Morning of the big day. Somehow, I woke up bright and early, but still full of energy. Energy and dread. Mostly dread.
As the last blissful wisps of sleep left me, I realized it was a dreadful morning. I was lying in a tiny bed on the morning of a huge fight which would probably kill us all, spooning my sleeping, half-naked sister, again, the smell of alcohol hanging on her breath, even from behind her.
At least she’d kept her pants on this time, rolling down the top to have it hang at her waist, but seriously. How the hell she didn’t catch cold every night, I couldn’t fathom. I threw a blanket on her and extracted myself from the bed.
[‘Sup Athan,] Saga said. [Sleep well?]
“Yeah, thank you,” I whispered as I pulled my shoes and coat on. “I assume you had something to do with that?”
[Just a little thank-you for helping me with my wardrobe emergency, and apology for making your friends fight.]
“Could have given her the same treatment so she didn’t drink herself stupid again.”
[Ehh, then she wouldn’t have been up drinking with me, so got a conflict of interest going on there. Also, vodka doesn’t taste any better than beer.]
“But you still like the taste anyway because it’s there?”
[Something like that.]
“I’m going to go see if the others are up, I don’t know what we’ll wind up doing today but waiting, but if they have any plans, I’d like to know.”
[Okay. I um,] she paused. [In case I don’t see you, good luck, Athan.]
“You sure you won’t come with us?”
[Yeah, I think. I don’t know. On one hand, it’s just murdering an army, like, what’s the harm. But on the other hand, I think if I did that, AEGIS and Karu would turn on me forever, and if they did, I know which side you’d wind up on.]
“Don’t be like that. We’re all in this together.”
[Their side has boobies, Athan. I can’t blame you for choosing that.]
“There’s no sides. They’re ready to fight and kill, too.”
[Yeah. It’s not like they’d just turn on me in a heartbeat as soon as the fight is done, but it’d be an inevitable thing. Neither of them can stand me being that powerful, they’ve got too many hang-ups about not trusting Exhumans. It wouldn’t work.]
“So you’ll just leave us all to maybe die?”
[No, I’m going to trust you all to live. Now get going, dumbass. None of this doom and gloom. Today you’re going to beat the XPCA, right?]
“Right,” I said, the word feeling hollow even as I said it.
I dragged Lia’s sad, hungover ass out of bed and waited impatiently while she dressed, and then we headed out in silence, both because Lia couldn’t handle a conversation now, but also because I was still chewing over all my thoughts.
I couldn’t believe it was today. We’d only been living with this over our heads for three days now, but it felt like an eternity. It felt like the end of an era. Obviously if we lost, that was that, game over. If we won?
I’d been so worried about what was going to happen, I hadn’t even given it much thought. I guess…it was like I had told the Exhuman girl. Even if I won, there was no escape. The XPCA would be back again, and again, and again. My own words haunted me now. Even if I did somehow win out, I’d spend the rest of your life looking over my shoulder.
The Exhuman’s solution had been fear. Put enough terror of defeat into them, and they’d never rise to oppose her again. It didn’t work. People were too full of hope and ambition, and people like Karu and I would always rise to challenge oppression. There was no security in that, just waiting around for someone to depose you.
Plus…I didn’t think I could pull it off. I believed in hope and love and, as Lia loved to put it, I was a weenie. There was no place for me to act as a heartless cruel savage, just to put some fear into people. Especially if I didn’t believe in it, which I obviously didn’t. So what did that leave? Convince them I’m not a threat? Convince them I’m not worth the trouble? Plead for my life and hope for mercy?
Maybe the XPCA had dumped me out here once, but the fact they were spending the time and resources to come back meant I could expect no such leniency again. As for mercy? They had a reputation they proudly upheld of eradicating every Exhuman they could. It once gave me peace of mind, zero tolerance, zero compromise, zero threat.
The thought did not offer the same solace it once did.
Karu was up and inspecting her gear in the yard in front of The Bunker. She greeted us solemnly, and we all headed towards the main base, where we’d be staging our defense. By the time we got there, Lia seemed to be fully recovered, though still buried deep in her hood.
AEGIS had done a fantastic job of turning the place into a fortress. It was difficult to get in, even without the dozens of robots attempting to kill us, just navigating barbed wire, trenches, and pitfalls. Before the elevator, we crossed what was once a yard, but was now a 20-foot hole with sharpened metal stakes at the bottom, walking across a narrow plank bridge, rigged with what looked like explosives. Four auto-cannons watched our every move from the roof and two crudely-erected watchtowers.
