The car launched forward and she shifted up again, then spun the wheel to the left, drifting through the intersection and around the corner. She kept accelerating and shifted up again.
"Looks like we lost 'em for a few seconds. Hold on." She whipped the car into another left turn and fired it off a gravel embankment into a pit that was probably going to become the building's foundation and basement. The car landed with an impact that jammed his ass into the seat and something in the front end of the car snapped.
She turned the lights off, killed the engine, and popped her seatbelt.
"Let's go," she whispered.
Sure. Yeah, why not? He released his seatbelt and followed her into the building's framework, his heart pounding and his legs wobbling as if his muscles had turned to jelly. She grasped his left hand and led him to a ramp up to the second floor.
"If we can get to the top," she whispered, flicking her wings, "I can glide us out of here."
At least we won't be trapped. He followed her across the floor until they found a ladder. She motioned for him to climb first while she turned and kept an eye out for the SUV guys, then she climbed after him. They made their way up the next four floors and crouched beside a stack of lumber so he could catch his breath.
He found a maze of stacks of two-by-fours and pipes, sheets of plastic fluttering in a gentle breeze, power tools left sitting on tables and benches, and a forklift over in the corner.
His companion appeared to be listening for something. Engines or footsteps, probably. He kept quiet and let her do her thing.
I wonder what her name is. He'd been waiting for a girl named Bianca, but he doubted this was her. Wonderful. She probably showed up right after we left and thinks I bailed on her.
At least this draconid chick was cute. She had a nice body, aside from the wings, tail, and weird lower legs and feet. And she seemed friendly enough and clearly knew how to handle situations like this one.
Maybe we can salvage this. Like, go out on an actual date if we make it through whatever the hell's going on.
"I hear vehicles pulling up and stopping," she whispered. She motioned for him to stay put, crept over to the edge of the floor, and squinted at the street. She turned back, pointed at another ramp, and led him up two more floors. There, he found several partial walls and more stacks of pipes and two-by-fours. They ducked between a wall and a pile of long pipes bundled together. "I counted six humans in tactical gear and ten low-grade mechs. Non-sentient ones. Just robots programmed for basic combat, probably. They're following us up."
"Great," he whispered back. "They know we're here."
"Looks that way." She opened her mouth to say something else, then she turned to stare over her shoulder. "Some of them are coming up the ladders and ramps. Sounds like some are climbing up the side of the building."
She crept over to the edge and peered down. Darwin joined her and found four of the mechs scaling the wall in single file.
He took a quick look around and found a pair of acetylene tanks nearby. He arched an eyebrow at … whoever this female was.
"You're sure those bots aren't sentient?"
"Yeah," she whispered back. "I recognize the model now. Some friends ran into some on a job a few months back. They aren't capable of thinking for themselves."
"Cool." He walked over to the tanks, picked one up, and hobbled back with it. Damn, this is heavy! He lowered it to the edge of the floor, caught his breath, and glanced at her. "Hold on to me so I don't fall off."
Her eyes opened wider and she clamped a hand around his belt and braced the other on a nearby girder. He wiggled the tank to the right until he was sure it was directly above the climbing robots, then he lifted it and she held him steady as he positioned the tank just far enough out not to catch on anything on the way down.
He let go of it and waited for gravity to do the rest. They watched it plunge straight down and smash into the nearest bot's head, driving it into its shoulders and ripping its body from the side of the building. It plowed into the robot directly below, carried it into the next one, and finally the fourth. They plummeted from the fifth floor into the ground and landed in a mangled heap. Several arms and legs ripped loose and flipped through the air.
She eased him back from the edge, stared at him with widening eyes, and an awestruck smile appeared in the darkness.
"I … I think I'm in love," she whispered.
"Well, you're certainly off to a spectacular start." She took a few breaths, fanned herself with her hand, and pointed at a ramp on the far side of the floor. "Sounds like they're rushing toward the ruckus you just caused. We can get to the roof, jump off the far side, and glide away before they can spot us."
He followed her, both of them trying to sprint as quietly as possible, and emerged onto the top floor. Suddenly, the city stretched out in all directions around him, an ocean of LEDs, neon, animated billboards, and holographic projections. There were far taller buildings in the distance, but not many in this area.
"Is this high enough for you to fly off?"
"Yep." She pointed at her back. "Lock your arms and legs around me, but try not to hamper the motion of my wings." She waited for him to do as she asked. "Hold on tight."
Heart pounding, he nodded and whispered, "Okay." He took a moment to secure his legs around her waist, clamped his arms around her, and said, "Let's go!"
Carrying him without any outward sign of strain, she ran to the edge, crouched, pushed off, and spread her wings. His heart nearly blew out of his chest as they fell for a few seconds, then her wings caught the wind and he found himself gliding over the city. He squinted against the wind rushing into his face and had to fight the urge to let out an overjoyed whoop.
We're flying. Oh, holy shit, we're flying! He forced himself to breathe, kept his arms and legs as tight around her as he could, and grinned like an idiot as she soared away from the goons who'd been chasing them. And even better, I don't hear any gunshots behind us.
He sighed with relief and let his chin rest on her shoulder.
We made it.
"Oh! Finally got a ping from the network!" Shadow descended abruptly and Callahan tightened his grip until she touched down on a roof across the street from a burger joint. She connected to Machiko's implant and sent, [Hey, we're finally out of jamming range. We need you to pick us up right now!]
[Jack's team is on the way,] Machiko replied. [They're tracking your signal.]
[Good. Thanks, boss.]
"What?" Callahan shook his head. "What ping? What're you talking about?"
