He knew the night air would be crisp and clean. Perhaps he wanted to breathe it. No matter. He smiled as he breathed in the warm, filtered air inside his suit. It had a flat, mechanical taste to it, but it was good, too.
Police sirens blared, far away, attempting to wake up the populace of the sleepy town they found themselves in.
It was early: just before 6:00. That was no bother for him. Zen took away most of his need to sleep. He’d woken up at the normal time, and had already eaten by the time he’d heard the news.
Daisy, ahead of him, raised her left hand to signal that he and David should stop.
He could feel the motion of her hand in his body. “Gesture: Halt,” spoke his suit’s AI in a quiet, masculine voice, barely audible above the sirens.
He stopped walking across the parking lot, just a few metres away from their destination.
“David, you and me take point. We break down the door and take out any threats inside. Beast does the talking after that.” He could hear the happiness on Daisy’s voice. That was good. He was glad she wasn’t letting the end of the world get her down.
Malka was enjoying himself, too. It was fun, in a way. Exhilarating.
“Roger,” said David, as he came up from behind Malka. The three of them approached the door to the hotel. Daisy and David had AR-15s, but he was weaponless. Not much point giving a gun to a blind man.
Avram Malka had been a cyborg for what seemed like most of his life. The boy that he’d been before the bombing now seemed entirely theoretical—a story from which he could remember, but not really empathise. That boy hadn’t understood what a blessing it was to see or to touch. He had been blind even before losing his sight. Machinery was part of who he was now, but in all those years he’d never felt as much like a true cyborg as he did at that moment, standing outside the hotel room.
Divinity had given him an exoskeleton for this mission—had given each of them exoskeletons. Malka’s wasn’t just some Mountainwalker, either. A full suit of modified Lockheed combat armour that covered every centimetre of skin. It made him huge and heavy, but the suit was more than capable of carrying its own weight. The legs had been rigged to interface with his spine, just as his old legs had, and they’d added another spinal interface to help compensate for the loss of his eyes. The suit’s cameras now projected an image directly into his body. He could feel light and dark, and the location and motion of basic shapes. It wasn’t much, but the suit’s onboard AI helped compensate with real-time scene descriptions.
And of course, his helmet had been blessed with Zen.
His legs carried him forward, towards the room with his target. But it almost didn’t feel like they were his legs, and not in the obvious way. He was… content. He wasn’t applying will towards the motion. His arms felt similarly foreign, and those were made of flesh. They moved as if guided by a ghost. His voice said, “Remember you’ve got baton rounds, so don’t hesitate to shoot the man if he makes a move for the girl.”
But was it really his voice? He felt more like a happy animal curled up in a warm cave, listening to nonsense human words on a radio.
“Person on the right kicking,” narrated his suit, as Daisy went to work.
The hotel door blew inward easily, the deadbolt splintering in submission to the amplified force of her metal boot. David and Daisy swept into the room yelling “Hands out and where we can see them! Don’t move! We’re here to help you!”
Behind the faceplate of his suit of armour, Malka smiled. Hydraulics churned as heavy feet stepped forward through the doorframe. He was almost too wide to fit through. They each must’ve seemed like ferocious giants of black and silver.
“I haven’t hurt her! I haven’t hurt her!” shouted the man he knew was Myrodyn, from somewhere towards the other end of the room. He had a sense that Myrodyn was standing with his hands raised, but it was hard to be certain. He must’ve already been awake.
The turn of his head to the left and right gave him the sense that his team had their weapons pointed at the man, but it took him a moment to locate the girl.
“Face peeking from under a blanket,” said his suit, helpfully, as his cameras scanned one of the two beds.
“Everything I’ve done has been for the good of all of humanity, including you! We’re on the same side!” jabbered Myrodyn.
Malka’s hand went up to silence the man, palm out, and his legs carried him forward towards the girl. He got the impression that she shrank back away from him as he approached. He smiled and took a breath. That was only to be expected.
