043. 2251, Present Day. North American exclusion zone. Athan.

“Karu, please,” I pleaded. “We don’t have to do this, really.”

She shook her head, her visored face showing no compassion. “This is what I want,” she said, the spindly arms of her jetpack extending and thrumming with blue plasma as she lifted into the air. “I know you may have reservations about fighting me, so I shall take it onto myself to ensure the fight proceeds as planned.”

“Karu–“

En garde!” she yelled, and without a moment’s hesitation, sent a volley of grenades bouncing and rolling along the ground under and past me. I dove to the side as they exploded with a cacophony of hisses, pouring a thick white smoke into the air.

Bad news, there was a gentle breeze from the treeline, pushing the smoke towards me and keeping me moving away. Good news, it seemed it was just a smokescreen instead of anything poisonous. Or at least, not the kind of poison that made me choke and die on the spot. Worst news, it was a wall between me and the trees, keeping me from running in there and ending the fight abruptly and peacefully. I was certain that running into the smoke would be suicide, as I wouldn’t be able to see a thing, but that would likely hardly hinder her optics.

She was herding me towards the open, towards a fight.

Well, screw her. I faked running away from the smoke until she streaked overhead, and then immediately reversed, sprinting headfirst into the smoke.

As expected, it was…pretty much oblivion in there. Nothing but whiteness, not able to even see my feet. I kept moving forward as fast as I could go, stumbling whenever I found a change in elevation or a rock with my feet, but I knew in less than twenty feet, I’d be clear of the smoke and then the trees were right there.

Then I did see something in the smoke, which made my blood freeze.

Two horizontal red lines, right at eye level, right in front of me. I fell backwards as something cut through the air where I had just been standing.

“Jesus, Karu.” I rolled onto all fours, and then, hearing something slicing towards me, kept rolling. The ground where I just was crunched under Karu’s next swipe. I was completely turned around now, rolling and bouncing any way I could to avoid the next imminent attack.

“Fight back! Show me your resolve!” Karu’s voice shouted from the fog.

“My resolve is to not fight back!” I yelled back.

“Oh ho! Even more interesting.” She gave a much more diabolical laugh than usual and I felt another swipe go past me vertically. “How do you intend to defeat me without fighting, I must wonder?”

“Still figuring that one out myself,” I whispered to myself. She was too fast for me to get anywhere. Every time I broke away for a moment and started going in a straight line to get out of the smoke, she appeared in front of me and turned me back, the red lights from the visor turning the smoke the color of boiling blood.

I ran one way, ran into red from the visor, and turned around as slashes perforated where I had been a moment before. Fled the opposite way, just to run into the red again and flee for my life yet again. Basically the world’s most horrible game of red-light, green-light.

“You grow weary! You must fight back soon, or else you shall fall without offering any resistance!” she gloated, something manic in her jeering voice. I saved my breath for running back and forth again, but she was right. She could fly around completely unobstructed and attack me from any angle, without any fear of reprisal, while I stumbled through the smoke, spending way too much energy having to avoid her attacks at the last second.

With her optics, there was no fooling her or escaping her, and with her jetpack, there was no outrunning her. With the smoke, there was no outmaneuvering her, and without attacking, no beating her.

One of these advantages was the obvious one to reclaim, but while I was tired, but I was also stubborn and angry. I wouldn’t let her beat me, physically or morally, and that meant my only option was to escape the fight without fighting. Like some crazy new-age pacifist.

I bet Gandhi never had it this rough.

Phase one of the plan, orientation. While sprinting forward, I created and fired off lightning bulbs to my sides, listening to the telltale sizzle of them shooting off outside the smokescreen. The bulbs were energy, weightless, and as far as I could tell, flew in a straight line at the speed of light. That meant as long as I threw them pretty much straight horizontally, they’d keep flying until they hit something. Once I started hearing them pop against an obstacle, I knew I’d found the treeline, and which direction it was.

