Living on borrowed time
"Flatten the cat!
Don't say that!
Maybe a rat?
I'll get the bat!"
Kirsten couldn't believe what she was seeing. Her tiny eyes struggled to focus as she peered through a gap in the rusty old container. Her nine-year old frame could barely take another second balancing on her straining bare toes, but she was mesmerised by the view. Another child was tugging on her oversized dungarees, but she payed no atttention. She could see all the way down to where the front gate used to be, and even at that distance, the monster appeared to be larger than life.
Instead of being fearful like the other children, Kirsten was in awe of the creature. She had never seen anything so beautiful. Even the holoboard projections advertising their flashy mechs and vehicles high up in the SCELEC sky couldn't compare to a real-life, angelic class, alpha-mech turning up on her front door.
The sound of children trying to stifle their breath after running hard permeated the whole stack of containers. Kirsten was wheezing too, but continued to whisper her little hunger poem to herself convinced that it was not a coincidence, that the synchronicity was a sign that her prayers had finally been answered.
The grubby-faced, five-year-old girl sporting short-cropped, blonde curls tugging at Kirsten's clothes whined, "It's my turn. Let me see."
Valerie quickly snapped her up in her arms and moved the little girl to the back of the container away from the doors. "You don't need to see what's happening out there Danika. We'll be able to go outside again when it's safe."
A boy sitting on the floor of the container spoke without lifting his head, "Don't flatten the cat," said Omar as if he was in a trance.
An older boy looked over at Omar and said, "Who asked you anything Omar?" Dmitri couldn't hide his jealousy towards Omar's exclusive connection with the Voice. He was always trying to put him down any way he could.
"That's enough," said Valerie, "What were you trying to say Omar? Something about the cat."
"The Voice... it says... don't flatten the cat." Omar had to overcome his usual shyness. He felt it was an important moment. A time to speak up. Like when Grace asked him if the Voice has spoken to him that day. He was only seven and had never known his parents. Freemechs had taken care of him, moving from camp to camp until he ended up here under Valerie's wing. That's when he'd started to notice the Voice rising softly in his mindspace, as if it was waking up. At first, he thought he was going mad, like others that had contracted the sickness. It was only when Valerie had persuaded Omar to open up about why he was being quieter than usual that he'd broken down in tears and poured everything out. Valerie had hugged him telling him not to worry and that Grace would know what to do, but Grace had had to overcome her initial skepticism before she could accept that Omar wasn't making things up. She had seen other children in her care go through this period too, a time when imaginary friends, ghosts, angels and aliens would become part of daily conversation until parents had had their fill of playing along.
Kirsten finally dropped her stance and sat next to Omar. She held his hand and said, "Don't worry. We're not going to flatten the cat. He's a friend. And he's here to help us. I just know it."
Omar began to tremble as tears welled up in his eyes. "That's what the Voice said."
"Shhh. Quieten down now children. I'm sure Captain Rose has everything under control." Valerie held little Danika in her lap and fixed her unblinking gaze on the container doors wondering if today would be her last day on Earth.
Kalen stood in front of the beast making sure to stay beyond the range of its impressively long tail as it swished back and forth menacingly. A stubby, Krill-class combat rifle aimed directly at the beast's head filled his hands. Two Magma bolt pistols hung from holsters that were loosely slung around his hips. Over his shoulder, a bandolier stuffed with rolling EMP grenades made him look like an old-world Pistolero in a Mexican standoff.
Underneath the tatty orange jumpsuit covering his body from the neck down, his exo-machinery began to hum as his senses shifted into a state of maximum alert. There was no way he was going to be caught out by one of these things again. If need be, he would put it down before it had a chance to unleash carnage.
"Did you know about this?" Kalen sub-vocalized hoping the Voice would offer some guidance.
"I was about to inform you of the new arrival, but there was..." The Voice didn't get a chance to finish.
"INFORM ME?" Kalen shouted as if he was alone. "How about giving us a little more heads up next time, huh. This thing… the ICU, I take it you sent it?"
"Yes. He's fully operational. Equipped with light tactical mods. His restraints have been lifted. He's on our side Kal." That was the first time the Voice had used the shortened form of his name. Was he trying to butter him up?
"Jesus. You know my history with these things. Wasn't there anything else you could have thrown our way?" Kalen growled glaring at the feline machine unable to hide his disgust.
A vent opened on the beast's back and a sharp hiss escaped as if relieving internal pressure. Then it spoke with authority. "Captain Kalen Rose, my name is Duty. I was the commander of a squad of Interdiction Combat Units in the Sao Paolo sector when the bombs dropped and the signal went dead. I have been reconfigured and no longer require the signal to modulate my behavior. Technically speaking, I should be considered a Freemech now."
