In the torn-up ruins of what was once a chapel, the pews thrown against the old stone walls, cracked and blackened like twigs kicked from a campfire, Alex sat twelve feet up, dextrous in Sandy, whose legs bent poised and ready.
“Casanova-3, what's the sitrep, over?”
“Good morning Cas-Actual,” he said, sharply adjusting his posture in response of the voice of his commander, Stucker. “We've traced Copeland to a location a couple klicks northeast of our position. He's awaiting extraction in a hotel plaza, over.”
“Matchmaker, confirm his security detail, over.”
“Roger Casanova, we've got six unmanned powersuits. At least one has anti-air capacity, so I wasn't able to get very much else. Copeland himself is in Cannibal. Now you've all heard the stories, but the skinny is she's an eighteen ton heavily modified Huîtrier-class mech. Advance with caution, over.” Matchmaker, strictly Casanova-2, was piloted remotely by Vashti, Sandy's dedicated engineer. She'd also made Sandy, something that hurt Alex's head to think about.
“Casanova-3, you heard the lady.” A buzz of static. “Alright Lovers, head out. Matchmaker, provide air support, Chaperone you'll pluck that bastard out once we've cracked that shell open. Be advised, Copeland has been known to use nerve agents to avoid capture, over.”
“Casanova-3, are you still wearing that candy-ass helmet, over?” said Lawrence, from the APC, over the B-set.
“When they pull my bloodied body from this smoking wreck, how else will they know that I'm voted the best shot with the best ass?” Alex adjusted his standard-issue, so that it didn't cover his eyes. It wasn't unusual for pilots to have some inscription on their helmet. He'd put up with two years of taunting about his figure, but when the final exams came, he was the best of the recruits and in the top three of the company.
“Cas-3, be advised, do not call your vehicle a smoking wreck.” said Vashti.
“We moving out or are we going to natter on while Copeland escapes? Only got an hour.”
A breeze rushed in from what remained of the northern transept, and out of it, Alex could see deep, travel-agent blue waters, met by cliffside quays and jagged passages up the severe rock face. Houses in warm, old-town colours, no doubt abandoned in the conflict, were wrapped in the arms of one very promiscuous bougainvillea. It was stuffy inside his pilot suit and for a very long moment he wanted nothing more than to immerse himself in the just-cool waters of the Western Med. There'd been a slight malfunction in climate control, which Vashti had spent fifteen minutes explaining to him, but in so many words she may well have said that it just meant no air conditioning. He turned Sandy around, and headed out into the light.
There were three routes to L'Hôtel Eden, strictly two, since one was along the stripe-parasolled beachfront, mined to hell, and subtle as a marching band through a monastery. The other two were through the old town or up a hill. The town promised both protection on all sides and unparalleled opportunity for ambush. Going uphill granted a likely quieter route, with better vision, but it'd be hard not to notice a mech or an APC sauntering up.
They decided to split up: Alex would take road into town, and rendezvous with the APC on the eastern exterior wall of the hotel. There, they'd knock a hole in the wall, and get the jump on Copeland.
The path was steep and cobbled, and wildflowers burst gorily out of the cracks between the stones. There was no more birdsong in Colombe-Neuve. A hastily abandoned car sat insectlike in the overgrown grass. The doors hung open. For a moment, if he blocked all else out, Alex could imagine himself walking through the woods outside his house. It was warmer here, but to him, all large enough collections of trees held an innate quality of peacefulness and nostalgia. He closed his eyes for a moment and Sandy chirped and hoopoed as he scanned for heat signatures. Before him, the path twisted left. It was a long way around, he'd guessed it would take him fifteen minutes, and there wasn't any cover- the council had the trees cut down to give those who drove down in their sports cars that piercing view. The other way was down.
It was a drop that Sandy could handle, but Vashti wouldn't like it one bit. He reached the edge. The mech crouched and shuffled off the precipice. Sandy whistled irritably and extended his crampons. There was half a second of airtime when Alex was grateful that he'd not eaten anything in the last six hours. He tensed himself for impact and winced as his-- as Sandy's feet came into contact with the slope. They skidded the rest of the way down. The cobbles were replaced by tarmac, and trees had faded to shrubs. The first houses, friendly, painted in swimsuit colours of corals, oranges, and saffrons came into view. He thought about how nice the water would be and how once this was all over he'd take Vashti for a swim. His breathing quickened. He had spent the last two days memorizing the map of the town, but Sandy brought it up onscreen anyway. There could be snipers in the third floor windows, with Carl Gustavs or anti-material rifles. That'd happened to a friend of his, a great pilot, too, who had got hit in the side of the cabin. The mere impact of the rocket had knocked him over. He'd not been able to right himself in time. They hit him five times further. When they ripped him from the remains of his mech, he was less a person and more canned meat.
“Matchmaker, this is Cas-3, we took the scenic route. Getting near to Dovecote, over. What's the view?”
“Not good, I'm afraid. Two 'suits are guarding the intersection near the hotel. Neutralizing them without drawing attention to yourself is going to be a bit of a challenge, over.”
“I'm game for a challenge.”
“Negative,” said Stucker. “Do not rush into a firefight.”
“Cas-Actual, I can handle this.”
“Negative. Do not engage. Matchmaker can give you a route to avoid them. We need to maintain the element of surprise.”
“Roger, sir, over and out.”
The orange trees were fruiting. Alex wished it wasn't against SOP to pick one. They looked sweet and aromatic, much better than the underset jelly mush of canned mandarin segments back at the base.
“Right then, Cas-3.” Vashti's voice husky and enthusiastic burst over the radio.
“You're going to take the first left. Keep low, try not to step on anything too hard.”
“Matchmaker, you do know how heavy Sandy is.”
“Including payload, he's six tons, with you on top, six point oh seven tons. You could-- and think about this for a moment-- not step on the cars.”
“Oh but they're so satisfying,” he said, ignoring her jibe. “Like crunching a can underfoot.”
“If you really want to step on cars we can do that back home.”
“Roger. I'll hold you to that.”
He headed in. By his estimate, there were some forty windows on the street. He scanned them, while Sandy cooed to announce that final weapons checks were complete and all systems were functional.
“Better late than never, you dumb bird.” he muttered. The “dumb bird”'s loadout was a 70mm cannon, and a grenade launcher. They had their nicknames written down the barrels-- FIRST KISS and RED ROSE.
