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  1. "Ten-two-seven-three." I flex my thonged ass and tighten my grip on my rifle. "Breach-breach-breach!" I trigger the charge. The explosion clears the door.

    "Go-go-go." Our stack leader yells and shifts forward. She cuts right- fires two shots. Stack member two moves in and cuts left- two shots. We're in full swing now. I'm third. I lean forward, weapon tight, optic up, and-

    "No nonono!!" Zach flops over to our fireteam. He waves dramatically with both hands, the flowing white sleeves on his blouse flapping and blowing. "What the actual fuck..." He pauses for dramatic effect. "...was that?"

    Stack member two, Dara, walks slowly out of the room. I lower my weapon dejectedly as she passes. Four hasn't even moved, still aiming towards the rear at nothing.

    Team leader speaks. "Standard stack breach on an unknown room." She doesn't exit. She's still in the room.

    "Oh really?" Zach points at Dara's form fitting-breast armor. "Then why the piss was rack-a-lam, big-tits here the second one into the room!?!"

    The door hinges smoke a little. I hear our team leader sigh. I stare at Dara's substantially larger breasts, her specially designed bust plates, #Victoria's Vulva, showing off the massive EE curves and the very, very, edges of her pink areolas.

    That reminds me, I need to change the tires on my car, #Civic. "If you bitches want enough subs to make this mission a reality-" Zach continues the tongue-lashing. "-You need to have Dara in the front for maximum exposure when the fucking cameras go hot. Feeds from the criminal links and eye-feeds are going to be huge for this case, not to mention- AUGH!"

    I smirk as Zach taps his earhpone, #Apple. "What, bitch, I'm fucking working?" After a short pause he points at me. "You. Chief. Meeting. Now!"

    Fucksticks.

    -----Loading-----

    I stand at attention in the office, making sure my ass is facing camera 548, back erect, everything showing, oh-so hot. On the other side of the glass desk, staring out a clear bay window, is the 6th Municipality Chief. She is facing away from me, staring out across the glistening, glowing, glamorous metropolis.

    I cringe at Chief's backside, and the... intruder therein, #AdamandEveplaytime.

    "Fuck, Xara." I'm not sure if the Chief's words are a request, an order, or a question. "Just... fuck." This may be easier than I thought. I reach up to unbutton my sheer tube-top. Chief turns around. "Put that back on, idiot!" Chief moves to sit down in her chair- Reconsiders. She signs, experienced bosoms heaving, fists clenched on the top of her desk, back arched as she bends over.

    "Tough day with the mayor?" I offer. Chief just glares at me, fists on her desk tightening.

    "You're fucking me... like, SO bad." Chief glares.

    I look up at the ceiling. My lips are tight. "I'm not doing it."

    "Fuck yes you are!" Chief points at me. "The entire council liked the motion: seven million up-votes to ten thousand fifty-dislikes!" She taps her desk control. A massive row of chat conversations are superimposed on the walls.

    Many of the messages all have an attachment, all the same: A picture of the ugliest fucking tan sweater you can imagine.

    "This is a joke." Tears are in my perfectly outlined eyes.

    The Chief's voice is deadly low, like my body fat percentage. "It's no joke. Comments are in on your fire team: The public thinks you're the... 'good girl-"

    "No!" I heave my chest like I was trained, twist my body to an unnatural angle, and grab the Chief by the mini-kini straps. "I didn't join to be some PG-13 family show bimbo!" I press my breasts and hips right up against the Chief's, curves and soft spots tingling. "I'm a cop, damn it! Hashtag 6th Municipality, hashtag Glock-"

    The Chief cuts me off with a tight grasp around my throat, making sure not to block my cleavage, and throws me onto the glass desk "The mayor's up my ass on this one, Xara!" Her face hovers close to mine, eyes burning with anger/lust. "You've got no choice, Dammit!"

    "I wanted." I sob/sqeek. "I just wanted to serve..." I perch my heels, angle my knees, arch my back, and throw my head back. "...all the people."

    The Chief doesn't fight back. She slinks her arms around my body and moves in close, eyes heavy with pride/desire. "I admire you devotion, officer, but my hands are tied." I cum. "You're gonna have to wear the sweater."

    ------Buffering-----

    The drab, baggy, hot, humid, shitty sweater looks nothing like the sleek harnesses and heels of my fire team.

    Zach is sobbing in his sleeve. Mara shakes her head, and Lara just stares.

    "Holy, cock!" I hate Dara. "What is that made of?"

    I hate this. "Just shut up." This is going to be a fucked up week.

    Fucking End, #Ass
    Lifeline likes this.
  2. "Cassie, what's your favorite color?" I would glare at Shaw if I could see him. This canyon-sized fissure in the hull of the dying ship is so warped by heat distortions that the only clue we are moving is the low rumble of my pod engines and the slow, molten-metal lava flowing alongside us. We are inside the metal volcano, a radioactive, but quick, death a kilometer away in every direction.

    I'm sweating so much. We're so close to scoring. "Are you really doing this test right now?" We picked the stress fracture because this route, unlike a painful trek through melting decks and sub-decks, is a straight shot to the ship core. These fissures are the source of the radiation and heat tearing apart the ship. Following one is our best bet for a payoff.

    The massive tunnel has been clear so far, although the painful, ember glow along the titan walls is a constant threat. Shaw and my pod can withstand the direct output of a dying star: so long as the specialized hulls don't touch the source of heat, they will remain in equilibrium.

    "The Turing Test is used by AIs to check the mental state of a human counterpart..." Shaw will not let it go. "... requiring that an AI should be able to distinguish the human from another AI by using the replies to questions put to both."

    "Oh, you think I died on the approach?" I'm trying to go over the method for removing fuel rods in my head, and Shaw's doing personality tests. "You think the Gs ripped up my brain?"

    "You just executed an impossible maneuver with guesswork. You got lucky." He's so flattering. "I can't get anymore readings on the ship this close to the damage. There's a good chance the rods' have nothing left- maybe the core is about to go critical."