He knelt. “Glad you’re both awake already,” he said. “Do you remember who I am, yalda?” He offered the same hand he’d used to silence Myrodyn to the girl in what he hoped was a comforting gesture.
For a moment he was unsure if his question had made sense to the girl. She wasn’t saying anything and his false-eyes weren’t giving him anything useful. But then she finally squeaked “Mr. Malka…”
He tried to nod, but as he lacked vertical articulation in the suit’s neck, the motion failed. The way the technology was supremely powerful and yet still worse in many ways than a simple human body amused him.
“Yes, little one. Your father sent me here to rescue you and bring you to safety.”
“What?!” yelped Myrodyn. “I’m not the threat here! Have you seen the news?! Why would Rob contract with you people of all the…”
The little man’s voice faded out as Malka stood and walked towards him, boots thudding with each step. The raw physical intimidation was enough to result in an awkward backwards stumble that ended with Myrodyn on the floor. The scientist seemed like a doll compared with Malka’s augmented frame, so soft and fragile. Even without eyes, the contrast was clear to him.
A new voice spoke, coming from Myrodyn’s com. It was feminine and confident, almost hypnotic in a way. “Ah, Avram, you finally made it. Do you still have the jet that Olympian provided?”
He paused, feeling the glow from Myrodyn’s wrist and trying to make sense of things. “Who are you?” he asked.
“You knew me by the name Anna di Malta, once. Do you remember? It seems like so long ago, doesn’t it? Some call me ‘Face’ now, but that’s merely a name. I am the Goddess of Humanity, and I know you, Avram Malka. I know your companions, David Reeves and Abigail Goodhue, who you call ‘Daisy’. I am the reason you’re here, and I am your salvation. Divinity said to tell you ‘Razor-wire cufflinks sit easy on stone wrists.’ Are you now willing to obey my directions?”
He stood there, surprised and a bit stunned by the words. Anna di Malta was on Mars. He’d thought she died when the nameless attacked. But… she was a goddess? He breathed a deep breath and let his confusion roll over him and off him, regaining his centre easily.
One thing was certain: this ‘Face’ was working with Divinity. She knew he’d be coming, and who he’d be with. She had his code-phrase.
“Yes, I will obey,” he said, glad to have new orders. There was something annoying about having to figure out for himself what the right course of action was. It was much easier when Divinity gave him a clear line to follow.
Myrodyn pulled himself up to a squatting position, moving slowly.
“Good,” said Face. “Start by telling me whether you still have the jet.”
“Yes. It’s parked at the airport.”
“As I expected,” said Face. “We’ll have to wait for about seven minutes to get the full strategic picture from the rest of my mind, but if I understand you correctly, you have an airplane at the Redding Municipal Airport. Growth is already reaching up the valley from San Francisco, and looking to take out airports first, probably to prevent us from consolidating forces. You’ll need to move fast to make it to Tokyo. Did you come in a vehicle capable of carrying two more people?”
Malka tried and once again failed to nod. “Yes, a van. Parked outside.”
“Good. I already told Karen and Jonah to meet you at the airport. They should get there a little ahead of you. There is very little time. Go now.”
“Mommy’s there?” asked the child, scrambling out of the bed.
“Why Tokyo?” asked Myrodyn, before Face could respond to the child.
Though they awaited her response, both baselines obeyed Face’s instruction to leave. Neither seemed to have much in the way of possessions, and they left without fuss. Their shapes were too blurry to give much in the way of body language, but Malka could see the way the child always positioned herself so there was a soldier of Divinity between her and Myrodyn.
Face seemed to ignore the girl’s question. “Tokyo is where Vision landed. It’s the last stronghold.”
Once they were outside David’s suit cracked open and he began to pull himself out, the helmet coming with him. Their van was parked only a few metres away.
“What?! I thought you said Vision was in the mothership!” exclaimed Myrodyn.
