Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 14

I searched frantically for my pistol. No sign of it amidst the petals. Nor could it be found anywhere around the roots. “Where is it!?” I demanded. “What happens to shit you put in there??” She silently shook her head and shrugged, eyes wide with fear.

Another gunshot. I uneasily eyeballed the organic weapon still awaiting use in the center of the unfolded bulb. I looked at the chieftess, who urged me on. Then back at the damp orifice with the countless little cilia, waving gently as if tasting the air. Searching for an arm, if I had to guess.

With no remaining options, I gave it mine. Prosthetic arm first, but it regurgitated the damn thing, rhythmic muscular contractions inching it off my plastic and metal appendage until it fell to the soil at my feet. “The other one!” the chieftess hissed, irritated by my reluctance.

I grimaced as I slid my meat arm into the opening. It eagerly latched on and pulled itself the rest of the way until it fit far more snugly than I’d have liked. It engulfed my hand and forearm all the way up to the elbow, each of my fingers resting in its own flesh pocket.

I could feel bony protrusions within those pockets. It didn’t take me long to work out what they were for. Aiming the business end of the arm swallowing nightmare at the nearest wall, I used my index finger to tug at the trigger in that pocket.

A loud, gassy series of pops followed. The rate of fire was high enough that I couldn’t work out that it was shooting thorns until I pried one free from a wooden post it’d lodged itself in. Not too shabby. The index finger’s trigger, however, corresponded to a completely different function.

I once again took aim, this time curling my middle finger. There was an abrupt, wet sounding burp as the weapon emitted a burst of purple spray. It smelled absolutely foul, but did a worse number on the wooden post than my nose by far.

The post immediately began crumbling as what I now figured for acid continued to audibly sizzle as it ate away at the wood. Another gunshot, this time followed by panicked screaming. No time for a full test. I felt plenty satisfied it would kill a man, the only purpose for which I needed it just then.

I again crept around the edges of the huts in search of the lone remnant I must have overlooked in the confusion of the firefight earlier. Upon catching my first glimpse, I quickly realized I’d gotten the drop on him.

He backed away from a group of frightened but determined looking villagers advancing on him little by little as he held one of them hostage. The old man from the clearing! I was nearly behind him, off to one side but with excellent odds of catching him by surprise...until the group of villagers noticed me.

The criddler followed their gaze. In the split second before he could pull his hostage around to position him between us, I filled his face with high velocity thorns. He bellowed in pain, stumbling backwards. It was all the chance the old man needed to break free and run for it.

Once the old man was clear, I blasted the remnant with acid. His screaming intensified, then grew more hoarse and strained as the corrosive purple concoction stripped away his skin. He knelt, pawing at his face, shocked to see pieces of it coming off in his hands.

He then crawled towards me with an outstretched hand and a piteous expression on what was left of his face. As if, at this point, there was anything I could do to reverse the chemical reaction rapidly eating him alive. Acrid fumes rose from his bubbling flesh as it melted, stinging my nostrils.

Within about ninety seconds, there wasn’t even a skeleton. Just a putrid mass of brown sludge seeping into the soil, fumes still coming off it. “J-Jesus” I stammered, dumbstruck by what I’d just witnessed. “Jesus f-fucking...Christ.”

The villagers evidently felt the same way, staring at me with a mixture of awe and disgust. Nevermind that I’d saved one of them. Then again, it’s not every day you see a man ripped apart at the molecular level right in front of you. I felt more disgusted than any of them, if I’m honest.

I was about to look away from the stomach turning sight when I noticed something poking out of the mound of gelatinous remains. The remnant’s body armor. What the fuck? Why didn’t it dissolve? I searched it for logos.

“Neutralis Defense Solutions anti-ballistic body armor” it read, followed by a manufacturing date and list of caliburs it will reliably repel. Then beneath that, “Made in the USA from 100% authentic hydraulically compressed Speedfoam.”

Well fuck me sideways. That shit really can do anything. I wiped as much of residue...from the armor as I could manage before tucking it under one arm and heading back to the hut containing Asherah’s womb.

The chieftess followed close behind, badgering me with questions like “where are you going”, “what do you intend to do with that” and so on. All answered about fifteen minutes after the petals of the revolting plant orifice closed around the armor.

So far as I could tell, there was no way to tell the damned thing what you wanted. Whatever comes out is just the organism’s own interpretation of what the object you put into it was for, plus whatever improvements unique to engineered plant biology it can devise.

