Doctor Curtis Boatman surveyed the project proposal before him with interest. Then concern. Then understanding. Then he reached the projected cost and almost flipped his lid. Internally, of course; it wouldn't do to let Doctor Flunkey see his distress. That aside, the concept was sound. He continued to peruse the document as he addressed its composer.
"An intriguing solution you have devised here, Doctor. Remarkably simple, given the target."
"Thank you, Doctor Boatman," Flunkey responded.
Boatman peered over the data tablet, one eyebrow arched. "And extremely expensive."
Flunkey scratched his head. "Well, yes, sir. But if I may say so, any more expensive than the loss of our moon base and General Gog?"
Boatman nodded slowly. "Yes, quite true." He leaned back in his absurdly comfortable chair. "Very well, Doctor, you may proceed." He pushed the tablet over the desk. Doctor Flunkey retrieved it, nodded his thanks, and left quickly and efficiently, like any good flunky. Boatman swivelled smoothly to gaze out the window at the small bit of the world that still belonged to him, and to no-one in particular, remarked:
"Yes, it will be expensive. But Xu Mei must be eliminated."
Xu Mei hung motionless from the low ceiling of the warehouse, waiting for the Street Sweepers to pass beneath. There were three teams in the warehouse, searching for her. They had already registered on Local CCTV, all except this group. They had spotted the surveillance blind spot and were actively exploiting it, trying to flank her. Or, at least, trying to flank where they thought she was. Xu Mei wasn’t going to make it that easy for them.
Jeez, one would’ve thought I’d get a break after that near disaster on the moon, but here I am. Training the next generation in front-line cannon fodder. She shook the unfair thought from her head. The Sweeper teams were an essential part of the Syndicate’s plans, even if they did have a rather high casualty rate. Well, that’s part of the reason I’m here isn’t it? To train a better breed of troops and start making more headway into the war against the abomination menace. She rattled the words off in her head like the party line they were. Well, it still beat being shot at and mauled by moon monsters.
A small notification flared into view on her HUD; the results of her diagnostic scan were back. She smiled. She had installed her replacement cybernetics less than a week ago and they were registering only a 0.001% error margin in her chi flow. This is why they should design and install their own mods. Too many go for simple specs these days. They probably don’t even read the user guides. Not that they’d need them if they designed their own. Well, can’t be too hard on them. I have had certain advantages in my training.
She let her thoughts drift away as she passively watched the ostensibly covert element of the attack pass below her. They moved somewhat amateurishly, but not recklessly. Not bad, not bad at all. I may even have to... oh for the love of--Shining Silver?
One of her prey had made the rather poor tactical decision of using the best, brightest, and, above all, glowing-est of aesthetic skins for his cyberware. Xu Mei could have seen it from the other side of the warehouse. She felt she could have seen it from another Juncture. Well, I’m sure it is very popular with the teens out there but you are on a combat operation for pity’s sake. She conveniently squashed the memory of her own less than ideal appearance on her last mission. She sustained far too many injuries; nearly got killed. But that was the past and she’d learned.
Well, if this is the covert element of the operation --her lips curled into a scary smile-- they will be running silent, not networked with the other teams. So I can educate them now rather than later. As the last member of the now doomed team passed, Xu Mei dropped with absolute silence. Maybe this will teach them to pay better attention to their surroundings in future.
Doctor Flunkey and Technician Dave (there's always a Dave) sat monitoring the progress of their new creation, occasionally tweaking dials. The process was largely automated now, their active involvement reduced to monitoring various levels and the aforementioned knob tweaking. Hence, boredom abounded, and there's only so much "Rock, Paper, Magog" you can play before it becomes an exercise in abject futility (Magog always wins). Dave sighed and spun on his less than ideal chair, stopping when he faced Flunkey.
"Ya know, I'm impressed with the way this thing is turning out and all, but are we sure it’s going to be enough? I mean, they don't call her Xu Mei The Dragon because she hordes gold and breathes fire." Dave paused and cocked his head thoughtfully. "She can't breathe fire, right? 'Cause that wasn't taken into account in the plans."
Flunkey stretched and yawned. "You're bringing this up now? We're almost done here. To answer your questions, no, she can't breathe fire and, yes, this has the capacity to bring her down. Didn't you read the brief?"
"I'm a technician. I build, monitor, and maintain abominations. I do not read tactical analysis. Can you summarise it for me?"
"Yeah, sure." Flunkey leaned forward, placing his forearms on his knees. "Well, you know how there are surveillance devices everywhere? Xu Mei can hack the feed on them. I'm not just talking CCTV, but also TV cameras, ATM, satellites, even mobile phones. She takes all this data and forms a sort of 3D map in her head which updates in real time. She can then develop strategies with perfect, up to the second intel. The truly amazing thing is that this isn't just for planning attacks. She uses this in actual fights. You can't surprise her from behind, because she knows you're there. You can't corner her, because she knows how your troops are distributed and where the gaps are. There's an old saying about how the one who knows the land can conquer heaven. Well, Xu Mei certainly conquered our moon base."
"So, that's it?" Dave didn't feel terribly impressed.
"What do you mean, that's it?"
"Well, I thought there'd be some sort of mystical, eastern, kung fu martial arts mojo going on."
"She is a martial arts master, but that's entirely beside the point. Let me put it this way. Could you monitor a nutrient flow, process the monthly invoices, complete one of your Sudoku puzzles--"
"I do that sort of thing frequently."
"--while avoiding being shot in the head by Agent Tanaka."
"Oh. That's... actually a very good point. Although, honestly, I don't think I could prevent Tanaka from shooting me in the head under any circumstances. She's scary."
"So, how does this abomination avoid that? There's no ECM in the design."
