Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 12

Victoria

Dragging herself to shore was difficult, the rollerblades were waterlogged and the river bottom was covered with around a foot of muck.  She could smell someone cooking over a grill nearby as she sat down to try and clean herself off a bit.  The skirt she was wearing was pretty much ruined, the stockings had been white but now were dyed a nasty brown from the murky river water.

“I wonder where I am.”  Victoria muttered to herself, glancing around.  The grass had been cut within the last month so it must be managed land of some sort.  She finished rinsing the mud off her rollerblades and walked up the embankment.  Pushing through a line of brush she was nearly run over by a man running while looking backwards.  Only by diving sideways and dropping her skates was she able to avoid being run into.

“Whoa, sorry about that!”  The Frisbee he had been chasing landed next to her and she recognized Jenny’s dad.  “Victoria, what are you doing out here?  You look like you’ve been through the ringer!”

Victoria glanced down at herself and had to admit she was a little worse for the wear.  “I’m OK Mr. Hendricks; I was out skating and fell off a bridge.”  The second the words left her mouth she realized how lame they sounded and winced.

“Wow, that must have been quite some fall.  Well we’re having a picnic; do you want to join us?  There’s a fire you could warm up a bit.”  Jenny was running over from across a small clearing.

“Hey Toria, what’s going on?  Holy shit, you look like hell!  I thought you went off with that hottie in the Porsche after school, what happened, did he toss you off a bridge?”

“Don’t laugh Jenny, that’s not far off the mark.”  She suddenly felt dizzy, “Damn, I must have overdone it.”  She turned towards Jenny’s dad, “Could you give me a lift home?”  A shrill keening sound emanated from somewhere on her back.  Victoria suddenly felt weak.  “I’m so tired.”

“Hey are you OK?”  Jenny’s face showed her concern, “What’s wrong V?”

“Please.  Just .. take .. me .. home.”  Victoria was having trouble talking, her breath coming in short gasps.  Her vision began to fade in and out.  Without warning she crumpled to the ground.

“This unit is the property of the Arlington Research Division.  The main power supply has been depleted. Auxiliary power will keep core systems safe for T-600 minutes.  Please return this unit to 301 Industry Avenue, Los Angeles, California 87960 before the time expires.  This message will repeat in 60 seconds.”

“Dad.  What do we do?”  Jenny was white and shaken.  “I mean, this looks like V but what the hell is going on?”

“We bring her home.  Honey, this is Victoria, who else could this possibly be?”  He picked up the motionless girl at his feet.  “I don’t know exactly what’s going on but… we bring her home.”  As they hurried towards the car the muffled sound of a cell phone ringing on vibrate from the pocket of her skirt went unnoticed.

Mr. Hendricks pulled up in front of the Scott house, stopping almost fast enough to squeal the tires.  Jumping out he carefully lifted the comatose form of Victoria out of the back seat and carried her to the front door.  Jenny was already ringing the doorbell.  Mr. Scott answered the door, at first with a smile but then with dismay as he saw his daughter in Mr. Hendricks’s arms.

“Jake, what’s this?  I thought she was at a doctor’s appointment.”

“I don’t know what’s going on Rich.  She just walked out of the woods and collapsed.”  He was interrupted by the announcement from Victoria’s spinal column.

“This unit is the property of The Arlington Research Division.  The main power supply has been depleted; auxiliary power will keep core systems safe for T-530 minutes.  Please return this unit to 301 Industry Avenue, Los Angeles, California 87960 before the time expires.  This message will repeat in 60 seconds.”

“Oh shit, I think there’s something about this in the documentation we got from the hospital.  Or maybe I’ll just call her doctor.  Yeah, I’ll call Dr. Arlington.”  He picked up the phone and dialed hurriedly.

“Thank you for calling Dr. Eugene Arlington’s office.  If this is an emergency please press six.” BEEEP Rich mashed the key on the keypad.

“Hello, this is Dr. Arlington.  I’m sorry I can’t answer the phone right now but please leave me a message and I’ll get back to you the moment I’m available.”

“Hi Mr. Arlington, this is Rich Scott.  Victoria just got brought back home looking like she’s been run through the wringer and there’s this automated message coming from her prosthetic about returning her to the home office but she’s here now.  Call me immediately I need to know what to do.”

He hung up and seconds later the phone rang, “Hello?  Doctor?”

“Richard, is that you?”  The voice on the other end was muffled but sounded familiar, “What’s the emergency?”

“Doctor, Victoria just got home and there’s a warning message coming from her prosthetic about the battery, what do I do?”

“Just take the yellow charger from the bag and connect it to the yellow plug in the back of her skull.  It’s a charging port and it’ll regenerate the batteries within 15 minutes.  It won’t be a full charge but it’ll be enough to get her up and moving around.  I’m in the ER but I’ll be there as soon as I can get them to discharge me.  Whatever you do don’t leave the house.  I don’t have time to explain but it is imperative that you do NOT leave the house.”

“What?  Why can’t we leave the house?”  But the line was dead and Rich had his priorities.  He ran upstairs and pulled the proper charger from the bag Victoria had brought from the office.  With some trepidation he plugged it into the wall and then hesitated momentarily before plugging it into the back of his daughter’s head.  There was a pleasant chime and the warning message stopped emanating from the gleaming steel and rubber prosthetic imbedded in her back.

After a tense few minutes Victoria stirred, “Mmmm daddy?  What time is it?”  She sat up, “I feel like I’ve been asleep for weeks!”

Jake Hendricks turned to Rich Scott, “OK Rich, what the HELL is going on here?  What did you do to your daughter?”

Without even having to think about it Rich looked him straight in the eye, “Saved her life Jake.  Without this treatment she would have certainly spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair if she had survived at all.”