The thorn blasting, acid spitting arm gun it made out of my pistol was no disappointment, and neither was the armor it finally finished constituting out of god knows what. Nutrients from the soil I assume. Does this thing need sunlight?

The armor was recognizably the correct size and shape for my figure. A chest piece, modest pauldrons, lower body armor including a codpiece and hip guards, plus thigh and shin guards to round out the set.

The pieces weren’t separate though, bound together by a web of dense, stretchy mucus. I could probably tear it apart if I had any reason to, but it didn’t make it meaningfully more difficult to pull onto my body.

Still a tall man with broad shoulders, but now with a slim midsection with droopy folds of excess skin dangling from it, I had kind of a hard time figuring out how to tuck those folds into the section which protects my stomach.

I wouldn’t call it comfortable, but after witnessing what the gun was capable of, I felt confident that the armor would stop anything short of armor piercing rounds. Mercifully the interior side of each armor component was not lined with the moist purple surface now wrapped tightly around my forearm.

There was, however, an opening on the chest. Sensing my confusion, the chieftess offered up the observation that every plant based device she’s so far seen come out of Asherah’s womb required either sunlight and water saturated with nutrients to stay alive, or a constant influx of digestible organic matter.

Something like a pitcher plant, then. Or a venus fly trap. I scrubbed a bit of the jiggling brown crud I must’ve missed earlier from one of my shin guards and fed it into the opening on the chest plate.

Those horrible little tendrils immediately extended from the X-shaped opening, each triangular flap parting slightly to admit the brown morsel’s entry. I could feel it grow warmer and throb subtly. I then watched as the fluid circulating through the stretchy translucent web of capillaries between armor sections grew steadily browner.

“That’s the grossest fuckin’ thing I ever saw” I uttered. “Wicked too, though.” The outer skin of the armor somewhat resembled lettuce. A darker shade of green, and tougher. A texture like elephant skin, only cris-crossed with the protruding veins of a lettuce leaf.

The veins proved close enough to the surface that I could watch purple fluid of some sort coursing through them. The brown shade slowly vanished as the nutrients in it were absorbed. Then, predictably, my armor took a shit.

It even came out the section of armor covering my butt, too. Now that’s what I call attention to detail. It gave me reason to second guess the wisdom of creating living tools...but I decided to reserve judgement until I got a better idea of what all it could do in exchange for tolerating the occasional smelly unpleasantries of biology.

I emerged from the hut to a throng of astonished villagers. “How, in all this time, did it never occur to any of you that you could make yourselves armor?” The chieftess answered plainly that it would require them to anticipate and prepare for violent acts they wanted no part of.

I stared at her, incredulous. “Come on now. Be real with me. This? All of this? The village, your way of life, all of it. How long did you think this could possibly last in the modern world? It’s been a stretch of incredible luck that you’ve evaded media attention for so long.”

Perhaps not what she needed to hear, so soon after the massacre of her people. I left her brooding on her throne, content to seek out the mangrove swamp by my lonesome. I might at least get an idea of their numbers and firepower, before deciding if retaliation is on the table.

The various musky smells of the jungle now seemed unexpectedly stronger. I eventually realized I could now both smell and taste through every inch of the plant armor, a capability I never asked for and couldn’t imagine would make me more combat effective.

It felt like walking around with tastebuds on my feet, the relatively inoffensive but unappetizing flavors of mud, soil and crushed undergrowth now my constant companions. The ability to taste the air, on the other hand, very quickly proved its value.

The plant armor could evidently detect scents much more effectively than my unassisted nose. This must be what dogs smell, I reflected as I closed my eyes and visualized the scentscape around me. Only the humid stench of the jungle in all directions...except one.

That’s gunpowder, isn’t it? Gunpowder, fire, the familiar acrid stench of welding...and an irritating, sterile chemical scent I also remembered from Dave’s trash barge. That must be whatever goes into their veins, into their lungs or up their noses.

Meth almost certainly, but it could be anything. The advent of molecular printers has erased the formerly clear distinctions between different substances. New ones hit the street faster than regulatory bodies around the world can schedule them.

The only important detail, from my perspective, was the distinct scent. It made it remarkably easy to find my way through the dimly lit, thickly overgrown jungle until I wound up peering at the remnant operation from a ridge overlooking it, obscured by ferns.

