Jack sighed and leaned back against a wall casually as the building shook from another major hit. It was a strong building, but a lot of damage was being poured into it. Despite Ben’s assurances, he was surprised that the Pryde Rock Defense Forces hadn’t done something to stop the fighting up there. Sure, they rarely got involved in Corporate business, but they normally didn’t allow this kind of stuff to happen either. This was public property after all, over a public street, in the heart of the largest city on Pryde Rock. But when Inter Planetary Intelligence or Inter Planetary Security said something, Planetary Defense most definitely listened. And Prydes still had pull on Pryde Rock, even after a century of open colonization. Probably the only ones with more pull than the Corporations. A good thing most of the time.
He shrugged and glanced down the corridor again, wondering where all of the guards were. He’d thought there were more of them here, but perhaps the fighters had accounted for more than he’d expected. That didn’t really matter now. He was going to do what he had to do and nothing would stop him now. He’d spent too long on the outside, watching. It was time to do it.
Elsie walked around the corner and Jack turned his head to look at her. “Let’s go,” she said and started to walk passed him but he stopped her by putting a hand up in her way.
“I don’t need you,” he muttered casually. “Get out of here.”
“You’re wrong,” she responded and moved to lean against the opposite wall, putting one hand on her shapely hip. “Security’s gotten better in the last decade. AIs have. You can’t do this alone anymore.”
“I’ve gotten better too,” Jack muttered back at her and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Can you fight an AI and win?” Jack blinked at Elsie’s question and she nodded firmly. “That’s what I thought. Let’s go,” she finished and stepped away from the wall.
“Wait,” Jack muttered as he brought his hand up to stop her again. “You weren’t designed for combat. Can you fight an AI and win?”
“Depends on the model. But I’d have a better chance than you would,” Elsie noted with a nod and pushed his hand out of the way. “I’ll take point. You cover my back,” she finished and started walking down the corridor. Jack shrugged and stepped away from the wall to follow, his eyes scanning up and down her shapely figure, taking in the numerous burns in the back of her clothing.
“You’re hurt,” he whispered and she shook her head.
“My armor absorbed the damage. But Barlon will pay for ruining these,” she finished in a dark tone as she fingered one of the holes and Jack’s eyes opened wide in surprise. If she was that mad over clothing he really didn’t want to piss her off. He shook his head at that thought and walked after her, wondering at the idea of being afraid of making an AI mad at him.
“So that’s why you’re here. Pissed about your clothes,” Jack muttered and she smiled at him over her shoulder before looking around a corner. Jack frowned as she gave him the all clear and followed her into the intersection. Where were all the guards? This didn’t make sense. Then Elsie cocked her head to the side and frowned.
“I hear fighting,” she whispered and turned to Jack. “Lots of it. Down that way,” she finished, pointing down a corridor that led towards the center of the building.
“I thought I and Vanessa were the only ones in here,” Jack whispered in confusion.
“You were,” Elsie whispered back. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but isn’t that the way you wanted to go?”
“Yeah it is,” Jack sighed heavily. “Let’s go,” he finished and began walking down the corridor in question. Elsie stepped ahead and pulled her twin pistols out again, covering their path as they walked. They walked through several corridors before Jack’s ears finally began hearing the fighting, and several more before he could distinguish more than a low rumble.
The building still shook with periodic shots from the outside, but overall it felt as if the main fighting was going on in here now. A rumbling explosion jarred him and he let out a long breath of concern. Somebody was unloading some heavy artillery in here. But who was it?
They walked around another corner and Elsie’s cheek twitched as they looked down at the remains of several security AIs. Burns marred the beautifully detailed wood walls and splinters riddled the plush carpet where it wasn’t blown away from the armored flooring. Elsie kneeled down and touched the remains of one of the AI power cores carefully.
“This is less than ten minutes old,” she whispered sadly and then turned to look down a corridor that was a mass of destruction and more AI and human parts. Jack followed her gaze and nodded slowly as his nose picked up the smell of death. AI and human.
“Last chance to get out of here,” he muttered calmly and she stood up swiftly, looked at him for a moment, and began walking down the corridor. “Ok,” he whispered and followed after her, feeling the welcome buzz of power coming from his own pistol as he scanned the area.
Nova led the way through the door and into a corridor full of parts of shattered AIs. Ben followed her gaze and sighed sadly.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered and she turned her head to look at him.
“Their backups will bring them back online,” she noted coldly. “Nothing important will be lost.”
“Nothing important?” Cat whispered in a horrified tone. “They’re dead!”
“Everyone dies,” Nova responded in the same cold voice as normal. “The only question is when. For some, that question has been answered. For others, they have simply shut down while awaiting repairs.” For a moment, Cat just looked at Nova in shock, and then turned to Ben.