"Cybernetic comlink implant." Shadow pointed at the side of her head. "It's linked to a network at the agency I work for. I just requested extraction."
"Oh. That's pretty cool." He grinned and let out a relieved breath.
"It's definitely proved itself useful -- when it's not being jammed by the bad guys, at least." She pointed at the burger place. "We can wait in there and grab a quick meal if you're hungry. Looks like there'll be a lot of people inside. Plenty of witnesses, so the goons who chased us wouldn't be willing to try anything even if they could find us." At least, she hoped they wouldn't be that stupid. She aimed another reassuring smile over her shoulder. "You'll be safe in there."
"That's, uh … good to know." Yet another confused look flickered over his face.
"By the way, we're not in the air anymore. You can let go."
"Oh!" His face turned red again as he placed his feet on the roof and took a step back. "Sorry."
[Shadow,] Machiko sent, [are you okay?]
[Yeah, we're both fine. We'll be in the burger place on the corner.]
[Shadow, that guy's not Callahan. He informed us that he couldn't get to the meeting just before the jamming started.]
[Ramirez and her team picked Callahan up at his house. He spotted a suspicious van across the street, so he stayed put. The van left the scene when Montoya started walking toward it. We have Callahan in one of our conference rooms.]
"You okay?" Not-Callahan reached out to touch her shoulder. "You're staring off into space."
"Oh, I'm just giving the boss a rundown on what just happened." To Machiko, she sent, [So who the hell is this guy?]
[We don't know, but if you were pursued by EGI security, he's probably with them.]
[I'll keep him at the burger place, then. Hey, do we have anyone at the Foundation named Darius?]
[We do not. Who is he?]
[I'll see if I can find out. Stand by.] Shadow spotted a maintenance ladder and pointed at it. "We can get to the street from there. Come on."
Shadow slipped her hand into his as they entered the building. While holding the door open for him, she caught a glimpse of another of his goofy grins.
I sure hope he's not just pretending to be such a nice guy. Now that I've gotten the idea into my head that we could have something together, if he turns out to be one of the pricks who were chasing us …
"Ah, there's an empty table right over there." He pointed.
"Cool." Shadow smiled, nodded, and followed Not-Callahan over to the table. She slid the menu screen out from the edge of the table, placed an order, and pushed the screen back into its slot. Then she shifted around for a moment, trying to get her tail into a comfortable position, and finally got up, turned the chair around, and sat backward on it. She rested her arms on the back of the chair, smiled at Not-Callahan, and hoped she didn't look as suspicious as she'd suddenly become.
"Now that I have a moment to think about it," Not-Callahan said as he placed his order, "I've worked up a bit of an appetite."
"Me, too. Oh, I just realized I never introduced myself. My name's Shadow."
"Nice to meet you. I'm Darwin Madigan." He grinned and reached across the table. She shook his hand and chuckled.
Okay, he just went ahead and told me his name. Assuming it's not a cover identity. But he's not even trying to pretend to be Callahan, so …
She decided to cut right to the point. "Any idea why those guys were after you?"
"Me?" He shook his head and looked genuinely bewildered. "I haven't done anything aside from trying not to be picked on at school. With wildly varying degrees of success." He shrugged. "Some of the jocks are harder to avoid than others."
"So … you don't know anything about Evolved Genetics, International? Specifically, something big they've been up to lately?"
"Never heard of 'em. Who are they?"
"It's a bioengineering corporation."
"Like genetically modified crops and whatnot? Or … people like you?"
"A little of the former, but mostly so they can appear legit. Mostly the latter."
"I thought there was a ban on producing more chimeras."
"There is. I'm guessing they're either defying it or planning to. Underground labs producing more of us have been found occasionally, so it might be something like that."
"Huh. I don't have a problem with more of you being created. I mean, it'll have to be done someday to prevent all these new species from going extinct. But I am dead-set against forcing them to be toy soldiers like the original ones were."
"We're definitely on the same page, there. We figured you might have some vital info about that, since they seemed so determined to capture you."
"It doesn't make any sense that they'd be after me. None at all. I don't work for that company and, as far as I know, none of my relatives ever worked there."
A motion in the corner of her eye drew her attention and she turned to find a robot wheeling up to their table with a pair of trays. She smiled and took her tray from it.
"Aw, thank you." She didn't know if the bot was an AI or just a simple automaton, but she'd made it a personal rule to always treat them no differently from anyone else. It was partly a way to be remembered positively in the event of any of them gaining sentience later, but more than anything else, she just considered it the right thing to do.
Both of them took a few bites of their sandwiches and sipped their drinks before Darwin spoke again.
"Okay, so, since it's unlikely those guys were after me, could they have been coming for you?"
"Huh. I suppose it's possible." A realization slowly sank in and she grimaced. How did I not even consider this? "When I was briefing the boss on what happened to us, she said the guy I went to the park to meet wasn't able to make it. He caught someone surveilling him, so he stayed home and notified my boss. She tried to tell me, but that's when someone jammed our comms. They may have been trying to get me just to see if I knew anything."
"So … okay, so … you weren't there to meet me?" Darwin shook his head quickly as if he'd been slapped.
"Looks that way." She took another bite of her chicken sandwich, sipped her root beer, and frowned. "Why were you there?"
"It was a blind date my friend Darius set up."
"A blind …" Shadow stared at him for a long moment. "You just happened to be there at the exact time and place I was sent there to meet an informant?"
"L--looks that way." He shrugged. "He set me up with a girl from school, Bianca Zadzisai. We were going to meet there and go see a movie or something." His eyes opened wider and he gasped and pulled his phone out, stared at the screen, and winced. "There's a flood of texts from her asking where I am. She must've started sending them after my phone was jammed."
