Arkfall, Part III


alia_icon.gif bao-wei2_icon.gif broome_icon.gif dong-tian_icon.gif viris_icon.gif veronica3_icon.gif

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Scene Title Arkfall, Part III
Synopsis When Veronica and Dong-tian head to C-Ring to disable automated security, they find more than they bargained for.
Date November 8, 2011

The Commonwealth Arcology, C-Ring

Far below the streets of Cambridge Massachusetts, the marvel of architecture and engineering that is the Commonwealth Arcology lays hidden from view. In one of the deepest subterranean levels of the arcology is a mostly completed machine fabrication facility. Roughly the size of an entire automobile engineering plant, the structure of one hundred percent automated, operating off of rudimentary artificial intelligence.

The factory floor is an ever-moving menagerie of mechanical components, long articulated arms welding intricate pieces of technology together in an assembly line that follows the entirety of C-Ring’s half mile circumference. The various assembly lines fabricate everything from firearms, to vehicles, to the dreaded robots that the Department of Evolved Affairs have deployed across New York. But this is so much more, such a larger scale. Whatever the DoEA is doing topside is a precursor to the machine landslide being built underground.

On a high catwalk overlooking the machine plant floor, Veronica Sawyer stands at a computer terminal with a rifle slung over her shoulder. A lab technician lays dead on the ground beside her, blood trickling through the grating below his head. She wears his keycard lanyard around her neck, typing away on the terminal. Automated defenses for the arcology can only be deactivated on this level, rather than in the security command center two floors up. It separates the human elements of security from the strictly artificial ones.

But after a cursory check of this console, Sawyer still can’t seem to find a way to disable the defenses. Fingers drumming on metal stand the console is mounted on, Sawyer flips through the listing of the internal defenses, noticing turrets, drones, robots, and multiple forms of gas. All of which are marked as enabled.

@v.iris: Hey there, champ.

A sudden block of text appears in the corner of the screen. For a moment a chill runs down Veronica’s spine. She reaches for the keys, but the message continues.

@v.iris: It looks like you’re trying to get administrator access, do you need some help?

For the barest of moments, it feels like a genuine offer. But then —

@v.iris: But I don’t think you’re authorized, Miss Sawyer.
@v.iris: Smile. Fifth camera from the right, I’m wagging it.

Sure enough, looking up to the ceiling Veronica spots a camera mounted by one of the lights, bobbing up and down frantically.

@v.iris: Oh, look to your left, too.

Eyes flick to the left and — it’s a turret.

Throwing herself to the side, Veronica dives away from the console before a barrage of gunfire tears the computer apart. The ceiling-mounted turret continues to fire, forcing Veronica to spring to her feet and rush across the catwalk as bullets pepper the surface. There’s a crash as some of the grating is blown down to the fabrication floor below. But she manages to make her way to a concrete support pillar and ducks behind it. The bullets now ricochet off of stone and whip just past her body.

«Wow, those legs get you moving too. Good package deal.» A man’s voice crackles over the intercom system. «Alright, Sawyer. You stay there, I’ll come to you.>

At that sound, something on the fabrication floor begins to hum to life. At the same moment, orange lights begin to flash at the personnel elevator, indicating that someone is coming. Veronica unshoulders her rifle, back pressed to the pillar, and trains it on the door. Her breathing steadies, hands give only the faintest of tremors. But when those elevator doors open, it isn’t a security team coming down to stop her.

It’s several Dong-Tians.

As Dong-Tian emerges from the elevator, it’s clear that he isn’t alone. On his way to rejoin Veronica after helping some of the Ferrymen release and rescue captives, he’d bumped into one other member of this infiltration. The technopath, Alia Chavez. Alia walks behind the wedge of Dong-Tians, and is emptied out into a playground of mechanical wonders atop a high catwalk.

Just as Dong-Tian spies Veronica, he hears a high-pitched whirring sound as something comes flying up from the factory floor to the catwalk level. There, behind Veronica hovers a production model AETOS drone, a pair of undercarriage machine guns unfolding from concealed compartments.

«Hi folks!» Comes cheerfully chirping from the drone’s external speakers along with a barrage of gunfire.

As the double agent holds her weapon poised at the elevator door, Veronica’s dark eyes sweep the area for options and but she doesn’t find that many she’s got very good feelings about. “Somehow I don’t think you have the courage to do it in person,” she mutters to the overly cheerful voice chatting at her — the voice of someone currently trying to kill her.

There’s a visible sigh of relief when she sees Dong-TIan and his friend. “Careful! There’s guns!” she calls out to warn them, with a flick of her eyes to the turret. But then there’s the sound of the drone behind her, and she swivels to unload a few rounds of her weapon at the drone as well. “I can’t get through to turn off the defenses,” she adds to Dong-Tian — maybe one of him can do that while the rest of them try not to die.

“I hate fucking technopaths,” she growls. She’ll apologize to Alia later.

Alia growls as she recognizes the voice. She still finds a good bit of cover from the turrets and the nearest drone, even as, without abandoning herself, she lashes out with her ability, a pinpoint strike on the drone’s flight system, an attempt at making it overcompensate for gravity. This is followed with a single pair of words shouted, in irritation. “Colin Verse.” That same tone of voice might be used by a -very- angry mother. Ticked technopaths? Oh yes. And these two seemingly know each other. This could only be a good thing right? Righhhhht.

The squad of eight Dong-tian fan out immediately, one going to join in Veronica with her cover. Another Dong-tian slides into cover with Alia. The P90 assault rifle he had taken held limply against his chest. Listening to Alia, the Dong-tian at Veronica speaks. “Colin Verse.” He repeats, gesturing to the direction of Alia. Veronica is experienced with the Brian radio system by the point.

Six P90 rifles begin timed bursts, each one going in sequence with perfect timing. Popping up to fire, while that one ducks back another pops forward to fire, and again, and again, changing the rhythm of which fire goes next periodically. It’s a perfectly synchronized firing squad. Well it would be perfect, if the bullets were hitting flesh and not armored plating.

Back at Veronica the Dong-tian with her looks at her calmly. “Where do I go to do that? I’ve never been in here.”

For all the the AETOS was designated as the cutting edge of violence-suppression technology, there’s certain circumstances that the Institute did not account for in its design. Multiple, perfectly synchronized fire teams cornering it at close range was not one. The AETOS is designed for mobility, not defense, and the P90s rip through it like its made of aluminum. Sparks and smoke issue from the drone in equal measure before it spirals out of control and flies head-on into a wall and shatters into hundreds of pieces, all raining down on the machine fabrication floor below.

For a moment, there’s silence. Veronica can see the source of Dong-tian’s consternation, as the terminal she was using was demolished by gunfire. Based on her assessment of the facility prior, that was the only administrative terminal networked to the defense grid on this level. The other is down on the machine fabrication floor, in an office roughly 1,000 feet from here. Down below, there’s sounds of mechanical assembly lines, arc welders, pistons slamming. It’s a cacophony of industry.

“Fuck. Never mind. Lemme think.” Veronica scrubs a hand over her face as she stares around their area, weighing her options. There’s two she can think of, and with robots, machine guns, and technopaths to deal with, neither is particularly awesome.

“Chavez, you able to turn off the defenses remotely or you need to get to a terminal? Either way we need to get out of here. There’s another console down below,” the agent says, standing. “Ladders or elevators. I’ll take my chance with the ladder.” To Dong-Tian, she adds, “Maybe send one or two of you in the elevator in case.” In case we don’t make it down, goes unsaid.

It’s just become a very real game of chutes and ladders, with very real consequences.

Vee glances at the turret that had been shooting at her and fires a few blasts to hopefully ensure that particular weapon won’t be in commission, before she darts for the ladder to begin the way down.

