AEGIS opened a plastic clamshell box and handed each one of us an earpiece.
“Stay in contact, stay safe, come back in one piece,” she said solemnly. I clipped it over my ear, as did Lia. Karu just stared at hers for a few moments and then handed it back to AEGIS, with a gesture at her own visor. AEGIS didn’t need one either, of course.
We filed outside into the extensive trenches surrounding the base and waited.
“They’re coming from the south,” Lia said, her voice echoing slightly in the earpiece. “They’ll come at us from the direction of Athan’s old place, Karu’s place, whatever you call it. From the river.”
From here, I could barely make out the little mound of grass and dirt that hid The Bunker’s entrance under it. Lia gave us a silent nod, spent a moment putting on her mask, hood, and scarf, hoisted her gun, and walked into the forest. With luck, I wouldn’t see her until the fight was over.
Gradually, the trenches began to fill as all of the DOG-Es and DOG-Os returned from wherever they’d been, scouting or scrounging up materials or whatever it was they did and returned to fight. Each one seemed armed with a laser and blades on each of their four legs. Maybe they were off getting outfitted for the fight.
After a while, I began to realize just how insane this was. The stream of robots from the trees and the base wasn’t slowing, and had to wonder if the entire workshop level was just packed wall-to-wall with hundreds of them. It was no wonder AEGIS had been able to construct thousands of feet of winding trenches and fences and pitfalls if she had so many robots. Soon there were hundreds of them, and I began to seriously doubt what the XPCA could possibly bring to bear against this kind of force.
“They’re here,” Karu said, tapping a few panels on her visor. I saw what looked like a black trail, maybe a really, really long crawler, out in the distance past The Bunker. As it drew closer, I realized it wasn’t one vehicle, but dozens, maybe even a hundred. Armored transports and tanks, driving single-file in an unbroken line as far as I could see into the distance.
The ones in the front stopped, still little more than specks individually, and as each one stopped, the next in line pulled next to it and stopped as well. Once enough vehicles had stopped like this to create a solid wall from forest to forest, completely blocking the way between The Bunker and the river, another row of vehicles filed in directly behind them, and another row behind them, after that.
It was military precision at its finest. Each vehicle pulled into formation precisely and exactly, each stopped a moment after the one before, steady as a heartbeat. Each disgorged troops, who arranged in front of the line of vehicles in neat rows, creating a solid line of bodies before the solid lines of vehicles. I saw about one of every three soldiers flickering with an orange speck.
“What’s the orange?” I asked.
“Personal barrier,” Karu answered. “Like the legions of old, they have no need for cover if they make their own. Soldiers in the front hold a dampening shield which dissipates energy blasts and absorbs concussive force.”
“I should be able to punch them out if we need,” Lia’s voice came through my ear. “If they’re giving the robots trouble, I can focus on them.”
“I’m redefining targeting parameters now to avoid hitting the shields if possible,” AEGIS said, her fingers a blur as she typed into the air.
After what must have only been a minute, they were fully assembled and ready to march, but did not move. As Karu had said, the entire front line now shimmered with a vivid orange glow.
I took back everything I said about how imposing our force was. There must have been thousands of men out there, not counting whoever was still manning the tanks and APCs, or whatever support and logistics divisions we couldn’t see. They had us outnumbered almost ten to one. As if in response to my thoughts, the sky sounded like it broke open, and the echoing roar of engines filled the air.
Dozens of VTOLs dropped from the sky and hovered over the enemy line. At the same time, the enemy line surged and swelled, and something popped out in front of the line of orange.
“Enemy drones,” Karu explained.
“I should have asked for binoculars or optics or something,” I complained.
“You have me, do not complain.”
“What kind of drones?”
“Most likely something dangerous and expendable. The XPCA takes human lives lightly, and would only use drones in a capacity too dangerous for even their low standards. Possibly a suicide model.”
“There must be hundreds of them.”
“Indeed. I do not envy those of you on the ground.”
“I don’t envy you in the air. You see those VTOLs?”
And then the enemy line held solid and seemed to simply be waiting.
“I…must go,” Karu said abruptly.
“Wait, why?” I grabbed her arm. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Erm, release me at once, if you please.”
“Guys, that’s Blackett out there,” Lia said. “The one in the front walking towards us.”
“Blackett? Deputy Director Blackett? The asshole who booked me?”
“Also second-in-command of the XPCA. Want me to pop him in the brain?”
“I doubt it would be successful. Ashton, let me go.”
“You’re going to talk to him!” I realized. “He’s coming up here alone to negotiate, and you’re going to go alone.”
“How suspicious,” AEGIS said, her eyes flashing menacingly.
