arkness provided a sense of security Risa had grown to trust. No sooner had she landed in the room than the primal part of her mind that had kept her alive as a child kicked in. The construct of plastisteel and menace stared down at her. A military model would surely have thermal vision. The faintest tremble rattled her limbs. Not since her first night alone in a vent with the scent of burned innocence in her lungs had she felt afraid in the dark.
For an instant, she heard her father screaming.
Her muscles tensed, waiting. A massive metal limb raised, two metal doors along the forearm opening to allow a weapon mechanism to extend.
Heat traced lines through her muscles as speedware boosted her perception, agility, and reaction time to the edge of human potential. She sprinted to the side, inches ahead of a pulse of laser blasts that melted spots into the storage room floor. It ceased firing as she dove into a somersault between a stack of cargo boxes and slammed to a halt with her back against cold metal. Heavy clonks reverberated off the walls of the chamber as the great war machine maneuvered in a circle, searching for her. Hazy ghosts of shipping containers shimmered for a second or two and faded as the Wraith detected them vibrate with each step the cyborg took. The one hope she clung to was the rarity of speedware in the heavy hitters―combat models of that size relied on armor and strength. Out in the open, its targeting computers could tag her no matter how fast she went in a straight line. Staying in close quarters, with plenty of boxes to hide behind, would be her only chance, especially since her laser pistols didn’t have enough power to penetrate its armor.
Risa shut her eyes and concentrated on the grey-on-black world fed to her senses by platinum wires. Motion illuminated a hulking phantasm. The vague approximation of the cyborg’s outline, estimated by acoustic resonance, shimmered among unmoving cuboids. She kept low and scurried on all fours behind cargo boxes, circling to the side in an attempt to get behind it.
It pointed its arm at the container in front of her.
Shit! It can see me.
She leapt to the side as a beam of orange light seared through her former hiding place. Wires in her arms and legs burned; her muscles screamed. Her dive landed in a roll that became a run. The already lumbering cyborg slowed further to her accelerated perception. Two more blasts left glowing smears in the scorched ground behind her. She skidded to an abrupt halt a fraction of a second before a third shot struck the ground where she would have been.
Of course this thing has a predictive targeting system.
A metallic growl of frustration tingled down her spine.
Pavo’s virtual head appeared in the corner of her eye. 「Risa, what the hell is going on down there?」
His crackling voice rattled her skull, interspersed with static. She had no time to answer. A zigzag run with random changes in speed got her behind another crate, though two near misses spattered her with hot OmniSoy slime.
Scraping nylon echoed from the shaft accompanied by puffs of dust falling into the room. Actuators whirred as the grey specter swiveled to face the disturbance. Knee to breast, she crouched. Ballistic stealth armor would not stop lasers; she had zero room for error. Speedware wires heated again. Over-tuned muscles burned, threatening to separate from her bones as they flung her lithe form through lingering dust, ten streaks of crystal gleaming from her fingertips. Everything turned green. She traded the Wraith for night vision as she flew up and over the stacked containers. Her claws raked at its forearm, shredding its mounted laser before the huge machine could react.
Risa twisted away from the blinding sparks.
A metal fist as wide as her chest rounded. She slipped under the punch, which caved the face of a one-ton cargo box in behind her. Concussion from the impact left her dazed and deaf for a few seconds. The arm lifted and came down. Like a sylph in the wind, she leaned left. Razor-studded knuckles passed a hair’s breadth from her fluid dance. She sprang back as the plastisteel giant recovered its balance. Her combat computer plotted dozens of amber octagons superimposed over its massive body, searching for weak spots.
I need bigger claws.
One of the octagons flashed and stayed brighter than the rest, highlighting an opportunity where the design of the armor plating offered a point of vulnerability. She waited for the ‘borg to lunge again, and slithered around the massive metal arm as its fist drove into the floor, denting it. Risa whirled about on tiptoe, swiping her claws across the upper triceps. Her diamond blades found a gap between armor panels, severing a control linkage and rendering the limb useless. She rolled away from a shower of electrical arcs and dark green fluid.
The cyborg spun its torso around to face backwards over its legs, raising its left arm. Expecting another pounding fist, Risa leaned back―but the punch turned out to be a ruse; her posture presented the perfect target for a grasping hand. Metal fingers as thick as her forearms closed around her chest, one beneath her arm, one over each shoulder.
Struggling was useless, screaming even more so.