He guided Sandy down the flagstoned street. There were cars on both sides, luxury vehicles built for speed and comfort, dazzling, lobster things. He relished the thought of destroying them. It was that same part of him who laughed when his house was flattened before all this. He stopped for a black cat, ironic and lazy, to swan across the hot stones. A figure flashed in the window. He looked again. Sandy chirruped and performed a heat scan. Nothing. He willed himself to calm down. Nobody would blame him for engaging. No-one. But he was trained better than that. He continued until he reached the corner. This street was narrower, no cars, and instead, wrought iron balconies, torn-through awnings, terracotta pots filled with thirsty plants. If he was careful, Sandy could just about fit through. He was running out of time. Even now, Copeland got closer and closer to escape. He pulled himself into a crouch, and took deliberate, small steps. The top of the cabin bumped against the balconies. One of them was filled with bikes. There had to be at least thirty of them, all stuffed in together, a rat-king of spokes and frames. The door to the balcony was open. Even here, people are freaks, he thought. He took his left hand guiding movement and waggled it.
The pair continued up the street, the incline becoming greater. A florist's doors hung open, but there was no merchandise inside. He heard the bubble of a fountain in a nearby square.
“I'm getting close to the corner. What next?”
“It's the next right. Not this one.”
Anticipating his question, she sent him a clip of a pair of powersuits. They'd been using the front of a church for target practice, blown holes through its doors and stained windows, and paced around the square.
“Let me guess. I'm not to engage with them.”
“In one, lieutenant.” she said, “You're going to cross on my mark.”
Sandy could cross short distances very quickly. It was part of why Vashti had built him. Fast mechs are typically loud mechs, though, and that was what was so genius: she'd somehow done it so that as long as he wasn't going more than a few hundred yards, he was as quiet as a twelve-foot church mouse weapons platform could be.
Alex moved Sandy so that he looked like a hundred-metre sprinter in the starting blocks, close to the ground, knees bent.
He tried his best to relax, and kept his fingers out of the firing position.
“One. Advance, Cas-3.”
Cas-3 advanced. He shot past, catching a glimpse of the two smaller 'suits as they busied themselves with shooting the tits and hands off the fountain statue. A camera swivelled at the movement, but a moment too slow. That, or it didn't register his passage. He hoped.
“Congratulations. You didn't cock it up. Not that I'd thought you would.”
“You're in the last stretch. Take the street coming up on your right. At the end of it, you'll see Chaperone. They've been waiting a while. Don't keep them any longer. Now my darling, I must love you and leave you. Cas-Actual needs me. Overnout.”
Alex walked the rest of way. Someone had scribbled something in Arabic on one of the walls in green paint. The sign for a restaurant in the form of a pig swung gentle in the breeze. He couldn't look at it. Bougainvillea peeked around the side of the building like a curious giant. As he got to the top of the hill, sunlight, white walls, and that beautiful blue sea all but blinded him.
“Ah there you are, Fatarse.” crackled Lawrence, “Come on, the party's starting.”
The APC looked ridiculous, half of its treads on the low stone wall. Some palm trees hung by it, inquisitive.
“Hi there, Chaperone. Hope you weren't too bored without me.”
“We had a grand old time. Ran over some civvies. Took heroin.”
“Easy ride then.”
“Right then, shall we?”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure.”
“Casanova Actual, permission to breach?” said Lawrence.
“Granted.” said Stucker.
Alex rolled his eyes and sighed. While the APC did have the breaching tool, it was never him to take the first shot. He looked again at the bougainvillea, and froze. There was something wrong about the florist. He'd seen something there. He must've written off some LED light as coming from the till. Why would it still be plugged in? There had to be something.
“Wait!” he said.
“What is it this time?” said Lawrence.
“Halfway down the street I just came from there was a florist.”
“Wow. Are you going to get us all flowers?”
“Something was wrong. Might be a munitions depot. Maybe a makeshift command centre.”
“Just getting a look now,” said Vashti. “Why would a command centre have both doors open?”
“Make it look inconspicuous.”
“Even if it is in town, why would they put it there? Why not in literally any of the other buildings, where it's not wide open for everyone to see?” said Lawrence.
“I saw something.”
“We don't have time.”
“Oh shit, we've got company.” said Vashti, “Here comes the rescue team. I'd best say hi.”
“Now.” said Lawrence, to his gunner.
The APC's gun roared, and Alex crossed Sandy's arms over the cockpit, instinctively, to protect himself.
“Get a move on, Cas-3. I'll provide fire support but-- just fucking get in there, over.” Lawrence shouted.
Alex leapt through the hole, and into a wide, square plaza. It was made of the same, almost glowing white stone. Water-- over iznik blue tiles-- lapped at his feet. A pair of 'suits had ran over to see what the noise was. Before they could get a good look at him through the cloud of stone, dust and plaster, he fired the RED ROSE. A pair of grenades, little larger than cans, coughed out of the barrel, one after another. They landed a few feet away from them. Sandy changed the polarization on his windshield as they burst into a carnelian light. Even with the polarization, it made Alex's eyes water. He had no time to lose. He clicked off two FIRST KISS rockets. First, the tracking darts would hit true. They took advantage of the neural interface between brain and mech, so that the pilot would feel as though they were being kissed. Then, the rockets launched. Since the 'suits didn't have human pilots, Alex took killshots. Powersuits were never the most robust things in the world, and a well-placed rocket was enough to immobilize them. The things sat, empty, unmoved by his intimations, and smoking.
“Chaperone, give me a fucking hand here, over.” said Vashti.
“What's the sitrep, over?”
“You'd think that evac choppers wouldn't be so well armed. I'm going to have to scarper if you don't give me some support.”
“I'll give them a taste of hell. Cas-3 you're on your own.”
“You'll be fine.”
Alex tasted blood in his mouth. He'd bitten his cheek when he'd fired his FIRST KISS. He sat in his chair, catching his breath. Sandy hooted consolingly. He muttered some encouragement, in part for him, but mostly for himself. A dribble of rockets streamed across the sky, like the legs of a cold beer inside a glass. They burst in quiet, confident pops, each tearing a small hole in where clouds had been.
He made himself low, and the more of his hull he immersed in the pool, the more he felt tender aquatic fingers along his legs. Sandy had never liked getting water on him, so he croaked and cawed until Alex stood them up.
The arches, some chop job of Roman aqueduct, French minimalism and Greek colonnade, were pretty despite the sum of their parts not making any sense. Alex imagined what it would be like to be able to afford to stay here when it wasn't a warzone. He imagined four syllable cocktails whose names were all some innuendo, sunglasses to hide eyes tired or insane, stimulants of questionable legality. He imagined both sea-scored, muscular men, and women with sneers and gentle hands circled around him, in competition for his attention. He shook himself. It was the trouble with piloting mechas. One never had complete control of where ones thoughts flowed to. It was like having a curious five year old stapled onto your shoulder.
