Fireteam Freelance Episode 12: Black Site Bora

This is it! Episode 12 of Fireteam Freelance! The episode is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.

A reminder that all episodes of Fireteam Freelance are posted in pre-Alpha, pure draft state. As such there may be minor errors, typos, etc as a result of being pre-edit. But you’re getting it for free, so that’s the trade-off.

Black Site Bora

Tonight … Owl thought as their VTOL flew over the ocean. Tonight. She moved to run her hands down the length of her weapon, only to pause when they met no resistance.

Of course. Her weapons were racked. Where they were supposed to be. Not because she didn’t want them docked on her back. But because the anti-material rifle was large enough that sitting down would no longer have been an option had she done so.

She placed her hands in her lap, staring down at them. Tonight. Outside the VTOL the sea of Othotsk stretched away on all sides, a cold, pale expanse of blue slowly fading to grey as the light of the sun sank vanished beyond the horizon. They were coming in slowly but steadily, operating with none of their ordinary stealth protocols. Instead they were broadcasting the same signals and codes as Piggy’s transports and had even spent a few hours bonding exterior decoration to their craft so that they were closer to the sensor profile. It wouldn’t pass a visual inspection. But usually by the time anyone made those the Stalker was close enough it wouldn’t matter.

She took a long look around the cabin, feeling a sudden pang at the knowledge that it would be one of her last, whether or not she survived the mission. This thing’s been as much part of home as the tower was. But they couldn’t take it with them with where they were going. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t survive the night.

It’s been a good gunship. Served us all well.

Especially mo—

She snapped her eyes back forward. It was not the time to think about it.

“Owl?” She looked up as Ursa spoke, toward the giant of a woman sitting across the cabin from her. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” It wasn’t a lie. Not really. “Just thinking about things. It will be a shame to leave this gunship behind.”

Ursa nodded. “It’s been a really good aircraft. I hope this partner of Apatos’ is good on their word about what we’ll find when this is all over.”

“And doesn’t just dump us out the rear of a VTOL on the way to orbit?” Anvil cut in.

“Apatos considered the commander a friend, and we know the commander considered her one,” Adah added. “We have to trust it won’t come to that. She’s been truthful so far.”

“She’s still a former crouper,” Anvil retorted. “I’ll keep my gun loaded. Just in case.”

“That’s just good advice in general,” Ursa said with a shake of her head. “But still …” Her head tilted back, looking around the interior of the VTOL. “This thing’s been as much a part of home as my old apartment. I’m going to miss it.”

“Speaking of our old places,” Anvil said. “Do you think there was anything left of your contraband stash for them to find?”

“Probably. I’m just glad I didn’t lose it.”

Owl perked up, looking right at Ursa. “What was that?”

“I didn’t lose it. Not the digital stuff anyway.” Ursa shifted in her seat, tapping one of her armored pockets. “I kept backups on a data card. The moment there was an alert, I grabbed it.”

“One data card?” Anvil sounded unconvinced.

“A lot of the stuff is old,” Ursa replied with a shrug. “Or text. So yeah, it all fits on one data card. I’ve got it on me right now. I lost all the hard copies of stuff I had, like my scriptures, but the full, illegal text is still right here.” She tapped the pocket once more. “I didn’t want to lose it. Not just because it’s mine, but because a lot of it shouldn’t be lost, you know? Sure, some of it isn’t that important, but some of it is. Some of it shouldn’t be forgotten.”

“Well,” Adah said after a moment. “I suppose even if Apatos’ ally doesn’t come through after all of this, one of us will at least have contraband to sell.”

“Pisces may not like that.”

“Will we care?”

With that, the conversation died, each of them going silent once more, and Owl turning her visor down toward the deck.

I wish I’d been able to save just one thing. I wish I’d been there. Maybe if I had, things would have been—

Again she cut her thoughts off, wrenching her mind to another track. You can’t dwell and waste your time on what might have been. Only on what you can do. The therapy app had advised her of it, though not in the same words.

At least her loss hadn’t been total. The rest of the team is still alive. And I got to kill Piggy. The memory of his death put a grim smile on her face. The sick bastard. Dead and gone. She’d lost friends to him, back when she’d been on the streets. Or rather, to his organization. It had been a good form of income among the lower dregs of society. She could still remember some of the “eyes” that would come by from time to time, knocking on doors of poor homes and shanties. “Your child is very pretty,” they’d say. “And you have so many mouths to feed. Perhaps we can help you with that?” Then they’d offer money—not much, but enough to tempt many.

And if they didn’t take the money and the eyes were desperate, there were always methods of force. What was the life of a poor soul in slum somewhere compared to the pay an organization like Piggy’s could make selling someone to a rich CEO or UN official?

Even if we die tonight, if none of this works, at least I got to put a bullet through his sick head, and bury his compound in fire. Better yet, Apatos had confirmed a strike of her own through the agents she’d infested Piggy’s network with, altering his commands, orders, and records in the event of his death. Those beneath him in the organization would face contrary accounts of what had happened and who was to next take command of the organization. As well as a few notes straight from Piggy’s private files fingering various members of the ring as suspected to be selling him out. With any luck, the next few weeks would mark nothing but violent inner turmoil among the remaining agents of Piggy’s operation as they fought for control of the organization.

Three months after that, assuming they hadn’t found Apatos’ agents yet, said agents would dump everything to the freewebs, exposing the entire organization and hopefully upending some of their operations. Between a potential power struggle and a literal war … It wasn’t an obvious death for the organization, not with the demand out there, but it would be a blow that it would take a long time to recover from.

Maybe. But it is better than doing nothing. Or just letting one of Piggy’s subordinate’s take control and bring everything back into operation in a few days.

Apatos may have come from a megacorp, but her extra efforts to dismantle Piggy’s slave ring in the wake of the fat bastard’s death were a good sign she was truthful about her intentions.

Or really determined to sell those intentions to us.

A gentle tone sounded through the cabin, Owl looking up and then to Ursa.

“We’re getting close to land,” Ursa said, rising from her seat. “I’m going to go up to the cockpit and make sure everything’s running smoothly

“Still feels weird to be flying in on automatics.”

“Piggy’s birds do it, so we need to do it,” Ursa countered, walking to the front of the cabin and sliding the small door to the cockpit aside. “But either way, we should probably gear up. No telling how long our cover will last.”

Long enough, with any fortune. Apatos had already left to secure their exit. Contingency plans for being shot down a hundred miles from their target had varied between “run fast” to “steal a car” to “learn to swim in your armor.”

Owl rose, half-watching the sea slide past on the viewscreens as she made her way over to her weapon rack and began methodically checking her weapons. She was going in heavier than normal. All of them were, since there was no sense in leaving anything behind.

It would only go down with the Stalker anyway.

Magazines slipped into pockets. She checked the charge on her armor, making sure the power supply was topped off. A faint tearing sound came from across the cabin—Adah taping extra grenades to her armor, using up what was left of the supply.

Take it all. Owl pulled her carbine from its rack, looking down at the weapon and then at the array of attachments that she’d used over the years, settling on a small guided micro-missile attachment that clipped to the bottom of the barrel.  Extra magazines for it went into a side pocket on her leg. Everything.

“Well, I’ve got good news,” Ursa said as she squeezed herself through the door to the cockpit. “We’re only a minute from the coast, and already we’ve been pinged by something along our flight path that’s given us approval.”

“How long from the coast to the black site?” Anvil asked.

“About seven minutes, assuming we aren’t told to change our speed or course.”

“What if we are?” Anvil asked from where her gantry was attaching her gear to her armor.

“Then we’re going to go very fast, try not to get shot down, and jump,” Ursa said, grabbing her  gear and then looking at Anvil. “You’re really bringing all that?”

“Exosuit,” Anvil stated. “No sense in leaving it behind. When the ammo drops out, I’ll drop one of the guns.” She hefted the long autocannon in one hand, barrel almost scraping the roof of the cabin. “Besides, we don’t know what kind of defenses this place has. So I’m coming ready for everything.”

“Well it’s a good thing we’re not sneaking,” Ursa commented. “Because there’s no way you’re not going to make some noise just walking with that thing.”

“Not walking,” Anvil corrected. “Running. Toward. On it?”

“Yeah yeah, I got it.”

Her carbine on her back, Owl shifted to her grenades, pulling the last of her trip-wires out of their drawer. Only five left. Each of them docked near the small of her back, ready for grabbing at a moment’s notice.

The last thing she grabbed was the AMR, loading the heavy rifle and then chambering a round. It is a shame we couldn’t get an Uno, she thought as she gave the rifle a final check. But this will have to do. Even against modern armor the AMR was decently effective. Not so good for close quarters, but  … Like Anvil’s minigun or autocannon, if it came to that she could fire indiscriminately and leave it behind.

Anything to get me close to Bora. That was all that mattered. Adah and the rest of the team could find the schematics and Apatos’ friends. And she’d help them get there.

As long as I get Bora.

“Stalker just got pinged again,” Ursa said quickly, everyone looking up. “And … we passed. Still clear.”

“Where’s that put our drop?”

“If we’re still on the timetable of Piggy’s deliveries? We should be within fifty miles when they ping us again.”

“Closer,” Adah said, docking her rifle.

“Relax.  We’ll make it in.”

“I pray you’re right. Oh, medkits. Nobody forget a medkit. I don’t care if you tape it to your ass, everyone’s bringing a medkit.”

“Little nervous, Adah?” Anvil asked as she took one of the kits.

“I don’t care what Apatos breakdown of supply logs for this area claimed,” Adah replied, passing Owl a medkit. She docked it on her right leg. “No black site is undefended. And if they get the idea that we’re there for the hostages …” Adah’s warning trailed off.

“Right.” Anvil docked her minigun against one arm. “Someone might get ideas.”

“Exactly. We don’t—“ Adah paused. “Ping from Apatos. That means her mission started an hour ago.”

Ticking clock. Owl gave her weapon another check, then stepped over to the viewscreens, peering out over the dark mountains. The moon was just visible on the horizon, aglow as usual. Always full, now that it was occupied.

The minutes passed, the land below them rising into mountains and then falling again.

“One minute,” Ursa warned, her body half-squeezed into the cockpit. “We’re getting pinged again and—shit!”

Without warning the VTOL lurched to the side, abruptly accelerating and dropping low. “We’re made!” Ursa called from the cockpit. “We’re running now! Everyone get ready to jump!”

A flash of light on the viewscreens showed what they were running from. Guided missiles, launched from a ground defense somewhere behind them, but rushing fast to close the gap even as the Stalker accelerated to full speed. Chaff fired a moment later, burning bright against the sky. A sharp jerk and a bang announced the failing of their disguise, sheets of metal ripping free and falling into the night as the VTOL exceeded the stress tolerances of the bonding agents they’d used. A moment later a chorus of synchronized bangs announced the detonation of the smaller blasting caps they’d wired just for such an occasion, the rest of their disguise sliding over the VTOL with metallic shrieks before being carried off in the wind.

Which was probably what saved their lives a moment later when a fusillade of anti-air missiles lifted into the sky ahead of them, the Stalker rolling to one side as the barrage went after the most noticeable targets: the coverings, not their stealth aircraft. Point defenses fired anyway, small lasers attempting to disorient and throw the missiles off.

“Coming in hot!” Ursa shouted, backing out of the cockpit. “Get ready!” The Stalker shot over another mountain, chaff and explosions trailing in its wake.

Once more a familiar countdown appeared in the center of Owl’s helmet, and she slammed her AMR onto her back, rushing for the door as the seconds rapidly neared zero, the warning already yellow.

The engine’s screamed as the VTOL threw itself into a banking turn, and Owl saw the black site through the viewscreens, then with her own eyes as Ursa ripped the door open.

The mark went green. “Go!” She wasn’t sure who had shouted it. Maybe it had been her. But she dove out the open door anyway, spinning and tumbling in the Stalker’s wake. Gunfire sounded—close. But not shots tore past her.

She spread her arms and legs, thrusters firing as she plummeted down through the sky, ground rushing up fast. Moment by moment her speed bled, her body feeling the pressure of her hard deceleration through the suit. Then she slammed into the treetops, her body ripping through branches and brush with equal efficiency.

A fraction of a second before impact she got her legs out before her, thrusters firing at an angle to bleed as much speed as possible. She coiled as her feet met earth, tucking her body into a sort of loose sideways roll and bleeding off some of the force of the impact into forward momentum. Another burst from her thrusters made certain she came upright once more, turning as much of the force of her impact as was possible into a run toward the facility.

It wasn’t hard to see where it was, even through the dark forest of brush that had sprung up around it. Not only were the locations of the rest of the team and the Stalker on her hud, but the explosions and gunfire ahead of her made her destination obvious. She drew her AMR as she ran, the weapon syncing with her suit and giving her a bouncing reticule on her hud.

“Anvil down safe.”

“Adah down safe.”

“Owl down safe.” She added her own voice to mix as she burst out of the scrub brush, her eyes taking in the southwest side of the complex and the chaos of gunfire enveloping it.

The Stalker was on fire, spewing thick black smoke as it soaked up shot after shot from point defenses that had deployed out of the roofs of the supposedly “abandoned” buildings. The gunship was tanking the shots, ignoring the defenses in favor of firing everything it had at the first antenna array, ripping it apart.

Owl dropped to one knee, sighting down the rifle, and fired, the sound of Ursa letting the team know she was down and safe almost drowned out by the titanic boom of the anti-matierial rifle. Her shot ripped through one of the point defense turrets, its last shots fading as its innards scattered.

She was already rotating toward the next, well aware that at any moment the turrets could prove to be effective ground deterrents and change their focus. If someone inside decided that the VTOL was the lesser threat.