The cyborg held her aloft like a hamster in the grasp of a huge, murderous child. She gave up on straining against the unyielding grip and lanced ten bladed fingers into the back of its hand, digging them in as hard as she could. Hot lubricant streamed onto its chest and filled the air with the stale, metallic flavor of grease and metal shavings. Her legs pedaled as it swung her from side to side, looking for something to smash her against.
The hundred-pound bomb bounced off the cyborg’s head, knocking it three steps to the side before tumbling end over end to the ground. The monstrosity held her higher and swiveled in search of what had hit it. Metal irises dilated to their widest with a whirr-click at the sight of the NE6 brick. It backed up another step, gaze drawn up to a rope hanging from the ceiling. Pavo slid down, landing astride the bomb, gun raised. A bright orange line seared the darkness as he put one shot into its cheek before it swung Risa out in front of itself, a ragdoll shield.
She tugged, unable to dislodge her claws from the thick armor, trapped within a cage of enormous fingers. The only chance she had lay in Pavo and his roguish smirk.
I am going to die.
Grunting, she struggled to pull her tiny blades out another quarter-inch. “You’re late.”
Metal fingers crushed her ribs and gouged into her back. Legs dangling limp, Risa swayed with each motion as the sentry adjusted its hold to keep her in Pavo’s line of fire. She swallowed the urge to whimper. I always thought a screw up would involve a bomb, like with Genevieve. A lone tear ran down her cheek. That’s gotta be a better way to go… she didn’t feel a damn thing. Probably didn’t even have time to think ‘oh shit.’
Pavo grinned and winked. “Is that thing military enough for you to kill?”
Risa bristled at the voice, unable to tell whether Pavo was mocking her or if he merely had a lousy sense of humor and even worse timing. Her peripheral vision shrank to a blackening haze as the grip forced the air from her lungs. She yanked at the blades; they refused to dislodge from the armor-plated hand, sending threads of hurt up her fingers as though she attempted to tear her bones out. There’s nothing but plastisteel in there anymore. She gritted her teeth in pain. At least the skin’s still mine.
The arm torqued left, foiling Pavo’s aim, and the sharp motion tugged her claws loose by a millimeter. The last of her breath leaked into a desperate moan. Risa stopped pulling on her claws and tried rocking them. Pavo aimed high. The cyborg jerked its arm upward in a hard, precise shift. He dove to the side, landing with a whump, and tried to aim under her, but the machine shoved her down too fast for him to get a clean shot. The jolt from the rapid motion knocked her right hand free. Nano claws gleamed in the dark. She scrabbled at the wrist joint, scratching rather than stabbing. Three frantic swipes clicked over plastisteel. Synthetic diamond blades grown with an edge one atom wide scored the dense metal like a knife on frozen butter. She kept scraping as Pavo played the distraction. Seconds later, a blue spark flashed from its wrist.
It thrashed her up and down, but she held fast. After six more raking slashes, the main strut of the wrist failed with a loud crack. She landed on her feet, staggering backwards under the weight of the giant severed hand clamped around her. Despite a weak growl of determination, her legs refused to support the burden, and the severed appendage dragged her to the ground. Without power, the Myofiber muscles in the fingers slackened enough to let her draw in a rattling breath. Laser blasts streaked overhead; the first, a surprise, burned into her electronic retina, painfully bright to her night vision.
She held the scream long enough to smother it with her forearm and tried to curl in on herself defensively, but the fingers that still caged her torso pinned her down. Her eyes reverted to standard vision as more laser pulses flashed overhead. Eight shots in five seconds: two hit it in each eye and four went into the mouth. The cyborg’s angry roar degenerated into digitized warbles. Something inside its head exploded with a spray of orange sparks. The machine bent forward and toppled over with a heavy, clattering crash. Black smoke poured from metal eye sockets that stared at her like the void.
The faint double beep of Pavo’s MDF-12 heavy laser pistol announcing itself ready to fire again broke the silence. Risa lowered her free arm from her face, and blinked at the prostrate combat machine―snaps of light flashed in the hollow eyes and fire burned in its mouth.
He shot its eyes out…
Pavo approached the bomb, holstering his weapon and gathering the duffel. “I know you’re not big on asking for help. You don’t even like working with someone else. I’ll assume you got that.”
Risa gingerly grasped each claw of her still-trapped left hand with three fingers and wiggled them loose. Once she had both arms free, she swung them from side to side, trying to roll on her back, but couldn’t budge the massive piece of scrap locked around her body. With its palm at her chest, she had little leverage to bend the fingers curled behind her. The thumb under her right arm seemed like a better target, but it refused to move.
Damn. Her face burned with embarrassment. Asking for help was as good as being dead. Help was never a guarantee. She extended one claw and tried sawing through the base of its index finger, but succeeded only in leaving shallow scratches.