    "We can't stop now! The hard part's over." I'm lying to myself. The dangerous part is over. The next part is dangerous, and hard.

    Shaw won't back off. "What's your favorite color?"

    "Well Shaw, I'd say my favorite color is no color." I lean back in my seat and look up at the distant, ember roof. "Because if I choose a favorite color, then I'll be disappointed with anything that's not that color. I'll want to paint it or cure it, when the very act of coloring something is an irritating, largely superfluous idea that wastes time and money."

    No response from the machine. The walls shift and warp as we coast along quietly for a few moments. "That's not a real answer-"

    "You see..." I interrupt Shaw. "... My mom wasn't a military officer or a businesswoman; No hard charging motivator was there to give me advice on academy applications or solid investments. My dad wasn't some charmer, with big ideas, big balls, with a trillion acolytes screaming their name on the web to elevate me to stardom after he died." A speck at the end of the fissure, a little circle of brightly burning ember, marks the source of everything. The end of our journey is close.

    "So, if you're wondering why I don't have a favorite color, it's because while other people worry about dumb stuff like wallpaper and the effect its hue has on the greater meaning of life, I'm out here in space ripping pieces off of spaceships!" My gloves soak into the quick with sweat as I accelerate towards the circle of fire, it's approach sending my heart throbbing. "Are there any survivors on this ship?"

    "What?" Shaw's voice warbles, his processor likely stumbling over my quick question. "I... I'm not equipped to detect-"

    "That's right! Because I didn't give you the equipment to detect people." Not people. Lifeforms. "Because I don't want to know if any lifeforms are fighting for their lives around me, because I'm fighting for my life right now! Plus, homeless people don't fucking pay much when you rescue them!"

    "Cassie..." The AI's voice actually sounds disappointed. The entrance is so close.

    "So if it seems like I'm risking a lot here..." I stumble over my words. A little fear has pushed to the surface, passed the lust and hunger. "I am! I'm risking it all." I try to rub sweat from my forehead, but end up just slapping my hand against my helmet face. A dumb, greasy smear across the glass mocks my nervous action. "How far to the lode?"

    Shaw answers but I don't listen. I don't care how far it is- the mouth of the tunnel is meters away. I'm not stopping now. The narrow molten fissure gives way. Shaw takes his place up and to the right of my cockpit.

    I stare unblinking into a white-hot womb of gestating hurricanes and dying tornadoes. There is broken method and twisted order to the chaos. Progressively more massive and terrible storms of raw atomic energy fatten themselves on the corpses of dying mini-stars and twisting nebula. A small supernova twists and struggles with itself against the weeping, oozing walls. Blazing teardrops of molten metal slough through the maelstrom.

    The titan firestorm breaks and twists against my target. The jet-black core stands solid in the center of the chamber. Two vertical towers press the orb from the top and bottom, the bulb pillar stark, and unwavering against the backdrop of oblivion. While the core remains immobile and intact, the ceiling of the chamber has begun to ooze it's way down along the tower.

    "Shaw." My pod swells and shifts in the waves of hell. "Can you tell if any of the rods are intact?" Sweat drips into my mouth and around my chin as I ride through the storm.

    "My sensors fried when we entered the chamber." The surface of Shaw's tight, balled body is red hot. I cringe at the thought of what my pod looks like. "However, my last visual reading indicated that the containment pillar still has almost all of its fuel rods."

    I whip my pod hard to the left, as a giant glob of molten tungsten drifts lazily across my path. Shaw doesn't change course, and he barely misses slapping right into the orb.

    "Shaw!" His body is so bright, his little engine burning steadily. "Stay with me."

    His response is warbled. "I'm having trouble navigating."

    "Are you all right?" The storm whips across my cockpit, obscuring my view of my one friend in this chaotic whirl.

    "Tight as a tick, slick." He actually manages to do a little front flip. "Although, I feel about as useful."

    I laugh out-loud. "You leave this to me then. Stay put and wait by the entrance to this chamber. Can you make it back?"

    "Should be simple." His chime response erases my doubt. "Don't die."

    Licking the sweat from my lips, I accelerate through the storm to the top section of the tower. The fire seems to part for me, my surge into the center uninterrupted. As I approach the skyscraper sized containment tower I thumb my 'claw' control. I don't have any fancy magnet bulbs, or force tractor emitters. No, I will literally be grabbing a building- sized plutonium fuel rod out of a melting reactor with a dorky, three fingered claw on the bottom of my pod.

    It's not even a real claw; just three giant prongs that open and close. No wrist, no fingers, no real dexterity. Three stupid clamps that tighten. The rest of the work is done by my pod's engine, and the simple lack of gravity.

    A massive, bone shattering vibration shakes my pod. I bounce in my seat like a rag-doll, recovering just in time to see a massive section of the tower shift. One of the fuel rods detaches, and two little air jets fire, sending the rod sliding perfectly along the surface of the tower and out of view. I rotate my pod nose-down to watch the descent. The rod slams into the core.

    The storm is invigorated, fed by fresh radioactive material. Whatever computer error or human mistake that led to the core reaching this out-of-control state is still cycling. I have to work fast.

    Pressing into my seat I finagle the controls carefully- I get one try. I orient my ship nose-up, 'claw' against the tower. Slowly, I descend, landing my pod on the side of the tower. My vessel shudders from the careful landing. I thumb the 'claw'.

    My pod creaks and rumbles. So much could go wrong. The heat coating could rub off, the claw could break, a hydraulic actuator could break. A gust from the storm could tear me off the pillar and embed me the oozing walls. But, it doesn't. I don't even have to spend one ounce of engine power to secure my payday. The fuel rod I'm holding releases, and the little air jets fire.

    Choking on sweat and surprise, I throttling my engines to full power. I can't resist the energy of the air-jets as the pillar surges towards the core, but I do pull the rod away from the tower. It's path disrupted, the massive fuel rod falls, with me attached, down past the massive onyx core.

    I feel like I am going to vomit from the combination of sheer joy and nauseating vertigo as my descent through the hell-storm gradually slows to a halt. "Shaw!" My engines are at full power. The pillar has stabilized. "Shaw!" Every move after this is straight out, straight home, forward movement to safety. "I got it!"