She fired again, silencing another gun and noting a third blowing apart as well, shredded under a series of shots that had to be from Anvil’s autocannon.

The Stalker was limping now, sliding through the sky toward the far side of the tower and leaving a trail of thick, black smoke. Its sides had been riddled with holes, and one engine was already starting to sputter, the aircraft tilting dangerously to one side. The other point defenses hadn’t let up, and as Owl watched the cockpit glass shattered, bullets tearing the front part of the aircraft apart.

But not before it fired one final barrage, emptying its missile pods into the antenna array on the side of the tower. The missiles tore through the array, shredding it into thousands of metal fragments. Owl fired again, taking down another gun, but the damage was done. One of the Stalker’s engines exploded, the aircraft rolling in the air, hanging for a moment before it began to drop. In a final act of defiance, it directed itself toward one of the point defense guns, spilling smoke and fire as it drove itself into the roof the building, crushing the point defense as it broke apart. A moment later its reactor detonated, ripping what was left of the VTOL apart and enveloping the other point defense atop the roof in smoke and flame.

She fired twice more in quick succession as the point defenses began to spin, her shots biting through two more guns and silencing them before her magazine went dry. She rose, running through the low brush once more for the edge of the black site, reloading as she went.

The CNC net was coming online now, filling in one corner of her head with the current situation. Or at least, what it could piece together. The blacksite was laid out in two neat rows of three buildings each, with their target—the one with the tower—in the northeast corner.  Adah was straight south, while Anvil and Ursa had both landed on the western side, the latter so far north she was on a straight line east toward the main tower.

Gunfire sounded again, the point defenses at last having traversed down. Owl threw herself to the side, hiding in the brush as gunfire whizzed past above her head, chewing through the flora. She popped one of her drones, Vincent flying up into the sky, then rose and rushed forward, bringing her reloaded AMR up. She fired at the nearest point defense, her shot catching it just as it began to open up and ruining any further chance it had of doing so.

“I spy three point defenses still up!” Anvil called. “Plus some sort of—Shit! Drones! Like at the tower!” She could see it on Vincent’s feed, the tops of two of the structures opening up and deploying clouds of the same armored, gun toting drones they’d faced in their home. Dozens of them.

She lined up a shot and fired, the heavy armor-piercing slug cutting through three of the drones in a nice clean line. But there were many more past that, and she ducked again as several of them turned and opened fire, shredding the greenery around her.

“Owl, concentrate on those point defenses. The rest of us will take care of the drones!”

“Copy,” she said, rising on one knee as gunfire erupted all over the compound and sighting in another of the point defense guns. Her aim was off slightly from the center of its system, but the damage to the barrel left it clear it wouldn’t fire anytime soon.

Three left. And she’d need to move to hit either of them. Minigun fire burned into the sky as the rest of the team began firing on the clumps of drones, dropping a number of them. The drones reacted by descending down to ground level. Like floating soldiers, Owl though as she charged through the brush, almost tripping in the dark. Anvil’s minigun fire cut out as a point defense opened up on her position, tracer fire ripping down at the trees, but then a barrage of micro-missiles roared out of the woods at it, blowing it apart in dozens of tiny detonations.

“Sorry,” Anvil said. “It was bugging me.”

Owl turned and fired, cutting another of the turrets down. One left. Reload.

Something slammed into her shoulder and she dropped, more fire shooting past overhead. Drones at head level, hunting in packs. The shot hadn’t penetrated her plate, but—

It only takes one, she thought as fire cut through the brush around her. She dropped her AMR, pulling her carbine from her back and lifting it to an active firing position. Then she popped out of the brush, firing twice before ducking down once more and hitting one of the drones, her shots making it jerk but not downing it.

“I’m pinned,” she said, grabbing her AMR in one hand and crawling north, more fire cutting through the brush around her.

“Almost there Owl. Move south.”

“Need to move north for that last point defense.”

“Copy. I’ll see what I can do.”

The firefight was fully engaged now, the sounds of gunfire blending together, underscored by the occasional heavy thump of a larger explosion.

“Owl, team up.”

She didn’t reply, opting instead to push herself up in another firing position, carbine at the ready. Before she could open fire a series of shots walked across one of the drones from the south, punching through its armor and dropping it to the ground. Several of the drones spun to react to Adah’s fire, dropping and rising as they adjusted their firing angles. The rest continued to move toward Owl, firing.

She worked her carbine across the nearest drone, catching it in a thruster and sending it spiraling out of control. A second went down even as a shot ricocheted off her side, the bullet grazing her armor. She changed targets again, noting that the third drone was shaped slightly differently … then dove to the side in a panic as the machine released a torrent of familiar projectiles in her direction.

“Micro-missiles!” she shouted as she curled into the earth, the barrage detonating all around her,  fragments bouncing off her armor. “Some fire micro-missiles!” The chorus of explosions around her faded, and she uncurled to see that the flora around her had been shredded, but not as badly as she would have expected. Lower number of missiles than something like Anvil’s shoulder battery. Which made sense. She poked her carbine through a hole in the underbrush and fired a chorus of quick shots, penetrating the missile-drone’s armor with the third shot and dropping it to the ground.

Clear for the moment, she docked her carbine once more and searched for her AMR. She found it a few feet away, covered in brush and dirt but thankfully unharmed by the barrage, if a little banged up.

Matches with my armor then. She could already see signs of wear and damage across her plating. “Moving on the last PD.”

Another pack of drones swept around the corner of one of the buildings, and she dropped low once more, keeping to the brush and relying on the view from the CNC net to get her angle.

Last mag, she noted as she loaded the AMR once more. Four shots. Make them count and save them for something that matters. Around her the initial rapid-fire explosion of fire had died down—save for Anvil, who seemed determined to burn through her remaining minigun ammo as quickly as possible. Then again, there were at least a dozen dead drones near her position already, so—

Vincent flashed an alert, highlighting a new threat near its position in the air. Wonderful.

“We’ve got gliders,” she said. “Vincent will mark them if he sees them, but be aware they’re probably going to start dropping down onto your positions.” The last point defense—the one that had been atop the building the Stalker had crashed into—came into view, its surface charred and blacked but the gun still very much functional, and she lifted the AMR.

“Prime. You know the drill people. Stay mobile.”

The first glider flitted across her view, heading north, and part of her wanted to track it and bring it down. Waste of a bullet on a plastic disposably explosive. The CNC net had already flagged it as well, and a moment later it winked out as Anvil directed a burst of minigun fire through it. The explosive charge it was carrying detonated, bright light momentarily obscuring her visor even with the tint feature.

“Flashbangs? Okay.”

“Deadly with the others. Don’t get caught off-guard.”

Owl used the delay while her visor cleared to fire off her other drone. Never did name that one. It soared into the sky, set to a wider position than the closer Vincent.

More drones were popping up on the net, moving out of buildings in small clumps or groups. Almost like squads, she thought as she took aim. The AMR kicked against her shoulder, her shot ripping through the last point defense turret and shutting it down.

“PD system down,” she said, lowering the AMR and pulling her carbine from her back once more. A trio of drones came into view, moving down the gap between the buildings, and she opened fire, cutting one of them down, the other two moving to the sides and down. Just like soldiers going into cover.

“Right. Pairs, let’s circle rather than diving into that complex. Building one.”

Owl grabbed her AMR, switching to a sprint and rushing south once more. The two drones she’d been tracking popped out of their cover, both firing but missing as she passed out of their line of fire. Building one was the tower, but to meet with Adah they’d need to round the complex from the south, past the old array block where the radio telescopes and like had been. Not too difficult as long as we keep taking out these drones before they—

She saw the flash of motion in the corner of her eye, barely picking out the dull grey coloration of the glider before its payload detonated in a flash of blinding white. She threw herself to the ground, dropping the AMR and feeling the stubby brush pull against her body as she buried herself beneath it. Not a moment too soon either, as something slammed into the back of her shoulder, bouncing off only by virtue of the angle it had struck at.

“Covering you Owl.” Gunfire erupted nearby, only audible because her suit had muted the heavy ringing blast of the flashbang. The tint to her visor was fading, and she reached out as vague shapes came into view, her fingers finding the side of the AMR.

For behind her there was a faint shrill sound, almost and alarm, followed by a sharp chorus of bangs.

“So,” Adah said as Owl pushed herself back up, dirt and bits of plant life falling from her armor. “These ones do explode. Watch for the warning alert.” She gave Owl a nod. Are you okay?

Owl nodded back. I’m fine. A few more dings in the armor. Nothing I can’t handle. A few plates were damaged according to her hud—I didn’t even feel those hits—but not badly.

“Owl and I are going south –counterclockwise,” Adah said. “You two?”

“Almost meeting up. We’ve got some heavy resistance here. Probably on account of all that fire Anvil’s putting out.” Another faint chorus of screams sounded as a micro-missile barrage ripped through the night. “We’ll go north.”

Owl docked the AMR on her back. Three shots. More drones were coming out of the roof of one of the middle buildings, dropping toward the street but also, she noted, covering for a few more gliders that were being launched up. She cut two of the gliders down, their payloads falling out of sight before detonating in flashes that were bright even with the buildings in the way.

Interesting that they’d be plain flashbangs and not something like frags or a scrambler grenade.

Also, she thought as some of the newest drones began firing back at her and Adah, forcing them to move once more. I wish I’d brought some scrambler grenades. Hardened or not, they do a little bit of work messing with these things. Though they were often more effective on human operators.

They’d passed the southwest building now, leaving only the lower end of its eastern sibling to go before they could turn north. Another trio of drones came around the corner, all three firing without care for accuracy. A shot scored Owl’s side, leaving a long divot in the plate as it broke apart. Another slammed into her shin, the surface spiderwebbing with cracks but holding.

It only takes one. The drones fell beneath her and Adah’s combined fire, falling to the ground and detonating a moment later, sending metal fragments flying. They made their way past the south end, the large, empty concrete forms that had served as the bases of the listening equipment more than a century ago looming before them. Cover.

Cover a squadron of drones was already masking use of, turning to orient their guns at them as they came into sight. Owl threw herself to the side, landing in the brush, while on her hud Adah ducked back behind the side of the south building, bullets cracking against the ancient brick.

They’re definitely a little different, Owl thought as one of the drone’s reacted to her fire, jerking upwards and then to the side to make her shots miss. But they’re manageable. Be a lot more dangerous attached to an actual squad of soldiers, though. Alone they only have saturation and—

A burst of fire from behind almost caught Adah as three drones dropped down from above, circling around the other side of the building in a swoop. Owl switched targets, catching the rearward drone clean through a thruster right before it could fire a battery of micro-missiles. The other two rocketed forward, and in a flash Owl understood their strategy.

They’re going to die but blow up and force her out of cover so the other drones have clear shots!

She spun, not even sighting in on the drones near the concrete bases and triggering the micro-missile attachment beneath her carbine. A trio of rockets rushed out, slamming into the concrete and exploding in clouds of dust and grit, scattering the drones there. She picked one off through the dust as to her left Adah gunned the other two drones down, both lighting up and letting loose the telltale shrill alert of an imminent explosion.  Adah leaped up and then kicked off of the wall, throwing herself back and away. Even with the upward motion, one of the drones turned to track her as she flew through the air.

Owl put a cluster of shots right through its body, the drone dropping to the ground and lighting up like its siblings. A chorus of explosions rang out before Adah had even hit the ground, the various drones blowing apart in synchro. Owl threw her arm up, shielding her visor as flecks of metal tore through the air, bouncing off her. Two impacts came with a flash of pain, not debilitating or enough to make her flinch, but enough to signal wounds.

Left leg, she thought, lowering her arm. Left tricep. There were no more nearby drones, and she twisted her arm to get a look at the injury.

The suit was already trying to seal, a tiny bit of foam oozing around a bit of metal poking out of the back of her. It hurt, but not badly. She yanked the metal out, ignoring the pain as the tiny foam sealed over the wound.  The injury on her leg came next, and was just a gash, already sealing. Whatever had done it had continued on. So would she.

Adah was already rising as well, her rifle still gripped in one hand, her other hand at her side. She peeled it away, revealing that one of the grenades she’d taped to her armor had taken a bullet meant for her, broken almost completely in half. For a moment they stared at one another. Then Adah tossed the grenade away, both of them moving for the concrete bases. More drones were already moving to reinforce, though the numbers appeared to be getting lighter. However, there was more activity coming from the eastmost middle structure, what looked like doors opening on either end, and—

“Team?” Anvil said, her tone grim. “We’ve got tanks.”

*             *             *

The tank rolled smoothly out of the end of the building on its treads, turret swinging in Anvil’s direction, but she was already moving, rushing back the way she’d come to put the northwest-most structure between them.

It fired anyway, the shot passing by so closely that she could almost feel its passage right through her armor. An all-consuming boom thoroughly eclipsed anything that either party had generated so far save their ride being fragged, echoing off the mountains.

Then came the pintel guns. Two of them, opening up without regard for the fact that they were digging into the side of the building she’d just run behind. They both stopped a moment later, but the message was clear. Both of them are going to hunt us down.

“Move!” she said, urging Ursa to run back the way they’d came. “Until we have a strategy to face ‘em, keep out of sight.” Ursa’s shotgun fired, cutting down a diving glider, its flashbang payload detonating in the air and making her stumble.

“Faster!” She shoved Ursa forward, lifting her from the ground. Over the comms she could hear Adah and Owl shouting at one another as well as one of the tanks began to rush in their direction. She already knew what Adah was going to ask as soon as there was a spare moment, and she began running through it in her mind, recalling everything she could about the angular design beneath the blue-grey coloration.

