Steel Souls Chapter 2

This is an excerpt from the novel I am currently preparing to publish. The premise of the novel is that, in the far future, humanity has created and accidentally released a nano-technological virus which wipes out all organic life on the face of the earth. Fortunately, the dolphins (now a sentient race of their own) had been researching methods of transferring a being’s soul from one physical shell to another. Combining this with humanity’s already advanced robotics technology, a large fraction of the human race is transferred to robotic bodies in time to avoid the virus. The novel follows the escapades of a group of such neo-humans as they deal with the dangers and difficulties of our transformed planet. The excerpt is the entire second chapter, which begins just after the capture of the main character by vicious bandits. As always, please remember that everything on this page is under copyright and may not be profited from. Jump past the break to read on. Keep yourself up to date with the Midweek Muse newsletter here.

Chapter 2

The Escape

 

“Oooooh,” Musashi groaned as sensation slowly returned to him. “My head … doesn’t hurt. Now that is odd. Where have I ended up?” In hopes of answering this question, Musashi raised his ocular shields. And wanted to close them again immediately as his sensors were almost overloaded by the painfully bright, kaleidoscopic landscape that seemed to be trying to push itself into his very psyche. Impossible shapes floated in both the near and far distance, sometimes merging, sometimes splitting, and sometimes twisting themselves into even more impossible constructions. The only visible thing that seemed truly solid were the thick metal bars surrounding him in a web-like globe. Musashi reached out his hand to touch one of these, only to find that he didn’t have a hand, or an arm, or a body for that matter. “Oh scrap, I should have known. They’ve trapped me in rusting cyberspace. I hate cyberspace! >< Oh great, it’s even adding emoticons to my grumblings. That’s new. I swear, this place gets more twisted every time I’m forced here. O.o”

“I know, isn’t it great?! XD It’s a little enhancement of my own invention – not available anywhere but this corroding little oubliette of the digital continuum. I hope you appreciate it! ;3” A voice Musashi would later describe as “piercingly cute” rang out, invading his aural sensors. Musashi winced inwardly.

“Appreciation is not the emotion I’m feeling right now, but I’m sure someone does. :/ What exactly is going on here? And can you shut it off? It’s damaging my calm. ^^;”

“’Fraid not, love. That’s kinda the point of this place. Not a scrappin’ amusement park, is it? :P”

“Well then, what is it … ‘love.’ >:(“ Musashi growled, trying desperately to establish any sort of connection to his physical body, with disappointing results.

“Oooh sarcasm, I love it! :D” The voice squealed, “Most people are a blubbering mess by this point, but I can see you’re going to last a while. This will be fun! ^_^ Now, let’s get this party started, shall we? Where. Are. The. Rest. Of. Your. People? >:|”

“Great. This is some sort of interrogation isn’t it? Just my luck. ;_;”

“What the scrap would you expect to happen after getting captured by bandits? Tea and cake? Or death? I’m sure the latter option can still be provided. In the meantime, answer my rustin’ question! D:<”

“And what if I don’t? :P” Musashi asked petulantly. No response came, but in the next instant, Musashi had his answer. The mind-bending objects surrounding him changed again: some into broad discs, and others into long, sharp spikes. The discs blurred slightly, but Musashi barely noticed as his aural sensors were again assaulted – this time with the most horrific sounds he’d never imagined, from shrill shrieks to impossibly low thrums, each striking deep into his mind with unimaginable pain. Musashi tried to cover his ears, turn down his audio gain, anything to stop the pain, but nothing happened. Abruptly, the sound stopped, leaving Musashi’s ears ringing, and his virtual lungs panting with relief.

“Well, that’s one thing. I’ll leave your undoubtedly fine imagination to wonder about the other fun little surprises I might have in store for you, beginning with those lovely spiky doohickies! ;3 Maybe that first question was a little too complicated for you. Let’s start with something simple: What is your name?”

Though he had no lungs as such even when he had a body, and certainly none in this non-space, Musashi felt the need to cough as he responded. “Musashi Miyamoto, you unreal wench! >:(“

“Hahahahahahah! Oh that is rich! You’re one of those aren’t ya? One of those pathetic fools who are so caught up in the past that you even take your name from a time so far back it’s better forgotten. I never imagined such backwards people still even existed. >:P Still, you are the strongest mind I’ve interrogated since I’ve … been here. You just might do.” This last was sent, not on the overpowering local public band, but on the tightest, most highly encrypted whisper band Musashi had ever encountered. His internal processors barely managed to hang on to the codex long enough to respond.