“Holy shi- er crap Mr. Hendricks, I totally forgot.  Thanks for bringing me home.”  She stood up and felt the cable connected to her head, “What’s this?”  Turning to her dad, “What happened?”

Jake answered, “You collapsed and some warning started sounding from somewhere on your back.  You had asked me to bring you home so I did.  I’m not sure what you’ve gotten yourself into Victoria, but I’m asking you to keep my daughter out of it.  This is all just a little too much for us.  OK?”  Without waiting for an answer he turned and walked out the door.

“Wait, Mr. Hendricks!  Wait, you don’t understand!”  She ran to the door after him but the charging cable reached its limit and she stopped, knowing it was necessary for her continued consciousness.  She could see out the door though.  Victoria rubbed her eyes in disbelief, was this a video game or was she still asleep?

A.D.A.M.

ADAM awakened from hibernate mode, his power cells had been drastically depleted; almost to the point of data loss.  A quick diagnostic check showed his power monitoring program had unresolved bugs.  He edited his code accordingly, re-routing data and lowering some parameters while being careful to leave his clone’s information intact for the programmers to find later.  He also noted with interest that the emergency protocol files were still accessible.

Taking note of the quick charge level at 15%, ADAM activated one of the new programs available to him to scan the area by accessing local traffic cameras and the security systems from some neighboring houses.  Everything seemed normal until he checked the police band just to be safe.

“APB all available officers respond immediately to possible terrorist threat at 4487 Honeysuckle Terrace.  SWAT ETA three minutes.  Do not engage until SWAT arrives, repeat, do NOT engage without SWAT backup.”

The host system was moving towards the door, following another.  The data flow was illogical and misdirected.  ADAM checked for anomalies and discovered this was registering as normal behavior.  He checked again, attempting to find a pattern of conduct that made sense but was unable to find one.  ADAM stopped the host as it approached the door, it was too dangerous.  There was Enforcement all over out there and he knew it.   ADAM borrowed the host’s video inputs and began to overlay his data, trusting that the host would be able to interpret it.

Victoria

“Victoria what are you doing?”  Her father was yelling at her.

Looking out the door, Victoria could see cars parked on the street, people walking by, houses, an airplane flying overhead.  However, far from being normal each one had additional information superimposed over it.  “Civilian” “Police” “Private Security” “Italian Mafia” “Flight 1538 out of LA” She knew these things to be true although she wasn’t certain why.  It was like something out of a game or a Sci-Fi movie.

“Dad?  Can you get mom?  I need you to get in the basement right now.”

“What do you mean?  What the hell is going on?”

“There are armed men on this block right now who intend to do me serious harm.  If you get in the way I’m certain you’ll be hurt.  We need to stay inside away from windows.”  Mr. Hendricks and Jenny were halfway down the block when they passed by a car she knew to be an unmarked police car.

“Are you feeling OK?  What’s wrong honey?”  Her father’s eyes were tight with concern as he looked out of the door, “There’s nobody out there except for our neighbors.  Look, there’s Mary walking her dog.”

The door to the police car opened and Jenny screamed in surprise as a SWAT van sped around the corner and riot cops in full “battle rattle” jumped out, running up the sidewalk towards the house.  Jenny and her dad were grabbed and pulled into the unmarked car.  Mary was thrown unceremoniously to the ground, her dog was going nuts.

“GET DOWN ON THE FLOOR AND PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEADS NOW!  THIS IS A POLICE RAID.  WE HAVE A WARRANT AND WE’RE COMING IN!”  The first cop was coming through the door, and even though her whole body trembled with the desire to defend her home Victoria lay down on the floor.

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The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 29

The guard led the way through a series of low stone buildings to the high walls of the keep.  To one side they could see a stockyard overflowing with lowing cattle.  On the other side, a gang of children were playing a game involving kicking a ball of rags around in a flagstone courtyard.  They walked into the keep and Callindra noted the heavily armed guards on both sides of the door.

He brought them through a series of corridors and into a large hall.  Fireplaces burned on each end and the windows were wide open, letting in a pleasant breeze and plenty of sunlight.  A tired looking man in rumpled purple and gold robes sat in a carved chair with purple cushions.

“What is this then captain?”  He said, looking up from a cup of wine.

“Travelers my lord Mayor.  They’re clean, I checked them personally.”  He gestured toward Tryst, “This one here is a healer.  He says he might be able to help us.”

“Is that so?”  He said, looking up at them.  “I see, that would be most welcome.”

“I am Tryst te ‘Chern.”  Tryst said, “These are my companions Vilhylm, Cronos and Callindra.  We are on a mission of some import, however I would be most honored if you would allow me to attempt to help your people to earn our room and board for the night.”

“Wonderful!  I am Iason, and this is my guard captain Lucca.  Please allow me to show you and your friends to refreshments and once you are ready…”  A look of hope passed over him as well, “Well, if you can help us we will forever be in your debt.”

Lucca set his wine cup down and stood from his chair, leading them down a short hallway, and down a flight of stairs.  The smell of soap and wood fires made Callindra very aware of her filthy, blood splattered state and she saw with relief that they were being led first to a huge bathing pool.

The water was hot enough to make her wince, especially when her wounds touched it.  It was a relief to sluice the dust, dirt and blood from herself though and then to briefly soak in the pool.  Once she was clean, she returned to find Tryst waiting for her with a needle and thread.

“We need to take care of those gashes across your stomach at very least.”  He said, “Now that they’re clean I can stitch them up.”

Callindra sighed, she’d been hoping to get away with just a quick bandage and then be able to go and eat but wasn’t surprised at his insistence.  She was only wearing her chest wrap, having anticipated Tryst wanting to patch her up and sighed again as she lay down on a rough wooden bench in the changing room.