As they approached the van, Malka could hear a whispering coming from his suit’s com speaker. “Can you please give me override permissions for your suit, Avram? Daisy and David already have. It’ll help me help you in case of emergency.”
Meanwhile, Face spoke out loud to the group. “Vision is in control of the mothership, but her primary mind shard is in Tokyo. It secretly descended there shortly after she took over Selene Station.”
“My suit is my body. And you want me to give it up?” he said, switching his com channel to privately converse with Face.
“I want you to let me share it. It’s what Divinity wants. Just enter your passcode and relax.”
Myrodyn continued to animatedly object to the Tokyo plan. “So we’re just going to deliver ourselves to her? Don’t tell me you think she’s an ally…”
Malka climbed into the back of the white van they’d obtained from a local Divinity member. Myrodyn, Daisy, and the girl were already inside. Daisy was still in armour, and holding space between the two. Her gun was on a rack with others on the far wall. David was up front, in the cab, and his armour was autonomously following Malka, behind. As large as the van was, it’d be crowded.
Face continued to speak over Myrodyn’s com. “The strategic landscape has shifted. With Acorn in control of so much of the planet, there’s no other option. You can either fly to Vision or die as Acorn’s army slowly rolls over you.”
To Malka, she simply asked: “Avram? Permissions?”
He considered for a moment longer and then gestured his passcode into his com, unlocking the admin privileges for Face. She was almost certainly Crystal. It would make sense if Anna had been Crystal from the start. This whole thing felt like more of Crystal’s insanity. But Face had his code phrase, and that was all Malka really cared about. It felt like he was doing the right thing.
“Everyone’s in,” reported Daisy to David, as the rear-doors on the van closed.
If Face’s access resulted in a change, Malka didn’t notice it.
A simple silence descended as they drove. If Myrodyn had an objection, he didn’t voice it.
There were two benches in the back of the van, facing each other. On Malka’s right was David’s suit, acting more like a headless, bipedal robot, now that it was in autonomous mode. Opposite him was Myrodyn, and then Daisy, and finally the little Stephano girl, who was curled up in a ball, and holding on to the bench frame. She was nothing more than a blurry sensation in his gut. It was a miracle he could “see” her at all, really, but he could imagine her, sad and afraid… perhaps a little hopeful now that she was on her way to see her parents.
It made him want to give her a zen helmet.
After a few minutes of driving, Face spoke again, this time coming from the speakers on the three exoskeletons. “I’ve got an update from my primary intelligence on Mars. Acorn’s spread is accelerating now that it has more or less total control over the major cities in the region. In thirty-seven seconds one of Acorn’s aircraft will be dropping seeds onto the town, and I expect at least one of the seeds will be directed towards the airport. Stay away from the seed. There’s likely enough time to make it to the jet as long as you don’t draw attention to yourselves.”
“What’sa seed?” asked the girl, just as Myrodyn asked “How are you talking through their suits?”
Face responded to Myrodyn first. “The com tower I’d gained access to is about to be hit by Acorn. I’m downloading as much local intelligence into Divinity’s hardware as I can. I’m afraid that you’ll be isolated from my main intelligence until you reach Japan. The seed is—”
Face fell silent as a roar swept over them. The aircraft arrived just when Face had predicted. A few seconds later a loud boom swept through the van.
“Step on it, David,” yelled Daisy. The van accelerated.
As the second boom subsided, the roar of the aircraft fell away as well. Malka didn’t know who this “Acorn” was, but he guessed it must be the group in charge of the robotic army he’d been briefed about that morning.
It was the end of the world.
He wondered if he’d ever have the chance to betray Divinity. Or if he even wanted to anymore. He could see that Zen was a blessing, now, even if a part of him still disagreed with their methods.
“We’re now offline,” said Face. “Your coms will work peer-to-peer, but Internet access and guidance from on high will have to wait. I’ll do the best I can to guide you using just your armour’s computer systems, but you can’t rely on me to be actually intelligent until you reestablish satellite linkage.”
