-- timaeusTestified [TT] began pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] at 10:17 –-
TT: Mr Strider!
TT: What a delightful surprise.
TT: Yeah, I bet.
TT: Can you join me on the roof for a minute?
-- timaeusTestified [TT] ceased pestering tentacleTherapist [TT] –-
* * *
You find him in New York.
He’s at a table outside a coffee shop, one arm hooked back over the chair, lean and watchful in the sunlight you can’t feel. The tension ticks in his angles. He doesn’t sit; he just stops standing for a while.
He’s ordered you a coffee. It won’t be cold.
“What do you think?” he says, neutrally, as you ease yourself into the chair opposite. You take off your shades with unnecessary care, fold them with a click and stow them in your purse. A wisp of steam drifts from the coffee like it’s got all day.
“It would have been more convincing,” you say finally, “with extras.”
The street stretches in either direction, wide and clean and empty. Not a car crawls; not a tourist shuffles. No horns, no fumes. Just glass and metal that goes straight up, and light that pours straight down, and silence.
His mouth twitches. “You reckon?”
“Mm. Why didn’t you?”
“Processing power, mostly.” He waves a hand. He takes his coffee black, like you. “Cars are okay, just stop-start, but crowds? Fucking intensive. It’s the semi-random motion. Directed indecision. Like smoke, but stupid.”
“Each little particle with a mind of its own.”
“And all of ‘em trying to be special. Eats cycles like a bitch, trust me.”
“Don’t worry. I think I like it better this way. Besides, the resolution on the buildings is beautiful.”
“Yeah, well, don’t thank him.”
A shimmer at your elbow and there he is again; neat and sharp in white shirt, black slacks, black waistcoat. There’s a silver tray under his arm and a slight smirk below the shades.
You acknowledge the new arrival with a tiny tilt of your head. “Glasses, I presume?”
“Fuck yes. I’ll be your maitre d’ for today’s journey into mystery.”
“Jesus.” Other-Dirk – Dirk – rubs a thumb along one pale eyebrow. “Can’t we even finish a coffee?”
“It’s not real coffee. And you’re wasting time.”
“You’re not a real waiter. And this thing’s slowed to what, a hundredth? We’re about a heartbeat in, so far.”
“And how many of them do you think you’ve got left? But hey, it’s cool, I can wait.” He gestures at the uniform.
“Well, you’re just droll as fuck today.” Dirk downs-the-coffee-pushes-the-chair-back-explodes-upwards. You blink. In your fic days you’d have called it one fluid movement, and you’d have been wrong. It’s as fluid as a box opening. You think of flick-knives.
Inside the coffee shop is a spacious dance floor of black and white tile in geometric patterns that tickle at your memory. Orange spotlights tilt and swivel to a dubstep remix of, apparently, Für Elise. Glasses is already hard at work behind the decks, dressed in a priest’s black cassock and rosary beads, busily looping a beat.
Dirk holds out a hand.
“Pleasure of this dance?”
“All mine,” you say, and take it.
* * *
You’re standing in non-space: a grey void, hung with a tangle of neon green. As you stare the green resolves into lines, then shapes, then buildings. It’s a three-dimensional map, below and around you like a great cat’s-cradle. You tap the corner of a wire-frame tower that reaches almost to your hip and scrolling menus jump to life in midair: you read heights, depths, materials. Ferrous concrete and bullet-proof glass predominate. You twist a hand like you’re turning up the volume and the frame balloons to engulf you; your head is jutting through the eighteenth floor, and you see the blue and yellow threads of water and power snake between walls. A few twists the other way and the whole complex is laid out before you like a train-set, the three-pronged fortress at its centre so small you could lift it on your palm.
“It’s very detailed,” you say.
“I know a really good hacker,” he replies. “Half an hour to learn the layout. Then we need to introduce the cast.”
You raise an eyebrow. “We’re inviting the others? But this was so cosy.”
“Oh fuck no. I’m not letting them in here, are you crazy? Be like bonobos in a monastery. No, we’ll use simulations.”
“You’re going to attempt to simulate Terezi Pyrope.”
“It’s fine,” he says, no longer looking at you; he’s peering down at a cluster of small buildings just inside the exterior wall. Data streams past the splayed fingers of his left hand like a little green waterfall. “I’ve got her on tape.”