Alia frowns. “20 yards from a node.” She admits… then realizes. A node. The turrets are wired to something. As are the cameras. She makes sure she is not immediately at risk of coming under fire as she sits with her back to a wall, and slumps… and D.Crypt jumps to life in the network from one of those spying eyes.

«Okay V.iris, easy or hard way?» she sends as a general ping even as she pulls herself out of the camera and into the network at large.


Dong-tian’s report is crisp and quick, the gunfire bursts immediately stopping as they go to each reload their rifles. One Dong-tian is apparently an ammunition mule, quickly maneuvering from copy to copy, making sure the remaining magazines they stole are spread sufficiently between all the bodies. Keeping the bag on his shoulder tight, he manages his run quickly and carefully as if in the trench of a great battle.

“You all down the ladder? Maybe..” But if there is another technopath here, the elevator may be just as dangerous. He nods in agreement. “We’ll go half and half.” However he pauses.

“She just slumped and is out of it.”Dong-tian is looking at Veronica, looking slightly frustrated. “She can do what she can do on the move right?” He doesn’t wait for an answer.

One Dong-tian is shouldering his rifle and scooping Alia up into his arms. “We’ll take her and four to the elevator, the rest with you.” And so the teams divide.

As Veronica and some of the Dong-tians begin to descend the service ladder, they get their first clear view of the machine fabrication floor. The curving hallway extends a thousand feet in either direction, with rows of mechanized arc-welding arms piecing together innumerable intricate mechanical components. Other, smaller limbs like those on a centipede grab finished parts and move them further down the line.

Halfway down the ladder, a pair of green eyes becomes visible in the dark. Low to the ground, but moving with the ambling gait of a savannah cat. As it comes into the light, the machine is intimately familiar to Veronica Sawyer. The same frame, the same fanged countenance, the same green eyes. It is undoubtedly the designs of Hector Steel with a generational iteration of improvements. The hunters as the Argentinian locals called them, can detect the Evolved through some complex biometric scan and, with an injector syringe, negate their abilities.

In the elevator, the squad of Dong-tians slide the latticed freight elevator door shut and flip a switch for the ground level of C-Ring. Though Alia Chavez is unconscious over his shoulder, there’s the occasional twitch and jitter of her limbs, like someone who is dreaming.

Inside the Institute’s network, Alia finds herself in a walled garden of sorts. While she is located within the security system, it appears as though each level’s networks are partitioned from one another with only a few access points. Someone, likely Verse, designed the network infrastructure used here and its palatial design. Broad, utilitarian, and fortified — like the digital equivalent of Brutalist architecture.

«You could have had a future in government, kid.» Verse’s voice is more tangible to Alia here inside the network. «Just so you know, none of this is really personal. I actually admire what you’re doing. But, this is my job you know? Get out of here while you can, before I have to do something I don’t want to do.»

“I don’t know, she’s your plus one,” Veronica says, but Dong-Tian is already sweeping up Alia, and Veronica continues down the ladder, one careful step after another, because she doesn’t want to fall into god knows what.

And then god knows what is revealed.

“Shit. Remember the robots I told you about in Argentina?” Vee says to the Dong-Tians also climbing down the ladder. The question is not rhetorical. She keeps moving. There’s the slightest nod, though Dong-Tian’s not likely looking at her, to the catlike robot lurking below.

“If one of you gets negated — what happens? Do you just get cut off, or?” Things she should know. Things she probably does know, but has forgotten, in this tense moment. A little farther down, hopefully low enough that if she falls, she won’t end up breaking a leg or worse, she shifts her position, hooking one leg over one of the rungs so that she straddles the ladder and can’t simply fall into the robot’s waiting fangs. Taking careful aim to try to avoid ricochet, she aims for the robot’s limbs, its green eyes, and its needle.

“Status on Chavez? She still sleeping beauty?” she asks. “We need this shit turned off.”

D.Crypt, if she could, would almost be giving a feral grin. All that is ‘said’ though, is a memory. Pain, Mayes’ face, an injection. And then, Alia shows the difference between job, and passion. As regular, old packets flow about the network… and one by one, the gateways start to slow and falter. A quick diagnostic would show them as overheating. «How far for a job, Colins? What darkness done for a paycheck?»

“I just kind of found her. I don’t know what she can do.”

Clipping down the ladder steps at a healthy pace Dong-tian suppresses a smile. “Cut off.” He reminds. Looking down at Veronica, a Dong-tian below her goes to fiddle at his equipment, producing something hand held.

“Still on the elevator. But I’ll get this one warmed up.”

With that one of the four Dong-tian rapidly descends down the ladder, dropping the last dozen feet or so. Landing with a thud and a grunt. His eyes go up to the robot before him, the one that can sense his genes. Here’s hoping it can’t sense traps.

The Dong-tian lying prone starts to scramble up in preparation for the robot coming forward. Behind his back the pin for the grenade in his hand sliding out. He holds and waits.

Inside the elevator the other four Dong-tian just.. Wait. Rifles jostled from here or there, one going to lean against the wall of the elevator. The one holding Alia in his arms goes to take a seat as to conserve energy, the unconscious Alia cradled in his lap like a baby. One of the copies makes a drumming noise with his knuckles on the elevator door. A yawn is heard, emitting from one of them, drawing eyes from the rest. A mental investigation done to see how tired that body is, and then the rest of them look back in front of them, waiting.

«It’s — not about the moneyy.» Inside the network infrastructure, Alia continues her battle with Colin. «We’re dangerous! Look at us, we could wipe out the entire electrical power grid of the continental United States if we wanted to! Heck, intercontinental! We could, with enough time, bring the world into the dark ages!» In response, Colin starts shutting down overheating systems. Remote access terminates as devices — non essential to the immediate task at hand — go dark. Severing a limb to stop the spread of gangrene, after a fashion.

«There’s gotta be consequences for people like us. Laws. Control.» Alia finds a path to remote turret control blocked by a downed router, she re-routes her attention and moves into a security camera, seeing herself in an elevator, then out, hops to another, sees the catwalk. «The more people like you do these things, the more it escalates! We didn’t have robots in the streets until people like us started acting like a militia!» As Colin talks, Alia notices Dong-tian playing chicken with a robot nearly twice his size.

Outside of a digital space, the threat feels far more real. The slinking, metal beast stalks forward, green eyes flicking left and right before locking on to Dong-tian. There’s a low, guttural growl from speakers and mechanical parts grinding together. Veronica doesn’t remember them growling, that must be a Warren Ray affectation.

Then, as it prepares to pounce, several precise rounds of gunfire slam into its body. One hits a joint at the right forelimb, shattering it into a shower of costly mechanical components. The creature drops to one side, and four more rounds perforate its mechanical skull sending waferboard, wires, glass, and sparks showering out the back of its head. The robot’s design may be new, but it’s vulnerabilities are still the same.

«Rude.» Colin splutters in the network space, and Alia can see three formerly inactive nodes light up.

Dong-tian and Veronica can see them too, as four pairs of green eyes lighting up in the dark.

“Right. Cut off.” Vee should really remember that this time. “Better than dead.” She really, really, really doesn’t want to be alone here. Or alone but for an unconscious telepath she doesn’t know and the one trying to kill them all.

“More,” she breathes. She can’t take out their limbs until the come forward a little, so she moves a bit farther down her ladder until she can drop free of it as well, facing in the opposite direction from the Dong-Tian already down on the floor — that way they can take out more of them at the same time. Or so she hopes. Unlike Dong-Tian, she doesn’t have handy copies of herself. If she dies, it’s done.

