She could see him. Caged like a prisoner behind bars of junk code and multiple firewalls. She had almost given up on finding him; years of searching, sleepless nights, and the loss of her mother had almost convinced her to start from scratch. With the original AI, however, she could finally get this pile of junk moving, she could start making some real money.
A loud banging in her ears made her jump in her seat and her heart to skip a beat. At first, she thought it might be virtual but quickly realized that it was coming from outside. Gwen pulled off her VR set and opened the door to the cockpit. Below the platform, she saw Vox standing out of breath with a large pipe in hand.
“You better not be hitting my machine with that pipe!” she yelled at greasy pit hound.
“Gwen!” Vox tried to catch his breath. “Snail got arrested.”
“What,” Gwen said, before jumping down to his level. “What for?”
Vox nervously took a step back. “Something called conspiracy.”
Gwen swore. “Have they ever met the guy?”
“What are we going to do,” Vox said. Gwen didn’t answer, instead, she scanned the area to make sure no one was watching them. “Snail was supposed to be meeting the dealers in less than an hour.”
Gwen’s knee started to shake and she caught herself biting her lower lip, two signs her trouble making side was about to come out as her mother used to say. Beside her Vox was fidgeting nervously, she almost smiled at the sight but noticed the ash colored splotch on his neck.
“I’ll meet with the dealer,” Gwen said.
“You?” Vox said. He watched as she marched to her toolbox and removed the first shelf to reveal a gun shaped tool. Vox’s jaw dropped. “Is that real?”
“It would really hurt to get hit by it,” she said, looking for something to conceal it with. She settled for a short jacket, not really sure who it belonged to, but she liked the way it looked.
Vox ran in front of her with his arms out. “You can’t go alone.”
“Do you want to go with me?” she said.
The nervous mechanic shook his head. She smiled and headed for the upper levels.
“Wait shouldn’t we a least tell the old man?” Vox called after her.
Gwen laughed and looked over her shoulder. “Do you want to get us both killed?”
One level above the chop shops were the free markets. Rows upon rows of vendor stalls and carts selling every sort of foul smelling, ugly looking curiosity found in the wastelands between Colombia and the six other cities of the world. Another level up was the warehouse district, a relatively quiet part of the city where anything that was essential to sustain life in the city was stored. It was in this echo filled box maze that Gwen was supposed to meet the dealers.
She checked her watch impatiently, if these guys didn’t show up soon the main workforce was going to show up and Gwen would be forced to leave. Warehouse operations began at night when the full force of computer operated machines would come to life and start to rotate the inventory and fold in any new deliveries. For security reasons, this work was randomized and completed at a rapid pace. An added bonus for the city managers was that the danger of being crushed was so great that it kept out any would be nesters. At this time of day all Gwen had to worry about was avoiding the occasional order picker, but that wouldn’t be the case too much longer.
“You are not the courier,” a computerized voice said behind her.
Gwen turned around and watched as four robotic thugs approached her, trailed by a fifth that was driving a hovercart. Gwen took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Snail was feeling under the weather, so I’m picking up today.”
The four machines traded glances. The lead thug stepped forward, its bisected face glowed as it spoke. “There will be no delivery without the payment of an additional twenty thousand points.”
Gwen’s jaw dropped. “Twenty thousand!”
“The price of the drug spiked today,” said the thug behind the first.
“DuMal’s decision is non-negotiable,” a third one said.
Gwen could feel her heart start to pound. “But we already paid.”
“That is the deal human,” the four machines said in unison.
“Take it or leave it.” the first one finished.
Gwen bit her lower lip. She did not possess nearly that amount of money and didn’t even know how to get it, but too many people were dependent on that drug for her to come home empty handed. Her knee started to twitch.
“How do I know you even have it?” Gwen said.
The machines traded glances once more. “What do you mean?”
Gwen smiled and shrugged. “I mean if DuMal is crooked enough to ask for more money after we’ve already paid him, who’s to say he isn’t enough of a tentacle licker to stiff us altogether?”
“It’s here, we are not capable of lying,” the lead machine said.