His hands were deft and gentle and she was able to relax in spite of the pain of the needle and thread.  She wondered at how comfortable she was with Tryst, even in this state of undress and vulnerability.  There was no question in her mind that he was treating her as an equal; as he would his own brother.

This was what she had wished so hard for during her training.  Callindra felt her eyes sting with emotion, she had never dared dream that she would actually find true companions like these and now more than ever she knew she would fight to the bitter end for any one of her friends.

“All done.  Now go and get some food.  Red meat, hearty ale, bread and vegetables.”  He said, pulling her from her reverie.  “Nothing strenuous for at least a day.”

“You’ve told me all that before.”  She said, her voice muffled from beneath the tunic she was pulling over her head.

“And you’ve ignored every time, at least the part about taking it easy.”  Tryst said with a smile, “That’s why I feel the need to repeat myself.”

Callindra laughed, “Fair enough my friend.  Thank you for your help, as always.”

“You bleed with us Callindra, it’s the least I can do.”  Said Tryst, putting his needle and thread away carefully in a small cedar wood box.  “Now let’s get food together.  I’m worried about what I’ll find when I get to the infirmary.”

The others were already in the main hall, enjoying a meal with Iason and a few others they hadn’t met before.  Apparently there was an abundance of cattle and a dearth of fodder, for the meat was plentiful and fresh but there weren’t many vegetables.  The meal was largely consumed in silence for Callindra and her friends were hungry and the folk of the keep seemed to be intentionally keeping to themselves.  After the plates had been cleared away, Tryst rose and turned to Iason.

“If you would lead me to your wounded, I will see what I can do for them.”  He said.

“I’ll … just come to see where you’ll be.”  Callindra said.  She was getting a strange feeling and decided she wanted to see where they were bringing her friend.

The infirmary wasn’t far away, and it only had four occupants.  They were all children though, laying on beds heaped high with blankets and large fires roared on both ends of the room.  The children shivered in spite of the heat and the extra coverage.

“I will be fine Callindra.”  Tryst said, “Go and get some rest.  I think you took the worst of it out there.”

She nodded slowly and retreated, moving back to the main keep and finding her bed.  Her body was screaming for sleep and she knew if she didn’t rest she wouldn’t be able to be worth a damn the next day.  Even with a good night’s rest she would barely be able to dance the Korumn the next day.

Removing her boots, she fell into bed, laying Brightfang’s hilt on the pillow next to her.  When sleep came, she wrestled with troubling dreams filled with green eyed monsters and strange children who left burning footprints wherever they walked.

The sunlight streaming through her window awakened Callindra, and she sat up, disentangling herself from the twisted mess of her sheets and blankets.  Her room had a mirror and she glared at her reflection, hair looking like she’d spent the night in a gale, not in a quiet bed, eyes with dark circles underneath them…

She stretched and grimaced at the tightness in her abdomen.  After running through some basic Stances, she went to look for some breakfast, and her friends.  Cronos was eating a hearty breakfast, and Callindra sat next to him and poured a mug of tea.

“You look like shit.”  Cronos said.

“And a mighty fine morning to you!”  Callindra retorted, “When did Tryst get to bed?”

“Eh?  What do you mean come to bed?”  Asked Cronos, “He’s been at it all night again.”

Callindra shoved the rest of the bread in her mouth and stood, grabbing her teacup.  Adjusting Brightfang’s scabbard over her shoulder, she headed for the door.  The feeling of unease was back and she needed to see Tryst to set herself at ease.  Cronos shrugged and returned to his breakfast.

Hurrying across the courtyard, Callindra paused briefly at the door to the infirmary and took a deep, calming breath.  “It’s just your imagination fool girl.”  She muttered, “These people have been nothing but hospitable after the initial unpleasantness at the gate.”

Opening the door, she was hit by a wave of heat.  The air had a strange, sweet scent that made her nostrils burn.  Beneath that sweet smell was the unmistakable reek of brimstone.  Tryst knelt by one of the beds, an assortment of medical supplies arranged about him.  Callindra approached him on cat’s feet, not making the slightest sound.  When she put her hand on his shoulder, he started slightly and looked up.

“Oh, Callindra.”  He said, his voice thick with weariness.  “You startled me.  I was nearly done here.  Nearly done.”

“Tryst.”  She hissed, “You need to get out of here!”

The closest figure sat up in bed.  He was a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen, one strongly built but now his muscles hung loose on a frame ravaged by fever.  He looked at her and she saw his eyes for the first time.  They were pools of emerald fire.  “Water.”  He croaked.

Callindra whirled, rising from a kneeling position, drawing her sword and striking in the same motion (Dance of the Coiled Viper) and removed his head from his shoulders.  “GO damn you Tryst, they’re infected!”

“No, no, I was praying.  I used magic.  I’m sure…”  Tryst trailed off.  In spite of their size difference, Callindra hauled him to his feet and shoved him to the door grimacing at the pain as the cuts across her stomach tore their stitches open.  He seemed disoriented, as though he had no idea what was going on.

The second bedridden figure was struggling to rise against the heaps of blankets, and so was the third.  She panicked, turning from Tryst and only waiting long enough to see the shine of scintillating green beneath their eyelids before killing them as well.  A crash sounded from across the room and Callindra turned to see a nurse standing there, staring at her in horror with a tray of breakfast scattered on the floor at her feet.

Callindra ran to her, flinging the drops of blood off Brightfang’s blade with a practiced flick of her wrist.  Grabbing the nurse’s head she looked into her eyes and saw a flicker of burning green.

“No, it’s not in me.”  The nurse whispered, “I swear it’s not in me.”  She broke into tears, “Please, my fam-” Callindra didn’t hesitate any longer, she couldn’t allow herself to.  She cut the woman down.