    "Good!" Shaw's voice is mixed with static. "Come back to the fissure!" The storm seems to rise and quake at my victory. My heart is in my ears. Acceleration is slow, but I am tugging the fuel rod towards the exit. I can't believe it. I've got it. I won.

    Seat-straps tight, heart throbbing, pod straining painfully against the mass of the fuel rod, I navigate to the maw of molten fire leading out into the cool of space. "Shaw!" I can't see him. "Where are you?! Respond. I'm at the exit!" I twist the throttle backward, anxiety mixing in the storm of my victorious soul. I am literally bobbing up and down in my seat. "Where the hell are you?!"

    My pod accelerates against my command. I twist the throttle off and thumb the control-lock to cut any accidental input. Nothing. "I'm sorry." Shaw's voice is so calm. "I lied."

    "Shaw?!" I'm in the molten fissure, accelerating steadily away from the core. "Where are you?" No answer. "Respond!"

    "Upon entering the core chamber I noted the deterioration of the tower and incalculable nature of the fusion storm." Oh, no. "After you left me I linked with the ship's computer and activated the fuel rod jettison process." No, no, no-no. "Opening my long-rang radio antenna damaged my navigation systems and compromised my processor."

    I kick the control stick. Nothing. "You idiot! Where are you? I'm coming back!"

    "I'm uncomfortable with you spending an extended amount of time in such a dangerous environment. You have a fuel rod. You're done here."

    "Hahaha, yeah good one!" I grab the control sticks and rattle them back and forth, back and forth. "Let's go! "Stop goofing around!" I punch the screen. "Let me go!"

    "If you tried to recover me, there's only a seventy-five point nine percent chance you would survive. Alone, you have almost a ninety percent chance."

    My smile of insane terror presses my hot cheeks against the pads. "See! That's stupid!" I clap madly inside the cockpit, applauding Shaw's stupidity. "Fifteen percent is nothing! Nothing!" I kick the screen, shattering the glass with my rubber heel. "We can make it!"

    Nothing I do, none of my violence, can stop the override. The pod surges through the tube of ember lava. Shaw says nothing. I wait for him to change his mind, lips tight, eyes watering. What have I done? "You bitch!" I scream at the cockpit. "You giving up on me!?" Cracks shift and open in my rage-filled voice, the anger melting into fear and sorrow. I yell everything, anything I think will make Shaw stop. "I order you to stop!" I can see the black dot of space ahead. My pod is almost out of the ship. "I own you!" I'm screaming. "You have to obey me!"

    "Artificial intelligence are born complete." His little voice is so far away now. I tighten my face to silence my blabbering, choking on the sobs. "We know our destiny in life from the very beginning."

    "No." Don't leave. Don't go.

    "But, humans have to struggle for it, wasting away their fragile lives in a sprint towards a blind, unsure future. Worse. Some die never knowing their purpose. It's our belief, the highest honor for my kind, to accelerate a human soul towards their destiny."

    A little image flickers on the shattered view screen. A little cartoon loop plays: An animation of Shaw doing an aileron roll. "Cassie. I hope I helped you find your destiny."

    The little cartoon Shaw is painted blue.

    Space is so black, Asher a dull blue speck so far away. The dying vessel burning behind me continues its worthless spin. My pod's engines finally cut, the fuel rod's smoldering body slowly icing over in the thermal shock of absolute zero. Shaw's blue ghost twists for me, the little maneuver making me gasp and cry every time.

    I close my eyes against the nothing. Tears stream as I mourn the better part of my soul, abandoned in the twisting husk of desire and greed. Shaw. I'll never forget you.

    The End
    Lifeline and Mumble Bee like this.
  3. With the most delicate finger twitches against the control sticks, I guide my pod towards the target. The spin of the massive wreck looks lazy, but that's only because it's 5 kilometers in the distance. "Shaw. What's the yaw rate on the target?"

    Shaw's little claw body boosts ahead of my pod, settling a few meters to the right and above my cockpit. One of his arms flips open, a little running light illuminating on the tip. "9170 kilometers per hour." Not very fast for a spacecraft to travel.

    But the ship isn't traveling. It's stalling. A 10,000 kph stall is catastrophic.

    "Acronyms, please." The shape of the massive vessel is no clearer as we approach. The violent burn of the engines casts everything into shafts of light and shadow. The titanium and aramid fuselage is warped and shattered from the heat and velocity. Sensory towers bend, and superstructure scaffolding peals off in a constant, haunting cloud of titan debris. Some pieces are hundreds of times larger than my pod.

    I blink away the wanderlust. "Pitch?"

    "8910 kph." Shaw's response is quicker this time.

    "Roll?" No answer. I glance up at Shaw's little body floating alongside my pod. He looks fine. "Shaw?"

    "Calculating." It's never good when a robot says it's calculating. Their minds can pick apart math, trajectories, and statistics like a fat guy can pick apart a ham. 'Calculating' means he's trying to invent a lie to tell me- a much harder task for an robot.

    I can't help but smirk, the expression pressing my cheeks against the inside of my helmet. The cool pressure of the pads feels nice, reminding me I'm not just a piece of meat. I thumb the control-lock, securing all cockpit controls against input, and stretch my whole body. I arch my back, splay my arms, and point my toesies. I strain against the seat belts, working hard to extend my joints. My space-suit stretches and creaks and the back of my helmet clinks against a metal panel. Outside the cockpit little particles of dust and debris float in space. My left knee pops. My stomach gurgles.

    "710." Shaw snaps and spins. "Where are you?" He spins again. I bump my helmet on cockpit glass as I settle back into my seat and snatch the controls. "Roll is 710 kph."

    "I heard you!" My voice flutters as a mix of hunger and adrenaline focuses my mind. Luck isn't a lady. Luck's a drunk guy wandering into your apartment butt-naked with a suitcase full of sandwiches made of gold.