Myrodyn started to say something, but David’s voice from the cab cut in “What do I do about the gate?”
“Ram it?” suggested Daisy.
“Better brace yourselves, then,” retorted David.
Daisy, still in full armour, wrapped one hand around the girl and grabbed at the bench frame with the other. Malka did approximately the same, seeking to protect the autonomous suit sitting next to him, but the suit had already somehow known to stabilise itself.
The van accelerated sharply and then hit the gate, sending a moderate impact through them. They’d been ready for it, however, and it seemed like the gate had given way. They were at the airport.
“Holy shit!” Even filled with Zen the surprise was clear on David’s voice as he shouted over the com. The van began to swerve wildly.
Daisy began to speak. “Avoid contact with—”
Bullets ripped through the top of the van in a wild spray, filling Malka’s ears with the sound of metal on metal. The van continued to swerve.
“Come in, Divinity! Can you hear me?” shouted a voice over the com. Malka recognised it as Agent Jonah Taylor, of WIRL.
“Roger that,” Malka replied. “Divinity here.” He was glad that, as far as he could tell, none of the bullets had found flesh.
“Thank god,” said Agent Taylor. Malka could imagine him with his eyepatch and one of those black suits, talking into his com. “We’re pinned down behind the hangar, just north of what’s left of the control tower! Face says you have a jet parked out on the tarmac, but I don’t see how we can get to it without your help! I’ve already lost two men!”
The van turned a sharp left and continued to turn for a good long while, nearly throwing Malka off his seat and into Myrodyn.
Malka changed frequencies. “David, can you get us to the jet and then get to the north side of the hangar?”
“I can try, but they’ll be on us pretty quick.”
“Do it,” commanded Malka. To Agent Taylor he said “We’re sending pickup. Just hold tight.”
“Roger!” The sound of loud gunfire was audible on the com, as well as a dog barking.
As the van sped forward, Malka passed Daisy’s AR-15 back to her and she switched out her non-lethal ammo for some heavier stuff.
“I’ve installed combat software in your amour,” whispered Face into his ear. “Get a gun for yourself and help David’s armour switch ammunition.”
Malka grabbed the last rifle off the rack and did as he was told. A part of him found it unnerving that Face had more or less complete control over his body, but he simply took another breath and accepted it. That wasn’t worth worrying about right now. He was a tool, and glad to be of service.
“Out! Everybody out!” shouted David suddenly, braking the van as hard as he could, and nearly throwing everyone off the benches.
Daisy was up before him, throwing open the back doors and leaping down to the tarmac. The headless suit was next, followed by the girl and Myrodyn. Malka leapt from the back of the vehicle just as David sped away, his metal legs slamming into the asphalt with a force that would’ve pulped human limbs.
He looked around, trying to get his bearings. The sun still wasn’t up, but his suit’s cameras worked just fine in the low-light.
They’d been here the day before. It had been incognito and might’ve been tense at the time if they hadn’t had Zen, but that was nothing in comparison to how it was now. Unloading illegal weapons in a small airport was one thing, being in battle against… something… was another.
David had dropped the scientist, the girl, Malka, Daisy, and the suit of armour that Face was piloting near a collection of small parked airplanes and then had driven off in the opposite direction of the remnants of the control tower. Even from where they were, Malka could sense the plume of smoke rising from where it had been, blotting out the stars.
“There!” shouted Daisy. Malka turned to follow her gesture. She was pointing out onto the runway, but Malka couldn’t feel what was out there.
Malka felt his suit take over, forcing him to step backwards and away from whatever Daisy had seen. “Back! Everyone back!” hissed Face. “And quiet!”
The tension was piercing even Malka’s Zen. “What is it?” he whispered.
Daisy turned towards where their jet was parked and said “C’mon! There’s no time!”