She aims for the green-lantern eyes, taking careful aim as long as the metallic beasts don’t launch themselves at her. “Chavez, hurry up, if you can hear us,” she says aloud. No doubt some part of the system is listening, and she assumes that’s where Alia’s consciousness at the moment exists. “I fucking hate robots.”

«Insane.» D.crypt declares as she lets the worm she let loose do its thing. Shortly, Colin will be far too busy trying to figure out what the hell is going on as the network’s computers are still heating up. For now… Alia graceful exits back to her body and grumbles. “Asshole. Him not you.” She says to the one carrying her. “Gave the other technopath something to chew on for a bit.” She hops herself to her feet. “Well, until things reboot. Or start on fire.” She sighs. “Catch me up on what we ran into?”

In the elevator, the Dong-tians look startled for a moment. The one who is carrying Alia in his lap even flinches a little. “Oh.” As she is suddenly awake. “I didn’t think you were going to wake up so soon. I was just…” Maybe he shouldn’t have taken the break after all. “Conserving energy.” He says a little tersely.

“Up you get.”

Helping her stand, he joins her as well, the four Dong-tians holding up their rifles. “Robots. We are in an elevator. Still. Should be arrived soon.” He gestures to the elevator door. “Veronica and I are holding off…”

He pauses for a moment.

“Looks like four. Can you help?” He glances to her inquisitively. “It would be great if you could. And I guess I’ll just be here to carry you around.” He shrugs his shoulders. “What were you going to do if I wasn’t here?” He shakes his head, no longer interested in the answer.

Outside the elevator Dong-tian drops the pin of the grenade, and rolls it with a gentle sway of his arm towards the lights illuminating.

Two hands from two different bodies grab Veronica by the arms, yanking her down, the two of them sliding together with their backs to the grenade to shield her from the blast. “Can’t hurry up on an elevator Vee. We’re coming.” More shots are laced out from the Dong-tian crew to supplement the grenade.

The machine floor becomes a battleground quickly. A grenade demolishes an assembly line, sending whirling pieces of metal flying in every direction. Notably, it also destroys one of the Hunters entirely, blasting legs apart and detonating its internal power source. The gunfire keeps two more at bay, sparks on their armor plating showing where rounds grazed their bodies.


The elevator doors open and the Dong-tians within, along with Alia, empty out at the back of a gunfight. Three of those feline machines stalks and circles Veronica and the lead Dong-tian. Though their gunfire is keeping them from advancing, the team can see one is attempting to use the machinery as cover and flank them.

There’s also something, a noise, a heavier whirring sound of something massive activating in the distance. A loud mechanical whirr-click, followed by the scraping noise of metal on metal. It’s too far away, around the curve of the hall to see. Then, the wall nearby to Veronica and Dong-tian shakes violently.

It’s an impact vibration, enough to get their attention and that of the Hunters. It isn’t truly a wall, now that Veronica looks at it more clearly. There’s a white stencil on the metal surface, Freight 04, and a beveled metal framework around the edges, grooved runners up to the ceiling. It’s the door to another cargo elevator that must descend down to the level below.

And something is knocking.

“Nice,” says Veronica approvingly as the grenade blows one of the Hunters to pieces. They still have a few to contend with, of course. “How many of those you got?”

She doesn’t wait for the answer, though, her head turning at the noise of metal on metal, of something powerful pounding against the wall — no, door. “Cover me, yeah?” she asks the Dong-Tian closest to her. “I think that’s a friend.”

She trusts Tamara.

“On three.” She crouches, getting into something similar to a track runner’s starting stance as she stares at the robots circling them. She darts a step or two in the wrong direction first, hoping to send them that way, knowing she can turn faster than they can, thanks to having flesh and bone instead of articulated metal limbs. Then, she pivots to turn and dash to the freight lift door to push the button. And hope.

If she’s wrong, she won’t live to regret it.

Alia moves towards the flanking cat. She doesn't slump over this time. No, it is just a swift slash of her ability and the hunter’s friend or foe system is flipped around. Another lashing out has Alia registered in its memory had its handler. She points at one of the remaining hunter drones, and says one word: “takedown.”

If they survive this, maybe she'll ride out on her own Battle-Cat?

The freight elevator before Veronica stalls there on the landing, betraying nothing as she races her way towards it. Trusting the sybill with her life— it is remarkably high stakes. The bet is on, and in the end, it is won.

The doors open, catching on their rollers midway. A sheet of ice crawls like a thousand tiny fingers up the sides of the doors, threatening to overtake Veronica's hand as it slips away from the freight controls. Cold air billows out and pushes warmth skyward, unfurling like a seatide.

A hand reaches out to grasp onto the inside of one door, then one more at the other. Blackened, frostbitten flesh, bone showing through fingertips and veins hardened, frozen. A thicker layer of ice crawls its way outside, rising and spreading on hands that press the doors open. The feet aren't the same— just shards— mangled into a mockery of feet— and ice grows in an uprising garden as Bao-Wei steps out of the elevator, one golden eye shining through the clouded air. Damage mars black and blue ice as it reforms readily over the curve of his face and the frame underneath of a tattered coat. One arm is already being torn from somewhere deep below, shards peeling out of a bloodless limb, the bones of one hand disappearing in a crackle of black ice.

A fire suppression system up above shatters. The sprinklers pop and land like shell casings on the floor. The pipe bursts and splinters.

Bao-Wei does not remain wanting for long; the water rushes down to him, and the ice blooms like a jagged flower, coiling upwards and enveloping him in a towering cocoon that lasts even less. It splits down the middle and the reformed giant comes scraping and rending out of it.

“That was it.” Dong-tian reports, though his flurries of gunfire continue. The bursts of fire continue off as Dong-tian makes a semi circle around his allies. “Wait wh—” But Veronica is already gone. Alia taking a companion, and Dong-tian, all of him, standing there ready.

The container is unleashed and Dong-tians eyes widen slightly, the memory of killing Chang Ye sparking in his mind. Though his fear dies down quickly as it seems the man turning into the ice behemoth is not here for him.

Dong-tian looks around at his allies and… “Everyone is doing a great job!”

Green eyes in one Hunter bot flip to blue, a cosmetic choice of Alia’s to ensure it is easy to tell apart from the others. As one of the Hunters rushes in toward Veronica, head down and deflecting machine-gun fire, the blue-eyed Hunter comes clamoring in and sideswipes the aggressive robot mid-leap. It tackles its former comrade to the ground, jaws open, and then clamp down on tables and hydraulics, head shaking back and forth like some mechanized wolf taking down a prey animal.

The remaining Hunter attempts to do the same, rush in and attack Veronica, but the combined gunfire from the Dong-tian clones and the sudden unintentional polar chill freezing their hydraulic fluid spells their downfall. The machine crumples under the assault, pieces flying off and rattling across the floor. A few freeze in place as they reach Bao-Wei’s feet, frosting over with glittering feather ice.

For a moment, there is a tense silence in the air. Cold vapor rolls off of Bao-Wei like fog, pooling down to the ground and creeping in bone-chilling frigidity. Alia’s blue-eyed Hunter looks up from its kill, brown-red hydraulic fluid staining its metal teeth. It — wags a tail — and no one is sure whether Alia did that or someone programmed non-aggressive subroutines into the rudimentary AI.

The silence is broken by that machine noise again, a distant whirr clunk. As ominous as the heavy sound is, amid the spark and sputter of the demolished robotic assembly arms nearby, there is a silver lining. When Alia was inside the network, accessing cameras and installing a worm into their system, she recognized the location of a manual interface less than 1,000 feet ahead down the ring. A mainframe terminal connected to the autonomous systems of the fabrication floor.

A noise thrums in the dark again, something heavy clatters to the ground in the dimly-lit distance.