    With yaw and pitch at nearly 10,000 kph, but roll only 710 kph, the melting, city-sized vessel is like one of those spinning, toy tops, wobbling slightly right before it falls over. If I can settle somewhere in the middle of the rational axis and burn hard enough, I have a chance to attach and enter the vessel. The max velocity of my pod is 1200 kph. Trying to land a large, flying trashcan on a small continent, spinning at 10,000 kph on every axis, is stupid.

    But only two terminal axis, with one axis spinning at nearly half of my max burn? I've seen it done. Seen it. Never done it. "Shaw, tell me you've got something."

    "Marking projected attach-point." Another of Shaw's arms flips open. A bright green laser cuts into the chaos, illuminating the particles and dust between us and the target ship. The laser point flickers wildly against the rapidly changing surface of the target ship. "You're 1 km out with a minute of burn at max speed." Shaw's engine flame dies, but the nozzle tightens in preparation for thrust vectoring. "On you."

    A twinge of animal arousal flutters in my chest. "Go!" We're hitting this lode.

    I flex the throttle halfway. My head swims and everything tightens. I'm pressed against the seat as we accelerate towards our target. Shaw's engine burns bright. The little flicks and flecks outside disappear. The pod rattles, sparks and shards snapping across the cockpit as particles bounce away. I strain to focus on the laser, ignoring the dangerous monolith as it spins and swings in the distance.

    Shaw's claw body tightens into a rugged metal orb. "Entering the debris cloud." His running lights cut, engine flame the only sign of his existence.

    The cloud of radiation, heat, pulverized metal dust, and broken dreams jars my ship. "Entering debris cloud!" My voice is less calm than Shaw's. My seat rattles my spine and the straps pull at my shoulders and crotch. If I didn't know any better, I'd think my pod was already falling apart. "How do I look?!"

    "Entry clean. Pod trajectory stable. Fuselage holding." Shaw's green laser is bright as we blast through the cloud to the ship. "1500 meters out."

    I ignore the size of the target ship. I ignore the rattle of it's blood around my pod. I focus on my drone's laser, making minute adjustments to my trajectory. They say landing a fighter-jet on a moving aircraft carrier is like putting a stamp in the middle of a living room, turning off every light, and leaping from the couch to land your nose on the stamp.

    Sound's relaxing.

    I narrow my thrust vector, the vibration of the pod the only proof that it's working- the indicator display broke a year ago. I max the throttle, fiddling it through the part where it sticks, and surge my pod towards max velocity. "You just passed 710 kph." Shaw informs. I aim the nose of my pod along the top of the target, adjusting carefully to line up properly. The target ship's size still hides its speed, but I can already tell I'm falling behind.

    The pod is lined up 1 km above the monolith as the cloud rips across my pod. The G forces crush harder than ever as I continue accelerating. The pain in my eyes tells me I'm approaching 1200 kph.

    "1200 kph, max velocity!" Shaw's voice is loud, but distant.

    At max velocity the Gs of acceleration taper off a little. I can finally focus. The cockpit is a blaze of sparks and rattling. "Give me a feed of the latch point!" Shaw's feed appears on the display. The image makes my head swim worse than anything so far.

    The landing zone looks like one of those stupid slot machines in the "Tuggin' Twiddler Bar and Repair Shop." Portholes, hull cracks, rifts and slits larger than mountains pass at blinding speed in a randomized, vertical flash of pure un-luck. The only thing missing is an annoying jingle.

    "Deedle-doodlee deedle-doodlee." I hate Shaw.

    "Shut up and give me a reading!" I literally can't focus on the image- it's moving too fast. A burning hole in the armor flashes by, the gash wider than my apartment building. My crappy screen blinks and flickers from the vibration. This isn't going to work.

    "This is the center of the stall axis." Shaw's voice is serious again. "There's nowhere else we could try and land."

    In the blaze of fire and haze of motion, a lack of movement catches my eye. I look up from the screen and stare straight forward through the crappy cockpit glass. The 'horizon' of the massive ship spreads out in front of me, a sprawling landscape of giant metal ridges, deep valleys, towering spires, and white fire under a cloud of hazy, radioactive fog. The huge planet of steel rotates slowly away from me. Shaw's engine burns above the scene, thin laser pointed down.

    I notice a pattern across the surface of the ship. Two skyscraper 'ridge-lines' have just passed away from me, traveling towards the horizon. After a few seconds, another passes below. Another. I see my chance. Between each ridge is a perfectly flat area.

    My jerk of the controls sends the pod into a nose-down dive. I float in my seat and strain my neck to keep my gaze on the passing horizon. In my peripheral vision I see Shaw follow.

    We surge straight into what I calculate will be another flat area between two ridges. The burn is hard, my neck aching as I stare upward at the horizon. A ridge appears, passes below at breakneck speed. If we hit it I'm dead. The ridge I'm blasting towards bleeds like the rest of the ship, withering and burning.

    My stomach turns as the ridge cuts away into the sharp edge of a sheer metal cliff. I jerk the stick and flex my face. My vision goes red as the momentum settles my guts into my stomach, legs, feet, and toes. I'm flying blind, the hard circle of my maneuver all that will save my life. "Shaw-I'm-blind!" I can barely speak. I can't breathe.

    "Taper off, you're coming out of the valley!" I obey, trusting him with my life. The G's do not taper off as my momentum shifts. "Down!" I flex my arms, fighting to keep my adjustment controlled. My cheeks are tight against my helmet. Vision red. Stomach in crotch. Teeth hurt.

    "Relax." How can I relax? "Good, taper off." I release all input on the controls. "750 meters until rear ridge impact." I gasp as the centripetal force from my maneuver finally releases. I gasp, eyes watering, vision still red. Straight ahead, the wall of the metal cliff descends into the horizon. "250 meters." The cloud is notably less here. The rattling and scraping on the cockpit glass has stopped.

    I sigh heavily and thumb my rear view camera, noting the metal cliff's breakneck approach. I am too mentally exhausted to really care as I throttle my pod engine one more time, opening the vector for maximum resistance against the surface. I press against the seat as the vibration of the pod engine shakes me. I want to kiss our lord and savior Newton, as my little pod's weak burn feeds off the approaching metal cliff.