He noticed her before she noticed him. Maybe it was the gas that wasn't just smoke or dust. Maybe it was the fact that the aqueduct-- colonnade-- whatever it was, it just came up to her hip axis. Sandy killdeered the gas warning. Alex fumbled for his respirator. The arches blocked some of the letters of her name. It couldn't be anybody else. Cannibal. She was a Huîtrier model-- one of the first commander vehicles of her type, older than Alex, but despite her age, still saw extensive field use. Or at least, this one did. Among the stories about Cannibal, one of more pleasant was that Copeland had painted the skull on her underbelly in the distillate of the viscera of pilots he'd faced. It had been finished a while ago. He had chosen not to add to it any further, preferring to keep things simple. What he did to pilots nowadays after he'd finished was something Alex tried not to think about. The revolving autogun alone was probably taller than Sandy. It was locked under her shoulder, some monstrous prosthetic. He had to-- there was just the slimmest chance he'd be able to ambush him like he'd done his guards.
“So you're the piece of shit who's been killing my toys.”
How had he-- was he using-- Alex could hear that plummy, hard voice inside his cabin as though the man were sitting across from him, chatting over whiskey. He could even...
Alex blinked, stunned, as he sat in Sandy, the aroma of single malt and the crackle of a fire all around him,
“Well?” said Copeland. “Are you going to admit what you've done?” the voice chuckled.
“Reginald Copeland, you're under arrest for the use of nerve agents and the murder of three hundred and eighty nine noncombatants on February 19th of this year in direct contravention of-”
“Leave it, son. You're not the fuzz. Come and take me if you've got the balls.”
“This is your final warning.”
In place of responding, Copeland, with imperious, throwaway indifference, sprayed out half a second's worth of bullets, like a lord dismissing a servant with a handwave. Sandy threw himself back, as the 30mm rounds threw up plumes of water around him. One skimmed their shoulder. Alex remembered his training and remembered that the pain wasn't real, that the sensation of hot oil being localized along a straight line over his shoulder was just a fabrication of the neural interface, that he was fine, the bullet only grazed him. He changed the targeting from guided to manual. There wasn't time for darts. Sandy hunkered down, Alex's arm raised, finger extended. He pulled.
The keystone of the arch nearest to Cannibal burst. Well, the whole top of the arch exploded. The dislodged chunks of stone wouldn't do much to her reinforced hull, but it would provide a distraction. He swre under his breath. He fired again, this time at the knee of one of the mech's five legs. While mech design philosophy was always informed by human physiology, especially in the early days, the knee was one of the “weak spots” among even third-gen vehicles. Including tank-armour poleyns impeded movement, and a lucky hit could knock a plate inwards, damaging wiring and, in some cases, leaving a pilot trapped, nevertheless leaving them unprotected was unthinkable. The rocket detonated just below the mark, hitting what would be the shin, if it didn't already have a Serious Technical Engineer name that Alex couldn't remember or pronounce. The detonation-- a cough of smoke, searing flecks spat off, like a volcanic eruption localized to the surface of Cannibal's anterior second limb. It tore something, plucked a small piece from it. The leg wobbled a little, rotated, and righted itself. Alex expected as much. It'd take more than one, probably more even than he had, to down her. There was always another way, though. Sandy sang to remind him that RED ROSE was ready to fire again.
More fighting above them. Matchmaker twisted around the ugly, hard extraction craft like a matador around bulls. Chaperone spat flares into the sky to draw the attention of their heat seekers. Fireworks during the day were something Alex never could get used to. He knew that Matchmaker and the extraction teams were too close together to use SAMs but-- a crackle of fire from one of the choppers.
“Fuck, fuck, I'm hit.” Vashti's voice came fast and scared over comms, “I'm going to a higher altitude. Draw them away, over.”
“Affirmative, Matchmaker, good luck.” confirmed Stucker.
Copeland fired again. They thudded into the wall behind Alex, one snapping a peony-striped blue white sunshades like a cocktail umbrella.
“How the hell did you become a colonel with such dogshite aim?” he yelled over the loudspeaker. “Don't you have trigger discipline? I heard when you killed those civvies you had your boys tie them to posts so they couldn't run away. Makes sense that a coward can't hit a hostile from a hundred feet. That must be why you have other people do your dirty work, you can't—”
Five bullets—though it may have been ten, two, it didn't matter—hit him in the shoulder. Lights flashed indicating coolant loss as it burst in roostertails from the perforated joint. He couldn't hear the wires crackling, or could see them, but he knew they were there. Ligaments torn like losing raffle tickets, bone crumbled to dust. His arm—Sandy's arm—hung dumbly, useless, before another volley of bullets cleaved it from their body. The pain was unlike anything Alex had ever experienced. The only thing he had to compare it to was when during a sparring match, another pilot had stabbed Sandy with a piece of rebar, and a piece of it had actually gotten into the cockpit and an inch into his body and that was not a hundredth of what he was feeling now. His whole body shook. He brought his left hand over to touch his right but he couldn't do it. He'd pissed himself but was too busy screaming from the pain to make note of that humiliation. He couldn't see, he couldn't move, he could barely breathe. He saw himself in the cockpit. It was an emergency, yes, but he had trained for this. They'd given him a dampened version of this, but he'd gotten used to it, taken it dozens of times. Nothing was supposed to phase him. Nothing was supposed to break him. He leant forward in his seat, wide eyed, gasping.
“I only missed you because I wasn't even bothering to aim,” came the voice, sneering, calm, utterly in control.
“You're brave, boy, but stupid. Either way, you're here, abandoned by your team, hopelessly outgunned and outskilled. If you eject now, I'll give you a quick death.”
“Get...fucked.” he managed to croak.
Alex, hand shaking, lined up the crosshairs and clicked off a rocket. It sailed wide of Cannibal, some thirty feet over her shoulder. Behind her, one of the extraction choppers was illuminated for a moment, inside and out, as the rocket exploded.
“Casanova 3, did you engage-”
“-3 the fuck-”
“What did you-”
Alex tuned his radio off, and stood up. The cabin hadn't been penetrated, not yet, so he could keep fighting. Sandy had yet to stop screaming. He controlled his breath, and lined up another shot. One of Cannibal's back legs was grasped in fire. His mind raced. He'd spent hours pouring over Huîtrier design schema, and reports from the very few who had survived a meeting with her. There had to be something.
“Waste your rockets on my legs. I'll just be a bunker. I have thousands more bullets.”
