The fourpad exploded, chunks of meat flying and a burst of hot blood. It died silently, the beast with the tufted swirl on his head, and oddly enough, that was I thought about as I tumbled free of the statrifle blast’s hot scorching.
I liked him, dammit.
I was buffered. The fourpad wasn’t.
I tumbled through the Trapp field just before it turned crystalline-solid, reacting to the statblast. That’s the great thing about them — if you have the power to waste, that type of field will immediately react to stat, projectile fire, and plasma. Of course, anyone who throws plasma at a Trapp field has to be prepared for the plas to yank on all available energy in its vicinity and rebound on the one who fired it. A nice bonus, but again, you had to have the power to burn. If you could link one of them to a solar complex big enough you could have your own impregnable enclave — and you’d need it full of cheap labor, too, just to keep the solarcatchers working.
Hit with a crunch, reinforced bones bending instead of snapping, tumbling over roots and tile-hard brownhusked vines. Now that I was through the shimmer, intake feeds and scans crackled into life, a breaker of hideous feedback before I adjusted, already scrambling with my feet underneath me. Channels both encrypted and non, high chatter and a massive thrumming, ionization and statrepeller fields contributing their own special burning tinge to air I’d grown used to smelling only sap and animals in.
Geoff screamed, a high piercing cry. Two of the second-gens had gotten through before the shimmer hardened, and the others — how many, couldn’t tell, had they picked up their fourth member? Could they survive a probe through the chest cavity? In any case, they would be through as soon as the Trapp field cycled back down. The fourpads bolted, their claw-pad feet throwing up dirt and glistening chunks of vines, furrowing deep pale scars as they decided anywhere was better than here.
I didn’t blame them.
Sam blurred, tumbled free of his fourpad and rolling. Geoff still clutched the reins of his own fear-maddened beast, and his curly head bobbed as he held on for dear life with his knees, hunching down and curling his fingers in a handful of mane as well.
I almost, almost streaked after him. It would be simple to catch the fourpads, and Sam’s held all his gear. The plasma cannon was in Geoff’s pack, broken apart for easier transport — at least we didn’t have to worry about it getting crushed and its core reacting with the Trapp field.
It would take them a little while to deal with Sam. That was enough time for both Geoff and me to get away.
A crackle, another sizzle, and a thump. I whirled, moss flying from my hair. I was already in the air, committed to my leap, before I thought about what I was doing.
The blond had a lectricshiv, shoved deep in Sam’s belly. My handler twitched a kick, a knee breaking with a greenstick crack, and the other second-gen — the one with bones in his hair, clacking as he moved — had Sam’s arms pinned. The tactic was pretty clear: tear him in half.
It wasn’t anything Sam wouldn’t recover from, unless they put his halves on either side of the Trapp barrier. But still. It was the principle of the thing.
Using principles to justify what you want now, agent? That’s a bad sign.
A snap-kick as I landed, throwing the bone-haired monstrosity into the barrier. The shimmering crackled, and the second-gen howled, his face twisted up into purple pleats and valleys, those teeth gleaming as they snapped together with a heavy, sickeningly familiar sound.
The blond launched himself at me, his navy shocktrooper gear sadly mangled both from combat and the rot of the Vines. They must have been following us for a while, and Geoff’s immunity to the moss and resinous drippings might not be completely shared.
I had no knife but I was ready, and more than ready, I had them calculated. They were fast, yes. Brutal, yes. Very durable, too.
But they were stupid.
Dropping, my foot flickering up to sink into the blond’s abdomen and help him on his merry way, with a little twist at the end to hopefully toss him near the curvature of the shimmer-field. Which crackled afresh — had some idiot on the other side hit it with another stat jolt? It would keep this section of the field locked down, impermeable.
Amateurs. Knees pulled in, a reverse somersault, uncoiling and touching down on a tangle of vines, one of my boots almost disintegrating from rot and stress. Didn’t matter, I was already in the air again as the bone-haired no-longer-warmbody — what the hell did you call these things, anyway, other than terms from other fairytales and old moldering pre-War legends? In any case, he slid down the inside of the shimmerfield, his clothes smoke-steaming. Sam was already on his feet again, tearing the lectricshiv free of his belly with one contemptuous, fluid motion, spinning it to hold reversed along his forearm. Nanos swarmed, silver crawling among the blood and a grayish looping dangle of intestine sucking itself back in, and I caught a long hank of bone-studded hair. Landed, set my heels and yanked, but the second-gen had his wits about him and just dropped, twisting fluidly to strike at my belly. The punch might have gone right through me, but you could tell he was used to tearing apart warmbodies. No real challenge, no reason for him to hone his enhanced strength. Battering ram only works if your strength is unmatched.