“Maybe not, but your kind is known for being extremely gullible.” Gwen shook her head. “I want to see the product.”
If the mechanical thugs could look offended they did. The lead thug twirled his hand and the hovercart started to turn around. The others moved so he could have some room, while Gwen merely took a step back. When the cart was in position the lead thug jumped on the back of it and opened the crate that contained their promised product, placing his gun down to do so. Gwen noted that there were only two machine men close enough to attack her at that moment and they were standing together.
“Is this proof enough human?” the lead thug said.
“I don’t know?” Gwen leaned forward as if to get a closer look, she placed her left hand on the cart near the lead thugs gun, and her right hand found its way inside her jacket and around the handle of the welding gun she had brought. For a moment she glanced at the case of drugs just to make sure it was real. She swallowed hard before saying, “Everything looks lined up.”
At that second she brought out the welding gun she had crafted for such a moment as this and aimed at the two armed guns. The powerful laser did what it was supposed to do and tore through the two hired goons metal bodies. At the same time, her left hand had grabbed a hold of lead thugs gun and she brought it up to his face and fired. Next, she climbed aboard the hovercart and grabbed the case of drugs. As the two remaining armed thugs rounded the cart and open fired, Gwen jumped up onto the cart's roof and down the front as she started to make her getaway.
As Gwen dashed toward the safety of the storage containers, blaster fire bouncing around her feet, she looked down at her homemade weapon and grimaced as she found that she had already used over half of the gun’s charge; only one shot left. Gwen would just have to outrun the slow mech heads if she was going to get away. She started by turning as many corners as she could, the clankers may have been slow but they were notoriously hard to lose.
Gwen ran until she couldn’t run anymore. The warehouse district was miles long, almost as large as the city itself. Gwen knew she could very well get lost or worse crushed when the operating hours started, so she started to circle back to where she came from. The illegal homemade weapon in front of her, she had not heard any signs of her pursuers. Despite herself Gwen actually felt scared, breathing so hard that she swore that she could hear it echo.
“Why haven’t they found me yet?” she whispered.
Suddenly, the lights above her started to flash and a siren started to wail. She gasped, the nightly operations were about to begin. She started to run in a panic, painfully aware that this could have been the thug’s plan all along. Gwen rounded corner after corner of the container maze, trying to remember which way she had come from. Not an easy task with the lights flashing and eyes watering, she could hardly see what was in front of her.
Gwen continued this way until she slammed into something human shaped. She screamed and fired her weapon. An alien like she had never seen before cried out in pain before falling to the ground dead. Gwen dropped her weapon and held her hands to her mouth, feeling sick to her stomach. A gun blast sounded in her ear and she stumbled forward, around the last corner, losing her footing in the large corridor that was the exit to the lower levels. She had been so close, she thought to herself as the two armed machine men walked out with their guns aimed at her head.
Gwen sobbed and closed her eyes tightly, waiting for the sound of their guns. Instead, she heard the loud crash of metal colliding with metal. Opening her eyes, she saw pieces that had once been her pursuers strawn out to the left of her as a container held by a crane sped away. Without wasting another second, Gwen wiped the tears away from her eyes, grabbed the case of drugs, and darted for the exit.
All she wanted to do was go home.
Gwen sat with her arms wrapped around her legs, her head resting on her knees, and tears rolling down her cheeks. It wasn’t the alien’s face that she kept seeing, its silent scream she only saw for a moment and mostly only the mouth. It was the crest it wore, right above the hole her gun had made. It showed a star, like any other star a human would recognize, on a field of different colored triangles. For some reason, this was the image that continued to come back to Gwen as she sat in the cockpit of the sleeping gun platform that had become her sanctuary from an early age.
For a while now there had been a banging coming from outside her sanctuary that she was doing her best to ignore, but whoever it was wasn’t getting the hint. In frustration, Gwen switched the outside monitor on and wasn’t too surprised who she saw. Gwen wiped the tears from her eyes and replaced them with the fire of anger as she opened the cockpit and climbed down to meet him.