Tears filled his eyes. Sandy squalked and outlined in red where the gas hopper was on her body. If that was destroyed, the poison would be destroyed in the heat—maybe. He wouldn't know. He hoped. Not many organic compounds can survive that sort of heat. While he was dumb as a brick next to Vashti, he did know that. He fired. It missed, but only just, scratching Cannibal's thick hull. The hopper, however, was dented. Dented was good. Dented meant malfunctional. He fired again for good measure. This time it hit true. Somewhere behind Cannibal, a building bloomed into flame and smoke, as the chopper collided with it. Before he could survey the damage, Copeland had returned fire. They tore through the defensive “kilt” (everyone else, excluding Vashti, called it a skirt) that protected part of the locomotive systems. As Sandy fell to the ground, Alex realized something. Something that he'd been doing, partially by accident, partially subconciously, partially by training. A mech the size of Cannibal weighed more than eighteen tons. If its balance were sufficiently destabilized—that is if Alex had only shot at things that weren't on the side of the third-ton autocannon, it could either be knocked over or sufficient strain would be placed on the mech's CNS to immobilize it completely. It was like taking weights off one side of a scale. Alex didn't move, pretending to have been knocked unconscious. He took as shallow breaths as his respirator allowed him. If Copeland bought it, got close enough...
Black spots filled his vision. He still couldn't bring himself to touch his right hand. It took all of his willpower to not move, to not get up. Cannibal began to scuttle towards him.
“Broken already? You were quick.” said Copeland. His voice system changed to the loudspeaker, “Next time, send a real man after me, Stucker! I know you're the one leading this gang. I'll have fun with this...”
Alex's radio burst to life again. That's funny, he thought, he hadn't remembered turning it back on again. Out of the corner of his eye...was that a... were they...?
A great white spark of a fist burst from a hatch on top of Chaperone, hitting Cannibal in the back.
She twisted round a quarter turn to face her attacker. Alex aimed one last time, and held down the trigger.
Smoke cleared. He'd only had three shots left anyway. The Huîtrier twitched like an animal caught in a bear trap. This was, in fact, the convulsions that occurred when the neural uplink between pilot and mecha was severed, with pilot still inside, and vehicle online.
“Casanova-3, come in.”
“Give me a fucking sitrep, lieutenant.”
“Engaged Cope...Lost RED ROSE. My rocket...the chopper. Sandy may have trouble getting back on his feet.”
“Give me Copeland's status, over.”
“Severed...there's gas. Tell the boys to put their suits on...”
The next few minutes (maybe, could've been longer) went by in snapshots. Six men in white mops leaping out of the APC. Alex being pulled from under his armpits out of Sandy's splayed body as he muttered that the angels shouldn't take him that he had unfinished business. Two of then clambering up the ladders along Cannibal's legs to place the breaching charge. Them not even waiting for Copeland to surrender before tasing him. One ghostly man crouching next to Alex, as he lay in the shattered iznik pool, water lapping at his cheeks, saying things to him that he couldn't understand, and Sandy repeating the call of a barn owl as he blacked out.
He awoke in a cot next to those familiar tread feet, his head propped up, and right arm—missing arm, folded across his chest. It took him a while to realize that he was in the turquoise-olive shade of the hangar. Military and engineering paraphernalia lay scattered around, here, a quarter of a mech engine, wires all out, there a 108mm smoothbore cannon. His right hand still felt that it wasn't real. When he squeezed it, it was as if it were Sandy, not him, who was doing the gesture. Some sixty feet up was the ceiling, veined thickly in piping and fluorescent lights. In the middle of this sat Vashti. She was sitting on the bottom steps of a scissor lift, cross legged, at his eye level, a laptop on her knee. Her hair was back in a practical bun, and she was in her bright orange engineer's uniform, the one that Alex occasionally teased her about never actually changing out of. The red of her glasses frames only made her deep green eyes even more intense through the meticulously clean surgical loupes she wore over them. He took in her body. He'd not died quite yet. He was going to be fine.
“Have you finished ogling me or should I wait a bit before I debrief you?”
“That's Major Kahn to you.”
“First things first, let's get this out of the way,” she read off the screen in a very serious voice: “I'd like to congratulate you on behalf of Commodore Stafford for your brave service in the apprehension of Reginald Copeland. At great personal risk, you disabled his vehicle and facilitated his arrest, despite your reckless cessation of communications with the rest of your squad. As of now, you are on temporary recovery lead. I hope you enjoy it while it's still nice topside.”
“And second, as your mechanic, how the hell could you do this to me? Do you know how much time and money went into RED ROSE development? How could you get your bloody arm shot off? How could you do that to Sandy? It's honestly disgusting how careless you were. Don't ever turn off your radio in a firefight again. He must've been in such pain, too. You're incredible, you are. Parts alone are going to take weeks to get in, and assembly-- well, I'm probably not going to be able to sleep much, let me tell you that. Do you know how many connections there are in the the shoulder to the arm? Five hundred and sixty eight, and that's just wiring, let alone articulation or coolant. Do you think that next time you go out on a mission in him, you're going to return--” she took a breath, “You were irresponsible. You let that monster torture my baby.” she smiled wanly, “I was worried about you too.”
“What else could I have done?”
“You could have not goaded him. Hey, look at me, ” she said, in a bad imitation of his accent, “I'm going to make fun of a mass murderer in a mech three times the size of mine, it'll go over flawless.”
“He'd have shot me anyway. It's SOP to disable limbs when possible.”
“He was buying time for evac.”
“What, you're saying he didn't want to blow my arm off? How fucking thoughtful of him.”
“No. I'm just—look, you were reckless and I didn't want either of you to get hurt.”
“You seem more concerned about Sandy, honestly.”
“I'm pissed off with you, not him.”
“Are you really, or are you just saying that?”
“I'm sorry, okay!”
“Thanks, babe, that's all I needed to hear.”
“Where is Cannibal now?”
“Oh, we've got her. I'm going to have so much fun exploring her.” she said with barely concealed glee.
“I'm glad,” said Alex, rolling his eyes, “I'm keeping to your word about stepping on cars, remember?”
“Don't be so nonchalant.”
“Excuse me, I'm the one who severed Copeland.”
“Oh, as part of your apology, I can requisition you to be here for at least some of the repair process.”
“My apology? What absolute joy.” he said, “I can speak to Stuck and have it blocked on medical grounds.”
“I didn't tell you exactly what you'd be helping me out with.”
“Why can't you have one of those ensigns do it? I've always hated welding.”
“Well, for one thing, I think it'd be against the rules for ensigns to rub my feet after work.”
“Are you still going to petition to reject my requisition?”
“Thought so. Anyway, that reminds me—how's the arm?”
“Not in agony anymore.”
“They gave you painkillers and a physical while you were asleep. Pain should be back, but it'll go away in a few days.”
“I didn't know. I didn't know it would hurt that badly.”
“It's the cost for that perfect nervous integration.”