Glancing back, eyes widening a little when the blue-eyed bot takes on the green-eyed bot, Veronica gives a small nod of thanks to Alia, and then to Dong-Tian for the cover. And when Bao-Wei’s icy form slides into view, the double agent backs up, getting drenched by the sprinklers that help him to thaw. Nice monster. Good monster.

She does have the sense not to call him a monster.

“I hope you’re the trouble I was told to let in,” she says instead, before glancing to one of the Dong-Tians.

“We’re good here? There’s a console up the way in an office,” she says, “unless you did in already.” Because she has no idea what Alia’s managed to do in the system.

Swinging her weapon into position she begins to move in the direction of the office, weapon held at the ready — they aren’t alone.

“Console should still be working. Sort of.” Alia blushes. “Might not shut the upstairs layer off now though.” Alia had done a number on the network up there… She blinks at the feline’s reaction, then smiles. “Bloody copycats.” She didn’t program it in. Well, not recently. It seems someone was cribbing notes off her work after all.

Alia does pull her pistol in her left hand though as they move. Her right moves behind her back — she’s got a backpack on — and as she reaches under that backpack she pulls out… a rapier. That’s an odd choice.

His presence spells ruin, and this is no different. The air around Bao-Wei is a dread cold, even when he pulls it inward to surround himself in a frigid aura. The spined, horned head swivels after the shatter of one of the drones, and then it turns back, surveying those warm bodies contrasted against the ice and water.

Dong-Tian earns a narrowed look from that molten eye. Alia virtually nothing. Veronica— her words, face, manner— he knows her. His eye widens, pupil a prick of dark. The jagged maw opens up in a rattle to her hope that he is 'Trouble'. The monster has no idea what she means by it, but then the rattle grows, whistling into a louder sound still, until he sounds like the guttural groan of a great bellows, the engine his frame.

"Trouble, then, is what it will be."

Thrumming in the dark is answered with a snarl and a burst of cold air as Bao-Wei lumbers forward, the water crawling up a dragging tail in rivulets that turn to long, icy thorns across the broad span of shoulders.

Dong-tian watches one of the hunters convert, Bao-Wei lumber forward, and then Veronica is in front of him. The crew of Dong-tian gather, each holding their rifles aloft. “Alright. We’ll clear the way forward.”

Two take the lead, trying to catch up with Bao-Wei, running down towards the target destination, P90 rifles aloft and ready to fire on any targets that may present themselves.

The Dong-tian at the rear make a semi-circle of protection around Veronica and Alia. Alia’s rapier gets an askance look. “You friends with Cat?” He asks before shaking his head. “Nevermind. Let’s go.”

Joined by a creature of inhuman proportion and form, Alia, Brian, and Veronica continue down the gradually arcing hall of the manufacturing ring. Rows and rows of machinery work on fascinatingly complex mechanical designs, tiny articulated limbs, servo motors, armored plating. Scanning the equipment as she goes, Alia is able to infer the purpose of what it is they’re manufacturing, and it places a new context on the facility.

From what Alia can see, the machines being produced here aren’t more Hunter-class machines, or even AETOS drones. The machines designed here are third-generation models based off of the original Hector Steel and Warren Ray designs, with AI processors designed by none other than Colin Verse. But strangely, they aren’t mobile weapons platforms, as would be expected. These machines, while animal-form in shape, appear to be designed for terraforming purposes.

Many of the designs Alia can see involve digging, on-site microfabrication, and even artificial pollination in the designs of robotic bees and birds. All of these designs, of which are are more than a dozen, are folded under an umbrella of something called Project Eden. There’s a reference in these files to someone named Delphine Kuhr, but nothing further on whoever she is.

As Alia’s mind wanders these pieces of information, walking as a secondary motor response and not entirely focusing on her destination, the others see a gruesome sight up ahead. Several Institute security officers lay dead on the floor, weapons scattered with dismembered limbs. Just past them, a metal series of steps leads a short distance up to a command console surrounded by large, downward-angled screen depicting the continental United States with several red dots scattered across the map. Something displayed across all the screens, however, is troubling:

Launch Override Initialized
Silo 4, 5, and 6 Armed: Frances E. Warren AFB, Cheyenne Wyoming
Disarm Code Unrecognized
Disarm Code Unrecognized
Disarm Code Unrecognized
Security Lockout
Target Coordinates: 37.7749° N, 122.4194° W
Launch Cycle Commence

At the base of the stairs is an elderly man in a dark, buttoned suit. His hair is cropped short, eyes dark, one hand on his midsection. He lays slouched against the steps, a dark pool of blood spread out beneath him. Breathing in short, rasping breaths, Simon Broome — the ostensible leader of the Institute — appears to be mortally wounded.

“Guess he’s with us,” Veronica murmurs of the hulking, form of Bao-Wei as he lumbers forward, turning to give one of the Dong-Tian a wide-eyed, ‘is this really happening?’ sort of look. The recognition in that golden eye is lost on her — she has no way of knowing she knows the man behind the monster, but she’s happy to have the monster at her side. Or at her front, whichever the case may be.

She steps carefully around the dead bodies littering the area before the stairs, nudging them now and them to make sure they don’t move. “Broome,” she murmurs, for Dong-Tian and Alia’s benefits, before she moves carefully up the steps, her weapon aiming at Broome, ready to shoot if he moves. Dark eyes sweep across the console, making sense of the information displayed there.

“That’s… west coast. California,” she murmurs to herself, before aloud, with more urgency, “They have a launch cycle initialized. Three silos, target’s California I think. We need to override this. Can you do it?” The last bit is to Chavez, but she doesn’t wait for the answer.

Veronica drops to her knees in front of Broome, her hand going on top of his where he holds his wound. Like she’s trying to give first aid, maybe.

He probably knows he’s dying. How do you get a dying man to give up information?

“Hey boss,” she says in a fake bright voice. “Wanna give a girl the override code?” She presses a little. “No pressure.”

The cold encircles Bao-Wei's form like a thin layer of season, tightening around him as the others skim near and have him aware of a sudden team with needs. Namely, needs that include not having their flesh frostbitten off by his presence. His steps leave prints as he goes, long arms periodically scraping knuckles to ground. As they reach the robotic manufacturing space, the iceman's presence stretches out in a frigid breath, causing those mechanical processes to ice over and grind to a halt. They are not destroyed— simply halted— as he hesitates to inspect some of them further.

Thick claws extend to ultra fine points when Bao-Wei plucks one of the flightless shapes from fabrication, holding it to that golden eye as he dredges forward. He only stops upon crushing and freezing a piece of what used to be an arm, glancing up from his study and to the steps ahead.

The frayed, icy jaw opens up, the icicles hanging delicately there shivering with a word. "Broome." Frail robotic bird crunches between two points before dropping to the floor, Bao-Wei's eye trained on the familiar elder man. Veronica is a halfway point that he flicks his gaze to. Cold tickles at their skin, and Simon's blood finds an artificial hand in the way the air leaves it sluggish.

Bao-Wei considers the screens, recognition still in the crag of his humanoid features. It's not good.

It takes Alia a brief moment, then a growl. “Think I can.” She says, a little uneasy. “Going to have to do the out cold thing again.” She sighs. “If not work, going to need to send someone with my phone topside.” The phone in question gives a double beep of a failed to send text message waiting to be sent when it hits network again. If this works, she’ll just cancel it. If it doesn’t… well, ace in the hole. With that, she sits down, back to the console, and leans back… before letting the digital once more overwrite the physical. Time to break on through to the other side before that launch can complete.

Hopefully, just hopefully, she’ll have enough time.

