Riding the Signal

8,400 words

Alec Chu traveled the high road, swinging his bot through the trees. The wet branches shook with the storm’s convulsions but penetrating the kidnapper’s camp perimeter was easy from up here, and the rain and wind didn’t touch him. Not in the Hole. When you were riding the signal, theatre conditions were all only tactical concerns.

“On spot.” White light flared through the trees and thunder rolled, but Lucy’s voice came in clear. Storms couldn’t touch the signal. Before the thunder faded, the rest of the squad echoed her. “On spot … Ditto … Ready …” Taylor, Bodi, and Olivia. Alec landed his bot on a thick branch, dug his claws in, and stared down at the miserable collection of huts mired in the mud below. His optics lit four green stars in the brush, marking where his squad-mate’s bots crouched. 

“Alec?” Hastings, the mission conductor, back in the Hole. Alec could hear a lighter snapping behind his words. That old bastard always waited until their bodies were strapped into their rigs and their minds were halfway around the world before he lit up. So much for a healthy work place. “Gimme status.”

Safe in Albuquerque, in the Hole with his squad, wrapped, wired, and tubed into this teleprescence rig. Sucking your smoke. Thinking like that could ruin a mission. Alec drank in the data pouring into his nerves and became his bot again.

“I’m good.”

“Right. Five on spot. Squad Leader Taylor, confrontation command is yours.”

“Command accepted, Conductor Hastings.” Taylor’s voice snapped, crisp, across the signal. “You know your assignments. Time’s everything. Olivia, start the clock.”

“Absolutely.” Olivia’s normally laconic voice was tight with adrenalin. Before her word finished, the night vanished.

Two bars of light pulsed through the jungle. They paused for nanoseconds to burn through the thin obstacles of corrugated steel and wooden beam, steel drum and gasoline. Then the camp’s fuel supply and generator whirled themselves apart in shrapnel and flame.

Time, and Alec, dropped. Steel claws flicked out, catching branches and bark in a controlled fall that slammed him into the mud in the middle of the panicked mob of men who were stumbling blind from their bunks. They weren’t his job, though, so he left them for the guns of his squad while he knuckle-ran toward the cinderblock building that squatted before him. 

Gathering momentum, he charged its door just as it swung open, spilling figures into the night. Convenient, he thought, and spit.

The darts leapt from his mouth and bit into their targets, spilling fast-acting tranquilizer. One fighter howled as he tumbled to the ground and Alec spit at him again, not wanting any chance of interference. Leaping the bodies, he lunged for the closing door.

Vaulting up, his claws sank into the wall and he swung his short legs forward, smashing the door back open. Then he let go, crashing down to land on the man who had been trying to lock him out. His victim howled and Alec spat down once, then raised his optics to search the interior.

On a rusted bed frame, a man lay tied, a cloth wrapped tight around his eyes. Another blood-spotted rag on his forearm covered where the kidnappers had torn out the trace-chip.

“Gordon Ashway?” Alec’s bot voice growled, probably terrifying, but the man was sharp enough to guess what was happening.

“Yes. Company send you?”

“Yep.” Alec sliced the ropes and stepped back, calling over the signal to the team. “Client found. Transport to me.”

“Roger,” Taylor said. “Lucy, forward to load. Alec, warn the client, I’d like Olivia to give us some cover.”

“Hold on a sec, Mr. Ashway.” Alec reached up with his claws and pressed the blindfold back over the prisoner’s eyes even as the man tried to strip it away.

“What?” The room lit up, light avalanching through the barred window and marking every tiny gap in the wall and roof. Outside, screams greeted the brightness. “What’s going on?” The man was doing well, considering, but hysteria edged his voice.

Alec pulled back his claws and let the client remove the blindfold. The man’s eyes widened, seeing the dark ape-thing crouched before him, a monster wrought of steel, carbon, and silicon.

“Your rescue. Follow me, please, and we’ll tuck you safe inside a transport bot.” Alec drew himself up and sketched a bow, wishing again that the company wasn’t so uptight about appearances. A little bow tie and a bowler perched just right on his bot’s head might make a world of difference to their clients.

Not likely, though, he thought, leading the ashen-faced man out toward the pregnant-centaur shape of Lucy’s transport bot. Syracuse Securities was, unfortunately, run by the traditional assortment of humorless corporate prigs.

§

“Eyes on me, people. I’m talking money.” Hastings stomped into the Hole’s plush briefing room like a bald bulldog in khakis and waited for them to settle while he chewed the end of an unlit cigar. The mission conductor managed to be the perfect image of a hard-bitten old soldier, even though he’d spent his entire life ensconced in the military-industrial complex’s civilian side, a middle-manager in Syracuse all the way back to the good old oil days.