“Mh, you know, I've never really felt safe with anyone else being my eyes in the sky. I remember a couple months back, you were too busy with R&D to play Matchmaker and they dropped in this shithead corporal who was supposedly a crack drone pilot but-”
“It is nice to watch you work on the ground too.” she interrupted. “Satisfying. Anyway, we need to run some diagnostics on Sandy. Do you think you can climb up him by yourself?”
“Right, right, business first.” Alex said.
He propped himself up with his left hand, and swung his legs over the side of the cot. Just to check, he tried to make a first with his right hand. He achieved moving the top joints of his fingers.
“Ah.” she said. “Well, this is why we've got the scissor lift. Here--”
She put an orange-clad forearm under his armpit, and they stood up together. There were three sets of stairs to the cockpit, which was open, giving Sandy's upper half the appearance of a snake's mouth, the sort that could dislocate its jaws to open up more than ninety degrees. When they got to the top, they stood there a moment.
“Well?” she said.
“I don't think I can jump.”
“You're hopeless.” she said. She tapped a complicated-looking command into her laptop. Sandy knelt a little, and leant forward, making it so that Alex would just step on in through.
Once in, he closed the canopy and sat down.
“You look good today, babe.” he said, through the loudspeakers.
“I know. I got my first good night's sleep in weeks. You know how command is with drone pilots., ten hours shuteye, warm breakfast, it's a real treat.”
“I mean, you look beautiful.”
“Thanks. For a boy who just half-destroyed my life's work and suffered the pain of losing an arm, you're not too terrible yourself. You look powerful in your pilot's chair.”
He laughed, “Nice use of litotes.” More seriously he added, ”I’m glad you think I’m not terrible. What else is your evaluation, Major?”
“Could do with some refinement, particularly in the obedience and manners sectors,” she paused, “not to mention lustfulness.”
“Lustful?” He mock-protested,”Aren’t you the one who walks around with their jumpsuit half unzipped with nothing underneath?”
Vashti’s posture straightened. “Do you understand how hot it gets in here? Even with aircon it gets untenable. Anyway that was the past, I have a tanktop on underneath this now. Apparently being a genius only lets you get away with so much before Stucker gets his knickers in a twist over some nearly-exposed mammary glands.”
“It’s okay Vashti, you’re still flying in the face of regulations by not having the full uniform. Your rebel image is mostly intact.”
Vashti looked amused at that. She rested her head in a palm and looked at him. “I’ve noticed that you seem to be opposite. You always have your full ensemble on no matter the weather. Hell, you usually have that helmet on despite only needing it when you’re in Sandy.”
She tapped her jaw with her other hand and spoke before he got the chance to cut in, “Hm. I've always felt that your helmet's a bit silly. Silly, but not incorrect. I feel like some disgusting teenage boy, but I've always followed you with my eyes when you walk past.”
Looking back at him, on the floor under the manual control panel was the thing—with
CLASS OF 20XX
Written thick in paint across its forehead.
“And all the other girls in the bunk agree with me. But there's one key difference between them and me.”
“I've got you. You're mine.”
“No I'm not, I'm my own man.” he said, a little indignant.
“Your arse is mine.”
“That-- that is true. I--” he trailed off.
“You're not used to complements about that part of you.”
“No. You know that.”
“To be dramatic, thou art truly...callipygian.” she flourished a hand.
“What does that mean?”
She just smiled.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that your arse is nice.”
“Nice, in addition to belonging to Vashti?”
Even after a few minutes his pulse was still fast. “So… what now?”
Vashti had been on her computer still the entire time. She grinned at him. Her typing quickened. Alex breathed out. He wondered how much he was going to regret this.
“Well, as much as I’m sure you’d love to run off with me, there’s actually a bit of work I need to get through. Now that you’re conscious, there’s some tests I need to be run to check how extensively the neural severance affected you and if there’s still some rogue connections I need to shut down.”
“What are you writing?”
“Damage report. Professional evaluation, and whatnot.”
She kept typing.
“Hey, what is it like to be with Sandy in combat?” she said, not looking at him.
“I've told you this already.” Alex laid back in the chair.
“Tell me again.”
“Like-- well-- your fingers begin to feel hot from the rockets and like you're there. You and Sandy are one. His noises get to be like the voice you talk to yourself in in your head.”
“I wonder, do your lips taste of fighting? Of cordite, rocket fuel, dirt, blood.”
“Why don't you come over here and find out?” he smiled.
“I've got to finish this report.” she said.
“Hey, Vashti, if it's not too much, maybe you-”
“You're what-- oh!” she laughed, half teasing, half sweet, “You want to make out again.”
“I would like that Major, sir, please. I'm...I'm exhausted. I--”
“You need this?” she said, mocking, “You'll just not be able to take it?”
“No.” he said, curtly “It'd just be nice.”
“You're going to have to hold out a few more minutes, babe. Gotta finish this report.”
“Screw the report.”
“Well, that's just going to make it take longer.”
“Don't be like that.”
“Shut up a moment.”
She didn't reply. The three minutes of silence were impossible for Alex. He chewed his lips and looked around the room, trying to follow each pipe from start to finish. He got lost a couple times and grunted mild swear words. There was a particular knot of them in the middle of the ceiling that he wasn't able to navigate around, especially since none of the pipes were labelled. Sandy whistled the first three bars of a song he liked five times in succession. At last, she was done.
“Right. I've sent it off. Let's get ourselves some privacy.”
She typed a command into her computer, and the doors locked. “Now, we won't have any interruptions--” she typed some more, and the twelve CCTV cameras all simultaneously deactivated, “Or any peeping toms. Are you ready, Alex?”
Alex ran through the neural uplink establishment protocol. Despite being a pilot for the last five years, and playing simulators for the last eight, he'd always struggled with this part. It felt like patting his head and rubbing his belly at the same time. The command varied, but was always something along the lines of “Count backwards from a hundred in sevens in your head while counting forwards in fives verbally.” The purpose of this was to properly integrate the AI with your own brain. He'd heard that it was easier to do when not sober, but the notion of piloting when drunk scared him. Uplink was the sort of seizure-inductive, red-flashing-lights sort of thing that excluded someone like Vashti from being one. He never understood why it had to be this way. Something something neurology zygomatic wankstain nonsense. The surge, immediate after uplink, was the headrush emerging too fast from underwater, or having gunned through six instant coffees one after another. He could see the whole hangar with perfect clarity.
“So I'm just going to explain procedure here-”
Alex rolled his eyes, “I know, I know what you're doing.”
“Explain it to me,then.”
“From your computer there you're making Sandy relay, um, certain sensations to me, like how FIRST KISS targeting darts work.”
“In a reductive, secondary-school level way, I suppose. You're missing out the part that you lost a goddamn limb out there so we need to see if the connection still works correctly, and make calibrations if its not. ”
“Excuse me Doctor Kahn.”
