62. Striders

Enoa sipped at her coffee. She and Jaleel sat outside the Aesir in folding chairs. Orson was recording a threatening message for the Liberty Corps, so they’d gone outside rather than sit in silence. They waited in the overgrown parking lot to the Halfpoint Lodge. Its stucco was covered in a tracery of cracks and breaks, but otherwise looked habitable.

For the first time in forty years, the Lodge had occupants – thirty Liberty Corps personnel, all restrained.

“You won’t miss your nets?” Enoa asked. She watched Jaleel work with his quiver. He was threading wires along his shoulder harness. He worked intently, but the silence had become disquieting. Other than the Aesir and the lodge, there was nothing to see in any direction for almost half a mile.

“Nope.” Jaleel didn’t look up from his work. “Before you and Orson showed up on the crawler, we genuinely thought about netting the Collective board and forcing them to see evidence, so I made a ton of nets. But then I was afraid it still wasn’t enough nets, so I bought even more. I only needed twenty today. I doubled up a bunch of them.”

“Aww,” she said. “They must be so cozy together.”

“I tried to be humane about it, right? A couple guys had BO that I smelled even with my mask on. They got to be alone.”

“None of them are alone, are they?” Enoa sipped more coffee. “I thought you were leaving them together?”

“They’re all in the banquet hall, so they’re all technically together.” He put his quiver across his shoulder and pulled on one of the wires he’d threaded through it. “Could you please help me, real quick? I need to cut this so it’s even with my wrist.”

“Sure.” She set her coffee aside.

“You feel well enough?” He held the wire tight to his arm. He pressed the metal against the point where his archer suit’s sleeve ended.

“The coffee helps.” She stood. “It’s getting easier. I’m surprised how well the gun jamming thing went.”

“It looked easy. You just stood there. At first, I wouldn’t have known you were doing anything, if those troopers didn’t yell about their guns not working.”

“Well,” she said. “Even without their guns, we couldn’t have caught them all without your arrow-nets and smoke.”

“You couldn’t have caught them peacefully,” he corrected. “Orson would’ve convinced them through aggressive negotiations.”

“Is that another reference?” She asked. “Never mind. I don’t need to know. Orson actually went through the whole crisis in Nimauk, without hurting anyone too badly. I like that, and I love how funny the gun jamming thing is. They were so frustrated.”

“It’s good your aunt’s movies taught that to you.”

“The gun jamming wasn’t in the films. Not yet, anyway. I figured out the explosion attack too, without training. I wonder if my aunt will touch on my self-taught powers, or if all of her films are just water and air tricks.”

“If she knew about the gun move, she has to show you that, right?” Jaleel nodded to the ground beside him and an open tool kit. “There are scissors on the second level.”

“You’d think she would.” Enoa took the scissors. “But who knows? I didn’t know Aunt Sucora studied Shaping. I never even heard of Shaping.” Before she could cut the wire, the Aesir’s door slid open. Orson looked out at them.

“How did it go?” Enoa asked. “Did you sound spooky?”

“It was fine, but we’re out of time,” he said. “We gotta get out of here. Something’s coming. The sensors are picking up about sixty vehicles headed this way.”

“Sixty?” Enoa said. She handed the scissors back to Jaleel. “How far away?”

“Around five miles, considering when I got the alert. I’ll have to just transmit the message, as is.” He looked down to the tools and wiring around Jaleel. “You clean up, I’ll get us moving. I can’t even begin to imagine how they’re coming here.”

“Our scanning might not notice satellite phones,” Jaleel said. “There are a lot of ways to track people, even now.” Orson nodded and ran from the doorway. “I guess we’ll finish that later.” Jaleel pulled his quiver from his shoulder. “Thanks, though.”

“Happy to help.” Enoa collapsed her folding chair, collected her coffee, and returned to the Aesir. She placed the chair in its locker and clipped it into place.

Then she was faced with a horrific dilemma, waste her coffee or chug what remained.

She downed the rest of the mug in four gulps. She hastily washed the mug and dried it.

“Shotgun!” Jaleel entered the Aesir, his arms full. He stowed his gear in his locker and put his chair away, then raced for the front of the cabin.