"Oh, no." If he's being honest about that, it's a damn shame. That poor girl must think he's been in a car accident or something.
"Oh, hell." Darwin dropped the phone, leaned forward, and facepalmed. "She's pissed."
"Seriously? She's pissed off instead of worried about you?"
"See for yourself." He pushed the phone across the table and rubbed both hands over his face.
Shadow picked up the phone and skimmed the last few messages. Whoa. I don't think I've ever seen a single person use that much profanity in such a short time. She pushed the phone back and covered her mouth with her hand.
"That's just not right." She reached across the table and laid her hand over his. "Y'know, if this is how she reacts instead of considering the possibility that something might've happened to you, then you might be better off without her."
"Huh. I suppose." He managed a shaky smile, turned his hand over, and clasped hers. "I can't imagine having as good a time with her as I just had with you, anyway."
"Really? This was fun?"
"Well, once the fear wore off and I started getting into the spirit of things, yeah."
"So, uh … you'd be open to the possibility of a second date?"
"I would, yeah." He grinned.
Well, at least tonight wasn't a total loss, then.
"We've verified his identity," Machiko said to Shadow in the conference room. "His parents knew he went out on a date and assumed he was at a restaurant or a cinema. His being at the meeting place at the exact right time seems to be nothing but a coincidence."
That is such a relief! Shadow nodded, turned back to Darwin, and grinned. "See? You're off the hook."
"Thanks." He looked up at Machiko and added, "Thank all of you. I was getting nervous for a while there."
"What I'd like to know," Otto said after taking four bottles of RC from the vending machine in the corner and passing three of them to Shakira, Shadow, and Darwin, "is how you knew the passcode. I mean, word for word."
"Thanks." Darwin accepted the drink and shrugged. "It's like I told Shadow -- I'm a dork. I've seen every episode of every Star Trek series more times than I can count. I'm amazed that anyone else in the world had even heard that phrase before. Most Trek fans don't even remember anything about that episode except the Orion woman." He chuckled. "I just assumed Darius told Shadow what kinds of things I'm into or she was showing off her geek cred."
Machiko shook her head slowly. "I certainly never expected anyone to know it."
"Wow." Shadow turned a wide-eyed stare on Darwin. "If anyone else had been there instead of you, they wouldn't have known the passcode and I would've just gone back to the car and hauled ass outta there."
"I guess we were lucky, then." Darwin smiled back at her.
"I guess so."
"So, Mr. Madigan, you're free to go. I can arrange a ride for you. Or your parents can pick you up if that's what you'd prefer."
"Well …" He grinned at Shadow. "Would you mind flying me back home? Maybe after an actual date?"
"Well, the night is young." She slipped her hand into his. "I'd be happy to."
"I won't keep you from it, then." Machiko bowed. "Once again, I apologize for your being caught up in all of this."
"No need. It was fun."
She smiled. "Shadow, Mr. Madigan, enjoy the rest of your evening."
"Thanks, boss." Shadow led him out of the room, keeping her hand in his, and they walked through the corridors toward the huge door leading to the surface. "You really had a good time?"
"Yep. This was the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me."
Glad it didn't scare him off.
"So … the Justice Foundation. What kinds of work do you do?"
"It's different from day to day. In my case, it's usually non-combat stuff. Gathering information, acquiring items needed during investigations, making contact with informants, and so on."
"How'd you get started here?"
Shadow swiped her badge through the lock and tapped her passcode into the keypad, then replied while waiting for the enormous door to open.
"I was a thief. Did a lot of B&E, picking pockets, that kind of thing. I got caught robbing someone and would've gone to prison if Machiko hadn't intervened. She said she could use someone with my skills, so she gave me a choice."
"Work for her or go to prison?"
"Exactly. So here I am." She grinned and walked with him up the paved ramp. "It changed my life. I probably would've remained a petty thief and ended up spending half of my life in jail or maybe getting shot and killed while slipping into someone's house. She still has me using some of my old skills, but only to help people. I've made friends here and what I'm doing matters."
"I'm glad you were able to turn your life around." He laughed softly. "And you found your purpose at such a young age. I'm still trying to figure out what to do with my life."
"Well, there's plenty of time for that. It's probably better to work it out at a natural pace, rather than have it forced on you, anyway." She chuckled as they stepped out of the "maw" and onto a grass lot. They kept walking and the maw closed.
"I'll focus on what's directly in front of me, then." Darwin tried to meet her gaze, blushed for what might have been the millionth time tonight, and leaned closer to her. He hesitated, finally made eye contact, and said, "Um … may I?"
Sure, why not? She leaned in to meet him halfway and they kissed. When they parted, both of them grinned from ear to ear and her face turned hot, but at least her blush didn't show thanks to her obsidian skin.
"So," he finally said. "I figure we've got time for a movie before I have to be back home. Or we can just hang out."
"That sounds nice. No one chasing us, no risk of being shot at, just a nice walk around town."
"Yep. I mean, that stuff was fun, but other stuff can be fun, too." He fired off another goofy grin and she laughed. They walked on in silence for a moment, then he said, "I'll do my best not to make a fool of myself again. Like, the tickling thing."
"Heh. I've never really been ticklish. I was just reacting to being grabbed suddenly." She shrugged and giggled. "As I said earlier, next time you wanna grope me, go for my tits."
"I'll keep that in mind."
"Cool." She smiled and marveled at how things had turned out tonight.
Sometimes you just get lucky.