Inside, the concrete had been reinforced in every wall and corner, and metal pillars braced the ceiling every five feet or so. Even now, the machines were working non-stop to shore up defenses and get a precious last few soldiers on-line to fight.
“I’ve redone their plating to make them more effective against conventional weapons,” AEGIS explained as she got in the elevator with us. “Obviously having them insulated against electrical attack isn’t as high a priority as it once was, but people do like using EMP grenades and shock throwers against robots for a reason. I’ve had to compromise on speed, but they should be able to take a few hits now. No way to dodge everything on a battlefield, anyway.”
“I have, fortunately, a standard loadout,” Karu said. “I had time to visit my arsenal before fleeing, and stocked up on conventional weapons with an emphasis on crowd control. Expect fragmentation and concussive rockets and grenades, but also weapons of mass disruption such as sonic mines and incendiaries.”
“I have a sniper in the crawler,” Lia added. “I’m not much use in a straight fight, though I still have a few combat tricks I didn’t throw at the fucking bear, but I have the intel and optics to pick off high-priority targets, if any show their heads. My cloak repels thermal and other forms of detection, so my plan is just to hide in the trees and pick people off in secret.”
“I’ve also done some work on Rua. Still not everything I hoped, but she’s as hard as anything, beneath her squishy exterior.”
“So I noticed,” Karu said as we stepped out of the elevator into the surgical theater, purely on the grounds it was the lowest basement, and thus best-protected. “During our…tussle…I simply could not land a strike which would stun you.”
“I do have predictive algorithms and can dampen pain in an emergency. I’m still no fighter, but I should be fast, tough, and hit hard at least. Other than that, no fancy tech, I think I’m stuck with a laser and blade.”
They lapsed into silence and turned towards me.
“Uh, I control lightning,” I said. “I think everyone here knows what I brought.”
“You failed to mention your indelible stubbornness, which can be a trait of superior merit on the battlefield.”
“Or his ability to think up plans and act on them,” Lia chimed in.
“And let’s not forget his capacity for being a little bitch who fucks you right in the heart,” AEGIS added. Everyone stared at her. “I’m only here because she wouldn’t let me leave,” she protested, jabbing a finger at Karu.
“I am not rising to your bait today, computer,” Karu said, flatly. “If one of us dies today, I would prefer my last thoughts on this mortal earth be of those I helped, not those I wished ill.”
AEGIS’ lip twitched, but she didn’t reply, thankfully.
“Regardless, it seems we have quite the varied array of weapons at our disposal. A standard XPCA kill squad, or even three or four would stand no chance against us.”
“Unfortunately, we know they won’t just be bringing that,” Lia said. “This is a fully planned op, not an emergency response force, and they’ll be bringing their A-game. These guys also deal with Exhumans who are often immune to conventional weapons, and so pack some exotics. Nothing pathogenic or anything which would be a huge risk to use in a populated area, but we are talking weaponizing everything from air strikes, cryogenics, hell, they’ve even turned Skyweb against Exhumans before.”
She flipped through pages on her holo. “Basically if Karu has a grenade or rocket for it, they have a tank or machine that does the same thing a hundred times bigger.”
“If Karu has a grenade for it, they also have a grenade for it,” Karu said. “My tech source is the same as the elite XPCA’s.”
“Are we going to run into other airborne then?” I asked.
“Unlikely, but possible. Standard airborne combat potential is limited by extremely small munition loadout, weapon caliber, and weight limits. I have personally compensated for this by fabricating my own small arms, but the traditional role of airborne is support and disruption, not front-line combat.”
“Was that a joke?” AEGIS asked, looking at Karu sideways. “Small arms, you said it funny.”
“It was a joke!” Lia shouted. “Karu made a joke! Karu made a pun!”
“It truly is the end of days,” AEGIS said with a sigh, while Lia laughed uproariously, more at the half-bewildered smile on Karu’s face than her actual joke.
“I have…made jokes before. I am not certain why this is being treated as beyond the realm of possibility.”
“Don’t worry about it, Karu,” I said, bumping my fist against her shoulder plate. “Lia always just gets really hyper before a game.”
