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Igms issue 29, p.5

IGMS Issue 29, page 5


IGMS Issue 29

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  Alec's hands turned until the mop handle squeaked free of its socket. "Okay." He hefted the handle, now a badly balanced staff, in his hands. "I get that. Gotta tell you though, I kind of liked the safety."

  "Yeah. Safety has its nice points." Outside, metal rattled in the kitchen. "You ready?"

  "Taylor." Alec wiped the sweat from his palms. "Taylor, I've never . . ." He felt his face flush, hot with shame for the words he was saying, for the quaver he couldn't keep out of them. "I've never fought, for real. I'm . . ."

  "Terrified." Low laughter sounded outside and something thumped against the door. "That happens. Try not to let it slow you down." Taylor reached out, rested a hand on Alec's shoulder and stared him in the eye. "Truth is, you don't have much of a chance. But it's your only shot, and I want you to take it. Because personally, I can't stand the idea of that bastard getting away with this. I'd appreciate it if you survived and kicked his ass. Can you do that for me?"

  "I can try, sir."

  "Trying's for civilians. Do or die, soldier."

  "Do," Alec said grimly.

  "There you go." Taylor dropped his hand, turned, and grabbed the door handle. "On spot."

  Taylor opened the door and stepped out. Alec waited a second, then slid silently to the door, listening. Through it, the awful laughter bubbled.

  "Cut the crap." Taylor sounded calm as ever. "Let's go." There was the slither of metal on metal, and then a crash and a grunt of pain.

  Alec gripped the door knob, white knuckled. What if he calls and I can't go? What if I just stay stuck here, pissing myself, until that bot slits my sorry throat? What if - Beyond the door, a scream echoed and the bot's laughter shrieked like storm winds.

  Then Taylor roared, "Now!" and without thinking Alec slammed out the door.

  Taylor and the bot thrashed together on the floor. Blood painted the old soldier, his arms and face licked with the crimson marks of steel claws, but he held grimly on to one shoulder of the bot while his other hand ground the apple into mush against its jaw.

  Alec rushed forward and the bot saw him. Its claws danced across the inside of Taylor's arm, releasing a fountain of blood. Taylor's hand spasmed open and the bot twisted its face toward Alec, mouth gaping. Alec pulled the staff back, too slow, and then Taylor swung his shredded arm around. The blow was nothing, weak and uncoordinated, but the blood pulsing like a fountain from the old soldier's severed artery splashed across the hideous monkey face, coating its optics.

  Alec spun on his feet, swinging the handle, its momentum helping him twist as the blinded bot spat. The dart whispered through the air where Alec had been. Then the staff struck, smashing across the machine's mouth and sending the bot crunching into the wall. Alec hit the floor hard beside Taylor. The old soldier's eyes were on him, bright for a moment, then gone, rolling up and vanishing as the man's life poured out his veins.

  No time, and Alec sprang up, staff spinning. The half-blind bot crouched on the floor, still howling its insane laugh. It pointed its ruined jaw at him and Alec felt his body lock, waiting for death to take him.

  But no black dart sprang from the wreckage of the little bot's mouth. Alec's whole body eased, and he swung the mop handle up into ready position.

  "Right," he said. "Let's go."

  Howling, the bot flung itself at him.

  Alec timed the leap, slipping to the side just enough to dodge the reaching claws, then slapped out with the staff. The mop handle's end caught one of the bot's rear legs and sent it spinning through the air. Momentum carried the staff though, cracking it against the stainless steel edge of a counter. The cheap wood splintered.

  "Too bad, monkey-man." The bot's voice, high-pitched as its laughter, drilled through Alec's head as he backed away. "You almost made it."

  Alec shifted the broken staff in his hands, snapped it over his knee, finishing its breaking. Now he held two splintery short sticks, not nearly as good as the crappy makeshift staff they'd been.

  "Almost?" he said. "You haven't touched me yet."

  "I've been busy."

  The bot slid around the end of the kitchen's central isle. One leg dragged behind it, hanging on warped struts and pseudo-muscle, but it still moved, razor claws clicking across the tile. Not nearly destroyed, but Alec had hurt it enough that its rider was talking to him, taunting him. Not sneaking up on him, like he would if he still could.