“I won’t fight you for it!” Enoa slipped the mug into its Velcro ring in the cupboard. “Unless we actually get shot at, I might still fall asleep.”

“If you don’t hurry up, we might.” Orson powered on the Aesir, and hit the flight control as soon as they were seated. He sent them soaring away from the parking lot.

“Now, how do you send them the message?” Jaleel asked. “Do we get to listen to it at the same time? I want to hear you threaten them in your dark lord voice.”

“We won’t hear it at the same time,” he said. “It’s a little message pod that falls from the bottom of the ship. Then it’ll land and start playing its message on a loop.”

“Does it have a cute little parachute pop out the top, as it falls?”

“No. It just falls.”

“Was this how you left a message at Trolley Town?” Enoa asked.

“Yeah, we…” The proximity alarm wailed. Orson launched them into a dip to the left. A projectile flashed past them, too fast to follow with the naked eye. The alarm sounded again. Orson pulled back on the wheel and sent them higher, enough to enter the lower clouds.

“I think it’s safe to assume the Liberty Corps figured out what we did and where we put their people,” Orson said.

The proximity warnings didn’t stop, shrieking and shrieking, no matter how high they ascended. One of the projectiles grazed their shield, producing a whine like radio interference.

“Ruby!” Orson yelled. “What are they shooting at us? I don’t remember ever having physical projectiles go too fast for your alarms to keep up.”

“These projectiles match the description of Larks Railgun Bolts,” Ruby answered. “Would you like recommendations on countermeasures or…”

“No,” Orson said. “Thanks.”

“Holy shit! They have a railgun,” Jaleel said. “They have a railgun!”

“What’s a railgun?” Enoa said.

“A big gun that shoots with a magnet instead of any kind of combustion,” Orson said.

“From what you two said and what we saw earlier,” Jaleel said. “I thought the Liberty Corps was like Team Rocket or something, always chasing after you, but stupid, except for a couple leaders.”

“Yeah, I’d hoped they were mostly dumb and useless.” Orson turned the Aesir around in a wide arc, still in the clouds.

“Orson,” Enoa said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m doing what I planned to do all along, sending them a message. Jaleel, take the Incursions. We’re coming at them with the sun at our backs. Ruby, find the railgun and make it the only thing on Jaleel’s targeting computer. Do you understand?”

“I think I understand,” Ruby said. “You want me to find the railgun and make it appear as a target on the copilot’s monitor. Is that correct?”

“Yes.” Orson sent the Aesir blasting down out of the clouds. Immediately, an entire force of vehicles could be seen on the road. Most of the shapes were too small to distinguish, whatever trucks or military vehicles the Liberty Corps had mustered.

But there was one vehicle that was visible, even from a great height. It spanned both lanes, a wide flatbed truck with a huge shape mounted on the back – the railgun.

The weapon fired bolt after bolt, projectiles moving multiple times the speed of sound. Orson flew the Aesir in a steep, nauseating arc. They couldn’t outfly the railgun’s bolts, but they could outmaneuver the gun itself. He’d routed more power to the shields than the inertial dampener. As long as the G forces weren’t threatening, it was better to be protected from the electromagnet-thrown bolts.

The Aesir rocketed from the clouds. The railgun continued its barrage, but other weapons joined it, too. Most were guns. Projectiles missed the Aesir or bounced off the shields as they plummeted toward the Liberty Corps and their artillery.

One full-blown explosion blossomed next to the Aesir. The windshield darkened and the shields absorbed the worst of the blast. They were rocked in their seats enough that even Orson yelled. But he didn’t change the power distribution. They still needed the shield more. He didn’t know enough about the railgun and had no time to get new information.

Orson let loose with the Tri-Cannon, firing on the vehicles below. He didn’t have anywhere close to Enoa’s precision, not while piloting, but he sent a volley of energy blasts into the procession of vehicles. As he flew closer, they could see armored-trucks and tanks and exoskeleton mechs, carrying rockets.

He took them out of their descent, level with the wide-load truck. Jaleel fired the Incursion Cannons. Projectiles chewed the truck to pieces, shredding metal.