“This is no game, however. This is not even a fight. Ashton, until now, you’ve fought in scenarios where your independent skill and talent can carry you through. Large-scale combat is not the same. You may be quick and cunning as you want, but all it takes is one lucky shot to remove you from the fight.”
“You forget,” I said with a grin. “They can’t shoot me. I’m bulletproof.”
“My point remains,” she said with a roll of her emerald eyes. “Even if there were so polite as to line up and fight you one at a time, you would lose simply by attrition. You must not act independently, but depend on your peers, stay behind the robots and act as support.”
“But my shield is one of our strongest assets. I can take the whole army shooting at me at once, if I had to. I should be up there on the front.”
“Perhaps. Until a gas grenade winds up at your feet by happenstance, and then you will be dead. Be safe and smart, Ashton. We have robots which are expendable, you are not.”
“Yeah, not to volunteer sacrificing good, useful robots to save your stupid sorry ass, but I agree with Karu,” AEGIS said. “We’re doing this whole thing to save you, so don’t die, or you’ll have wasted all our time.”
“Yeah, no dying,” Lia pouted. “I’m gonna go grab stuff out of my crawler, and then breakfast?” We agreed and she disappeared upstairs.
“I hope we don’t need to use this room again,” AEGIS said with a sigh after a few minutes of silence. I guess I hadn’t considered how oppressive this place might be for her, its very existence a shrine to her mistakes.
“We’ll be fine,” I reassured her, not sure how I could say the words with a straight face. “We have a plan.”
Time passed in a very unusual way. Sometimes, time seemed to drag on endlessly, making the torment of the coming doom last an eternity. Other times, hours seemed to slip by in a moment, delivering our end to us that much sooner.
Lia and Karu were throwing the football back and forth, since I’d declined, and I watched with a weird mix of sadness and envy and joy as they lazily chucked the ball across the large chamber, avoiding the many reinforcing pillars AEGIS had put in.
“Don’t want to join?” I asked AEGIS as we sat and watched.
“Nah. I mean, maybe. Don’t want to play with you or Karu. I’m still mad at you.”
“I noticed. And for what it’s worth, I’m sorry, and I appreciate all you’ve done here. You really are a miracle worker.”
“I’m an AI designed to run an entire facility on the lower end, and manage all aspects of an entire government agency, given unlimited processing power. Putting together a little army is actually almost exactly what I was made to do.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t have to. You chose to, to do all this to protect Karu and me. And that’s what I’m thankful to you for.”
“Pfft, I’m not so noble,” she said dismissively. “The first thing I had you do was bury a backup of me somewhere. I’m not really sacrificing anything by being here or helping you except my time.”
“That’s not true, and you know it. If we fall here, there’s nobody to turn your backup on.”
“Yeah,” she said sadly.
“So why are you trying to downplay your role in this? You’ve done more than any of the rest of us, and I do honestly believe you want both of the perpetrators at least half-dead. You’re amazing and selfless.”
“Am I? I don’t know. I feel like I’m just doing what I should, helping however I can, because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t feel like I have agency here, or am deciding to put myself on the line, I’m just…going with it. Because you are, and I’m stuck on you. Does that make any sense?”
“Yeah, a lot, I think. I don’t want that, you know. Even if it did mean you’d leave, I want you to only do what you want to do.”
“And it’s because you say stupid sappy shit like that, that I’m here.” She sighed. “This might be obvious, but I’m an AI, Athan. And in a previous life, everyone knew it and treated me as such. You…well, you and my mother…you’re the first people to treat me like I’m a real person. So as much as I may hate you sometimes for stupid shit you do — and don’t even think that this gives you free reign to do more — I will always love you for the good person you are, underneath all that stupid.”
“You certainly have a way with compliments.”
“You certainly suck at accepting my compliments.”
“Fine. Thank you. I try very hard to be a good person.”
“Trust me, I know,” she said glumly.
I was going to inquire, but Karu and Lia were back, sweating slightly. “Hi guys,” Lia bubbled. “We’re gonna kick so much XPCA ass, I can’t wait.”
“Go Black Sharks, bite ’em,” I muttered.
“Aside from the lack of spirit, that’s the spirit! Athan, you want to play some? You can throw and I can receive.”
“No, but I think AEGIS wanted a go.”
“Yeah! Never played football before AEGIS?” Lia said, pulling her to her feet.