All Over Los Santos
“Son of a ...” Zola scowled at the WASTED notification on her screen while a kid’s high-pitched laughter burst from her laptop’s speakers.
“Girls don’t play video games,” he crowed. “Get back in the kitchen where you belong!”
“Go suck an exhaust pipe,” Zola grumbled as she waited to respawn.
“What kind of accent is that?” He laughed again and several of his buddies snickered.
Zola shook her head. The tribal costume and the hut in her greenscreen background were just parts of the schtick she played up while streaming, but her accent was real. Not that the squeaker who’d just gunned her down for no reason deserved an explanation.
Her character respawned and she whipped out her Unholy Hellbringer and requested her Khanjali tank. She’d appeared near one of the pickup points, so she’d have a decent chance of reaching it before that little bastard mowed her down again.
The sounds of more donation notifications flowed from her speakers and she held in a laugh. She was decent enough at the games she streamed, but appearing topless on camera -- another part of the character she played -- probably had more to do with it than anything else. Which was why she’d taken her “tribal” online persona in that direction in the first place. It brought in a lot of money, so why not?
She tended to just goof around with the rest of her team or talk about whatever was on her mind while admiring the desert scenery in her favorite games -- in this case, Grand Theft Auto Online -- but the rest of her team hadn’t joined in yet. Then this little waste of sperm had gone after her the instant he heard her voice and realized she was female.
“You don’t belong in this game,” one of his buddies said, and Zola arched an eyebrow. The voice was a little older than his and seemed familiar.
Sounds like one of the guys who won’t stop harassing me in Rainbow Six: Siege. Makes me wonder if I’ve picked up a stalker.
“You’re not really a girl,” another shouted – and again, Zola was sure she’d heard the voice before. Maybe in Siege, maybe in Overwatch. The bullies always sounded alike after a while. “You’re, like, a twelve-year-old using a voice changer. You’re not a girl!”
“Oh, yes, I am.” She rolled her eyes and sprinted toward the Khanjali the instant it appeared.
“Prove it! Show us your boobs!”
“I already have them out. It’s on my stream. Search for ‘Team Oreo.’”
“Go make me a sandwich,” one of the others snapped. The rest laughed their asses off as if he’d said something devastatingly clever.
“Never heard that one before. GG, sport.” Zola glanced at her map and found a half-dozen blips racing toward her. She recognized several of the gamertags as the usual suspects she’d met in Siege, Overwatch, CS:GO, and elsewhere. She shook her head and charged her tank’s railgun.
“Whore,” the guy growled. His motorcycle-shaped blip approached at a higher speed than the others, passing through the areas between streets -- or over them. “Kill yourself!”
He’s in an Oppressor. Probably a Mark II. She kept her eyes on the terrain ahead and pressed the W key, sending her Khanjali full speed ahead. He came within visual range and zipped straight toward her. Ah, it’s a Mark I. Good, he’ll need to land sooner or later.
“Wow,” the squeaker blurted. “You’re really black!”
“I have been aware of that for quite some time, but thank you for pointing it out anyway.” Zola nudged her mouse, leading the target, waiting for the right moment, and released the button. Her railgun scored a headshot and pinwheeled him off the flying bike. The Oppressor tumbled to the ground, bounced, and slid to a stop on the floor of the Grand Senora Desert. Zola grinned. At least I won’t have to pay twenty thousand GTA Dollars to replace it.
“You suck,” the bike’s owner bellowed.
“Ah, yes, I suck. That’s why I wasted you before you got off a single shot.”
“Friend me,” one of the others yelled.
“Friend me. Friend me! Friend …”
“Send me nudes!”
“Only if you send me money first.” Zola lined up a shot on the onrushing Weaponized Tampa and blew it off the road. Its driver let out a startled yelp before the secondary explosion propelled it off to the side, and Zola burst into a fit of giggles.
“If you’d stop harassing other players just because they’re girls …”
“We’re not! We respect wahmen!” He snickered. “Make me a sandwich!”
“I’m looking at your site,” another said. “You’re all black except the dude.”
“Yes, Captain Obvious. That’s why we’re called Team Oreo. He’s our cream filling.”
“Disgusting. You need to go back where you belong.”
“Back to Africa!”
“I’m already there.” She pointed a thumb at her greenscreen, brought up the in-game phone, and sent a mercenary team after him. The backdrop was just a generic desert scene, but she did live in Africa. She had no intention of telling these idiots anything specific about her location, though.
“Ugh,” another one grunted. “You’re bald. That’s nasty. Women shouldn’t be bald.”
“What difference does it make? I like the way it looks.”
“No, you need to look good for us men. That’s all you’re good for.”
“Oh, you can just piss right off!”
The same guy suddenly fired off a vile racial slur. Zola’s heart pounded for a moment. She took a few slow breaths and opened fire on the rest of the oncoming vehicles.
So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh? Time to teach them a lesson. Until now, she’d been content to let them show everyone watching what a bunch of scumbags they were, but now …
She’d put up with this crap ever since her first online game. While it made for good content, her tolerance had limits. Now, she swore a silent oath to run this prick and his whole gang out of the game.
A series of messages appeared in her chat window telling her to rip them up, accompanied by more donations. She flashed a predatory grin.
“Absolutely, guys. This is where the gloves come off.”
This is going to get boring. Zola shredded the last of her pursuers, abandoned her Khanjali, called her mechanic, and requested her Stromberg once she was far enough away. She kept her Hellbringer ready in case any of them respawned nearby, took cover behind a pile of rocks, and kept spinning her POV around to avoid being caught by surprise.