Hand blurring down, caught his wrist, reflexes loosening my left knee and using the power of his strike to pull him past me, spinning him with the force he so helpfully provided.
A childhood spent dodging other runners and a career outthinking other agents and heavily implemented warmbodies with more than two brain cells to rub together was great practice for this. I broke his neck again, arms closing around his shoulders in a hug, my knees in his back, and from there it was only a fractional application of force to change direction just a touch, slinging myself down and around like a stat-crawling wreckball on a crane for slum renewal, and his spine gave way with a defeated snap.
I wasn’t finished yet. Oh no. I heard another howl — the blond, but I couldn’t worry about Sam just yet. If he kept the other one occupied for a few seconds I could finish this.
Warmbody flesh, even enhanced with whatever they’d tinkered with to make Geoff and these awful cousins of his, parts so easily. I just had to hook my fingers and drag, and viscera spilled wetly out. That was just to keep him down, though, because my other hand curled around his nape. For a moment we were nose to nose, his rank breath spilling past my parted lips, those teeth snapping fruitlessly — he got a mouthful of my hair and sheared it, a whole moss-laden chunk — while my hand cramped closed, a vise whose two prongs found the edge between the cervicals and the diagonal of the sternocleidomastoids, puncturing ruthlessly and diving between nerve cables, I had a grip on the cervical spine itself and hauled, bone splintering and puncturing my own skin.
Didn’t matter. Hauled again, finding just the right rotation to work the cable free without snapping it, and the cry that burst out of me when I tore the top half of the motherfucker’s spine free, whipping it behind me with a spatter of blood, trailing nerve-strings, and flying moss, was another echo from the beginning of warmbody history.
We don’t ever change biology. We just build on top of it, like a whole new brain folded around a lizard-stem.
I was on my feet again, spinning as my naked heel slipped, and I saw Sam in a loose easy crouch, wrenching back the blond’s head as he sawed at the neck with the lectricshiv. Its blade spat and hissed, glowing blue-white and cauterizing. With a final crack and a heave, he wrenched the head free, and tossed it aside. Nerve-death took over, the body bucking and kicking, and gouts of blood cooked on the lectricshiv’s blade and the Trapp field, smoke-steaming and sending up a heavy copper reek.
Look at that. Wonder if that’ll really kill them.
Sam’s face was a pale dish, spattered with blood. His shirt flapped as he moved, blurring, and the crack of him ripping the second-gen’s arm from its socket was shortly followed by another. More gushing and welling, splatting heavily. How much blood did they hold?
Just like the tiny pinprick insects who buried their head in your skin and tried to suck. The nanos made me impervious, and Geoff simply brushed them off. Like the sap, and the clouds of midges.
Sam glanced at me. A silent snarl, lips pulled back from gleaming implemented teeth, and it was the first time, in years of meeting him in anonymous restaurants and back alleys and the weeks of out-City traveling, that I actually saw him.
I wasn’t always a facilitator, Jess.
It had to be true.
The moment passed. He tossed the other arm aside, carelessly, and stood. A quick stamp, ribs snapping like branches, slivers of bone flying. He snapped a look at the Trapp field, beginning to lose its crystalline hardness. “Not a lot of time.”
“They were going to tear you in half.”
“They intended to try. Why did you stop them?”
Can you guess? “Maybe I just want to kill you myself.”
“Thanks. I think.”
“Mom!” Geoff’s piping cry brought me around again. He’d managed to get the fourpads under control. “There’s more of them!”
Sam’s hand clamped around my arm. “Get to Zion. Hide, but don’t go down below. I’ll deal with them.” I almost twitched away. “Okay?”
I hesitated. Flickers of movement past him, outside the shimmerfield. “There’s at least a half-dozen. You’re not implemented for this.”
He shrugged, the doors of his face slamming shut. Just like a facilitator. “Jess. Go.”
The fourpads sidled and made their nervous noises when I arrived in a blur next to them. I swung up on Sam’s, and Geoff, deathly pale, stared over his shoulder. “I can hear them,” he whispered. “They don’t want us. They want him.”
“They’re going to get their wish,” I muttered, my knees clamping home as Sam’s cantankerous fourpad decided he might as well try to take charge of the situation. “Come on.”
