Whatever the thing is, it isn’t obviously mechanical. While it appears to be made of metal, it has no seams anywhere—no joints to allow the arms and legs to move. But it does move, and it moves with unexpected fluidity and speed: it leaps away from the group, landing in front of the ruins of Warehouse Six, and sinking low into a battle-ready crouch.
It moves like a living thing, CB thinks. The arms and legs don’t just move back and forth, they rotate like actual limbs, and even the torso bends and sways and twists for extra balance.
“I thought you said you blocked their teleporter,” Jack says.
“I did,” Street Ronin says. “It is. I don’t understand what’s going on.”
“It’s not teleportation,” Jenny says. CB wonders how she got that bruise. “At least not exactly. The sound and color were different. This is magic, isn’t it? CB?”
CB stares at the big purple rune on the thing’s chest.
“Yeah… it’s magic.”
The thing remains in its crouching position, waiting.
Jenny nods slowly. “That means we’re probably screwed, right?”
“Not quite.” Vigilante keeps his gaze locked on the thing. “Jack, our objectives just changed.”
“I noticed.” Jack’s voice is very dry.
“Street Ronin, Zero, and Curveball need to get into that base and get whatever information they can before the base gets cleaned out. That means you, me, and Red Shift need to fight the magic robot.”
“It’s not a magic robot,” CB says. “I think they call it a golem.”
“It’s a big metal thing,” Vigilante says. “I’m calling it a robot.”
“I’ll stay up here,” Hu says. “Not that you invited me or anything, but I think you could use the extra firepower.”
CB looks over at Agent Grant. “What about you, G-man?”
Agent Grant stares at the golem skeptically. “I ain’t gonna do jack shit against that thing. Put me on the B team. Any thoughts on how we’re going to get through this door? Because it looks pretty—”
Jack turns around and hits the door hard. His fist sinks deep into the metal, causing the door to buckle and warp, one edge peeling out of the frame entirely. Jack grabs the edge, places a foot against the wall, and pulls. The door tears out, revealing a dimly lit room within.
The golem swivels its head to focus on Jack.
“B team,” CB says. “Yeah, that’s fair.”
“Move,” Vigilante says, and starts running toward the construct.
“Come on,” CB says, and ducks through the door, pistols drawn. Street Ronin and Jenny follow.
Agent Grant shrugs and follows them in. “I guess we’re splitting the party…”
* * *
The golem reacts quickly to Vigilante’s approach, and with devastating effect. It reaches forward, and as it does its arm lengthens, its hand enlarges, and it grabs Vigilante off the ground.
It closes its hand into a fist and squeezes.
The pressure is immediate and immense. Vigilante feels his organic armor fail almost immediately, and after that it’s hard to focus. Bones shatter and reform, muscles tear and re-attach—he’s pushing against the closing hand, but he’s barely strong enough to slow it down.
The world rocks and spins, and the hand opens. Vigilante gasps in pain as his mangled body hits the earth. The golem is face down on the ground, and Red Shift is racing away, dodging a second elongated arm. Jack leaps on its back and starts hitting it for all he’s worth. At the same time, Agent Hu shoots a stream of white-hot flame that engulfs both the golem and Jack.
Jack sighs in frustration as the flame sweeps over him. Well, now I really am naked.
“Sorry!” Hu calls out. “I didn’t know you were going to jump on its back… like a crazy person…”
He’s not sure how much progress he’s making, but he’s doing something. He can see the back of the golem getting more and more deformed with each blow. He’s about to land another blow when he sees the upper back shimmer, as if the metal were actually a liquid, and then he sees an arm emerge from the back. The arm grows, thickens, and then it grabs Jack by the face and pulls him face-forward into the golem’s body. Jack hits the metal with a loud clang and is then cast aside as the golem stands up again.
Jack is actually a little dizzy from that last blow.