"It wouldn't help. Her hacking software is just too good. Seriously, she hacked the CCTV in the moon base she took down. Our very own moon base! No, we can nullify her advantage against groups simply by confronting her with only one opponent."
"Wait, we're sending this thing in unsupported?"
"Yup. They'd only get in its way."
Dave sighed. "I must admit there is an elegant simplicity in the strategy."
"That's what Boatman said," Flunkey responded smugly.
"Well, aren't you the new favourite. Now you just have to figure out how to deal with the fact that Xu Mei is a Martial. Arts. Master."
Flunkey snorted, "Oh, please. We have an abundance of data on martial artists on file. All I need to do is upload it to this thing's brain." He leaned over to the console and pressed a button. "Oh, would you look at that? It's done."
"Well, I suppose with the vast amount of hardware dedicated to this thing... you do realise you've spent this department’s entire budget on this...What are we calling it anyway?"
Flunkey checked the blueprints. "Says here 'LB/X-20 Annihilator'. And, yes, it is expensive, but it is also worth it. And after it is finished with this job, we can send it out to kill someone else. It's the gift that keeps on killing."
"Well, our gift still has a few hours before it is ready. Fancy a few more rounds of--"
"Nah, Magog always wins."
"Pathetic!" Xu Mei cast an absurdly disapproving glare across the people assembled before her. They all sat on their knees, heads bowed in shame. "Absolutely pathetic. How many times do you need to be brought low before you learn to use your eyes properly?" Sure, she was being harsh, but it was how she was taught so it was damn well how she would teach them. "Do you truly think you are fit to call yourselves elite Street Sweepers?"
She paused the tirade briefly and heard a few mumbled platitudes, excuses, affirmations. None interested her. She singled one out at random.
"You, on your feet." He complied with little discomfort. He wasn't one of those to bear the brunt of her physical disappointment. Not yet anyway. "Perhaps then you can tell me the most important lesson to be learned here?"
"Uh, to always look up, ma'am?"
Xu Mei arched an eyebrow. "Really? Then look up now, and tell me what you see."
Like the proverbial soya-lamb to the processing plant, he took the bait.
Xu Mei didn't wait for him to answer her query. She smoothly stepped in, flicked a foot behind his heel, and dropped him with a solid palm-strike to the chest. She turned away, sneering down at the line of slightly surprised trainees. "Wrong! The lesson is you need to look everywhere. Let your gaze linger on the rooftops, and you will be dragged down to the sewers. Spend too long checking a dark alley, and you will miss the basic frontal attack. It will take moments, and you will be dead."
She paused to let that sink in, then changed her tone to be less aggressive, more nurturing. She couldn't beat them up all the time. "You all know there are monsters out there, powerful, dangerous abominations. What you might not know is that they are getting smarter, more cunning. We can't just lay down basic ambushes and expect them to come stumbling in. You may also have heard of entire Sweeper teams dropping off the grid without a trace.
These are no rumours. It is because they have gone missing that you need to be vigilant. There have been no survivors to tell us what went wrong. And so you must learn. Keep your weapons ready, your cybermods in sync with your natural rhythm, trust nothing, expect anything, and look everywhere. Otherwise, you die, and no-one will even know to mourn your passing."
She looked around, pleased to see looks of solemn contemplation dawning on the group. Hm, maybe they'll survive their first mission after all. "And so we are going to do this again. Except this time you will hunt each other. I'll be monitoring your progress. Teams Alpha and Capricorn, you are now Abominations. Indigo and Weasel, you are hunters.“
Xu Mei turned and strode away, then paused and added, “Oh, and Light/TAG weapons only please. I don't feel like giving a crash course in emergency field medicine tonight."
"How are we going to deliver this anyway? It's not like it can hail a cab,” said Dave.
"It's all fine. The LB/X-20 will fit into the Ice Cream Van."
"We have an ice cream van?" Dave sounded eager and hopeful.
"It's just a codename. It has special shielding to hide anything inside." Flunkey noted Dave's crestfallen expression. "Believe me, you do not want to eat anything that comes out of this van."
"Dammit, I never get any ice-cream," Dave grumbled. "Seriously, every time I go to the cafeteria in this place they tell me they're fresh out. I swear, it's some kind of conspiracy!"
Before Flunkey could respond, Curtis Boatman's voice crackled over the intercom. "If you two are so gainfully occupied discussing conspiratorial dairy products, can I assume your project is complete?" His voice could have chilled drinks. Except not in a good way.
"Uh, can you hear everything - "Flunkey shook his head and tried again. “I mean, yes sir, the Annihilator will be ready to go shortly."
"Excellent. Deploy it the second it is."
"One moment, sir," Dave interjected. "The abomination isn't quite optimised yet. There are still one or two kinks that need to be resolved before it is ready for mass production."
"Never mind that. We have just received Xu Mei's location. I want her dead now. Deploy it."
Xu Mei watched the continued training with quiet satisfaction. Capricorn had been quite efficient in clearing up their "targets". Alpha was getting a little bogged down, but mainly due to excessive thoroughness rather than incompetence. Also, Weasel team was focusing more on hit-and-run tactics, the kind of style that lead to more prolonged engagements. Capricorn, Indigo, and the casualties from the ongoing engagement had retired to the dojo to drill in basic field maintenance. That went slowly and inefficiently, mainly due to the commercial nature of their mods and weapons.
If they designed their own cyberware, they would already know it inside out. They wouldn't have to spend so long reading user guides. Well, at least they are actually reading the guides and not just prodding blindly. And it is a good step on the road to cybernetic self sufficiency. Still, I should try to put together a basic curriculum in the subject if we want to make any headway-
Her thoughts were interrupted by an idle process flaring to life on her HUD. A truck had entered the vicinity.