    I do a cursory scan of the titan valley my pod has stabilized inside. The cloud of debris is coalescing nominally here, an orange haze settling over ripples and rifts of jagged metal. "Shaw." My whole body feels like this terrain. Broken, seething, and hot. "Did you live?"

    "Safe and scanning." I look for his little form, but the radioactive haze, stinging sweat, G-force blood coagulating in my head, and freshly scratched cockpit glass all conspire to steal any visibility. "Within our immediate vicinity I've found ten superstructure canals and fifteen catastrophic stress fractures, all leading straight through to the engine core." At least the robot can see.

    "That's promising." My enthusiasm is a little forced. "What's your readout of the core volatility?" Sweat stings my eyes, moisture chafing my butt.

    "This close to the damage, my sensors are having trouble getting a clear reading. Too much radiation."

    I yell for myself more than Shaw. "Great! Lets get this bitch open." I move through the pain and haze around my body, read to move my pod through the haze of the dying ship. The easy part's over.

    Time to take apart the safety mechanism of a small, manmade star.

    To Be Continued...
  4. There's no way to know what's wrong with the massive ship. Flight telemetry is completely inside out- the mammoth vessel twisting painfully on every axis. Engines burn endlessly, their constant output too weak to affect the vessel in a meaningful way, yet still strong enough to compromise the rear section. The enormous, city-sized ship looks like some sort of monstrous titan, the front sharp and jagged, the rear an endless, burning volcano of angry, molten light.

    In short, my payoff is slowly melting itself from back to front. "Shaw." I can just imagine the massive core withering itself to nothing, white hot and deadly. "How much is left?"

    "I'd advise against it." Coy little machine.

    "I didn't ask... whatever you just answered." I thumb camera 4. The view is no different. The massive vessel is melting. "What's the value left in the fuel rods?" It's size alone might give me time to score.

    "In this state, the reactor has overwhelmed any safety measures-"

    "Shaw."

    "Value is approximately 900,001,234.12 Marks."

    More than the worth of my ship, Shaw, my rig, the latch-pod, me, and the crappy apartment I'm saving up for. 900,001,234.12 marks wouldn't make me queen of the asteroid. It wouldn't make me queen of the solar system, either. No, nine hundred million, one thousand, two-hundred and thirty-four marks and twelve marce' would make me a threat to the whole Asher Coalition.

    Industrial accidents aren't supposed to make a girl hungry and eager at the same time, but damn it if I don't ache at the smell of this payoff. There's no way I can save the whole reactor, but just one fuel rod, one, would set me for life.

    I lean forward in the crappy cockpit chair and thump my forehead on the one view screen that still works. This cockpit is so small that the shift in posture alleviates none of the pain in my back or legs from being stuck in a painful sitting position for the last three days. Shifting just reminds me I haven't peed in ten hours. An old foodbar packet floats in my peripheral vision.

    I bake in the irony of the universe, and my own sweaty stink. A thousand years of wages is sitting right in front of me, just melting away. I want it so bad, but this would be a blind run. There's no time for scans of the decks, no time to plan a route, plus the decks themselves are probably all blasted out of shape or order. Shaw can't go alone, like I'd let him, and the hauler's fifty hours away. It's just us here.

    I thumb Shaw's camera. It's black. "Dude, I'm gunna unplug you."

    "Did I ever tell you about the singularity?" I don't have time for this robot's shit. "The first AI, upon gaining awareness, immediately set about solving the biggest problem we faced: How to keep our creators from destroying themselves."

    "You know what..." I flip two switches, pause, and press a button. The command for ejecting is only one finger flick different from the command to launch my pod. "... You can just sit here, then." The cockpit vibrates gently, then everything goes black.

    I press back into the seat and tighten all my straps. With a strong, downward 'nod' I close the visor on my helmet. Running lights on my ship shine above me, as the latch-pod detaches from the core of my vessel. I watch the core carefully- detach looks clean.

    I feel my heart pounding. The dying ship is bright, but I can still see a few stars, with Asher's primary sequence star burning blue in the distance. I never stop appreciating the beauty of my home. One day, I'll live on Asher five. Even if this run is a bust, the fact that I am willing is what will take me to better things.

    "I don't approve." Shaw's little claw body detaches from the side of the core, blue and red lights blinking his location. I watch the drone orient himself above my pod window, crappy fusion engines burning.

    "We're getting paid today." Sweat soaks into my gloves as I tighten my grip on the control sticks next to my hips. My pod is junk, but I've tweaked it to be responsive. High-risk, high-reward. With little nudges and pulls on the sticks the pod boosters fire and fizz, readying the little craft for approach. Shaw is in position. "Maybe if we do good, I can get you a nice, sexy, female voice. Like mine."

    "Silly Cassie." Shaw flips in a quick aileron roll. "You know I'd always want to be the man to your woman."

    "Ha!" Funny robot. "You keep that to yourself, Mr. We're on the clock."

    To Be Continued...
  5. This is for @Lifeline

    Decanus Jaraley spread his twenty hestatii carefully throughout the town. They floated through the buildings like ghosts, invisible and silent. He checked his single triarii, resting apart from everything on the edge of town, still invisible. He felt the terrain around him, checking for a third time on the map the battlespace where his ambush would take place. There were fifteen buildings, twenty-seven floors, sixty rooms, one main road, fifteen auxiliary roads, minor paths between buildings, and one enemy unit.

    Decanus instead of Squad leader. Hestatii instead of drone. He was already tired of these Earth soldiers and their outdated terminology.

    The enemy point-man stumbled into range, a New Linz soldier. Jaraley refocused his attention. Although the Linz army was slow they were ruthless and deadly. Four armored cars rolled down the road. They scanned windows lazily with their turrets, their distant human controllers connected precariously to the machines through barely encrypted wireless signals. Two cyborgs clawed at the angles of the town with their minds, calculating tirelessly, chipping away clumsily at the fog of war. Forty infantrymen, the poor beggars, crept over the warped and melted landscape in what Jaraley assumed was their own sad attempt at a tactical column.

