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Chapter 22

Valerie watched another miner shudder, topple and fall. "Damn it, Jason," she snarled. She couldn't let him cause anymore damage! Not this time.

She brought her Peacekeeper in lower. It wouldn't do to have Jason see her approach too soon. The Peacekeeper transformed under her command; its NIAsteel parts reformed microseconds before it hit the earth. From the ensuing cloud of dust a powerful vehicle with oversized tyres emerged.

Valerie powered towards the very first miner that had fallen, the one that had contained Jason's lover. She tore over a rise in the pockmarked ground. Before her was another vehicle, barely meters from her, right in her path. Valerie swerved to avoid it, clipping the clumsy utility's front fender and sending it spinning out of her way. Her Peacekeeper only briefly lost traction, slewing sideways and then coming back under her control. She'd made sure the vehicle she'd chosen was well balanced. That previous choice all but negated any serious damage from the brief collision and she didn't give the unfortunate vehicle a second glance.

Jason Gray stood alone, pushing himself up from a kneeling position in the dirt to unsteady feet. Valerie slowed but slightly, reaching out her mind towards him. She sensed his nanites but these were protected by one of the crude protection bracelets the rebels had figured out how to fashion. She also sensed the device he wore on his hand, again a development of the rebels, though the sophistication of the actual chip suggested that this they had simply salvaged.

Valerie flexed her hand on the wheel, her lips twisting into a scowl. Salvaged indeed! She stomped her foot to the floor. Meters away from him she slammed on the brakes, controlling the vehicles momentum so that she sent a cloud of dust up and around Jason. She may have clipped him. She wasn't sure, and didn't really care, so long as she hadn't killed him. Not yet.

Valerie threw open the door and jumped down, manipulating the Peacekeeper even before her feet hit the dirt. The surface of the machine's white metal body rippled as it pulled itself upright, drawing up into a tall, suit-like form. Valerie paid it no heed, knowing it would do as commanded; her eyes were on Jason. "Get up!" she shouted at him.

Jason had fallen when the Peacekeeper had careened almost right into him, and now stood up shakily, choking on the churned up dust in the air.

"So you're still intent on causing me trouble, are you?" Valerie snarled. She hadn't seen this man face to face in years but her hatred for him burned stronger than ever. Her words spat forth with a vehemence she was usually able to keep in check. "What the hell are you trying to do? Make me look like a fool again? Or are you just here to cut off another of my limbs?"

Jason managed to gain his feet. He looked tired, sweat cut through the grime that had managed to stick itself to him. A trickle of blood ran from his nose. "Do you really think," he said weakly, "this is about you?"

"Your girlfriend, then? Yes, I know what you're up to." Valerie drew herself up. It had always been a struggle to maintain her confidence in front of this man. Not just because he towered over her. Usually. Now he seemed shrunken, dirty and dishevelled. "You had me fooled for a bit. I had no idea what you wanted with that girl. It all makes sense now. Pathetic, after ten whole years. So where's your girlfriend, Jason?"

Jason stared at her, his chest heaving as he drew in deep breaths. The dust was clearing, she could see him better now. His eyes were bloodshot. The trails through the dirt on his face were not from sweat.

A faint smile touched her lips. "She's dead, isn't she?"

"Shut up."

"Well, that makes sense. You didn’t think anyone would survive ten years in a tin can, did you?"

Jason shook his head and looked at the ground.

"Come on, Jason!" Valerie snapped. "We've got a chance to even things up now, don't we?" He wouldn't be able to see this was all his fault. He'd blame her, despite the fact placing the woman into the miner had been in response to his own actions in the first place. Fool.

But instead he just looked at her and shook his head again. "Sorry, I don't... I don't have time for this..." Jason closed his eyes and reached his gloved hand upwards.

Valerie tensed.

Jason was trying to control something. His hand shook and his face contorted in pain. The trickle of blood from his nose began to seep downwards again.

Valerie drew in a breath. "You crazy son of a..." He was destroying the machines in the mine with fused Controllers. She'd seen him take down the first one on her approach. Hadn’t quite twigged it was because it had been hacked. Who would be so stupid? To go for more was madness. It shouldn't have surprised her.

Jason let out a grunt and sunk to his knees, shuddering.