Hm, it's too big for civil usage, and way too far off the main roads. Maybe it's lost? No, that thing has way too much shielding for any normal commercial usage. Smugglers perhaps. Probably. In any case, it's coming this way. Xu Mei smiled; this would be a good live exercise for her trainees.
She prepared a message for Indigo and Capricorn. Wait, no. They’ll still have half their gear disassembled. I want someone in position now. Besides, Alpha and Weasel will still be limber from their exercise. She hoped it wouldn’t matter, that this was a simple coincidence. However, as a strategist as well as a bruiser, she owed it to her trainees and herself to do things right. Indigo and Capricorn could act as backup, if and when required.
Just as she was thinking of ways for her troops to interact with the truck, it slowed. Concern flickered to life in the back of her mind. It grew as she realised that, at the current rate of deceleration, it would shortly stop right outside her current location.
I guess coincidence is right out then. Ok, teams, detain anyone who gets out of that van. Do not approach too closely, but do not take your eyes off them. We still don’t know what we’re dealing with. Xu Mei was pleased with the short, quick affirmatives she got from the team. They were taking this seriously. Perhaps they could match their actions to their demeanour as well.
As anticipated, the truck stopped outside, a single man stepping from the vehicle. He was dressed like a courier and carried a basic data tablet. With practised precision, Alpha and Weasel emerged from their positions, surrounding the hapless man. But, other than a level of surprise inappropriately low for being surrounded by armed men, the courier didn't really react. He looked down at his tablet, back up, then spoke.
"Delivery for Xu Mei. Do you know her? Is she here?"
Well, that tears it. Who knows I'm here? Wait, scratch that, which of those who do know would tell anyone? She had discounted the possibility that this was a surprise gift. The flow of chi was all wrong, and just a little frightening. She decided to stall. She emerged from her vantage point to stand behind her troops and addressed the courier.
"I am Xu Mei. Can I help you?" All the time, she searched for any way, any flaw that would allow her a glimpse into the truck.
The courier merely smiled and pressed a button on his tablet, granting Xu Mei's unspoken wish in the worst possible way. The entire canopy of the truck parted slowly. Within crouched a dark, gnarled mass of claws, chitinous plates, and muscle. Xu Mei considered it briefly, ordering her troops to fan out and surround it. Hmm. I wonder how big it is once it stands...Oh, I did NOT just think that. The monster in the truck rose. And rose. And...rose. It towered over everyone there. It scanned the area, black ichor dripping from its facial orifice, ominous green smoke seeping from its palms. It lifted its head and roared.
"Oh, it is on," Flunkey said eagerly, watching the screen with clichéd anticipation.
"This is going to be good," agreed Dave.
"There's nowhere to run now, Syndicate bitch!" Flunkey yelled at the screen.
"Damn strai--hang on...nowhere to...Oh hell. She can run. If she is as good at this mental mapping as you say she is, then what the hell can we do to stop her from just GTFOing?"
"She won't run." Flunkey stated calmly
Dave sat with his mouth open for a few seconds before responding. "And exactly what scientific basis do you have for that little hypothesis, doctor?"
"It's more... a feeling I have."
"A feeling? You do realise that if this fails, Boatman is going to have our balls. He'll feed them to the test subjects."
"Don't worry, it'll be fine."
"He may even send them to... The Eyes!"
Flunkey's head whipped around. "What have I said about invoking that name!" His gaze turned fearfully towards the door. Nothing emerged through it. "Ok, I think we're safe. Anyway, if it makes you feel better, how about a bet? One thousand local currency units says she doesn't run."
"You're on." They shook hands.
"Good. Now shut up and pass the popcorn."
“Protect Xu Mei!”
Xu Mei didn’t know who raised the cry, or she would have slapped them. If they survived long enough. All it achieved was to galvanise their fellows into a reckless attack on a ready foe. Xu Mei couldn’t even join, for fear of running into her allies.
If the numbers phased the beast, it didn’t show it. It merely lashed out with its talons, sending several Sweepers crumbling to the ground in a mass of smoking, crushed flesh.
Hang on, smoking? What’s... no! Xu Mei didn’t have time to consider the new evidence. The Street Sweepers were rallying for another attack. This time I will not fail them.
She delegated evidence processing to a subroutine and leapt towards the beast. It lashed out at her head -- But I’m no simple trainee, monster. I’m more than a match for you. With no small pride, she deftly swooped under the scything claw, and slid towards the beast’s legs. Got to cut down this thing’s mobility. We might just be able to take it with no more loss.
Xu Mei’s kick struck home with a resounding crack, sending an almighty jolt of pain all down her leg to her hip. She didn’t waste breath crying out. The thing wasn’t stunned. It barely even noticed. Realising the danger she was in, Xu Mei forwent style and dignity and half-rolled, half-scrambled away. She felt the scrape of chitin on her back as the beasts claws narrowly missed her torso, instead digging deep into the pavement.
Well, crap. She shook her leg out to try to relieve the tingling sensation. That’s just cheating. What the hell’s this made from anyway? At least her attack had accomplished one thing, the beast had diverted most of its attention to her, mostly ignoring the other attack. Mostly. The half-liquefied corpse of a trainee hung from the beast’s talons. Awful realisation entered her brain as her subroutines popped up on her HUD, confirming the true nature of this monster’s threat.
Nanotech disassemblers? She crept right. The beast turned with her. No, that can’t be all. These corpses are still decaying. Wait, could it be some kind of weaponised nanovirus? Yes, got to be. That’s altogether too much nano.
Xu Mei signalled to the few remaining Street Sweepers to take position behind the monster. Well, if nothing else, my attack got it to focus on me. That’s good. She could see the fear and anger etched on her remaining allies. Fear was good. Anger was dangerous. Too many of their comrades had died this night, and she doubted they would be able to contain their rage as well as she could. She had to end this battle before they lost it and charged.