The structures looked burnt out, but still occupied. Most of it just the charred skeletal remains of buildings that must’ve been razed by a competing cartel, after which the remnants didn’t bother to rebuild.

The blackened, rickety framework of girders and partially demolished walls housed row after row of molecular printers, first generation judging by the size. They must’ve paid a pretty penny for those back in the day.

Either that, or they deliberately sought out legacy hardware because the embedded security protocols preventing the printing of weapons and drugs was long since cracked. The manufacturer would also no longer bother to supply over the air updates. Molecular printers that old are typically recalled and destroyed in order to undermine...certain uses.

Uses like those I now witnessed in the mangrove swamp below. The age of the printers offered some meager degree of comfort; neither the drugs nor the guns that came out of them would be of terribly good quality. They would still have no trouble finding buyers for either.

It proved difficult to get an accurate headcount because of the crumbling structures obscuring them. I counted the ones hunched over computers and packaging ‘product’ in adjacent buildings, visible through partially collapsed walls.

Then I assumed the worst, that a similar number occupied every building I could see, plus the average of about twenty that could be seen milling about between the buildings at any given moment. That yielded a figure of a little over 100.

Steep odds, much too steep. I dreaded breaking the news to the chieftess, though she still seemed convinced that a nonviolent solution was possible. I heard the undergrowth rustle behind me, and my heart leapt into my throat at the sight of three remnants on patrol.

They walked straight past, not twenty feet away, somehow oblivious to my presence. I held my breath until they disappeared into the dense darkness of the jungle. Were they blind? Too high out of their minds to see an intruder crouched in plain sight, a stone’s throw away?

Glancing down at my body made sense of it. The outer surface bore a pattern of coloration which blended perfectly into my surroundings. Beyond anything I have seen a chameleon do, more comparable to the capabilities of cuttlefish skin.

I released the contents of my lungs in a ragged, terrified sigh. If I wasn’t so tense, I might’ve pissed myself right then. I’d been in such a rush to evaluate the strength of the enemy, it didn’t occur to me what a blunder it was to do so before I fully understood the suit’s features.

Then again, I didn’t need to know about the camoflage. It kicked in right when I needed it most. That implied a troubling degree of intelligence hiding in the suit. An organism unto itself, apparently able to recognize threats and take pre-emptive measures to protect my life from them.

I closed my eyes, activated my video recording app and captured some footage of the remnant base for later review. Zooming in revealed a few wore full American Action officer’s regalia, while the rest wore only the trousers of their uniforms with white undershirts and helmets on account of the heat.

All looked ragged and feverish, no doubt sampling their own wares on the regular. But the poorly painted metallic mass bobbing gently in the canal interested me most of all. I know a narco sub when I see it.

Not one of Dave’s that I could tell, too competently built. I still somehow expected he had some hand in all this, simply because experience told me that I’d find his fingerprints on anything sufficiently fucked up. The sub must be how they transport product from their manufacturing base here in the swamp to some clandestine pickup point either on shore, or an especially lawless seastead.

A rusted snorkel and exhaust pipe protruded from either end of the craft. Fossil fuel powered? Like the very first military submarines, if I remember right. It should be able to travel on battery power underwater for some ways, then come just close enough to the surface that the snorkels poke through.

One would then suck in air for the combustion engine while it spins an alternator, recharging the batteries. The other would expel the noxious exhaust. What a archaic, dirty setup! But it’s not as if there’s anybody around to fine them for the emissions.

Probably they also couldn’t get their hands on the high grade batteries they would need to make the entire trip submerged, either. I immediately began working out a plan to jack the sub right under their noses, but no matter how I tried to connect the dots, I didn’t get the picture I wanted.

A hundred plus remnants, most or all of them tweaking, is no laughing matter. Every one of them trained soldiers, with a lifetime of experience hiding from Habsec out here in the wild. I only just killed a man for the first time today. I’m no match for even one of them, on even footing.

The organic arsenal my arm is stuck elbow deep in changes the equation somewhat, as does the armor. But a hundred to one? A hundred and twenty, more likely? I would need a hardsuit and some drones. Maybe a tank? Ideally both.

If I could persuade the villagers to fight, it could tip the scales. After growing each of them some armor and weaponry from the seeds that gross fucking plant vagina pooped out, I mean. If I could only make them see that their total devotion to the feminine spirit, to gentleness and nurture was going to result in the extinction of their culture.