“Watching you stuck like that would amuse me for days, but we don’t have that kind of time.” Pavo hooked a hand around the finger over her shoulder and dragged her across the room.
Feeling like one of those toys from a grippy-claw game, she glared at him.
Serious face softened as he lifted her into a sitting position and propped her back against a cargo box. “I won’t make you ask.”
The genuine quality in his smile proved impossible to scowl at. She averted her gaze, certain her snow-white Marsborn face had gone pink. Resignation set in and she retracted the claw. While Nano blades could cut almost anything, their effectiveness on hard materials depended on the amount of strength one could put behind them. Vibroblades did most of the work for you, but those didn’t come in finger sizes.
Pavo spun her around and grasped the fingers behind her back. She glowered down at herself as he grunted and pulled; dark-green fluid burbled from the ten little holes her claws made with each tug. He managed to get the thumb and index finger open far enough for her to squirm free. She curled forward, head atop her knees, and breathed deep for several seconds. No one said anything about a damn Class 4 cyborg. Pavo leaned on the shipping box, hovering so close his breath moved her hair.
She lifted her head. His slate-grey eyes widened with concern.
He looks sincere… like Garrison. Risa pulled her hair away from her face. The only thing I ever see in men’s eyes is lust or the fear that comes with the last seconds of life. She reached up, tracing her fingers over his armored chest. What would it feel like to touch a man without trying to kill him?
Distant footsteps, too faint for him to hear, distracted her from her fantasy.
“They’re coming.” She slipped under his arm and bounded to the door leading deeper into the facility. Claws snapped out in mid-swing, slashing open an access panel. She picked among the wires, hunting for the two flashing ones in the schematic diagram her eyes generated. “Pavo?”
He came up behind her, the burden of the explosive audible in his gait. “Yeah?”
The door hissed open and the circuit map faded to darkness. She fought the urge to look at him.
“Mmm,” he grunted. “Don’t mention it.”
Risa stood still, taking a deep breath while listening to the sound of activity outside. Rifles chirped, doors squeaked open, boots struck metal flooring.
She bowed her head in meditation as her hands tightened around the pistols hanging under her arms. “What?”
He flashed a crooked smile. “I won’t tell anyone.”
Heat raced down her limbs along wirepaths embedded in her flesh. She lurched through the doorway into the corridor, entering the viscous time of accelerated perception. Arms uncrossed, her weapons slipped from the harness. Soldiers in maroon battle armor emerged from parting doors. Two violet targeting reticules darted about, unaffected by the slowed time. Her brain pulsed. Each cybernetic eye slaved to its own pistol, spatial processing offloaded to a Russian-made Cerberus multitasker. Her arms moved as if two copies of her consciousness shared one body: right eye to right pistol, left eye to left. Each targeting spot landed on a man for mere hundredths of a second. To her, it felt like shooting paper targets on a training range. Emerald light streaked, flesh charred, and the scent of burned plastic fouled her nostrils. Sprays of boiling blood fanned into the air in a gentle cascade, suspended as one second stretched to ten. Abandoned rifles floated, dead men lingered on their feet. Twenty yards, two seconds, and nine corpses later, she stopped. Her speedware shut down; death hit the floor.
None of them had even reacted to her.
Pavo peered around the doorjamb, blinking at the marionette askew. She stood at the end of the corridor, back to him, head down, guns aimed at the floor, heat blur surrounding their transparent barrels. He stepped over the bodies, lugging the bomb.
“Sweet shit, girl. I thought you said you didn’t like killing. That’s more like the stories I hear.”
“I don’t like it. That doesn’t mean I’m not good at it.” Risa holstered her guns and shredded another door panel with a claw swipe. “Besides, they were soldiers.”
“How the hell did the Front afford a tí-zhèn?” He gawked.
“I’m not an assassin.” I hate killing, but if you call me that one more time, I’ll make an exception.
A patch of fire burst forth from dying electronics, wavering with a trace of acrid polymer smoke. The sight of it caused her father’s scream to replay in her memory. I don’t even know how long ago he died. How old am I? In her mind, she huddled in the dark as flames consumed the only family she had ever known.
“You okay?” Pavo nudged her. “You’re just standing there. The door’s open.”
Risa glanced at him. For an instant, she wore the face of a terrified eight-year-old. “I’m fine.”
He stooped to grab a dropped rifle. “If that’s fine, I’d hate to see you get angry.”