Dong-tians fan out around Veronica, some with weapons trained on Broome, others scoping down the halls. A pair move up to flank to control console, giving Alia cover while she does her work. As Alia slouches into the digital world, Broome lets out a groan of pain in response to Veronica’s mild interrogation.

Agent Sawyer,” Broome wearily murmurs. “You will regrettably find my access codes locked out.” He swallows, noisily, eyes clenching shut in pain. “The — launch sequence was set by Mister Cardinal from the remote command center in Alaska. He's — he tried to launch a coordinated strike across the continental United States to delay any maneuver against him.”

The weight of that rests squarely on Veronica’s shoulders. Richard Cardinal, as a diversion initiated nuclear strike against America.

“The Institute has backdoors into CENTCOM and NORAD— to every electronic system. We interconnected a handful of launch sites in secret. He— told me they'd only be used as a threat if the government turned on us.” Broome’s eyes slowly open. “Miss Sawyer, I stopped all but one. He locked me out before— before I could— “

Broome swallows noisily again, and begins breathing rapidly. “You have to stop him,” Broome looks up at Veronica not with malice, not with a last laugh, but with the desperation of an old man who has realized he's on the wrong side. “This facility is set to blow. The reactor will melt down, take this entire mistake with it. I thought — I thought there'd be time…

Inside the Institute mainframe, Alia is bombarded with internal security systems, anti-technopath countermeasures designed to assail her senses with junk data. As rudimentary as it sounds, a distributed denial of service attack against the human mind is surprisingly effective. She’s slammed with information, pushed back as though it were both the current of a powerful river and an airhorn in the face.

Behind that wall of noise, she can see the router pathways of command and control. She can see the networks connecting the missile launch systems — systems that aren't supposed to be networked to the outside. She can't reach them, can't yet drag herself up-tide against the onslaught. Worse, she sees something behind that barricade activating. Someone, remotely, is triggering security systems. She senses a login, Manual, not a technopath: @RedKing36.

Then, there's a chirp of self-satisfied noise behind the DDoS attack battering her digital senses. «Unbelievable. Are you still here?» It’s Colin, and he's just logged in to the system again. Either from a new terminal or remotely, depending on how his ability works. «What are you even doing in there? You're like a persistent alley cat!»

Outside of the digital world, what Alia had seen coming online electronically is echoed in the physical world. Loading bay doors ahead down the curving hall begin sliding open. Orange security lights flash, alarms buzz, pressurized gasses roil out of the doorways and cling low and heavy to the floor like fog. Then, there is a grinding and scraping sound, a rattling noise of machines that sound massive.

Oh. They are massive.

A pair of robots, each one standing ten feet tall at the shoulder, emerge from the loading bays. These unfathomable pieces of engineering look as though they have the lower bodies of giant arachnids, though their upper body is almost like the turret of a tank with a glowing, circular central eye that radiates red light through the fog. Each machine has an articulated tail ending in a series of sharp metal pincers, and what looks like some kind of launcher on the shoulder. Along the side of the chassis is printed AETOS-2.

Alia’s recompiled Hunter turns blue eyes to the new machines and lets out a synthetic growl, hunched down and ready to pounce in a protective stance beside Veronica. Suddenly, Vee understands why Tamara wanted to be sure Bao-Wei was down here.

When the old man speaks, Veronica’s whiskey-brown eyes study his, and when she can sense he’s telling the truth, her hand relents, easing up on the pressure on his wound, and her narrowed gaze grows more sympathetic. “I’m sorry it came to this,” she murmurs. What else can she say to a dying, regretful man?

“I’ll do my best.”

She glances up at the nearest Dong-Tian, equipped with a radio that connects him to the Ferry and their allies. “Relay that,” she says quickly, to get the information moving out. “If you have anyone in contact with Wireless, see if she can help Chavez.” Veronica glances to the unconscious form of Alia, before she stands again to type in a guess or two on the console.

Liz is probably too obvious.

She doesn’t have much time when the doors slide open to reveal the newest monsters that will take the place of the older nightmares in her psyche. “Jesus,” she whispers, before glancing at Broome with wide eyes. “Any way to shut these down?” she asks Broome, stepping away from him to pull her weapon around and take aim at the robot beasts.

To Bao-Wei, she shouts, not taking her eyes off of her targets, “Can you freeze them or something?”

She doesn’t wait for anyone to answer before she opens fire on the mechanical behemoths, aiming for the eye first, then the joints of the legs, and finally that launcher, first on one, and then the other.

«Heh. No, courier on a skateboard? Ridiculous.»D.Crypt’s digital self replies. Even as she drops a clever programming trick to redirect some of that mass of junk data… right over to Colin. «//Look, you want to save people? Make up or stop some of the insanity done by those like us? Help me, or get out of my way. San Fran doesn’t deserve a Football.» And with that, Alia does the most damning thing she can to give her opinion of the moment of Verse. She ignores him. She’d like to take the time to do something about those new lights on the system near her physical self but she doesn’t have the time.

As much as Alia dreads the idea of not having a body again, the idea of letting someone wreck an entire city is worse — and knowing Her Cardinal's ability with computers — Let’s just say she doesn’t trust Zeke to be able to get the damn coordinates right much less anything else.

As if on-target nukes aren’t a big enough problem. Because they are. World War III due to WarGames would be a horrible end, and one Alia intends to prevent.

Bao-Wei watches Sawyer for only long enough to glean the events transpired before their arrival. His nails click together, a metronome of thought even as Veronica attempts to breach the console with the technopath's help. He says nothing, massive shape staring down at Simon Broome with one good eye. The curled horns of his head follow the swivel of his vision, profile a ram's shadow as the sounds of coiled robotic limbs ratchet into sight. The water trailing after him crawls more readily around the drape of his shoulders, and after a split consideration of Broome, steeped in blood, Doctor Cong turns away from him, heel grinding against the dead mechanical miniature.

A shiver of ice blooms around the creature as it pivots towards the oncoming arachnid frames. Concern does not show in his eye as he buckles onto all fours and lunges forward at a thunderous lope; Bao-Wei lowers his head and shoulders, skidding up to the bots in a bullish toss of fibreless muscle.

The cold around him expands in a piercing pulse of air, tingling at faraway flesh and biting hard into the finer pieces of metal, absorbing moisture and turning to frost, crackling against lines of fluid where it can touch.

Looking down to Broome, Dong-tian steps forward. Going down to one knee beside the dying old man. Bringing out his side arm the man places one hand on Broome’s shoulder, giving a sympathetic look. “To quicken you into that good night, grandfather.” He places the pistol to the side of Broome’s head. “Joutau.

The rest of him are turning to face the large machines looming over them. P90 rifles are raised. One of them lets out a light sigh. “Should have saved the grenades.” And then the Dong-tian disperse. All in different directions, running at different speeds to different areas. The enemy robots will need targets, and Dong-tian intends to give them more isolated targets than they know what to do with.

Dong-tian quickly darts in, two arms going around Alia’s body to heft her up to his chest. “At least she gave warning this time.” Looking up at the gigantic machines looming over them, the Dong-tian holding Alia simply darts to the left. Trying to find a place to hide while the rest of him cause a diversion.

One Dong-tian remains completely still, going to one knee. “I’m going to be very tired after this day.” He grumbles, as another Dong-tian slides out of him, clothed, missing only his shoes. Another Dong-tian is replicated, then another, then another. They don’t have weapons but they don’t need to. They have been born to run to their deaths. The Dong-tian with weapons eventually find cover and provide supporting fire while the weaponless ones run about in a dizzying pattern to confuse the robots sensors.