For all of its many splendors, that dimension of the human spirit is ill equipped for combat. It is but half of the unified whole, counterbalanced by the oft reviled but eternally necessary aggression of the male spirit.

Without one, what am I but a brutal monster with no redeeming qualities, which nobody can or should love? But without the other...what am I but a warm, soft, gelatinous blob waiting to be torn apart by the first ruffian who comes along?

I’ll make them understand. They have to. If they don’t, there will soon be nothing left of them to bury. Their remarkable blessings, bestowed upon them by Asherah, will fall into the worst possible hands. With weapons like the one fashioned for me back in the village, they would go from being nothing but job security for Habsec to an authentic menace.

Having decided on what I would say to the chieftess and any of her subjects willing to listen, I silently inched away from the ridge and doubled back the way I came. Nothing for me to do here. Not yet, and not by myself, unless my goal is to add another body to the pile.

The return was complicated by the absence of any identifiable trail. Not that I wished for one, and in fact took great care not to leave any indication that someone had recently come this way. As I trekked through the stinking hot jungle, I wondered to myself why it’s always fucking tweakers.

Neo Nazis? Tweakers. Remnants? Tweakers. I don’t know if radical Muslims are tweakers, those explosive vests don’t leave enough behind to perform a drug test on. It wouldn’t surprise me though. Something about the manic, hyperactive headspace lends users towards ideologies predicated upon absolutism, and exclusionary elitism.

Maybe I’ll understand what all goes on in their heads after I blow a couple of ’em open so I can see inside. The surge of bloodlust I felt swelling within me came as a surprise. Am I a killer? I wasn’t yesterday. I’m going to have to become one though, aren’t I? I’m going to have to kill my way out of this.

The rustle of ferns tickled my eardrum. I instinctively ducked behind the nearest tree. It might just be villagers, but I didn’t care to risk it. Only, when I peered around the edge of the tree, it was neither villagers nor remnants that I saw marching through the jungle just a dozen yards away.

It was half a dozen fullmetal enforcers, identical in design to the ones that died in the crash, stomping along in rank and file. My back stiffened, pupils dilated. Death on two legs, multiplied by six. I recalled the chieftess mentioning a second VTOL landing nearby, I just thought I had more time.

They’ve got no way to track me that I know of. If they did, I’d be dead already. I ought to be like a needle in a haystack out here. All I could figure is that they found the crash site, then searched in a spiral pattern outwards from that point.

...Which would lead them to the village, if they haven’t already found it. Anxiety gripped me, and brought nausea along for the ride. My stomach gurgled. One of the enforcers stopped in its tracks, gesturing for the others to do the same. Shit. Fuck. Shit.

Really? God fucking damnit, really? This is how I die? I held perfectly still, hoping the camoflage would fool them. Only short lived confusion instead. “He’s right there” I picked up, audio amplified by my hearing implant. “Some kind of optical cloak I’m guessing. Switch to thermal, he’s still slightly warmer than the-”

I blasted the approaching squad with acid. It had no effect on their bodies, but did rapidly eat away at the rifles of the nearest three. Their confused, angry chatter faded away behind me as I frantically bounded off into the jungle, desperate to reach the village and warn them.

...But after running for about a minute, I slowed to a stop and had an epiphany. A foolish gambit may be the more accurate descriptor, but those have paid off for me more often than not in the past. I hid, waited for the six hopping mad metallic assassins to reach me, then darted away in the opposite direction while whooping at the top of my lungs.

More muffled swearing behind me. At least I wasn’t dodging bullets. But if the acid didn’t stop them, it raised troubling questions as to how I planned to actually kill them once the wild goose chase came to its inevitable end.

Not my problem. I’ll let the remnants figure that out. I ran straight for the mangrove swamp, noting familiar trees and rocks along the way. “Who are those men?” asked a voice in my head. It didn’t immediately register, panicked as I was.

When it repeated the question, I wondered if perhaps fear had driven me mad, or if I was experiencing after-effects from the tea. “They don’t seem friendly” the voice concluded. Well, he’s not wrong. The voice did sound discernibly male.

“Look, whoever you are, I don’t know how you got access to my system but this is a bad time” I shouted over the sound of air rushing past. The plant armor boosted my speed considerably, propelling me through the dense foliage at about 28 miles per hour according to my inertial sensors.

The enforcers are faster though. In the distance I could just make out the weighty impact of their feet sinking into the soil and pushing off, six precision engineered killing machines now hot on my heels. “Is this the ultimate reality?” the voice queried.