She shot him a momentary look and stormed past the doorway, heading down a narrow corridor with metal-grate flooring. A few inches below, five parallel runs of glowing fiber-optic cables flickered in a utility space. The ghostly image of a map hovered at the top-left corner of her vision, rotating to keep forward oriented to the top of the ‘screen.’ Her hardware made it almost impossible to get lost, even in a place she’d never been before. Despite her rapid stride down several corridors, Pavo kept up with a lackadaisical stroll.
However many years it had been, she had still failed to find any trace of the person responsible for ordering her father’s murder.
After a sharp right, Risa halted at a door marked with Cyrillic text. Her eyes provided the English annotation: Primary Lab. Pavo cringed as she raised her arm, but rather than call a spray of sparks with her claws, she rested her pale hand upon an emerald-green metal panel. Two bright lines passed below her touch, one vertical and one horizontal.
As Raziel said it would, the code lock accepted her handprint.
Long white tables laden with terminals and other scientific-looking equipment lined a massive room on the other side of the door. After forty meters, stairs led down to another space full of larger machines. At the farthest point, a huge white sphere stood in an alcove carved from the wall, shrouded in fog. Women and men in white coats froze where they stood, eyeing the pair with evident alarm. She stepped in, glancing left and right. A mixture of pleads came in German, Russian, and Spanish. Words appeared in a scrolling line along the bottom of her view: “Who are you?”, “What do you want?”, “How did you get in here?”, and so on.
She thought about yelling ‘everyone out,’ and translations populated her vision.
“Alle raus, schnell. Hier raus.” Risa tried to pronounce the words drawn upon her retina. “Vybirat’sya!”
To underline her point, she fired a laser blast into a random terminal. The workers dove to the ground.
Pavo shook his head. People looked up from the floor, motionless until he waved his rifle at the door and made an explosion sound. “You should get a language chip instead of whatever you got translating now.” He took a breath and yelled, “Wir können nicht zulassen, dass Sie die unschuldigen zu töten. Vse von!”
“Yeah, yeah. I should do a lot of things.” She jogged past rows of workstations, glancing at screens that showed medical charts, chemical diagrams, and human test subjects in tiny, white cells, rotting on their feet.
Some of the victims had skin sloughing off in sheets. One man watched his fingers liquefy, but fainted before the effect made it to the wrist. A screaming, nude woman went into convulsions as all of her skin split and sank to the ground like a wetsuit coming off. Seconds later, her muscles melted to burgundy liquid and she collapsed.
Risa recoiled and looked away as she passed the workstations. That’s why an angel wants me to kill people. She exhaled. Maybe some of them will escape. She jogged down six steps and navigated a grid of huge machine cabinets. Manufacturing equipment that produced nanobots. As much as she didn’t want to believe it, these people were making a bioweapon capable of liquefying targeted people, anything from one specific person to ‘twenty-eight-year-old males’ to indiscriminate. The ACC could eradicate everyone with the Marsborn gene tweak. Risa fumed.
Raziel had told her to connect a neuro-memory stick to the computer and wait at least forty seconds before setting off the bomb. Destroying this place won’t do much good if they have the data. She pulled a small, plastic fob from her belt and connected it to the last terminal by the nanobot fabricator.
“Need forty seconds,” said Risa.
Pavo tromped past her toward the tank. “No problem.”
Twitching silver hoses overhead connected each unit to the large white orb. Puffs of mist seeped from the occasional pinhole. She walked past the machinery and climbed a metal staircase to a catwalk ringing a spherical tank at least three times her height.
Even through thick steel, the odor of Cryomil stole her breath and blurred her vision. A half-inch layer of ice encased the thing. Touching it could freeze skin to shattering. Cheap bastards. Single-hulled tank. Foolish. Pavo set the duffel on the catwalk, pulling the cloth out of the way and opening the panel.
She looked back and forth from the bomb to the ice. “I don’t think we’re going to be able to mount it to the tank.”
Pavo’s usual unimpressed face had taken a vacation. He looked up at her with pure dread in his eyes. “We could put this at the door and it would still go. Cryomil’s a bit touchy. You’d make a great couple.”
“To be honest…” He poked a few buttons. “Having this damn thing within a quarter mile of a tank that big scares the hell out of me.”
Her anger evaporated as she backed down the stairs. “Yeah. Me too.”
“Okay, that’s it.” He jumped up. “Time to go.”