Phase two of the plan, get Karu where I needed her. That was easy enough. I turned a bit to my left and began sprinting towards the treeline at max speed. Sure enough, in a moment, the smoke turned red and two red lines glowed in front of me, barring my way.

Phase three…do something really stupid. I dropped to avoid the swing, seeing the smoke roiling at her side and assuming that meant a horizontal swipe. Fortunately I was right, because if I’d guessed wrong, I’d be all kinds of chopped to pieces now. Now instead of turning and sprinting off, I bounced back up, keeping my forward momentum as best I could, and continuing to bear down on her. She stiffened and hesitated for a moment, and that was the only moment I needed.

I reached up and grabbed at her, sprinting past and pulling free. A few more strides, and I was able to see wisps of the ground through the smoke, and then suddenly it was gone. In my hand, my prize, her visor from where I’d torn it free from her face. I kept moving for the treeline as she swore behind me violently, now herself completely lost in the fog, and more importantly, me lost to her.

As I ran, I pressed the visor to my face and glanced back. She had an arm right up in front of her face and was trying to press buttons on it but unable to see even that close through the smoke. Finally, she hit the right sequence and I saw the jetpack’s arms deploy, but not ignite, making her swear again.

I laughed. The visor responded: “Unrecognized user voiceprint. Disabling systems.” The last thing I saw before the visor blanked out was the metal arms of the jetpack withdrawing as it shut down to prevent unauthorized usage. Having no further use for the now-dead visor, I left it at the edge of the treeline so Karu wouldn’t have to walk home, and laughed as I vanished into the trees.

It was almost an hour later before Karu showed up back at The Bunker, stomping her way in, visor and jetpack still offline, and visibly fuming.

“I should almost think that I preferred your fighting when your intent was to harm,” she said as a greeting, and slumped into a seated position by the door.

“Well look who came to join us, hiya Karu!” I chimed, shit-eating smile from ear to ear. “I was just telling AEGIS about how great the wonders of modern technology are.”

“I hear voiceprint technology is just so advanced nowadays. Why, most systems can tell who their user is just by their voice. Did you know that, Athan?” AEGIS said with a steaming pile of unnatural interest.

“Really? Well golly, that is certainly something. Karu, did you know any of this?”

She gave me the flattest, deadest stink-eye I had ever seen a person wear.

“Sounds like a no to me! Care to explain it, AEGIS?” I said.

“I will seriously kill the both of you. I have a license for it and everything,” Karu said.

“But how will you know it’s us without your visor?” AEGIS added.

“Yes, and what will you do if I walk away v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-ly, if you can’t fly?”

Karu sighed. “I had intended to be gracious in my defeat, but it seems you offer me no choice.” She began to unbuckle her harness and slowly peel herself out of her bits of armor, starting with the jetpack and weapons.

“Uh. Are we strip-dueling now?” AEGIS asked. “Is that what you two talked about? Holy shit, Athan, you letch!” She sounded simultaneously disgusted and…impressed? Her voice took on a lower more confidential tone. “Karu, we can put up a barrier around his hammock and have the rest of The Bunker be the girls’ side. Oh! And I can make us some yummies on the mass-fab and we can have a sleepover! I’m sure Athan will try something when you’re sleeping though, so I’ll have to stay on high alert. But I’m not there, so if he does, I can’t do much but watch–“

“Erm, I would prefer if you were to keep me out of your fantasies,” Karu said, now seemingly unsure about stripping any further. “I was merely removing my equipment as it will be locked out for the next 8 hours and the mockery you two have delivered have removed any chance you had at me formally requesting shelter for the night.”

“Oh. You are actually sleeping over,” AEGIS said flatly. “Athan, a word?”

I rolled my eyes and crouched next to her holo.

“Are you going to warn me not to let the crazy murderous bounty hunter stay next to me while I’m sleeping?” I asked.