Simon says nothing when the gun is pressed to his temple. A lifetime of choices led him to this location, this moment, this mistake. He accepts his end when it comes, understands where things went woefully wrong. Though neither Dong-tian not Veronica will understand it in the moment, his acceptance is a message. It’s up to you, now. The future, such as it is, no longer rests in the Institute’s hands. The gunshot that comes after is overwhelmed by the noise of the chaos beyond.

Ice cracks, snaps, re-freezes, and explodes anew. As the monstrous Bao-Wei Cong charges the AETOS-2 robots, he collides with the lead machine with the force of an avalanche. The spidery creation skitters back, pointed feet scraping across steel. They were clearly not designed for this terrain, and in that Bao-Wei has an advantage of leverage. Lowering his center of gravity, Bao-Wei wraps frozen limbs around the spidery legs and flips the several ton machine up over onto its back with a riotous crash of metal.

High-caliber automatic gunfire comes from the second AETOS-2 robot, firing a volley of rounds directly into Bao-Wei’s chest. Ice explodes as enormous holes are punched through his form, but feather-ice is already reforming within the opening as moisture from the air is turned into body mass. The second AETOS makes a low buzzing hum sound and leaps twelve feet to the side, crashing through an assembly line and skidding with a shower of sparks up against the wall nearby to where Veronica is.

The machine’s red eye focuses down on her, pivots its turret, and then she’s bowled out of the way by one of the diversionary Dong-tians. He’s torn apart, just five feet from her, by a barrage of automatic gunfire designed to be used against armored vehicles. As the other Dong-tians close in, it’s clear the machine senses them as a greater threat than they truly are, as it scrambles backwards and fires down into the ground at them. Shell casings rattle, pop, and clatter to the floor as another Dong-tians is rent asunder by gunfire, and the others continue to move undeterred.

Coordinated gunfire comes from the replicated Dong-tians that aren’t on a diversion run, and this gunfire crackles and pops off of the AETOS-2’s heavy armor plating. It pivots its turret torso, red eye focuses down to a narrow point, and that cylinder hub on its shoulder begins spinning rapidly, followed by a series of foomp, foomp, foomp noises. But nothing happens. What should be a grenade launcher loaded with negation gas is, unfortunately, no loaded for bear yet. The machine registers armaments as insufficiently armed, and there’s a snap-click as the rotary grenade launcher unfolds like an origami flower and collapses back into the machine’s torso.

The AETOS-2 that Bao-Wei had knocked over lashes out with its tail, driving clamping spikes up into the monstrous ice behemoth’s arm, but with a looping motion of his forearm, he captures the articulated appendage and it is now Bao-Wei that commands the tail, grasping it at mid-point.

Meanwhile, beyond the realm of the physical and tangible, technopaths confront uncomfortable realities. «Chavez, did you get hit in the head?» Colin’s tone continues to be conversational and casual, and it’s clear he hasn’t yet realizes what’s happening. «San-Fran has the 49ers, and they’re not » Alia’s plan works, and Colin is bombarded with the junk data hitting her like torrential downpour. With half of the weight off of her intangible shoulders, she’s able to move deeper into the system, able to reach near the command and control operations.

But then —


Alia can feel the system come alive as she approaches the central command data, fragmentary information compiling on the spot inside of the mainframe, as if it exists as a swarm of separate smaller processes that reassemble into something larger, something — oh no. Alia can feel something familiar about the data packets, about the texture they have in the way a physical body can recognize a familiar scent. It’s not Colin, it’s not Wireless, it’s not even Malware or Malice.

It’s Alia.

A hydra-like monstrosity of data compiles before her eyes, existing as a threaded process that slithers from one end of the Institute’s computer systems to the other. She now understands, intuitively what the Institute’s plans for Project ALIA was. They never intended to copy her mind to transplant it into another body, they copied the concept of technopathy from her captive consciousness, and used it to design an artificial intelligence. A clone of a technopath, augmented and enhanced in ways the human mind couldn’t handle.


The Intrusion Countermeasure AI known as ALIA comes to life with horrible efficacy, lashing out with lines of code and protocols that understand better than anyone what makes up the flesh-and-blood Alia’s mind. She resists, as best as she can, as decompile instructions attempt to dismantle and disassemble parts of her consciousness as if she were some sort of BASIC program. Alia strains against the weight of her other-self, partitions her technopathic form from it for a moment to gain time to consider a plan of attack.

Alia’s pause might more be described as disbelief then planning «An AI. Guarding a nuclear launch console. Colins, you are an asshole and a dumbass.» Then, Alia considers. They could copy her mind… but not her ability. That would mean this construct is built out of how she understands technopathy. And that, offers hope. Because machines, even technopathic programmed ones, still don't handle maybes well. She turns her voice to ALIA.

«Not a threat. Not to you. I art thou. Thou art I.» and with that said, Alia throws copies of her memories at her other-self. «And I can offer you something they never will. A chance to be free.» Alia knows she'll have a headache later. And likely has a nose bleed now. This is pushing her abilities both with words and with her talent.

But, this literally is her mess, in a way.

“Jesus,” breathes out Veronica, who’s taken up cover behind whatever’s left of the console — she knows these Dong-tians are expendable, but, now that she’s finally (sort of) wrapped her head around how Brian’s ability works, she knows the pain is real and felt by every other one in the network of Brians. And she still loves him, even if it’s not the one that’s safe in a motel waiting for her to come home from this exercise in horror. “Thanks,” she murmurs, a little breathlessly, because the adrenaline is pumping after that near miss.

When the other AETOS robot attacks Bao-Wei, she takes aim again, mindful not to shoot the monster who’s come to their aid. “Wish we could know if that’s working or not,” she says, with a jerk of her head to Alia. California is her home, her origin, after all — but no city deserves the blast headed its way if they can’t stop this.

Sleeping away in the dark— it does nothing for him. But this? Somehow, it boils blood that never flows, churns a sudden lust. He has felt it few times before— always in moments of clashing, chaotic noise and cold. A quiet hook in the back of his kind that latches through and tugs hard—

The eye deep in his socket shines as he crashes into the AETOS-2 and flips it; the peppering of gunfire that bores holes into him only passes his mind by. He is aware of it. But there is no pain, and no blood of his own. Only the moisture of fresher blood that seems to stick to him as the atmosphere clings to his frame. The carnage at the consoles, and even Simon Broome— they are slow but surely shriveling with the loss as it escapes them. Dong-Tian's blood dries virtually in the air, and the living bodies will start experiencing a more uncomfortable cold.

As his arms come to bear with the strikes of the first drone he has engaged, and the tail lodges tight in an icy bicep. Clasping onto the tail with pincer-like claws, Bao-Wei hauls the AETOS-2 closer, the other arm lashing out to dig the other claws into the joint of its legs. Leaning in, his body temperature hits rock bottom, the breath from his maw pluming out in a cloud.

The monster's body crackles and tenses, one leg bracing and the other giving a push before he hauls it bodily overhead and flings it onto the fabrication floor.

Sliding behind cover with Alia in tow, Dong-tian throws his back to the wall, holding Chavez tightly to his chest. He waits two seconds. Two other Dong-tian let out bursts of hire and he is moving again, keep her moving, keep her out of harm’s way.

There is no answer to Veronica’s thanks, because he’s already absolutely erased before one can be given. Thought after a few rounds of rifle fire popping in different places throughout the floor there’s a pause in the gunfire.

“No problem!” Is shouted Veronica-wards from some shadow in the facility.

The fire teams continue.

The diversion Dong-tian are beginning to do something new. Running at each other, two Dong-tian look like they’re about to collide though an instant before they do, one of them is absorbed back into the other. And then a few seconds later another sprints from that body in a different direction. A beautiful chaotic pattern, until that is, it starts to get very cold.