You feel a tiny chill as you watch him. The hand in the pocket, the slope of the neck, the weight on the right leg and the hitch of the left foot; they’re all Dave, so Dave it makes you want to cry out. But Dave is a fire you can warm your palms on, or curl up near with a book. Dirk Strider is cold, and the snowflake edges of that cold ring inside you like a cracked brass bell.
“You’re going to have to explain that, I’m afraid,” you say.
“Brain patterns,” he says vaguely, flicks the hand, and tuts. Then he makes a kind of skimming motion and the light-map swivels in its entirety, gliding silently into a new configuration. “AR’s been chewing through them the last few nights, spooling out the code. We’re on about 97% accuracy for Egbert, though since you could write him in Basic I’m not exactly surprised: find friend, help friend, print ‘hello world!’, goto 10. Terezi’s a bag of cats, no lie, but we crunched her down to eighty-five and that’s just going to have to fucking do.”
Your heart is a dead star. Eighty-five percent of Terezi Pyrope, scrawled on the back of a digital napkin.
“That’s why you were so insistent about the sleeping arrangements.”
“Did it occur to you,” you say carefully, “that people might not want their brains on your laptop?”
“Of course it fucking occurred to me. That’s why I didn’t ask.”
There’s not much you can say, to that.
* * *
The first thirty-seven times you run the simulation everybody dies.
It’s not gory. This isn’t Call of Duty; no pixel blood or tinny screams. That just makes it worse. You watch a glowing jade-green point move into the pale violet firing-arc of a twin-linked sentry cannon and disappear. You watch as a tide of purple dots drowns a single sky-blue mote atop the tallest tower. You watch as a scarlet and a teal light, so close they’re almost one, blink out together.
Your throat hurts. You say “End,” and reconfigure.
On the thirty-eighth run, you notice something.
“Stop,” you say to Dirk, and his head comes up in surprise. “Back up. A little more – yes. Look there.”
“I’ll be damned. Those patrol routes don’t link up.”
“There’s a kink. You see? That group has to skirt the coolant vats, and it puts them a few seconds behind. It gives us a window, if we move very fast.”
“Yeah,” he says, and strokes his chin. “Yeah. Seven seconds. No, seven point five.”
“What can we do with seven point five seconds?”
He grins, then, and for a dreadful moment it all drops away; he is Dave, only Dave, ice-blond and smirking, a lazy net of lines and shadows.
“Damage,” he says.
* * *
After six hours of death – a little over three and a half minutes, you try to tell yourself – you move outside. You don’t have a headache; you’re not sure there’s a subroutine for that. Physically you’re as fresh as when you started. But your mind feels like a squeezed sponge, regardless, and you want to look at something other than lights going out.
The instant you walk through the weird rectangle hanging in space you’ve stepped out of a charming little beach chalet and are wandering down pale sand to a quiet sea. It’s dusk, and purplish clouds churn slowly in an inky blue sky. Someone’s lit a campfire. There’s deckchairs, and in one of them you see a Dirk; the obnoxious Hawaiian shirt and baggy pineapple-motif swimshorts give you a pretty good guess which one. He’s plucking idly at the strings of a boxy acoustic guitar, and a few notes shiver up the beach towards you.
As you enter the circle of firelight he lifts a hand in greeting. You flop down in a chair and are surprised how good it feels.
“Mojito?” he says.
“No, thank you.”
“Your mother would be so disappointed.”
You look at him. He’s a blank; perfectly straight-faced.
“How well do you know – Roxy?” you ask. You can’t say my mother. Not yet. Maybe not ever. Roxy Lalonde is a cheerful teenage blonde who winks in slow-motion and smells faintly of aloe vera shower gel and sprawls happily on anyone who sits still for long enough, you included. In another universe she might even have been a friend.
“Well as anyone. Better than he does, anyway,” says Glasses, and jerks an elbow up at the chalet. Then he picks out the first chords to ‘Just The Way You Are’.
“Shit yeah. I know everybody better than he does. Knowing people’s one of the parts he delegated.”
“Funny. That he should hand off personal connections to a machine, in order to free up his own attention for number-crunching.”
“Yeah,” says Glasses. “Ironic.”
Another shudder of notes. It sounds like ‘All Along The Watchtower’, though he cuts it off before you can be sure. Then he looks at you intently.
“It doesn’t bother you, does it?” he asks. “Calling me a machine.”
“Well. You are a machine.”
“Don’t I fucking know it. But the others tie themselves in Goddamn knots trying to get round it. Jade all earnestly telling me that I’m a person too, like I’m some lost soul in need of saving.”