“You’re not going to give yourself up still, Karu?” Lia’s voice plead.
“No! No damn you all, I am trying to prevent Ashton from going.”
“Oh,” said Lia and AEGIS, leading into a long awkward pause.
“Well, too late for that. If I can talk to him, that means there might still be a peaceful resolution,” I said, hopping out of the trench. I barely made it a step before Karu landed in front of me.
“Ashton, I insist that I go. If there is an ambush, I will be able to escape because of my heightened mobility.”
“And I insist I go. If there’s an ambush, I have my shield and powers.”
“If anyone should go, it should be a bot,” AEGIS said.
“They can’t even talk, AEGIS,” I shot her down.
“But they’re expendable, and neither of you are.”
“Guys, he’s getting closer. Someone needs to head out there, or he’s just going to walk right into our lines,” Lia said insistently. “Someone other than Athan.”
“Lia, I’m going.” I tried to move around Karu but she blocked me. “Karu, this is so immature. He’s an XPCA officer, I’m sure there’s no trap. Let me go.”
“That is exactly the mentality that leads to falling in traps. You are clearly unqualified. I shall go.”
“Let’s just both go, then. Does that work for you? Sheesh.”
“No. I will go alone.”
“Karu, look at those thousands of people over there with guns and tanks. This is not a game. Chill out, and I’ll be right back.”
Blackett was now close enough that I could make out it was clearly him. He looked identical to when last I saw him, black military-style uniform, hair cropped short and parted severely, perpetual scowl. He stood at attention and waited outside our lines.
“He’s watching us fight. I’m going.” I moved to pass Karu and then when her momentum shifted, spun off of her and passed her on the other side. Oldest trick in the playbook.
“Athan–No!” Karu flew after me as I broke into a sprint towards the waiting man. I closed maybe a third of the distance before she landed between us again.
“Deputy Director Blackett, I apologize for the inconvenience. There will be no negotiations, prepare to die,” Karu shouted.
“No, we’d like to hear you out,” I shouted over Karu’s shoulder. He looked very annoyed at both of us, and began walking towards us again.
“Exhuman Ashton, Karen Irenside, you are both hereby charged with domestic terrorism and treasonous acts against the state,” he said after his long approach. “You are hereby ordered to stand down and surrender yourselves to the Agency of Exhuman Pacification and Control. Namely, me.”
“We do refuse,” she said glaring at me.
“I had hoped you’d say that,” he said. “Exhuman, ex-hunter, do you know why I’m here talking to the two of you in person, all alone, right now?”
“You have a poor grasp of military tactics?” Karu ventured.
“Karu, please stop antagonizing him.”
“He is the one who had you arrested!”
“And you’re the one who tried to collect my posted bounty and kill the Exhuman.” he said with a sneer. “Let’s not focus on the past.” He turned back to me, apparently finding me more receptive than Karu. “I have informed my soldiers that this is a hostage crisis, and that your sister is being held here against her will. I informed them that I had a previous rapport with you during your last incarceration and would negotiate her release.”
“Can I blow his head off now?” Lia asked, hearing everything.
“Why would you say all that?” I asked.
“So that I could meet you alone, of course. Right here. Right now. You see, I have an offer for you.”
“Athan, no. Athan, look me in the eyes,” Karu said pleadingly, lifting her visor. “Do not listen to this man.”
“Karu, he went through a lot of effort to set this up. We can at least hear him out.”
“No, we can not. Do not do this, Athan. Please.”
“If you’d rather listen to her, I take no offense. We will simply crush you as we had set out to do. You may notice that you are severely outnumbered and outgunned. You and your cohorts may be powerful, but you are not that powerful.” He gave the slightest indication of a smile. “Trust me, I kill Exhumans for a living. Regardless, the choice is yours. Hear me out, accept my offer, or don’t.”
“Athan, I’m with Karu on this one,” AEGIS’ voice came through. “Don’t even hear him out. It’s going to be nothing but trouble.”
“Yeah, bro. This guy can’t have anything good to say. Please just let Karu handle it.”
“I’ll hear what you have to say,” I said, “but no promises beyond that.”
“A reasonable answer.”
Karu didn’t seem to think so and began to move towards him. Before I could even react, he’d moved, and she let out a shocked gasp.
“She’s unharmed,” he said quickly, stepping back with his hands up. Karu rolled to the ground with what looked like a badge or sticker on the front of her chestplate. “Localized neural dampening field. She’s disoriented, that’s all.”
A booming shot rang out, the sound echoing off the trees and sky. Blackett’s head snapped backwards, making him reel and fall to the ground backwards. Shocked, I stepped forward to check on him.