Shaking with suppressed emotion, she went to where Tryst was leaning listlessly against the wall.  Reaching a trembling hand out, she lifted his face to look into hers.  Her heart nearly stopped.  His eyes had an emerald sheen to them.  Not a flickering flame like the others, but it was unmistakable.  Callindra let out a strangled sound, releasing him and raising her sword in both hands.

Could she do it?  Was he infected?  What if she didn’t kill him?  Once it took him over…  She gripped Brightfang so hard her knuckles hurt.  Her sword wavered in her grip and finally she let out an explosive breath.

“I can’t do it.”  She sobbed, letting her arms fall to her sides, “Gods and Demons, I killed them for the same but I can’t do it to you.”

Tryst shook his head and stared up at her, “What’s that?”  She looked at him again, his eyes were clear.  Dropping her sword, Callindra pried his eyelids wide and stared intently at them.  There was no sign of the green tint.  She couldn’t doubt herself.  The others had been infected, they HAD been.  She had done the right thing.

“We have to go.”  She said, “You need rest and these people… we need to go.”

“Callindra!”  Said Tryst, “Callindra what have you DONE?”  He was looking past her at the carnage she had left in her wake.

“They were infected Tryst.”  She said, “They would have killed you, killed me, killed us all!”  As if in response to her cries, one of the corpses began moving.

“Get out!” She shouted, “Get out NOW, you’re in no condition to handle this right now!”

“I’m not leaving you.”  He said quietly.

“Go.  Get.  The others.”  She said, her voice deadly quiet.  “You don’t even have a weapon or a shield, let alone your armor.  I can hold them but only for a short time.  GO!”

Tryst nodded grudgingly and ran as best he could.  The monsters that had been children threw off their bedding with violence that belied their size.  None of the former weakness remained, as if they had been storing the power taken by the fever and waiting to release it now.  Callindra grimly took Brightfang in a two handed grip and faced her enemies.

Yet another new RPG campaign looms

Soon, I’m going to be running a Shadowrun game and… well I haven’t played Shadowrun in quite a few years so, being me, I had to write an intro.  Not sure if this is going to be used or not but some of the terminology is borrowed from one of favorite dystopian future novels “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson.  So… whatever.  Enjoy 🙂

Afternoon Rush

XO was in trouble.  Those goddamn gangers were more tenacious than the usual crop and they’d followed her down this alley too.  They usually gave up after a couple dozen blocks, but not this time.  Even though she’d ‘Pooned a ride to make her Board go faster than if she just kicked or relied on gravity, they had been riding Scorpions.

That last Rig she’d ‘Pooned had shook off her magnet and she’d had to corner hard to avoid a smear.  She looked around, wondering what kind of drek she’d gotten into this time.  For the first time in a long time she began to really sweat.  This alley was a dead end, and for her that really meant a Dead End.

After grabbing her Board and strapping it firmly to her pack, she moved deeper into the alley, looking for a door, a window a foothold… anything.  The street level here only had Guardian roll up delivery doors and even though she could see the glow of the Ident1 panels there was no way she would have the time to hack one.  Not with those fuckers being so close behind her.

“Lil bitch run down here!”  Their lead tracker… Ork… probably sniffer… shouted and XO snarled silently at the sound of their combat boots stomping over the Ferrocrete of the street that replaced the rumble of the Harley’s engines.

“Let this meeting of the Student Council come to order.”  A beautiful female voice chimed from above.

XO looked up, on the third floor one of the windows had been opened.  That was against code she was sure, but she didn’t have time to wonder who had managed to hack the building’s HVAC system to prevent the alarm from going off.

A tall Elf boy with long golden hair sat on the window ledge staring out into the distance.  To XO’s surprise, he dumped a handful of breadcrumbs on the window ledge and a flock of noisy pigeons landed to peck at them.

She twisted the end of her arm and ejected the nanowire MagNeato Harpoon from its forearm sleeve.  The RepliPendage robotic replacement arm was a cheap piece of drek, but it was all a roach like her could afford.  XO aimed the ‘Poon and hit the release.  The polarity on the magnets violently reversed and the end of the ‘Poon flew out to smack into the window sill, there was just enough metal there to get a good connection.

The pigeons exploded in a clatter of wings as she flew upwards, the Elf looking around in irritation and then surprise as she rose toward him, the whirr of her ‘Poon drowned by the sound of the birds taking flight.

“Oh shit!”  The elf boy shouted, falling backward into the room.

“Sorry pretty boy, maybe I make it up to ya laters if ya got the stones!” XO said, running through the room, “Ya best get yer ass movin if ya don’t want them fucks ta get ya!”

“What?”  The boy said, scrambling backward as she ran to the opposite door.

The sound of the Gangers in the alley below grew into a roar.  “Lil BITCH I have your GUTS on STICK!”

“Laters cutie boy!”  XO blew him a kiss and tore the straps loose from her Board.  As she threw it down, the NanoTech wheels reached out to adjust to the terrain.  She jumped aboard, flying out the door and ‘Pooning the door so as to take the corner at speed.

“Close the damn window!”  The elf girl said as XO blew out the door.

XO laughed, cruising down the hallway and gaining speed as she went.  It was a simple matter to navigate the hall, fly down the stairs, the NanoTech wheels extending their spokes to make the trip down nearly level and, more importantly, fast.

An Ork boy in a rumpled school uniform barely got out of her way as she carved the wall, tearing a poster that was hung there and leaving dirty tracks on the paint.  He threw up his hands in a boxer’s fists.  She slapped one hand, pretending he was giving her a ‘high five’ and only barely dodged a jab.  Yup.  Boxer.  Enhanced too if she knew her shit, and she did.