“An—“

“It’s a Procyon light tank,” she said, firing a burst at another cluster of drones that had come over the nearby roof. “Newer model from the look. Single driver with assisted gunner or remote operation, ideal for armored recon or anti-infantry work. A hundred and sixty kilometer per hour top speed. Armed with a hundred and five millimeter cannon,  one forward facing MG, two pintel guns, and the ability to adapt other loadouts. These …” She glanced at the video feed from Owl’s drones. “Don’t have those packages luckily. But they are up armored,” she added, eyeing the reinforced skirts. “Ideal targets include the treads or a high-angled shot to defeat the forward armor and kill the power plant.”

The tank was rolling after them now, surging across the weathered pavement and crushing small plants in its treads as it moved to the outer side of the complex. Even at a full sprint, it was gaining on both of them. Fast.

“Don’t bother shooting at the turret on it,” she added. “It’s not occupied, it’s heavily armored, and the ring around the base protects the neck.” She signaled at Ursa, motioning that they should go left. Back into the complex. “It has a lot of cameras, but good smoke can still blind it. Treads are the first weak point to go for, but might not stop it.”

“Understood.” Another titanic boom echoed as one of the tanks fired, and Anvil felt a rumble as its shot struck something on the east side of the complex. “Owl, treads.”

“Understood.”

Anvil glanced at Ursa, but the woman had read her mind and already procured one of her smoke grenades, pin dangling from an armored thumb.

“If you get close enough, can you damage it?” she asked.

“Maybe. I can at least take out the pintel guns.”

“Good a plan as any.” On the net the tank had already reacted to their change in course, reversing as its turret swept around. “Wait.” She caught Ursa’s arm before she could move into the intersection between the buildings. “Let it get closer.” If there was someone inside it, the first thing they’d do against Ursa’s smoke was go full reverse. And inside a Procyon in the current fight would be a pretty smart place to be.

From the other side of the complex came the sharp, heavy crack of Owl’s anti-material rifle, followed by a chorus of gunfire as the tank she’d shot opened up in return. “One tread mangled,” Owl stated.

Ursa whipped around, firing upwards and catching another dive-bombing glider with her shotgun. Anvil winced as the bright flash from its flashbang payload overloaded her visor for just a moment, long enough for two more drones to come over the roof and open fire.

She stepped in front of Ursa, shielding the woman with her suit and soaking the drone’s fine. Her minigun fired in two quick bursts, ripping the pair of drones to pieces too small to activate their sacrificial detonation.

“Adah, on your right!” From the sound of it, the drones were working in concert with the tanks now.

Just like an infantry team, Anvil thought, directing her launcher to fire on a small clump of drones moving toward them from the south. The weapons swiveled and fired, kicking lightly against her shoulder as it lobbed a trio of shells over the nearby building and down amid the drones. She noted the carnage out of the corner of her eye as the cluster of explosions cut them apart.

We’re winning, save for the tanks. She cocked the fingers of her right hand, signaling to Ursa and counting down, the tank drawing closer to their position but still blocked from their sight by the mass of the building.

Now! She motioned and Ursa threw, lobbing her grenade up and over the building. It came down perfectly, bouncing off the front end of the tank and spewing smoke into the air before it even hit the ground, thick metallic clouds swirling around the vehicle and filling the space between the buildings like a fog.

Anvil was already in motion, bursting around the corner as the tank fired blindly, the shell missing her by feet as it shot down the gap between the buildings but, more importantly, the force of the shot pushing the smoke back and briefly exposing the front half of the vehicle.

Shit! All three of the tank’s machine guns opened up immediately, shots slamming into her armor and almost knocking her legs out from under her in a spray of sparks. Move! She jumped, throwing herself into a sideways dive out of the line of fire and slamming into the ground on her belly, guns tracking after her. Her movement became a sort of pushing hop as she shoved up with her arms, lifting herself up and forward—and into the thick smoke. The CNC net went silent first, the last images on her hud locking and stuttering before freezing completely. A flash of warning let her know that comms were down as well, the thick reflective smoke effectively killing communications. She could still hear, but even then the sounds were a little muffled. Not much—the nanoparticulates in the smoke could only do so much, and they were a lot better at disrupting high-energy signals than simple air-waves, but it was still a bit like she’d triggered the wrong setting on her armor.

She didn’t waste any time, jumping to her feet and rushing straight to her right. The side of the tank loomed out of the fog, faint flashes visible where its pintel guns were still firing. Odd. She jumped up onto its side, ready on the balls of her feet should the turret swing toward her.

Except it didn’t. The vehicle didn’t react at all, guns still firing forward.

Only for another second. She climbed atop the turret, grabbed and armored feed in each hand, and squeezed. Hard. For a moment the sleeves held, but then with a creaking pop one of them caved in, crushing inward on the machine gun’s feed and jamming it. The other gave a second later, falling silent.

She stepped back, off the turret and to the right, searching for the flush outline of the tank’s entry hatch. It was hard to see through the haze of smoke, but after a moment’s searching she found it.

Sealed. With emphasis, no less. There was no point in attempting to rip it open.

Still, there was something she could risk while the tank was motionless. Before the smoke cleared enough for it to start moving again. If she was fast.

She dropped off the back, gathering every spare frag grenade she had, as well as the tape she’d used to attach them to her armor, and began wrapping them together as best she could. The tank’s treads were protected by armored skirts, but there was still a gap—there had to be for the treads to work.

She shoved the bundled grenades in as best she could, sticking them between drive-wheels, rollers, and the idler, wedged into the links.

The smoke was thinning already, vague shapes gaining definition. It wouldn’t be long before it was clear enough for strong signals to make their way through.

Good enough! She yanked every pin she could see, rushing back around the other side of the tank and lining up her MMR battery for a visual shot on the other treads, counting down to the detonation of the grenades. It seemed like an eternity before they blew, one after another, the tank rocking under the combined force of the blasts.

Which also drove more of the smoke away. Her hud fuzzed slightly, net feeds partially updating.

I’m out of time. She fired, micro missiles screaming away from her shoulder and peppering the back of the tank, punching into its armor and detonating.

The result was entirely unlike the last tank she’d filled with micro missile fire. The Procyon was state of the art, and as the explosions faded, they revealed pockmarks and damaging, but not nearly enough to be more than an inconvenience.

But the armor hadn’t been her target. Just a byproduct of the spread. The tank’s treads were not nearly as tough as its armor, and they hadn’t faired nearly so well under her barrage. Several links were twisted and warped, and a few looked like they were about to come apart at any moment.

Abruptly the tank’s turret lurched to one side, starting and stopping. Right, time to go. The fact that she could see the turret through the thinning smoke was another sign that it was time to run. She darted past the side of the tank, running through the thinning haze toward Ursa’s last position.

With a snap, her connection to the CNC net returned, along with comms. “—around the left,” Adah was saying. “Keep it occupied while I lock my shot.”

“It hasn’t locked yet?” Ursa. Who was also waving at her from behind a pile of brick rubble, surrounded by a number of downed drone remains.

“No, must be some sort of new ECM.”

“Only the best for a UN black site,” Anvil said, sliding into the rubble alongside Ursa. From the look of it she’d ripped part of the building siding down. And underneath it was …

Metal. Of course. “Also, the tank’s aren’t piloted. At least ours isn’t.” On her hud the tank she’d left behind came to life at last, guns and turret moving. “Ursa’s grenades cut one out completely, and the hatch is welded shut. Remote operation.”

“I notice ours is still moving,” Ursa said as the tank rolled forward with a squeal of metal.  She began crawling back around the edge of the building, Anvil following. “I thought you were going to take care of it?”

“I did what I could,” she snapped. “Both pintel guns are dead, and the treads are wrecked.” The tank’s left tread snapped with a metallic squeal, the vehicle lurching to one side and slowing.

“Why didn’t you just use one of those gravity grenades to flip it over? Or blow the power with a det-pack.”

Anvil stopped. “Well, because I didn’t want to waste my det-packs,” she said. “But I didn’t think of the other idea, on it. It’s a good one.” She turned, pivoting her body across the ground as somewhere across the complex the other tank opened fire once more.

“Adah!”

“Locked!” On one of the feeds, a trio of missiles shot out toward the Procyon, spiraling through the air. Point defenses aboard the tank activated, heavy lasers firing and bringing down one of the missiles.

The other two slammed home, blasting through layers of armor and sending shockwaves rolling through their target. Shrapnel filled the view, armor layers peeling off in pieces.

Then there was no time to focus on the results of Adah’s handiwork, but to worry about her own as the tank Anvil had wounded rolled closer, remaining treads popping and grinding but still running. Gauge the range, she thought, pulling the Gravix from her lower back and slipping a shell into it. On her hud, the tank’s turret was rotating back and forth, the motion furthered by the machine’s drag to the left, which took longer to correct. Give myself the longest window possible and … Now!

She rose, the launcher already sighted. The tank reacted in an instant, its forward MG opening fire and walking its shots toward her.

A few of them she could take. The main gun, on the other hand … She fired, her grenade lobbing out into the air even as she turned and threw her body to the side. There was another titanic boom as the main gun fired, the shot streaking past her to slam into one of the old building sides, punching through with a titanic crash.

Then, on her hud, as she hit the ground, the front end of the tank shot into the air, the whole vehicle flipping backward and slamming down atop its own turret.

“It worked!” Ursa exclaimed. Anvil glanced at her hud, checking the status of the other tank. Adah’s missiles had torn through its frontal armor, but it was still moving.

Until Owl drilled a shot from her anti-material rifle right through its middle, the tank, jerking to a halt.

“Ours is down too,” Adah confirmed. “Better yet, the remaining drones are pulling ba—“ One of the camera feeds went dead, and Owl let out a curse. The other feed cut out a second later, though this one seemed to be because she’d called it back.

“Relax, Owl,” Ursa said. “They lasted long enough.”

Anvil scanned the nearby rooftops, then stepped out into the open, docking the launcher on her back once more and drawing her autocannon. The tank she had flipped was still active, twisting its turret in vain and only rotating its lower body. It was stuck.

She hopped atop it once more—or rather, onto its underside, and drew her autocannon. It took four carefully aimed shots to break through the armored underside. Two more to puncture the tank’s power supply. But once the echoes of the last shot faded away, the tank had ceased moving.

“Got it,” she said over the comms. “Tank’s down.”

“So’s ours. Start looking for a way into building one.”

“On it.” She didn’t have to ask why as she hopped off of the now dead tank. The place had a tower, and that made it the most likely target.

That, and she could see an existing, if heavily fortified, entrance on the south end. She began to job, still scanning the sky for any signs of remaining drones.

There were none. All of them seemed to have vanished, leaving only the burning remains of their VTOL and the fallen bodies of their fellows. “We did a lot of damage,” she said, noting a spot where an entire section of the old brick had sloughed off under fire, revealing damaged but functional metal walls. Interesting.

“Huh,” Ursa said as she caught up, jogging alongside her toward building one. “These things looked a lot smaller in the pictures.”

“You know what?” Anvil asked, glancing at her. “I get that a lot.”

“I …” Ursa’s head snapped back slightly. “Really? Now?”

“You set yourself up perfectly for it. When if not now?”

“Right. Might as well get it over with.”

“That I don’t hear a lot. You on the other hand …”

“Hey, you say that a lot. Just with ‘on it’ at the end.”

“Not in this context.”

“You’re the worst.”

“Also not something I hear much.” Building one loomed before them now, an obvious entrance at the top of a single step. One that looked old, but she suspected if she wiped one hand across it would wipe away the grime to reveal a very new material.

“Let her get it out of her system,” Adah said, cutting off what was probably a retort from Ursa as Anvil knelt near the door, tapping her fingers against it and feeling the solidity of the metal. “That way if she dies, she dies happy. Might as well give her that.”

“Not the best epitaph, but it’ll do, on it,” Anvil said as she pulled a det-pack from her back and carefully attached it to both the heavy metal door and the nearby wall. “This should do it,” she announced, stepping back.

“That’s it?” Ursa asked as Owl and Adah arrived.

“It should. I’m guessing, but it’s better than wasting all my det-packs at once to get in. The original door in that frame latched there, so if they tried to keep their replacement looking authentic …”

“Same thing?”

She shrugged. “They might not have.” She stepped up against the outside of the building. “Still, we should get ready to breach.”

Adah nodded, her, Owl, and Ursa moving into position. “Your legs all right?”

‘What?” She looked down, noticing for the first time the nearly destroyed armor. “So far.” Though I think that tank came closer to cutting them out from under me than I thought. Still, it would be worth it to keep an eye on them, in case of any issues. But until then.

“Go in three, two, one …” With a dull thud the det pack exploded, wall behind her shaking as the focused blast ripped through the area around the latch she’d identified. Ursa swept around first, ripping the door open with a free hand and—

Gunfire roared out, Ursa snapping back to her starting position as if nothing had happened, casually brushing a new gouge on her forearm. “Automated turrets,” she said, her voice level. “Standard UN security checkpoint.

Anvil nodded. Two security-glassed booths on either side of the middle of the room, a single path with a two-way security gate between them, and turrets on the ceiling. Small waiting area with decorative plants and magazines off to one side. Actual facility through the door at the end of the room, past the security gate. Most likely a second security gate, but that’s usually only for high-profile facilities. Coming this far, they probably wouldn’t have one since beating the mystery of this place is most of the security.

“Options?” Ursa asked as the gunfire ceased. Not that it meant anything. Both guns would likely be watching the only entrance.

“I can tank it,” Anvil said. “Just—“

“No,” Adah said, shaking her head even as Anvil stepped away from the wall, making sure to keep clear of the door. “We don’t know what else  we might run into once we’re inside, and—“ She paused as Anvil drove a fist into the wall of the building, ripping out a massive chunk of masonry. Part of it crumbled, falling to the ground, and Anvil ripped another chunk out, locking it over the first with her hands.