You stare into the fire, which is very convincing. “I suppose I just don’t see anything intrinsically derogatory about the title of machine.” You turn to look back at him, and spots swim and burst in your vision. “If anything, I mean it as a compliment.”
“Yeah,” he says quietly. “I thought you’d get it, somehow.”
You sit in silence for the next ten minutes, side by side, and he doesn’t even touch the guitar.
* * *
Eight hours in, and the first sketchy lines of a plan are beginning to take shape.
“Good!” Dirk says, and slaps a hand on his thigh. “Good. That was the best run yet. We can use that. Just need to tweak it.”
“Karkat is dead,” you point out.
“Yeah. But he held up that drone wave for ninety-four seconds. And that’s the window we needed. Now we just need to stop everything going to shit in the next part.”
You stare at him as he winds the diorama down a few notches, intent, and starts tracing lines of red light from building to building with a fingertip.
“Dirk,” you say, “Karkat’s dead.”
He looks at you. “I know. I saw.”
“So we need a new plan.”
For a second his brow actually furrows. Then he straightens up with what might be a sigh.
“Rose,” he says gently. “We’re assaulting a fortified city with eleven teenagers. People are going to die.”
“Oh, no,” you say, and your voice scares even you. “Don’t you dare patronise me. Don’t you dare feed me some hard-bitten line about war is Hell. I’ve seen the death of every single person I ever loved, you don’t get to talk to me about collateral.”
“Rose – “
“No. If something goes wrong with the plan and someone dies, it can’t be helped. I’m not stupid. But we are not setting out on a mission that actually counts on someone dying. I’d rather tip off the drones and die right here, all of us together.”
He doesn’t bluster, or throw up his hands, the way you’d hoped. He just regards you, head tipped to one side, like you’re an unexpected error message.
“Alright, I won’t patronise you,” he says evenly. “But this is a solid call. You know it’s a solid call. He’d be buying us all the time we need to get the job done and get out. One for ten. I’m not suggesting some kind of mass suicide run here.”
“I know. But one for ten is still one too many.”
“Look, Vantas is a fucking Knight. He’ll probably jump at the chance. Laying down lives is pretty much their shtick.”
“If you need a Knight to lay down his life for the cause,” you say, watching him, “I’m certain Dave would be delighted to volunteer.”
It’s not a card you’d dare to play in any other circumstance. As bluffs go, it’s dizzying. If you’ve misjudged – if he nods okay, sure – you’ve killed your brother. You want to bite clean through your tongue. But some instinct tells you that nothing less will suffice; that against Dirk Strider, you go high or you go home.
There is a pause. His face doesn’t move an inch.
“Nah,” he says at last. “We can’t afford to lose the Time player that soon. We’re going to need him for the endgame.”
“Of course!” you say, and the lurch of triumph gives your voice a venomous sweetness you didn’t fully intend. “Tactically unimpeachable.”
This time it comes out tight. “Rose. I said I’m not gonna patronise you. I would greatly fucking appreciate it if you could find it in you to extend me the same Goddamn courtesy.”
You stare at each other for a long, slow heartbeat. Then he turns away.
“Come on,” he says, a little rough. “Scratch that. Reset defaults. Let’s go from square one.”
* * *
It takes you another five hours, but the two of you hash out something workable. Dirk doesn’t like it. Nor, if you’re honest, do you, but you feel grimly culpable for screwing up the first version and therefore honour-bound to endorse the second.
“It’s too chancy. There’s way too many variables.”
“It’s not. What if Rox can’t hack the gate system fast enough? What if – ”
“Dirk, it’s always going to come down to probabilities. What matters is that they’re good probabilities.”
He coughs a mirthless little laugh. “Spoken like a Light player. You really ready to gamble, with these stakes?”
No, you think. “Of course. Come on. Let’s get back out there before John or someone comes looking.”
“You go first. I’ll put the chairs on the tables.” He looks up from studying the web of dots and lines, and the shades give you nothing to work with. “And, hey – we don’t talk about this.”
“About the plan?”
“About how we wrote the plan. No-one needs to know. Not even Dave. Okay?”
You let your mouth curl. “What would I tell them? Good news, everybody, there’s a decent chance we’ll all make it with non-fatal injuries? Hardly Agincourt.”
“Yeah,” he says, deadpan. “Maybe leave the speeches to me.”
* * *
At 04:13 mission time John blows the first gate, literally.