Kalen shook his head. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. ICUs becoming Freemechs. That was about as likely as Falcon class, high-altitude dropships being converted for use as taxicabs.
"But you can hear the Voice? Freemechs can't hear it. No Dust. No Voice." Kalen questioned.
"Yes. That's right. I have a Dust module software upgrade. I'm a hybrid of sorts, I suppose."
The large, cat-like robot's single amber eye-ring shone with increasing intensity. "We don't have much time Captain. It would be best for all the inahabitants of this camp if you put aside your feelings towards my kind and collaborate with me to ensure the success of this mission."
Kalen lowered his pulse rifle, shook his head again, and snorted, "OK. Alright. Lets do this. What are we looking at?"
"Evacuation team and clean up crew. SCELEC authorisation code 333. Buzz drones, Rollers, followed by Slavers. You know the drill – disrupt, capture and transfer. I need your best combat-capable personnel to take up strategic defensive positions around the camp. We need to cover the main entrance and form a cordon around the vulnerable."
"All I can do is arm some of these mechs." He nodded to the volunteer Freemechs behind him ready to load up from the truck. "The rest are already locked down and secure at the far end of the camp. It's the best we can do. We have these heavy lifters, but I'm not sure they're much use. Not exactly combat-capable, but you never know. I thought I'd seen everything, but then here you are. Guess I need to be open to all possibilities."
"I myself am learning as I go Captain. This is certainly a novel experience for me too. I will do my best to keep casualties to a minimum."
"Sounds good to me. You know about Grace?"
"As much as I need to," Duty responded with caution.
"She's top priority. Not the kids. Not the elderly. Her. Do you understand?" It was Kalen's turn to assert himself.
The Voice interrupted. "Kalen. Duty. I'm picking up a signal. Looks like you won't have time to prepare. Defend the front gate as best you can. You must not fail. I have other mission objectives to attend to that cannot wait so I will be comms silent from now on."
"Well, that's just great." Kalen said sardonically.
Overhead, the unmistakable sound of the first aerial scout, a Seeker drone, could be heard. Kalen took aim and as soon as the drone appeared brought it down with a single burst from his pulse rifle, sparks flying and fizzing in all directions like a mini firework display.
Then another two. He dealt with them as efficiently as he had the first. Duty had already repositioned himself facing the front entrance ready for anything that dared to breach it. Kalen knew from experience that a sortie of buzz drones would follow the initial aerial reconnaissance any time soon. He would have to improvise.
Pointing at the sky, he shouted at the top of his lungs, "FLYBOY! YOU AND YOUR BROTHERS ARE GOING TO HAVE TO COVER US FROM THE SKY. GET UP THERE AND DEAL WITH THOSE BUZZ DRONES. POKE THEIR EYES OUT IF YOU HAVE TO!"
Without hesitation Flyboy responded, "Understood Captain. Don't worry. We got your back."
In an instant Flyboy and his brothers Carlito and Max shot up into the sky and took up defensive positions, strong gripper tentacles emerging from under their bellies.
Turning to the Freemechs standing behind the truck, Kalen barked yet more orders, "Grab the rifles and pistols out of the bags, flip the safety switch to off, then point your weapons at anything that comes through or over the main entrance, and keep pulling the trigger until they stop coming. Take cover behind the truck and anything else you can find. Under no circumstances can the intruders get to Grace. Is that clear?"
"Loud and clear," said Bob, a tall Freemech with dark skin, piercing blue eyes, and a strikingly untarnished silver and gold-colored body shell. Bob must have belonged to some higher-ups in the old world, before the Change, probably a master butler or head of security. He appeared to be perfectly in his element taking charge of the situation, handing out the weapons to his fellow Freemechs and telling them to fan out so the entrance would be covered from all angles.
Maya looked on at the unfolding drama through the cracked windows of prefab office building Number 2, just in front of Number 1 where Grace was holed up with her personal bodyguards. She'd seen combat, been involved in search and rescue, and even taken part in secretive strike and sabotage missions during the war, but she'd never felt as nervous as she did now. She'd never been directly responsible for the lives of so many children and elderly folk who all looked to her for protection. It was a whole other ball game, she thought.
Billy was over by the front door scratching, sniffing and growling, letting out the occasional yelp frustrated that he wasn't on the front line with Kalen. It's as if he could sense what was coming and his duty was to be at his master's side.