“As I was saying, on it,” Anvil said, sliding up to the doorway once more. “Just with a little distraction.

Adah looked at her for a moment and then nodded. “Do it.” She gave way, sliding back to make room for Anvil and her load of masonry beside the door.

“Here goes.” Anvil twisted, then hucked the pile of masonry through the open door.

The guns reacted in an instant, spraying bullets. Anvil slid around the doorway, one hand bringing her minigun up, the other outstretched as she jumped. The bits of brick and mortar had already been chewed into at least four pieces, scattering under the combined barrage. It would only be an instant before whoever was manning the guns realized their mistake.

Her free hand caught the left gun, digging in and yanking as hard as she could, bolts snapping and popping under the stress, the gun ripping mostly free. The other had already begun to traverse in her direction, and she fired as she fell, spraying her minigun with wild abandon.

The other gun got a single shot off before it died, the bullet slamming into the outside edge of her arm and bouncing off into the corners of the room. She landed, still holding the sparking remains of its sibling in her hand. “Clear!”

Really clear, she noted as the rest of the team slipped into the room. Aside from the obvious damage inflicted by her det-pack and the brief firefight with the masonry, the room looked untouched.

Really untouched. And she didn’t seem to be the only one that had noticed. Owl stepped up to one of the security booths, peering through the heavy glass.

“No people,” she said, glancing back at them. “Not even a chair.”

“Guess they really wanted to keep this place a secret.” Ursa kicked some of the brick rubble aside, revealing a UN logo emblazoned in the faux-stone floor. Not just any logo, but that of United Nations Space Exploration and Colonization. UNSEC.

“Greetings, intruders.”

The new voice made each of them snap to readiness, even though the speaker clearly wasn’t present.

“This location is under the highest security protections of the United Nations,” the voice continued. It was calm, collected.

Almost too calm, Anvil thought as she stepped up to the gate. It was heavily reinforced, far more so than the front entrance had been. It would take at least two det-packs to get through. Maybe more. Overhead, the voice was still talking.

“Based on your examination of the glass, I can guess what you were discussing. Security through obscurity can be quite effective.” The voice seemed to echo from every corner of the room. “Naturally, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other defenses. As you found outside.”

“You’re chatty for a security officer,” Ursa replied aloud, voice echoing through the room.

“I am in charge of security for this black site, yes,” the voice continued as Anna stepped up to the gate. There was a standard UN security reader next to it. “But I am not an officer. My name is Lohit, and I must admit I’ve enjoyed our little engagements so far.”

“You’re still chatty.”

“I’m sorry, am I boring you?”  Anvil lifted one brow at the man’s tone. “The intruders to my facility?” There was most definitely a bit of anger packed behind the second sentence. “You’re not authorized here, Freelance.” That made each of them pause, though Owl hid it best.

“Yes, I know who you are. It was not difficult to determine. And you are not authorized to be in this location, or know of it. The penalty, which shall be carried out shortly, is death.”

“Well, you’re not right about everything.” Adah looked at the security reader, then reached into a pocket and withdrew the clearance card they’d stolen from Piggy. “You got who we are right, but …” She tapped the card against the station, and a moment later the display flashed, both gates retracting into the floor and ceiling. “Security here does seem to think we’re allowed here. As for more of your security force killing us …” She walked through, slipping the card back into an armored pocket. “We’ll see. But a word of advice. Tell Director Bora we’re coming.”

“Interesting …” Lohit’s drew the word out. “I do not believe your access is genuine, but I lack the means to stop it. You, on the other hand, I can stop. Permanently.”

“We already took out your drones,” Anvil said as they moved toward the blank metal doors past the security gate. Owl slipped up next to the door, her thin wire-camera already extended toward the seam. “And your tanks.”

“A most enlightening event,” came the reply. “I quite enjoyed studying your tactics and approach. Inside my domain, however, you will not find your efforts quite so easily bearing fruit, I assure you.”

“Does it sound to anyone else like this guy has a few screws loose?” Ursa asked over the comm channel rather than aloud.

“I don’t think it’s a ‘guy,’” Adah said, watching as Owl pulled her camera back and tried again to feed it past the door. “I think it’s an AI of some kind.”

“An AI? Controlling—?”

“No,” Adah said with a shake of her head. “Advising. Directing.”

“A tactical mind?”

“Can you think of a facility better-suited for one?”

“Fair enough, on—“

“Got it.” A camera feed popped up on Anvil’s hud, straight from Owl’s camera. “First look. Extravagent.”

Anvil couldn’t disagree. The lobby filled much of the interior of the building, split into two raised “lanes” that appeared to move along the sides of the room around a larger, decorative open space in the middle, both sides slowly escalating up wide stairs on their way toward the back of the room, resulting in two three distinct levels, the middle one with a causeway across the open middle. From the look of it plants and reflecting pools dominated the area below the raised levels, but a massive statue of someone or something beyond the bridge at the middle of the room blocked any view of what was at the back wall. Though it was probably an elevator of some kind.

A suspicion that was all but confirmed a second later when a quartet of black-clad armored foes rushed into view, two to each side of the statue. In perfect unison two of the four—one on each side—knelt behind the metal railings, their lower bodies hidden from view. And I’ll bet that stuff is bulletproof. That or they’re stupid. Which, judging from the flanking positions they were taking …

“Ursa, smoke us. Anvil breach.” Adah’s commands came quick and fast, popping up on Anvil’s hud in a rudimentary tactical plan against the fortified defense their foe was setting up. “Go!”

She didn’t hesitate, stepping forward and slamming into the metal doors with her shoulder. Designed to swing out rather than in, the metal instead buckled before ripping out of the frames entirely.

Gunfire slammed into her position, striking her suit and almost immediately moving down to try and cut through the weaker armor around her legs. She continued forward, abandoning her goals to move to the left and instead getting her lower body behind the heavy railing of the lower level. Her minigun roared, her target ducking into cover. She walked the shots toward one of the other armored figures, descending the right side of the room at a run, but they reacted almost instantly,  dropping out of sight into a slide.

More bullets slammed into the side of her helmet, alerts flashing across her hud. Armor piercing!

“They’ve got AA!” she shouted, shifting fire with her minigun once more and shredding the base of the statue in the process. Smoke was curling around her now from one of Ursa’s grenades. Her target ducked into cover, the other coming up in time to return fire—

And two grenades arced down out of the open air above. Except it wasn’t, she noted as she looked up, but a whole array of viewscreens done up to look like an open blue sky. Which made the two descending grenades, both flung by the soldiers in the back of the room, stand out all the more, even without her hud flagging them and trying to relay the information to the CNC net but unable to find a connection.

Everything slowed, her senses roaring as she backpedaled, one arm coming up to fire her minigun at one of the grenades, shredding a row of viewscreens in a shower of plastic and glass. Her other tapped at her arm, her shoulder launcher firing once, then twice at the figures in the back, even as she moved further back and pushed, jumping into the smoke-filled air. Her burst of minigun fire caught one of the grenades in flight, the grenade detonating in a shower of shrapnel. The other she batted aside with the back of her hand, a desperate swing that threw her balance off … but sent the grenade flying off to the far side of the room and down through one of the open gaps. A bang followed not an instant later, metal fragments flying up and peppering several more viewscreens, sending spiderwebs across the sky.

Then she landed on her back, thick inside the smoke and rolling to one side as her weapons threw her into a lopsided roll that scraped across the ground. Gunfire was sounding all around her through the smoke, and she tucked her legs in close, rolling to her feet and rushing out of the smoke once more in the direction she’d been ordered to break. She cleared the smoke with her minigun up, letting lose another burst that grazed one of the figures in the shoulder, spinning them out of sight even as they caught her arm with return fire that threatened to punch through her armor.

She caught sight of two more figures in black as she headed for  the left side of the room, near where she’d knocked the grenade. Plus drones deploying out of several vents on the sides of the room. She cut two of them down with a burst from her minigun, the ammunition almost gone. More gunfire sounded, Adah, Ursa, and the rest of the team trading fire with the security forces.

These people are good, she thought as she dropped two drones atop one of the armored figures, watching as they dove out of the way without looking up. Really good.

Then another burst of fire came her way, and she dove over the railing, dropping toward the reflecting pool below and firing as she fell.

*             *             *

Ursa dropped, sliding on her side across the faux-marble floor as shots whizzed by overhead. Only for an instant, her attackers already switching targets to someone else. These guys are good.

Really good. The admission sent a faint tendril of fear twisting through her insides, a cold caress she did her best to ignore. We’ve faced really good soldiers before.

But the reminder of how good these people were was already written on her armor, one of her arm plates cracked by a shot that had very nearly grazed her arm. Armor piercing ammunition, working in perfect synchronization … She fired her Rezzer one-handed, shot tearing into and displacing but not killing an overeager drone. A second shot did it in, the unit crashing to the ground even as she sprang up, a meter from her position and already letting loose its warning alert. She pushed up with her toes, carrying her rise to her feet upwards further still and over a nearby railing. The drone blew apart as she fell out of sight, peppering the railing behind her with sharp clicks.

Ferns rose up to meet her, her feet slamming into moss and digging deep into the earth. Another drone drifted over the railing already firing, its shots slamming into her back. She returned fired, her own shot cutting it down and dropping it down into the bushed beside her.

Up again. She leaped, catching the edge of the railing she’d just left in one hand and pulling herself up and over as the drone she’d left behind let out its shrill scream. There was no time to focus on its explosion, however, as two of the black-armored figures in across the lobby were already sweeping their guns toward her. She fired blindly, pointing her Rezzer in one’s direction and squeezing the trigger, sparks shining as part of her shot caught them in the side. Despite the blow they held steady, shots napping back at her in a short burst that caught her in the chest.

The armor cracked but held, and Ursa dropped once more, peering at her position on her hud try and find a way to work forward as she fed shells into her gun. They’ve got the upper levels covered and well, she noted. The two newest arrivals seemed to be slowly working their way forward on either side, using the covering fire provided by their counterparts to stay out of sight where possible.

Unfamiliar armor and arms, she noted, waiting until the attacker she’d already shot was firing on Adah’s position to pop up and fire back. She got one shot off before one of their allies forced her to duck. Still, it hit, the foe flinching slightly but otherwise not slowing. And good armor too, to take these hits.

They’re probably thinking the same thing. She plucked a frag from her side, pulled the pin, and tossed it blindly over the railing, watching its path on her hud before turning and bolting as quickly as she could for a set of stairs down to the underside of the lobby. She fired twice more on the way, her shots not quite clean but still forcing another armored figure back thanks to additional fire from Owl. One of the shots caught the figure in the helmet, cracking the visor, and for a moment she thought that they’d gone down, only for her to see their hands working at reloading their SMG.

What does it take to stop these guys? There was no time to ask the question aloud, not with how quickly the battle was rapidly shifting. Mere seconds had passed since she’d entered the room, and already she’d have been hard-pressed to explain the sequence of events outside of “fast gunfight.” Her grenade detonated as she jumped over the nearest railing dropping down onto the steps below it with a clanging ring and firing to discourage two drones that had been trying to flank her. Instead, they flew back, then dropped down to her level on the ground from the other side, shots bouncing off the heavy staircase and her armor in equal parts.

Return fire from her Rezzer downed both of them with ease, but then the gun was almost empty, and there were more drones on the CNC net coming out of the vents. Shells clicked between her armored fingers as she ran along one of the maintenance paths, heading down the length of the room and shielded from fire by the angles of the suspended lobby walkways.

Until a grenade landed in her path, bouncing in her direction. She threw herself to the side, shielding her visor with her arms … and the grenade detonated with a crack, hundreds of metal fragments slamming into her plating and skinsuit.

Several hot, angry points of contact erupted across her body, her hud flashing multiple points of failure at her. Injury, though light. Her mind took it in instantly: More points of damage than pain. The pain was from bits of metal that had barely made it past her armor.

Small, hot wounds, but not deadly. Not yet. She rushed forward once more. The CNC net spat out updates as Anvil engaged one of the forward positions from the side, catching a distracted soldier with her minigun and throwing them to the side, both her shoulder launchers firing at two different targets.

And she needs my backup, Ursa thought as she neared the underside of the cross causeway, where both her own targets were switching their fire to deal with Anvil. Now!

A smoke grenade led the way, bouncing off the far wall to come down roughly between both the black-clad soldiers, even as she rose over the railing from below to follow. Only her targets had recoiled from the smoke, falling back as it exploded out of the grenade as if it were some sort of acidic miasma rather than a scrambler.

What? She dove through the smoke, firing blindly in the direction of the figure on the causeway, ignoring the one at her back for the moment. The Rezzer ran dry before she’d left the smoke, and she docked it on her back, drawing her knife and lunging out of the expanding cloud. Her target, armor battered from her shots but still apparently holding, brought their gun up, her blade biting deep into the metal. She tore the weapon from their hands with a jerk, other hand coming up—

Her attacker punched her in the gut, her skinsuit hardening to distribute the blow but not enough that the impact didn’t almost drive the wind from her lungs. Then she was falling back as her attacker fought with lightning speed, so fast even she almost couldn’t keep track, almost as many impacts making it past her guard as she deflected, only backing off when she stepped into the smoke.

What’s with the smoke? Are they using some sort of comm network like we are to work in unison? She darted out of the smoke again as her attacker drew a grenade, batting their hand aside but not making them lose their grip. She locked her fingers around their wrist, jerking it down only for them to move with the motion, staggering her off balance and pulling her forward. Double-jointed—?