“Whose money?” asked Olivia as she put down the pick she’d been running through her damp hair.

“Your money. You’ve got a mission.”

“We just finished a mission,” Bodi said, a chunky Apollo resplendent in a crimson silk robe.

“Exactly. And since you geeks did it so well, the customer wants another.” Hastings fingers tapped across the touch-screen inset in the table and an image bloomed into life on the wall behind him. A map of the same verdant failed-state they had just visited over the signal.

“That camp was right where the informant told us it would be, so his reliability rating just upgraded. So the customer paid his price for the location of this ransom racket’s leaders.” A red dot appeared on the map, in the middle of what had once been a walled resort community. “Customer’s decided these pricks should go away. So we’re going to ask them to leave. Firmly.”

“What’s our turn around?” asked Taylor. It was the first thing the squad leader had said since they’d all pulled out of their rigs and headed for the showers.

“Twelve hours. Theatre techs have to juice and maintain the bots, and we need to hang a stealth eye over the target.”

“That soon?” Alec said, the now-familiar nervous excitement gripping his belly at the thought of combat.

“We have to act before the target realizes it’s been compromised,” said Taylor. 

“Whoa, wait. Twelve hours?” Bodi shook his head. “I have plans tonight. A hot piece of tail named Emilio has an appointment with my—”

“Sorry, Bodi,” Hastings interrupted. “Your boy Emilio wants to saddle up tonight, he’ll have to find himself another cowboy. Syracuse doesn’t want to take any chances on this, so you’re all staying here and getting some quiet, non-intoxicating R&R. I’m sure you remember the pertinent clauses in your contract, right?”

Bodi swore, but before he could protest again, Olivia spoke. “Bonus?”

“Double bonus,” said Hastings.

Olivia gave the company man a smile. “What’s for dinner?”

“I can throw something together.” Areva, the med tech, leaned against the back wall with Sam and Kamil, the signal techs. “There’s plenty in the kitchen.” Her bright brown eyes rested on Alec’s. She’d asked him out once, not long after he started with Syracuse. He’d begged off, uncertain about the company’s opinion on interoffice romances, but he’d been reconsidering. He smiled back, but the tech looked away when groans echoed around the table.

“Yes, it’ll be vegetarian,” Areva snapped. “You think you can do better, the freezer’s full.”

“I’d recommend trying whatever it is she makes and pretending you like it,” Hastings cautioned. “Remember who straps your junk into those rigs.”

The mission conductor chewed his cigar and eyed them all. “Tactics team in the home office is pulling in the data. Preliminary plan should be ready by six hundred. So I want to see you all stuff your faces and hit your bunks. It’s going to be an early day.”

Bodi grumbled, but everyone else seemed cheerful, the prospect of a night trapped at work and an early morning no problem with the promise of a double bonus. Alec stood and began to turn toward the kitchen when Taylor spoke.

“Good work out there today.”

“Thanks.” Alec felt a surge of pride at the compliment. An old-school soldier, unlike Hastings, Taylor was quiet. He’d been special forces, though, back when that meant putting your flesh-and-blood on the line. Meeting Taylor had done more to attract Alec to Syracuse then their benefits package, and he valued the old soldier’s approval.

Taylor added, “Dropping through their perimeter like that saved time, and maybe the hostage’s life. Not many people could have done it. Your ability to ride a brachiator’s impressive.”

Lucy moved over to them, smoothing her damp hair. “Impressive? It’s insane. Our old guy, Jackson, he thought he was a monkey-man, but you make him look like a sick sloth. I have trouble with the transport sometimes and it’s just a quadruped.”

“Damn, Lucy,” Bodi said, smirking. “You need all those extra legs just to walk straight.”

“Bodi,” Lucy snapped, “Why don’t you shut up, or I swear I’m going to—”

“Going to what, you scrawny—”

“Stop.” Taylor’s cold voice snapped through the squabble. “This is done. Understand?” They nodded, Lucy sullenly, Bodi amused. “Go.”

Alec watched them leave, wondering. Six months on the squad, over a dozen missions, and Alec still didn’t understand how these people fit together. He looked back to Taylor, about to ask the old man, but the look of disgust in the soldier’s eyes checked his tongue.

He headed for the kitchen instead, and left Taylor alone with his tablet and the images of the battle they had fought just forty-five minutes ago, a world away.

§

Alec lay in his bed, considering the volume of earth above him. The Hole was fifty feet underground, hidden beneath an office building in the Albuquerque suburbs. A secure data site for a bank that had fallen in the Big Crunch thirty years before, Syracuse Securities had snapped it up on the sly. A hidden bunker from which to run its missions was a valuable asset. Syracuse didn’t have many friends besides its shareholders, and remote-control mercenaries weren’t popular either. The Hole kept them secret and protected the source of the signal that connected them to their bots. 