“Oh, shit…” Agent Hu streaks higher into the sky as the golem focuses on her. It extends an arm, and the arm shimmers and telescopes forward, the hand transforming instantly into a keen edge. Hu flies to the side, just barely avoiding the razor-tip as it shoots past her. She rises higher into the air, shoots another blast of fire down at the golem, and manages to avoid a second strike as the arm extends even farther.
“This is not possible!” She flies even higher, and still the arm follows, thinning as it elongates. It doesn’t need mass to cut her open—she’s a lot tougher than most people, but she saw what it did to Vigilante and she’s not interested in testing her limits like that. She keeps flying up, and the arm keeps following.
This is getting ridiculous. I don’t care how magic it is, this shouldn’t be possible.
The pursuing arm wavers, then retracts so suddenly it looks like it disappears.
She examines the scene below. Jack is back on his feet, and Red Shift is harassing the golem yet again. They’re not doing much to hurt it, though—just distract it.
Fire blasts don’t seem to be doing much. Time to try something else.
She focuses on generating heat, and radiating heat, and she dives. She flies as hard and as fast as she can as she puts all her strength into gathering heat around her. The air shimmers in her wake, her form grows brighter and brighter, and finally she slams into the back of the golem with all the speed and heat she can muster.
The golem is heavy—it doesn’t fall—but it’s rocked by the force of the blow. Hu feels herself burning through its right shoulder, and then a moment later she’s through the other side. She hits the ground, sending rock and dirt in all directions, and as she slides across the asphalt she returns to her human form. She skids to a stop next to the broken form of Vigilante and tries not to whimper from the pain.
“Nice one,” Vigilante says.
Hu turns to look at him. He’s not nearly as bad as he looked when he first hit the ground. His uniform is torn, his visor is shattered, and what she can see beneath it is a bloody mess. But it’s a bloody mess going in reverse, as if someone were rewinding a slasher flick: his right leg, broken in at least three pieces, is actually straightening out, aligning itself, bones knitting back together on their own. Half of his chest looks caved in, but it’s filling out, and bones crack and snap as they put themselves back in place.
“I read your file,” she said. “I thought it was bullshit.”
“Occupational hazard,” Vigilante says. “Look at its arm.”
Hu tries to focus on the golem, still being harassed by the remaining two members of the “A team.” The arms, like the legs, lack any noticeable hinges, but they seem to bend and flex as if they were covered in living tissue. A long line of strange symbols runs down the length of its arms and legs, starting at the shoulder and ending at the—
“Hey,” Hu says. She squints, trying to make sure she’s really seeing it.
“It’s not an illusion,” Vigilante says. “When the fight started the symbols went all the way down to the wrist. Now they stop halfway down the forearm.”
Jack hits the golem in the knee hard enough to bend it backward. The golem backhands him, sending him flying, then the knee turns to silvery liquid and the leg rights itself. The rune on its chest glows purple, and that’s when Hu sees it—one of the symbols on the arm smooths over and disappears.
“Holy shit,” Hu says, feeling a sudden surge of elation. “It has charges.”
As her gaze runs down the length of each arm and leg, her elation quickly subsides.
“Holy shit. It has a lot of charges…”
* * *
The first thing CB thinks when he steps into the room is that it looks like the NASA Mission Control room—at least, it looks the way NASA’s Mission Control is portrayed in movies. Row after row of desks and computers, filled with computers and terminals all facing the same direction, with a large display screen placed on the opposite end.
The room, like everything else in the complex, is empty.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Jenny says. “Where is everyone?”
The base appears to be fully functional—the overhead lights are on, the computers are all still on, the ventilation system is working—but so far they haven’t encountered a single person in the facility.
“Looks like they left in a hurry,” Agent Grant says. “Someone didn’t finish their coffee.” He points to one of the terminals, where an unfinished, still-steaming mug of coffee sits next to the keyboard.
“Well that’s just wrong,” CB says. “Sure, evacuate if you have to, but take the coffee.” He picks up the mug and takes a sip. “Well… OK. It’s instant.”