You and Roxy hurry side-by-side down a wide alleyway between two looming concrete warehouses painted with the Crocker trident. The noise of the klaxons is a great blaring horn that rattles your teeth and makes you think somehow of the ocean. Harsh purple light spins from wall-mounted lamps, and somewhere nearby you can hear boots running.
You stop at an intersection and face each other.
“This is it!” she says, pointlessly. You look at her: face a little pale, eyes anxious. The rifle’s half as big as she is, and she cradles it like a doll. You suspect she’s not worried for herself.
She opens her mouth to say something, shuts it, and then reaches out convulsively and grabs your hand. Her skin is very warm.
“Rose,” she says, “be careful.”
Then she’s gone, running, down the little gulley towards the secondary reactor housing, the line you’ve seen her pink dot follow a hundred times from the air. Unless the Condesce has overhauled every single aspect of her security on a whim some time in the last twelve hours, she’ll be safe now for at least a minute; it’s Dave and Terezi who are in the most danger, since you told them to plant themselves square in front of the main hangar and ‘make a mess’. Terezi’s eyes lit up visibly behind her shades. Dave just nodded.
You brush the thought away and turn to stare down the dark flight of steps off to the right that will take you where you’re meant to be. It looks nice down there. Quiet. No guards, you know, just a couple of alarms. Beneath that much concrete you’ll probably hardly feel the explosions.
Then you sigh, haul yourself up onto the edge of a bulky steel dumpster, grab the rungs of the ladder just above, and start to climb.
He’s already there, of course. Standing near the edge, loose and relaxed, sword propped on one shoulder. The roof is basking in the sun and he is resplendent, white and black and palest gold, light gleaming off his blade and sparkling off one corner of his glasses. He looks like a Prince, you realise, like you always thought a Prince should look. Dave’s infuriating swagger is coupled in him with something august and faraway; shoulders back, gaze turned slightly up, as if events on the ground could hardly be of less concern. It occurs to you for the first time that perhaps the only thing which separates a Prince from a Knight is distance.
He turns. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
“You’re not fucking sorry in the slightest. How did you know?”
“I have a copy of your brain patterns.”
An eyebrow lifts minutely. “How – ”
“I was born with it.” You hadn’t known how true it was until you actually said it, and for a moment or two there is very little else in the world but you, and the sun, and your father.
He takes a deep breath through his nose, and his ribs rise under the shirt. Then he puffs it out and shrugs. “Nice work. This is my impressed face. Now get the fuck out of here, you Goddamn lunatic.”
“Shan’t,” you say calmly, and unhook the Thorns from your waistband.
“Rose, you’re smarter than this, come on. The whole point here is it’s just me. We both know the plan only works if someone dies. Emphasis on one.”
“Mmm. So why you?”
“Because,” he says, and sighs. “Because why the fuck not. Because it ain’t like I got all that much to stick around for. Because you’ll all miss me one Hell of a lot less than you’d miss Dave, or Jade, or even Karkat. Because I’m a Goddamn figurehead. This is what Princes do. We draw fire.”
“Condemned by your class,” you say. “The game told me to do it. Oh, but if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that from a good-looking blond with a sword.”
“Ha, ha,” he says tiredly. “I’m serious. Get back down that ladder.”
“People will miss you very much, you know.”
He reaches up and plucks the shades off his face. He blinks a few times, then folds them up, squinting, and tosses them to you.
“There. They can have me.”
“Don’t be stupid, you’ll hurt your eyes.” You skim them straight back and he snatches them out of the air. “You, Dirk, not him. And don’t even attempt to tell me there’s no difference. I’ve met you both.”
“’Course there’s a fucking difference,” he says, but he puts them back on with unmistakeable relief. “He’s the nice one.”
“That’s not – “
“Yeah, it is. It was always going to be a problem. Stands to reason if you subcontract your social life, you’re going to end up with a certain level of dislocation. Rox openly fucking told me he was more fun than me. I knew the risks from day one, I’m just reaping the whirlwind.” He laughs. “I stopped being human years ago, Rosie. My own fucking brother looks at me like I’m so much code. He won’t be alone in a room with me, you notice that? Always finds an excuse, ducks out to help John or grab a soda.”
“That’s because he’s scared of you.”
