From the other side of the tree I was hiding behind came the clicking sound of a spider drone’s legs, followed by the hum of a servo motor as the robot’s head scanned the area. The tree blocked it from detecting my thermal signature, and the heavy rain made tracking by sound difficult. But I had very little time left.
I continued my transmission to Aiko. “Alpha-Three, there are too many drones to fight. I’m going to turn my homing beacon on and give my headset to Aiko-chan. She’ll be hiding in the tree branches.” I exhaled a long, shaky breath. “Bring reinforcements. Rescue the girl.”
“Alpha-Six, hold on! We’re almost there --”
“My apologies, Alpha-Three. It looks like I’ll be buying that farm after all. Alpha-Six, out.”
I shut my transceiver off. After turning the emergency beacon on, I moved Aiko-chan’s long black hair out of the way and hung the headset around her neck. It was far too large for her head. “Here, sweetie,” I said softly. “Hold on to this and don’t lose it. Someone will be here to get you soon.”
If these monsters don’t find her first, I thought. My one hope rested on the fact that the drones rarely scanned trees looking for human heat signatures.
Reaching up as high as I could, I pushed Aiko-chan into the branches of the tree. She clung to the trunk with both arms as I placed her on a thick limb, her eyes wide with fear. I smiled to show her that I really wasn’t completely and totally terrified.
“You’re a good girl, Aiko-chan. Now, close your eyes tight and don’t open them.” Little Aiko didn’t need to see what the drones would do to me once I’d been discovered.
Kneeling down, I gripped my weapon tightly to keep my hands from shaking.
Lightning flashed. The light reflected off the wet metal surfaces of dozens of spider drones as they swept past my position, continuing their downhill march to Kimura. It would only be a matter of seconds before I was spotted.
Before that happened, I needed to draw attention away from the tree Aiko-chan was hiding in.
I aimed at a spider drone moving away from me. I don’t know how it knew I was there, but the head on the drone snapped toward me with an audible whine.
Before it could fire, I pulled the trigger and blew its head off. The drone stumbled around, blind and unable to communicate. I fired another round, downing the drone behind it and opening up a path through the ring of robots around me.
I started running as if my life depended on it.
Around me, I could hear the sounds of drone servo motors coming to life as they changed direction toward the source of gunfire.
But in front of me, I heard the sound of an engine.
An armored personnel carrier shot out of the woods, crushing drones under its wheels as it careened toward me. Doc Ishikawa was in the gunner’s hatch firing a heavy machine-gun. The drone pursuing me was instantly turned into a heap of scrap metal.
The APC, sporting a Yamanaki Future Technologies logo, rushed past me and pulled to a stop underneath the tree Aiko-chan was in. I ran back uphill toward the vehicle.
The thickly armored rear door swung open. Doc had disappeared from the gunner’s perch and now stood in the opening, beckoning me with both hands. “Get a move on, Jim!”
Another hatch, this one over the driver’s seat, popped open. I gaped in disbelief when the driver climbed out of it.
It was Lev Semenov. The Dreadnought.
He stood on the roof of the APC and reached up for the frightened little girl hiding among the branches, making an odd kind of whistling sound as he did so.
The last time I’d seen a Soviet cyborg reach for a girl, he’d killed her in cold blood with his bare hands.
I stopped and threw my auto shotgun to my shoulder. The sabot slugs I was using were far more powerful than my pistol. A shot in the right place would remove one more ruthless killer from the planet. I tightened my finger on the trigger…
But something incredible happened.
As soon as Aiko-chan heard the whistling, her eyes popped open. Without hesitation she let go of the tree trunk and dropped into Lev’s arms. Cradling the girl like a treasured art piece, he disappeared back into the APC.
“Hey Jim!” Doc roared. “Are you waiting for the next bus or something? Move it!”
I lowered the muzzle of my weapon. Feeling both ashamed and confused, I clambered aboard and slammed the hatch behind me. I remembered the first time I'd encountered Lev, he'd tried to shield Aiko-chan and her mother from harm, thinking I was about to attack them. What kind of connection did he share with those two?