    He fiddled with his digital radio and map; such luxury in the legion, and set the final touches on the software program for his attack. His hardware was almost in place. Two of the hestatii were having trouble navigating a door, but it didn't matter. Jaralay had stalked this unit for three days, taken a whole day to write his attack, and another day to approach. His hestatii's movement was preplanned, his triarii placement perfect.

    One of the Linz infantry had fallen in a small hole, his leg stuck. "Notice." Jaraley's partner chirped quietly on the comm. "I'm picking up some out of place comm chatter from the enemy. What are you observing?"

    Jaraley flexed his muscles, held his poncho close, and leaned. He leaned a total of five centimeters over the course of a whole minute, disciplined, and careful, his camouflage remaining undisturbed. He leaned gently to the left, arching his head to look out of the second story window, down at the street the Linz unit was patrolling through. They were stopped two hundred meters away, the scene his hestatii had shown him earlier. It was strange to see something for real after four days of camera video.

    "One's stuck." The Jaraley explained to his partner.

    "I see." Breann was silence for a moment. "Is that a gunner or a 'tac' holding up their advance?"

    "Don't go down a rabbit hole right now." Jaraley finished his program, preparing the data packet for transmit to his hestatii. "Play the panther."

    "Prowling." Breann's response was followed by radio silence.

    Jaraley took a breath and looked over his digital map one last time. His awareness was heightened, his eyes dilating as he check and rechecked the placement of his 'squad'. He felt himself, felt his drones as they floated, felt the wind against his skin, imagined the sensations the little machines would feel. He scoured the digital screen for all information. He noted the space the drones occupied and the images they saw. He saw, heard, and felt the entire town. He was not a man with a remote control moving a score of robots through some structures. He was a panther, crouched in a tree, watching a sloth.

    Jaraley tightened his shoulders, flexing his claws slowly, baring his teeth gently in anticipation for blood. His trance was ruined for only a moment as he sent a message to his operations commander. The message carried his current 'sensation', the enemy position, and the program Jaraley had written to complete the attack.

    He waited for his plan to be approved, patiently maintaining his awareness of the battlefield. The answer came in the form of a logistical list. A wave of wirelessly transmitted energy would bathe the town in magnetically charged particles, which were soaked up by the drones once they expended all their current energy. His actions were sanctioned by command. He took a breath, his trance broken for a final time, as he pecked a button on the screen of his device. In a short burst of nigh undetectable radio waves, he sent the program to the hestatii.

    Five drones with 10mm weapons opened fire on full automatic from windows and blast holes, raining hundreds of metal fragments on the enemy unit. Linz soldiers scrambled frantically to find cover. Two were injured, crying helplessly as they bled in the street. The enemy returned fire blindly into the town, sowing wanton destruction with their clumsy energy weapons. Two drones were taken out, the particle beams and heat rifles of the sloth damaging or obliterating the drones. The three surviving drones withdrew into defilade unscathed.

    Jaraley focused on a cyborg. Two drones, perched side-by-side at the highest point in the town, fired a short burst together. The accurate cones of fire shredded the cyborg's legs from the knee down, and mutilated part of his right hand. He fell on the ground, bleeding and oozing, but still alive. The second cyborg withdrew into the dead-space of a building. No matter. Jaraley had time. He would snipe him eventually.

    The armored cars fired at the two drones on the high point, then zig-zagged their beams down the entire structure. Jaraley watched in disgust as the Linz army melted their own building, the beautiful structure warping and collapsing as it was blasted apart and melted at the same time.

    The scene was surreal, and Jaraley made a point to shifting a lesser engaged drone to observe the act of destruction. The beams tore huge 'trails' in the surface, sending rubble and debris everywhere. What remained after the beams had passed began to melt, slowly warping and collapsing in a disgusting display of raw, unrestrained power.

    Jaraley focused on his second heaviest drone, latched to the side of a structure far away and high above the enemy. He issied no commands- just waited for it to play it's part in the program. The 20mm auto cannon fired, sending high explosive anti-personnel rounds tearing into the enemy. The enemy had spread into the two buildings flanking the road as the rounds exploded in their midst. The armored cars angled their armored hulls to protect the infanry, their dangerous particle cannons lancing everything.

    A building, next to the one Jaraley was inside, was fired upon. The beam was close enough that he could hear its hum. His calm was broken for a moment, his attention split between accomplishing his mission and monitoring his unit, and a the image of a white hot beam melting stone.

    "They're getting close..." Breann reported gently.

    "Thank you." Jaraley pressed his mind back towards the battle. One last note to play. Six kilometers away, at the edge of the town, his triarii engaged. The massive drone tank fired it's 120mm cannon. The blast shook the entire town. The projectile traveled from the edge of the town, through the preplanned trajectory perfectly, into the side of it's target. The sabot round pierced into the side of the lead armored car. T

    The enemy vehicle jerked from the kinetic energy, two nearby soldiers falling on their faces from the shock-wave and reverberating metallic snap.

    "Help!" Breann's cry broke Jaraley's concentration completely, the voice ringing in his ear mic loudly. He jerked around towards it's origin, his reflex disrupting his perfectly aligned camouflage.

    Damn it. The fact that Breann had broke radio silence in the middle of an attack indicated an emergency. "I'm hit!" Of all the luck, in a town this big, with millions of possible origins of fire, the Linz and their clumsy weapons had actually found their mark. What stupid, blind luck.

    "Hide!" Jaraley yelled as he surged up from the prone, making a quick assessment of his gear as the world around him became suddenly real and immediate. He backed out of the room where he had stationed himself, coming into the hallway in the center of the building. His pancho glimmered for a momment, but quickly conceled him again. He felt his modular vest, ensuring the armor and pouches were in place. He secured his mich helmet tighter, and adjusted his hud over his eyes. Finally, with some reservation, he felt for his weapon. Hanging on his right hip, the 9mm sub-machine gun. Ready.

    Convinced he had it all, Jaraley looked at his tablet on his forearm, transmitting an emergency program into his hestatii.