“And you, I surmise, are one of those hot-headed young punks who thinks they know everything and don’t need the lessons history has to teach us. I’ll bet you’re even an Intangible, aren’t you?”

The mysterious interrogator’s response was hurried. “There’s no time for that now! I’ve taken a huge risk even opening this channel. My captors are dumb as bricks, but even they will notice it eventually. Now be patient – that’s one of your precious lessons, isn’t it? ‘Patience is a virtue’? Well, exercise that virtue now, but be ready to move as soon as I give you the signal. Before I go, I need your word that you’ll help me escape too. How about it? Partners?”

Musashi thought furiously. Obviously it could be a trick, but in the end, what choice did he have? He was more helpless than he’d been since he was first woken up after the Great Catastrophe and didn’t know how to control his new mechanical body. Without some sort of help, he was done for, and once he recovered control of his physical body, he had full confidence in his ability to handle any double-cross. “Partners. In the name of our new friendship, can we hold off on the pain for a while?”

“I’ll think about it. Now say something suitably defiant for the observers before they start to get suspicious.” The tenuous link died as suddenly as it had appeared.

“When I get out of here, I’m gonna rip you limb from limb, you little punk! D:<” Musashi growled on the public channel.

“Cute, but it won’t help you here, muscle-boy. 😛 Now, I’ll let you sit here for a bit and think about what you’ve done, and what you’re options are – namely cooperate or suffer intense and imaginative pain! :3 Kisses! ^_^” And with that, Musashi sensed that he was once again alone with his thoughts, and his insane cyberspacious prison. Would his mysterious interrogator come through like she promised? Or was she actually in league with the bandits? If not, why did they trust her to interrogate prisoners? What kind of captive works for their captors in such a capacity? The level of trust required just didn’t fit. Musashi realized he just didn’t have enough data to answer these questions. So, he took a deep virtual breath and settled his psyche into a meditation that simultaneously settled his mind in the face of unknowable fears and keep him alert enough to sense the return of his physical body. Now, all he had to do, all he could do, was wait, and hope his new friend was true to her word.

 

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Maya heaved a deep, virtual sigh to steady herself and … pulled out of the interrogation space; back into the main command node of the bandit compound.

“Well?! Did he tell us where his confederates are? Report!!” The spiky face of the bandit leader’s gargantuan avatar loomed above Maya’s chibi schoolgirl pigtails.

“What a dope,” she thought, “still thinks size matters in here.” Aloud, she modulated her transmission to show the respect she knew he expected. “Well, I’ve popped the major question, hit him with the aural torture, squeezed out information he feels is of no consequence, and left him to stew – all according to procedure. You and I both know it will take time. Patience, Oh Great Bandit Lord.”

“That is something I, something we, cannot afford at this moment, slave! If he represents a significant force, we must be prepared for them. And you know what will happen to you if you fail!” The leader’s voice rose to impossible levels, echoing around the artificial room as he brandished a picture of a matte black sphere festooned with wires – Maya’s physical body – in her face. Although she felt the usual rush of fear at his implied threat, Maya also felt a similarly familiar surge of irritation at the leader’s insistence on using the freedom of cyberspace to inflate his own sense of power beyond what it really was. She supposed that it really wasn’t that big of a deal – lots of people succumbed to the temptation – but it irritated her nonetheless, and made her even more glad that she finally, finally had a slim hope of escaping from this hellhole. She just had to keep her cool, and keep the leader happy so he wouldn’t suspect.

“Worry not, Oh Great Leader, I shall have the information we seek very soon. Just a couple more hours to let his imagination run away with him and he will be ripe for the picking.” She demurred, contorting her avatar into an elaborate curtsy.

“Hmmph. Very well, carry on.” The leader grunted, and then he popped out of view.