“Two of Growth’s war machines,” explained Face as they moved towards the aircraft. “These are specifically designed for hunting and killing humans. They’re about the size of wolves, and… well, I don’t think it makes sense for me to go into more detail than that. If there’s a part of you that’s afraid of wolves, I suggest listening to it. This is not a fight we can win.”
The stairway to the jet unfolded as they approached, lights and engine turning on before anyone had come onboard.
“You two get ins—” Daisy began.
She was silenced by the roar of gunfire, very close by. The empty suit of armour jumped to clear the wheel blocks from the landing gear.
“Beast, with me!” said Daisy, raising her gun and moving down the row of airplanes towards the noise. Another burst of gunfire cut off his chance of replying as he followed.
The headlights of the van suddenly bloomed into their view as it sped towards them, between the various small aircraft in the parking lot. Dark shapes moved behind the van, flashes of gunfire illuminating inhuman silhouettes. Beside the van was a microtank, sparking with impacts from the light-arms fire.
Daisy and Malka pulled to opposite sides of the van’s path as it sped by them. Without realising what he was doing, Malka’s arms snapped up, and his gun fired with staggered, violent bursts.
WIRL’s microtank fired its main gun. Malka had no idea how they’d managed to get the war machine here, but its gun seemed far more powerful than the AR-15’s. Its shell exploded on impact and lit up, for one brief moment, one of the two robots that had been coming in enough detail for Malka to get a sense of it.
It wasn’t really like a wolf. It had four legs and was low to the ground, but the analogy ended there. Each of its four blocky, armoured legs ended in a wheel, and arched up to connect to the main body like a spider. The central body had the same blocky, featureless armour, with the exception of a gun turret in the front and on the top. Even as it was torn in half by the impact of the microtank’s main gun, the turrets kept firing.
The remaining robot continued to speed forward, entirely unbothered by the loss of its companion. Malka’s gauntlets moved with a will of their own, sending another wave of bullets at the machine.
The only effect seemed to be to slow the hunter down and redirect its attention to the two of them. Malka wished he had something with better penetration as he tried to take cover.
The hunter may have been smaller, but it was better armed. The landing gear of the nearby airplanes didn’t do much to shelter him from the counterattack. It was like being hit by a hammer a dozen times in a handful of seconds. His armour did a good job of distributing the impact, but he wasn’t invincible. Somewhere beyond the roar of the gunfire, he heard Daisy yell out in pain.
Malka focused on keeping calm, even as his suit limped away from the hunter.
He turned back to see it’s dark shape rolling towards where Daisy had fallen. It continued to fire as it moved in. There was no way she’d survive that, armour or no. The pain of that startled him, but he shook it off. He had to focus.
“Oh fuck! There’s another two coming from the opposite—” shouted Taylor into his com just as another burst of gunfire cut him off. The cannon from their microtank fired again.
A woman screamed.
Malka made it back to the jet just a moment too late.
There were seven figures by the airplane: Myrodyn, the girl, the mother, David, Agent Taylor, the empty suit of armour, and another man who must’ve been with WIRL. They hadn’t gone into the aircraft yet. Why hadn’t they gone in the aircraft yet? Idiots.
WIRL’s microtank was on the other side of the van, firing its guns at what Malka knew were two other hunter robots. Face was instructing the armour to shoot back, too. And there was a dog there, for some god-damn reason.
He was too late.
Agent Taylor fell, already dead, as Malka limped on.
“Get in the airplane!” he tried to yell, but his voice was caught by a strange rasping.
The gunfire fell on the clump of them like deadly raindrops.
The mother, who some part of him knew was named Karen, spun and died. A burst of blood from her head blooming in his blindsight—a ghostly flower that faded as instantly as it had come.
David and the other WIRL man fell.
Malka tried to run towards them, and failed. They had to—they were supposed to get inside the plane. They had to! But his legs were battered and broken. They weren’t even his legs.