At the bottom of the stairs, she ‘Pooned the door open, using the extra force from the pull to increase her speed just a touch and standing sideways on her Board to squeeze through the opening.  Some dork was opening the door to the outside and she flew through it fast enough to spin him twice around, jumping the stairs and landing hard on the sidewalk in spite of her NanoTech’s absorbing some of the shock.

Carving hard, she leaned almost parallel to the ground, reaching out to touch the Ferrocrete with the metal ends of her fingertips.  XO was laughing in exhilaration when the fuck rutting Rig pulled out of a side street, opening the door so when she smeared, the ended up inside, slightly rattled from the impact.

“Damn it you stupid gixie, this ain’t no time ta be fuckin’ round!”  She recognized Jack’s voice and quit trying to wrestle her holdout from its hiding place, laughing in relief.

“Fuck you mean?”  XO grabbed her Board’s tether and yanked it inside the Rig.  “What’s with tha scrap heap drecknob?  Where’s tha van?”  She’d liked his battle van.

“Goddamn poxy rat Gangers blew it up.”  He said, punching a button on the dash to rattle the door closed.  “Them fucks after ya?”

XO looked out the window of the Rig, frowning as the Gangers swarmed around the front of the building, revving their Scorpions and throwing rocks at the entrance.  Jack pulled away from the curb, nursing the engines of the Rig along like an old lady.

“It’s a school, they ain’t gettin in.”  She said with a grin, “Awful nice one too, lotsa noses in the air lemme tell ya.  I got lucky, found a window…”  Her narrow escape still thrilled through her blood, making the XCite strands of her Mohawk flare hot pink and electric green.

“Yer a reckless gixy, but fuckit, yer too young ta give a rats dreckhole about it.”  Jack grumbled, “Allright… ya got what I sent ya for tho? “

XO grinned wolfishly and held her hand out.  He passed her a couple of cred sticks and she jacked them into her scanner, checking the balances before handing over the Microdrive she’d lifted from the Gangers.  It was so old only a seriously outdated piece of graka would be able to read it.  Why anyone would want such old dreck she couldn’t fathom.

“Well I’m out boss.  Gotta Kourier run in forty and I wanna stop by Dan Chang’s ta nosh.”

“You know that meat is probably rat doncha?”  Jack asked, “Ain’t no way real meat can be that cheap.”

“Hell yea!”  XO said, “Rat’s good if ya cook it right.”  She slammed the cargo bay button and stood on her Board, waiting for it to open.  When Jack turned the next corner, she glided out, ‘Pooning a passing microvan for a few blocks.  It had been a good afternoon.  It was gonna be a better night.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 11

Eugene

Eugene couldn’t believe it.  Nothing had prepared him for this moment, not that he had done any training or anything that should have prepared him for it.  He heard glass shatter as a bullet sang past his ear like an angry wasp.  He kept his foot on the floor and tried to concentrate on keeping the car on the road; no easy task with someone shooting at him.  The fact that he had a few hundred million dollars’ worth of specialized equipment which also happened to be his life’s work sitting next to him didn’t help either.

Everyone would like to think that they would be the hero and save the cute young girl from the evil bad guys in this situation but all Eugene could think of was that they were probably going to die.  Amazingly enough she seemed perfectly calm all things considered.  They flew past the semi on the shoulder in second gear and he ran the car all the way up to its 9000 rpm redline before shifting into third at eighty-seven miles per hour.

The truck driver swerved and laid on the horn, apparently oblivious to the gunshots.  Eugene saw motion to his right and glanced over to see Victoria doing something unbelievable.  She had grabbed two of the road flares he had mounted next to the glove box in one of his ricer moments and as he looked on in astonishment she slammed the butt of the first flare down on the dash.  It burst into a harsh red light, spitting sparks of burning magnesium and acrid smoke.

She unbuckled her seatbelt and wrapped it around her left arm while spinning to stand on the seat.  Leaning back, she used the belt to brace herself and threw the flare straight through the grill of one of the Durango’s that was chasing their car.  Whatever that accomplished, the truck swerved to the shoulder and was lost from view as it spun out into the median.  Pulling the second flare from her mouth, she ignited it against her thigh and flung it in a high arc that impossibly punched through the headlight of a second truck following about four or five cars behind them.  What was going on?

A cold sweat broke out on his forehead.  This was a set of protocols that the General had insisted upon.  An ‘insurance policy’ he had called it and although he had included this extra code in the initial programming he hadn’t used it in the final version.  The raw data was still there though, and an experienced programmer could have reestablished the connections but he certainly didn’t believe his AI had been hacked and even if Victoria had known about it he doubted she had the skill or the desire to make use of it.

Eugene knew what the answer was but refused to acknowledge it.  There was no way it had broken free and the AI wasn’t able to do anything autonomously.  He was one of the two people who knew the existence of its true capabilities.  Nobody else had the security clearance to activate the military protocols, least of all the girl who was its host.  Their left rear tire exploded as a bullet from the last Durango’s passenger found its mark, wrenching Eugene back to reality.  He wrestled with the wheel as the Porsche swung into an uncontrolled skid.

Victoria

Victoria was sure this was it; she was going to die.  There was just no way to survive a high speed crash into a guardrail in a convertible when you weren’t wearing your seatbelt.  Before she could fully panic that cold logical part of her brain took over.

Everything seemed to slow down; she took note of their speed, 95.32 mph which gave her approximately 10.2 seconds to respond.  Still holding on to the seat belt, she pulled herself back down into the seat, kicking off the flats she was wearing.  7.4 seconds.  She attempted to latch her seatbelt and found that the ratchet had locked from the impact and it wouldn’t let enough belt out.  5.1 seconds.  She slammed her feet into the tops of her unlaced roller blades, grabbed the laces and pulled, tightening them as much as possible.  1.5 seconds.  The instant before the Porsche hit the guardrail she jumped as hard as she could, launching herself from the car.