“Well, yeah, exactly my – ”
“You’re his hero, Dirk.” It seems suddenly very urgent that you convey this simplest of truths; like it might escape, if you don’t. “Do you have the slightest inkling of how much Dave Strider looks up to you? I don’t think he can believe you’re real, yet. He’s like a devout Christian who’s started sleeping on the futon in Jesus’ spare room. Everything that boy’s ever done has been an attempt to be more like you. And now, here you are, his age, his height, asking him if he wants to kick back with a beer and play Tekken. Are you honestly surprised he absconds?”
Far below and to your left, something big explodes. The tower shudders under your feet and the shockwave snaps at your hair. You hear screaming, yelled orders, the soft fizz of plasma fire. For a second you could swear you hear Terezi cackle.
Dirk unfolds the blade from his shoulder and turns his back to you. “We’ll talk about this later,” he says. “Here they come.”
* * *
You’re fifteen minutes into the mission and the Condesce has finally realised what she’s up against. The guards are falling back to chokepoints and barricades, locking the complex down. The drones will take it from here.
The Thorns of Oglogoth hum in your hands. You punch purple fire through an exposed chest-plate, snap a whip of light into diodes and circuits. The things you’re fighting are big and strong and impossibly fast. Your current dance partner sprays lasers from its eyes and microgrenades from gill-slits on the sides of its head. Chest vents spurt liquid metal flechettes that harden like diamond mid-flight. Its arms move at pushing eight hundred miles per hour and exert a contact force of roughly three hundred thousand pounds per square inch. Monomolecular razor wire leaps at your face, neurodisruptor chaff flickers in your line of sight; two spines atop its head spew psychic feedback that would have you bleeding out your ears if your brain hadn’t spent so long nestled in the folds of the Furthest Ring; utility fog pours from its rippling skin like smoke, a million million tiny robots trying to snake into your lungs and shred you from within, erase your cellular structure and leave you so much red jelly on the ground. You hang swathes of black light around you like curtains and anything they touch goes up in a sheet of flame. You send two-second energy pulses through your bloodstream to wipe anything that made it inside, and fit a tiny shell of darkness over each fragile violet eye. The drone’s blood is nanoactive, and the instant it spatters up your left arm a spasm goes all the way to your heart; you kill every nerve ending from the shoulder down and then flash-microwave the first layer of epidermis. You drive claws you borrowed from somewhere deep and horrid into the gap you made and pull. The drone tears in half, wetly, in a shower of oily blood and sparks.
Two more are waiting.
Dirk is moving unlike anything you’ve ever seen; flashstepping so fast there’s hardly a blur, but everywhere you look there’s four of him and all four have a blade wedged into neck or knee or eye or joint. He cuts a leg clean off at the hip, but the force required means he has to lock his stance for half a second, and the drone behind him takes the opportunity to drive a purple tendril as thick as your thumb straight through his shoulder and out the other side. Dirk spins, clips off the tendril, and jams the katana into the owner’s faceplate.
The black fire in your belly is roaring happily. You pour a little more of it into the wands, and your shields flicker; sudden heat behind you, and by the time they’re up again your back is on fire. Some kind of localised napalm-equivalent, you guess, and waste a few syllables on damage control. You use the Light to aim, and the dark to hurt. A drone barrelling towards you explodes in your mind’s eye into half a hundred shimmering probability paths; you pick the densest point and mark it with a tiny glittering sphere the colour of ink. The creature’s still ten metres off when it hits the node and erupts in crawling silver flame, screaming shrilly. You take a quick breath and your lungs shut down, giving you the abrupt and unpleasant feeling you’ve inhaled two large rocks. Furious, you tell your body to forget about oxygen for the time being. You can keep that up for a couple of minutes, and you’re past Karkat’s ninety-four seconds anyway now, so it won’t be much longer.
Not much longer at all. An opportunistic psychic strike stuns the exact part of your brain you need for words. Accident or tactics, you can’t be sure, but suddenly you’re blithering garbage and baby-noises. Your wards shatter like wet glass. A charged cord wraps round your neck and gives you ten million volts. Your God Tier autonomic defences just ride it out, but you can taste blood and smell cooked meat and your vision is blurring at the edges. You can’t focus enough for the Light. You catch a brief glimpse of Dirk, pinned between two drones, face a scarlet mask, mouth open and yelling. Is he trying to get to you?
You squash your eyes shut and dredge up the sounds that will make the Song of Ceasing. One hundred and twenty-one seconds. Honour is satisfied. It will be a death to remember; everyone for miles around will see you go. It’ll take Dirk too, at this range, but you’d rather have him ash than food for animals. You wish you could have held his hand, though; just once.