“Where’d you dig up little miss sunshine?” she whispered in Ben’s ear and he chuckled dryly.
“When you’ve lived as long as I have, you learn to accept help from anyone willing to give it,” he whispered back, not quite answering her question.
“I have their trail. Let’s go. We have little time to lose,” Nova noted coldly and began walking towards the corner Jack and Elsie had gone around. Ben shrugged, following her closely with Cat and James taking up the rear. Then an explosion rumbled through the building and the ceiling above them crumbled. Nova glanced up, saw it fracturing, and turned to run. “Get back!” she yelled and grabbed Ben before launching them back into the outer corridor.
She landed on top of him as the ceiling in the inner corridor completely collapsed, raining debris down all over them. He turned to see Cat and James breathing heavily and covered with dust, but still alive, and then turned back to Nova. “Thanks,” he muttered with a pleased smile and she just glared at him before picking herself back up.
“I didn’t want an accident taking you out,” she muttered coldly. “I’m reserving that privilege for myself.”
“I feel honored,” Ben smiled back and stood up as Cat blinked, her gaze going back and forth between them in surprise.
“Good,” Nova muttered, then looked at the pile of rubble before taking the glove off one hand and putting it on the pile of rubble. She stood still for a few seconds, and then turned back to Ben. “The debris is three meters across. It’ll take too long to dig through. We should use the maintenance tunnel Jack and Vanessa used to get out.”
“Agreed,” Ben responded. “Let’s go,” he added to the others and started to walk away.
“Wait!” Cat yelled. “How can she tell that? She wants to kill you! How can you trust her?”
“I very literally trust her with my life every day,” Ben responded seriously, not answering her first question. “If she ever decided to do it, there’s nothing I could do to stop her. Now let’s go,” he finished and turned to Nova. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Now,” she responded and began walking down the corridor to the entrance into the maintenance tunnel. It was a quick trip through, and they walked out into an empty corridor and the sounds of fighting in the distance. “That’s not Jack and Elsie,” she muttered. “Too many weapons firing.”
“How can you tell from this distance?” Cat asked disbelievingly.
“Good ears,” Nova responded coldly as she tapped them. “Follow me.” With that, she started down the corridor with Ben on her heals.
“Who do you think it is?” He asked and she shrugged.
“Internal fighting. The explosion that nearly got us was a power generator going up. I think rival factions are fighting each other.”
“So who’re the good guys?”
“There are no good guys here,” Nova noted coldly. “Only less bad guys.”
“Fine. Less bad guys?” Nova glanced at Ben for a moment, then around the corner to see an empty corridor.
“I’m betting Jack’s contact.”
“Vihon?” Cat asked quickly. “He’s a cool customer. Wouldn’t have moved like this unless he had no choice.” Ben turned to look at her carefully, then saw James nodding firmly and felt his emotions. He knew Vihon. Another piece of the puzzle. He just wish he knew what the puzzle was supposed to look like.
“Then perhaps he didn’t,” Ben muttered as the sound of more shooting ripped through the building. “That’s a lot of hardware,” he added in a whisper.
“Let’s go,” Nova muttered and began walking, forcing Ben to follow as he shrugged. The four of them passed numerous corridors, all of them empty or filled with dead AI or human guards. Finally they approached what looked like the main hallway and Nova peeked around it to see. She quickly pulled back as shots slammed into the wall of the corridor. “Reinforcements,” she noted unnecessarily.
“For who?” Cat whispered.
“Doesn’t matter,” Nova muttered and reached her hand in her jacket to pull out a grenade. “They’re dead either way,” she added and tossed it. The explosion rocked the hall and she shot out as she brought her rifle around. Four shots later, she came to a stop and nodded to them. “It’s clear. Wait. More coming. Twenty of them. You go on. I’ll hold them here,” she added as she brought her rifle up before firing.
“Go on,” Ben nodded towards Cat and James. “We can hold them. Get Jack and Elsie out of there.”
“It’s suicide,” Cat whispered and Ben shrugged.
“I don’t think so. I don’t plan on going down here. And besides, she’d never let anyone else kill me. That would seriously piss her off. Now go, before they find the range.”
“Fine,” Cat muttered and ran out into the hall to go towards the center of the building. James paused for a moment and nodded before following her.
“I told you to go,” Nova noted between shots.
“Not gonna happen,” Ben returned and pulled out a pistol to look around the corner with it. “I’m not leaving you alone here.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Another shot erupted from her rifle, taking down another AI. “You’re good,” he whispered in awe.
“You should know,” she growled angrily and he nodded slowly. He had built her after all. A long time ago.
“The fighting’s winding down,” Elsie muttered as they picked their way through pieces of dozens of AIs and Terrans, as well as the shattered remnants of expensive wooden paneling.