In the distance the screech of tortured metal and a reverberating thud announced the fall of yet another miner.

"You'll kill yourself, you idiot!”

Jason didn’t get back to his feet, just raised a shaking hand into the air yet again.

“I won’t let you get out of this that easily." Valerie gritted her teeth and called for her Peacekeeper. The machine stepped forward under her command. It stomped past her, towering over three meters into the air. In this form it had great metal hands, its palms the size of dinner plates, fingers powered by pistons that could instigate a grip far more powerful than any mere man, even if that man too had been three meters tall.

“Grab him,” Valerie said through gritted teeth, though the Peacekeeper required no verbal command to do so. But somehow saying it out loud felt right. The Peacekeeper reached out and grasped Jason's outstretched hand, encircling it and the device he wore, engulfing almost halfway up his forearm. Valerie’s hands balled into fists, as if she were doing this herself. “Now squeeze.”

The Peacekeeper swung the man up off the ground and squeezed. The crack and crunch of bone was audible. Like loose gravel under vehicle tyres. Jason tensed and whimpered, and then slumped in the machine's grip. The device he wore crumpled too, cutting off any connection he had to the machinery he had been trying to control.

Valerie didn't allow the machine to relent. She told it to squeeze until she was sure the device was shattered beyond all hope of causing her grief. And the protection bracelet he wore. That was engulfed in the Peacekeeper's grip too, and reaching out, she felt it had been rendered useless, leaving Jason's nanites unguarded. A smile played at her lips. She locked the Peacekeeper and transferred her attention to the nanites.

"Relax..." she muttered as the man twitched in her Peacekeeper's grip. "I'll let you keep your hand."

Rebecca shook her head to clear it. Had she been unconscious for but a few seconds, or a few minutes? She refocused and caught sight of the Peacekeeper waiting patiently beside its master in the shadow of the toppled miner. Right next to Jason. Rebecca swore, and stomped on the accelerator. Nothing. She'd slipped off the clutch during the impact and stalled. She stomped it in and fumbled for the manual ignition; she wasn't even sure where it was! She punched in the button as soon as she saw it and the engine spluttered in protest. Something must have been damaged. Rebecca raised a hand to use the Control to look for the problem. Then she remembered Jason had the only one.

Her heart rose in her throat. How could she start it without the Control? It was the only power she had! Without it… In desperation she thumbed the ignition again and this time the engine shuddered to life.

The Peacekeeper had moved. Now it held Jason in its hand, swinging his limp body over the ground. Rebecca floored it. But her target was not the towering machine; it was not responsible for its actions. She focused on the Controller as she drew nearer. Valerie? She was supposed to be dead! The woman was intent on Jason and didn't hear the snarl of the approaching vehicle.

With a determined growl Rebecca angled the vehicle for her. She pressed her foot down, gritted her teeth. All she had to do was stay on course. She'd seen Jason kill someone. Well, she'd seen him let someone die.

At the last second she swerved and sent a spray of dirt over Valerie. She couldn’t do it. The vehicle slewed sideways and slammed into the Peacekeeper's leg before coming to a stop.

Rebecca jumped out into the haze and coughed. "Jason!" For a moment she couldn't see anything; her last minute evasive manoeuvre had thrown up a cloud of dust. She squinted and saw a glint of white metal through the settling dust. She moved towards it.

Jason was still in the Peacekeeper's grasp but the machine had tumbled to the ground. It was a miracle that it had not crushed him beneath its body.

Rebecca went to his side and scrabbled at the thick metal fingers. The Peacekeeper was vibrating slightly but its grip appeared to have loosened. The metal fingers were slick with Jason's blood. That made it a little easier for her to gingerly extricate Jason's arm from the machine's embrace. His hand was a mangled and bleeding. "Gods, Jason..." Rebecca hissed.

Jason wasn't dead; he was trembling far too much for Rebecca to even to consider it. She drew in a breath and forced herself to look at his hand again. The Control was wrecked. Wrapped around the mangled flesh and bone, how could it not be? And even if it was usable she would never be able to get it off his shattered hand.