The thought of more dissolving cadavers sent a shudder through her as she realised how close she had come to a nanotechnological demise. Just one touch. Gotta be more careful. I wonder which of my enemies wants me dead this badly.
OK, we’re in position. Now I just need to wait for it to come to me. Anticipate the blow, avoid it, have the Sweepers attack while it is focused on me. Then we...what?!?
Xu Mei’s cry came too late. The monster took an aggressive step towards her. Unfortunately, this represented the limits of her comrade’s patience. As one, they rushed to the monster’s rear. It didn’t even turn, it merely reached behind and plucked the nearest off the ground. His screams mercifully didn’t last long as the nanovirus liquefied his chest.
Xu Mei launched her assault as the beast turned towards the remaining Sweepers, aiming for the already occupied claw. Perhaps, even in death, this poor trainee can be invaluable in... Whoa, what the HELL?
Xu Mei again scrambled to duck a claw sweep intent on parting her flesh from her bones. She tried to convert her dodge into a low kick, but the beast had moved away to bodily ram its other foes, causing her strike to glance off harmlessly.
Blast, I was sure I was in its blind spot. Does this thing even have eyes? Wait, it picked up that guy without even looking too. She quickly snapped a kick at the thing’s elbow, earning a predictable, claw-based response. How is it tracking us? Time to test a theory.
Xu Mei deliberately ignored the now critical lack of support, as the monster crushed the last Street Sweeper beneath its foot. She launched an attack on the monster, goading it into chasing her. It complied eagerly. Good, keep it up. Just a little further. She took a small leap back over a quivering pile of former human. The monster didn’t and slid, only a little, but more than enough for her.
Xu Mei dashed in, launching herself at the beast’s chest, kicking down with both feet. She took some small pleasure in the way the armour crumpled beneath her boots. She flew over its reaching claws and towards the building directly behind it. While she travelled, she quickly turned all her mods to sleep mode.
This must be it. It must be able to sense the power usage, or something. She reached out and just grabbed a ledge on the building. Damn, this is always harder without my mods on. Plays real hell with my chi. Well, if I’m wrong about this thing, I’ve only got a few more seconds to worry about it anyway. She started to haul herself to the roof.
A few seconds passed, sans-mauling. A few more seconds and she climbed to the roof of the low building. She took a few moments to nurse her superficial wounds and deeply wounded pride, then took in the situation below.
The monster circled beneath, ignoring the steaming carnage around it. It looked forlorn, like a huge, hideous, heavily armed puppy. But it gave no indication it knew where Xu Mei was or even any sign it intended to search.
Yes! I was right. It was tracking us through our mods. She would have felt more joy, but the carnage below, and her failure to prevent it, swept away her combat high in favour of less useful feelings of self recrimination and anger.
As she lay there, she remembered the words that started the engagement. Words that led to too many good operatives getting killed.
Protect me? You couldn’t even protect yourselves. I couldn’t protect you either. Dammit. You weren’t ready for this. I knew it, you... No, this is no time for whining. Time for revenge! Xu Mei gritted her teeth and banished such a foolish thought. No, got to keep calm. Anger only breeds mistakes. Still, this thing has to die.
Looking at the beast below, Xu Mei knew this was easier said than done. It isn’t exactly a trained warrior, but it’s far more agile than it has any right to be. I can avoid its strikes, she chewed on a lip thoughtfully, but can I do that and land a telling blow? It is very agile and programmed to avoid a direct attack. What’s more, it only needs to touch me to kill me. And if I stand still long enough to get a good hit in, it will touch me. That’d be counter-productive. This was sent to kill me. I have no intention of giving them the satisfaction of succeeding. Anyway, I never did like pyrrhic victories.
Xu Mei's mind raced as the beast below shuffled in ever wider circles. Just one good operative is all I need. Let's see...Song's still in the Netherworld...Devendra...Ugh, I’m not working with him again...Echo and...no, Silence was injured on their last op. What kind of useless -- no, that won't help. Damn it, I'm just going to have to lose this thing and send out a call. I'm certain it can't keep up with me even if--
Her musings were cut short. The creature ventured close to an omnipresent vending machine which, noticing the proximity of a potential vendor (it doesn't discriminate against abominations), lit up with all its bells and whistles in overdrive.
"Welcome to the Circus of Valuuuuuuuuloooblecheeeeeseecaa..."
The abomination was not there to shop; one quick swipe of its claw reduced the machine to blubbering scrap. Xu Mei watched in surprise. What the hell? Whoever designed that thing's targeting protocols seriously botched the job. Unless...an awful thought occurred to her. Unfortunately, it also made a lot of sense. They didn't botch the protocols. They didn't bother to install them at all! It will attack any piece of tech it comes across. It could kill hundreds, cause millions of local currency units in damage, before I get the backup I need. Who would be so irresponsible? Who wouldn't care about the damage this thing will do to...
Oh. Of course. She ground her teeth together and took a deep breath in an effort to keep her berserk rage under control. Curtis fucking Boatman. He doesn't see this world as his, so why should he care if it burns. Xu Mei rose from her crouch, determination etched into her very being.
Well, this isn't his. It's mine. My city, my world, my fucking reality.
She quickly composed a short distress message requesting backup. Even if there was anyone in the city, they would still take time to get there. She had to hold out for as long as it took.
She spun up her cyberware and lightly dropped off the roof.
"Hey, ugly." She called to her foe. Not highly original, but it did the trick. The abomination turned and growled. Xu Mei was sure it was a happy growl. She squirted off the message into the net and set her mods to glow. No sense doing things by halves. To think, I only just chewed out those guys for being this obvious. Oh well...she settled into a combat stance and waited for her foe to make the first move.