SEAN sat motionless in the center of the large open-plan room occasionaly buzzing to himself as if in deep meditation.
The sound of whimpering and the smell of urine filled the air inside the cabin as some of the children and one of the adults couldn't contain their fear any longer. Maya checked her Magma bolt pistol for the third time. It was a powerful weapon capable of stopping a Slaver dead in its tracks. The gun used tiny, self-replicating bolts as ammo so there was no need to reload during combat, but occasionaly she would have to pause to allow the gun to cool off. A couple of black, cylindrical grenades sat expectanctly on the table next to her as a last resort, but she was hopeful that Kalen and the powerful-looking cat monster would save her from having to become the last line of defence.
Duty took up point some way back from the entrance, but in full view of it. His strong titanium paws were firmly planted in the dirt, his legs slightly splayed in full defensive stance. Whatever ground troops turned up from that direction would have to go through him first.
Suddenly, a squadron of buzz drones rushed into the camp's airspace with devastating speed. Their high-powered thrusters screamed and howled like the sound of tortured animals. Maybe that was the intention as they terrorised their victims, swooping down on them like a swarm of rabid harpies.
Flyboy immediately swung into action ramming the lead buzz drone head on sending it careening like a whirling dervish. The metallic green, Scarab-class drone buzzed and whined as it tried to regain its balance, but Flyboy was already coming in for a second round. Using his powerful grippers, he latched on and twisted and pulled with all his strength. A strut made a snapping sound as it bent out of shape and the drone let out a high-pitched whine. Flyboy barely avoided getting singed by its thrusters as he let go and the drone spun awkwardly towards the ground at high speed without having fired a single shot.
Flyboy's brothers dealt with the remaining drones in similar fashion quickly learning the manoeuvre from his own fearless demonstration.
Kalen watched as the camp's heavy lifters attacked the aerial invaders like crows bombarding a cast of hawks. He was pleased with their performance, but knew that more would arrive, adapting their strategy on the fly with every new wave.
As if on cue, the next drone attack stormed in low, skimming the camp walls to evade the aerial defenders. Kalen and his recently ordained squad of Freemechs opened fire, volleys of pulse rounds filling the air over their heads. The buzz drones were fast, but not invincible under heavy fire. A few exploded and fell to the ground. The rest made it through the blanket of gunfire deploying a raised array of pods on either side of their body riddling anything that moved with lethal fast-repeater rounds. Some of the Freemechs began taking damage, but they showed no sign of backing down.
With the next attack wave, a new type of drone carrying incendiary grenades lit up the camp setting fire to clothing, organic matter, plastic water containers, crates and anything else that was combustible. A tiny grenade landed a few yards away from where Kalen was now taking cover behind the truck. He turned his back to it just before it unleashed is fiery contents, spraying his orange coverall from the waist down. It caught fire and the flames began creeping up his back. Dropping his rifle, he ripped at the weak fabric from head to toe until he was free of it, stamping on the remains until they were a pile of embers and ash.
Picking up his rifle again, he now unashamedly sported his true second skin. His charcoal-colored exosuit covered in fine silver detailing from top to bottom immediately reduced his body temperature and injected a heavy dose of a narcotic that granted Kalen an extreme level of focus. The suit's silver helmet slid out of the housing panel on his back and wrapped around his head and face like a glove. A row of tiny blue lights lit up at the level of his eyes and yet more did the same down the length of his spinal chord. Sunlight bounced off the shiniest parts of his suit like it was a brand new car.
Jumping out from behind the truck, Kalen trained his sights on one of the buzz drones causing havoc. The Freemech named Bob was under attack. Bob ran, took a hit, stumbled and fell, but got back up, damaged, but not beaten. He made it to cover as Kalen pulled the trigger several times in rapid succession, slingshot rounds speeding to their targets, electrocuting them, bringing them down, fizzing and blinking on the ground like convulsing animals.
Duty tracked a buzz drone as it flew by and leapt into the air swatting at it with his powerful limbs, retractable electro-blade claws shooting out at the last moment to hook it, but missed. He landed perfectly and immediately positioned himself to take on the next threat. Kalen swiveled and shot down the drone that had escaped Duty's claws. Two more drones had broken through to the other side of the camp. They were beyond his reach and Flyboy and his brothers were unable to intervene due to the risk of crossfire at ground level.
He watched as a group of Freemechs rushed out of the buildings at the back of the camp to defend the humans as best they could, to no avail. It was carnage. Unarmed, the Freemechs adopted a defiant stance blocking the flurry of projectiles with their own bodies. Their thick, rubberized skins held up pretty well at first, then started to rip apart, revealing the underlying layers of electro-polymers and metal that made up their inner workings. Eventually, they fell to the ground, the light going out of their eyes.