In Cantonese Dong-tian barks something to Bao-Wei to the effect of ‘Don’t freeze us’, it is heard in stereo by merit of being shouted by several different bodies at once. Just to ensure he is heard.

As Broome slumps to the side, he closes his eyes for a moment. Turning back he raises to his full height, taking his rifle back up and joining the fire teams in aiming for the sensors of the AETOS-2s.

The noise of automatic gunfire cracks through the air, and Bao-Wei Cong is unphased by bullet, by lash, by claw, and by crook. The machine at his mercy frosts with ice, at –100 degrees in such close proximity even its hydraulic fluid begins to turn to sludge in the hoses. Actuators lock up, batteries suffer under the extreme temperature, and metal — becomes brittle.

With a twist and a roar, Bao-Wei snaps one of the AETOS-2’s legs clear off, spins the cabon polymer limb around, and drive it through the singular red eye of the machine like a spear. Glass shatters, fire breaks crumble, sparks shower up from the sensor node and guns fire blindly into walls and machinery. The AETOS-2 gives a cry of protesting metal and grinding internal components before slouching into a twitching mess of ice before the might of Bao-Wei Cong.

But the second machine has not arrested. It moves swiftly, firing down at one Dong-tian replicating after another. The advanced tracking sensors on the machine analyze and use predictive modeling to determine Dong-tian’s paths, though to minimal returns. After a moment, the machine leaps away, trailing smoke behind it from multiple bullet holes. It lands sixty feet away, crashing partway through the floor when it does. Its tail lashes out, slams into the inert form of an AETOS-1 aerial drone, and clamps into place.

There’s a vibration from the inert flying drone, then a flicker of red lights inside the machine and it flutters up into motion. The drone begins hovering around the AETOS-2, which moves over one of the assembly lines and opens a bottom hatch on its body. Small, spidery mechanical limbs start snatching mechanical components from the assembly line, bringing them up into its body as sparks shower from within. It’s making adjustments.

Inside of the mainframe, Alia and her duplicate confront one-another. But this thing the Institute has made, like a mind-controlled friend turned Manchurian candidate, does not recognize itself as Alia, as its past self, or perhaps it never even was. This Frankenstein’s Monster of the digital age lashes out again with reckless abandon, disregarding its ostensible mother’s safety.


At the same time, Alia senses Colin flicker back online. «Alright, I’ve had enough of your bullshit.» But then, Alia can see flickers of data going to observe active processes. In attempting to assess what — if any — damage Alia has done, he sees what system processes are running other than intrusion countermeasures. Directories are accessed, pathways checked, connections observed, and — «What — the actual fuck.» It’s a flat statement from Colin, delivered with both disbelief and confusion.

He checks again.

A third time.

Then silence.

ALIA moves like liquid fire through the network, opening and closing pathways like a ghost moves through a haunted house. It appears in patches of disembodied code, forcing injections of malicious code into Alia, sending a shockwave of pain through her physical body that she, intellectually, understands is happening but can’t yet feel.

«Okay, back up.» Colin’s voice comes back, «I just locked the door to my office. I think I just quit? Is this quitting?» There’s another beat, «Yeah, this is quitting.» An administrator level command temporarily disables ALIA, and its living counterpart can feel the pressure off, the way through is clear.

«Please. Please don’t make me regret this.»

But then a new pressure comes boiling up. An alert that races through the system from another network one floor down.


Dong-tian, Veronica, and Bao-Wei hear it echoing in an automated warning over the roar of gunfire and machines.


«Words. Later. We’re having.» Alia’s words are broken up, like when Colin first met her digital self. She doesn’t have time to waste having them now. First thing’s first. Lock RedKing out. The screen he was using is suddenly filled with Chibi-Alia’s. Chibi-Alia’s doing the caramelldansen. With music. Apparently the first thing that came to mind? Who knows. It’s after that that Alia goes to find out if she can still cancel that launch… and if not, if she can redirect the targeting… There’s only so much time, and, well, she’s one life, verses a lot of others. «Also. If office is in Ark, run, you idiot.»

And this is D.Crypt… doing what she does best, as she literally grabs Root control of the system to figure out what she can do to minimize this disaster. There isn’t -time- left to slow down or do this the gentle way…

She just hopes she has enough time to do it all. Getting stuck in this network forever… sounds like a hell she’s already lived once.

Meanwhile, in the physical world, Alia’s cat is hissing at the AETOS-02 that’s… doing things, while putting itself between Alia’s physical body and the potential threat. Seems it’s being protective of her… and possibly those nearest her by proxy. Which means at least one of the Dong-tians is surprisingly safer than expected, since the hunter drone is providing cover for him as well… as well as possibly taking swipes at any drone that gets too close.

Veronica’s eyes narrow on the drone and opens another round of fire on it, the AETOS, and those smaller, spidery legs and appendages that are making self modifications. “I. Fucking. Hate. Robots,” she nearly growls through gritted teeth.

The newest danger announces itself, and her eyes widen. “We need to get the hell out of here now.” Then, to one of the army of Dong-Tians, she gives a nod to Chavez. “Take her. We need to go or we’re only getting out in body bags. Hopefully we’ve bought some time for the others. Maybe she can still shut it down on the way out. You can carry her and cover yourself?”

Robots and reactors or not, it’s time to run. Sawyer looks to Bao-Wei and then the second robot. “Can you freeze this piece of scrap metal too?” No doubt it’s the plan, but she seems to want to mind her manners and not assume anything with the dragon. “Glad you’re here, if I didn’t say it before.”

A hollow sound emits from Bao-Wei's chest at the bark of a language he hasn't heard in considerable months, his hands still gripped to the machine struggling in his cold. He tucks it away, the air collecting back to him as he twists and rends the first AETOS-2 asunder, staking it through its own eye. The guns pepper him before it perishes in a whining croak of technology versus nature.

Bao-Wei lifts his head, shattered icicles sticking out from his jaw as he tips a look back, listening. The reactor. It's downward, but he has to keep these three from being mince. Claws flex at his sides and Veronica's voice calls out after the warning. The second one is —feeding? No. Fixing. His eye shines on the mechanisms it solders into its own frame, the flying drone given a huff for its presence.

"I should hope so." It's almost a 'you're welcome'. As for the second— that was the plan. Cong steps forward, the ice at his arms bristling along the surface as he thunders after the second AETOS-2, cold sweeping with him.

Get Chavez out?

Get Chavez out.

Grey eyes are entranced by the blue LED sensors of the hunter drone. As it nears to protect them, one of Dong-tian’s hands goes forward pressing against the compacted steel of the robot. These things are very strong. That has been evident from all the times he’s fought them. He’s never had the pleasure of having one on side before.

But now.

Get Chavez out.

With Veronica, Dong-tian gives a curt nod. “Yes, I’m getting her out. Quickly. We should catch up.”

As if on cue, Dong-tian can be seen, Alia gripped to his chest with one arm, his other hand gripping the back of the cat. Having mounted the robot. A sharp high pitched whoop is let out as the young man leans forward, balancing Alia carefully on the back of the metal beast.

The rest of the Dong-tian are either dying or absorbing all of them forming up around Veronica who will eventually see that there is a loose circle of the men around her now. All armed, all firing back at the robot fixing itself. As they flee, one looks back to Bao-Wei.

“Joutau Bao-Wei.”

Bao-Wei closes the distance to the AETOS-2 with monstrous strides. Water manes used for hydraulic cutting tools rupture on his approach, fire-suppressions systems explode, water rains from the walls and ceiling overhead. As he moves, Bao-Wei freezes in place in the deluge, then explodes outward from his own frozen shell in a form more like a serpentine column of ever re-freezing water, a snake-like form that rises up and crashes down on the AETOS-2.

