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."