He was intact, but bleeding. The majority of a huge bullet hung in the air next to his head, almost piercing a hazy orange field which floated an inch from his head, which was now scraped with shrapnel from the shot. He reached urgently for his left shoulder and grabbed the comms clipped there.
“Stand down. No incident,” he said. The line of soldiers stirred restlessly but did not move.
“Lia, fuck,” I said.
“He’s not dead?”
“No, he’s got some kind of barrier like the soldiers do, but much stronger.”
“And much more expensive,” he coughed. “And now broken, thanks to your zealous sister. Exhuman, I do not relish the thought of dying on this pointless battlefield, tell your associates to stand down, if you please.”
“Lia, do not shoot him again. For fuck’s sake.”
“This is a battle, Athan.”
“Not yet it isn’t. Right now it’s a negotiation.”
“He attacked Karu.”
“Karu attacked him first! Just let us talk.”
“Or don’t,” AEGIS added. “He said his shield was down.”
“The hell is wrong with you people? Jesus Christ.”
I almost found myself apologizing to Blackett as I helped him back to his feet. Karu swore at me, and I put myself between him and Lia.
“I suppose I should hurry up and make my proposition before she repositions,” he said, without a hint of a joke. “Before we get into it, however, I must commend the loyalty and courage of your allies. Such friendships are difficult to find and must be very valued to you.”
“They are,” I said. “And now that you’re flattering me, I’m wondering what you are scheming.”
“I merely wanted to point out all you have to lose. If you do not accept my proposal, whether your maniac sister places a bullet in my head or not, that army will defeat you. You have exactly no chance against them. I just wish for you to consider it seriously.”
“You have my serious consideration. Now out with it.”
“Exhuman Ashton, do you know what I hate most in this world?”
“I’m going to guess taxes. Do you even pay that if you work for the feds?”
“Surprisingly, yes we do. But the answer was Exhumans. I should think that would have been obvious.”
“Maybe it was. This isn’t a proposal however.”
“Exhumans are chaos incarnate. They destroy everything around them, destroy the peace of mind of the common man, and cannot be anticipated or controlled, only reacted to. Often, even if we have forces in an area, there is nothing left to save by the time a response is executed. It is…frustratingly ineffective.”
“You hate me, I got it.” Karu stirred at my feet and pleaded at me.
“Not you personally, but the concept of what you represent, certainly. If I hated you, I’d just have you executed. No, in you, I see great potential. When I first met you, you were a pathetic mewling child, incapable of lying on the pavement outside your parents’ house without staining it with your tears. Now look at you, strong, fiercely independent. You are standing over the body of your own tormented comrade by the force of your own will. Such strength, I relish it.”
“This is now just more flattery. I’m going to give you one more sentence to say something that sounds like a proposal.”
“Fine. Surrender, and your friends will be unharmed. Amnesty will be granted to the ex-hunter, she will be free to return to her previous position if she desires, and we will return with only you in captivity.”
“You hate Exhumans so bad, you’re willing to not kill me and everyone else here. Why?”
“Because I’d rather take you alive than have all of you dead. You see, I don’t care about any of them at all, yours is the only fate I’m interested in, and if leaving them alone convinces you to come along, then I’m more than happy to oblige.”
He reached into a pocket and I tensed. “Relax, I’m no fool,” he said, and slowly drew out a small black device and offered it to me. “I am…reasonably certain you will say no and will require some persuading. A comms, for my ears only. If you decide to change your mind once the carnage begins,” he said with a hint of a smile.
I didn’t respond, but did take the device. Karu shaking her head at me violently now.
“Bro, you cannot be serious. I hope the only reason you take that is so you have it to shove up his ass once we’re done kicking it.”
“Athan, I don’t care what happens here, but if you call him up to surrender, I will kill you myself.”
“You have such good friends,” Blackett said, turning to leave. “It would be a shame if something were to happen to them.”
I leaned down and ripped the tag off Karu’s armor, and she took in a huge gasp of air.
“I cannot believe what you just did. You just…left me there.”
“You wouldn’t let me talk to him. You were being irrational and insane. Hell, I was thinking of EMP’ing you myself.”
“Oh,” said Blackett, turning back to face us, now twenty or so feet away. “I have a gift for you to show my good faith. I trust you’ll enjoy it.” He spoke into the comms on his shoulder, and from the battleline, a vehicle began to move, driving towards us. Karu and I waited as It slowed as it approached, and turned. Finally, fifteen feet away, the back opened and someone stepped out.
I heard Lia’s sharp intake of breath as she saw who it was.
With a swagger and a grin which made it clear who had arranged everything, Brick stepped out of the back of the transit and stomped towards me, cigarette flaring between his lips.