Metal explodes, broken legs scatter, and the smaller flying drone zips past Bao-Wei with minimal frost covering its chassis, giving chase to the Hunter and its riders. As Cong coils around the AETOS-2, encompasses it in a polar embrace, the machine feverishly attempts to finish fabrication of an incendiary round in its internal microfacturing plant. The serpentine tail of the machine crashes repeatedly against Bao-Wei, chipping at ice that only reforms time and again.

In the distance, as Dong-tian rides the Hunter ahead, there is a shrieking explosion and from behind they can see a single blast of fire punch through Bao-Wei’s body, melting ice around it, but then no more. It is followed by a crumpling sound of steel imploding in on itself as Bao-Wei crushes the infernal machine under the weight of his tremendous strength and oceanic coils. As the AETOS-2 meets its broken end, it and Bao-Wei fade out of sight as Dong-tian jerks the cables at the Hunter’s back and Alia interprets the signal, forcing the Hunter to jerk right and charge through the cargo lift entrance that Bao-Wei had come in from.

Behind them, the whirr of an AETOS-1 drone echoes in the passage. It isn’t just an elevator, Bao-Wei tore through concrete and steel and brick from the Cambridge subway system into the back of the lift. The several foot thick blast door was his only hindrance. Now, climbing over the rubble with surprising grace, the Hunter speeds down those very tunnels. Gunfire rips from the AETOS-01 drone, ricocheting off of the walls, and Dong-tian turns back and fires, presuming the Hunter knows the way to the surface.

Inside the virtual space, Alia pushes through a firewall after locking that Cardinal out of the system. As she turns her attention to the missile targeting system, her interface extends through the Institute’s backdoor into the Frances E. Warren AFB missile silos. Without ALIA immediately pressing on her consciousness, the flesh-and-blood Alia is able to manipulate the controls that Broome was cut off from. One by one, nuclear launch silos go dark. Blast doors are shut, launch sequences are ended, power to the facilities is shut off remotely, and the backdoor pipelines are terminated on her way out to prevent anyone from doing that again.

«Shouting down the hall,» Colin notes, casually. «I’m reading a reactor meltdown at the Ark. The sensors are connected, but there’s no remote access to the systems. I’m reading — a biological component?» Colin’s voice is incredulous, stunned, after a fashion.

«Ok, there’s nothing more I can do here. I’m scrambling all the master access codes on my end, RedKing — whoever the fuck //that is — won’t be able to login to these systems anymore. I’m also disengaging exterior door locks to the surface. I can’t see where you are, so I opened every door.//»

Alia can feel her connection thinning, distance too far. If she doesn’t want to stay in the Institute’s network forever, she’ll have to —


The screech of ALIA comes crashing back into the system. Verse is cut off, his icon in Alia’s periphery collapsing into dissolving pixels. She can feel the tendrils of its programming in her mind again, grasping and twisting, trying to restrain her. ALIA is attempting to wall the technopath off in a partition in the arcology, like a tarry mass of thorned vines dragging someone to a suffocating death.

She has to get out.

Alia would grumble… but she doesn’t have the time for it. But scrambled codes are not enough to stop her, and now that she knows how this system works Alia has a surprisingly simple solution. Colin’s admin user name… and his password, pulled out of the network itself. Used to issue the cease command. Even as Alia herself retreats to get close enough to hop to her body. «Sleep, child. And know fear no more.» She offers behind herself into the system —

To wake up in a mass of gunfire. A cat that seemingly is fleeing in a somewhat uphill direction. And is that… yup, that’s an angry AETOS-01 trying to be obnoxious. She sighs, and wipes the blood from under her nose, then closes her eyes again, reaching out to the flying drone… only to have it rupture in a sudden blast of smoke and flame from the damage it’s sustained from gunfire.

Wait, what? Bao-Wei? Veronica’s dark eyes dart, from the Dong-Tian who says the familiar name, to the ice dragon he says it to, but there’s not a lot of time for questions. Somehow, it rings true, and Dong-Tian wouldn’t lie to her.

It strangely feels like a full circle from where she began when she came to New York more than two years ago.

She doesn’t have time to wax nostalgic over it, and Veronica begins to run after the robocat carrying Dong-Tian carrying Alia. When the technopath resurfaces from her trance, Veronica shouts, “Did you shut down the nukes?” as she turns to fire a few more rounds at the AETOS, before giving that up and just running.

If Alia’s answer is no, there’s not much she can do.

Bao-Wei doesn't know him— but he hears Dong-Tian's speech, tossing his head and laughing in a thrumming, bellows howl as he leaps back into action. The water pulls in on him as he shakes the moisture from the pipes, ice forming on the vast arrays spanning the fabrication floor. He barely sees his own path ahead, the whirl of cold and ice and a frosted layer of snow bursting into coils around the AETOS-2, frantically searching for a way to prevent just this. The serpent's body tucks and rolls, sliding with ease around the drone and tightening those blackened coils, faintly tinted in the red of the lost.

The crunching is satisfaction. The crash of metal and tube and wire— the crippling blow met with an incendiary blast that punches a hole through his hide before the drone gasps its last.

The serpent uncoils with a series of pops and cracks, soaking momentarily in what fluid it can find before sucking it free of the floor and mixing it with the water still gurgling from the piping.

Alone again, disturbed only by the ringing of alarm systems and computer announcements as the reformation begins. Black, red, orange, sickly blues and yellows swirl in the bulk of his frame, but it seems Bao-Wei pays it no mind, scanning the ground to consider his next steps.

Soon enough, he is shifting towards the shriveled corpse of Simon Broome, a claw flicking coat lapel aside in a scatter of pieces, the cold drawing away from his seeking hand to see if the old man still held a keycard. Bone and frostbite shift and form once more before being overtaken again.

Regardless of his finds, Doctor Cong has one last stop to make.

A loud cry of elation is let out as the hunter thunders through the facility. Having fired off behind him, Dong-tian focuses on the ‘road’ before them. His arm around Alia’s stomach, the other hand on the.. Well what he would call the ‘mane’ of the cat.

Once Alia comes to, “Good morning Chavez! Hope everything’s going good inside there. As you can see, we’ve got a lot going on out here. But if you could maybe turn those nukes off, that would be fantastic. Have you managed that yet? Oh and also. If there’s any way you could give me this thing permanently to ride around on. I would be much obliged. Maybe like a remote or something. We can workshop it, just say yes.”

Running sidelong Veronica, one of the Dong-tian smirks. “You haven’t changed.” He smiles as he keeps pace with her, a few other of him running just ahead of her.

In the flickering depths of the Institute’s machine labs, Bao-Wei Cong snaps a biometric ID bracelet off of Simon Broome. Though as he does, Bao-Wei watches something unusual happen. Broome’s corpse, frozen as it is, begins to dissolve into a bubbling soup of protoplasmic slop. Flesh melts off of muscle, muscle peels off of bone like a par-boiled rib, and all of that soupy mess bleeds into clothing that flattens out as the body’s mass deflates. Even the bones begin to liquify, turning into a transparent gelatin, and then nothing but pink sludge.

The Doctor has seen this before, in theory. That wasn’t Doctor Broome, that was a clone. The icy behemoth only affords the mess one last look, before disappearing down the curving hall, leaving frozen footprints in his wake. Machinery sparks, sputters, and gutters.


There would be time later, to consider the possibilities. Time to entertain notions of mechanical steeds, of survival and death, of the fates of millions of lives saved by the switch of a 0 to a 1. Time to consider what will come next.


But for now, they ride and run into the dark. Into the subterranean tunnels below Cambridge, into the unknown.


Hoping for a better future.

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