“We can’t just—” Geoff swallowed audibly when I glanced at him. Behind us, the Trapp field hummed, its resonance losing the sharp clarity of solidity.
“Come on.” I kneed the fourpad forward, and Geoff’s followed. They picked up into a shattering, ungainly jog, and I heard more crackling and ripping sounds behind us.
We moved faster.
Zion was built around the trees, and up them. The Trapp generators were mostly underground, but their humped backs rose almost to the canopy, the couplings atop them sending up a column of faint shimmer that reached a ceiling defined by Martell’s Equations and umbrella’d out and down. The result was a rough circle, its surface area a bit larger than the average township — but they used every tree-thing’s trunk and the network of thick vines to hold sheets of processed resin and build up, making almost-translucent walls. The ceilings and floors were tinted to make them darker, and detritus from outside the Vines had made its way even here. Pressboard, plasilca fragments, gutted transport hulls cradled in tree-things that had probably been planted right after the Wars.
Comchatter. The faint thunderous sound of conversation, echoes bouncing through the trees. The resin walls and windows glowed amber — lectric was free here, another benefit of the Trapp generators. There was little in the way of trash — maybe, I thought, everything was used or tossed into the generators’ cores. The geothermals provided energy and to spare, but it was like the nanos — why make what you depended on for survival work harder than it absolutely had to?
There were no defenses. No statcannons, not even a guard perimeter. Geoff and I plunged into a labyrinth of passages on the outskirts, and a fine mist drifted down from sprayers far overhead. My vision blurred slightly before the nanos analyzed and blocked it. Interesting. Chem signature there… they make this from the resin too. No wonder they don’t need defenses. A few minutes of this and any warmbody will be too happy-dappy to fight.
“It smells funny.” Geoff’s nose squinched up. “Wet. Nasty.”
“Mild narcotic.” A shudder ran through me as the nanos finished dispelling it. “Do you feel sleepy?”
He shook his head. “It just smells weird.” But he yawned, hugely. A tired child, the tips of his sharp white teeth flashing once. “You think they’ll kill him?”
“Maybe.” And I won’t be there to put him back together. The commchatter kept going, and I squinted. Crowd noises, but I saw nobody. My scans came back negative, too. The confusing haze from the resinous windows, refracting and filtering scans in weird fractals, didn’t help.
“I don’t…” Geoff swayed. I put out a hand to brace him. “Huh. Funny.”
Fuck. This was all wrong. There was crowd-sound, and commchatter, but my scans didn’t show a blessed thing. The lack of litter began to bother me even more. Not so much as a wrapper or a dropped spanner to mar the vine-tangled forest floor. Moss hung in great sheets, and the further we penetrated the tangle, the more my unease sharpened.
It was almost a relief to come around a corner, Geoff straightening and shaking off the narcotic haze, and see a human shape.
Except it wasn’t. It was an agent, all in black, with a black wide-brimmed hat straight out of Cris Zifter holos. Male, a little taller than Sam, wide shoulders and my scans pinging on weird modifications in his nanoprofile. The tingle of being scanned in return slid over my skin, and my fourpad pushed forward, Geoff halting and staring at this apparition with the dark, fear-dilated eyes I thought we’d left behind in the desert.
The agent spread his hands, and his wide white smile was enough to warn me. I yanked back on the reins, reaching stupidly for where my statrifle would have been on my own saddle, my fingers closing on empty air because my favorite fourpad had been vaporized.
Shit. Time to get creative.
Geoff made no sound when I hit. I tried to be gentle, both of us down and rolling into a manky, close side-passage. Vines shuddered as I tumbled over them, my arms and legs a cage around a child’s thinness. Half-rotted cloth ripped, my shirt and utility vest shredding against the abrasive husks.
Get some height. What the hell are those mods?
Now my scans were alive with movement. I hadn’t heard them before because they were agent, and they were all… strange.
The commchatter, part of it thick datastreams, sharpened as I launched myself, Geoff clinging to my neck and resin-windows shattering. They were everywhere, encrypted and not, the entire township-sized structure resonating with sonic wash to pinpoint my location and fog my scans.
“I dreamed him!” Geoff screamed into my neck. “I dreamed him, Mommy!”
We’re going to have to talk about that. Just hang on a second. The fourpads could shift for themselves. If I could just get high enough, I could get through a section of the Trapp field that wasn’t locked-down from stat discharge—
Falling. Arms and legs suddenly numb. Curled around Geoff, a thin shell for such a precious thing, what the hell was that? Sonic, plas, what?