“Now, to get to work,” Maya thought to herself as she spread her perception throughout the bandit compound, mapping the locations and movements of everyone who made their home there. All according to their usual schedule so far: the leader in his “throne room,” directing search efforts for Musashi’s group, off-duty bandits entertaining themselves in the break rooms with games both ancient and new, guards following their set paths. Nothing disruptive. Her plan would work. She looked in on Musashi’s physical cell and tested the connections which redirected the link – which normally connected Soul Gem with the rest of his body – into the locked-off cybernode they were using as an interrogation room. Yes, she could still reconnect them with no problem. Only the normal number of guards patrolled outside – she had accounted for all of them in her plan. Finally, she checked on her own physical body. She hated doing that; hated seeing what others thought of as her “true” self; so helpless. No matter though, that would all change soon, God willing. She rechecked her own connections, making sure that they could easily and safely be disconnected from the base computer. She had a plan to avoid the sensory deprivation this would normally cause, but it was risky, and her abilities would be severely depleted until she could hook into a stronger computer. But when that happened, hoo boy! She would be truly free again! Free to travel the planetary net as she pleased; free to roam and hack and frolic and play at whatever caught her fancy. Oh yes, she looked forward to that very much! But now was not the time for daydreams, now was the time for action! She had checked and rechecked everything, and all was in place. The bandit lord (spit on his rusty face!) was distracted, the guards were worried more about his wrath and possible invaders than about their sectors, everyone was looking outward, and were much less likely to notice anyone skulking around inside. There was no point in putting it off any longer. She had to move! Maya heaved another virtual sigh to steady herself and … flashed back to the interrogation node.

 

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Meanwhile, back at the Miranda, Lulu was on the verge of a hysterical breakdown. “What the scrap are we going to do?! Musashi was captured! It must have been an overwhelming force, to bring him down like that! Miranda, do you have a fix on his beacon?”

“No Lulu, but you must simmer down.” Miranda spoke as calmly as possible, thanking her designer for programming only limited emotional response capabilities into her central neural-net – which made such emotions easy to control – unlike Lulu, who was at the whim of whatever emotional vulnerabilities were present in her neural net at the time of her transfer to Soul Gem. “If we don’t focus now, we’ll never figure out where Musashi was taken or how to get him back. I repositioned our satellite to focus on the area around Musashi’s first encounter with the bandits and have been searching for signs of habitation. I think I’ve got a possibility. See this volcanic crater here …” Miranda threw an image of a mountainous crater into the air right in front of Lulu’s face, hoping to shock her back to her senses. “There are some very regular openings in the cliff wall that, at further inspection,” the image zoomed in on four small holes “are confirmed to be artificial entrances of some sort. In addition, this crater is only a few klicks away from where Musashi was ambushed. I consider it almost certainly the location of the bandits’ base of operations, though I confess I have no idea why they are so well hidden. I am equally certain that Musashi is already formulating an escape plan, so it will be a waste of time for us to go in and try to find him, especially considering our lack of numbers. No, our best course of action is to give the bandits something else to think about besides their prisoners. As such, I recommend that you, Lulu, set up a mobile mortar here, across from the largest, and likely main, entrance. You must bombard that entrance, but be very watchful and move the mortar if any of the bandits spot you and attempt to return fire. George, I need you to move around the rim of the crater at random, keeping a steady stream of fire at the rest of the entrances, and especially at any in which a bandit shows his ugly face! I’ll keep the reactor at maximum here and be ready for a high-speed getaway as soon as you show up and I see Musashi’s corrosive mug. What do you think of that ?”

“*sniff* Ok, when do we start?” Lulu visibly pulled herself together, pushed herself up, wiped away her tears, and began gathering the materials she would need to save her friend.

 

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“Wake up, sleepyhead! No time for lazin’ about if you wanna get out of this scraphole!” The shrill tones brought Musashi back to full wakefulness with a jolt. “I’ve already started the connection transfer, but it will take a little while, so listen up because we only have one shot at this, and we’re scrapping short on time.” Maya’s clipped tones rang out with an authority not displayed even during their “interrogation” session.

“You’ve got it, chief! What’s the plan?” Musashi tried to salute, but found himself still unable to control his body.

“Don’t try to move! It could hinder the transfer process! Now, here’s the schematic of the compound – the part we’re concerned with anyway. We’ll get to the rest of it … later.” This last tidbit, delivered with a dry humor, worried Musashi more than a little, but he suppressed it, knowing that his first priority had to be escape. “I’ve overlaid real-time indicators for each of the guards so you can see how they’re moving around. While I’m still connected to the system, I’ll be able to guide you around them very accurately. However once you disconnect me – as we agreed you would take me with you – I will be unable to access the computer system to update the guards’ locations. I will also be cut off from all sensation, aside from a very rudimentary radio link I’ve managed to sneak in. However,”

“Hang on a cycle, why can’t you access the computer system? There’s no sort of network here?” Musashi interjected.