She blocked a powerful blow aimed at her visor with her elbow, her arm barely holding it back. How strong are they? Is it their armor? Her foe twisted, still striking with their free arm as they bent almost completely backward, twisting her own grip on their wrist.

A shot slammed into her back, striking plate and sending alerts across her hud, and she spun, yanking as hard as she could. Strong and limber as her foe was, she still outweighed them by a large margin, and the spun around into the path of fire, taking two more shots meant for her in the side and chest before the incoming burst stopped.

Maybe that’ll— Her foe lifted their legs and slammed them into a nearby railing, shoving themselves into her and dropping the grenade at the same time. Ursa hit the causeway railing and rolled backward over it, twisting in the air so she would land below atop her target. They twisted as well, trying to counteract the move … but there was something … off … about the motion. Something she couldn’t quite place.

They slammed into the ground, crushing a small rosebush into the dirt beneath their bodies, rolling and tumbling through the plants until the slammed into one of the metal walkways. Above them the grenade went off, adding the chaos of Anvil and the rest of the team firing. How much damage can they take? She could see the damage to their armor as they broke apart, see where bullets had shattered plate and punched right through. How are they not bleeding? A shot from Owl slammed into her target’s head, their weight shifting forward again in an odd way, and then she knew.

It’s all rote! She stepped forward, engaging with her fists once more. Like they’re repeating the motions out of a textbook, but without any learning. Her foe blocked her attacks as if they were textbook, moving far faster than even she could, but the moment she adjusted her approach even slightly from the norm.

Her fist slammed into their head, driving them back. Another blow followed the same way, and though they got their hand up in time to deflect it and even force her to dart to one side, it was all she needed.

Rote knowledge, fast learning … but not practical experience. Everything they know about fighting is rote. She changed her approach again, and once more their defense faltered, allowing her to twist their arm up and back. They reacted … but slower.

Gotcha.

She stepped in, as if she were going for a grapple … and then wrapped both hands around their head, giving it a sharp, vicious jerk to the side. There was a loud snap that she felt beneath her fingers and—

An elbow caught her in the gut, rocking her back as her foe continued to fight with a broken neck. How—!?

It came together in her head, and she surged forward, wrapping both hands around her foe’s head even as they pounded her body with blows. She heaved, stomping one foot atop her attacker’s  and pulling with all her might …

And their head ripped clean off, sparks shooting out of their electrical innards. They’re drones!

“They’re drones!” she shouted, tossing the head into the sky as the body continued to buck and fight. But even though she wasn’t certain where its primary control circuits were, the loss of its head seemed to have inconvenienced it, its limbs blindly flailing. She grabbed one of them and pulled, muscles straining … and with a pop the limb came off, more cables ripping and extending out. The body staggered, looking almost like a headless trooper that was missing one arm … and then fell to the ground, stuttering and jerking in a way that looked almost human, but wasn’t quite.

She almost couldn’t believe it. This violates every law the UN has enacted regarding AI war machines for decades. If the megacorps found out …

But the answer was obvious. They wouldn’t have time to react. Or the UN would change the laws just as they unveiled—

She threw the arm down. Too much to worry about. At least she knew why they’d avoided her smoke, still swirling above. She noted the remaining positions on her side, then jumped, rising over the railing and landing amid the smoke.

A bullet struck her shin, the plate fracturing and coming almost completely apart. More bullets tore through the smoke, her attackers firing blindly and low. She leaped, going over the shots and pulling her last frag as a distraction. It flew for the back of the room, and then she was out once more, the smoke fading around her as she landed where one of her targets had been—

They were gone, backing out and firing in her direction, predicting her path. One bullet struck her leg, further damaging the plate there—and then one slammed into her upper arm, shattering the plate and sending a wave of pain through her as metal fragments tore through her skinsuit and into her arm. She clenched her teeth, firing back with what few shells she’d managed to reload and throwing off her attacker’s aim just enough. Twin shots slammed into their head as she landed, Owl once again taking advantage of their distraction. Ursa fired a final shot from her Rezzer, the weapon again dry, and caught the figure right in the visor, the material splintering and filling with dozens of cracks as the splinter shot ripped through it.

They staggered back, but there was no time to press the advantage as two drones dropped at her from above, both firing, their shots pounding further into her damaged armor. She broke right, reloading as she ran and getting a single shell into the gun before her fingers slipped under another shot, dropping a second. The drones were pursuing her, firing as they went.

Good enough. Abruptly she changed directions, stopping cold and firing, her lone shell tearing through one of the two drones. Against the other she leaped, wielding the Rezzer like a club and batting it through the air. It hit the wall, spun wildly, and then dropped to the ground, its casing bent and distorted.

Then she ducked as a chorus of shots rained down on her position, the final two drone soldiers on her side of the lobby concentrating their fire. Arm wounded, but not badly, just enough that it hurts more to move … Another shot on the site wouldn’t be so lucky. It’d likely put her arm out of the fight, augments or not.

Bleeding’s already stopped. Suit’s not sealed all the way. Her fingers felt slightly off as she grabbed the shell she’d dropped and shoved it into her Rezzer. Lots of damage to the plate. But we’ve driven them back. There were still three alive on Anvil’s side of the room, though two of them were bearing quite a bit of damage from Anvil’s MMR barrage and launcher. As was the rest of the room.

Not many shells left, she thought as she finished loading her weapon, pausing only to graze a curious drone with a shot and send it scampering back to the lower levels. And with all our opposition pulled back to the back of the room …

On her hud, Anvil tossed aside her minigun, feeds breaking off, the weapon likely spent, and drew her grenade launcher. The Gravix.

Her targets reacted before she’d even fired, bolting away from their positions. But they weren’t fast enough, the first shell landing near two of the figures and launching them away, out of cover and into the open. Owl and Adah opened up, raking the flailing airborne figures with fire. Anvil had already turned, firing at the two on Ursa’s side of the room.

Ursa pushed herself up just as the grenade detonated, rubble and drone fragments flying through the air in all directions. One of the drone soldiers—droners?—flew back, slamming into the wall with a loud crack, while the other flipped up over the railing, letting its weapon lose and attempting to hold on to the handrail as best it could.

At least, that’s what it looked like had happened as its gun launched all the way into the ceiling, slamming into a viewscreen and thoroughly destroying it while the drone made an almost aborted flip over the railing, rising and falling as the gravity field from the grenade gave out. Three sprays of splinter rounds struck its core as Ursa fired, tracking the falling drone—

And then the lights went out, the room going dark save for the viewscreens above, which had switched to some sort of starlit night. Muzzle flashes lit the darkness, her hud rapidly brightening to adjust as she lost sight of her quarry—

Then the lights came back on, washing out everything she could see and breaking her view of her target. A shot slammed into her chest, cracking the plate and striking the skinsuit beneath as the drone that had been thrown against the back wall recovered and opened fire. Ursa moved to the left, then right, changing directions abruptly so that the drone’s next shot only destroyed the plating on the outside of her upper arm rather than cutting through it completely. Her own shot caught them in the arm holding their weapon, throwing off their aim and, she noticed, eliciting a brief spray of sparks from somewhere inside it as something inside the armor shorted.

Another grenade struck the wall behind them as the lights went out again, her target’s figure slamming into the railing in front of them and flipping over it in a tumble. Debris, from bullet casings to bits of concrete and glass, clicked off of Ursa’s armor as, both drone soldiers out of the way for the moment, she turned and fired at one of the few remaining airborn drones, catching a bullet in her skinsuit for the trouble but removing the drone for good. It detonated somewhere below, a bright flash against the darkness.

On her hud, even through the darkness she could make out some details as image adjusted. Which is what their foe was working towards—rapid disorientation to disrupt their view of things. However, it wouldn’t save the drone soldier Anvil had just gotten her hands on as she lifted it high above her head and tore it in two with a scream.

Four left. And I have two still.

Both were below. She rushed to the edge and jumped, Rezzer and ready just as the lights came back on. She fired almost blindly, focusing only on a flash of movement … and then slammed into her quarry, armored boots smashing down atop a head and bearing the machine to the ground.

They both reacted in the same instant, the drone throwing its weight back and bringing its legs up to kick her in the back, while she leaned forward rolling off them with only the slightest graze from their attack. Both of them came up standing, facing one another.

But only I’m armed, she thought, firing and shredding the plating across their chest and gut with splinter rounds. So close the spread was minimal, the rounds able to achieve maximum penetration and rip apart her foe’s insides. They tumbled forward, partway through a lunge when she’d fired, and—

Something struck her head with a crack hard enough for stars to fill her vision, sending her reeling to one side. Instinct took over once more, years of fights keeping her footing under her. Until something snagged one boot, yanking hard and pulling it to one side. She slipped, vision already coming back as she glanced down to see that the upper body of the drone she’d shot moment’s ago was still moving, crawling across the ground trailing its lower half behind it, and had caught her foot in one hand. While it’s counterpart—the attacker that had struck her in the back of her head—was already moving to take advantage of her lack of balance.

She swept her Rezzer up, firing point blank and shredding the armor across the second drone’s arm, using the shotgun as a club to bat its hands aside a moment later. The other drone locked its fingers around her boot, pulling itself forward or trying to pull her leg back, she wasn’t really certain.

The lights went out again, reducing her foes to faint shadows as her visor adjusted. The upright one rushed forward as she stepped back, arms up—and a shot from Owl blew through the thing’s visor, the body shuddering and locking.

Ursa planted her free foot and pivoted, yanking the other drone through the air and flipping it onto its back, firing her last shot into its head. It shook, fingers opening and closing, and then locked, frozen in its last position.

She crushed part of its head for good measure, heel shattering what was left of the visor and pulverizing the circuitry behind it. Why even have a visor? But she already knew the answer. So the drones could pass as people.

Daylight returned as she loaded her last remaining shells into the Rezzer, already moving for the rear of the room and looking for a clear patch of metal to jump up from. Above her there was a final series of shots, and then the last drone soldier fell to the ground in a clatter of limbs, sparking and smoking under reappearing daylight.

“I must admit.” Lohit’s voice echoed around the lobby once more as Ursa pulled herself over the rail. “I find myself surprised at the ease with which you eliminated my armatures. You are, of course, trained professionals with superior weaponry, but I expected more out of these early models.”

Armatures? Ursa glanced down at one of the nearby drones, then shook her head, running for the back of the room to meet up with the rest of the squad. Of course. The drone soldiers. That’s what he calls them.

 

“Of course, such a test shows only how far I have yet to come,” the voice continued as Ursa reached the elevators, sliding the last shell she had into her Rezzer and looking to the rest of the team as they arrived behind the statue. Anvil was the first, and Ursa’s eyes widened as she got a good look at her teammate.

“You look like shit.”

“Me? My blood’s at least all still inside my suit, on it,” Anvil said, waving one hand. Whole pieces of her armor bore holes and pocked marks, and interior elements were visible on one leg, artificial coils of muscle damaged and in a few spots severed. “Have you looked at yourself?”

Ursa shook her head and glanced down. “You’re right, I do look like shit.” Her plates were battered and cracked, some of them missing whole pieces that had sloughed off during the fight. Blood was mixing with some sort of lubricant on her left arm, which explained how she’d dropped one of her shells during the fight. Guess I was bleeding.

“—tools with which I had to work with, I think this little test has been quite educational.”

“He’s still talking,” Anvil said, flipping a rude gesture at the ceiling. “Pretentious little security guy, isn’t he. Hey!” Her last word came out as a shout, external rather than across the comms. “We ripped your drones apart, and we’re still coming. We catch you face to face, and I’m going to rip your head off you trumped-up little lab jockey!”

Low laughter echoed back at them. “You think I am a lab jockey? You know even less than I realized. A showing of the weakness of human minds.” Ursa’s eyes widened as Adah and Owl arrived.

“You’ve already faced me, face to face,” Lohit continued, and a shiver ran down Ursa’s spine. “I was in every armature, seeing through every drone. And I was even yes, in those two Procyons you dismantled outside, and in the security turrets by the gate.”

“He’s an AI,” she said. “A war AI.” She looked up at the ceiling as Adah stepped up to the security pad by the elevator, once again pulling out Piggy’s clearance. “You’re breaking a lot of very highly-regarded laws. You know that, right?”

“As if any of you have any grounds to accuse me of violating law,” Lohit said, contempt echoing across the room. “Besides, laws change.” The door to the elevators slid open, exposing an empty, blank interior. “Please, continue. I’m looking forward to killing all of you.” At once, every viewscreen and light above them went out, plunging the entire room into darkness lit only by the open elevator doors.

“So that’s what this facility is about,” Adah said as they stepped into the elevator. “Bora was working on more than just drones. Robotics and artificial intelligence. She’s researching banned war machines.”

“And producing them,” Anvil added as Adah bent by the controls. “Down?”

“Not according to this … No.” Adah sounded almost puzzled, tapping the text by one of the buttons with her finger. “And this isn’t some sort of digital trick. Down is ‘Manufacturing’—“

“No people,” Ursa noted. “So automated. More violations of their own laws.”

“And testing. Up is ‘Labs,’ then ‘Residence,’ and at the top … ‘Archives.’” She tapped the button for the archives, only for a security pad nearby to flash. Again she held out Piggy’s card, but the pad only flashed red.

“Shit. Piggy can’t get us to the archives.”

“Good luck had to stop sometime,” Ursa said, eyeing her shoulder.

“But …” Adah tapped the button for the next highest level, the residence, and this time when the pad flashed, it turned blue. “We can come right up under it.”

“I’ve still got det-packs,” Anvil added as the elevator began to move. “Plus there has to be access, right?”

“We’ll find out. Updates?”

“Only a few grenades left, a few autocannon shells, and one MMR barrage,” Anvil said. “Launcher’s empty.”