Alec hated the place. It was, in fact, exactly the opposite of his dreams.

With a sigh, Alec reached for the tablet he’d left on the nightstand. Tiny pictures danced across it until he found the one he wanted. Their official group photo. One hundred and ten of NASA’s best and brightest, all dressed up in their uniforms. Alec still had his at home, wrapped in plastic. He looked at it sometimes, mostly when he was drunk.

With an angry snap, Alec flicked off the computer. The Little Crunch had hit right before Aries Five should have left orbit and taken them all farther than any human had gone before. One year, that close to the payoff of a lifetime spent in school, in gymnastics, in wu shu classes, training his mind and body to run exploration bots across the rust-red Martian dust. Then the Western economies had hiccupped again and sent the politicians into a panic. Too much money, too many resources, and the mission got shelved before it began. Someday, NASA told them as they mothballed the ship. Then they were reassigned. Or, like Alec, cut loose to find some new use for their hard-won skills.

So, he had.

An RC merc. The metal muscle of the old economies. Riding the signal into whatever hot-zone, failed state that had decided to be difficult. A job he’d never wanted, and in the almost-year since he’d signed on with Syracuse, he hadn’t told anyone, friends or family, what he did. He didn’t want to talk about it.

Especially once he realized how much he liked it.

Sleep wasn’t coming and lying there wouldn’t do him any good. Maybe Areva was still up, and they could share some cocoa in the kitchen. Alec pulled on jeans and t-shirt, opened the door, and stepped, blinking, into the hall’s unwavering brilliance just as the screaming began.

§

The blood stench filled the conference room, strong enough that Alec could taste its coppery flavor. 

“Damn,” he whispered, staring at the body sprawled across the table.

In the hall, the pounding of feet buried Lucy’s panicked curses and he flicked a quick look over his shoulder to see Taylor outside the door.

“Status, Chu?” Taylor asked, voice steady. The question eased the terrified tension in Alec’s throat.

“Hastings is dead. Something carved him up.”

“Something?” Taylor stepped into the room, eyes searching the corners, the space beneath the table, coming to rest on a missing ceiling panel.

“Lucy thought she saw a bot,” Alec said, nodding toward the hole. “Going in there.”

“I did see one, dammit,” Lucy snapped.

“What the hell? I thought we were stuck in this hole to get some sleep.” Bodi stopped next to Lucy, hair tousled. Olivia slipped past him and stopped, whispering one almost-silent syllable when she saw Hastings’ corpse.

“Squad, shut up. We have a situation.” Taylor’s hands twitched, as if hunting for something to hold. “The Hole’s been breached. Did you hit the com, Alec?”

“Yeah.” Right after he’d seen the slaughterhouse in their conference room. “Nothing. Probably cut the com cables first.” 

Beside him, Olivia lifted herself up on her toes, giving her scant height another inch. Probably so she could read the name, Santa Maria, carved into Hastings’ chest. 

“We should go.”

“Yes.” Taylor laid out the orders. “Form up. I’m in front, Alec in back. We’ll swing through the quarters, cut through command, and get to the lift.”

“Lift’s just down the hall,” Bodi said. “Why go back—”

Taylor cut him off. “Because we haven’t seen the techs yet.”

“Then they’re dead. We need to—”

“Cut it, Bodi. We stick together, and we stay tight. No one gets left behind. Stay silent, and sensors sharp.”

Not sensors, not now, thought Alec as they began to move down the hall. This was the real deal, and his body quivered with adrenaline. He watched their six, trying to emulate Taylor’s predatory calm. Trying not to think of the horror that had flashed in the eyes of the men he’d hunted with his own bot hours before.

§

They found Kamil in his bunk, motionless. Taylor sent in Olivia with a flick of his hand.

“Gone,” she whispered. “Dart in his back.”

“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 LED’s 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 there. 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’s and Olivia’s bots. Less than a minute, and we went from getting ready to pull back to complete flaming fubar.”

“And?”

“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 leads 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 who works for Syracuse?”

“Inside job, right?” Taylor waved the key he held. “Swallow it. They’ll find it on an 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.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

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 listening 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 VIPs. 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.

Originally published in InterGalactic Medicine Show, July 2012.

 

 

Gary Kloster is a writer, librarian, martial arts instructor, and stay-at-home father. Sometimes all in the same day, seldom all at the same time.

 

Stories of his have appeared in Apex, Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, and other fine speculative publications. His first book, Firesoul, is out now.

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