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Igms issue 29, p.4

IGMS Issue 29, page 4


IGMS Issue 29

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  "Probably the same kind my bot uses," Alec said. When there was no hostage to worry about, those darts didn't hold tranquilizer. "Neurotoxin. Almost instantaneous."

  That's what the techs had told him when they oriented him on his bots specs. Dead before they felt the dart. Very humane. Alec felt the skin on his back crawl, and his eyes traced the dark bulk of the ducts hanging behind the bright fluorescents.

  Bodi cursed. "We have to go, old man. The others are dead."

  "We make sure." Taylor stepped to the next door and popped the latch, edging to the side as it swung open. He snapped a quick look inside. "Areva's there. I see the dart. Let's move to command."

  Areva. Black despair bubbled up, and Alec's jaw clenched as he fought to hold himself together. Across the hall, Taylor watched him, eyes knowing, waiting. Forcing himself to nod, Alec swallowed the fear and pain and fell in line with the others, watching their backs.

  Bare feet and slippers scuffed over the floor until they reached command. Taylor stopped, snatched a quick look into the room. "Sam's down. There's damage to the controls. Lucy, how big was that bot?"

  Lucy had stopped sniffling and had been moving grimly with them, searching the pipes above with terrified intensity. "Cat-sized, maybe."

  "It could be anywhere in there then. Okay." Taylor flexed empty hands in frustration. "We cut across fast. When we get to the lift, me and Olivia will deal with it. It's probably been disabled. The rest of you keep watch. Lucy look up, Alec back, Bodi everywhere. Got it?" They nodded and the squad leader held up three fingers. He slowly folded each one in, and on the last he moved through the door, not running, but fast. Olivia hesitated for a second, then pursued him. In a line they moved through command.

  The big room was silent, their rig alcoves empty and dark. Alec caught the sharp, stinging smell of burned out electronics, and below that, the ugly stink of shit. Sam lay sprawled on the floor, the tech's eyes blankly staring. Alec didn't see any blood or dart, but the bowel smell was hideously strong near the body and Alec knew the man was dead.

  He ripped his eyes away and went back to chasing the shadows around the room. Nothing, but if the thing was cat-sized . . .

  A ringing clatter of metal made Alec spin, rising up on the balls of his feet, and he barely stopped himself from snapping a kick into Bodi's head.

  "What the -" Alec hissed, and Bodi rose from his crouch, holding the metal clipboard he'd knocked onto the floor. Alec took it from him, unthinking, and jerked his head toward the others. "Whatever. Go."

  In front of the lift, Taylor and Olivia stood together muttering while she tapped the unresponsive control. "Pop it," she said, giving up. "There'll be a ladder in the shaft."

  Alec turned his back on them, remembering his job and staring at the cluttered menace of command, waiting. Trying not to wonder if the bot waited too, crouching like an evil jack-in-the-box on the other side of the lift doors.

  A grunt, then Olivia said, "Got it. Lift's halfway up. We'll use the ladder. I don't see the bot."

  "Guess we're safe then," growled Bodi. "It's gonna let us climb right outta here."

  "You have something to offer, Bodi?" Taylor's words were chipped ice, and the big man stayed silent. "Alec, can you -"

  "Oh, screw that. I'm not waiting." Olivia swung onto the ladder before Taylor could raise his hand to block her. The ruddy LEDs in the shaft flickered over her as she climbed, closing quickly on the lift's stopped bulk.

  Taylor stepped into the shaft, eyes up on Olivia. "Keep watching our damn six," he said.

  Alec turned away, obeying the order though he wanted to watch Olivia, desperate to see her make it, to think he might make it, too.

  That's when the laughter began.

  It crashed through the air, high-pitched and maddening, stabbing Alec's ears like a knife.

  He spun, dodging Lucy as she fled the lift shaft's dark throat. The source of that psychotic glee.

  Olivia hung on the ladder, just below the stuck lift. Across the shaft from her a black metal monkey howled, then flung itself through the air to land beside her. It clung there, chittering, one of its skeletal hands reaching for Olivia's face.

  Olivia jerked and her scream twined in with the bot's maddening cacophony. She lashed out, and the bot met her hand with claws. She screamed again.

  "No!" Alec howled, useless. An arm wrapped around him. It was Taylor, mouth working as he yelled something, and Alec realized the old soldier was pulling him back.