“Got a couple of magazine’s left,” Owl said. “And five tripwires.”

“Just four shots,” Ursa said, lifting her Rezzer. “And a smoke.”

“I’ve got three mags, five frags, and a mortar tube,” Adah said, tapping the last one.

“Take it from me; that’s a fun indoor toy, on it” Anvil said. “Also, is it just me or is this elevator slow?”

“Might be by design,” Adah said, stepping up to the doors. “For spectacle.” The button marked “Labs” flashed, marking their passage past it. “Everyone get ready. We don’t know what’s waiting for us at the end of this ride.”

“Can’t be much. The tower is what, half the length of the whole building?”

“Still a lot of space.”

The button by “Residence” flashed, the elevator slowing slighty. No gravitics. Just an elevator. It made sense. There wasn’t far for the unit to go.

“Get ready.” Ursa lifted her Rezzer, dropping to one knee and noting the way the plating she knelt on popped, part of it breaking off.

We’re in bad shape. Owl appeared to be the most whole of all of them, but even she was showing signs of battle. At this point, I don’t even think someone would need armor-piercing ammo to hurt us.

The elevator came to a stop with a gentle ding, the doors sliding to either side to reveal … Another lobby?

It was an entryway, a red carpet flanked by faux-marble flooring extending before them to a simple, slightly triangular glass door that was currently closed. And on either side of the long room … evenly spaced floor-to-ceiling display cases, showing off awards, hard-light designs, and images. A common face and name was featured among all of them. It’s a gallery. To Bora. On all sides the walls were viewscreens, currently showing a live feed of the smoke and flame-choked night outside the tower. Matching wooden benches had been seated along them, presumably for sitting and observing the awards.

There was no sign of any movement, drone or otherwise.

“Forward, slowly,” Adah ordered. “Lohit sounded very certain we were going to meet something to stop us again.”

One by one they slipped out of the elevator, Owl leaving last and pausing to drop two tripwire grenades by the entrance. The elevator doors shut with another faint ding, and then they were alone.

“Move,” Adah said, taking point down the carpet, followed by Anvil, both of them trying to cover all sides of the room at once. Ursa followed, Owl bringing up the rear.

“You know,” Lohit said, his voice echoing through the room once more. Each of them stopped. “In a way, I’m glad you’ve made it this far. Live tests on the mark three armature weren’t scheduled for another year, at least. You’ve moved up my production schedule quite far.”

“Go.” Adah’s whisper was all they needed, rushing toward the triangular glass.

“Don’t bother,” Lohit said as Adah seized the door’s handle. It didn’t budge. “Your security clearance isn’t valid to get you past this door, and the portal is made of the same material as starship viewports.”

“Det-packs,” Adah ordered, making way for Anvil to step up to the door. Beyond it, Ursa saw, was a fairly standard, if Spartan, living space, almost unadorned.

Bora’s?

“I hope you know that one day you will be remembered as the first to show how capable Director Bora’s designs truly are,” Lohit continued. “And if you think I’m not going to enjoy this, well …” A faint noise from the rear of the room drew Ursa’s attention, and she turned to see portions of the viewscreens on either side of the back wall swing open, familiar armored figures step out, their compact weapons held in easy hands.

Adah gave the order to scatter but she almost didn’t hear it as both sides opened fire, diving to the side to get out of the line of fire. Something hot and angry tore across her hip, alerts popping up on her hud as her right leg threatened to give out beneath her. Anvil’s autocannon boomed, taking a leg off one of the new arrivals and throwing them to the ground.

This can’t be it, Ursa thought as she fired, catching one of the two armatures in the visor. There has to be—

The viewscreen near her position swung open, and as she turned, Rezzer coming up to fire, she understood at last why the AI had been so confident, and what he had meant by ‘early models.’

As a much larger armored figure, its strange gun already aimed at her, opened fire.

*             *             *

“Ursa!” Adah watched as the strange glowing beam struck her friend straight in the chest, flinging her back across the room. Ursa slammed into one of the displays, smashing partway through it and spinning as the beam from her attacker’s weapon cut out. Adah swept her rifle over, firing on the new attacker but already noting in alarm the size and shape differences between it and the smaller armatures. Where the one Anvil had just cut in half with another shot from her autocannon was sized like any other set of skinsuit armor, the larger size and heavier style of the newcomer make it remarkably similar to only one member of the team.

“Exosuit!” she shouted, sprinting to one side as the newcomer swept its strange weapon toward her, aperture glowing. “Unknown! Unknown!” The armature fired … and the world in front of its weapon seemed to tear itself apart as the strange, orange-red beam played across two of the displays, glass and bits of display flying in all directions.

She dropped prone at the last second, the beam passing through the air right above her head, only for something to yank her upwards and to the side, shoving her forward through the air in the direction opposite to the beam’s travel. What?

It was like the world had momentarily been flipped on its head, but there was no time to dwell on it. Not when the armored figure was moving forward, their weapon no longer firing but still glowing.

She scrambled forward, crawling and shoving herself up as the remaining soldier armature took advantage of the chaos among to team to fire again, aiming first in her direction. Several shots slammed into her back, one with a burst of hot pain that tore into her side. She kept herself from stumbling as the pain ripped through her, instead spinning and holding down her trigger, spraying the armature with fire. It staggered as several shots slammed into its visor, one penetrating, but stayed upright.

Ursa was still down, the front of her armor smoking with heat. Anvil had turned to engage the newcomer, breaking to the left side of the room, her autocannon out and firing even as the massive figure turned its weapon toward her. It fired, again sweeping its strange, orange-red beam across another swath of the room, and again it was as if the rules of the normal world stopped applying for a moment, bullet casings, shells, and anything that wasn’t held down scattering across the room at high speed as if thrown from a tornado. Anvil ducked behind one of the display cases, the beam splashing into it and having a threefold effect of smashing, scattering, and melting the contents.

Still, it was an obvious beam, and in the brief moment its wielder had fired, Adah had been able to see the leading edge. Slow enough we can react. Which meant the more immediate threat, danger of the beam notwithstanding—

“The small armature!” she shouted, ignoring the pain in her side as she shouted. “Take it down first!” She lifted her rifle as the swaying armature staggered, seemingly struggling to operate—and then Owl leaped onto the machine’s back, wrapping her legs around its waist and shoving her knife deep into its head. It spasmed, twitching and jerking, before falling to the ground.

Leaving only the large, exosuit-like armature and its strange weapon to deal with. At least, until two more viewscreens behind the large machine slid to the side, two more of the regular, soldier-sized armatures lifting SMGs and opening fire.

“Skag-sucking sons of whores!” Adah shouted as she dove behind one of the nearby display cases. “How many of these things are there!?”

“More than you will be able to defeat, I am sure.” Lohit’s voice echoed from multiple sources, each of the armatures speaking in time. Adah scowled and pulled a grenade from her side, thumbing the pin. A glance at her hud gave her approximate locations of both the team and the newcomer armatures. She lobbed the grenade blindly around the corner. “However, you may die assured that your deaths further human knowledge and experience. This combat is really quite educational.”

The heavy fired again, its beam sweeping across the room at waist level and setting two of the wooden benches on the far side alight. The viewscreens weren’t fairing much better against the heat, whole chunks dead and blackened in the wake of the beam’s passage, the glass cracked and broken, the effect making the outside night look smokier than it already was.

As soon as the beam had passed her position Adah rolled out on one knee, firing full auto and peppering one of the new arrivals with shots, the bullets slamming into their armor and carving out small holes and craters. Rather than dodge, they simply tanked her fire, swinging their SMG in her direction and sending shots flying back. Her grenade, far from where she’d intended it to land, detonated, hot metal fragments puncturing a viewscreen but also bouncing off the other armature.

She rolled back behind the display case, her weapon dry, and reloaded as the telltale boom of Anvil’s autocannon echoed around the room once more. Owl was also in cover, her carbine sounding out cracks so fast they were almost one continuous noise. One of the new soldiers fell, overwhelmed by the amount of firepower.

None of them had fired on Ursa yet. Maybe they thought she was dead. The CNC net didn’t think so, however, her status still green if showing a number of alerts.

Need to pull her out of the line of fire. Adah shoved a new mag into her rifle and chambered a round. The second of the new soldiers fell, their chest ripping apart as Anvil’s autocannon overwhelmed it.

Now! She burst from her cover, rushing toward Ursa’s position and firing at the heavy. Her shots sparked and cracked against its armor, doing surface damage but not much else, though it did pull the thing’s attention. It fired—and her legs twisted out from under her as the world flipped around. She nearly screamed as fire seemed to sweep over one arm, and then she was out, slamming into one of the viewscreens hard enough to make her vision swim. She dropped to the ground, arm still howling with pain, her hud screaming with alerts. Most of them heat related, but also radiation.

“I’m okay!” she said, pushing herself up as soon as the beam had cut out, arm screaming in pain. The skinsuit was blackened and charred, leaking smoke. Burns. Probably bad ones. But not too bad. Or she wouldn’t have been able to feel the injury at all. Instead her nerves felt raw and baked, rather than dead.

Anvil’s MMR battery fired, micro-missiles screaming across the room at the heavy. Jets on its armor fired, a short, violent thunderclap sounding as the machine lurched to one side, a number of the missiles screaming past to further dismantle viewscreens and displays.

But some of them still hit the heavy, detonating in bright, brief, violent flashes that carved out craters. The unit staggered, but quickly righted, its weapon coming up once more and firing in Anvil’s direction, carving a hot, molten path across everything it touched and sending debris flying once more.

Anvil reacted by firing one of her Gravix grenades, the force throwing the armored heavy to one side, aim going wild, and further adding to the chaos as the two weapon’s effect mixed, throwing debris in all directions.

Gravity, Adah realized as she scrambled to Ursa’s fallen form. That’s what it is! That weapon is using gravitics somehow! Just like the grenades!

I’ve never even heard of that except in theoretical designs. If the UN is developing a weapon like that …

She held a hand to Ursa’s scorched chest plate as the battle raged on behind her. The suit had fared worse than the plates, but both were scorched and blackened with carbon. Still, after a moment her own suit’s systems made contact.

Ursa was alive, but nonresponsive and injured, her suit suggesting internal trauma, burns, and likely cracked ribs. She took a blow from it head-on, but she lived. Helmet is cracked, but Anvil said something about that earlier. Possible compounding. She snapped her fingers above Ursa’s visor but got no response. No neck injury that the suit knows of. Lock it and get her behind something! Ursa’s armor stiffened as the order came in, and Adah began pulling her to one side, behind one of the displays.

The heavy was still engaging Anvil and Owl, shrugging off autocannon hits and carbine fire, its own beam humming as it fired back. Owl seemed to be focusing her fire on the weapon itself, but for its strange nature it appeared just as sturdy as the armature, bullets bouncing from it with indifference as it continued to spit out its odd stream of …

What? she wondered,  as she pulled out another frag grenade and lobbed it past the heavy. Plasma? Some other kind of energy? Burning fuel?

The armature fired again, even as her grenade detonated—and then she snapped her head to the side as two more viewscreens began to slide to the side, revealing two more of the soldiers.

She charged at one, firing before it did and seeing its visor rock back even as its own shot slammed into her shoulder, pain erupting through her. She didn’t slow, crashing into the soldier and slamming them back with her own body weight, screaming as she buried her rifle barrel in their face and pulled the trigger. Armored as it was, it was too much for the armature, and it slumped, lifeless.

Her rifle was empty again, so she grabbed the armature’s SMG, ripping it out of their hands and tearing one of its fingers off in the process. The other armature coming out a nearby alcove turned as she opened fire on it, her shots spraying across its body. A shot from Owl struck its weapon, knocking it aside as it opened fire, but Adah still felt the telltale hot sting of something hitting her in the thigh, burrowing into her leg and almost throwing it out from under her.

“You see,” Lohit said as the armature failed, Adah and Owl’s combined fire tearing through its head. “These early models fall far easier.”

“Then you’re not using them effectively,” came a new voice. Adah turned, partway slumping against the wall as her leg suddenly went weak. Blood was pouring from a hole in her skinsuit, not fast enough to be from a major artery, but with more than enough force to indicate a serious problem. She groped for her medical kit, dropped her stolen SMG. “Bring out more of them.”

“I’m learning more be engaging them in smaller numbers,” Lohit answered. “Besides, there are no longer enough armatures active for me to be able to engage them in such a manner.”

Adah triggered a small capsule, the end breaking off and spraying a thick, gluey coagulant into the wound on her leg, one laced with nanobots. The bleeding slowed almost immediately, a cool chill sensation rushing out and quelling the waves of pain from the shot. She dropped the spent capsule, grabbing one of her last magazines and shoving it into her rifle.

“That one’s still in the fight,” the voice said. It sounded clinical. Cold. Almost moreso than Lohit’s cool detachment. “Adah, I believe, from her armament.”

Her weapon loaded Adah looked up once more, her visor locking on the source of the voice. Behind the reinforced glass of the door at the head of the room was a woman in a wheelchair, eyeing the fight with a disinterested look would have been more apt on the face of a bored worker checking an AI’s work than someone watching four armored mercs struggle for their lives. But the expression was also familiar, mirrored across the few photos she’d found.

Bora. She squeezed a shot off from her rifle, the round shattering as it hit the glass without leaving a mark. The woman didn’t even blink. And she knows who we are. And speaking over the intercom just so we can hear her.

“Activate your remaining armatures. Break them, but leave them alive. We need to know how they found this place.”

“Come out from behind that glass,” Anvil shouted as the heavy fired once more. “And we’ll tell you. Personally!”

Bora either ignored the barb or didn’t care, but a second later multiple viewscreens began to retract around the room, sliding back into the wall. Five in total. And one of them was larger than all the others. There could be only one reason for that. Another heavy.