I'm sooooo dead.
"Told you she wouldn't run. Pay up."
Technician Dave wasn't listening. He looked at the screen thoughtfully. "Hey, when the LB/X-20 turned, did you see someone on the rooftop?"
"Don't change the subject."
"I'm not...well, OK, I am, but I'm serious. I'm sure I saw someone up there. Rewind the feed for a sec."
"You kidding? We'll miss the fight."
"Then put it up on the second screen. Press that button. No, not that one, that one. Oh, just move over and let me do it."
"Forget it and sit back down. We can look at the footage after the LB/X-20 has killed Xu Mei." Flunkey sighed upon seeing Dave's furrowed brow. "Look, if there's anyone there, they either aren't Syndicate or they’re in no position to fight, or they'd be helping her instead of standing around on rooftops."
"Alright, alright. Let's just keep watching." Dave sat back in his chair.
"Damn straight." Flunkey also sat back. "And I still want that money."
The battle could have been going better. Xu Mei was correct in her tactical analysis. She couldn't get close enough to land a telling blow. Worse still, the thing seemed to be adapting to her movements. More and more skill and concentration was necessary to stay out of its clutches. No response to her distress call was forthcoming.
Damn, even if I can avoid its doom claws, I’m certain I’ll get tired before it does. I need a better strategy. She consulted her tactical map, narrowly avoiding having her ribs sliced open by some razor-sharp talons. An examination of the surrounding structures availed her of an idea. Yes, cheap buildings around here. Built on a central -- she made a quick roll to sustain a lack of decapitation -- column. Easy to put up, easy to knock down. If I can lure this thing inside and get it to destroy that column, the building will simply implode onto it. It might not die- she deftly jumped over a low sweep, snapping a glancing kick into its...nose...maybe- but it will certainly be slowed down. Only one problem...Xu Mei swayed back as a claw strayed too close. Negatively so, in fact. She hissed as blood welled from a cut above her eye. Blast, no time for problems, only time for stupidity. She quickly ducked under the follow-up strike and leaped back, putting a good five meters between them.
"Time to play follow the leader, scum." And she turned and ran towards some of the slums. She was glad her mental map showed her the abomination's all too eager pursuit. She didn't think she wanted to turn around and watch it bearing down on her. Xu Mei dove through a low window, crashing through the flimsy boards. She barely had time to stand and position herself at the nearest door before black, chitinous claws shredded the wall, the beast’s nanotech making an even greater mockery of the already cheap material. Ok, back through the corridor. Quickly now, she thought, her feet already moving. Left now, straight on. Damn, got to move faster. Got to get the column between us. The Annihilator was moving more or less in a direct line, quickly making up the distance between them. But Xu Mei was fast enough. She reached the far side of the column and spun, defiantly facing her pursuer. Now comes the bad part. If I run, it will follow. Which means it will clear the building and not get trapped. It has to stay here. So I have to stay here. In the collapsing building. Worst. Plan. Ever.
True to predicted form, the Annihilator carved its way through the intervening walls and the lode-bearing column. Before it made its way entirely through the pillar, Xu Mei launched a furious aerial kick at the monstrosity's likely chest. The Annihilator staggered, blindly reaching out for its attacker, but Xu Mei quickly pushed off the creature, launching herself away.
The plan succeeded, the building already beginning to implode and her foe was likely trapped inside. Xu Mei abandoned caution and made for the nearest exit. Unfortunately, it was too late for her too. A beam, an early casualty of her plan, fell directly in her path, too suddenly for her to avoid it. It tangled in her legs and she fell down. With no time left to run, Xu Mei curled her arms over her head and hoped for the best as the building disintegrated around her.
"Wow. She may be our enemy, but I gotta give her credit. That plan took a lot of chutzpah," Dave said, eyes glued to the screen.
"If you can get over your grudging respect, can you tell me if the Annihilator is still functional?"
"Just a sec, the data feed was interrupted. It wasn't a big building though, I don't see why-- wait a sec, data coming through now. And our Abomination will...live."
"Keep it quiet and run a quick diagnostic. Let Xu Mei think it’s out of action a little while longer."
"Running now. In the meantime, let's take a look at that previous footage." Dave leaned over Flunkey and tapped the correct set of keys to enable dual-screen mode. He cycled back through the frames for a while until he found what he was looking for. "There, you see it up on that roof? A leg, arm and a bit of torso. It’s a bit of a low angle though." A small beep from the other console drew his attention. "Well, the Annihilator certainly took a pounding. While it performed according to our simulations, Xu Mei did get some good hits in. The collapsing building didn’t help either. However, redundant systems have activated and there should be only an eight percent reduction in operational effectiveness."
“That’s more than sufficient.” Flunkey grunted and cast his eyes to the unknown audience on the screen. "Well, no matter who it is, I doubt there's anything they can do, or they would have done it by now. Get the Annihilator moving. Let's advance this to the Endgame."
Xu Mei had gotten lucky. The collapsing building had been relatively kind, she realised as she took stock of her situation. A few bruised muscles and some currently trapped limbs were the worst of the damage. Well, I always did have good Chi. She worked calmly, but swiftly to rectify this situation. Moments later, she had her arm free of debris, a soft clatter accompanying her shifting. With both limbs available she set to work moving the much larger obstacle, a support beam, from her leg. That'll take a little more care to shift. Too much force and it'll destabilise the pile.
As she contemplated the problem, the sounds of shifting detritus grew. Xu Mei froze, casting her eye around quickly, the noise now too great to be accounted for by her own actions. Oh. Hell. No. Not after all that. It can't possibly...As she scanned for the source, her fears were realised. The Monster's gnarled claw burst through the rubble, distressingly close to where Xu Mei remained pinned.