“Oh, this is pathetic,” someone drawls, and the pressure at your throat and wrists pops out of existence. Your eyes flick open in time to see a drone spinning away from you and over the edge of the roof, gouting thick fluid from the stump between its hulking shoulders. You half-turn, gasping as your lungs flood clean again, and the drone to your left just about draws a bead on you before a solid white bolt of fire carves it in half at the waist.
You complete the turn. Roxy Lalonde racks her plasma rifle and sends a used cell tumbling clear on a trail of steam. Dave Strider flicks purple slime from his blade in a really rather passable Zatoichi impression. They wear identical smirks.
“Aw, man,” says Roxy, shaking her head. “Would you look at these guys pretending to be combat classes? It’s kind of cute, in a dumb way.”
“You know, I thought I saw a Seer in melee just now,” returns your brother, “but that would be fucking insane.”
“Hey, your Majesty!” she yells, levels the rifle, and fires twice. Two sharp snaps. The drones holding Dirk topple away, leaking and sputtering. “Go find a balcony to wave on. We got this.”
Dirk rolls to his feet and spits a fat gobbet of blood onto the concrete. “What the fuck – ”
“Trouble with you guys,” says Dave lazily, ducking a wild swipe and jamming the blade upwards into the offender’s groin, “is you always think you’re the only ones can get into your own heads.”
A drone clambers half-upright at Roxy’s left, loose wires sparking. She considers it for a moment, and then draws back and punches it in the face. Her fist stoves the whole thing in like a paper cup. The drone makes a feeble sort of whimpering noise and falls over again. She turns to you, grins broadly, and lunges in to peck you on the cheek before skipping over to get an arm round Dirk, whose right leg doesn’t seem to be working properly. Dave steps forward, gives you a little welp shrug and then kisses you. He tries to make it quick, professional, but you knot one hand in the front of his shirt and the other in his hair and drag him down against you, closing your eyes and pushing your tongue into his mouth with a kind of stupid, hungry delight. He hooks his free arm round the small of your back and crushes you closer.
“Rox,” you hear Dirk say in comically rueful tones, “it’s time to confront the uncomfortable fact that we may have brought our kids up wrong.”
“Shut up, this is totally hot!” she says.
You both break off to glare at her and she dissolves into giggles. She’s draped Dirk’s arm over her shoulders and his blood has spattered down across her face and T-shirt. He’s contriving to look as though he’s being propped up because he knows it makes her happy. Both of them are very beautiful.
“Joking aside, man,” says Dave a little awkwardly, letting go of you, “you’re pretty fucking pimp with that katana.”
There is a tense silence. Once again you have the sense that your world has shrunk abruptly to a square of concrete strewn with corpses, hot with sun and blood, and that four people are all there is and all there ever will be.
“Yeah,” says Dirk quietly. “Well. I learned from the best.”
They look at each other.
“Now you hug,” puts in Roxy, helpful as ever.
“What, no – ”
“No, fuck that noise – ”
“Lady,” you say, “and gentlemen. I’m not sure we’re at the feelgood ending montage just yet.”
You point. They all turn. The complex below you is a mess; fat columns of greasy black smoke pour from half-a-dozen shattered buildings, tiny bodies and overturned vehicles litter the roads, and fire sparkles off great fans of broken glass. The alarms are a low, mournful wail; they sound defeated, like they know no-one’s listening any more. But there are five whole levels beneath the surface, and Jade and Jake still need eight and a half minutes to plant the charges and get to the extraction point, and the Condesce is angry now. A wide metal iris set in a baked concrete apron between hangars is slithering open, and from the darkness below a drone rises, then a second, then a third and a fourth. You can almost feel their tracking software lock onto the tower.
“Oh, yeah,” says Dirk. “Nearly forgot about those guys. Right on time.”
Ten drones, eleven, twelve... You shake your head clear and focus. Beside you, Dave stretches and cracks his neck. Dirk steps gingerly clear of Roxy, nods, and spins his blade in a totally unnecessary flourish. Roxy sticks her tongue out at him and slaps another cell into the housing on the side of her rifle.
You stand on the rooftop with the sun behind you and wait, and as you wait you realise you’re not scared. It’s a lot of drones, certainly. They’ll have knives and saws and guns and whips and bombs and gas and lasers. They won’t die for the asking. But there’s four of you now: two Striders, two Lalondes.
And you’re not sure there’s an army built which can stand up to that.