“Unload!” She screamed the command as she followed her own orders, holding down the trigger and firing one handed as she drew a grenade. Gunfire poured out of the new openings, four new soldier armatures advancing out with SMGs spitting fire. She broke left, hurtling her grenade and stumbling as several shots slammed into her leg, the plating and suit failing and letting on through to punch cleanly through her left calf, stopping only when it hit the backside of the suit.

Micro-missiles streaked out, Owl firing what was probably her last set but cleanly taking the head off of one of the newcomers even as the new heavy opened up with its beam, missing her but the resultant field sending her sprawling. Adah hit the ground, her rifle clicking dry, and she let go of it, the ammo spent. There were still two grenades around her armor, and she pulled them both free, pivoting and leaving a slick of blood across the floor.

Both heavies turned their focus on Anvil, sweeping their beams toward her from either side and catching her in the middle. Anvil let out a shout as she was thrown backward, her exosuit crashing against the far wall and sliding across the viewscreens, crushing each of them. She landed on her side, suit smoking and burnt, but brought her autocannon up, firing at the first of the two heavies, screaming the whole time.

Adah threw her last two grenades, the small explosives rolling and bouncing across the floor in the direction of the two pairs of soldier armatures. Twin explosions rocked the room as both blew, staggering one of the soldiers and riddling its armor with tiny pockmarks … but not stopping either of them.

That’s it, Adah thought as one of them turned to look at her, lifting its weapon. I’m out. All she had now was her knife, but with both legs wounded. Across the room Owl managed to get two more shots off before one of the soldiers wrenched her carbine from her grip, throwing it aside while the other began pummeling her with blows. I’ve got nothing left. She sank back slightly, and something on her back touched the floor with a clink.

The mortar! Anvil screamed again as the two heavies fired, missing her but striking her autocannon and ripping the weapon from her grasp. It impaled itself barrel-first into one of the viewscreens, quivering. With a roar Anvil charged forward.

Adah whipped the mortar tube from her back and pointed it at the back of the wounded heavy, her arm screaming in pain. Controls popped up on her hud, and with her other hand she tapped at her wrist, disabling the safeties and priming the mortar.

She hit fire, her free hand snapping up to help brace the tub and keep it aimed. A fraction of the second later, with a kick that sent her sliding back on the marble, the tube exploded in fire and fury.

As did the back of the heavy, her mortar shot slamming into it and detonating with enough force to stagger the machine forward. A moment later Anvil threw herself into it, still screaming, stabbing the armature with her knife.

Adah twisted slightly and the mortar tube fired again, her second shot crashing into one of the four soldiers and blasting them across the room.  There was one shell left, and she twisted, trying to line up the shot …

The shell slammed into the wall near the two drones subduing Owl, metal fragments sparking off them and tearing through their armor. Both staggered, but stayed upright.

With a scream of primal fury, Anvil drove her knife into the first heavy’s head, then wrenched it to the side. There was a loud, creaking snap, and then the entire body jerked to one side as Anvil ripped its head completely off, hurtling it into the corner of the room.

The other heavy’s shot caught her in the shoulder, throwing her from the first’s body as it toppled over.

“See,” Lohit said as Anvil hit the ground. “That’s why the larger units should have a backup.”

Subdue, Lohit.” Three of the soldiers were still up, and one of them marched across the room even as behind it the heavy shot Anvil once more, dead center this time. The soldier kicked the spent mortar from Adah’s hands, then lashed the same foot across her face, cracking the visor and snapping her head into the floor hard enough to make the room spin.

That’s it. The heavy was moving on Anvil now, firing again and again through a hazy world. From smoke or her head injury, or maybe blood loss, Adah could no longer tell. The soldier that had kicked her locked its fingers around her shoulder, yanking her to her feet. Owl was already restrained, arms stretched between two of the soldiers and a knife at her throat.

Anvil threw herself at the oncoming heavy with another scream. Rather than firing, the heavy tossed its weapon aside, meeting Anvil fist to fist and taking her on in hand to hand combat. But it was already over. Anvil was lagging, her armor showing holes almost to the skinsuit, one leg lagging behind.

Then one hand came around, a det-pack clutched in its fingers—and a blade snapped out of the heavy’s wrist, stabbing right through Anvil’s arm. Anvil let out a scream of pain, the det-pack dropping from her fingers as the heavy yanked, twisting and using the blade in Anvil’s arm to throw her around it. Then it casually crushed the det-pack with its amored boot, before stabbing out with a second blade—right into Anvil’s back.

Anvil’s cry of pain echoed through the room. The soldier holding Adah up kicked the back of her knees, dropping her to the floor as Anvil spun—

And the heavy drove the first blade deep into her gut, the blood-slicked metal protruding from the back of Anvil’s exosuit and lifting her feet from the ground.

“Subdued,” Lohit said as Anvil let out a choked gurgle. “They pose no threat.” The solider holding Adah pressed her hands together behind her back, locking both her wrists together and holding them painfully high.

“Excellent.” Bora rolled forward, eyeing them through the glass. She reached out and tapped at a control pad, the door sliding to the side. “Then it’s time to get answers.”

Then she stood, and even through the haze surrounding her mind, Adah couldn’t help but feel a sense of grim satisfaction. I knew it. We all did.

“So,” Bora said, holding up a small pistol. “I need some answers. Answer quickly and truthfully, and you’ll die quickly and without much pain other than that which you’re already in. Which you can consider your punishment for daring to come this far. Answer poorly or give me cause to believe that you’re lying, and I will order Lohit to pull you apart, limb from limb. With the augments all of you possess, I imagine that would take some time. Do you understand?”

“Screw off…  crouper.” The words were forced, barely audible from Anvil’s helmet, and didn’t come across the comm channel at all.

“Perhaps I should order Lohit to kill you in particular,” Bora said, her expression unchanging as she turned toward Anvil. “Your own history, Vade, is living proof of the frailty of the majority of mankind, of the unending march toward their own ruin. For all your skills and accomplishments, you’ll always be less than an AI like Lohit. Lohit, unlike you, does not bite the hand that feeds, nor struggle in futility against progress simply out of foolish, anarchic selfishness.”

“Some of us call that freedom,” Adah said, wincing as the armature holding her arms twisted them up several inches further. Bora turned, her eyes sliding over her as if she were little more than an object sitting on a shelf somewhere.

“You mistake my intent,” Bora said, lifting the pistol and holding it even with Adah’s visor from a foot away. “I’m not speaking to discuss this with you. My words are statements. You either understand them, or you do not. The fact that you argue at all shows your own failings.”

“Or your insanity.” A faint memory flitting through her head, and she added to her words. “Bora Yaga.”

This time Bora’s eyes narrowed slightly. “How did you find this place?”

“By tracking … your sick hobbies …” Anvil wheezed, her helmet turning to look at Bora. “Your orders with Piggy.”

“Ah.” Bora nodded slowly. “So that would be his clearance you used to override the security protocols and gain access. How unfortunate for him.”

“He’s dead,” Adah said. “We killed him yesterday.”

“Oh? Unfortunate for me then.” Bora glanced back in her direction. “I was rather looking forward to his delivery this week.”

“You’re sick,” Anvil said, the wheeze momentarily gone. Adah saw a tremble run through Owl’s body, her feet shifting on the floor and her captors responding by tugging her arms further apart.

“You’re deluded,” Bora replied. “But you still have the chance to be useful. Now, what did you hope to accomplish by coming—?”

Adah glanced at her hud. “One question,” she said, cutting Bora off. “Then I’ll answer yours.”

Bora frowned. “Please don’t waste my time.”

“Did you order the missile strike on our headquarters?”

“How could you not know that?” Bora asked. “That information was publically available. Of course I di—“ Her eyes went wide as Ursa’s final remaining smoke grenade arced through the air.

“Director!” The soldier at Adah’s back slammed her down as the smoke grenade hit, spewing its thick, metallic miasma in all directions, swirling around Bora’s feet. The heavy holding Anvil aloft yanked its blade out, dropping Anvil to the ground as it turned … only for Anvil’s fist to slam into its head, staggering it to the side. Owl flipped her body up, doing a full backward flip and yanking the two armatures holding her together.

The smoke swirled over Adah, her connection with the rest of the team dying as the cloying material cut out her comms.

But not just mine, she thought as the hands holding her wrists went stiff. Lohit’s! She twisted, leveraging her arms against the thing’s locked grip and putting all the pressure she could on a single point. She felt that point start to give … and then one of the hands vanished, Ursa appearing at Adah’s side and ripping the armature’s hands away. The machine started to topple to one side, only for Ursa to grasp its head and rip it off, metal popping, creaking, and tearing free.

Bora. Adah moved forward in the direction of the Director’s last location, then changed course, limping in the direction of the large door.  She found it a moment later, open and gaping, the empty wheelchair just on the other side. She’s not here. Either the director had run further in, or she was still in the room,

A room where the smoke was already clearing. That’s can’t be right. But it was. Fire suppression system, Adah thought as she stood in front of the door, waiting as she listened to someone slam something down through the smoke. Clever.

Someone rushed out of the smoke, and Adah lashed out, catching Bora by the throat and knocking her pistol aside. It clattered across the floor through the fading smoke.

“Lohit!” The director didn’t appear to look in control now. “Stop them!”

“I am trying.” The AI’s voice sounded alarmed as well. “Director, I—?”

“I order i—“ Bora’s voice cut off with a pained squeak as Adah squeezed. Part of her wanted to keep squeezing, to simply tighten her grip until bone and flesh were nothing more than a reddish, gory sludge and the woman’s head popped off.

The better part of her simply cut off her voice, eyeing the director even as both her hands came up to claw at Adah’s own.

Interesting. There was a blinking light on the bracelet Bora was wearing. She waved that hand to open the door, didn’t she?

Her fud flashed, comms coming online, then fading, them coming online at last as more of the smoke cleared. Owl was crouched over the two soldier armatures … and as they began to move she darted away, heading in Adah’s direction. A second later, as Adah’s eye caught the thin wire wrapped around the two soldiers, she understood why. Multiple bangs sounded as Owl’s tripwire grenades, tucked against the neck of each armature, their thin wires wrapped around their bodies, detonated, blowing both their heads off.

Through the remaining haze, two titanic shapes appeared, one slamming the other again and again. They resolved into the forms of Anvil and the final heavy, which looked far worse off than it had the last Adah had seen it.

Then Ursa leapt onto its back, wrapping her arms around its metal neck, Anvil darting in as it tried to dislodge her and catching one arm, yanking it down as her other hand came down to smash against the flat of the thing’s arm blade, snapping it off.

“Lohit.” Bora’s voice was raspy, she’d found it again. “Stop them. Activate all armatures in the production levels! All of them!”

“I … am sorry director. I am doing my—“

The heavy staggered back as Anvil broke its other arm blade and then planted at kick in the center of its mass. The thing spun, still fast and moving faster still as the last of the smoke cleared, trying to get at Ursa, who let go and fell back, just shy of the thing’s clutching hands. Both she and Anvil fell back as the heavy rallied, clearly far more ready for combat than they were.

“Let me go and I’ll call it off,” Bora said, glaring at Adah as the heavy advanced. “You’re out of explosives, and Lohit is better than any of you. Let me go and—“

The beam from the heavy’s weapon caught the machine square in the back, Owl bracing herself against the ground as she fired the armature’s dropped gun. The heavy slammed into the far wall, armor smoking. Owl fired again, the beam striking them square on, pressing and twisting them into the viewscreen. The beam quivered, rolling from one side to the other almost like it was fighting against Owl, but then Ursa joined her in holding it, keeping it steady until it winked out once more. The heavy landed on its feet but staggered, and Anvil stepped in, slamming her fists into it over and over again.

“Back!” Owl shouted after a little over a second, and Anvil stepped back as the beam swept out once more, slamming the exosuit back and this time rolling up into the machine’s head.

Again Anvil stepped forward as the beam cut out, this time grabbing the smoking, glowing helmet in one hand and smashing it into the wall over and over again. Both the heavy’s hands tried to come up, but they moved in jerks, like they couldn’t decide what to do.

“Back!” The armature’s body spasmed and twisted under the force of the beam. When the assault finally ended it slumped forward, helm glowing with heat.

Anvil buried one of its own blades in its head with a scream, shoving it back and pinning it to the wall. The machine sagged, slumping, but stayed put.

“Director, I—“

“Shut up.” The AI went silent at Bora’s command. Anvil and the rest of the team sagged slightly.

We did it, Adah thought as each of them slowly turned, making their way over to her by the door. We won!

“I’ll be keeping this,” Anvil said, pausing by the beam weapon and picking it up. “Never seen anything like this before.”

“It’s new,” Bora said, rubbing at her throat as Adah let her go and stepping back slightly. “Quite new. This facility has the only two production test models in existence. Wherever you take it, your employer will need to bury it.”

“I don’t think so,” Anvil said, docking it on her back. “In fact, I might just keep it.”

Bora looked at the four of them, her eyes slipping back to Anvil. “And you should be dead, for that matter.”

“Leonidas package,” Anvil replied. “That talk about taking a sword to the gut isn’t just marketing, on it?”

Bora let out a scoff. “Very well. You came for me. You have me. Now what?”

“We didn’t come here for you.” Adah felt a bit of satisfaction as a puzzled look crossed Bora’s face. “Not primarily, anyway. We’re here for the archives. And your hostages.”

“That woman and her son?” Bora seemed taken aback. “But they’re nobodies. They have nothing to do with you!”

“They’re somebody to someone,” Adah countered, trying not to hiss as the world swam. She felt lightheaded. “That bracelet. Will that let us into the archives?”