One last railgun bolt struck the Aesir’s shields at almost point-blank range. If there were no shields, they all could have been skewered. They were thrown back in their seats. Orson reflexively pulled them up, away from their attackers.

But Jaleel kept his hands on the cannons, firing into the railgun. The forward guns angled at the enormous cannon, as they passed over, reducing it to an unrecognizable hunk of metal.

The Aesir pulled away from the destroyed weapon, even as more Liberty Corps forces continued firing. Orson found the dashboard switch that would launch the capsule containing his pre-recorded threat. He hit it and sent his warning.

Then he flew them away. He rerouted power from the shields to the inertial compensators and to the thrust. They rocketed away so fast, Orson checked the Airspeed Indicator multiple times.

After two minutes of silent, high-speed flight, he relaxed his hand on the throttle. They slowed to a comfortable speed.

“Critical shield depletion,” Ruby said. “Shields down to forty percent.”

“Not now, Ruby.” Orson leaned over and hit the switch that silenced the voice assistant.

“Dammit, Orson.” Enoa said. “I wish we would’ve talked about that first. You could’ve at least warned us.” Jaleel said nothing. He had a wide-eyed, panicked expression.

“I’m sorry,” Orson said. “I shouldn’t forget I’m not traveling alone. There are more important things than sending a message. Are you both okay?”

“I blew up a railgun in the Aesir,” Jaleel said. “I might lose my lunch, but you don’t need to apologize to me.”

“It’s not that I want an apology,” Enoa said. “I just think that after the ridiculous chase we had with the Liberty Corps, last time, we need to talk about every encounter we have with them.”

“We really didn’t have time to talk,” Orson said.

“Then maybe the answer wasn’t attacking right away. I’m not against fighting them, but I can’t shake the feeling that this just put us back on the radar on a level that totally takes away any breathing room we had.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. It looks like we won’t be staying in Littlefield very long.”

*          *          *

Max had not been in a live-fire situation since his injury. He found a tremor in his hands, and he struggled to draw his pistol from his wheelchair-mounted holster.

“Team Three, provide cover fire for the truck.” Kol wore his helmet and issued commands through the built-in radio. “Fitzsimmons, stay on the roof gun, but hold your fire until you’re certain to hit a Strider at its neck joint. Team Two, you are cleared to use your dronebusters. Team Four, get inside and work on the shields. They held off these things once, and we might need them again. ”

Kol nodded to Duncan. “Stay here.” Then he drew his own pistol. “Finish the withdrawal.”

“You need all the fighters you can get.” Duncan stood. “Every gun.”

“Operative Racz,” Kol said. “Do you know how many bullets it takes to down these things? Unless someone has a wild and unexpected Shaping revelation, all we’re doing is supporting our cannon and rockets.”

“Go out there and pull an Enoa Cloud,” Duncan said. “Blast their legs off.”

“Ha, you’re hilarious.” Kol turned on his heel and ran down the hall. Max took one glance at Duncan and Officer Bauer, already back to work, copying the thousands of files into their portable drives. Then he started down the hall after his brother. He’d spent the last night researching the Thunderworks Striders, and he had no other emergency role to play.

Max proceeded manually down the corridor, without his wheelchair’s motor. It was better to stay stealthy, silent. He might manage an unseen shot or two against the automatons if they didn’t hear him. This was not his first firefight and not his first fight against a Thunderworks machine. He could be useful.

Max traveled toward the double doors that led to the partially-enclosed driveway. Kol’s squad had plenty of room for their defense, room where the Striders probably couldn’t reach them. Max’s research showed the maximum recorded length of the automatons’ extending arms was just over fifteen feet.

Gunfire sounded outside, a cacophony of many rounds. A deeper booming began too – the roof gun. Max still couldn’t see it, but he heard the thumping sound.

Then screaming started, a man wailed in surprise. The screaming voice faded away.

The Striders had arrived, and by the sound of it they’d already taken someone. The roof gun’s sound changed. It became deeper and guttural as it struck the Striders.

Max reached the end of the hallway. He hit the automatic door command. It swung open, and he could see the battle.