Abandoning all caution, she frantically scrabbled at her impromptu prison as her foe cleared its head and torso from the rubble. Mostly free, the abomination extended a talon towards its prey. Xu Mei instinctively threw out a hand to block it, and gasped in horror as she realised that while she had spared her head, she was now in contact with the Annihilator's disassembler emitters. Thick green smoke poured from the beast's palms and Xu Mei screamed in agony. Alerts popped up all over her HUD as the nanobots quickly infested her cyberware. The second claw moved inexorably closer. No! Not like this. I will not let it! A fresh surge of adrenaline hit and allowed her to kick off the beam into the monster's head, deflecting the second claw, but not dislodging the first. Damn. Gotta act. No time to disconnect the nerves. This is gonna hurt. She sent the jettison signal to her rapidly dissolving arm. It shot free, sending an almost crippling pain through her body, but not enough to override her current adrenaline high. She kicked her way free of the collapsed building and half ran, half stumbled towards the closest clear area.
As she ran some diagnostics, she received her first piece of bad news. Her actions were too little, too late. Some of the nanovirus had progressed beyond her arm and was rapidly increasing in strength. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder to observe her second misfortune. The beast was having no trouble in its own extraction and would be on her in seconds. Damn. No more options. Have to put everything into one last strike, try to take it down even as it kills me. Xu Mei drew herself up, fighting the spasms that threatened her composure, took as good a stance as she was able, sans arm, and charged to meet the beast. It predictably reached for her as she closed. She quickly ducked and executed a diving roll to get inside its guard. She performed the manoeuvre perfectly, but hadn't taken into account her now missing arm. As she rose from her roll, ready to deliver a telling blow, she stumbled, off balance due to her new shape.
It took fractions of a second for her to recover. An eternity, under the circumstances. As she threw her punch, the monster was already moving with the blow, ready to absorb the shock and grab her. Xu Mei tried to alter her movement into a stunning roundhouse kick, ducking under the sweeping claws, but to no avail. The Annihilator simply swatted her with an almost casual backhand, sending her tumbling over the landscape. She came to a stop, crashing into a pile of detritus, her head striking something regrettably solid. As her vision swam and the blood trickled down her face she could barely form thoughts.
Well...I guess it really...has caught up...to my movements...damn. Her strength abandoned her, and could only watch as her doom slouched over and slowly, almost triumphantly, extended a claw to encompass her head. Hey...not the head...some of my best cyberware is installed there... Oh, yeah, and I'll die. Xu Mei let her head fall back, unwilling to watch the approaching monster. As she looked up, what might have been her final thought slid through the haze. Huh...I can see a light. How odd, I'm nowhere near a tunnel...why is it getting closer?
Her pain-addled brain barely comprehended what happened next. The dazzling light descended rapidly and shook the ground as it landed. The Annihilator screamed and reared back. A heavy weight dropped over her chest. Summoning every scrap of strength she had left, she lifted her head to observe this new development. The previously outstretched claw had made contact in an unexpected way. It was the object now pressing on her torso, thoroughly disconnected from its owner. Something, a vaguely human shaped and sized blur, approached her. As it kicked the lump of abomination from her person she focused her eyes to take in her saviour. A man, clad in a black, sleeveless top, black pants, and carrying a glowing, golden staff towered over her. He leaned down slightly.
"Are you badly injured?"
Xu Mei barely had time to form an acidic retort. Instead, she stared in horror as the Annihilator rallied and moved with disturbing swiftness towards her saviour. She tried to croak out a warning, but her throat wouldn't respond. In any case, the beast was too fast. The man would never dodge its attack in time. Black fluid sprayed across her vision. As she blinked her eyes to clear them, she glimpsed a most intriguing sight. The man in black had indeed not dodged in time.
He hadn't needed to.
He stood, staff-burdened arm thrust out, impaling the abominations remaining claw before it could strike. Black ichor dripped from the wound and the beast growled in frustration. The man looked casually over his shoulder.
"Be gone, filth." He growled as he delivered a crushing back-kick to the beast's abdomen. It reeled back and fell to one knee. The man returned his attention to Xu Mei briefly.
"Please abide here. I shall return shortly." He then turned his full attention to the abomination. He flew with lightning speed towards his prey, casually ducking under its wild swing, and lashed out with his staff. Over and over he dodged and struck, making a mockery of the monster's feeble strikes. Who...what...is he. Not Syndicate, I'd know. But who would put themselves in harm's way to save me? The way he moves though, he hardly looks to be in danger at all. So fast, almost like...wait, could it...Deep marks crossed the beast's body, yet it did not fall.
The man took a short leap back, assessing the situation, then dove in again. The beast swung, but instead of ducking the man leapt onto its shoulders and used it to make a mighty jump into the sky, staff raised above his head, shining with a brilliant radiance. It took the abomination a moment to locate him again, but it was too late. The man dove with incredible speed, bringing his staff down, cleaving the monster down its middle. It stood there for a moment, as if the strike happened too fast to register, but it, at last, toppled. The ground shook at the impact.
Instead of examining his kill, the man immediately turned and rushed to Xu Mei. He knelt down and swiftly gathered her in his arms.
"I apologise for any discomfort, but I fear the monster may explode. So we must fly." Xu Mei could feel his muscles gathering strength for what must be another leap. She was not disappointed. The sudden increase in G-forces was too much in her weakened state. Her final thought as she slipped quietly into unconsciousness: What on earth just happened?
"WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?" Flunkey screamed.
"I don't know!" Dave responded. "He just...then he...oh my. This is bad."
"You think? Our entire budget went into that thing." Flunkey's energy abandoned him and he slumped in his chair. "Who was that man? Why did he wait so long to intervene?"