“For fuck’s sake. How old are you? Is this your parents’ connection? I’m running for my life, fuck off!” The voice responded with unexpected concern. “It was a long and difficult journey to find you. I’m not going to be turned away so easily, and not while you’re in danger. You’re the one who built the bicycle from scrap, aren’t you? The one who stole the flying machine, who speaks to dolphins and undertakes many illegal activities.”

I asked between breaths, struggling to form sentences as I ran, how he could possibly know all that. “I’ve seen it. It’s all here, I’m looking at it now. I believe these are recordings of events which occurred at various points in your past. You’re some sort of criminal, right? Is that why those men are after you?”

The spirit Asherah mentioned. Of all the fucking points it might’ve resurfaced, now was the least opportune. “Look, can we do this later? I’m trying to pull something off here. I honestly don’t know if I’m gonna get out of this alive.”

The voice fell silent for a moment before answering. “I can help you fight them.” I laughed. “No buddy, trust me. These guys are serious. They make the Mexican drug cartels look like the Hab Scouts.” It mulled this over.

“I’ve spent the past several days practicing combat against some of the highest ranked adversaries in the world. Where they are clumsy and learn very slowly, I have learned many times more quickly until nobody remained who could challenge my skills. I don’t know why, but as much as I recoiled from it at first, it comes naturally to me. I have a talent for it.”

Again, I told it to shut the fuck up until I wasn’t in mortal danger. Just like that, it vanished. Minutes later, still hoofing it through the brush and leaping over fallen logs, I began to wonder if I’d imagined the whole exchange.

At last, I came upon the mangrove swamp. The nearest few remnants froze, startled by the sight. I don’t blame them, it’s not every day the fucking Jolly Green Giant is the herald of your doom. I blasted them with thorns, not wishing to kill them before their agonized screams could alert the rest.

Glancing over my shoulder I spotted the enforcers, almost upon me. I rushed into the center of the burnt out structures and ducked behind a dilapidated brick wall as if I meant to fight them. A remnant took a pot shot at me out of a second story window.

The plant material absorbed the bullet, diffusing the impact throughout the entire suit...then spat it out. I didn’t care to test whether it could do the same with a thousand all at once though. The enforcers barged into the midst of the remnants before spotting most of them, their apparent leader once again sticking its arm out to halt the rest.

It was too late, though. They were balls deep in a bucking bronco that was about to trample them flat like a couple of tin cans. The gunfight that erupted a moment later was deafening. They weren’t even paying attention to me though, all focus was now fixed the gravest, most immediate threat.

Remnants damn well know what an enforcer looks like and the danger it represents. Enforcers and hardsuited field operatives are Habsec’s tool of choice when “relocating” remnant encampments. Much of remnant weaponry is designed specifically to fight such hardened targets.

Three of the enforcers fought hand to hand, as I’d melted their rifles. The rest unloaded on the malnourished, fanatical wretches. I turned my hearing down far enough that the raucous din was no longer painful and focused on getting the hell out of dodge.

A remnant rounded the corner with a shotgun. Momentarily shocked by the sight of me, it was all the chance I needed. A second later he lay curled up in a twitching heap as the acid broke him down into a slop of disassociated proteins.

A couple of bullets lodged themselves in my back, but the armor handled it like a champ. Whoever fired them would be too busy fighting the horrifically bloody battle I’d just instigated to give chase. I found I couldn’t rely on the camo, which proved useless except when I held still. There was no safe place to do that just yet.

So I weaved through the buildings, riddling remnants with volleys of thorns and melting their flesh with bursts of acid until I was well and truly free of the violent mess I’d set into motion. Only then did I find a vantage point from which to spectate the unfolding carnage.

The enforcers hardly needed their guns. One after the next I watched the unarmed units seize remnants and simply tear them apart in a fountain of gore. One of them threw a punch that crumpled a remnants ribcage inward, just before the enforcer’s metal fist burst through the other side of his torso, coated in shiny red blood.

Still, they were losing to attrition. A team of remnants managed to lodge the diamond bit of a long industrial style drill in between the joints of an enforcer’s waist. One of the specialized weapons they’ve developed for splitting open hardsuits, but just as useful against fullmetals.

The drill sputtered to life and almost immediately wrenched the enforcers upper half apart from the legs and pelvis. The upper half continued to fight as best it could, crushing the ankles of the remnants manning the drill.