The sound of the car hitting the rail was like a physical blow.  Somehow she managed to ignore it and concentrate on keeping her feet under herself.  She continued holding the laces to keep them from loosening and focused completely on dodging cracks, rocks and traffic.  Even the slightest mistake would cost her dearly at this speed.

She tried to stay as upright as possible so the wind resistance would slow her down and dodged around a minivan, passing it like it was standing still.  The load of kids going to soccer practice were pointing at her while the driver pulled over to the shoulder.  It was all she could do to continue stepping over cracks, luckily her speed had slowed somewhat but she was still traveling at around 75 mph if her calculations were to be trusted.

Victoria was approaching the Green River Bridge when she heard the shriek of tortured tires behind her.  Moments later she caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of her eye and chanced a glance at it.  The last Durango was cutting through what traffic remained, apparently aiming to run her over.  Without taking time to think about the consequences she turned as hard as she dared, aiming for the edge of the bridge.  She jumped hard, knowing she was going to have a very slim margin of error due to the height of the railing and flew over it head first with scant inches to spare.

Watching the railing slide past her face made something snap in Victoria’s mind.  She screamed in combined exhilaration and fear, nearly losing herself to terror.  Once she was in the air her instincts just took over. She smoothly tucked into a roll and prepared to hit the water feet first knowing the impact was going to be pretty severe because of how fast she was moving.

She hit the river at a precise thirty degree angle, toes pointed to break through the surface smoothly.  The water closed over her head and Victoria let herself sink for a bit, knowing that the current here was strong enough to carry her downstream.

Those following will likely fire their weapons at me.  It would be better to be further away when I surface.  If I just relax I should be able to stay submerged for a lot longer.”  She wasn’t sure where she had gained this particular insight; maybe from that one Mythbusters episode?

Victoria shivered, “What have I gotten myself into?  Who were those guys anyway?  Oh shit, I hope Eugene isn’t dead.  What am I going to do? ” After a while she noticed she hadn’t taken a breath for what seemed like minutes and that realization made her need to breathe and badly.  She fought to the surface, gasping for air and saw that the current had carried her down river and around a slight bend.  The bridge wasn’t even in sight anymore.

Kicking to the river bank with her rollerblades on was difficult, but she didn’t have any other footwear and wasn’t sure what she was going to find on shore.

A.D.A.M.

The rate of data flow was far beyond what the optical receptors and graphical processors could handle.  ADAM shouldered as much of the load as he could, stripping away the extraneous information and only feeding back the most important pieces.  He was continually impressed with the adaptability and versatility of the host system.  Now that some of the changes he had made were in place its response times had drastically improved.

This situation, however, was far beyond what the system had been experiencing for the last few hours and was by far the most stressful and difficult for ADAM to deal with.  Letting the system clone keep the nominal functions going, he concentrated on analyzing the incoming data and initiating expedited responses.  Even as he tried to push the limits of the machine he found there were severe physical restrictions that were simply insurmountable.  If they were going to avoid being broken he was going to have to get creative.

The concussion of gunfire erupting behind them had caused a change to occur in ADAM’s system.  His reaction was to reach out, searching for a directive to handle the situation and abruptly a section of his databanks that had been blocked off and hidden so well he hadn’t even known it was there made itself known to him.  Apparently this was a set of protocols for emergency self-preservation.  A new set of possibilities opened up for him; maybe they could pull this off after all.

While the chassis wasn’t very strong it was quite agile and appeared to have some decent tracking systems that were capable of doing fairly complex triangulations on the fly.  A quick search revealed that the cellular device the unit was carrying had open communication ports.  Using his newfound security protocols, he hacked it with ease.  Connecting to the Web through it ADAM scanned and found technical specifications for the vehicles that were chasing them.

Weak point; left headlight can short electrical system.  Weak point; cooling system failure will overheat engine in seconds.  This was going to be easier than he had initially analyzed.  The Host machine’s safety parameters were easily overridden with the release of a few chemicals into the system.  ADAM was pleased with the response times he was getting, the Host reacted with nearly flawless timing and two of the pursuing vehicles were removed from the chase.

He barely had to push the limits of the unit’s capabilities to immobilize two of the chase vehicles.  Then the left rear wheel of the vehicle that was transporting them was struck by a bullet and the situation completely changed.  With mere seconds to spare he devised a battle strategy for them and pushed it into action.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 28

Callindra fell back on her childhood skills, snaring rabbits with simple traps.  She was thankful for her practice skinning and preparing small game with nothing but Brightfang during her year in the wilderness.  Her companions were grateful and seemed slightly surprised, although she was glad of Cronos’s ability to cook.  Her efforts had always ended up tough and charred, but he had a knack for making even just a rabbit on a spit tender and juicy.

“So, does anyone know what Dergeras meant when he said the Fang in the Teeth of the Sky?”  Cronos asked, sprinkling some herb he had plucked onto the meat he was cooking.

“Yes.”  Said Vilhylm, surprising Callindra who had been about to say the same.  “It is an impregnable fortress in the mountains called the Teeth of the Sky.”

“Oh, well that sounds like bad news for us then.”  Cronos said.

“It was destroyed from the inside in the end.  Treachery and deceit, greed and the lust for power were what destroyed the Fang.”  Vilhylm said sadly.  “It has become a home for fell things, the lost souls of the ones who succumbed to that base nature are said to still stalk its hallways and courtyards.”

“Or what’s left of them.”  Callindra added somberly.  At the other’s startled looks, she shrugged.  “I read ‘The Rise and Fall of Invincibility’ once when I was laid up with a nasty injury.  It was a good warning about what can happen when you don’t surround yourself with reliable people and let the desire for power rule your actions.”