"He's not Syndicate. He can't be. If they had an agent like that, surely we'd know. Man, he hardly seems human."
"Yeah, I agree with you there. The way he moved, almost like...wait...hardly human...we still have the visual data, right?" Dave nodded. "Run it through the Residual Transmorphic Resonance Imager. I have a hunch." Dave complied. The sat and waited for a few minutes before Flunkey added, "Ya know, we still haven't got to the really bad part yet."
"The bad part? How does this get worse?"
"We still have to tell Boatman."
"Oh no." Dave covered his face with his hands. "He's gonna feed us to the test subjects." A thought crossed Dave's face suddenly. "You know, we did tell Boatman that the Annihilator wasn't quite ready for combat yet."
Flunkey waved the suggestion away, "No, that was just for mass production purposes. No chance of that now I suppose. If anything it had greater combat potential -- hang on. Are you suggesting we blame Boatman for this fiasco?"
"You are seriously suggesting that we try to pin the blame for this on Doctor Curtis Fucking Boatman? Do you have any idea how -- Actually, yes, it's a good idea. You tell Boatman that."
"You think it'll work?"
"No, I just think he'll kill you first." Before the current line of conversation could proceed, they were interrupted by a beep from the Residual Transmorphic Resonance Imager. Flunkey grabbed the readout. Dave moved to look over his shoulder. "So, let’s see what... wow... oh my. That certainly explains a lot."
Dave was equally impressed. "A falcon? I would have thought snake."
"It's certainly an important piece of information. I think this changes a lot."
"Hey, in a way it’s good news." Flunkey turned a quizzical gaze on Dave, "Well, c'mon. Boatman's got to see how this changes things. I mean, how were we supposed to foresee this?"
Xu Mei regained consciousness on a rooftop; an hour had elapsed since she’d passed out if her chronometer was accurate. Her positional data subroutines were fried, so she didn't quite know where. Her saviour was still present, leaning over her checking her wounds. He noticed her awaken.
"Arm notwithstanding, your wounds are superficial. However, you have contracted some manner of nanovirus. I do not possess the means to cure you." It was all very matter-of-fact.
"S'ok. Here..." Xu Mei reached down and opened a hidden compartment on her leg. From it she withdrew an emergency datapad and extended it to the man. "This has the location of a safe-house. Please take me there. Inside is equipment that will sustain me, keep me alive. Then you need to go to the nightclub Wireless and find Rei Okamoto. But not tonight. She won't be there tonight. Try... ugh, I don't know. What day is it anyway. Can't... think."
"Rest, save your strength. Is this safe house secure? How will I gain entry?"
Xu Mei grabbed his arm and squeezed with her little remaining strength. "You defeated that...thing. You can break down a locked door."
"You are trusting me with much."
"If you wanted me dead, you could have just let that thing kill me. At the moment, that's enough. Dying people can't be choosers."
"Very well. We shall move now. I will be swift. You will probably pass out again."
"Wait. First, your name?"
Xu Mei smiled. "Like... a falcon. Huh. Thank you, Horus."
Horus merely nodded, gripped Xu Mei tightly, and leapt.
Doctor Curtis Boatman glared at the after-action report, fury rising. He glared as he watched the video feed of the entire encounter, his fury shifting to even greater fury. There report really didn’t warrant any other emotion. Finally, after much fury and glaring, he read the final conclusion, and spontaneously morphed into an endothermic singularity. The doomed lackeys before him could feel the heat being drawn from their very bones. Finally, he spoke.
"Unforeseeable operational conditions?" Boatman glared up from the report. "What, like combat?"
"Well..." Flunkey responded weakly.
"You designed a weapon specifically for the purpose of fighting a martial arts master, yet failed to consider it might take a beating?"
"You spent your entire budget on this heap of gnarled garbage. Give me one good reason I shouldn't send you to Agent Tanaka for target practice?"
"At least it’s not the test subjects," Dave muttered.
Flunkey flashed an angry look at his colleague, then returned to Boatman. "Please sir, take a look at page two before you have us summarily murdered."
Boatman continued his glare as he flipped the page, then looked down. "Hmm, Transmorphic Resonance...that's interesting...but that would mean..." He sighed and threw down the report. "Saleem. That blasted Dunwar Saleem. Never trust a traitor." He turned to stare out the window. "That certainly is important information." He returned his gaze to his subordinates. "I suppose it’s just as well for you that Tanaka is out on assignment now. Actually killing people. With bullets. Do you have any how much a bullet costs? Ten bullets, a thousand? Less than your little project! This sort of loss cannot be permitted, especially considering the resources currently tied up monitoring the situation in the Ancient Juncture. How exactly do you plan to mitigate this disaster?"
"I think I MIGHT be able to assist in that matter sir!"
"No. Oh no. The Eyes!" Dave whispered in abject horror.
As one, all the people in the room cast their gazes to the floor, even Boatman, as a pair of eyes entered the room. The eyes were accompanied by the rest of Doctor Hans Wulfjaeger. He stood in the doorway and looked at those assembled.
"Why do you all look away? Why does everyone look away when I enter the room? THIS NEGATIVELY AFFECTS MY SELF-ESTEEM!"
"What do you want, Hans?" Boatman brought his gaze to meet the Eyes. Then dropped it. Then he realised he was Doctor Curtis Fucking Boatman, head of the CDCA, and had no business being afraid of a pair of eyes, no matter how creepy. But they were very, very creepy.
"Well, there has been no overt activity from the Syndicate in that area, so all corpses should still be there, correct?"
"Then let us COLLECT THEM! This will be a marvellous opportunity to see the effects of nanological attack on human flesh from an actual combat scenario. I believe it will be of GREAT SCIENTIFIC VALUE! We might even be ABLE TO GET some new patents out of it."