The bastard who’d called her the N-word rushed toward her on the map and a grenade arched over the rocks. She scrambled out of the blast radius a split-second before the grenade blew, then drilled him with her plasma rifle until he flumped over dead. The Stromberg’s blip appeared on the map and she bolted to it and jumped in.
“Just in time. I can hear a helicopter behind me.” She sped off, armed her missiles, and headed north toward Sandy Shores. The missile-lock alarm alerted her to the next attack and she whipped around before a rocket slammed into her Stromberg. Since the car could tank a half-dozen direct hits, it wasn’t time to panic yet.
A Buzzard and a Deluxo approached her head-on. She locked on to the Buzzard and launched a missile. The chopper tried to dodge but its pilot wasn’t fast enough. The missile ripped the Buzzard open and a secondary explosion finished the job. The flaming wreckage plunged to the ground and the player let out a stream of profanity.
Her aim shifted to the Deluxo and she recognized its driver’s gamertag.
The squeaker again. She clicked her mouse button and the Deluxo fired a missile a split-second later. The blast spun her to the right and she caught a glimpse of the Deluxo popping before it slid off her screen. She turned back around and resumed her course toward Sandy Shores. The squeaker and his cohorts finally caught up with her by the time she reached the Alamo Sea.
She fired off an evil cackle and drove straight into the lake, shifting the Stromberg into submarine mode as it plunged into the water. She floated for a moment, giggling, as they cursed at her and yelled at each other while firing blindly into the lake.
“You can’t hide down there forever, you bitch!”
“Typical girl. You can’t take the heat, so you run away and hide!”
“He says after I kicked his ass all over the desert.” Zola rolled her eyes and rotated the Stromberg until its torpedoes locked on to one of them.
“Send me nudes,” one of them demanded again, then made a slurping sound.
“Send money first!” She launched a torpedo and something above the water exploded. The squeaker let out an enraged shriek that could’ve shattered glass.
A “bad sport” notification popped up and she shook her head. It’s acceptable for players to kill each other repeatedly, but if you destroy another player’s vehicle, that’s somehow wrong. Makes perfect sense.
She headed for the shore, switched back into car mode, and steered toward the nearest of her enemies. He turned to fire at her and she smashed into him and pinned him between her grille and his APC. She backed up and rammed him again and his body flopped over like its strings had been cut.
The player let out another enraged scream.
Two of his buddies demanded nudes again. Zola grumbled under her breath.
“You do realize that behaving like this is not going to get you laid, right?”
“The pictures on your site are all fake. You’re really an old man using a voice changer. Don’t send any nudes. They’d make me puke.”
Are you kidding me? She drew in a breath -- but then one of them fired a rocket into her Stromberg. Her car survived, but two nearby vehicles exploded and sent three flaming bodies into the lake. Zola burst out laughing and headed for the Derelict Motel.
“See? That’s what you get for being a bully.”
“My family owned your ancestors,” one of them shouted.
Zola’s hands clenched and she had to force herself to relax.
“Oh, she’s not shooting her mouth off,” the squeaker said. “You hit a nerve.”
“Typical woman. Not even responding.”
Zola gnashed her teeth as she bailed out of her Stromberg and sprinted to the hotel. She climbed the stairs and planted a proximity mine at the top before dashing to the far end and sticking more mines near the tops of the other sets of stairs.
“Oh, are you mad?” Loud laughter exploded from her speakers and she winced. “Aw, why are you mad, sweetcheeks?”
“She finally remembered her place.”
Pig. Zola darted through one of the crumbling, rotting motel rooms and stuck another mine to the ceiling just inside the door. Then she dashed through the hole in the opposite wall, took cover, and waited while the laughing continued.
A rapid beeping came from the left, followed by a bang and another startled shout. One of the voices fired off another racial slur.
“I’m gonna find where you live and rape you!”
I’ll slit your throat if you ever try. Zola glared directly into her camera.
“I’m pretty sure these pillars of society are the same ones I’ve run into many times in other games. They said the same things and refused to stop.” She sighed. “This kind of crap is why so many female gamers play with their microphones muted.”
“Gimme your digits,” another of his buddies blurted. “I need your phone number!” When she ignored him, he continued repeating, “You gonna give me your digits? Huh? Where are your digits?”
“You can have one.” She flipped the screen off.
“Well? Which one?”
“The middle one.” She glanced at the map to locate their blips and prepared to jump out of cover as they approached the doorway. “Nincompoop.”
One of them rushed past the proximity mine and triggered it. The blast threw his burning corpse out through the broken wall, past her, over the balcony, and out of sight. He cussed her out again and she burst into laughter.
“There’s plenty more where that came from.”
“Oh, why you so mad, sweetheart?” The squeaker giggled. “Is it ’cause he doesn’t really wanna bone you? He wouldn’t be able to get it up for your bald, ugly ass!”
“You know why,” she muttered as she brought up her weapons menu and switched to the Marksman Pistol.
“Yeah, I know why -- it’s because nobody would stick it in an animal like you.” The squeaker threw another slur and snickered.
“You shouldn’t even think about these things until your balls drop.” Zola popped up from cover and one-shotted him through the chest. The boom sounded like a cannon and was so forceful that she swore she could feel its shockwave. The guy’s body stumbled drunkenly forward and toppled over. “Who sucks now, you little shit?”
“Oh, this one’s feisty,” another of the Incel Squad laughed. “Me likey!”
“As if you’d have a chance with any woman.” Zola found him on the map, taking cover on the other side of the wall, beside the open doorway. She switched weapons again, selecting a tear gas canister, and rolled it across the floor while laughing to cover up the noise.