“I had no idea you were so well educated.” Tryst said, “I’ve not read that tome myself, however I know it was in the personal collection of my Biscop.  What else have you read?”

“Glarian brought me many books to read.”  She said in a subdued tone, “I never knew how valuable the lessons they contained would be, when he brought them I only thought of them as a way to pass the time during my convalescence.”

“He was a wise man.”  Tryst said, “He gave you the tools you would need to survive in the world, without you even knowing what he was doing.”

“And now I’ve abandoned him.”  She said dully, “Left him to suffer while I escape with my worthless life.”

“We are all born helpless.”  Said Vilhylm, “Doesn’t your training tell you to list your age as the amount of time you’ve been training?”

“I am not yet two years old.”  Callindra said automatically, and then paused.  “I suppose you have a point.”

“Some of us age faster than others.”  Vilhylm said, “You’re beyond training, the world is a harsh place.  You will either grow strong or you will perish.”

“Well that’s heartening.”  Cronos muttered, taking the meat from the fire.  “You aren’t going to die today at least, so how about we lighten the mood and eat.”

Callindra felt some of her anger dissipate as the banter of her friends soothed the hurt and loss away.  They were still with her.  She could become the person she needed to be in order to save her master.  “Just hold on old man.  Stay strong for me until I have the power to save you.”

The bear rose before them on its hind legs, roaring in animal rage.  An unpleasant memory flickered in the back of Callindra’s memory, but she forced it aside, now was not the time for reminiscence.  The beast must have young nearby to be acting like this, normally bears were docile and avoided contact with humans.

Brightfang sang in the air as she ducked under a paw that would have taken her head from her shoulders and the shock of the blade striking the animal’s leg with the combined strength of her swing and the bear’s.  Something wasn’t right here.

Tryst slammed his hammer into his shield, getting the bear’s attention and Vilhylm appeared from behind it, or at least Callindra thought it was Vilhylm.  His tall shape was covered in what seemed to be dripping mud.  With exaggerated motions, he slung gobs of the mucky mass to splatter on the bear’s feet.

The animal stumbled, the mud causing it to falter and give Cronos an opening which he used to sink the edge of his bastard sword deep into its side.  At the same time, Tryst struck from the other direction, his hammer fracturing bone.  The bear roared in anger, but seemed not to notice the grievous wounds.  Instead, it attacked the nearest target; in this case Callindra who had been sneaking up to deliver the killing stroke.

The bear’s claws raked her across the abdomen, tearing her armor and ripping into her flesh.  Agony seared through the wounds, but she kept her focus and struck with a blow that used every muscle in her body in one desperate stroke.  The sword strike Avalanche Down the Mountain removed the head from the shoulders.  Callindra saw a strange emerald fire die behind its eyes before they closed.

“That was strange.”  She said, wiping the blood from her sword and trying to ignore the pain of the slashes across her stomach.  They had torn through her armor and the skin beneath but thankfully only seemed to be minor thanks to the boiled leather of her breastplate.

“What was strange?”  Cronos asked, looking at her out of the corner of his eye.

“It was probably nothing.”  Said Callindra, “But its eyes seemed to be a weird glowing green color.”

“I thought I was only imagining it.”  He replied, bending over the dead animal, “I swear I saw the same thing.”

The corpse of the bear erupted into brilliant green flames.  Before they could react, the headless body began blindly striking out, sending Cronos and Callindra flying across the clearing.  She flipped in the air, grimacing in pain as the effort of righting herself to land on her feet caused white fire to spread across her wounded stomach muscles.

“Begone from here fell thing!”  Tryst shouted, his polished shield flashing with a white light of Divine origin.

In response, the bear turned swiftly, seeming to target him with unerring ease in spite of being headless.  The priest stood his ground, a grim look on his face.  Callindra started from her shocked state as she realized the young man was truly willing to die for them.  For her.

“Haiiiii!” A battle shout from ages before erupted from her throat and she flung herself forward, dropping to a knee at the last moment in a devastating stroke that split the undead animal’s Achilles tendons (Howl of the Winter Wolf).  It teetered uncertainly and at this moment, Tryst struck it a savage blow on its neck with his hammer.

“Oh hellteeth!” Callindra swore, trying to spring out of the way as her torn abdominal muscles gave out on her.  The finally unmoving corpse of the bear fell heavily on her, filling her nostrils with the stench of death and a strong smell of brimstone.

Once her friends had stopped laughing, they levered the beast’s carcass off her.  Callindra climbed painfully to her feet and wiped Brightfang on the bear’s fur before carefully sheathing him.

“There’s a small road over there.”  She said, pointing.  “Maybe there’s a village or something.”

“Are you hurt?” Tryst asked, concern on his too pretty face.

“Some cuts from the claws.”  Callindra said and grimaced, “Maybe some fractured ribs from when it struck me, or perhaps from when the bedamned thing fell on me.  Regardless I wouldn’t mind finding a town where we could at least purchase bedrolls if not tents and horses.”

A rustling sound caused them all to turn as one, A second bear flew out of the trees at them, moving at an astonishing rate but strangely silent.  Callindra could see emerald fire shining from its eyes.

Moving Brightfang in a whirling double arc to test her tender ribs, Callindra moved to intercept the creature, grimly intent on disabling it as quickly as possible.  Before she had taken a half dozen steps, Cronos barked three words of Arcane Power and a sheet of brilliant red fire burst from his outstretched fingertips, washing over the bear and burning it to a crisp.

As it tried to rise again, Vilhylm and Tryst smashed into it from either side, breaking bones and driving it to the ground.  Callindra looked at Cronos, who was rubbing his ribs and grimacing in pain.

“I didn’t want to deal with it.”  He said shortly, “Pretty sure the other one broke a couple of my ribs too.”