It burrowed inside my head, overwhelming intake feeds and shorting out reflex loops. Another crunch as I hit the ground and the pain, great swelling breakers of it, nanos trying to cope with disaster, emergency sealing and repair.
Too slow. I was healing too fucking slowly.
“Careful.” Footsteps, too light or heavy to be just-plain-warmbody. Why wasn’t I healing? “This one’s a hellion.” A short, unamused chuckle. “Give her a jolt if she starts again.”
“Abbymom?” Geoff’s whisper. “Mom?”
Nano reset pulse. Ouch. It was a relief to figure out what had happened — a focused magno-lectric pulse, from a piece of Agency-strength tech. The first iterations of nanos were prone to going a little weird, and the resets were needed every month or so to keep everything functioning and the agent tumor-free. That didn’t happen anymore, and when you were buffered a pulse wouldn’t kill you.
It would only incapacitate you for a little while. Already my nanos were shaking off the reset, each one a star in the river of constellations that made up me. Each one spreading the message — hey, we’re not in a stasis tank, we’re fine, pass the word along, will you? Let’s get back to work.
Agents. Closing in. Footsteps — the agent in the black hat. Caught in a bad holo. Emergency measures.
Arms and legs shaky, with only warmbody strength. Bones creaking as the nanos shook off lethargy and swarmed. A low humming under the noise of the Trapp field locking down again — were the idiots outside still firing at it? Morons. Where was Sam?
I levered myself up, my ribs snapping out and remolding themselves, a gout of clear red-tinged liquid coughing from my nose and mouth, all over my front like a drunken hax-sniffer’s bib of vomitus. Geoff’s fingers plucking weakly at me — he was trying to help.
I pushed him behind me. He didn’t resist. I swayed, a flood of adrenaline triggering other emergency cascades. Fight or flight? Can’t run like this.
Guess it’s fight.
Blood dripping in my eyes, nanos diving back under my skin to continue their work. Faithful little silver motes, crawling all through me. Sorry, that was a bad hit. Let’s see what we can do.
“Geoff,” I croaked.
“Mama?” So small, his dry little voice.
“If they put me down, run.”
“I don’t want to leave you,” he whispered.
“Do as I say.” I pushed myself up straighter, scans coming back online, flicking through alternatives inside my head. Combat capability at a ridiculously low percentage, but I’d had worse odds before, hadn’t I?
All the tech, all the implementation, all the struggle and dead bodies and planning for contingencies, and in the end, a simple pulse was going to take me down.
I took a half-step forward. The other agents drew back, a collective movement. Kind of a compliment. Black Hat examined me.
He had a long cruel nose, flat silvery oculars, and a flat unamused mouth. No moss on him, no rotting. All of them were dry, and they all had the same flat silver eyes as the agents in New Vega. The same weird modding on their nanoprofiles, too. They all moved the same way — when Black Hat tensed, they followed suit, and when he moved, their balance shifted slightly. Those terrible blank oculars all focused on me, and I had the sudden weird idea that I was being examined not by a bunch of agents, but by one organism with several different eyes.
“I’m going to make this simple,” Black Hat said, and pointed. Not at me, but past. “I want the kid.”
I had to clear my throat, and the crowd moved forward a few paces again. Where had they all been hiding?
Doesn’t matter. I made sure each one of them could hear me, nice and loud, no subaudible grumbling here. It was a proverb popular both in-City and out, because it expressed a basic philosophical truth.
“Want in one hand, shit in the other. See which fills up first.”
He showed his teeth, a horrid wide triangular peelback of those thin lips, and he probably would have jumped me. I was braced for it, ready, but another voice intruded.
“Careful.” Sam stepped out of the shadows at the rear of the crowd. His clothes were in rags, same as mine, and he looked like he’d been rolled across the jungle floor a few times. “He wants her alive.”
“He can go fuck himself,” Black Hat spat.
Sam shrugged. “Why don’t you say that to his face, then?”
Now. Do it now, while they think you’re weak.
I lunged, my bladed hand crunching in the throat of the closest silver-eyed agent. Hooking and ripping, a gout of blackish blood full of silver motes swarming in an unfamiliar pattern.
Then my handler shot me. Or rather, he lifted a familiar black dial-box, and thumbed the switch while pointing the wand end at me. Another nano reset pulse crashed into me, and I went down hard.