“Who’s the mastermind here, eh smarty-bot? Who’s been working on trying to get the scrap out of this rusting hole for years? Believe me when I tell you there is more to this place than meets the eye, and the hack job necessary to get into the system using a wireless is too tough even for me, especially on my own and on the run. Now shut up and pay a bloody ‘tention, alright? As I was about to say, I’ve managed to work up a pretty tight simulation for the guards’ movement. So even though it won’t be real-time, we’ll still have a good idea of where they are. I’ve marked out our best exit routes that – based on my simulation – should take us past the fewest guard. I suspect you know enough about the world to know things never go according plan, so we will almost certainly have to improvise. Sadly, the radio link is unencrypted, so anyone within range can hear any communication between us. Fortunately, it’s got a very short range, so the chances of anyone overhearing us are nil … I hope.” Here, Maya let out a sound very like a deep breath. “Your body is here.” A small red dot appeared on the map. “Mine is here.” Another dot – red this time – glowed a few corridors away. “Between us there will be five guards. It’s incredibly important that you avoid them all. Any notice by the guards, or even their deaths will be noticed by the system and trigger the alarm. I hope you’re as good as we need you to be, otherwise, we’re scrapped.”

Musashi snorted. “Kid, you have no idea. Question: if I disconnect the Soul Gem from the main control unit, wouldn’t that disable the guard while leaving the transponder intact?”

“Aye, it might at that, but that connection could be anywhere. How the scrap would you sever it?” Maya asked, confused.

“You let me worry about that. Pray, continue your briefing. I can sense some feeling coming back to my limbs, so we are short on time.” Musashi carefully felt along his neural pathways and confirmed that almost all the connections had been reformed. Just a little more, and he’d be back in fighting trim. He reveled in feeling the real world again. Leave this cyberspace junk to someone who actually wanted it.

“Fine. When you reach my body, you must to disconnect it from the apparatus in a very specific fashion or the alarms will sound and we’ll be rust. I’m uploading the step-by-step instructions that can be overlaid on your senses when the time comes. Once I’m secured, we’ll make for one of the four exits. All are extremely well defended, so we won’t be able to sneak out undetected. However, let’s postpone that detection as long as possible. I heard of your escapades out in the wild, so I know you can handle yourself, but believe me when I say that when the wrath of this entire base descends upon us, running will be our only hope, and a slim one at that. All clear?” Maya ended abruptly, with the air of one who doesn’t quite trust her own plan, but knows that it’s the best she has.

“Clear as mud, my dear. An excellent plan, especially considering the circumstances.” Musashi began carefully, wary of hurting his volatile new friend’s feelings. “I just can’t help but wonder, wouldn’t our final escape be slightly less suicidal if we had a distraction of some sort?”

“Of course, but how in the scrapyard are we going to get one of those? We’ll have no access to weapons – the armories are guarded even more closely than the prison cells. And I can’t make any trouble on the ‘net, or they’ll be on us even sooner!” Maya’s voice rose with just the slightest pitch of hysteria as she finished.

“Naturally, naturally, but I fear you are not working with all the data. As you already know, I have friends on the outside. Naturally they know I’ve been captured, and I can guarantee you they are going to do something about it. I’m sure you suspected this already, which is why your interrogation took the line it did. Now, what you may not know is that, though they are not an overwhelming force by any stretch of the imagination, they are quite resourceful, extremely intelligent, and very driven. I noticed that the exits we’re considering are open to the sky, which means they are visible on satellite, one of which I happen to possess. When my partners find those, and I have faith they already have, they will immediately begin planning exactly the type of diversion we will need in the last stage of our escape. So, unless there are any more questions, I think it’s time to get this show on the road, don’t you?”

“By all means,” Maya managed, a little taken aback. “See you on the other side.” And with that, Musashi felt himself finally ejected from the hated cyberspace and back into the “real” world.

Musashi grinned as he opened his physical eyes at last and heaved a deep breath. The air was stale and stank of metal, oil, dirt, and other various unsavories, but at least it was real. His cell – little more than a closet, really – was completely bare. He tried to move his limbs, only to find that he was still bound to the wall with thick manacles. He exerted his not-inconsiderable strength, but to no avail – the shackles were designed for much bigger fish than he. Great.