  The bot crouched before Alec, a deadly clockwork monkey with a broke-tooth grin. "Busy playing with your friends. So much fun, monkey-man. Will you be as much fun?"

  "Try -" Alec started and the bot moved, launching itself off the floor, even with one leg broken. Alec pulled the clubs up, barely managing to deflect the bot with one splintered tip.

  Claw's whickered through the air, missing Alec's neck by a hair's breadth. The bot hit the counter behind him, rolling and slashing. Alec felt the claws slide across his back, gouging furrows through muscle, bouncing off vertebrae, then carving through the flesh on the other side of his spine. He lunged forward, trying to flee the razors that had already cut him, rolling across the floor.

  The pain hit him, a scourge of fire, and Alec arched as he rolled, strangling on a scream. He came to rest beneath the sink, trying to force away the blackness surging in on him from the edges of the world, threatening to swallow everything.

  Fighting shock, he twisted to face the tiny demon pulling its way across the tile toward him.

  "You might be a little fun, monkey-man." The bot stopped a few feet from him, empty glass eyes gleaming brighter than its blood coated claws. "Not as much fun as that old man. Or that fat bastard Bodi." The little bot cocked its head, staring at the line of blood flowing towards it from where Alec sat. "Not even as fun as Areva. At least I finally got to check out her rack. After she died, of course."

  Alec clenched his teeth and shifted. In one hand, he still held a splintered club.

  "You're -" he rasped out, but the knife of agony that twisted in his back as he moved stuck the rest in his throat.

  "A bastard?" The bot slipped a little closer, claws flexing. "You don't know the half of it."

  "No," Alec said, slumping back. "You're him. Have to be, to be this much of an asshole."

  "Him?" the bot asked, gliding forward, smooth despite its handicap, closing for the kill.

  "Jackson Clay."

  The bot stopped its slippery movement, jerked its head up in the perfect imitation of a surprised human, and Alec struck.

  No pain, no weakness - not for this moment when adrenaline shocked through him - and he drove forward with the broken club in his hand, smashing it into the bot's body. The jagged splinters that tipped it tangled with steel bones and carbon wire tendons. Alec caught the bot and pushed it up into the air, surging to his feet.

  The bot howled, its piercing voice stabbing through Alec's head, but he spun and slammed the thing down into the sink's metal bowl. Claws dug chunks out of Alec's club, one of them catching the tip of his ring finger. Its metal blade sliced through his nail and the flesh beneath, but Alec barely felt it. He kept his weight on the club, pinning the bot down, sliding it toward the wide black hole in the sink's center. When the bot's broken leg slipped down into that maw, Alec slapped the switch on the wall beside him.

  In the sink's black throat, metal teeth gnashed together. Steel shrieked against steel, and the black metal monkey pinned under Alec's broken weapon flailed wildly as the garbage disposal bit into its leg, jerking it down.

  "Fun?" Alec rasped out, but the tiny war machine jerked itself free from his club. Alec stabbed the weapon back down, trying to catch the bot again, just as the disposal gave a crunching cough and died, a scorched plastic stink pouring out of it.

  For one moment, the fight stopped, Alec bent over bloody with his splintered club, the bot squatting like a broken toy. Then it moved.

  Shoving off the stainless steel bowl, it carved its bloody claws through the air an inch from Alec's nose. Alec flinched back. Then his body gave up, stopped listenin
g to his demands and fell, hitting the floor, his club clattering away from him.

  "Damn," he whispered, staring up at the edge of the counter above him, fighting to keep his eyes focused on the claws scrabbling against it. Waiting for them to find purchase and pull the bot up. Waiting for it to fall on him and tear him apart, like it had done to Bodi. Waiting.

  Claws scrabbled, scratched, clanged, and Alec finally understood. "Can't get that leg out, can you?"

  "I'll tear it off and come for you, monkey-man," came Clay's voice over the signal, twisted into a demon's squeal by the bot's throat.

  "Don't take too long," Alec said. "When they find the info we left naming you, I imagine Syracuse is going to want to have a long talk."

  "Oh, you mother -" The crunching shriek of steel tearing into steel drowned out the rest of the curse.