“Not a Doctor quite yet. Soon though. Maybe in a few years.”
“Anyway, so when are you-- oh.”
The 'certain sensation' was like warm silicon, the texture and density of human touch, offset a few parameters, vibrating at a just-shy-of imperceptible speed. The touch began on either side of his hips. A “thumb” dug in a bit, with easy pressure, just below his ribs. He'd crossed his legs at the shins, and his right leg trembled with anticipation. Gradually, “fingertips”, gentle, sleeked across his belly, careless, barely connecting.
“H-hey there--” he started, before he was cut off by a warm, slightly moist bar on his lips.
“I'm testing out a few macros I've been working on.” said Vashti.
That same slick bar caressed the underside of his tongue, as the “fingertips” grasped him. He just about held in a moan covering his mouth with both hands. Others prodded him, teasing but deliberate, twisting at the “wrist”, stirring him up. His breath was heavier now. If he closed his eyes, left the heat of the hangar, he could be in his place of fantasies, dark purple light cast on his nude body, blindfolded, hands bound, while dozens of hands rubbing his belly, inspecting it like the meat of some animal, stroking his neck, gracing his thighs, fingering his--
“Are you ashamed of yourself? Of your body?” she said, “This--” He felt the slap of a seatbelt against his abdomen, “This fat?” He choked out a gasp as the “fingertips” grabbed him, taking a rough “fistful” of it. He couldn't look Vashti in the eye. He stared at his feet to hide his hot cheeks.
Before he could answer, something-- something very close to a human palm, cupped an arse cheek. He instinctively leant into it, lending the “hand” better purchase on him.
“Mh, I wish I could make two-way integration work, so I could feel that too.” said Vashti, with only a drop of passion in her voice. “Imagine what sort of fun we could have.”
“I'd make you squirm.” blurted Alex.
“You'll what now?” she said, her composure at odds with the speed at which she was typing.
“I'll-” Before he could finish, teeth-- a close approximate, really, but identifiably teeth-- caught him between his neck and shoulder. They clenched hard, and he let out a keening noise, pitching his shoulder back in an attempt to shake off what was not physically there.
“What was that?” she said, her voice, twinged warm and wet, filling the cockpit.
“Squirming.” he managed to say, arse rubbing against chair, right leg trembling, one hand trying to hold onto something but not finding it.
“Right.” she said, through an indulgent smile. “Was it I who was squirming?”
“What are you doing right now?”
“Reacting to what you're doing to me.”
“Reacting? Not squirming?”
A pair of lips met his, familiar ones—Vashti's lips. His mind raced to find answers for how she had been able to do that, how she'd been able to recreate what her kiss felt like. The image of her mouth against a sensile vector tube made him blush harder. He leant back into his chair, half voluntarily, half from the soft pressure on his shoulders. His head rested between the neck supports.
“I'm going to choke you now.” said Vashti, matter-of-factly, “Remember a couple years ago when some pilots were killed in combat because they were strangled from inside their own mech? I'm using the same code that virus used.”
The supports moved inwards. Their pressure was soft but insistent as they began to crush the sides of his neck. Hot lips grazed his belly. That soft warm bar brushed round his nape, delved into the cleft of his collarbones, towards the trachea. Closer now. His breath came tighter. In his mind, the cold plasticky leather substitute became the smoothness of Vashti's fireproof engineering jumpsuit. Her thighs disinterestedly crushed his neck. He felt himself twitch inside his briefs. His breath grew sparse, his tongue hung out of his mouth. The pressure—it enveloped him, the supports cut into his flesh, the sweetness of oxygen deprivation was awash in his mouth, this buzzing hive of rapid circling something in his throat. Black spots fluttered through his vision. His hips bucked and he tried to speak, but instead saliva dripped from his mouth.
“Okay, that's enough.” she said, low and sweet, “Good boy,” he felt the condensation of breath in his right ear. Those words made him rub his thighs together, made him open his mouth wider, made him grasp at the railing in front of the windshield.
“Are you ready for me to touch you down there?”
“I love it when you call me that. That adorable tone of voice. Almost makes me want to not delay your pleasure.”
“Please touch me.”
Cool metallic petals landed heavy on him. Those teeth, not quite teeth, sunk into his right nipple, while something wrist-thick and serpentine slipped into his briefs. He bit his lip, trying to resist the urge to hump what he knew was raw air. Hand simulacra held his arse like two halves of a ripe peach, thumbs peeling them gently wider. Nails dragged up his back. He buckled into it. At the zenith of his twisting, she touched him. He blinked. Her fingers, a halo of them around his vag, pressed, dipped, raised, one after another. He became very still and felt himself blush again. One finger slipped into him to the knuckle and he started saying something but was drowned by stammers. She beckoned inside him, her short fingernails grazing him. This dragged him forward towards the windshield, he caught himself before impact. He panted as she worked his insides. He felt her watching him and tried to reassemble himself into something that wasn't a lust-wracked mess. She waited, even giving him a break from stimulation to right himself.
“Hey, I didn't say you could stop.” he said.
“Cocky little shit.”
A three inch wide sphere materialized deep in him. It had that fresh-from-the-freezer metal chill, a floaty weightlessness and smoothness.
“Ohgod I'm sorry sorry sorry-”
“Are you really?”
“I know. Refreshing, innit?”
“Please make it stop.”
“Why don't you beg in the way that I've taught you? Maybe-”
“I don't—fuck is that colder?”
“Fifteen degrees. Every ten seconds you're not begging.”
“That's not fair.”
“You're right. Should be getting worse in five, four--”
“You're not begging.”
“I hate—“ he was interrupted by the drop in temperature and was unable to finish his sentence.
He knelt in his chair and made a face of supplicatory eroticism; tongue out, eyes pleading, the tops of his shoulders revealed, hands clasped in a parodic gesture of begging.
“Acceptable.” she said. A few keystrokes later, the coldness vanished.
“That was awful of you.”
“Where were we?”
“You were jerking me off?”
“Oh yeah. Do you want me to get back to that?”
She came onto him hard. Hands rubbed his nipples between finger and thumb, pinched, grazed in passing, encircled, teased. Two fingers found their place in his mouth and he instinctively sucked on them. More grabbed at his belly and sides, sunk into their softness, snatching at it, rough but careful. Fingers twisted inside him and his eyes rolled back into his skull as he squirmed in the chair. He wanted her in here with him, to smell the strange familiarity of the air-freshener mixed with sweat and hormones. He was getting there, it was close, her touch seemed to realize this and quickened, dragging back and forth in him, his toes curled in his shoes—and then suddenly nothing.
“W-wh--” he was able to say.
“I've realized I never did have you eat me out.”