“No, it’s really okay, I don’t even know how–“
“I’ll teach you! It’s easy. You just hold it like this, see, so you’re holding one end…and your fingers on the laces, here…”
As the two of them walked off, AEGIS shot me a smile, and I gave her a small wave. Karu flopped down next to me, setting her visor on the ground between us.
“You’ve embraced leadership well,” she said. “I hear you cheering up your troops, supporting them body and mind as they prepare to fight for you.”
“I’m still nobody’s leader, Karu. I’m just a guy doing what I can for the people I love.”
“And in what way is that different from leadership?”
“It’s not like I ran for office or anything. I’m just some guy here.”
“I think you misunderstand how a true leader emerges. Rarely does one choose the mantle of leadership, but rather it is thrust on them because they refuse to allow others to do without their leadership. A man who sees others going hungry and feels compelled to open a soup kitchen, for instance. Or an Exhuman boy who cannot stand his friends being hurt and steps forward to protect them from all he can in the world.”
“But I don’t know anything about protecting people, or fighting armies, or being a leader. I just wound up here.”
“And as a result, as you have noticed, you are often a terrible leader. You have several times crushed the spirits of your devoted, refused to make important decisions on your lap, and have shown poor judgement and favoritism.”
“See? Exactly my point.” I watched AEGIS attempt to throw the ball, and it tumbled end-over-end out of her hands. Lia was excitedly shouting something at her.
“And how, do you suppose, one gains experience and knowledge in how to be a strong leader? When you told AEGIS this morning that she would have no need for the medical instruments in this room, from what source of truth did you draw that knowledge?”
“I just…didn’t want her to worry.”
“Correct. And yet a younger, more foolish you gave her endless worries, not but a few days ago. You have learned precisely because you have failed so spectacularly.”
“Hey, I wasn’t alone in making those worries for her. I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to be the one lecturing me on this.”
Karu laughed. “I admit, I was more complicit in that sin than you, and for that I apologize for the suffering you’ve endured. I also am not at the center of your love-quadrilateral, as you are, and not thrust into leadership as you have been. You have endured much, and I hope it means something at least to hear my apologies.”
“It’s fine, I guess. Things look like they’ve mostly blown over, and AEGIS won’t stay mad at me forever.”
“See? And again, you are bolstering the morale of your troops with half-truths at your own expense. A formidable leader indeed,” she said with a grin.
“You’re such an ass sometimes, Karu. Be careful or I’m going to reject your apology.”
“It is too late. You have already accepted, and all apologies are not subject to returns or refunds. My apologies are hand-crafted for the recipient and cannot be repurposed.”
It was stupid enough I had to laugh. She laughed too, and in the distance, Lia caught a football aimed mostly in her direction which flew mostly true.
It filled me with an enormous sadness, like a huge void in my gut. Only now, it seemed, right at the very end of it all had we all been able to come together like this…minus Saga, I guess. People laughing and talking, sharing their final feelings before the fight, afraid that they won’t be able to afterwards, pep-talks and reinforcing friendships.
It was everything I wanted in the world, and it only would exist in these brief few moments before all-out war. Next time we met, I realized, there might be fewer of us, even if it was only tomorrow. If we were even there to meet at all. Who among these people, my closest friends, would survive?
I looked from face to face and burned them into my mind exactly as I remembered them now, smiling and laughing. Karu, relaxed, with her visor on the ground, bulky from the armor, her beauty and punk hairstyle ever in conflict. AEGIS, exalting in her triumph, dashing towards Lia with a smile on her face, her eyes a brilliant yellow, her two braids of cabled hair bouncing behind her like streamers. Lia, bouncing and jumping, football held over her head, hood and cloak flapping all over the place, ear-splitting smile covering her entire face, enraptured in the joy of a friend.
They were all such good people, such perfect people in their own way. I couldn’t imagine a life without all of them. I couldn’t imagine a sacrifice of any of them being worth it, even if it was only one.
There, surrounded by happiness, Karu talking and laughing at my jokes, I was the saddest and most alone I had felt. Death and dread was inside me, and the more I loved these girls, the more it consumed me.
AEGIS froze, her face suddenly serious. A half moment later, a wailing like an air raid siren went off throughout the base. A sound I’d heard only once before, when AEGIS had been fruitlessly preparing for Saga to attack.
This time, an attack was coming. This time, the sound filled my veins with ice.
The XPCA were here.