Valerie emerged from the settling dust. She wore the same grey uniform as the rest of the Controller’s Rebecca had seen here. But it was definitely her. “Long way from home, aren't you?” Valerie smiled faintly. “But then I suppose Jason did go to a fair amount of trouble to get you here. You don't have to worry, he can't do anything to harm you now."

Rebecca wiped her bloodied hands on the front of her pants before standing to her feet. She was shaking, but she stood over Jason, between him and Valerie. "Back off." Her voice came out a trembling croak.

Valerie raised an eyebrow, but paused in her advance. "Interesting. So I take it you're not here against your will? Wonder what your father will think of that."

Rebecca frowned. “Huh?” Was she trying to distract her? She steeled herself again and her hands tensed to fists. “Look, you've done enough damage to him; leave him alone."

Valerie raised an eyebrow, but paused in her advance. "Admirable. But you don't even have a device, do you? So I'm not sure what you think you're going to do."

The Peacekeeper shuddered back to life and stood to its feet. Valerie on her left. The towering machine on her right. How the hell could she protect Jason from either? Without a Control.

"Relax," Valerie said calmly. "I have no issue with you. In fact, I have... let's call them orders. Orders to take you alive. I won't hurt you but I do need you to come quietly."

"And what about Jason?" Rebecca found her voice stronger now. "Were you ordered to do that to him?!"

"No," Valerie let out a huff of air. "Whatever your friend there told you about me is a lie. Whatever harm has come to him is his own doing. He doesn't deserve your concern, you leave that to me." A faint smile that she definitely didn't trust crossed the woman's lips.

Rebecca's heart was pounding. She knelt back down next to Jason and placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not going with you," she said firmly.

"Yes, you are," said Valerie, a hint of steel coming into her voice. "You want to worry about him? Fine. It may not be in my best interests to hurt you, but I can hurt him. You can't defend him. Whatever you can do with that Control, without it, you're useless."

Rebecca swallowed hard.

"You don't believe me?" Valerie moved her right hand, a faint, slight movement. Rebecca felt a shudder run through Jason's body.

"Hey, leave him alone!" She gripped onto Jason tighter, because she didn't know what else she could do to keep Valerie at bay. She held him and felt something solid beneath his coat. For a moment her heart leapt, thinking it might be a gun, and she slipped her hand slowly beneath the coat and felt at his belt. Her hand closed over the hilt of a knife. The same damned knife he'd waved in front of the Controller, then used to cut out his Control chip. She didn't know how to use a knife! Well, she didn't know how to use a gun either. And why would Jason bring a gun into the mine? Why even a knife? He had it on him, despite the fact a weapon on a mine worker would be dead suspicious.

Perhaps he knew he might not be able to rely on the Control.

"I'll leave him alone if you come with me."

"Okay, okay." Rebecca slowly slipped the knife from its sheath, keeping it hidden behind Jason's prone body. "I'll come with you, just don't hurt him anymore."

"Fine. Now get up."

"I'm not leaving him. You're going to have to help him."

"Oh for gods sakes!" Valerie's patience snapped like rotten twine. She stepped forward, grabbed Rebecca by the wrist and dragged her up. "This is not negotiable..."

Rebecca swung Jason's knife upwards. It jarred against something solid.

Valerie stepped back, wrenching the knife from Rebecca's grip. "You little..." The knife was lodged halfway down her ribcage. Valerie looked at it, then pulled it free. She dropped it and staggered. A patch of red began to creep across the grey of her jacket. She scowled, steadied herself, and shakily raised the hand that had to hold her Control.

Behind her the Peacekeeper hummed; it was moving towards them.

Rebecca threw herself at Valerie, hitting her in the chest with her shoulder. She went down easily, injured, and lighter than Rebecca in the first place. Where was the knife? There. She snatched it up from the dirt and pinned Valerie's right arm. The woman fought back, weakly, but Rebecca had only the vaguest idea what she was doing and was still in danger of being toppled.

The Peacekeeper reached out for her with fat metal fingers.

Rebecca stabbed the tip of the knife into Valerie's right palm, eliciting a grunt of pain from the woman. The same place Jason had when he'd removed the chip from the other Controller back in Refuge. She slashed at Valerie’s palm twice before something metallic was flicked free by the knife's blade.