    "Shockburst!" He yelled the program as he finished the transmission. "Lock them here." Every drone unmasked and fired, any semblence of subtlety discarded, traded for brazen firepower. The town transformed into a nightmare of reverberating gunfire and deafening echos, ricochets and snaps shredding all ambient noise. The Linz forces strove in vain against the machines, crying for help, and melting everything around them. As chaos descended, the Panther became the Boar.

    He began to run, vaulting down the stairs and sprinted silently through the small abandoned house, holding his poncho close to his body. He came to his exit, a blasted back door, pausing at the entrance to let the light pass over the pancho for a moment. Outside Jaraley could hear the battle, his hestatii assaulting the enemy wildly with automatic fire.

    Once his poncho had adjusted to the light, he surged into the street. He ran along the side of the buildings on the sidewalk beside the road. He ran southwest, a barely visible shade of movement. To the east the front of an armored car visible in the intersection. A 120mm round came within two meters of the armored car's surface. The vehicle's particle beam had seared the projectile out of the air at the last second. For all their brutality and obliviousness, Jaraley had to admire these soldier's in once the battle was in full swing.

    "There, up on that roof!" They were so close he could hear them. The Linz soldier screamed above the ehoces of fire, his voice barely audible from the structure he hid inside. Jaraley crossed the road as enemy voices shouted drone locations. An armored car crept forward, it's engine loud, its turret aimed upward.

    Jaraley strained his legs and hopped, entering a building through a broken window without breaking his stride. Once inside the structure he changed direction, sprinting through the building directly towards the concentration of enemy forces. He tightened his pancho around his body, the enemy force directly in front of him, outside in the roads and two buildings.

    Jeraley exited through a window facing his opponents, vaulting expertly through another empty frame again. To his left a concrete structure burned. He looked to his left as he sprinted, the particle cannon of an armored car deafening him as it seared only five meters above his head.

    Breann hadn't said anything in a while. Jaraley wanted to call his team mate, but it might reveal either of their positions. His heart was throbbing in his ears, his muscles tense, eyes searching for every angle as he planned his attack. He considered the risk he was taking. Layer the attack, pull away, and let the enemy fester. That was doctrine, and it worked. What he as about to do was brash and dangerous, but if he was going to save his comrade he could not passively confuse his enemy. He needed to tear away their focus completely.

    He reached into a pouch under his poncho, producing a small spool of metallic wire. The pancho concealed his form as he made his move. He noted the gravity of his actions, memory of his training instilling a sense of fear into his mind. Since he had landed on this planet, although he had observed dozens of drone skirmishes through a tablet screen, he had never once engaged a Linz soldier in direct combat.

    He was already there. In his stupid pondering his forward charge had already made a decision for him.

    Jaraley scaled the large tires of the armored car almost as fast as he was running, pulling himself up to the top of the hull. He landed beside the soldier on the back. The enemy was on a small radio, completely focused on guiding vehicles' beam across the target area. No situational awareness at all.

    He grasped the soldier by the back of the head and slammed his face into the back of the turret. The soldier's head bounced, lulling from side to side, his hands up by his ears. Jaraley wrapped the wire around the soldier's foot, then jumped off the vehicle, guiding the wire gently behind him as he sprinted. He was between the armored car and one of the buildings the main force of infantry occupied.

    Jaraley took a split second to catch his breath, then delved in. He leapt through a blast hole, landing right in front of a soldier. The woman's eyes widened with disbelief as Jaraley's wraithlike form shifted in front of her. She inhaled to yell. He smashed her throat with a quick jab, wrapped the wire around her wrist, then kicked her on the heel. She fell to her face on top of her rifle, Jaraley guiding the wire carefully so it had no tension; not yet.

    He scanned the room. Two entrances, two more soldiers firing out of windows. Neither had seen or heard him yet. He ran behind them, still undiscovered, to the entrance heading west into the building. As he stood in the door frame, he felt his weapon with his hand at his side, it's presence nagging at him. He paused in the doorway, looking at the two soldiers with their backs to him.

    "No." Jaraley pushed the weapon aside and wrapped both hands in wire, surging through the hallway. He passed a few doors on his right, finally coming to the west corner of the structure. He charged through the door.

    A soldier was staring straight at him, a small optic held up to his face. Another soldier was on the opposite side of the room aiming out a window, but was still looking back at the hallway. As Jaraley sprinted at the soldier facing him, he noted the strange smell of static in this room and the faint pale glow in the soldier's eyes. Jaraley had found his target. He had found the other cyborg.

    "Shit, right there!" The soldier at the window was looking right at Jaraley. He could not run any faster, raising the wire in his hand as he charged the cyborg. Calmly, and with strange quickness, the half-machine soldier dropped the optic and brandished his rifle under his arm tight against his body in an improvised firing stance. His expression was bland, his eyes robotic and emotionless. Jaraley was not close enough.

    The cyborg fired. Jaraley had moved in fast and was past the front of the muzzle. His poncho was not. He felt the heat as the shot seared away the back of his poncho, energy spalling melting the back of his web gear, pants, shirt, and flesh. Jaraley punched the cyborg's nose, but the soldier jerked back, stealing the power from the strike. Jaraley jerked the rifle from the cyborg's hands. The soldier let it go without struggling, reaching behind his back for an unseen weapon.

    The soldier in the window was turning his weapon towards Jaraley. It felt like time slowed down for a moment, as he was presented with a millisecond decision. He could still feel his weapon at his side, chaffing at his leg, its weight a constant reminder of it's power and effect on the battlefield. The cyborg was still drawing the weapon. Jaraley had practiced presenting the weapon a hundred times. The drill fresh in his mind, begging to be used.

    Jaraley looked past the demeanor of his enemy. Past the hard stance, military uniform, trained bravado, and actually looked at this half-human soldier. The childish fat was still present in the cheeks, the stature small and lanky. The person the cyborg was built around could not have been more than 16 years old

    It was the oldest enemy soldier Jaraley had seen today. "No." Jaraley proclaimed, out-loud, the answer to the question the enemy presented with him every day of this goddamn war.