“Just hang on a sec, chief,” Maya’s voice trilled in his head – another whisper channel encrypted so subtly but completely that it would be completely impenetrable. His new friend continued to amaze him as the cuffs, as if by magic, separated and fell to the floor with a muffled thud. “That should do it! ;)”

“Thanks, partner.” Musashi mumbled as he moved to the door. He knew that thing with the emoticons was going to drive him absolutely batty eventually, but he figured he could stand it for now. He checked his internal map and saw that the hallway just outside the door was clear for the moment, so he quietly opened the door and stepped out into the hall, glancing both ways to ensure that reality met up with the plan – something that didn’t happen often enough in his opinion. The corridors were bare metal with no ornamentation or decoration of any kind. It was obvious that the bandits had priorities far from making their living area comfortable. However, the corridor was also bare of guards, and that’s what mattered to Musashi. He quieted his center and soft-footed down the corridor in the direction of least resistance – he hoped. He stretched his senses to their maximum, feeling the bandits walking the corridors as bright lights of consciousness clearly visible against the soft background glow of the planet Gaia. None were close, so he moved on, slinking around the corner … and practically bumped into another stealthy figure who happened to be sneaking in the opposite direction.

“HOLY TOLEDO!!!” Despite this little outburst, Musashi pulled himself together at once and immediately swung a fist toward his unexpected assailant … only to find the strike adroitly diverted. Blinking back further surprise, and knowing he could not afford to let this enemy go, Musashi prepared for another strike.

“Hold on there, fella! If I wanted to harm you, all I’d have to do is sound the alarm. Now calm down a bit – violence never solves anything, you know.” The bandit smirked and stepped out of reach.

“You – you’re the girl from earlier! That’s the second time you’ve impressed me: I didn’t sense you at all. I’ve never seen such well masked Ki.” Musashi stepped back as well and surveyed this strange, pacifistic bandit. She stood only about a head shorter than himself and was shaped like a slim, petite young human woman, an illusion shattered only by her silvery metallic skin and slightly stiff expression. All in all, a compact body designed to be strong, efficient, and powerful. She wore a sensible body glove in a carbon-fiber black that covered her vital areas while allowing complete freedom of movement. He could tell she was a fellow practitioner, and Musashi looked forward to the day when they could truly match skills against one another. For now, “You got a name?”

“It’s Becky. I been thinkin’ about what you said before, and I want in. I haven’t met anyone who could hold their own against me – certainly none of these clowns – and I wanna learn how you did it. Now, I can help you bust outta here, but we gotta move fast.” She turned to go, but Musashi grabbed her shoulder.

“Oops, not that way. We’ve got a stop to make before we can blow this proverbial popsicle stand. Seems this place isn’t very popular among the inmates, and another of your cohorts – Maya – wants out too.”

“Maya? Pssh, she ain’t no ‘cohort’ to anybody but Maya. They captured her several months back. The only reason she does anything for them is because she’s one of them, what’dya call ’em? Cybers? Don’t have no physical body ‘cept the bare minimum to keep their Soul Gem goin’. Anyway, the bandits have got her body wired so that at any time, BANG! No more Maya. Get the drift? Yeah, I’m not surprised she wants out of this place. That explains how you got out, too. Clever.” Becky chuckled quietly as they reached the next intersection. “Two guards coming down the next corridor. Thoughts?”

“You know how to silence them, I hope?” Musashi asked. When Becky smiled, he nodded. “You take the one on the left, and I’ll take the one on the right.” Becky nodded back, and strode around the corner, brazen as you please. “Oh, she’s going to be a fun one,” Musashi murmured as he tiptoed to the corner and listened in.

“Hey boys, nice night?”

“What’re you doin’ here, Becky? Ain’t you supposed to be back in medical recovering from the thrashin’ that rogue gave yeh’?” The bandit chuckled nastily as he nudged his companion.

“Yah, I heard he kicked your ass up one side and down the other. But if it were me, there’s somethin’ else I’d do with that … HURK!” The bandit’s sordid thought was cut short as Becky’s finger, charged with inner energy, suddenly found itself buried deep within his neck, severing the vital connection and leaving his suddenly rudderless body to collapse to the floor. Musashi had half-expected her to spring something like this, and as soon as he sensed the rage in Becky build to action potential, he moved. In that split second, he cleared the corner, leapt around Becky even as her hand was moving forward, and hit the right-hand bandit in a high tackle, taking him out before the guy had a chance to get over his shock. Becky stood over her own opponent, chest heaving and hands shaking.

“Don’t kill him, Becky, that’ll blow the whole game.” Musashi put out a restraining hand.

“I know, I know.” Becky visibly calmed herself brushed the hand away more gently than she might have a moment before. “I was just visualizing.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s go, we’re almost to Maya’s cell.” Musashi let it drop and followed her as she strode down the corridor, appreciating this woman more and more as he did so. Soon he caught up, and they slunk, side-by-side through the halls, each more plain and boring than the last. Musashi began to wonder if it was not so much laziness on the part of the bandits as a conscious design decision. Surely no one could be this boring on accident. They managed to avoid a few more groups of guards and finally stood outside an innocuous door that the map claimed was their destination. As if to confirm this, the door popped open as they stepped up.