He keeps drinking.
“You’re disgusting,” Jenny says, and sits down at the terminal.
“They must have teleported out,” Street Ronin says. “The soldiers were sent to keep us busy while they evacuated.”
“That was a hell of a distraction,” Agent Grant says. “They sent a fucking army.”
“I’m not sure they teleported before you blocked them,” Jenny says. “This terminal hasn’t locked itself out yet, and the buffer shows whoever was using it was issuing commands five minutes ago.”
“That’s after the magic robot showed up,” Grant says.
“Golem,” CB says. “What were they doing?”
Jenny frowns. “They were wiping their data.”
“Did they finish?”
“I… don’t know,” Jenny says. “Looks like something interrupted the process. We need to find the server room.”
Street Ronin points to a heavy door just to the right of the large screen. “Through there. I found a map.”
He points to another terminal, displaying a schematic of the facility.
“Two levels under this one. Looks like there are some holding cells and a medical facility.”
CB nods. “We should probably check that out. How about you and Zero get to the server room and see if there’s anything you can recover. I’ll take G-man to the lower levels and see what we can find.”
“OK,” Street Ronin says. Jenny nods in agreement.
“G-man?” Grant’s eyebrow shoots up.
“Crossfire likes code names,” CB says.
“That’s a dumb code name.”
“Well,” CB says, “I don’t like you yet. Got a problem with that?”
“I’ll cry later,” Grant says. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Vigilante has been crushed, disemboweled, and nearly decapitated. That was in the last five minutes.
There’s nothing he can do about it: that thing is larger, stronger, tougher, and faster than he is. The only advantage he has is that it can’t kill him, and every time it tries it winds up erasing one of those weird symbols running down its limbs. The symbols on its arms are completely gone, and it’s just started on the left leg. They’re wearing it down—but they’re wearing themselves down as well.
Red Shift is the worst of the bunch—he’s been pushing himself too hard, and Vigilante’s worried if he tries to go supersonic again he’ll wind up killing himself. Agent Hu’s flames don’t have the intensity they used to, and while she’s still in the game, she’s not flying as fast as she was. Jack’s OK, and will be for a while. Vigilante’s in trouble, though. It’s getting hard for him to focus.
Vigilante’s problem isn’t fatigue. He’s almost immune to that. The problem is that coming back from a certain level of injury is an excruciating process, and he’s been reaching that level of injury over, and over, and over again throughout this fight. It hurts, and it hurts to the point that it triggers a very primal fight or flight response.
Vigilante isn’t running, and his rational mind is losing its grip on his instinct to kill.
He picks himself off the ground yet again and tries to focus on the situation. The damn robot—golem—whatever—is still moving just as fast and just as powerfully as it did when it first showed up out of nowhere.
Not fair. Really not fair.
Vigilante clenches his fists and gets ready to leap back into the fray.
“Hold on.” Someone places a hand on his shoulder, and he spins around, fist flung up into a backhand. He stops his swing just inches before it hits Red Shift.
Red Shift looks bad. His eyes are sunk into his face, his cheeks are hollow. He looks like he’s been eating himself alive.
“You need to calm down, Tommy.” He looks half-starved, like a gust of wind could knock him over, but he sounds just as calm and easy-going as ever.
Vigilante doesn’t bother chastising him for using his real name. He knows why.
“I know. But I don’t have a choice right now.”
Red Shift nods slowly. “I understand, but let me take this one. I got one more in me. Let me knock it over, take off a pip, give you a breather.”
Vigilante frowns. “You’re sure, Greg? You don’t look so good yourself.”
Red Shift grins. “’course I’m sure. I’ve still got half an IV pack. I’ll be OK.”
Vigilante sighs. “Fine. One last time. Promise?”