“Do you think you can do that?”
She undid her hair, her fingers crossing over each other as she eased out the bun, and it fell down her back in mahogany waves, ending some few inches above her arse. She did not break eye contact with him. She undid the velcro collar, and brought finger and thumb to her throat, drawing the zip, itself black and glittering and yonic, down to her navel. Her tank top peeked out as her fingers passed through the cleft between her breasts, it was white cotton, bright against the rusted-Buddhist-monk of her jumpsuit. Her expression of mildly irritated concentration did not change. She took her time, and his breath caught in his throat as he watched her undress. She shrugged off the shoulders of her uniform and it hung at her heels. A sleeve graced one of her black steel-toed boots so shiny that you could actually see your face in it. She muttered a covert oh fucking hell (which Alex heard) and pulled the tank top over her head. Underneath was a pale blue sports bra, soapy turquoise. The contrast of the bedroom-wall-blue, the white lining and the rich colour of her skin made him want to, want to—She reached down and knotted the arms of her suit around the waist. Alex was hit hard with the image of her sitting on his lap facing him while he sucked and chewed on her nipple. She'd folded her tank top and hung it over the railing of the scissor lift.
“Open the canopy, babe.”
He obeyed, and she stepped in, careful to avoid any of the buttons on the control panel. He looked up at her and saw something like scorn in her eyes. His heart fluttered when the hard toe of her shoe nestled itself in his crotch.
“Now while you give me head I know you're going to want to stimulate yourself too. Unfortunately, we can't have that.”
She turned around and typed two dozen lines. When she hit the run key, Alex suddenly felt as though there was a wall of some smooth, hard, temperatureless material about half a millimetre away from his skin everywhere below his neck. This newfound restriction made him breath deep and sharp. The toe of the boot, still touching him through his pilot suit, felt as though it had its own indentation in the wall. He leant forwards, and, zipper in his mouth, eased the crotch of her suit down a little, to reveal her matching panties. She wriggled it down so that it all bunched around her ankles. After freeing it from the jumpsuit, she rested her other booted foot on the top of the chair, right next to the neck supports.
“You're a mess down here. I can see it perfectly through your--.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“Yours.” he said, and grinned.
“Eat me out, dickhead.”
He kissed her, and his tongue tip lapped at her. She let out a growl, that turned into a freshman yelp. He moved her underwear aside with his teeth. His tongue skipped over her, in for a second, gliding over the satiny folds of her cunt, his nose against her pubis. Her hand ran through his hair, making half fists. Her knees began to knock, the more he stroked her with his sliplet, honey-smooth tongue. Inside her he drew xs and os. She jolted and started to say something but was subsumed by a single moan which she cut short. Too late though. He looked up at her, tongue still there, communicating his victory with a glance. She readjusted her glasses to hide her blush and wet eyes. He made it squirm inside her, and began to draw it back into his mouth, as his top lip kissed her clit. She tasted sweet.
She took his hand in hers and made him grab her arse. It felt half like being anaesthetised and half like being moved by three feet of concrete. As his fingers came into contact with her luscious rump, it was as though it was emerging from the wall, bit by bit, until it was all within his grasp. She pushed his head back against the back of the seat with some fiery energy. When he looked up again, he could spot her hard nipples through her bra. She put both hands around his head and pressed it to her, bending at the knee with her raised leg to make him as close as possible. He stuck it deep into her again and she daintily held a hand over her mouth to stifle any embarrassment.
She took her leg down from the top of the chair and slid her now sodden panties down her legs, letting them bunch up next to her jump suit around her right ankle, having freed her left foot. She dug her boot into his crotch and he twitched around her.
He put his mouth against her lips for a second time and all he could think about was how much he wanted to fingerfuck her to somewhere tearful and endorphin-rushed, how he wanted to, to-- tongue inside her, he made the movements that would knot a cherry stem and Vashti moaned again, this time, unheld back. Her right leg, the supporting leg was getting weak, and her juices were dripping down his chin, staining her thighs. He moved his head a might to suck against her thigh, cleaning her. She put his face back where it belonged, and when he refused to put his tongue out she bucked against him until he gave her a few moments relief.
“I'm—I think I—”
“Please Vashti, I've not finished yet either.”
“I can make you finish with just a line of code. Can you think about that?”
His mouth hung open, full of saliva.
“All of that power, a true, hard, blinding orgasm, just from a couple keystrokes.”
He frotted against her boot.
“I could keep you like this for hours, or take you to the knife edge, and keep you there, while I go repair that engine.”
“Imagine that. Imagine being held so close and yet so far. Imagine that feeling of almost bursting. Must be hellish. I don't think I could stand more than a few minutes of it. Fortunately for you, it could be a whole day.”
“Would you like that? I could even make it so that that was your only sensation—no sound, no sight, no smell or hearing or touch other than having your clit teased.”
Alex coughed out a moan.
“Are you really getting turned on from this, from just these words? Ohmygod you're adorable sometimes.”
“I wonder what sort of state you'd be in after even two hours of that. You'd have gotten past begging, that's for sure.”
“That said I hate to break it to you but I do really need to get to work here, so finish me off and I'll fist you.”
She stroked him, leading him to her. As he tongued her, her eyes rolled back into her skull. She knocked him back against his headrest as he sucked on her and she ground herself into his face. The material trapping his body melted away. She must've put it on a timer. He looked up at her again, her teeth gritted, eyelids fluttering, cheeks flushed, and reached up and groped her. His fingertips teasing her nipple was what pushed her over.
He felt her shiver in his mouth. She made a bestial noise that may well have been his name. Her tongue hung out of her mouth. She dug her fist into his hair and held him there, face up against her, so hard that he began to have trouble breathing.
“Fuck, Alex-, fu-” she gasped, her words subsumed by some inarticulate sound of pleasure. Her boot in his crotch jutted forward and he had to catch her before she fell on him. He held the almost naked girl in his arms while she found herself.
She lay there for about three minutes, not yet able to speak. At last, she slid out of his arms,
knelt in her boots on the steel floor, made more comfortable with rubber, and stood up. She leant over him and kissed him on the lips. If anyone were looking at Sandy's cockpit, with glasses to the correct polarization, they'd get an eyeful of Vashti's arse and thighs.
“Thanks, babe.” she said, “You're really good at that.”
He responded by leaning up and kissing her further, licking her tongue inside her mouth. He took her right hand by the wrist, and lubed it, half with the mess of her cunt and half with two of the dozen sachets of some waterbased stuff that was peeking out of one of the zippered pockets on the hips of her uniform. He broke away from her mouth, brought his to her elegant fist, and gave it a soft and delicate
kiss. He nodded. Vashti, still kneeling in front of him, separated his legs,resting one on each arm of the chair. His suit also zipped up the front, so with her nonsticky hand, she undid it. She considered teasing him about his shape, but chose not to. The zip ended halfway down his right thigh. He was completely exposed, and he knew it.