There was no time to mourn. Kalen scrambled over to where Duty was holding his ground, poised and ready for the next wave. Before he could reach him, a squad of humanoid Slavers rushed through the gates, taking up offensive positions, pulse rifles at the ready, closely followed by a pod of Scorpions. Overhead, Kalen could hear the roar of a large attack drone – a UH-17 – dropping into position above the camp.
Holy shit. What the hell was going on here? This was not a Capture and Transfer operation. This was an extermination squad. And Grace was almost certainly the prime target.
Kalen dropped his rifle and unholstered both of his Magma bolt pistols. In dual-wield mode, he backed off firing precision shots at the Slaver units, each round causing severe damage to their outer shell.
"PULL BACK! GET BEHIND COVER!" Kalen yelled.
Duty held his position. His aggressively designed outer shell began to shimmer with pearlescent waves of energy. His head dipped slightly and a port opened up on his back. Out of it slid a compact, heavy plasma rifle charged and ready to fire. Before the first Scorpions had a chance to set up position and unleash their payloads, Duty fired off a volley of rounds that stopped them in their tracks. The Scorpions shuddered to a halt as if waiting for orders.
Duty's commanding voice boomed over the hubbub. "TURN BACK OR I WILL BE FORCED TO DESTROY YOU."
The RGUs or Rolling Ground Units appeared to pause as if weighing up the options. Only a second later, the first one opened up its lateral gun pods and fired directly at Duty missing him by an inch on either side.
Duty responded as quickly as his order had been disobeyed. His acquisition systems had already lined up the targets as soon as they had appeared. The rifle on his back unleashed bursts of devastating plasma energy until all the Scorpions were reduced to piles of smoldering metal and graphene, blackened smoke rising up from where they had stood only seconds ago.
Screams rose up from the rear of the camp. Children and elderly panicked as the buildings caught fire. Thick smoke forced them out into the open and they scattered in all directions. The Freemechs turned to face the incoming threat picking up whatever makeshift weapons they found lying on the ground - metal pipes, bricks, a sledgehammer, an axe…
Maya lead the children out of prefab office Number 2 with Billy and SEAN in tow. Billy immediately tore down the slope bobbing and weaving through the burning debris, barking at anything that looked like an enemy.
Maya gathered her group into a huddle, told them to stay low, then stood in front of them defiantly with her pistol raised towards the oncoming Slavers. There was nowhere else to go. Grace's quarters were off bounds and she was beginning to resent that. What was so special about Grace that meant the children came second?
Grace was watching the unfolding drama from a large screen inside the control room of the Human Preservation Camp. A handful of her most loyal Freemech allies guarded the doors of the compound. All they had was a few pulse pistols among them with which to keep the enemy at bay, but each and every one of them would lay down their lives to protect Grace. She knew this too, and yet she felt a strong urge to get outside with the others and fight by any means necessary to defend the camp and all that they had worked for. It was irrational, irresponsible, and would put others at risk. She had to suffocate these urges for the greater good. She understood that now. She had order. Her long conversations with the Voice using Omar as a go-between had carved a path and she was determined to follow it to the bitter end, come what may.
The Sentients and their Slavers were obviously not playing by the rules anymore. They were using lethal rounds, so Kalen's next objective was to match and even surpass the destructive capability of their weapons with what he had at hand. Duty had his plasma cannon and he wasn't about to be left behind taking on Slavers and Scorpions with a couple of pea-shooters. It was time to unleash hellfire on these pieces of trash.
Kalen picked up a harness from the back of the truck, swung it over his shoulders and snapped the buckle shut. He pulled out a folded, short-barreled combat shotgun, flicked it open, and loaded the acid-round cartridge with the cold efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Rounds whizzed through the air around him, but he ignored the tumult. He was in the zone. Next, he grabbed a heavy-duty, Krill-class plasma pistol and slammed it into the front holster on the harness.
A Slaver round hit him square in the shoulder making him step back. His suit absorbed the impact. He raised his shotgun and fired in the direction of the attack, then confidently walked towards the Slavers taking cover to the left-hand side of the camp entrance. He took more hits as he picked off the first Slaver unit, blasting it back into the wall. Another unit unexpectedly ran up to him catching him off guard. Kalen's electro-blade, short-sword implant immediately slid out of its housing and he punched it firmly up into the Slaver's chin. The Slaver convulsed and dropped like a rag-doll as Kalen smoothly lined up the next target. He released a couple of seeker grenades and they sped towards the Slavers pouring through the entrance, turning them to junk as soon as they were within range.