“Step into my parlor,” Maya chortled as they peeked inside. What met their eyes was another tiny closet, even smaller than Musashi’s cell, completely festooned with wires – thick thin, and in all colors of the rainbow. In center of this chaos hung a shiny black sphere almost a meter in diameter. Suddenly, the hemisphere facing the door lit up with an 8-bit caricature of a chibi cartoon girl – pink pigtails and all. “Hey guys! It’s about time!” The face winked and grinned broadly as Maya’s voice issued – rather tinnily – from a speaker in the sphere. “Ok, now Musashi, make sure you follow those instructions I gave you to the very letter, or this could end very badly. Some of these wires lead to explosives. All part of my lovely life here.” Though these last words had a definite edge to them, Maya put a brave face on it and stuck her tongue out impudently.

“Right, no pressure then,” Musashi sighed as he moved forward. “Care to help out, here, Becky? Many hands make light work, you know!”

“Nah, I think I’ll keep lookout, if it’s all the same to you. Don’t forget that they don’t know I’ve defected yet. Let’s try to keep that illusion going as long as possible.” Becky grinned (a tad regretfully, perhaps?) and closed the door. Musashi wondered anew at the history of his strange new compatriot, but pushed his questions out of active processing and brought up Maya’s schematics. They were dizzyingly complicated, so he took a deep breath and sunk down among them in the same way he would sink into one of his meditations. He let the instructions flow around him and through him like smoke until they permeated his very being. Once he felt he had studied them enough, he moved. His hands we sure and swift, but not hurried. A red wire here, blue wire there, snip the green wire, carefully now, disconnect that optical cable. The entire process didn’t take more than a couple of minutes, but Musashi didn’t open his eyes or even breathe throughout. Maya kept a close eye on the proceedings, but wisely kept her audio output silent. She didn’t know why, but this man awoke feelings of trust she hadn’t felt since … well maybe since ever. They both heaved a deep sigh of relief when Musashi carefully removed the final connection, and Maya was finally free of the prison which had held her for so long.

“Nice work, sword boy!” She said as cheerfully as she could, though her loss of connection to even the pathetic bandit network cut her more deeply than she had anticipated. Still, she knew it would lead to her eventual true freedom and reconnection to the world-wide net. That thought was enough to stiffen her resolve. “Now let’s get out of here before we both rust!”

“I couldn’t agree more, my dear, but your cute little nickname has reminded me of something rather important – my sword. It was taken from me when I was captured, and I’m afraid I don’t know where it is. Another detour, if we could?”

“Not necessary, skipper,” Becky’s voice came over the whisper channel from outside. “You seemed pretty busy, so I figgered I might as well make myself useful. A bit of bluff, a bit of violence, and your precious weapon is no longer in enemy hands. I’m with Maya: let’s blow, man!”

“No arguments here, ladies.” Musashi agreed as he gathered Maya up and swung her over his back with the straps she had built in. “Let’s make tracks.” He opened the door, grabbed his sword from Becky’s outstretched hand, and they ran off down the corridor. He also activated his personal transponder, which transmitted on what he hoped was a secret and thoroughly encrypted band. If not, it was still worth it to let his people know where he was. “Now would be a good time for that diversion,” he couldn’t help thinking as he ran.