He’d fought in the Equinox Ambush – September 23, 2015 – when Thunderworks launched their worldwide attacks. He’d fought the bipedal drones that had invaded Naval Intelligence, trading bullets with mindless machines, remote-controlled from miles above the ground.

It was a different thing entirely, to see the freethinking Striders in their element, twenty feet of single-minded rampage. Their leering faces swiveled back and forth above their capture jars. Max saw one of Kol’s men lying dazed inside the Strider’s cell, surrounded by bones.

The machines fired smoke grenades from panels in their shoulders, filling the driveway with haze. Their six arms hung limp at their sides, until they found a target within reach.

Kol’s men on the ground fired at will, a constant barrage that accomplished seemingly nothing. Fitzsimmons, the truck’s gun operator, tried to track the automatons, but the columns that supported the roof impeded its mobility. Every time one of the Corps soldiers edged forward to fire at the automatons from a better vantage point, the Striders’ arms snapped at them.

The Striders were smart enough to avoid the truck’s cannon. They were smart enough to stay away from the one weapon they’d seen that could damage them.

Another of Kol’s men stood with a dronebuster in his arms – a modified rocket launcher. But he didn’t fire. The angle of the roof made such strikes difficult.

Max maneuvered his wheelchair to one of the columns, further back, away from the Striders and the Liberty Corps line of fire.

He waited, preparing for an opening to strike one of the Striders at its vulnerable throat.

Already the automatons had changed their tactics. They edged closer to the cannon, unfazed by the bullets from Kol’s forces. In the truck’s blind spots, they reached for the cannon, arms stretching well more than fifteen feet.

“Reverse!” Kol shouted. “Fall back!” There were other shouts too, cries to the truck and its driver.

But they weren’t fast enough. Eight Strider arms reached around the columns and caught the truck’s gun. With a horrible grinding sound, they tore the weapon from the top of the truck, pulling a chunk of the vehicle’s roof with it.

Immediately, one of the machines began to probe the open truck roof with two of its arms. The man inside the truck, Fitzsimmons, howled as the Strider caught him. He was pulled from the roof, but one of his arms was free. He fired at the Strider as it yanked him upward. One of his bullets connected with its clavicle.

The Strider reeled, but it didn’t drop Fitzsimmons. Its head swung aside, as if on a massive hinge. Then it tossed the man into itself to join the bones, to join the dead.

“Get me the shield!” Kol yelled. “Their arms are longer than reported. Hold the line until we have the shield. Dronebuster, we need you!”

One of the three Striders moved away. It walked with a gangling gait, but it was fast. Its steps carried it several meters, with each footfall.

“Team Two, cover the rear,” Kol shouted. “Strider headed your way, Team Two. Dronebuster, fire!”

The man with the rocket launcher ran forward and raised his weapon toward the neck of one of the Striders. It reached for him, but the weapon was even faster than the mechanical monster. The rocket blasted one of the Strider’s arms out of the way, and it exploded against the machine’s neck.

The automaton’s throat also hid the mechanisms that controlled the capture cell. The Strider’s psychological trump card was also its greatest vulnerability.

The automaton toppled backward, its neck on fire. It fell to the ground with a crash that rattled the building.

The Strider writhed on the ground, waving its arms and kicking its feet. Max heard muffled yells and cries – the dying Strider had a hostage! But the other Liberty Corps troopers didn’t dare advance from cover to rescue their fellow. The Strider grew still and stopped moving, but the captured man continued to scream.

The remaining Strider released a sound like a foghorn. It waddled toward the dronebuster wielder, reaching for the marksman.

Max aimed at the side of the Strider’s clavicle as it waved at the man who’d downed the other automaton. His hands still shook. No, he needed to be calm. Calm, now! He needed to remember his training – firm grip, sight alignment, aim, fire. He followed his procedure.

Max fired. The bullet took the Strider in the side of the neck. It swiveled its head sideways. Its glowing blue eyes stared right at him. The machine waddled away.

“Max!” Kol called. “What are you doing? Get back inside!”