It might have been a modern military vehicle, but the APC still smelled like old sweat and motor oil, just like its 20th century counterpart. The seats along one wall had been folded down to make room for a stretcher. On it, looking pale and worn, was the mayor of the town of Kimura, Mei Takahashi. Her eyes were closed and a bandage was wound around the top of her head.
“Momma!” Aiko-chan ran from the driver’s compartment and threw her arms around her mother’s neck. She was crying freely, now that the danger was over. Doc knelt next to the stretcher and spoke softly to the child. “Your mother’s okay now, she’s just sleeping. We’re going to take her to a hospital where she can get better.”
I moved forward, ducking my head to keep from banging into the low ceiling, and poked my head into the driver’s compartment. The controls looked about as complicated as those on the Mistral’s bridge stations, but I recognized a blinking yellow blip on the driver’s heads-up display indicating Rio’s homing beacon. “Lev, we need to pick up two of my people.”
Like the turret on a tank, his head slowly revolved until he was looking at me. Lev’s face was unnerving, to say the least. Optics like squat black cylinders had replaced his eyes, and his mouth was reinforced with external braces that looked like an orthodontist’s nightmare. Old scars criss-crossed a face patterned with small and large red veins.
I looked quickly away from him back at the screen. He pointed at the blip with a sausage-like finger.
“Yes, that’s them. Punch it! I’ll man the machine gun.”
I stepped back into the troop compartment. “Doc! We’ve got two people and one panther to pick up, and they might have some holes in ‘em. Be ready!” He gave me a quick thumbs-up without taking his eyes off his patient.
I climbed up into the gunner’s chair. The rain lashed me as I grabbed the handles on the machine gun.
The APC roared to life and launched itself forward.
We didn’t have far to go. Aiko, Tama and Rio had been heading toward me before I broke off communications.
While making our way to their position, we only encountered a couple of spider drones. Lev accounted for both of them. They made satisfying crunching noises when the APC ran them down.
After a short and bumpy ride, I spotted my teammates emerging from a stand of pine trees.
I waved at the two crewmembers as we pulled to a halt in front of them. “Did someone order a pizza?”
Aiko’s eyes flew open and a rare, open smile crossed her face. Rio actually squealed with joy. “Jim, you’re alive! Is Aiko-chan okay?”
“Yep, she’s just as tough as our other Aiko. She’s onboard with her mother and Doc. Hurry, we have to get going!”
I kept my head on a swivel as Aiko and Tama stepped through the rear hatch. All of the spider drones had been heading toward Kimura, but that was no guarantee there weren’t stragglers. Doc closed the hatch, then lowered the boarding ramp, allowing Rio to float up and into the APC.
I dropped down from my seat, grateful to be out of the deluge, and went to talk to Lev. “Bring the local map up on your HUD.”
Without comment, he punched up a 3-D map on his heads-up display. I pointed to the southernmost portion of Kimura’s main street. “Head there. The Mistral Challenger will pick us up. We should be safe inside.”
Lev nodded. I raised my eyebrows. “Are you unable to talk?”
Again he nodded.
“Oh. Okay, I’ll keep it in mind. By the way, you may have run down one too many robots. The left-front axle was making a nasty grinding noise. Just something to keep in mind.”
This time, he gave me a thumbs-up. I returned to the main compartment, wondering if all Dreadnoughts were mute. Now that I thought about it, though, the ones that had killed my friends back in the 20th century had never spoken a word.
The rain was coming down hard now, whipped by the gale into solid sheets that were almost horizontal. I finally had to leave my post in the gunner’s chair and close the hatch.
The foul weather was working in our favor. It covered the movement of the APC as we drove downhill, skirting the horde of spider drones.
Just before I closed the hatch, though, I saw flames coming from Kimura. The drones had already reached the town and were igniting the highly flammable hydrogen fuel cells used to power vehicles and generators. Even the torrential downpour of a typhoon wouldn’t be able to extinguish those fires.
It wasn’t too long before we emerged from the wooded hills just above the community center. Lev edged the APC past the building, and my shoulders slumped when I saw the burning wreckage of one of the Mistral’s electric trucks. I hoped JAXA wouldn’t deduct the cost out of my paycheck.
Thinking of JAXA reminded me that I hadn’t heard from Minori in a while. “Hey Rio, have you been able to contact the Mistral?”