  "What do we do?" Alec shouted, trying to cut through the paired shrieks.

  Taylor may or may not have heard him, but he shook his head and reached for the doors.

  Alec realized what the old soldier meant to do.

  He reached out, fumbling with the clipboard he still held, and jammed his foot against the closing doors. Taylor jerked his head, but Alec stayed still and looked up. Olivia still hung on, her clothes streaked with blood, and the bot clung beside her, plucking at her with red-tipped claws. Then it paused to twist its skeletal monkey face toward Alec, jaw swinging open.

  Alec stared at the dull, silver square of the clipboard, barely realizing he'd raised it. It vibrated from the impact of the dart he'd blocked. He didn't feel Taylor shove him back, didn't feel himself falling to the floor. The doors to the lift crashed shut, and Alec dropped the clipboard to stare at the scratch marring its back.

  "Instantaneous," he said. "Instantaneous." A litany against shock.

  Beyond the doors, the maddening voice of the murderous bot stopped. In the quiet, there came the muted sound of one last scream that ended in a dull crunch.

  "Instantaneous," Alec whispered again.

  "There's no way out," Lucy said. "We're trapped down here."

  "Fifty feet of dirt." Bodi stood in the center of command, staring up at the shadows overhead. "Signal can't reach through that."

  "Somebody strung a wire." Alec stood with his back against the wall, eyes roving the room as his body shook with adrenaline aftershocks. "Dropped a relay down and let their signal in." They'd done that once, when some arms smugglers had hidden themselves in an ancient cistern.

  Lucy curled in a chair, small and motionless, watching Taylor methodically tear apart the equipment lockers. "We're top-secret. Nobody knows about the Hole."

  "We know," Bodi said, and his blue eyes shifted to Alec.

  Sure, blame the new guy. As if you people had any trust between you, Alec thought. He touched his face. "That's where the dart would have hit."

  "Maybe you asked for too much money," Lucy whispered.

  Across the room, Taylor slammed shut the last locker, the metal clang making them all jump.

  "We have an hour, maybe two before anyone shows up to see what the hell's going on. Depends on how long the home office dicks around while trying to figure out what happened to communications. That thing's gonna want us dead before then. Which means we don't have time for this."

  Bodi flicked his hand, waving away the squad leader's words. But he stayed silent, searching the darkness behind the hanging lights.

  Lucy chewed her lip, but her eyes left Alec and went back to Taylor. She watched him kneel below a wrecked workstation, popping free a panel to stare into its electrical bowels. "It isn't fair. Santa Maria wasn't our fault."

  Santa Maria. The name carved into Hastings' chest. "What the hell was Santa Maria?" Alec asked.

  "A village. Down south somewhere. The customer told us . . . They said they had an informant. There was a lab making drugs, patent infringements, toxic stuff. Guy said it was in Santa Maria. So they dropped us for a scour."

  Thin and high and painful, the bot's laugh rattled through the vents, then faded. Lucy uncurled and launched herself up. "It wasn't our fault!"

  "I don't think it gives a shit," Bodi sneered.

  "What happened in Santa Maria?" Alec asked again.

  Did it matter? Doubtful, but if he was going to die for someone else's sin, he wanted to know what it was.

  "There was nothing t
here. No lab, nothing. Just piss-poor dirt farmers. The customer had bought bad info. We could tell coming in. Taylor told us to hold off. But Jackson, our old monkey-man, went nuts."

  Lucy sagged back into her chair, never looking away from the duct work above. "His bot was packing a flamer and he let loose, burned half the village before we even knew who was shooting. Yelling about taking fire. So we all opened up. It was all fire and screaming and people running. Hastings hollering, but we couldn't see crap with the smoke, then the village's fuel cell went up and we lost Bodi and Olivia's bots. Less than a minute, and we went from getting ready to pull back to complete flaming fubar."


  "Taylor screamed at us until we stopped shooting. We got the downed bots and pulled out. When we de-rigged, Taylor clocked Jackson. Almost broke his jaw. Whole squad got docked for the mission and Jackson got sent down to Beta team. That's how you ended up with us."

  Alec remembered the prickly tension when he first joined, the evasive glossing of what'd happened to the man he'd replaced. "You think this is revenge?"