“You needed the distraction,” Max said. “I distracted it.” He waited for Kol to run to him. “I don’t want to step on your toes, but you want to divide your forces. This last machine is alone. Split its attention long enough for your demolitions man to destroy it.”

“Right,” Kol said. “I appreciate that. But this machine is more dangerous than the specs we have for it. I don’t know how far it can reach, and your motor isn’t fast enough to get away from it.”

“Sir!” One of the Rifle Corps troopers yelled. “Change in tactics!” Both Maros brothers looked back out at the pockmarked fields around the base.

The Strider returned, now running, insect-like, on its belly, supporting itself with its six extending arms. Fitzsimmons, still trapped inside it, was pressed against the side of the capture cell, the remains on top of him.

“Dronebuster!” Kol yelled. “Fire now!”

But the spider-crawling Strider didn’t expose its throat to its attackers. The Dronebuster trooper aimed. He took too long. The Strider was low enough now to force its shoulder under the roof overhang. It lashed out its arm and caught the demolitions officer by the ankle.

The automaton fought to neutralize the threat to itself. It didn’t bother reeling the man toward its capture cell. It dragged the man, yelling, across the ground.

With a flick of its arm, the Strider threw the man and his dronebuster weapon, sending them flying across the field and out of sight.

“Shields now!” Kol yelled. “Shields now!”

The Strider reached out with its arm again and again and again, snapping at the Liberty Corps forces. They fired on the machine, retreating farther away. The automaton forced itself further and further under the overhang.

Max retreated as well, but he didn’t get far.

The Strider caught his wheelchair by one of the wheels. It pulled him backward. Max started the wheelchair’s motor. It interfered with the arm’s pull. Instead of dragging Max into the open, the arm slammed him into one of the support pillars.

The Strider released him, when Kol closed his prosthetic hand around the wrist of the arm. Kol drew his sword in his left hand. His grip was awkward, but this was not work for delicacy or finesse.

“Shields now!” Kol yelled. He brought the sword down onto the arm. The machine tried to pull its limb away, but it was weaker with the arm fully extended. The fingers of Kol’s new hand were a Hierarchia build. The robotic digits did not release the automaton. “Shields!”

The energy shield activated, cutting off the automaton’s right three limbs and part of that shoulder. The Strider fell to the ground, dragging itself away with its left arms.

But it did not retreat. It backed away far enough to get its proper legs under it. Then it stood, peering under the roof at them, its glowing eyes distorted by the blue haze of the energy field.  

Kol released the severed arm. It fell to the floor and flopped there like a fish brought ashore.

“I’m sorry,” Max said. “Nothing in the specifications talked about them moving that way.”

“No,” Kol said. “They didn’t. I…”

Kol fell to the floor. The severed arm had taken him by the ankle and reared back, like a snake. Kol caught the arm with his prosthetic, keeping it from wrenching or breaking his ankle. The arm pulled him no farther, but it refused to release him.

Max aimed his pistol and fired again and again. He fired further back along the arm. His aim wasn’t what it was. He needed to shoot well away from Kol.

More bullets struck the arm, also aiming for the sparking wound where the limb had severed from the torso. Three of Kol’s squad moved toward it, firing. The arm squirmed, but still refused to release Kol. When Max stopped to reload, his attention was briefly diverted. The remainder of the Liberty Corps force was occupied incapacitating the other two severed arms, riddling them with bullets, to little effect.

Kol yelled. He pulled his arm back, using the strength in his robotic fingers to tear the hand from the limb that gripped him. Even without the hand attached, the arm squirmed.

By the time Kol pried the robotic fingers from his ankle, the sustained fire from the Rifle Corps troopers had finally overwhelmed the severed arms. The appendages lay still, shot to pieces, wiring exposed, leaking neon yellow oil across the driveway.

“Are you okay, sir?” One of the Rifle Corps members approached Kol.

“Yes.” Kol winced, as he stood on his surely throbbing ankle. The armor over his lower leg was crushed and broken into three pieces. “Thank you, Private. I’ll be fine.” He looked out through the shield, where the Strider stood, stooped down, regarding them. “We need to get a message out. We can’t weather a siege for days, the way the IHSA forces did.”

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