“No. I’m going to warn you not to touch her while she’s sleeping. I’ve seen you eyeing those…eyefuls. She might be crazy, but she’s an honorable girl, and I don’t want you despoiling that honor.”

“You two are both completely crazy,” I said, stepping away from the private chat.

“I resent that,” said Karu with a frown.

“Too bad. Don’t like it, stop being crazy,” I said, falling back into my hammock and covering my face with an arm. But…not covering it so much that I couldn’t keep an eye on Karu as she peeled off the last of her combat gear and stood up, wearing only a white tank top with a black sports bra and boyshorts clearly visible under. My mouth went a little dry, but I did my best to play dead.

“Hope you didn’t need that blood anywhere else in your body,” AEGIS teased with equal hints menace and amusement.

“S-shut up!” I shouted, rolling over and piling blankets on top of myself.

“What have I missed?” Karu asked. I could hear her walking over and saw her shadow pass over me as she stood right at the side of my hammock. “Is there something the matter with Ashton? It seems too early and too warm for him to be wrapping himself so in his bed.”

“I don’t know, maybe you’d better check on him,” AEGIS said, and I could hear the devilish smile in her voice.

Damn you, AEGIS. I am going to disassemble your box and bury you for another dozen years.

“Ashton?” Karu said, prodding me gently, and then lifting my arm from my face. Her face was right there, only a few inches from mine, backlit softly from the lights we’d put up in the ceiling beams. “Is there something the matter?”

“N-nothing at all!” I stammered like an idiot. I felt adrenaline pumping through me telling me to FLEE RUN GET AWAY, but all my brain could do was lay there completely paralyzed.

She frowned. “You are flush and sweaty. I did not think our fight had drained you so completely when I walked in originally. Perhaps I was imprudent in assuming that I was welcome when I entered. I had originally intended to ask, but meant it as something of a joke to simply assert that I would stay.”

“Oh, Athan liked your joke. He liked it very much.” Goddamn it, AEGIS.

Karu smiled at me and leaned on the edge of the hammock, bringing her face even closer to mine. Her breasts were resting on my arm, and man did they feel warm and soft and heavy. “I hope so. I have been told I do not have much of a sense of humor, which I will confess is not something which has ever bothered me much. Still, it is nice to be appreciated on the occasions when I try. Why are you so sweaty?”

“It’s uh, cold sweats,” AEGIS said. “He needs you to climb in there and warm him up.

“Okay, AEGIS, that’s plenty of that,” I said, through grit teeth. She laughed like a schoolgirl. “I’m just uh, a little…tired.”

“You are sweaty because you are tired.”

“No! I’m sweaty because…I’m hot. Obviously.”

“It is not hot.”

“No…not anymore. But it was earlier.”

“But you were not sweaty earlier. I was walking with you. It was a pleasant evening, if even slightly cool, I imagine, for those not wearing a flight suit and resistive armor.”

“Maybe he’s coming down with something. Maybe he got bit by a love bu–“

I interrupted her with a loud sudden outburst of coughing. “Yeah, that must be it. One of those…24-hour colds, you know? Very sudden. But definitely not life-threatening!” I added as her face grew in alarm.

“How very unfortunate. If I knew you were under the weather, I would not have attempted to solicit combat from you. I feel this is my fault, to have put you under this additional stress, which has manifest as a sudden illness.”

“It’s really *coughhackwheeze* fine. Probably best if you just uh, let me rest.”

“You should not sleep while dripping in sweat,” she said frowning again, even though I could hardly be classified as such. Maybe a little clammy. “I will wipe you down with a damp towel so that you will be able to rest more comfortably.”

“That is completely unnecessary,” I said, horrified by this sudden turn in events.

“He’s clearly delirious from the sickness,” AEGIS added in an urgent whisper. “You should probably do it to be safe.” Even as she spoke, I noticed one of her cam-drones fly into position above my bed to capture the entire spectacle. I swear I saw it give me a saucy wink.