  Alec cursed too, a hiss of pain as he shoved himself across the tile and forced himself upright, his shredded back pressed against the refrigerator. Braced against the cool metal, he watched black lubricant gout from the sink like blood, watched steel claws reach over the edge and slowly tighten, pulling the shredded skeletal monkey up and over the edge until it tumbled to the floor in front of him.

  "Give it up, Clay," Alec said, trying to sound cool, not desperate. "You don't have the time."

  The broken bot pulled itself over onto its belly. One leg was torn away, the other uselessly twitching. Its body was battered and warped. One long arm was curled in on itself, but the other pressed against the floor and raised the little war machine up until the dark glass of its optics met Alec's eyes.

  "I'll make time for you, monkey-man." The bot shifted, forcing itself forward, one metal-boned hand reaching and pulling. Alec watched those dark claws work and tried not to think, tried not to hurt, tried to just be, and that's when he saw the thing's other arm shift, saw what it held in its broken claws.

  A dart, sharp and deadly, ripped from the broken clip in its throat.

  There wasn't time any more for terror or pain.

  Alec whipped his legs away just as the bot's long arm lashed out, driving the dart down where his ankle had been a second before. Letting his momentum spin him, Alec slammed his hand down onto the bot's thin wrist, catching it in a death grip, pinning that deadly sliver of steel.

  The bot growled and slashed out with its free hand. Alec jerked his head back, barely feeling the thin cuts that those steel blades drew above and below his eye. Keeping his grip tight, he turned, and swung the little bot in an arc that ended in the flat face of the refrigerator.

  The thing jerked with the impact and tried to bring its free claws around to catch at Alec's wrist, but he was already pulling himself up and shifting his whole body to swing the machine back the other direction, smashing it down over the steel edge of the sink.

  Alec pulled the bot back and swung it again, and again, ripping the metal monkey through the air in smooth arcs like some terribly balanced three-section staff. He slammed it into the dented metal until his torn back finally seized up and dropped him to the floor, the shattered ruins of the bot crunching to the tile before him.

  Lying on the floor, trying to breathe through a body tight with agony, Alec watched the cracked claws of the thing twitch, curl, try to spread.

  "This isn't over, monkey-man." The words, a broken whisper twisted with static, barely reached him despite the sudden silence. Then the bot spasmed, its black skeletal shape curling tight on itself once, then relaxing until the hideous thing stretched limp across the floor, its soul gone with its signal, a dead thing.

  "No," Alec answered, when the words would finally come. Blood rolled down his arm, dripped off his mangled finger, and ran across the tile beneath the broken bot, joining the crimson pool that surrounded Taylor's body. "No, it's not."

  "And here." The man from human resources smiled across the clinic's bed as Alec signed the last page of his contract.

  "That it?"

  "That's it," the man said, gathering up his tablet. "You're part of the Syracuse Securities family for another four years."

  "Good," Alec said. Something on his face made the HR man's smile slip, made him swallow whatever response he'd been about to offer. Instead, he headed toward the door, stopping only when Alec called after him, "Is my clearance back?"

  The man nodded.

  "And that pic I wanted?"

  "In your mail, with the rest." He ducked through the door, gone.

  Alec barely noticed. Wincing at the pain from his healing cuts, he picked up his tablet and pressed his thumb to the access pad. The screen sprang to life, all the commercial feeds he'd been stuck with for the last few days joined now with Syracuse's golden icon. He tapped it and brought up his mail.

  There they were, hidden under all the condolences, get-betters, and the not-so-subtle reminders of his confidentiality agreements from Syracuse's VIP's. Pictures of Jackson Clay's abandoned condo; security footage of his car slipping across the border; forensics of his hidden bank accounts. Flicking through it all, Alec came to the last intelligence analysis. Gone to ground. Location unknown. Seeking sources. Capture recommended.

  Capture recommended. Syracuse wanted their traitor, and they wouldn't stop until they found an informant that would sell him out. It might take months, years even, but it was just a matter of time before they sent a team after him. Time.