  "Look at Hastings. Look at what this thing's doing. Playing with us. Torturing us. We wiped those people out, and somebody's pissed." Lucy shook her head. "But it was a mistake. If they want to punish somebody, they should be going after that informant. Or Jackson. Not us." She flashed a smile at Alec, a tight-lipped grimace. "You weren't even there."

  "Well, maybe he could tell that to that bot next time it pops up," Bodi snapped. "Maybe whoever's riding it will feel sorry for him. Right after he rips monkey-boy's face off."

  "Thanks for the image, Bodi." Alec leaned over to stare beneath the workstation. In the shadows, he could see Taylor crouched over his tablet. The soldier tapped it, slid out a memory key and flipped it into the tangled innards of the station. Snapping the panel back on, the old man straightened, meeting Alec's questioning eyes with a level stare.

  "Did you fix it?" Lucy asked, voice threaded with hope.

  "No." The bot-monkey's laugh came again, sourceless, terrifying. "We need to move."

  "To where? There's only one way out of here," said Bodi.

  "Somewhere more defensible."

  "Defensible? You planning to fight? With what, a rolled up newspaper?" Bodi snarled a laugh. "We've got nothing down here. Soon as that guy gets bored messing with us, he's going to kill us all."

  "I know. I just want to make him work for it."

  "Okay," breathed Alec. He had no idea what Taylor was up to, but the man was moving. Which was better than standing still and getting slaughtered. Alec forced himself away from the wall and started to follow Taylor, but he stopped to look back at Lucy. "C'mon."

  "He hates us, y'know," Lucy said. "Cause we're not real soldiers. Not like he was."

  "It doesn't matter," Alec said. "We're real soldiers now."

  Taylor lead them towards the mess, Alec close behind, Lucy riding his back, Bodi behind her. Eyes were focused on the ducts above, so no one caught the bot coming in low until it was too late.

  Alec had just moved past the conference room, trying to ignore the thick blood smell, when Bodi howled. Alec whipped around and saw the big man falling, the bot a slashing blur around his leg. Alec froze as the thing carved Bodi's calf to ribbons, terrified it would turn and stare at him, its mouth gaping open.

  But Lucy moved.

  She launched herself forward, foot slamming into the drywall and propelling her body up and over the heaving battle and into the conference room. The bot paused its claws to watch her sail by, then turned back to rake bloody trails down Bodi's thigh. The maddening laughter began to spill forth again.

  Through the noise, Taylor shouted, "The mouth, Bodi, the mouth!"

  The chairs in the conference room were heavy, laminate things, and Alec wouldn't have guessed Lucy could have picked one up. But when she stepped back into the hall, she held one over her head and smashed it down like a baseball bat.

  The fake wood slammed into the bot, smacking it down. If the strike hadn't also fallen on Bodi's kicking legs, it might have done serious damage. As it was, the bot shook itself, limping slightly as it scrabbled to the side, and lined Lucy up as she swung the broken chair at it. It ducked, spit, and a dark blossom bloomed on Lucy's chest. Without a sound she crumpled bonelessly to the floor.

  "Damn you," Alec screamed, and now he could move, jerking forward to charge the thing. It turned its head towards him, and he could see the barrel of its dart gun. Alec knew he was going to die. But crimson flared, Bodi rising up, raging. Bellowing curses, the big man wrapped himself around the bot, trying to tear it apart with his hands.

  "Go," Taylor grabbed Alec's collar and yanked him back. "Go!"

  Alec looked from Taylor to Bodi, who was beginning to jerk and scream as the bot tore into his belly. "Now!"

  Alec went, running with Taylor away from the slaughter. Away from the sight of Bodi's blood, splashing across Lucy's unblinking eyes.

  The pantry was in the kitchen, a small room lined with shelves of food and cleaning supplies. Taylor slammed the door shut behind them, trapping them in its narrow confines.

  "What the hell are you doing?" Alec shook with fear and adrenalin and shame. "Why do you keep running?" Why am I running too?

  "Tactics." Taylor dipped into his pockets and pulled out a handful of memory keys. "Tactics in service of strategy. Know your enemy."

  "What are you talking about?"

  "Syracuse Securities is under attack. Since I've signed myself to the company, it's my job to defend them. Right now, that means I have to let them know who their enemy is. Give me a soda."