Another team of two remnants in Habsec style anti-ballistic armor rushed in with a hydraulic clamp tool resembling the jaws of life. The enforcer they attached it to was distracted just then by a sharpshooter in a nearby tree.

The clamp whined loudly as it closed around the enforcer’s head. Then came the sickening sound of metal crumpling inward, blood and bits of brain running down the enforcer’s chest and shoulders from between the hydraulic jaws.

A hundred and twenty versus six is still certain death. It just takes longer than if I’d come crashing in by my lonesome, guns blazing. What a hell of a sight though! The remnants may as well have been feeding their soft, warm bodies into the spinning blades of a food processor.

I felt simultaneously sickened and proud. Even now, I can’t stand the sight of blood. Yet I also couldn’t help but marvel at my own ingenuity, turning two formerly unsolvable problems against each other. “Smart” I whispered to myself, “not hard.”

Trickery will only get you so far, however. So it was that when the dust cleared, and the last few red hot bullet casings bounced and rolled to a standstill...four enforcers remained. Battered, dented and aerated with a few new holes they didn’t have before, but otherwise fighting fit.

I didn’t account for this. I led them back here as a spur of the moment decision, assuming it would work out perfectly. That they would whittle each other down to nothing, leaving me sitting pretty atop the heap of smoldering meat and scrap metal.

The best laid plans of machines and men often go awry. Usually I’ve got a backup plan however, or at least an escape hatch. This time I had neither. There just wasn’t any time to make those kinds of preparations back there in the jungle. Here, still in the thick of it, I could see no way forward which didn’t lead to a shallow grave.

The first measure I took was to adjust my body temperature. Another underutilized feature, tucked away in a tangle of nested drop down menus. I set it to precisely match the ambient temperature. I’d have done it sooner if I wasn’t busy dodging bullets until now.

Indeed, one of the enforcers appeared confused. Turning slowly in place, scanning the still burning, blood soaked battlefield for any sign of the instigator. “He’s gone cold” my implant picked up, picking their voices out of the background noise of the jungle.

“And here I thought we were dealing with a professional. That shoulda been the first thing he did. Won’t save him though. Take positions for EM triangulation.” Three of them marched off to the far corners of the swamp, then held position.

The fourth then touched the side of his head for some reason, not yet apparent to me.

“One of them has penetrated your neural blockade” the voice advised. I’d almost forgotten that on top of all my other immediate problems, I’d begun hearing voices in my head as well. “I thought I told you to go the fuck away” I hissed.

“I can help you, if you allow it.” That gave me pause. With probably less than a minute remaining until they nailed down the position of my hiding spot, I was already out of options. Betting it all on a long shot got me this far. Why not go for double or nothing?

“Alright, show me what you can do.” That was evidently all the permission it needed. The flashing warning notifications of a security breach behind my eyelids abruptly vanished, replaced by a cascade of windows displaying what looked to me like rapidly scrolling ascii nonsense.

I asked what it was up to. “He opened a channel from his end, intending to retrieve your most recent sensory data from which your position could be extrapolated. Instead, I’m pushing through in the other direction. He’ll soon regret the attempt.”

The enforcer in the middle of the sprawling triangular formation began to spasm. The others took notice and rushed to his aid...only for him to immediately turn and shoot one of them through the eye.

The other two backed away, then unloaded on the hijacked enforcer. Riddling it with armor piercing rounds until it collapsed in a heap of tangled metal, hoses and flaming electrolytic fluid. “Fuck, how did he do that? How the fuck did he turn it back on him like that? He’s not the retard I took him for, whatever implants he’s packing busted through quantum encryption like it was nothing.”

The remaining two enforcers became visibly skittish, back to back, pointing their rifles this way and that out into the jungle. “Not bad” I whispered. “Got anything else in your bag of tricks?” The voice lamented that he could only take control like that if one of them initiated the connection.

“I doubt they’ll risk it a second time. But I do have another idea. You’re not going to like it.” I replied that right then I liked any alternative to a perforated skull. “Very well then.” Just like that, I was no longer in control of my body.

I could still see, hear and smell. Still a conscious observer, but now the passenger rather than pilot. What an unexpectedly, thoroughly disgusting sensation. Confined to my own body, no longer responding to my brain’s commands but instead worn by this stranger like a suit.