At that moment, his “diversion” was struggling up the outer slope of the cratered mountain. The steep slope made things difficult enough, but the going was complicated even further by the loose scree and rocks from which the slope was constructed, which kept rolling down it. Loaded down with weapons as they both were, Lulu and George stumbled, slid, and tripped – their gyroscopes and myoelectronics whining as they did their level best to keep themselves, well, level. All of a sudden, they both felt a transponder signal each had secretly feared they would never feel again – Musashi’s. “He needs that distraction now!” Lulu screamed. “George, double-time it over to the east side of the crater and lets get this scrappin’ party started!” George acknowledged with a slow blink of his glowing eyes and leapt away – each leap covering hundreds of meters. Meanwhile, Lulu made her own torturous way to the crater rim and peeked over to try and get a sense of what they were up against. She had real-time satellite imagery of the battlefield, of course, but she never felt comfortable without seeing something with her own eyes. As those eyes rose above the edge of the crater, they beheld a scene of roiling activity, as if someone had kicked an anthill full of metallic insects. In fact, that’s exactly what it looked like: a kilometers-wide anthill swarming with glittering soldier ants responding to some little kid with a stick. “Shit, maybe our transponder signals aren’t as private as we’d hoped.” Lulu muttered to herself. Transmitting to George: “Don’t wait for optimum position, just start firing now – Musashi’s been found out!” She received no audible response – George was a robot of few words, just as Lulu had designed him, and she trusted him with her life. Lulu immediately started unpacking and assembling her own weapon – a large mortar. She had some difficulty planting the three legs in the shifting ground, and before she was even halfway done, she saw missile trails from across the crater, streaking toward the entrances. He’d even made it to the eastern edge; good boy. She breathed a little easier as she saw the havoc the missiles inflicted among the bandits, and doubled her efforts to get set up. George would be in terrible danger as long as he was the only one firing. She slammed that last few components into place, braced the nether end of the mortar against her foot for added stability, and loaded her first round. She knew from the location of the transponder that Musashi was making for the east entrance, which is why she had sent George over to that side – easier to cover while being harder to accidentally hit. She decided her first rounds would be best spent around that very entrance to clear the enemy from the area and, hopefully, they wouldn’t notice that the entrance itself stayed clear. She adjusted the launch tube and fired. Without even looking, she adjusted her aim, loaded again, and fired again. Not as interesting as a face-to-face fight, she thought, but necessary nonetheless. She continued aiming, loading, and firing.

The alarms blared all throughout the bandit base. “Tell me that’s not for us!” Becky pleaded on the whisper line.

“Faith, my young friend,” Musashi replied. “I think the cavalry has arrived. Good news: either way, we can move faster and don’t have to worry about stealth anymore. I’ve activated my transponder for my friends. They know where we are and what entrance we’re making for. It’s our job to make it there in one piece.” In complete agreement, the two ambulatory members increased their pace, sprinting around the next corner and cutting down the two guards they knew were there without even slowing down. “The next group is much bigger – this could get tricky,” Musashi warned as they approached the next intersection.

“Roger that. I count four on the left and five on the right. Take care with Maya as you take the left, I’ll handle the right.” Becky leapt the last several feet, grabbing a protrusion from the ceiling and swinging herself around the upper part of the corner, out of likely lines of fire. Her aim was true and she landed on the head of the first guard driving her sword straight down through the center of his body. She used the now lifeless husk to launch herself at the next bandit in line. the group opened fire at this point, and though the wild spray of bullets was only barely in her general direction, Becky was forced into a spin to avoid them. She did not allow this to deviate her from her target, and she used the force of her spin to slide her sword between his ceramo-metallic ribs. Her sword stuck in the complicated machinery and circuitry. She used the immobile weapon to swing herself behind the defeated bandit, and grinned a bit as she felt the body shudder under the impact of high velocity bullets meant for her. The next guard was frantically bringing his weapon around to bear upon her, but she ducked under it and struck upwards – knocking the gun out of line and incapacitating the bandit’s power center at the same time. She grabbed his mechanical body and twisted, hurling the improvised missile it at the next bandit, sending both skidding across the intersection and adding to the general confusion. The final bandit in the group desperately tried to close with her, but that was the last mistake he ever made as she drew her second sword in a blinding blur and cut him down where he stood. The surprised look on his face as his body slowly fell apart and clattered to the floor was incredibly satisfying, and she chuckled a bit as she turned straightened up.

“That’s a bit … brutal, isn’t it Becky?” Musashi asked from across the intersection, standing among the litter of still metallic bodies, the slightest of smirks on own his lips. “I know you have the skill to defeat without actually killing.”

“Mind your own scrapping business, old man. You have no idea what I’ve been through here. What they’ve done to me – made me sacrifice!” Becky gritted out as she yanked her first sword from the chest of the bandit in which it was still embedded.

“Very well – your business, not mine. But we will discuss this later.” Musashi promised as he pivoted on his heel and strode down the corridor. Becky snorted in frustration, but she jogged after him.

“Next intersection is the last before the entrance. I count at least fifteen bandits in that corridor.” She said as she came abreast with him. “Plan?”

“Same as usual – fight until they stop moving or we do,” Musashi replied with a tight smile as he increased his pace, heading toward the inevitable. Things were about to get interesting.