“Even I can hear that,” Jack whispered as another rumble shook the building, bringing dust down on both of them. He sneezed loudly, feeling as if his entire being was being pushed through his nostrils, and then winced in pain. He rotated his shoulders around to make sure they still worked, and then reached down to his belt to pop open a small pouch.
A rebreather came out in his hand and he let it unfurl itself before attaching it to his face. A thin mask of flesh-colored living material, it locked itself to his face to cover his mouth and nose before beginning to quiver faintly as it sucked in air and purified it. Jack took a deep breath through his mouth and nodded in appreciation of the fresh air before looking back to Elsie.
“I hear nothing now,” she whispered and Jack shrugged in an effort to look calm.
“So somebody won. I guess now we find out who.” Elsie nodded back and they started walking again, down towards the next corner through the increasing numbers of destroyed AIs and pieces of humans, mostly Terrans but some Arnam as well. He paused for a moment at one of the Arnam and sighed slowly, wondering about Andrea. Then he turned away and walked down to the intersection. He didn’t really have time for that now after all. A quick look around the corner brought them a sight of destruction that made the corridor look pristine. Shattered trees lined the main hallway, blown into a million pieces by the fighting, and more dead AIs and humans than he could shake a stick at lay all over the floors and up against the walls.
Nothing moved but the smoke still rose from burning wood, and the walls were scoured down to armor plating. Of course, even some of the armor was ripped back by the explosions that had thrown guards like rag dolls. Somebody had fought a war down here. And lost.
A gurgling cough came from a mound of debris and Elsie took off like a shot towards it, Jack right on her heals as they both scanned the area for functioning enemies. The AI reached down as she arrived and started pulling off armor plates and pieces of AIs and Terrans until she saw a bloody hand still moving.
“Help me,” a voice said as the hand grabbed her reflexively.
“Don’t worry,” she answered calmly. “We’ll get you out of this.” She cleared more rubble off him until they could see his face and Jack gasped in shock.
“Vihon,” he whispered sadly and the man nodded painfully.
“I…I couldn’t wait,” he rasped slowly. “They…they found out. Came for me. I…had no…choice.”
“I understand,” Jack whispered and kneeled down to grab Vihon’s hand. “How many survived?”
“Not…many. He’s in the audience chamber now,” Vihon paused and coughed blood onto Jack’s sleeve as Elsie continued clearing rubble off his shattered body. She shook her head and Jack sighed sadly as memories washed over him.
“You’re sure it was him?” Jack asked and Vihon nodded painfully. “I’m sorry,” Jack finally whispered after a long pause and stood back up, letting go of Vihon’s hand. “I’ll make sure this never happens again. Ever.”
He looked down the hallway to the massive doors that led into the audience chamber as Vihon collapsed into a coughing fit, splashing blood over the rubble, then turned to look at Elsie. She nodded and pulled a bottle out of her jacket pocket to give it to Vihon. “Drink this,” she whispered with an understanding smile. “I don’t know if the nannites can fix your damage, but at least they can dull the pain.”
“Thank…you,” Vihon coughed in response and weakly grabbed the bottle. “Now…go,” he added and nodded his head towards Jack. She stood up and followed Jack towards the burned and damaged doors, through the mounds of dead guards and rubble. Jack grabbed the door handle of the right one and pulled it back, letting the massive door swing itself open.
Open to show them another scene of death. It looked like the entire board of directors was down here, their bodies broken. They looked around at the handful of damaged but operational AIs, and two or three bloody Terrans as they leaned on their counterparts for support. For a long second, nobody moved.
“Who the devil are you?” a low voice echoed off the walls as another man walked confidently out into his field of vision, holding a gun carefully.
“I’m dead,” Jack muttered and tapped his right shoulder carefully, eyeing the gun pointed at him.
“You don’t look…” the man trailed off as he examined Jack slowly, trying to recognize his altered facial structure. It didn’t take a genius to realize it wasn’t happening. “Who are you?”
“I go by the name of Jack now,” he whispered slowly and the other man scowled.
“That tells me nothing,” he responded and Jack shrugged.
“Well, Erik,” Jack noted in a very quiet voice that the other man had to concentrate to listen to. “Maybe you’ll recognize the name Shane then,” he continued, staring at the man intently.
The reaction was instantaneous, exactly what he was waiting for. Hoping for. Erik jerked. His gun arm twitched, taking his aim off Jack for just a moment as his face actually showed surprise. After all, everybody knew Shane was dead. Had been dead for twelve years. Jack smiled as he brought his pistol up in a whir of motion. It vibrated eagerly in his outstretched arm, telling him it was ready to fire, and he aimed it at his old friend. Erik’s eyes opened wider as he brought his own gun back towards Jack. Fingers twitched and two shots rang out in the audience chamber.