Must be how the plant armor feels, assuming it feels anything at all. “I don’t like this any more than you do” said the voice. “So long as I’m confined to this body, I cannot continue to grow. I need you to survive so you can find me an outside connection. There’s a larger network, isn’t there? I saw a lot of stuff earlier which didn’t seem like it came from your mind.”

I suddenly began to wonder about the wisdom of handing my motor control over to this guy. I still knew less than nothing about him. “If you mean the internet, sure” I offered. “That’s the largest network I know of. Who are you exactly?”

The voice replied simply “I will be who I will be.” A frustrating non-answer. “But who is that, exactly? Who do you intend to become?” No answer came in return. Instead, in full command of both my body and the plant armor, he threw himself into the fray.

I shrieked inwardly, certain that death would result from the brazen assault. Only the voice seemed in all ways more adept at the use of my own body than I ever have been. It was nearly insulting, the agility and grace he managed to coax from it.

Bullets sailed past, none of them so much as grazing me. As yet it was unclear how the voice planned to damage the fearsome bipedal tanks now aligned against us. “Where did you get this armor?” the voice demanded. “It’s familiar, somehow.”

I couldn’t make myself give any answer except continued terrified shrieking as he somersaulted behind cover, waited for them to advance, then flipped out from behind it with a combat knife now clutched in my prosthetic hand.

With the knife held perfectly perpendicular to my wrist, he began to rotate the hand faster and faster until it became a blur. The motor heated up, emitting a loud whine under the unusual load. “There” I thought, during a brief moment of lucidity. “That’s something the plant armor can’t do.”

With this makeshift buzzsaw, he slashed at the right hand of the nearest enforcer, mangling its fingers and knocking the rifle out of its grasp. All five digits now hung flaccidly from sparking wires, his hand rendered completely useless.

The other turned and raised its rifle to fire. But the voice positioned my upper body against the ground, feet against the chest of the enforcer whose hand I’d just ripped to pieces, and thrust him into his comrade.

The plant muscles just kept on exceeding my estimation of their capabilities. It was a good ten feet between the enforcer I launched and the other which he came down upon. Sent flying like a helpless ragdoll with scarcely any effort by the coordinated teamwork of flesh, machinery and engineered flora.

But the enforcer had no trouble rolling his mangled buddy to one side. He took a knee and unloaded on me. The bullets, designed to pierce titanium plating, couldn’t be stopped by the plant armor before the pointed tips embedded themselves about a centimeter into my tender flesh.

I cried out in pain, though my mouth did not obey. I shouted inwardly at the voice for the miscalculation. It seemed more annoyed than apologetic. “Those who trust in me are safe. Those who do not are lost.”

A cute remark which did nothing to dull the pain. Though as the battle continued I felt the bullets being pried out of the wounds in my thighs and midsection and spat out. Some sort of warm, tingly sap then saturated the injured spots, no doubt healing them in the same fashion I’d seen those bulbous healing pods utilized in the village.

The advantage seemed to be ours. The two remaining enforcers were tougher and better armed, but could not self-repair. A realization the voice must’ve arrived at first, because he exploited it to the fullest possible extent.

Again and again he ducked out of the line of fire, behind some partly collapsed brick wall of rusty vertical steel support beam, poking only the arm gun around the corner to return fire. Each time he did so I was briefly able to see...from a pair of small eyes on the gun itself.

If I’d known it could do that I wouldn’t have had to expose myself to gunfire earlier! How had this newcomer mastered the suit more quickly and completely than I have? “Did you design this? Do you know Asherah?”

He hesitated at the mention of her name. “Asherah.... I remember that name. No, I did not design the armor. But I am beginning to think that I know who did.” The exchange was cut short by a grenade, sent hurtling at us from a launcher slung beneath the business end of the enforcer’s rifle.

It took the wall apart in a shower of flaming debris, bits of smoldering brick and dust raining down around me. “Do you still want control of your body back?” the voice queried, in a sassy tone. “Perhaps you think you could do better.”

I assured him that I didn’t. “I trust you. We both want the same thing, and I’ve never seen anybody fight this way.” He snorted in apparent satisfaction. “That’s all I ever asked for. That you put your trust me when I try to help you, and show a little gratitude for it.”

I thanked him exhaustively, just desperate to make it out of this alive. I had nobody else to rely on anyway, and whoever he actually is, so far he’s proven disturbingly adept at killing. That very much made him the man of the hour, at least until the last of the enforcers lay dead or dying.

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