Boatman thought for a minute, then nodded. "Very well, Doctor, you may proceed." Wulfjaeger turned to leave, "Oh, wait a moment," Boatman looked maliciously at the other two gentlemen in the room, "you need some new assistants, don't you. Particularly after the...incident."
Flunkey's face assumed look of pure horror. "No. Please sir, for the love of--"
"Why don't you take Doctor Flunkey and Technician Dave here?" His assumed a look of pure malevolence.
Wulfjaeger pondered, "Do they have the requisite interest in SCIENCE!?"
"Oh, I think they'll learn. One way or another."
"CAPITAL!" Hans swept from the room, ignoring the stygian gloom rising from Flunkey and Dave. His voice thundered back through the doorway. "NURSE! Fetch some more lab coats, the 3/5 probe, and a lot of fresh sponges. We've got SCIENCE TO DO!"
"Ah, my son, I am but an old man. My memory is not what it used to be. Could you please remind me, what was your purpose in the future juncture?"
"To locate the Wireless, origin of, and important location to the Syndicate. Then destroy it."
"Ah, yes, that's right. I ask, you see, because it seems to me that instead you engaged a highly dangerous abomination in combat and not only saved the Syndicate's most skilled operative from certain destruction, but took steps to ensure her further survival."
Dunwar Saleem stared impassively at Horus' face over the communicator. Horus stared back, equally emotionless.
"Would you, perhaps, care to explain the discrepancy between these two accounts, my child?" Saleem said somewhat tetchily.
"Father, I have discovered the location of the Wireless."
"Oh, that is good news, I thought you had misheard me somewhere down the line. And yet...you haven't gone on to tell me of its complete destruction." His words grew tenser. "Why. Pray. Tell. Is. That."
"Rei Okamoto does not hang there on Mondays, Father."
Saleem blinked, nonplussed. "I'm sorry, I think I missed part of the conversation. Could you run that by me again?"
"Xu Mei requires her services to survive. She is not there Mondays, and I do not know her address. So I must wait until tomorrow to pass on the message."
Saleem lost facial composure entirely. His jaw dropped and his eyes widened. "You're...not joking. You are completely serious." He leaned back, took a few deep breaths, "My son. My newest, strongest, and most beloved son. Why are you helping this woman?"
"She is the one who revealed the Wireless' location to me, Father. This has saved me much time and effort and requires reparation. This is the only way I can repay her."
"My son, I know I am repeating itself. Maybe I'm getting old,” Saleem leaned forward sternly, “or maybe it’s because what I’m saying is incredibly important. Xu Mei is a highly skilled and dangerous Syndicate operative. They do not call her The Dragon because she possesses wings and a predilection for virgins." Saleem turned to the other occupant of the room, "Does she have a predilection for virgins?” He returned to Horus, “No matter, she will interfere with our plans in the future."
"Yes, Father, but I have proven myself against the mightiest of my brethren and felled the beast that bested her. She is strong, but I am stronger. I am confident that I will defeat her in a confrontation."
Dunwar Saleem rubbed his face. "It is true. You are indeed mighty, Horus, but you are young. You need to learn the value of pragmatic ruthlessness." He turned his gaze to the screen again. "Oh, but when I look into your piercing falcon eyes, I know there is nothing I can deny you. Go on, save your distressed damsel. Just be sure to call me when you are done with your actual mission."
"Thank you, Father." Horus cut the connection.
Dunwar sighed and turned to the other person in the room. "Well, Athena? What do you think?"
The woman crossed her arms and cocked her head thoughtfully. "I think it went quite well indeed. Not according to plan, certainly, but things rarely do. His battle prowess is certainly up to our simulations and practice sessions." Athena chuckled. "I can still see the look on Anubis's face when he continually failed to land a deciding blow. Priceless, I tell you."
"He took a big risk, engaging that abomination. Boatman really pulled out the stops to kill Xu Mei. Nanotech disassemblers, viruses, monomolecular armour, it’s even giving me some ideas."
"If you try to stick a nanotech disassembler on me I will be very cross, Father. But, seriously, yes, that was a highly dangerous piece of hardware the CDCA developed. And my dear brother tore it to shreds. My only misgiving is that we don't know exactly how many resources they sunk into that thing. As to the strategy of it? I might have done it differently, but as you said, he's young. He'll learn. And he's proven he can survive a few sharp learning curves."
Dunwar nodded. "Yes, I see your point. With a little supervision he should do quite nicely." He turned his chair to look out his window, over his expansive gardens. His eye was drawn in particular to the Puzzle Garden he’d just had installed. Wonderful chi, if a bit flammable. He saw movement in there.
"Athena, I think I see someone. Someone familiar...wait, is that...Daughter, do you know what a Full Contact Historian is doing in my Puzzle Garden?"
Athena frowned and joined him at the window. "Oh, John? Well, I believe he's getting lost. Apparently being an archaeologist doesn't necessarily mean skill in orienteering." A vicious smile flashed over her lips. "Of course, I occasionally change the structure of the maze. He is getting very frustrated."
Dunwar threw up his hands, "The Dragons as well. Shall we declare war on the Guiding Hand too?"
"Oh, John's a dear. Besides, he's here to take away our relics. Anyway, it’s so much fun to watch him scurry around. It’s kinda cute, like a rat.”
Saleem arched an eyebrow, “I’ve seen what you do to lab rats, my dear.”
Athena glared back. “That was one time Father, let it go. Anyway, I have plans for Doctor John Haynes.”
"How long has he been in there anyway?"
Dunwar sighed. "Well, so long as you're careful. I went to too much trouble acquiring those artefacts from their rightful owners to have them stolen from me. I don't think I could bear the irony."
"Of course Father. Good night."
"Good night, Daughter."