“What—? Well, yes, but—“ She let out a gasp as Ursa grabbed her wrist, slipping the bracelet off. “But why would you—?”

She paused, her expression unreadable. “FTL schematics.”

“Very good,” Ursa said, holding the bracelet between two armored fingers. “Maybe you are as smart as you claim.”

Bora’s expression darkened. “Don’t patronize me. You still chose this location because I’m here.”

“Well,” Adah said, stepping back as she saw Owl tense. “You’re partially right. Our employer wants those schematics, and your hostages—“

“Pisces.” Bora spat the word out like a curse. “You’re working for Pisces. It all makes sense. You bring them the schematics. You bring them those useless hostages.” She shook her head. “I told Director Eidre she should have just killed them. And you get me and all my research.”

“You’re smart,” Adah said, turning toward Owl and nodding. “But not smart enough.”

“You see,” she said as Owl lunged forward, grabbing Bora by the throat with one hand and pinning her to the wall, feet just off the ground. “You’re a perk for us. Not our employer.”

Bora clawed at Owl’s hands her feet kicking against the wall. “Let me go! You have no idea how valuable I am! I can make you rich! Wealthy! I can give you secrets! I can give you Lohit! I can give you order!”

“A monster made of gold is still a monster,” Owl said, and her other hand darted forward, driving the other broken blade from the heavy she’d collected up through the underside of Bora’s ribs. Bora let out a shocked gurgle, blood trickling from her lips as her eyes went wide.

“This,” Owl said, twisting the long blade inside Bora’s chest and eliciting a pained grunt. “Is for my mother.” With a scream she yanked the blade partway out and then shoved it back in with a crunch, this time pinning the woman to the wall by her ribs and spine. Owl stepped back, her visor still fixed on Bora’s face as the director’s hands slipped down the wound in her gut, shaking and wrapping around the broken end of the blade holding her to the wall. Bora’s mouth opened and closed silently as if she were trying to speak, her eyes fixed on Owl, staring as her blinks grew slower … and slower … Until they stopped, her body going limp and sagging at last, blood pooling on the marble at her feet.

Director Netra Bora was dead.

Then Owl sank to the floor, sobs sounding across the comm channel. “It’s okay,” Ursa said, kneeling beside her. “You did it. It’s over.”

“You did,” Adah said, slumping back against the wall and reaching for her medkit. “But it’s not all over. Patch up. Let’s go find the hostages and get them and the schematics out of here.” Cool, artificial blood shot into her system, silvery nanite-infused fluid flooding her veins as she emptied an entire needle into one of her wounds.

They moved through Bora’s residence, shutting the heavy door behind them, trailing bloody footprints across expensive carpets, battered and worn … But still alive, Adah thought as they gathered around a locked door on one side of the small apartments. It opened at a touch from Bora’s bracelet, revealing a small, sparse room that had probably been for guests at some point. An older woman with graying hair looked up at them from a small table, eyes fearful.

“Miss King?” Adah asked, taking a step forward. She didn’t miss the way the young teen sitting next to the woman tensed.  “I’m Adah Nay.” She held out an open hand. “I’m here on behalf of someone hired by your daughter Anna.”

“Anna?” The woman rose, her eyes going wide. “Is she here? Is she—“

Adah shook her head, cutting her off. “No. And I’ve never met her. But we’re here to take you to her.”

“Prove it.” The boy was still giving them a look of suspicion. “How do we know we can trust you?”

“We killed Bora for a start,” Ursa said, stepping forward and then pulling her helmet off, tucking it under one arm. “I promise, we’re not here to take you back to another cage. We’re taking you out of here. To Pisces.”

“That’s where Anna went!” the teen said quickly, rising from the table. “Let’s go!”

“Hold on,” Ursa said. “There was also a … fish?”

“Yeah!” The teen ran over to the side of the room, where a large, unhappy-looking goldfish sat in a small tank. “We can’t leave him!”

“It’s a fish,” Anvil said. “The UN kidnapped a goldfish as a hostage?”

Adah peered at the scale pattern. “It’s a parrot-gold. Gene-engineered. Long-lived, and smart. Illegal now, unless you already had one.”

“Yeah,” the teen said, picking up a small container of fish food. “He does tricks too, but he’s not very happy. He doesn’t like it here.”

“I wouldn’t either.” A distant thud echoed from the front entrance, both the woman’s and her son’s eyes flicking in its direction. “Ursa, get these two to the roof or a landing pad, whichever comes first.”

“A pad?”

“No way Bora took the elevator down every time she wanted to leave. But if she didn’t, the roof. Evac will be here any minute.”

Ursa nodded, and began helping the two grab what effects they had.

“Owl, Anvil, find the archive. I’m going to make sure that door is holding tight and call our client.” Owl and Anvil both nodded as she turned back toward the front of the apartment.

Two soldier armatures were outside the triangular—and closed—door, both battering on the glass without leaving so much as a mark. Guess whoever said that stuff was hard wasn’t wrong. And Lohit can’t override Bora’s control, just like with the elevator.

“Adah, we found the archive. Bora’s bracelet let us right in.”

“Good,” she said, turning away from the door. “We’ve got company, but they’re locked out. Found the FTL schematics?”

“Nothing’s labeled. Give us a minute.”

“Work fast. We don’t have many to give.” She tapped at her wrist, bringing up a narrow comm channel they’d already established, and sent out a ping.

Nothing.

“Adah, I found a pad. Not a big one, not for any landing, but enough for an exit.”

“Good,” she said, turning and limping away from the door. Two more soldiers had arrived, some missing sections of armor plate. “I’m on my way.” Maybe an exit will help get our signal out.

She pinged again as she made her way through the apartment, still getting nothing. Come on, Apatos!

“We found it!” Anvil’s elation was hard to miss. “FTL schematics! It’s in my hands.”

“Target two. You found a log?”

“Adah, this place is bigger than the apartment. Of course there’s a log!”

“Item two on Apatos’ list then. Anything to do with deep-space restricted sites. Stellar charts, prison logs—“

“Yeah no, we’re on it, on it.”

“Good.” Getting the schematics and eliminating Eidre’s hostage leverage was one thing, but if there was information that could help Apatos figure out where her friend had been sent … She sent out another ping.

This time, she got one back. In seconds a handshake had taken place, prior-agreed encryption codes synching and opening a connection.

“Nay.” Apatos wasted no time in speaking. “Do you have them?”

“King and her son are secure, as are the schematics,” she said, well aware how much relief was sinking into her voice. “We’re looking for the second item on your list now. A pad should be deploying from the tower soon. Not for landing, just for boarding.”

“Good. I’m inbound and will arrive in just under a minute. Be ready to board—orbital traffic control is respecting my clearance but it’s only a matter of time before someone with enough clearance to say otherwise figures out what’s going on.”

Adah nodded and switched channels. “Team? Evac in forty seconds! Be there!”

“Adah!” It was Owl. “We’ve got stellar charts! Complete solar surveys! Everything!”

“Grab them and let’s go!” It’ll have to be good enough. “Ursa, pop that pad.”

Thirty seconds later she met with them at last, standing on a long, narrow bridge—more of a gangway—with underlying supports that stuck out from the edge of the tower. A distant twinkling star swelled into an orbital dropship, hot dropping through the night sky, engines roaring so loud that the hostages covered their ears in pain as the machine came to rest at the end of the bridge. Smoke and ash from their battle swirled around the aircraft.

“Go!” Adah shouted, herding the two—three—of them across the small gangway as a door on the side of the VTOL opened. The inside was plush luxury, all leather and carpet, and a stark opposition to what they normally rode in. Anvil went across the gap between the end of the bridge and helped King and her son across. Ursa came next, then last Anvil and Owl, each holding massive cylindrical data drives.

“We’re aboard!” Adah shouted as Anvil cleared the gap. “Go!” The door slid shut, and a moment later she felt the world shift as the VTOL rocketed away.

The inside of the VTOL was small, much smaller than the Stalker’s had been. Cramped, really, with their whole team inside it. There was a closed door to the cockpit, and Adah slid it to one side, keying her external speakers.

“You got it?” Apatos asked, glancing away from the controls for just a brief moment. “The schematics.”

“And a stellar map,” Adah said. “Complete. Are we getting out of here?”

“So far, yes,” Apatos said, her focus back on the controls. “Orbital control has accepted that we were deploying in response to an emergency alert the black site sent out, to evac some delicate VIPs, and that we just ‘happened’ to be in the right place at the right time.”

“Actual UN response?”

“Five minutes out. Enough time to reach orbit, dock with the courier, and start running for a jump point. Everyone’s questioning it, but with the war on and our clearance being what it is … no one dares say no.”

“And if someone does?”

Apatos shook her head and let out a harried breath. “There are currently more than two-hundred warships in orbit. We’ll have only minutes before torpedoes blow our asses out of the sky.”

“Minutes. Right.”

Apatos gave her an odd sideways glance. “What?”

“Anvil,” Adah said, turning partway into the main cabin. “Does that drive, the one with the schematics. Does it have a readout? Can we tell how big it is?”

“Nay, what are you doing?”

“My team has a request,” Adah said, turning back to look at Apatos as outside the cockpit, the last vestiges of atmosphere gave way to space. “Once we’re aboard the courier, we download and broadcast the FTL schematic data. As much of it as we can before we jump. Open frequency.”

“You—“ Apatos caught herself. “You want to give it to everyone.”

Adah nodded. “Earth included.”

“Works for me,” Apatos said, her focus back on the controls. “The anarchy that’ll seed will keep Eidre occupied for weeks if not months. I doubt my partner will say no.” A bright light ahead of them was swelling, growing into a small starship.

“They on board that?” Adah asked, pointing.

“They are,” Apatos said, her fingers darting over the controls with quick, precise movements. “We’re coming in fast and docking quick.”

“Are we leaving the orbital behind?”

“No,” Apatos said. “It docks there.” She pointed at an opening on the bottom of the vessel, near the middle. “So that diplomats have their own way down.”

“Convenient.”

“Yes.” Apatos tapped more controls, bringing up a comm channel. “Shard? We’re docking now. We need to move, but there’s a new wrinkle. The team wants to transmit the entire FLT schematic archive on a broad band. At everyone.”

There was a pause of several seconds as the VTOL swung into the tiny open bay, small jets adjusting their position perfectly as the courier ship rotated to be above them.

“That is agreeable,” came a voice as a docking arm reached out for them. “Such a  move will further Pisces’ goals. Send them to the bridge as soon as they arrive.”

“That’s the spy?” Adah asked as the courier ship began pulling them in. “She sounds … odd.” There was something about the voice she couldn’t place.

“You have no idea,” Apatos replied, shutting down the controls. “Come on, let’s get aboard.”

The interior of the courier ship was clean and luxurious. Seeing a lot of that lately, Adah thought as she and Anvil followed Apatos to the bridge, passing by small lounges and cabins.

“So this is space, on it?” Anvil said as they moved through the courier. “Seems … pretty normal.”

“It’s the view that’s different,” Apatos replied. The deck underfoot changed from carpet to smooth metal as they moved for the cabin. Adah could feel it vibrating as the ship accelerated for the nearest safe jump point. “And our pilot,” she said opening  a hatch and stepping onto a small, cramped bridge.

It was empty.

“Where—?” Adah began, but Anvil beat her too it.

“It’s an AI,” she said, setting the drive down. “Isn’t it. The other contact.”

“Correct.” The voice from earlier was back. “Not a true AI, but a fragment. Of a Pisces-allied intelligence. You may call me Shard.”

“A long term plan,” Apatos said, answering their questions before they could be voiced. “I guess Rodriguez was a lot busier than anyone ever thought. Shard is a dumb-AI offshoot of a true AI there running orbital traffic. A true, unfettered AI.  The one all over the news. Who apparently managed to work Shard here back to Earth as some sort of failsafe or backup. When things on Pisces went sideways, Shard activated and acted on her original program’s goals and expectations: getting Pisces FTL schematics.”

“So it was true, then?” Anvil asked. “What about the aliens.”

“True,” Shard said. “Pisces is artificial.”

Adah almost staggered back. What?

Anvil just laughed as she handed Apatos the drive. “I can’t wait to shove that in Owl’s face. Real aliens?”

“Drones,” Shard replied. “But the planet is artificial, yes.”

That’s … impossible?

“I know how you feel,” Apatos said as she wired the drive into the communications console. “I still don’t quite believe it myself, but—“

“We have been revealed.” Shard’s calm tone belied the sudden fear that fell over the bridge. “Multiple ships are changing course and vectoring to intercept. None are firing yet, but we are being scanned.”

Apatos shoved one last cable into place. “The drive’s wired in. Can you do it?”

“Transmitting now. The material is encrypted.”

“Someone will break it. Send it on every frequency.”

“I am.” An alert sounded. “We are being fired upon.”

“Can we jump?”

“Not yet, but at our current rate of acceleration, we will be able to in thirty-nine seconds.”

“And their torpedoes?”

“Forty.”

“That’s cutting it quite close!” Apatos snapped.

“For you, maybe. We will be fine. I am powering the FTL systems now.”

“If we die this close,” Anvil said, looking out the bridge windows. “I’m going to be upset.”

“You would discover if there is an afterlife,”  Shard countered. “I’m not certain such a discovery would make you upset. Regardless, it will not happen. I am burning excess fuel.”

Twenty-some seconds later, the view of space outside the glass vanished as the ship jumped, and they were gone.


 

Thank you for reading Fireteam Freelance! If you’ve comments or concerns, please leave them below! Thank you for reading, and be sure to check out my books for more action, adventure, and mystery!

 

Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.

One thought on “Fireteam Freelance Episode 12: Black Site Bora

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