The Peacekeeper powered down with a whir. It's hand brushed Rebecca's shoulder. It froze, looming over the two women, one hand steadying itself on the ground.

Rebecca drew in shuddering breaths, her heart hammered in her chest. She dragged herself out from under the Peacekeepers’ shadow.

Valerie struggled to pull herself to her feet but wasn't having much success. She held a hand clasped to her injured side. "You..." she gasped.

"What are you doing to do?" Rebecca said shakily. "You don't have a Control, you're useless." She was still holding Jason's bloodied knife in her hand. She tossed it to the ground and it buried its tip in the dirt. She didn’t want to hold that thing for a second more.

She came back to Jason’s side and dropped to her knees. "Jason..." She shook his shoulder but he didn’t respond. He was still breathing; his gasps for air intermittent and ragged. Steeling herself, Rebecca grasped the man's limp frame and hauled him up over one shoulder. She staggered under his weight but there was no one to ask for help. She half dragged him to their vehicle, still idling a few meters away.

Rebecca hefted Jason in through the passenger door, wrestling with limp limbs to get him inside, and eventually shoving him in with no attempt to be gentle. She ran around the front of the vehicle and jumped in. She didn't check if Valerie was up yet, she didn't check if Jason was still okay, but threw the vehicle into gear and tore off, slewing sideways for a moment as her rear tyres spun.

Valerie couldn't follow them. She had no vehicle and couldn't control her Peacekeeper anymore. But she couldn't have been working alone. Someone else must know they were here. But the only option left was getting out as quickly as possible. So she drove.

She drove along the winding dirt paths that linked the holes and pits of the mine. She was driving far too fast; she’d be drawing attention. But she didn't care. Beneath her hands the steering wheel had grown sticky. The blood on her hands had begun to congeal. She'd thought she'd wiped off most of it. Was it Valerie's or Jason's?

Rebecca repressed a shudder and stole a glance at Jason. He was still unconscious; slumped against the passenger window. How was she to explain him? Would they want to check his ID? Could she hide him in the back? Did they even care if you left with one of your friends half dead?

It wasn't something she'd have to worry about. As Rebecca approached the check point they'd entered at she was greeted by the sight of a half dozen Peacekeepers. The machine's stood in a semicircle just within the mine's exit. They stood in the same mode Valerie had employed, standing like overgrown men in white space suits, each behind their respective Controller.

This wasn’t a regular occurrence. This was for her and Jason. Rebecca brought the vehicle to a halt and pulled up the handbrake. She didn't want to give them any reason to attack. They wanted her alive; Valerie had said as much. She stole another glance at Jason. But how to stop them doing what they wanted with him?

Another vehicle pulled up among the other Peacekeepers. It too was a gleaming white, but its Controller had chosen a form that closely resembled the utility Rebecca now drove. The driver's door opened and a middle aged man stepped out.

Rebecca sat bolt upright and strained to pick out his features. Surely not?

The man began to approach her vehicle. One of the other Controller's stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Woah, hold it Horatio." She could hear their voices through her open window. "Where's Julien?"

Horatio. Rebecca felt her throat constrict.

"Julien's dead," said Horatio. “I’m in charge now; so you'll do what I say, understand?"

The man who had stopped him paused briefly, then simply nodded.

Rebecca glanced across at Jason one last time before opening the car door and stepping down.

The Controllers tensed and all of the Peacekeepers raised a weapon arm.

"Stand down," said Horatio, raising a hand.

Rebecca found she couldn't make her legs move and it wasn't because of the threat of the waiting Peacekeepers. So she just waited for Horatio to approach her.

A few meters away, he paused. "Rebecca…” he said. His voice wavered. “Are you hurt?"

Rebecca glanced down at her bloodied hands. "That's... not mine..." She wiped her hands on the front of her pants. "She... Valerie said you wanted me alive."

Horatio swallowed and nodded.

"And Jason..." she glanced back at the idling vehicle. "He needs help. I want him to... you have to get help for him. He's hurt. I want you to promise me you'll help him, and that you won't let anyone hurt him."

"Of course. Whatever he needs." Horatio stared at her for a moment, then he opened his arms wide. "Rebecca..."

She hesitated but a moment and then rushed into his arms, letting the man's warm embrace envelop her. "Dad."

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