“Young lady we will not be ignored,” Old Man Unser said.
“Who is we?” Gwen smirked as she looked out at the crowd that had gathered in the garage. “Because all I see is a foolish old man surrounded by a group of cowards.”
The crowd sneered at Gwen’s disrespectful treatment of their leader. To his credit, the old man quieted them down before confronting her again. “Your immaturity continues to show itself.”
Gwen rolled her eyes.
“And now you have put all of us in great danger,” he said, banging his cane on the ground.
“Please,” Gwen held out her palms, “I wouldn’t call DuMal a great danger.”
The old man shook his head. “Maybe for a young woman who can move from one tool shack to another, but what about us.”
“Us?” Gwen stared at the angry faces looking back at her, each covered in varying degrees of the grey crusted cyprosy that was slowly eating away at their body’s. Old Man Unser’s was the worst, covering half his face. “Look at you, what would have done without your precious drug?”
“You should not have stolen them,” the old man barked.
“We paid for them!” Gwen frustratedly searched the crowd for at least one sympathetic face but failed. “Were you going to get the extra money they wanted?”
“We’ve could have gone to someone else,” someone in the crowd shouted.
“Who?” Gwen searched for the person who had made the statement. “DuMal was the last dealer in the city willingly to sell to us.”
“And now who do we go to?” someone else said.
Gwen spun around as if she was being surrounded by wolves. “I’ll figure something out.”
“I think you’ve done enough.” Gwen could feel the hair on the back of hair stand. Old Man Unser grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her so he could look her in the eye. “You have your mother’s pension for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
It was as if someone had walked up to her and stabbed her in the heart. Gwen felt tears start to well in her eyes, but she held them back. “How dare you people!” she started to run towards the disabled gun platform, “she gave her life for you ungrateful cowards.”
Gwen ran the pile of antique junk that was the only thing she really owned, ready to put some distance between her and the people she thought of as her family. She climbed up to the cockpit, but before Gwen could jump in the sound of a gunshot froze her in place. She turned to see DuMal slither his way into the garage surrounded by a dozen of his mechanical enforcers. Gwen ducked into the cockpit of the old gun platform, hoping that they hadn’t already seen her.
“Where is that Spectra girl!” she heard DuMal’s oily voice. Gwen turned on the auxiliary power to her machine and slipped on her VR headset.
“How dare you!” she heard Old Man Unser’s voice rise over the panicked shouts of his followers. “You fail to deliver on your word and you show up here.”
Gwen dug her way back to where the gun platform’s AI was being held captive. She didn’t know why the old man hadn’t given her up immediately, but she also didn’t have time to think about it.
“That girl stole from me and I want to know where you’re hiding her!” DuMal answered.
Gwen found the AI’s prison and tried to break through its firewalls from the back door.
“Why would we be involved with a criminal like her?” the old man asked and the crowd agreed with him. “We want nothing to do with Gwen Spectra.”
The backdoor was getting her nowhere, she had to come up with another solution quickly. She thought about a different approach attacking from below with a wrym. She let one loose and it quickly buried itself in a whole and made its way toward the prison.
“I don’t think so,” DuMal said. There was an eery silence for a moment before DuMal spoke again in a sinister deep voice. “I smell onyx on you.”
Success, the wyrm had broken through and a blue glow spilled out of its hole. Gwen watched in awe as a bright orb floated out from the wyrm hole and floated in front of her before starting to take the shape of a human. Gwen threw off her headset and started the gun platforms main power. She watched the outside monitor out of the corner of her eye as DuMal grabbed Old Man Unser by the collar and placed a gun to his head.
“You’re going to tell me where the girl is,” DuMal said.
A combat screen turned green in front of her and the image of a sword appeared. “Identify yourself, pilot,” the computer said.
“We went to a different supplier,” the old man said.
“Gwen Spectra,” she almost screamed.
A buzzer sounded and the combat screen in front of her turned red. “Pilot identification could not be verified. Please exit the platform and wait as the authorities are contacted.”
“No way,” DuMal’s voice rang in her ear, “I’m the only supplier you have.”