Risa hit her speedware and ran as fast as the wires could push her body. Out in the hall, she plowed into a mass of panic-stricken workers. No one paid any attention to her; she was nothing more than another body in a crowd fleeing for their lives. Grunts and shouts rose up behind her. She struggled to look, but caught a glimpse of a white lab coat for only a second before a man ran straight into her. Speedware couldn’t help without room to move. The strength of the crowd behind him, he swatted her little body to the floor. Pavo leapt on him, driving his fist into the man’s face. Blood and teeth went flying, and the scientist dropped as still as a corpse.
Risa sprang to her feet and grabbed on to random people, letting the current of the throng carry her forward. An eternity of jabbing elbows and grasping hands passed before a hard clap on the back dragged her free of the writhing mass. Pavo pulled her along for a few strides. To the right, the crowd amassed against the elevator doors, fistfights breaking out.
Those people… Risa didn’t have time to feel. That would come later. She got her legs under her and wriggled away from Pavo’s hand once they broke free of the panicking scientists. Only the two of them moved deeper into the facility, everyone else crammed into the single exit hallway. Risa ran ahead of Pavo, following the route back to the storage room and the salvation of a thick, nylon cord that thankfully still hung from the ceiling. She leapt the last six meters, wrapped herself around, and climbed. The rope drew taut as Pavo grabbed hold. Risa hauled herself up hand over hand until she got a grip on the hatch and pulled herself up into the space under the drop building.
The unconscious guard remained where she’d left him. She spat again, remembering the taste of blood as she crawled away. Yeah, so much for non-lethal. Risa grabbed his arm and tried to drag him as Pavo emerged from the ground.
“What are you doing?” He slithered out onto his stomach. “We gotta get the hell out of here.”
“We can’t leave him.”
“Sure we can.” Pavo crawled three feet before stopping when she didn’t move. “Fine. Go, I got him.”
Risa scooted backwards, watching until Pavo seized the man by his armored collar and hauled him along. She sprinted back up the trail, eager to get the protection of a ledge between her and the ticking bomb.
Pavo threw the guard to the ground by the prowler’s tire as she crouched at the edge. Flat on her belly, Risa waited. Numbers ticked down in the bottom right corner of her vision. Breaths gasped from her lungs, kicking up puffs of red Martian dust. She stared along their footprint trail at the crowd of panic-stricken lemmings stampeding out of the drop pod. Shouts of desperation echoed in her memory. People who had worked together for who knows how long had bashed each other’s heads against the walls, fighting to get in the elevator ahead of everyone else. Some stragglers slowed, unsure of how far away they should be.
Pavo wiped blood from his fist and tossed the rag. “You sure you want to watch?”
The cloth, crimson and white, fell in front of her. She cringed.
“We’re far enough here, right?”
“Probably.” He shrugged. “Maybe.”
She sprang into a squat. “You don’t know?”
“I’ve never demoed that much Cryo before. Who the hell knows what it will do?”
Threads of burn raced down her muscles as she sprinted for the prowler. “Shi―”
The rumble started as the toe of her right boot touched the ground, and the crimson soil pulled away. She windmilled her arms, caught in midair. A dome of dirt burst through the former scientific outpost, rising two hundred meters high. Shafts of brilliant blue light pierced the clods, as if an ascendant angel erupted from below. Drop buildings scattered skyward like toys. In her relative slow motion world, a visible concussion wave raced closer; she let herself go limp. Impact hurled her forward. She tucked into a ball and slammed into the ground, bouncing once before she slapped flat against the side of a nine-foot-tall tire. A curtain of dust roared around her.
Not far enough.
When the fury ceased, Risa tried to force herself upright. She clawed her way out from under a layer of dirt and rocks deep enough to be a shallow grave. Bits of burning clothing and ash snowed around her with the unmistakable fragrance of charred human flesh. She grabbed on to flanges of tread on the tire and dragged herself out into the open. After a few breaths, she staggered upright. Less than three meters from the prowler, the ground fell away into a massive conical void. Patches of blue flames dotted the hole wherever Cryomil soaked the ground.
She folded her arms and stared at a crater large enough to have eradicated the entire underground complex. It’s all gone… In the distance, a few workers picked themselves up. Maybe ten survivors out of fifty staggered around, smeared with dirt, and dazed.
What are we doing?
A distant clunk announced the arrival of one drop building back to the ground, more than a mile away. Twisted scraps of metal, body parts, and mechanical debris thudded, plopped, and clanked as far as she could see.
The crunch of a boot announced Pavo’s approach, but she couldn’t look away from the survivors.
“Nothing left of the place.” Pavo swatted at his coat. “I think we’re good.”
Risa’s gaze fell on a fragment of charred hand a few inches in front of her boot, settling upon a wedding band. “No… We’re not.”