“Oh, why? You play for the other team? Is that it, baby?”
“I play for both, thank you very much, but you couldn’t even get laid in a kennel.” If I keep him distracted for a few more seconds …
His character suddenly coughed and gagged. Zola smirked at the camera.
And there he goes. She lifted her right hand and flicked a finger toward the camera, finishing the move just as the guy collapsed. Another glance at the map showed the remaining pair trying to sneak through another room and those who’d respawned running back to the motel.
She pulled out a Molotov cocktail and lobbed it at the spot where the pair in the motel were about to emerge. Both of them grunted and spewed more profanity. Zola hopped over the rail, hit the ground and rolled, and sprinted for the other half of the motel.
“She’s trying to run away,” one of the others yelled. “Go around to the stairs!”
Perfect. She stifled another laugh and kept running until they found another proximity mine. She turned back just in time to see a pair of burning bodies tumble from the second floor to the parking lot.
One of them picked himself up -- but he had the disadvantage of standing beside a parked vehicle. Zola ran back to him and whipped out her Compact Grenade Launcher.
The grenade blew the car to smithereens and rocketed his body across the street.
A cacophony of laughter erupted from her speakers and she arched an eyebrow at the map. Over a dozen other blips appeared to be converging on the motel.
“Seems we have an audience.”
“Don’t worry.” She hadn’t heard the voice before. “We’re just here to watch.”
“We heard the whole thing,” another voice said. “Everything those idiots said to you. Mop the floor with ’em!”
“White knight,” the squeaker grumbled.
“Will do.” An idea formed and she guffawed. “Keep back, though. I don’t want any of you getting caught in what’s about to happen.”
“Oh, hohoho! I can’t wait to see this!”
Zola called in an air strike and watched six blips darting between the two halves of the motel while she held the flare. She estimated the spot they’d be occupying in a moment, tossed the flare, and ran like hell.
“There she is!”
The roar of a jet faded in from the distance and grew steadily louder.
“I’ve got her! Gonna take this sniper rifle and Jesus Christ!”
A rapid series of explosions drowned his voice out. Zola turned around in time to catch the last of a hail of rockets pulverizing the ground where her pursuers had paused to take aim. Their furious screams merged with cheers and applause from the onlookers. Zola leaned back in her chair and laughed until tears filled her eyes.
“Bravo,” one of the other players said.
“Thanks -- but I’m just getting warmed up.” She aimed a Kubrick Stare into her webcam. “These guys pissed me off and I’m going to run them out of town.”
Here they come again. Zola saw only five blips this time. Either one of them had lost interest and left or he’d called Lester Crest and had his blip removed from the map for a few minutes. Which is a good idea, now that I think about it.
She opened her phone, made the call, and smirked while walking over to the Trashmaster. She’d had her Deveste Eight delivered and hauled ass back into the city while her enemies regrouped. She’d spotted a garbage truck and another idea had popped into her head. She’d stolen it, called Pegasus and requested a Cargobob, then driven the Trashmaster to its pickup location. Then she’d used the Cargobob to lift the truck to the top of the Maze Bank building, set it down, and landed beside it.
She’d had enough of a head start to get into position before they reached her.
She placed five sticky bombs on the Trashmaster’s side and climbed in. Then she waited.
Their blips gathered in front of the bank.
“She was around here when she disappeared.”
“I’ll go around back and see if she’s hiding there. One of you circle around the other side and we’ll trap her between us.” Two blips began moving and the rest remained clumped together.
Morons. Zola stifled a laugh and punched it. The garbage truck rumbled to the edge of the roof, directly above the three blips.
“She hasn’t said anything in a while. Maybe she left.”
Zola drove the truck off the edge and it plunged straight toward them. She jumped out of the truck, deployed her parachute, and swung around to watch the spectacle, wondering if the Trashmaster would actually land on any of them. Which was why she’d planted the sticky bombs. As long as they were within the blast radius …
It came straight down on one guy’s head and crushed him to death, followed by three voices screaming incoherently and demanding to know what the hell had just happened. The truck toppled over and flattened the others. The two blips behind the Maze Bank charged back around to join them.
Zola touched down on a nearby roof, crouched at the edge, and selected her Hellbringer. She waited for the other two to get within range and tapped the G key to trigger the sticky bombs. The five simultaneous blasts flung all four of them in different directions, slapping one of them into the side of the bank. Three death notifications scrolled up above her map.
She locked on to the last survivor and noticed he had barely a sliver of health left. Laughing, she switched to her flare gun, locked on, and pulled the trigger.
Pffff! The flare bounced off him and set him ablaze.
“You f …”
The last of his health vanished and he collapsed in a burning heap. The player interrupted his own insult and took a deep breath.
Zola slumped over her desk and laughed until the room spun around her and splotches appeared in her vision. She forced herself to keep breathing steadily.
“Alright,” one of the guys grumbled. “Enough, already.”
“Oh, no. Hmm-mm. No. You started this.” Zola wiped sweat off her palms and returned them to her keyboard and mouse. “I’ve tattooed your names on my knuckles. I’m coming for you!”
“Oh, a mugger.” Zola watched the red blip approaching her position on the map and shook her head while turning and locking on. “That’s adorable.”
She lit the mugger up with her Hellbringer and smirked at the notification appearing above her map. One of the Incel Squad had sent him after her, alright. If they had any brains at all, they’d keep sending mercs and muggers after her to keep her distracted while they slipped up on her unnoticed. Maybe call in an airstrike. Or even enter one of their Facilities, assuming any of them had one, and hit her with an orbital strike.