The Mistral’s electronics expert had tapped into the APC’s communications systems as soon as she’d come aboard. She gave me an unhappy look. “Sorry Lieutenant, the storm and the rip are still limiting comm--”
Just then, the damaged front axle snapped. I grabbed the nearest handhold and held on as the vehicle shuddered and pitched to the left. Eventually, the vehicle skidded to a stop in the middle of the street.
“Everyone okay? Is anybody hurt?” Doc called out. He went from one person to the next, checking each of us until he was satisfied that no one was injured.
But now we had to make it the rest of the way to the Mistral Challenger on foot, with spider drones overrunning the town.
Followed by Aiko and Tama, I squeezed out through the gunner’s hatch into the storm and surveyed the damage to the vehicle. The APC, minus its front left tire, was tilted to the left. The armored front bumper had dug into the surface of the road, plowing a furrow in the pavement.
I took a quick look around us. Double-story shops and offices lined both sides of the street, steel shutters securing their fronts. But there were plenty of darkened alleyways and alcoves as well.
At the end of the street, I could make out the squat outline of the Mistral Challenger. She was lit up with every external light available.
Thankfully, there were no signs of drones. Yet.
I climbed back up to the gunner’s hatch. “Everyone, we’re only a hundred meters from the ship! Doc, when you’re ready, open the ramp. We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
I jumped back down to the street. Lev had emerged from the driver’s compartment and was standing next to Aiko, who eyed him with distrust. He had slung two bulky items covered with thick canvas over his shoulders.
I made some quick introductions. “Aiko, this is Lev, the guy I was telling you about earlier. Lev, this is Ensign Aiko Kinoshita and her panther, Tama.”
He scratched his head while looking at Tama, who sat patiently in the storm with water running down his sleek fur, then glanced at me. “Don’t even ask,” I said. “I don’t know how it works either.”
I turned back to Aiko. “I need you and Tama to lead everyone to the Mistral. Lev and I will act as rear guard. Is that okay with you?”
With her rain gear and night operations suit on, all I could see of Aiko were her large, dark eyes. Right now, they were unblinking and focused. “Yes. Do not stray far, Jim.” She glanced at Lev and lowered her voice. “Be careful. I do not trust him.”
“Nor do I. But you didn’t trust me when I came on board, remember?”
Aiko’s eyes closed almost completely and crinkled slightly at the corners. l knew she was smiling at me behind her mask. “I am still not completely sure of you either, Lieutenant Peterson. But you make an adequate executive officer.”
“Thanks. I’ve never been so underwhelmed by a compliment in my life.” Coming from Aiko, though, that was practically a hymn of praise.
The ramp on the crippled APC slowly lowered. Rio floated out, with the handles of Mei Takahashi’s stretcher secured to the back of her hoverchair and Aiko-chan sitting comfortably in her lap, covered by her small pink poncho.
Doc had the other end of the stretcher. He gave me a grin as the two went past. “Your Ensign Akayama is not only a genius, she’s really handy to have around.”
“Yes, we’re lucky to have her.” Even in the rain I could see Rio blush. I laid a hand on her shoulder. “Stay close to Aiko and Tama, okay? They’ll lead us to the Mistral. Lev and I will bring up the rear.”
Aiko unslung her mini-Uzi and set off through the storm, with Tama in front and to the right. Rio and Doc, carrying the stretcher and Aiko-chan, followed behind.
I heard a noise to my side. Lev had removed the covers from what turned out to be a multi-barreled Gatling-style weapon. The bag on his other shoulder held the linked caseless ammunition which fed into the gun. All told, it probably tipped the scales at fifty kilos, but he handled it effortlessly.
I gave him a grudging nod of approval. “You and I are the rear guard. You take the left side of the road, I’ll take the right. Let’s stay close to our group.”
In reply, he swung the muzzle of his weapon up and aimed it back the way we’d come. I saw something glistening in the darkness, like sparks moving with a single-minded purpose and heading in my direction. Another burst of lightning illuminated the scene.Rushing toward us down the street were dozens of spider drones. Our group would never be able to make it to the safety of the Mistral before we were overtaken.