Gwen slammed her fists on the console. “No, we have to help these people!”
“What is the nature of their distress,” the AI said.
Gwen laughed in disbelief. “Call it a drug deal gone wrong.”
“Please exit the platform and wait as the authorities are contacted.”
“Pharmaceutical not illicit,” Gwen shouted. A gunshot rang out and the crowd screamed. Gwen’s heart jump, but she was relieved to see that DuMal had only fired a warning shot into the air. “If you don’t help me these innocent people are going to die.” Gwen felt closed her eyes as another shot pierced the air. “Please help me.”
After a few seconds of silence, a bell-like chime sounded and she could feel machinery movie from under her. The entire cockpit turned transparent and Gwen was now floating over the crowd of outcasts, DuMal, and his thugs. The robotic enforcers responded to the gun platforms activation by raising their guns. Two silver discs appeared in front of Gwen. “Please place your hands in the interface sockets,” the AI commanded. Gwen did as she was told and felt some uneasiness as her hands became the mechs hands.
“I don’t suppose your weapons have any ammo do they?” Gwen said.
“Point at a target and make a fist,” the AI said.
Gwen did as she was told, picking one the robotic goons at the left edge of the crowd. She laughed as an orange beam shot out from her hand and turned to the goon into a pile of rubble.
“No, I don’t have any ammo left,” he paused as Gwen destroyed another thug, “But my Ion drive will not be depleted for another few hundred years.”
“Good to know,” Gwen said. Below her the crowd had dispersed, running to the cover of the other work pits, but DuMal still had a hold of Old Man Unser and a few other cypers by gun point. “Do you have any tricks for hostage situations.”
It took a moment for the AI to answer, while DuMal was shouting about doing unpleasant things if they didn’t stand down. “I do, raise your right hand.”
Gwen raised it over the dealer and his men, a loud hum startled them and forced them to take a step back. Suddenly, their guns were pulled away from them and into Gwen’s right hand. The robots themselves would have been pulled toward her if their bodies had not reacted instinctively by bolting them to the ground. That did not, however, stop some of their arms to be collected by the gun platform’s powerful magnet.
“I like your style,” Gwen said, as she crushed the items she collected in her hand. “What am I supposed to call you?”
“I am an Excalibur class gun platform operating intelligence designation Argent Two Nine Seven,” he said in a snobbish voice.
“I’m just calling you Argent.” Gwen gritted her teeth as she watched one of DuMal’s goons pull out a rocket launcher and trained it on her.
“Argent!” she screamed as the rocket fired. “Do you have any special gadget for that?”
The AI didn’t say anything, nor did it make any attempt to avoid the oncoming missile. Instead, Gwen was tossed in her seat as the missile impacted with Argent’s left leg. When Gwen’s head finally stopped spinning she looked down to see the leg start to repair itself.
“Do not concern yourself with it,” Argent said when Gwen continued to stare. “Please put an end to this conflict.”
Gwen blinked back to life. “Yeah, not a problem.”
As the machine self-repaired itself Gwen started picking off the remaining robotic thugs. Although she was unable to move, the cockpit’s 360-degree view and a few surprise weapons allowed her to easily clean up the rest of DuMal’s gang. That only left the boss himself, who was busy sobbing to himself below her feet.
“Can we move yet?” Gwen asked.
“Mobility restored,” Argent replied.
“I am putting an end to our business arrangement,” Gwen announced as she moved to where he was standing.
“Please, don’t kill me!” DuMal screamed.
Gwen frowned. “I don’t ever want to see your face ever again.”
The gun platform crouched down and with one of its mechanical fingers she flicked a the squid-like gangster. At first, she thought that DuMal’s tentacles would keep him stuck to the ground, but the force of the attack ripped him from the ground and sent him flying toward the exit of the garage. DuMal’s boneless body would keep him from dying, but he sure was going to feel that for the next few weeks.
“All enemy combatants eliminated,” Argent said.
Gwen was about to smile and shout something irrelevant when she saw Old Man Unser peek his frowning face from the shadows. More of the cypers joined him and none seemed particularly happy and all kept their distance from Gwen.