Given their track record so far, she doubted they were smart enough to think of it.
“Oh, hell,” the squeaker said under his breath, followed by an indistinct woman’s voice. “In a minute. I’m right in the middle of something.”
Next came the sound of a door opening and the woman’s voice again, crystal clear this time.
“It’s past your bedtime, Mikey. Turn that thing off and …”
″Now, young man!”
“Mikey masturbates to pictures of me!” Zola burst into laughter.
Oh, she heard me! Zola collapsed in a fit of giggles. That’s why you should always wear headphones when you’re not alone.
“No -- wait!” Scrabbling sounds came from her speakers, then nothing. A notification that the squeaker had left the game appeared above her map and she nearly went into hysterics.
“Another one bites the dust,” she said once she’d caught her breath.
“This is lame,” said one of his buddies. “I’m outta here.”
Another snapped, “Wait a minute!”
“Hah! Down to three, now.” Zola aimed a huge grin directly into the camera.
“Go make me a sandwich!” The player left before she could even draw a breath.
“Coward.” Zola rolled her eyes and found the other three on her map. “So, who wants to get his ass kicked next?”
“Get the hell outta here! This is our game. You don’t belong here.”
“The phrase ‘no females allowed’ is nowhere in the game’s description.”
“You’re not even really playing. You have a dude playing while you’re on the mic.”
“I’m alone. You can see that on my stream. You can see my hands on the keyboard and mouse.”
“Fake news!” He laughed.
Zola brought up the list of players in the lobby, highlighted him, and removed herself from the map again. She drove her Deveste Eight to the waypoint, parked as soon as she spotted him, and got out. To distract him, she threw a grenade high over his head. It hit the pavement a fair distance past him, bounced, and popped just as an NPC drove a truck over it. The truck launched into the air and its momentum carried its burning wreckage over the three players’ heads. All three spun to face it and turned their heads to watch it soar over them.
Wow! That would never happen again in a million years! Never one to waste an unexpected opportunity, Zola switched weapons again, let out another gleeful cackle, and charged. She shanked the nearest of the three with a broken bottle, switched to the hatchet, and hacked another to death before the third gunned her down. She burst into laughter again.
“Down to two, now.” Zola waved bye-bye to the notification of another arch enemy’s departure. The remaining pair continued following her as she approached Fort Zancudo’s main gate. Having purchased a hangar there a while back, she could get onto the base without any trouble.
Whether the same could be said for her pursuers remained to be seen.
She aimed the “camera” backward to take a quick look at what was going on behind her. An Armored Kuruma plowed straight into the gate and stopped cold. The other guy, on a Shotaro this time, rear-ended him at high velocity and catapulted off the bike, shot over his buddy’s car, crashed headfirst into the gate, and died on impact. Somehow, his corpse flipped forward and ended up draped over the top of the gate. Zola belted out another laugh.
“That was awesome!”
She kept an eye on the map as she continued on to her hangar and spotted the Shotaro guy approaching Zancudo from the highway. She grinned, knowing exactly what he was about to do, having done it herself more times than she could count. She then found the guy in the Kuruma moving slowly around the base, trying to find a way in. She shook her head and entered her hangar.
Hmm. Haven’t taken this one for a ride in a while. She entered the B-11 Strikeforce and exited the hangar. Another quick look at the map showed her that the Kuruma was still bumbling around the edge of the base and the other guy was inside, having most likely ramped up the hill outside and jumped the fence.
His death notification appeared above the map and Zola snickered, knowing he’d just been filled with bullets by the base’s personnel. She focused on the other guy as she rose into the air. He’d finally found a way through the outer fence and ended up trapped between it and the inner fence. Zola climbed higher while he continued driving around the base’s edge, then she went into a power dive, lined up a shot near the Kuruma, and fired a short burst from her explosive cannon. It wasn’t a direct hit, so the car survived the barrage, but the splash damage was enough to kill its driver.
She giggled at the mental image of the guy being pulped by multiple concussions, pulled up, and glanced at her chat and stream notifications.
“Ah, thank you for all the donations. Let me know if there’s anything in particular you’d like them to go toward. And sorry for not thanking you sooner. I got all caught up in dealing out the punishment to these idiots.”
“Why are you going after us?” one of her arch enemies whined. “We were only joking around.”
Ah, yes, the usual fallback position when they get called out on their crap.
“Yeah,” the other chimed in, “whatsa matter? You don’t have a sense of humor?”
“My sense of humor is fine. After all, I laugh at things that are funny.”
“Why are you even here? Girls don’t play video games.”
“Obviously we do. The evidence for which has been kicking your ass all over Los Santos.”
“Get out of this lobby! You don’t belong here!”
“I belong wherever I decide to go.”
“You should be playing The Sims or something. This game is for boys.”
“Ugh,” she said under her breath, “shut up.”
“Hey, why you bein’ so hostile, sweetcheeks?”
“You need to ask after all the things you and your friends said to me?” She found him on the map and noticed the motorcycle shape below his gamertag. He’s back on an Oppressor. That could be a problem.
“Sounds to me like you just want attention.”
“Yeah, that’s it, isn’t it, sweetcheeks? You just wanted attention from a bunch of guys.”
“Call me sweetcheeks one more time and …”
Zola narrowed her eyes at the screen and caught sight of a Mark II in the distance. A few seconds passed and she realized it was flying straight toward her. She rolled her eyes.
Not too bright. She ripped him apart with her cannon, circled around to the one on the Shotaro, and dropped a cluster of bombs as she passed over him, no longer caring if she got penalized for destroying their vehicles. All she gave a damn about right now was forcing them to leave out of sheer frustration.