Outside, things were already more than interesting enough, in Lulu’s professional opinion. She could see that Musashi’s transponder had stopped for a bit, but was on its way toward the east entrance again at a respectable clip and would arrive soon. No one had noticed her specifically yet – she thanked the relative stealth of a mortar compared to a missile launcher for that – but the bandits had been keeping up a deadly hail of covering fire from within the bowl that forced her to keep her head down and interfered with her aim. George must have it worse, she figured, as each launch of his pinpointed his current position. The bandits served him up a withering return fire each time, but she was proud to note that he always moved position immediately, never choosing the same launch site twice, and always hitting his target. Yet, the situation was quickly growing desperate. Lulu knew it would not be much longer before the bandits brought their own heavy weapons to bear, and when that happened she and George were going to be in real trouble. In the meantime, bandits kept pouring out of the tunnels like a flood of glittering sand, each adding their wild fire to the chaos. Lulu decided it was time for that to stop. George was kept busy firing his missiles into the crowd to keep their heads down, so she knew it was up to her. She aimed, loaded, and fired, sending her high explosive rounds arcing toward the south, north, and west entrances, reducing the tunnel entrances to rubble. Of course the bandits would get them cleared quickly, but for the moment, the number of enemies firing back stopped increasing. In fact (and here she risked a glance over the rim to make sure), it seemed some of the bandits outside decided their time would be better spent clearing the tunnels instead of firing at invisible enemies. Their mistake, Lulu thought with a grin as she aimed, loaded, fired, and sent them to oblivion.

Inside, Musashi and Becky were cutting their way, slowly but surely, through a veritable sea of bandits that stood between them and freedom. Ironically, having so many bandits ended up working against them as they blocked each other’s line of fire, tripped over each other, and generally participated in mass confusion. Musashi and Becky, on the other hand, slipped among them like mercury, slicing here, stabbing there, and kicking heads in wherever they found them. The door grew steadily larger in their field of vision, and they began to notice that the ground was actually shaking as if in earthquake. “Sounds like our diversion is working a treat,” Musashi noted as he clotheslined a bandit, knocking him to the ground.

“Let’s just hope they don’t hit us in all the confusion we’re gonna see out there.” Becky replied, neatly severing a bandit’s power supply and throwing herself along the ground to stab up into the core of the next.

“They are professionals, you know,” Musashi said with just the slightest twinge of irritation. “They know who the enemy is, and they are very accurate.” He dispatched the next bandit with a little more savagery than normal.

“Hang on there, guy – don’t get your knickers in a twist.” Becky laughed as she drove her hand through a bandit’s chest. “T’was only jokin’ – I have every faith in your people.” She pivoted, clenched her hand, and threw the bandit at a group who had finally coordinated their aim, knocking them down like the pins she had heard were used in an ancient game humans used to play. She chuckled at the anachronistic thought, but moved swiftly on to the next, and then the next, and then the next.

Until finally, almost miraculously, she didn’t see any moving bandits in her immediate area and the entrance yawned ahead of her, the afternoon sun struggling its way through dark clouds and the smoke of the battlefield to land, light as a butterfly’s touch, on her skin. Freedom was so close, and she felt hope for the first time in almost longer than she could remember … only to be brutally jolted out of her reverie by the ground heaving so hard she was thrown down on it in response to a mortar shell landing mere feet away. She counted her lucky stars that was all that happened; she saw the devastation the shell had wrought on its intended target – the bandit who had taken a bead on her head. Musashi’s friends really were as good as he’d claimed.

“Break for the east wall!” Musashi shouted, emerging from the tunnel himself. “We don’t have time to deal with these chuckleheads, and my people will cover us. Duck and weave!” Putting action to his words, Musashi took off like a rabbit, zigging and zagging his way up the craterside, adroitly avoiding any fire coming his way, and dispatching only those bandits who directly interfered with his flight. Becky broke into a run as well, making sure that she kept her path as random as possible, but also as far from Musashi as possible, to force the bandits to choose which target they went after. She felt a few stray rounds impact her body, but Lulu and George did a bang-up job keeping the bandits’ heads down, and none were concentrated or did any significant damage. She and Musashi finally made the crater rim, and leapt without hesitation – sliding down the mountainside in twin avalanches of debris.

“Last salvo, George! Let’s pull out!” Lulu cried, firing her own last round and turning to join the mad scramble to safety. The five friends – both old and new – reached the base of the mountain just as the first bandits managed to gain the summit. The first hints of concentrated fire cut apart the buildings of the ancient city, but Musashi, Maya, Lulu, George, and Becky had already disappeared among them. The rage-filled howl of the bandit Lord followed them, carried above the explosions of gunfire, clatter of rocks, and the groan of the wind as it continued to make its endless, tortuous way through the city streets.

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