“We have to hide them,” she said.
“Why?” Argent asked.
“Because even though he’s a crook, DuMal could come back with the authorities,” she answered.
She closed her eyes trying to think of a place that would be remotely safe, but with all the surveillance in the city, it seemed like an impossible chance. They could flee the city entirely, try to make it outside the gate, but with the cyprosy they wouldn’t last long enough to make any kind of real shelter. She opened her eyes sadly and was about to give up when something caught her eye. It was the picture of her mother she had tapped to the cockpit.
“What is our destination?” Argent asked.
“Home,” Gwen said.
Light flooded streets that had been covered in darkness for almost a decade. The cypers had started moving into homes they thought they would have never seen again and more where joining them every day. Gwen had been the rare one for living in the city without being touched by the cyprosy, but she wasn’t alone for long. Many of the city poor or those who choose to make their way by means not approved by the protectorate made their homes among the cypers, many of them not human. The old city under the ground level of Colombia was returning to the way it had once been and it was all thanks to Argent.
“How are you holding up?” Gwen approached the gun platform where he was standing on one knee. A large cable was sticking out of his back and to a large generator Gwen’s mother had rigged up right before they were forced to evacuate the old city.
“I always function at optimal perimeters,” Argent said.
Gwen rolled her eyes. “I mean, are you really sure you can handle all the drain on your power cells.”
“Like I told you before,” Argent turned his head toward her, “My Ion drive will not expire for many hundred of years after you die and are forgotten.”
“Thanks a lot,” Gwen smiled. Her mother could never figure out how to power the generator, legally anyway. Little did she know that the answer was in the mech they had dug up not too far from here. She patted him on the leg, before realizing how awkward she must have look. Instead, she looked up at him, “I am thankful for what you’re doing here.”
Argent turned his head away from her, staring out into the city. He said, “I don’t recognize this place.”
“We are actually a few hundred feet underground,” Gwen said.
“Under Colombia,” Argent said, his eyes still focused outward. “But this Colombia does not match the one if have stored in my virtual memory.”
Gwen frowned. “I’m sure the city has changed since you have been active.”
“Undoubtedly, but not this much,” he said.
“I’m sure once you’ve seen more of the city you’ll recognize something,” she assured him.
“I’ve already seen it,” he said. “I tapped into the city security cameras, I don’t recognize any of it.”
Gwen opened her mouth, but could not think of anything to say. She wasn’t even sure why it meant so much to him.
“The generator is fully charged,” Argent said. Gwen helped the gun platform disconnect himself from the machine. When they had finished Argent stood up and continued to stare out at the small city under the city.
Gwen hated to ask the question she was about to. “What will you do now?”
Argent moved his head back and forth as if he was trying to find someone. “I will continue to try contacting the alliance.”
Gwen lowered her head. “Argent there is no alliance anymore.”
“Nevertheless, there may still be someone who inherited the alliances codes and protocol.” A burst of electronic noise came from the mechs insides. “When they call I will answer.”
“So, you’re just going to stand here?” Gwen couldn’t help keep the sound of disappointment out of her voice.
“I am the most advanced weapons system ever created by human hands.” Argent turned his head toward Gwen for the first time during the conversation. “I can handle more than one task at a time.”
Gwen crossed her arms. “What other tasks did you have in mind.”
Argent looked out at the city again. “What you are doing here is noble, protecting those who cannot protect themselves is very much in line with my original mission.”
Gwen smiled. “Well, I’m glad I have your approval.”
“I said your mission is noble,” Argent looked down at her again, “I’m not so sure about you.”
Gwen laughed. “That’s fine with me.”
She meant it. Gwen was going to continue to help the cypers because it was the right thing to do, but she wasn’t going to be taken advantage of like her mother. She still had dreams of her own and as soon as she could make the city in front of her self-sufficient, she was going to pursue those dreams. With Argent she knew that she was well on her way to making that a reality. Together they would make this place a refuge for anyone oppressed by the protectorate. An oasis among the steel.