  Alec's fingers moved across the screen, pulling open the last mail file: A picture of them all, standing around the control room. Getting ready to go on a mission, it looked like. Olivia yawning, Bodi with his back to the camera, Areva the only one smiling. They must have pulled it from one of the security cameras. It wasn't like they'd ever posed for a group shot.

  Alec ran his eyes over each figure, landing last on the grey-haired man who stood half-turned away from the camera, facing the empty rig alcoves where they rode the signal. Was he frowning? Alec couldn't tell.

  He set the tablet down and swung his feet out of bed.

  Despite the drugs, his back burned when he stood, but Alec ignored it. Therapy began tomorrow, but tonight . . .

  He shifted just a little, balanced, and took the first stance of his favorite form. Held it, until the ache crept up his back, down his legs. Filling him. He stared at the picture of his team and ignored the pain.

  Time he had, now, to heal.

  But not to forget.


  by Jared Oliver Adams

  Artwork by Eugene Carter

  * * *

  The village of Ferrol was small, and their cloudsinging hill was nothing short of pitiful, but they always managed to draw huge crowds. Whenever Case came through, work stopped immediately, even if it was harvest season. It was just that sort of town. Loved a good story.

  And boy what clouds. Come mid-summer, you could count on obsidian black cloud-walls towering overhead. Sure, stormclouds were volatile, harder to shape. Most cloudsingers avoided them. But Case wasn't most cloudsingers. He was going to be one of the greats, and to do that you have to take risks.

  Today Case was going to tell the story of Dalian's Bow, a tragedy if ever there was one, and the heavy dark clouds overhead would provide just the ominous tone he needed. When it came time for Dalian to die, Case would have the whole crowd weeping. And maybe, just maybe, when the people of Ferrol went back to work after this reprieve, they'd look up at the sky and be a little more noble, a little more courageous. Maybe the clouds above them, and the world around, would feel a little less mundane. He got to the cloudsinging hill at dawn, sitting cross-legged and opening up his mind to the sky. The wind whispered over the bare skin of his chest as he closed his eyes and breathed in the coppery taste of the rain to come. In his mind's eye, a picture of the clouds formed, and the wind he felt against him slowly resolved into light blue lines. With those lines he could pull the clouds where he wanted, could shape them. He tugged line after line and drew the clouds toward his hill.

  It took hours to coax all of the clouds over to the shabby little h
ill, but when he finally opened his eyes again, the village of Ferrol did not disappoint. Every farmer, hunter, and milkmaid in three leagues was sprawled out on their backs around him, row upon row. They'd done it silently too, out of respect.

  Had to love Ferrol.

  Case stood up slowly, his legs stiff from sitting for so long in one position.

  "Today," he intoned, "today a story of blood, heroism, love, and a bow." While he said it, he used small motions of his hands to tug at the wind-lines, pulling a wisp of cloud from the stormwall overhead and using the wind to shape it into a bow ready to loose its arrow. Then he moved a larger block of cloud out overhead to make Dalian, speaking the introduction in the manner of the great cloudsinger Jenivette. Might as well stick to the classics.

  Great of arm, strong of wit.

  Dalian, was he.

  Brow of stone, shrewd eyes hooded.

  Poor, doomed Dalian.

  Hair short-shorn,

  of noble born,


  Who loved greatly,

  but gave his heart wrongly.

  Case launched into his own rendition after that. In Case's version, Dalian was the bastard son of Lord Ner, instead of a legitimate noble. He worked his way up through the ranks of the army because of his archery skill, and found his way into the King's court as a bodyguard. Case thought it sounded better that way, for Dalian to earn it. It also allowed Case to work in a battle at the beginning, complete with horsemen bearing down upon Dalian as he picked them off one by one. He used big blasts of air when Dalian shot each horseman, so that the dark cloud that made up the riders dispersed into stylish streaks when they were hit. Oohs and Ahs all around. It was always best to start with an action scene.

  Only once Dalian was in the palace, and close friends with the King, did Case introduce Didesda. You messed up the whole story if you brought her in too soon. Case formed her full-figured, with hair flowing over her shoulders and down past her knees. Dalian look at Didesda and smiled, but when he looked away, Case transformed her hair into a bed of snakes, rearing up to bite. That was the hardest bit in the entire story, shaping the hair like that. He'd practiced it for months.

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