Another glance at the map revealed the other guy’s location and she changed course accordingly. She found him on foot, scurrying past buildings and under awnings as he tried to stay under cover. She angled downward, got him in her sights, and shredded him and every NPC and vehicle around him, then giggled at his latest profane rant.
Back to the map. The guy she’d shot off the Oppressor had yanked an NPC out of his car and sped off, heading out of the city and back to the north. She caught up with him as he reached the windmill turbines of RON Alternates Wind Farm and blew him off the road again. She laughed again at his predictable bellowed cursing and racial slurs, then she found his cohort on the list of players in the lobby and highlighted him as more donations, applause, and cheering came in.
She took a moment to drop some altitude and admire the windmills. There’d never been any where she had grown up and she hadn’t even seen one until her village had finally acquired a TV. She’d always enjoyed the sight and the Wind Farm was one of the environments in GTA that she liked to stop and just ogle. Windmills had always looked sort of alien to her. There was something majestic yet eerie about them that she just loved.
She turned away and headed for the other guy. The map showed his current location was near the hat and mask shop on Vespucci Beach. Once she reached the area, she circled around and approached the storefront straight-on to be sure he could see her coming.
“Oh, god,” he bellowed a few seconds later, ”no!”
Cackling, she opened fire and chewed up the storefront and everything around it. Her arch enemy let out another enraged scream and she laughed even harder.
“How long are you gonna keep this up, you petty bitch?”
Until you stop coming back. Zola rolled her eyes and found him on the map after he respawned. She headed straight for him.
A sudden explosion rocked her plane, followed rapidly by another, and she frowned.
Uh-oh. There was no lock-on beep and it wasn’t an RPG hit. Must be using the Heavy Sniper Mark II with explosive rounds.
Another blast shook the plane and it suddenly became harder to steer. Realizing the explosion had broken off some of its control surfaces, she ejected and plummeted for a few seconds before popping her chute to make herself a harder target. She pulled her phone out and had Lester hide her blip again as two more explosions finally took her B-11 out. She landed on a rooftop as the plane’s wreckage plunged out of the sky onto the beach, sending pedestrians running away screaming.
“Where are you?” he said under his breath. “Come on, where are you?”
You’ll see. Zola brought up her weapons menu again. Hmm. Let’s have a little fun with this. She selected the Up-n-Atomizer and slid off the roof. She found his blip some distance away, crept toward him, and took cover behind a parked truck. He walked into view, sweeping the area with his sniper rifle.
She lined up a shot with the retro-futuristic pistol and fired an energy pulse. It knocked him off his feet and sent him flying off to the left and out of sight. Snickering, Zola ran closer and found him picking himself up near the road. She locked on and fired again, blasting him right into traffic.
An SUV hit him first, bouncing him into the oncoming lane, where a Pißwasser truck slammed into him and finished him off with a hilariously sickening crunch. His lifeless body tumbled along the street and a Sandking ran over it. Ka-thump, ka-thump!
He let out another bellow and something crashed in the background. Zola wondered if he’d thrown his controller across the room.
A notification that he’d left the lobby appeared above her map. She burst into laughter, snorted, and laughed even harder.
“And then there was one.”
“Come here, you sonofabitch.” Zola fired off another sinister laugh as she chased him down in her Scarab.
“Where’s my sandwich?” He laughed, but it sounded a little forced.
“I’d shove it up your ass, but your head is in the way,” she growled. Sounds like I’m getting under his skin. He probably won’t stick around much longer. “What’s it like to see the inside of your own colon, by the way?”
He responded by spewing another stream of profanity and insults -- then he left. Zola stared at the notification for a few seconds and let her Scarab coast to a stop.
“Well.” She arched an eyebrow at the camera. “That was anticlimactic. But a victory is a victory nonetheless.”
“Nice,” one of the onlookers said. “You ran ’em out of town!”
“Thank you.” She flexed her fingers. They’d begun cramping up in the last few minutes. “So, kids, the lesson today is … don’t try to bully Zola. Zola doesn’t just fight back. Zola goes to war. Especially when it makes more content for her channel.”
More donations flowed in. She glanced at her notifications and found a handful of new subscribers, as well.
“I think that’ll be all for now. I need to relax after all the ass-kicking.” She smiled into the webcam. “Thank you all so much for the donations and subs and just for watching. I hope you had as much fun as I did. Again, if there’s anything specific you’d like your donation to go toward, PM me and I’ll see what I can do.”
“Think you’ll end up in the Bad Sport lobby?” a viewer asked as Zola reached out to close the stream.
“Probably.” She grinned and waved at the webcam. “Totally worth it, though! Goodnight, everyone.”
She ended the stream, made sure a local copy was saved on her laptop for editing later, then leaned back in her chair and sighed. Teaching those guys a lesson had been fun, but also kind of draining. Not that they’d learn anything from it, anyway. She was sure they’d be right back at it tomorrow, or even tonight, maybe even throwing the same crap at her all over again. And if not them, it’d be someone else. The bullying often came from different sources or took on different forms, but it never ended.
She started an invite-only session and waited for the rest of her team to show up. In the meantime, she called her mechanic and requested another of her favorite vehicles, the Coil Brawler, which looked like what would happen if a Humvee had angry sex with a Camaro. Just cruising around and taking in the scenery always helped her relax. Which, she realized now, she needed rather desperately after the barrage of harassment she’d just endured.
And would endure again. And again. And again. Still, for a chance to give the bullies the spanking they deserved and show it to the whole world …
Yes. Totally worth it.