“Okay, hold on, timeout, no way.” I said, but Karu was already pressing down on me to hold me down while a damp cloth gently dabbed at my forehead. I wasn’t exactly being restrained, but I didn’t feel like I could move without revealing the fact that my hand was now completely right under her huge breasts.

“Is something the matter? May I comfort you in some other manner? I feel terrible for putting you in such a position,” Karu said, seemingly genuinely full of remorse.

“Ah, you don’t–don’t have to do anything at all. I’m just fine.”

“Nonsense. Let me do this much at least,” she said.

“You really don’t–” but she’d already started moving down my body and moved my blankets out of the way to have better access. I grasped at them with my hand not pinned under her chest, but missed at the last moment. She locked eyes with my groin.

“Oh,” she said. A moment later, “Oh,” she repeated, crossing her arms defensively across her chest. “I…see.”

“It’s not like that!” I shouted, while AEGIS began laughing her ass off.

“OMFG!” AEGIS helpfully added. “Your face! LO-friggin’-L!” She was laughing so hard she was crying. I hoped she’d choke on it and spare me having to kill her.

“I–perhaps, I should…sleep outside tonight,” Karu said, taking a hesitant step back. “I do not with to…disrupt your privacy.”

“It’s really not like that! Look, I’m a healthy teenage man, and you’re a…well, you’re a smokin’ hot…I mean, look at you! I can see your…your…your…”

“Undergarments?”

“Yes!”

“Huh.” She peeled up the front of her tank and looked down at her own panties, flashing me her solid abs. “I suppose I have been desensitized to the sexuality of this from my time in the military. In our unit, we would change, shower, eat, and dress in mixed company as a matter of course. I had forgotten how uncomfortable that was when I had first started. I apologize for any…discomfort…I have created.” She stepped over to her armor and began to dress.

“No, it’s fine,” I said, trying to get out of bed without further embarrassing either of us. “I can deal with it, it’s nothing really.” She continued to slip on the flight suit so I touched her hand. “It really is okay. It happens.”

“I…understand. Please don’t feel as though this is simply awkward for you. I am also experiencing a significant embarrassment.”

AEGIS’ laughing in the background reached a new threshold of pealing.

Meanwhile, I realized I was still holding Karu’s hand, and both of us turned away blushing as I let it fall.

“Perhaps it is not too early to retire after all,” Karu said, struggling to be heard over AEGIS’ baying. “I would have liked to discuss what I’d learned from our combat in greater detail, but I get the feeling that we are likely to be subject to interruption.” She shot AEGIS a glare.

“Yeah well, any time you want to come by, you know where I live. I don’t get out much.”

“I will accept the invitation.”

“Just…don’t come by if you want to fight. I’ve had plenty of that.”

“Our agreement stipulated two more combats. I intend to hold you to that.”

“You are completely insatiable,” I said. She laughed.

“Do not fret so. I believe in your combat aptitude. And also,” she leaned in close and dropped her voice to a whisper. “I have a confession.”

“Yeah?” I whispered back. Her breath was warm on my neck and it was hard–difficult, not to get excited.

“I think, perhaps you might have been somewhat right before–about being able to learn from you without combat. I feel I have already learned several very interesting things today, since coming back after our fight.”

She stepped back, breaking away from the intimate moment, and gave me a huge grin and a tiny wink. I gaped like a fish.

“And now I bid you goodnight,” she said still wearing a blush and a cheeky smile. “I hope you have pleasant dreams.”

“Night, Karu,” AEGIS said, somehow still having breath to speak after all the laughing she did. She looked like she was nursing the sides of her face from having laughed too much.

I wordlessly fell into my hammock and didn’t even notice when AEGIS clapped twice and put the lights out.

Karu was certainly direct. And a completely insane crazy bitch. And hot as hell, but even worse, seemingly completely oblivious to it. All the words of the evening chased themselves around and around in my brain, ultimately leading up to one impossible question.

How the hell was I supposed to get to sleep after all that?

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