Another ghostly burst of blood erupted from Myrodyn, who managed to make it two steps towards the steps of the aircraft before he died.
The girl screamed. This time with a voice that knew nothing but pain and loss, rather than fear. She was practically on the stairs as it happened…
“Go!” he yelled at her, finally making it to the bodies.
The hunter that had killed Daisy arrived. They were flanked.
It was over.
A pair of bullets ricochetted off his helmet. Another one reflected off his hip.
Why wasn’t Zen working? He could feel the terror and desperation in his mind clawing at him like an animal.
The child fell back onto the stairs. For a moment he thought she’d been hit, but she scrambled and climbed. And then stopped.
“Major!” she called, reaching her arm out to call for her dog.
Malka looked up at where the new hunters had come from. The dog was stupidly barking at them, and guarding his fallen master, the girl’s mother. Karen’s body lay in a tangled pile of her own blood.
Upon hearing the girl, the dog turned and ran towards her.
The microtank fired again, blasting another hunter to shrapnel.
A bullet hit the dog, and it went down in a startled shriek.
“No!!” screamed the girl, reaching out from where she lay on the stairs.
All of the WIRL men were dead. Mr Stephano must’ve hired them to protect Karen. They had failed. They had all failed. Everyone was dead. There was no hope of even making it up into the airplane, much less flying out of there. Why had they even thought to try? They should’ve ran the moment Face said that the machines were targeting airports.
But Malka’s body kept moving, pulled on by Face’s god-damned AI. The microtank was still shooting. David’s old armour stepped out and drew fire from Malka. The robots kept fighting, even after the battle was lost.
A harsh buzzing filled the air.
Malka wanted to curl up and let the end take him, but he was forced to watch as his suit dropped his gun, bent down and grabbed the bodies of Myrodyn and the dog and dragged them towards the stairs of the airplane.
“In! Keep going!” shouted Face, through his speaker.
Crying, the girl obeyed, crawling up the stairs.
Another random bullet hit him, this time piercing his armour and slicing into his right shoulder like a hot needle. He screamed, but his suit kept going.
As soon as one robotic foot made it onto the stairs, they began to lift, the airplane’s hydraulics trying to close the door. It wasn’t strong enough to lift him, especially dragging Myrodyn’s body and the dog, but with another couple steps they began to move up.
One last glance behind showed two hunter robots fighting the microtank and finishing off the empty suit.
The last few steps turned into a tumbling mess as Malka’s legs tripped over the stairs and fell, nearly crushing the girl, who was stupidly lying on the floor crying and screaming. Myrodyn’s body, which had been dragged by the arm up the stairs fell onto him with a groan.
It took Malka a moment to realise that the groan had come from Myrodyn. He was making noise and moving. The buzzing hadn’t stopped, however.
The dog, to his shock, also moved. Face had seen, somehow, that they were alive. And the airplane was… moving! It was moving!
“Get them off me!” screamed the girl.
Malka pushed himself away, trying to give her space. But she wasn’t talking about him and Myrodyn. She was thrashing about strangely, flailing her arms.
“Crush them! Roll back and forth!” shouted Face. “Keep your eyes covered with your hands!”
Insects! That’s what the buzzing was. To his blindsight, which mostly tracked gross movement and the edges of large objects, they were nearly invisible. How long had they been there?
Face puppeted his suit, slapping at Myrodyn and then at the dog, both of whom were being attacked by the little things. They must’ve been robots, too.
The plane began to accelerate. Adrenaline thundered through him, as the three of them and the dog began to slide slowly towards the back of the plane.
It was the blood. The floor was slick with their blood.
The boom of the microtank’s cannon thundered from between the bursts of normal gunfire and the now quieter buzzing. The girl kept screaming, alternating between pain and grief.
Something in his helmet must’ve broken.
He’d never felt so terrified.
The jet’s engines roared to life and pulled them onward and upward.