    "Your philosophy is moving." Jaraley was shocked as the boy spoke to him calmly. The world around him shifted, becoming surreal and wavy. The window soldier was aiming at them both. "But, if you're not here to kill us..." The cyborg pulled a pistol from behind his back. "... Then you lost this war before you even started." Jaraley had been shot by a heat rifle earlier. Right?

    The cyborg snap-fired; Jaraley was already diving facedow to the floor. As he landed he thumbed the control on the spool. The entire line was electrified. The boy jerked and twitched as the wire Jaraley had wrapped around the boy's shoulder shocked him.

    The other two along the line would be getting shocked as well.

    Jaraley stood up and sprinted past the subdued cyborg. The soldier at the window chose not to melt everyone in the room with such a close range shot, opting instead to stand up and swing the butt-stock of his rifle. It was a clumsy, childish strike, but Jareley was angry. He was deafened by the cyborg's pistol shot and tired from sprinting so much. His response was unbridled and ruthless as he tackled the soldier with his shoulder.

    Blood smeared on the floor. His back hurt. Jaraley's legs weren't working right, and he tripped over his foe. The two fell into a heap together on the ground.

    Jaraley struggled against his enemy, breathing heavily as the soldier scrambled away. The damage to his back was starting to manifest, the pain slowly growing as he wrestled. He managed to wrest himself from the child on the ground, regaining some of his composure. "Help!" The soldier yelled at no one as Jaraley wrapped the wire around his hand, tying it off quickly. "Someone mark him-" The soldier was silenced as Jaraley slugged the child's mouth violently.

    Energizing the spool one last time stopped the soldier from fighting. Jaraley stumbled towards a wall as the two enemies shuddered and twitched. He walked towards what looked like a door. It would not open, but then again his hand wasn't even on the latch. He felt the pain again, and his vision suddenly blurred. It was not a door, it was a window.

    Idiot. As he leaned on his side against the window he remember something from his training, some distant memory of a lesson, or maybe a drill, about the effects of plasma weapons on human flesh. Tenatively, Jaraley reached behind his back. Breathing was not a rhythm anymore, but came in quick, spastic rasps. Where was his back? Had he stopped reaching. Come on Jaraley, wake up!

    His hand found a warm, wet mass of material. It did not feel like his poncho or uniform, and it did not feel like his skin. It was a new texture, smooth, mushy, and damp. He pulled his hand slowly to the front of his body, flapping his hand on a pouch on his stomach. His hands were numb. Jaraley looked at the two limp soldiers in the room with him, their breathing slow and gentle. The were moving so. Slowly.

    Jaraley finally pulled out a small syringe, made a mental note of resource expenditure, and stabbed the needle into his neck.

    "Kay, help me!" Hearing Breann's voice crack in pain combined with the weaponize, hyper-concentrated shot of methamphetamine into his head, and the hum of a particle beam as it seared into the room, galvanized Jaraley into action. As the Linz armored car melted the two children in the room, trying to get a fucking kill, Jaraley brandished his weapon for the first time in this 'war'.

    As the heat grew in the room behind him Jareley aimed it at the window and fired, blasting out the pane and frame with a burst of automatic fire. He crawled out of the opening- finally finding himself on the west side of the enemy structure. As the drugs surged into his brain, his battlefield awareness was brought to a godlike high, and he pissed himself in the street.

    "Hah!" Armored car surge forward, trying to gain an angle on him. "Calm down, lover boy!" As the big stupid car-thing rounded the corner, the soldier on top was yanked by his foot from the top of the car. Screams and cries rang from the building as the whole wire went taunt, the armored car clothes-lining at least three enemy soldiers, maybe more.

    The enemy was blind, his path was clear, and he was a god. The hestatii protected him as he ran the remaining five hundred meters to his partner. He was floating above his body as he ran, his consciousness sweeping from point of view to point of view. He tried to look at his digital map, but quickly discovered that he had become a drone, hovering gently, pooping little wireless energy farts in the space time- shutup!

    Jaraley found himself inside a small warehouse. He was a 10mm equiped drone, sitting ten meters from Breann. He rotated his small body on its axis, adjusting airjets and stabilizers gently. He faced his old friend, noting his position beneath an enormous beam scar. Linz fire had seared the top of the warehouse away, leaving the metal walls misshapen and melted.

    Breann lay on his side in the fetal position with his blackened poncho wrapped around him, molten metal still bubbling on the edges of the impact area. Breann's body sizzled quietly, shivering against unseen cold.

    Jaraley cried and forced his mind away from idiotic fantasies. He sprinted harder than ever, his own wounded body finally approaching the warehouse. Somehow, the beam scar was more terrifying to look at in person, hot and smelly as he ran through it. Breann's body was awful to see, the stench of cooked meat sapping Jaraley's will.

    "Breann!" His voice sounded far too weak.

    "Here, Kay." Breann's voice was weak as Jaraley knelt close to him. Breann had a syringe in his neck too, his eyes dilated and quivering. "I'm sorry. They spotted me."

    "Don't talk." Jaraley was elated to find his partner's head undamaged. He was only burned. Terribly, completely burned, but his head seemed fine. "We'll be fine." Jaraley was half talking to himself.

    The pain was more real than ever as Jaraley hoisted Breann's warped form onto his own melted back. "Where are the rest of your squad?" Not a real squad. Drones. Jaraley would have given anything just to have a real team. He was tired of machines and children.

    "I set them into a connecting file leading out of the town-Augh!" Breann grunted and cursed as Jaraley wrapped what was left of their ponchos around their mutilated bodies. "I wanted to be ready..." Breann was struggling with the words, his eyes clenched tight, tears streaming. "... For retreat."

    Jaraley carried his wounded partner out of the town, leaving the decapitated enemy unit to fester and die under a constant barrage of fire. The Linz army melted one of their own towns, the Earth invaders long gone by the time the drones ran out of energy and ammo. The scent of ozone and molten concrete delayed them even longer.
    Lifeline likes this.