Alex wasn't exactly not a size king so he could take Vashti's fist inside him, but even so, as she started by slipping in one finger, he bit his forearm. She signed her name on the walls of his vag with that one finger. He blinked and twisted a little.
“Don't move or I'll have to lock your legs in place.”
She laughed, “What the hell do you read during your spare time? Mistress,” she mimicked, “Wow, okay, I'm your Mistress now, alright.”
She put another finger into him. . Her fingers, real fingers beckoning inside him were different to the ones that she had used earlier, those felt weightier and less well formed. These real ones were softer but also stronger. She spun them around and he panted desperately. When she drew her hand out, he had this painfully cute lost-puppy expression.
“Don't worry, babe.” she said, “I'm not leaving you hanging.”
She crossed her thumb over her palm, resting it on the bottom joint of her little finger, and sunk it into him. Once inside, slowly, carefully, so as to make sure he truly felt every moment of it, so that each movement had its own time to be registered, she made a fist. He felt himself being streched out. He ground his arse against the now-slick seat of the chair. She rolled her knuckles into him, and he exhaled hard. He turned away to hide his face but she grabbed him by the chin and forced him to look at her.
“Isn't this just what you wanted? God, you're really into this aren't you? Taking my whole hand inside you without making a noise? I couldn't do that. Hmm, what if I...”
She began to pump her hand inside him, not far back enough to come out, nor hard enough to hurt him. Pump wouldn't be the right word, she rocked her hand inside him. He covered his mouth with both hands and shook almost imperceptibly.
“Ooh, I'm onto something.”
She slowed down, but was more forceful. As she pulled back from each lunge, each punch, he was dragged forward a little. He held onto the armrests and she saw her chance. Her hand fully inside him, in him to the wrist, she leant forward, her hot nipples grazing his binder, and sucked on his neck. He immediately began to squirm, but with her spare hand, she made it so that he felt that both of his hands and feet were encased in concrete. His mind was emptied, all of his thoughts were concerned with the wavelike thrusting of her hand, feeling much deeper than it likely was. He felt himself clench around her hand, and worked his hips to get a little more stimulation.
“Be rough with me.” he murmured.
“What? Couldn't quite catch that.” said Vashti, who had definitely heard him.
“B-be rough with me,” he said again, louder, adding, “Please, please fuck me harder.”
She knocked him against the back of the seat, with an armbar to the throat, and, in short, frenzied thrusts, did just that. One or two lifted him off the seat. She flexed her fist inside him, as though she were showing off her tight, strong biceps. An idea crossed her mind. She removed the blade of her forearm from his neck, and typed a dozen or so quick lines into her laptop. She saw the change in his expression as he felt something, the size and temperature of an ice-cube, materialize inside his arse. She typed another few lines, and it began to vibrate. She had placed it very near to where her hand was in him, so when she made jellyfishlike motions with her fingers, she knew that he could feel her touch it through the wall of muscle separating them. She saw in his pleading eyes some kind of masochism, and drew the gentlest of circles on his belly. That broke him. He made a keening noise, cut between short, shallow breaths.
“You slut,” she hissed into his ear, “You've got no reaction to being fistfucked but as soon as I touch your belly--” she gave it a rough grab, “You moan.”
“Yes, Vashti, I, I am a--” he managed to get out between thrusts, “I am a slut, please, please.”
“Please can I come please I please can I come--” he mantrad in a low voice, his words dissolving into just one long “Aah-”
“In a moment, darling.” she said. She knelt, and, still squeezing him, still fisting him, that cold vibrator still inside him, she touched his clit with her tongue.
Sandy shuddered violently as though he were hit with an EMP. Its still functional left arm twitched and articulated. Inside, Alex's toes curled, fingers dug into his palms, his voice heightened. Vashti felt him shiver around her fist. He sat up abruptly. She stuck her tongue in his mouth and palmed his clit. As he came, Alex made a low noise. He sunk into his chair, legs, arms, useless, while Vashti planted kisses on his eyelids and thighs.
The two sweaty bodies lay together in the pilot's chair, mumbling half sentences and giggling as one touched the other. Alex lay limply in Vashti's arms, sometimes turning his head to kiss her clavicles or to bring his lips to her breast. She didn't talk. She fumbled for her glasses, which she'd left on the dashboard, her other hand holding him in place. She slid them on and regained herself.
“Wow, I—I, that was—that was really something.” she said.
“I'd have never known that you'd be so fucking good at that.” said Alex, “A nerd like you.”
“You were the one begging and calling yourself a slut just minutes ago.”
“You know, I'm kinda glad that this is the first time we've fucked.”
“Last time wasn't fucking?”
“Last time, dear Vashti, was making out. If Lawrence hadn't come into the supply closet for a smoke, we probably would've, but--”
“I agree. Thanks, Lawrence.”
“You weren't bad yourself, either. That mouth of yours certainly has some talent.”
“After this, are you going to tell all the girls about how you've conquered me?”
“Maybe. I might. But I am a lady, and ladies don't kiss and tell.”
“Well, I'll kiss you and tell you again that you are amazing. How the hell did you learn all that?”
“When I made Sandy, the first part was the AI itself plus the neural interface. This must've been when I was, what, a lonely, gross, socially skilless seventeen year old. I made a modified interface route that wouldn't, hurt me and then, you know--”
“I've heard enough. I know exactly where this is going.”
“So you can understand that I've had a lot of practice.”
“Mmh. So tell me, are we still on for the beach?”
It was evening now, outside, and the sun was in the process of setting. The water was warm, and Alex dangled his legs into it. Stucker had forbidden him from swimming due to the state of his arm, but a little ways out, Vashti, in a blue and white bikini, cut through the water with grace. She stood up and waved at him. He took a puff of his joint and waved back.. Sandy whistled a complex tune, the cockpit a few feet above him. He looked particularly ridiculous, a couple sunshades looted from the hotel had been temporarily attached to his head and shoulders, for that seaside look. Since there was nobody on the beach, Alex had forgone tank top or binder, and sat, shirtless, in Hawaiian pattern trunks. There were some of the oranges there, he'd been given special permission to pick them. He had stopped after getting a couple hundred. That'd likely be enough so that everyone in the company could have some. The cockpit was so stuffed with bags of the fruit that he and Vashti had to share the seat. She swam over to him and pulled herself onto the platform on Sandy's hip. He was right about how great she looked in swimwear. She took the joint from him and blew a smoke ring into the vivid blood-orange sky. They were young, and high, and had oranges, and were alive.