“Promise,” Red Shift says. “After this, I—”
It’s a testament to exactly how tired Red Shift is that he doesn’t even flinch when Vigilante hits him. Red Shift is knocked off his feet from the blow, and when he hits the ground he doesn’t move. Vigilante kneels over him to check him out. His face is a mess—his jaw is smashed to bits—but his pulse is still strong.
Passed out from shock. Here’s hoping that lasts.
“Sorry, Greg.” Vigilante stands, and drags Red Shift’s unconscious form off to the side of Warehouse Two, away from most of the fighting.
* * *
“What the hell just happened?” Agent Hu dodges another swipe of the golem’s arm—not a razor this time; it’s getting stingier about how it spends its energy.
“Pay attention!” Jack manages to jump to one side, narrowly avoiding the golem as it tries to kick him. The golem’s blows are starting to hurt: there are only a few people on the planet tougher than he is, but there’s no such thing as complete invulnerability, and the fact that this thing is powered by magic probably gives it an unfortunate edge.
“I am paying attention!” Hu weaves and shoots a low-level blast of heat at the thing, more to distract it than as an attempt to do any serious damage. “Your friend just knocked the shit out of your other friend.”
“Which friend did what?” Jack glances over in the direction of Warehouse Two and sees Vigilante dragging Red Shift’s limp form around the corner.
The golem takes that opportunity to hit Jack hard in the side of his head. His vision goes white. He’s dimly aware of flying through the air and impacting the side of a wall. When his vision clears, Vigilante is standing over him, helping him up.
“You look worse than I thought,” Vigilante says.
Jack doesn’t say anything. Vigilante’s visor was destroyed very early in the fight, and his face, exposed to the world as it is, looks… off. His eyes are wild—too wide, blinking too fast, staring too intensely at nothing in particular.
“I had to take Greg out of the fight,” Vigilante says. His voice trembles with barely-suppressed rage. “Hit him too hard, but he’s alive. He heals, he’ll be OK. He’ll be OK…”
Jack doesn’t say anything.
“He wanted to go supersonic. It was going to kill him,” Vigilante insists.
Jack holds up his hands. “Take it easy, Thomas. I’m not disagreeing with you. But you have to admit, you sound a little—”
“—crazy.” Vigilante nods. “I know. I get it, Jack, I get it, but hear me out. We don’t have a lot of time.”
He turns toward the golem, watching Hu focus on playing defense, flying high enough to dodge the golem’s attacks, but keeping low enough to keep it from going after the men on the ground. “She’s tired, you can’t last forever, and I’m losing it.”
“Well, at least you’re aware of it,” Jack says. “That’s a good sign.”
“One more time around the block and I’m gone,” Vigilante says. “I figure we have to make that count.”
Jack’s eyes narrow. “What do you mean?”
“Every time we hurt it and it uses up one of those… pips. Charges. Symbols. Whatever. Every time it heals itself, or grows a new limb, its skin does something.”
“Yeah,” Jack says. “Goes all shimmery and liquid. Then it hardens and looks like new. Very annoying.”
“Get it to do that,” Vigilante says. “Then throw me into it.”
“Throw you into the—” Jack’s mouth drops open. “Are you out of your—”
“Just do it, Jack. We’re running out of options here.”
“That’s your plan,” Jack says. “The naked guy throws the crazy guy into the magic robot. That’s your plan.”
“That’s my plan,” Vigilante says. “If you have a better one, I’m ready to hear it.”
Jack scowls. “Fine. Follow me.”
He leaps back toward the golem, closing the distance quickly. Hu circles away as she sees him close, forcing the golem to turn away from Jack’s approach.
“Hu!” Jack shouts up, hoping she can hear him. “We have a plan!”
Hu creates a wall of fire around the golem—something that usually confuses it for a while, but never seems to do much more than that. She flies over to the two of them, hovering just overhead. “A plan?”
“Yeah,” Jack says. “It’s… not so great.”
“That’s OK,” Hu says. “I work for the government. That sounds better than the plans we usually get.”