  Alec stared at him, uncomprehending. "What kind?"

  "Surprise me."

  He took the purple can Alec handed him, cracked it open and popped a memory key into his mouth, chasing it with a long swallow. Then he gave the can back and held up another key. "Your turn."

  Alec eyed the key, the soda trembling in his hand. "First you're going to need to tell me what the hell you're doing."

  "I know who's riding the signal out there. I know who moves like that when he's in a bot, because I've watched him before. That's Jackson Clay stalking us out there."

  "Jackson. The one you decked? The one that works for Syracuse?"

  "Inside job, right?" Taylor waved the key he held. "Swallow it. They'll find it on autopsy. I encoded a file explaining what I think is going on and copied it to these keys. If I'm lucky, Jackson won't even know I'm hiding them."

  "But the Maria thing -" Alec began, reaching for the key.

  "Distraction. This is all about money, I'm betting. Wonder who bought him? Bet it's those pricks at APD. I don't know if they set us up with Santa Maria or if Jackson just took advantage of an opportunity to get himself kicked out of my squad. Worked for them either way. "

  Taylor worked quickly, searching the shelves for food containers where he could hide the remaining keys. He seemed focused, almost happy. Alec found it strangely calming.

  "He'll kill us, and then Syracuse will try to cover it up. But whoever's paying him will be sure to leak it, probably with playback from that bot. Syracuse will lose its best team, have to explain a major security breach to its clients, and have a giant PR disaster with the Santa Maria thing. They may shut down signal operations altogether. And Jackson will skate away and sign on with his new company, non-compete clause gone and a handsome bonus tucked away in some grey-market data vault. Nice plan. Care to dick with it?" He smiled again, a ragged old wolf's smile.

  "Sure. Got nothing better to do, do we?" Alec forced a smile, and felt his courage grow, just a little. Survival might be a fading hope, but revenge seemed possible with Taylor in the lead. He placed the key in his mouth, tasted its plastic case, then raised the soda can and drained it.

  "Simple plan. This pantry is the only room in the Hole without a drop ceiling or duct work. He can't sneak in here. He'll either have to wait for us, or he'll have to drive us out." Taylor pointed at the door. "When we think he's out there, I'll go
first. Let him think you're going to try to hide it out."

  "Why you?"

  "I don't think he'll dart me. He'll want to take his time with me. Like with Hastings. Jackson hated to be told what to do."

  It made sense. If Jackson had been smart at all, he would have shot the old man first.

  "I'll go and try to dance with him a bit. I'll try to block his darts, like Bodi, but I'd rather not use my belly. I'll try this instead."

  Alec watched his squad leader reach into a bin and pull out a piece of red-skinned fruit. "Your plan is to get into a wrestling match with an infiltration bot and then shove an apple in its mouth."


  "An apple."

  The manic light in Taylor's eyes dulled. "Alec. We've been ambushed. We're trapped with no weapons, no tools, nothing except pajamas and snack foods. We have a state-of-the-art military bot hunting us, run by someone who knows this place as well as we do. We only have a few minutes before he decides to take us out. We're going to die."

  He paused, and Alec wondered if Taylor was waiting for him to deny it.

  "So we wait," Alec said.

  "We wait," Taylor repeated. "Then we fight."

  "Like Lucy and Bodi."

  In the corner, a mop rested in a yellow washtub and Alec reached for its handle.

  "Lucy thought you hated her," Alec said. "Hated all of us. Thought we weren't real soldiers."

  "I did." Taylor turned the apple in his hands. "This RC merc stuff. We're too safe to be soldiers. I've worked with this squad five years. We were good, but we were never a team. We could work together, but at the end of the day we went our separate ways and never looked back."

  "It didn't use to be like that?"

  "No. I've worked with people who make this group look like a knitting club." He shook his head. "Soldiers can be a rough bunch. But when it was your ass on the line, when you knew your life was in the hands of your squad-mates, it created something. Something like a family. War was the worst thing I ever saw and I could never decide if it was worth it. It hurts too much, even for the winners. But the trust, the strength, that could be built out of that horror. The way a squad could change from a group of punks to this thing, this working, functioning whole. It's like alchemy. The signal and the bots took all that away, and we're left with just the shit."

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