Having dispatched all of the Scorpions, Duty moved in on the Slaver units that had taken up positions on the right hand flank. Like a bull, he charged head-on mowing down Slavers and tossing them in the air, ripping them to shreds with his claws as they fell back down. Some tried to retreat, but his tail pierced their armor and sent powerful electrical storms through their bodies instantly rendering them useless.
Up above, in the smoke-filled sky, Flyboy, Carlito and Max were making minced meat of the UH-17, ripping away whole chunks of its armor and disabling the air-to-ground weapons systems before they could do any damage. The aerial tank bellowed like a dying whale as it began to tip over and veer off course. Then a whooping alarm started up as it reached a point of no return. It had sustained too much critical damage and could not guarantee the safety of anything on the ground directly below it.
Flyboy noticing its descent signalled to his brothers and together they pushed the UH-17 beyond the perimeter of the camp at which point its gravity-well generator failed and the crippled machine smashed into the ground sending a spectacular fireball and thick black smoke mushrooming high into the sky.
Slavers that had made their way up and around the sides of the camp's defences were now flanking Maya and her pseudo-brood. She did her best to keep them at bay while the Freemechs rushed the yellow-suited Slavers with their melee weapons, hacking and slashing even as they sustained heavy fire.
Suddenly Maya let out a gasp and buckled. A Slaver round smashed through the femur on her right leg. She managed to turn and shoot the culprit in the face before collapsing to the ground.
SEAN, who had been twitching nervously for the duration of the battle, as if unsure how to respond to the mayhem, made his way to the front of the group, extended his bright-blue tentacles to their full extent like a peacock displaying its tail, and put up a shimmering, dome-like barrier around Maya and the humans she had sworn to protect.
His barrier sent Slaver rounds bouncing off in all directions. Inside the bubble, a Freemech stabilised Maya and put pressure on her leg wound. She cried out, then grimaced, as one of the grubby children knelt beside her and held her hand tightly.
Kalen and Duty were now making their way up the slope with Flyboy and his brothers watching their backs. The onslaught had been stymied... for now. Kalen picked off the remaining Slavers mercilessly, allowing SEAN to retract his barrier. As soon as he saw Maya on the ground, he ran to her, his helmet folding back into its housing and revealing his face.
"I'll be OK," she managed. "Go check on the children round the back."
Billy ran up the slope making a beeline for Maya and started licking her face. Maya recoiled but appreciated the sympathy.
"Are you sure?" Kalen checked Maya all over for any further damage.
"I'm fine. You go. They need you."
Kalen made his way round the back of prefab office Number 2 where Maya had been holed up. A crowd of people and Freemechs were standing in an open circle between the offices and the stack of containers. On the ground lay the burned and badly damaged bodies of about ten children and three elderly adults. They were still alive but barely able to move or make a sound. Grace was on her knees next to them, looking on, but unable to help in any way. Valerie was carrying Danika in her arms. Kirsten, Omar and Dmitri hid behind her sobbing and trying not to look at their dying friends.
Kalen moved up. He knew what he had to do. Placing a hand on Grace's shoulder, he made a silent gesture as if saying he would take care of it. Grace understood and told the others to make their way out into the clearing. Once he was on his own, Kalen got down on one knee and placed his hand on the side of the first victims neck. It was the old man with long white hair and no teeth. His eyes were begging for peace. Kalen put him to sleep permanently and said, "Time to rest old man."
Then he went down the line and did the same for every child lying on the ground knowing that there was nothing he could do for them except end their pain.
Grace had come back without Kalen noticing and she watched as the life went out of their bodies knowing that this was all her fault. If she hadn't been so stubborn, these children could have had a chance at survival in one of the outer camps away from the hub. She would carry this pain and suspected that this was probably only the beginning of yet more pain to come.
Kalen walked over to her with tears in his eyes and said as carefully as he could, "Don't try to understand it. Just know that pain is a powerful teacher. Use it for good. In time it will pass."
Grace nodded and they walked back down to join the others. The camp was smoldering in ruins after the assault. A fire was still blazing where the UH-17 had fallen. The children were sitting around stunned, in shock. Freemechs with badly burned body shells, one of them missing an arm, attended to the wounded humans.
Bob, barely able to walk and blind in one eye, limped up to Kalen and said, "Thank you sir."
Kalen kindly accepted the gesture of gratitude as the Voice entered his mindspace. "It appears we've had a slight change of plans."
To which Kalen replied, "You don't say."