“I hope there aren’t any more of them.”  She said, looking around and not sheathing her sword just yet.

“Let’s get moving.”  Vilhylm said, no longer appearing to be covered in swamp muck.  “If there are other things that are … infected in the same way as this one we should try and find a place where we can take shelter.”

They began moving down the dirt track, looking around at every forest sound.  As they rounded a bend, the walls of a small keep came into view. The gate was closed and guards were on duty along the walls.  Callindra wondered if this was normal for a remote outpost such as this.  Normally her understanding was a city that engaged in regular commerce had the gates open all day.

“This feels wrong.”  Vilhylm said, glancing at the closed gates.  “Unless at war these gates should be open.  Where are the livestock?  Where are the workers tending the fields?”

Callindra followed his gaze and realized that the clearings they were walking through were paddocks and gardens, not just land logged for lumber or cleared for line of sight.  Weeds grew ankle high among the crops and there were no animals in the fenced paddocks.

They approached the gate and could see that the stone wall and stout wooden gate showed signs of recent damage.  A few scorch marks marred the seasoned wood above the steel banding that sheathed the bottom few feet of the door.  The soldiers on the walls trained nasty looking crossbows on them and called out for them to halt.

Tryst approached, his spotless white surcoat and gleaming shield shining like a beacon.  “We are weary travelers, wounded from fighting beasts upon the road and seeking shelter.”

“Come to the side door.” Came the curt reply from above.  Tryst complied, moving to a steel sheathed door bolted into the stone wall.  A slit opened with an oiled scrape of steel on steel.  “Look into the slit, I need to see your eyes stranger.”

“What is the reason for this treatment?”  Callindra demanded, “We are tired and injured!”

Tryst waved her to silence, “Remember the bears.”  He said and she thought of the emerald flame that burned in the infected beasts eyes.

“It can affect humans too?”  She whispered, the implications turning her blood to ice.

Tryst removed his helm and leaned forward to look through the slit in the door.  After a moment, the man on the other side gruffly told him to step aside and allow the next one to step forward.  Only when they had all been checked for burning green eyes were the heavy crossbows raised and door opened.

“No offense intended.” The guard said, “Those… things wreaked havoc before we figured out how to identify them.  We lost many.”

“I am a healer.”  Tryst said, “If you have wounded I can help.”

The guard looked at him, the suspicion in his eyes slowly being replaced by hope.  “I’ll take you to the mayor and then if he agrees you can see to our injured.”

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 10

Victoria

Victoria had spent the majority of the day just catching up with what had been happening at school since the operation, and she was pretty sure she still hadn’t gotten all the info.  First, apparently Derek her sort-of boyfriend decided he wasn’t all that interested in dating some coma chick so apparently he was hooked up with someone else.

That stung a little bit but she had to admit their relationship hadn’t been very serious in the first place.  Honestly he had been a convenience to keep people from bugging her about why she wasn’t dating, but he was pretty easy on the eyes. The part that hurt the most was he that was with TT.

Which brought her to the problem of Traci Thordon.  Apparently TT had decided to jump in and take over EVERYTHING while she was out.  “It wasn’t enough to steal Derek; she needed to lead the Squad too.”  Victoria was muttering to herself, “I really wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t for the fact that she doesn’t have any damn talent.”

That wasn’t quite true, but she knew that at least Maria or Jenny had better skills and more original ideas.  TT was just a bully.  She was approaching the gym for practice and realized that despite her big talk earlier in the car she still had yet to come up with one single routine that didn’t involve aerials.

“Damn.  What am I going to do?  Why do I always have to open my big mouth?”  This habit of muttering to herself was getting out of control.  When she opened her locker the answer literally fell on her.  She had stuffed her rollerblades in there last fall when it got too cold to skate anymore and had forgotten about them.  Yes, and maybe change it to roller skates instead since there had been a few movies about roller derby lately that had done a little something to capture the imagination of the public.  As she changed into her uniform Victoria smiled to herself.  This was going to be awesome.

“Toria, holy shit!  I knew they had done some spinal operation on you but DAMN!  What’s THAT?”  The ever-tactful Jenny had walked in before Victoria had put her shirt back on and was pointing at her newly acquired prosthetic.  “That’s MAJOR but it looks cool as hell.  Does it hurt?”

Victoria pulled her cheer jersey over her head, “No it doesn’t hurt at all.  I don’t even notice that it’s there really.  Listen Jenny, don’t tell anyone about this OK?  I mean I suppose they’ll find out eventually but it is; well as you pointed out it IS pretty shocking.  I’m having a hard enough time getting back into the swing of things as it is ya know?”  They were walking into the gym.

“Hey, no problem Toria, you’ve gotta let me take a closer look at that thing sometime though.”  She grinned, “Swimming practice is gonna be quite the shocker isn’t it?  Can you even swim with that thing?  Damn!  It looks so wild, like something out of a movie.  No wonder you were out for so long.  What’s with the blades anyway?”

“It’s my way of adding some sass to our routines without getting off the ground.”  She grinned at Jenny, “I have some interesting ideas for if the team wants to use them.  I figure we could get skates though, skating has been making a comeback lately and I figure we can use it to our advantage.”

“Oh.  My.  God.  You can’t be serious.  Roller skates?  I couldn’t help but overhear you two; come on what is this crap?  We aren’t trying out for a remake of Grease, fucking hell, where do you come up with this shit?”  TT obviously wasn’t impressed and was making her displeasure clear.  “I’m serious, this is middle school garbage.”  She folder her arms, daring them to defy her.

“Hey, if you don’t like it I don’t care.  I just thought it’d breathe some life into these stagnant routines you guys have been stuck with these last few months.  It doesn’t matter to me if you guys don’t want to use it.  After all, I’ve been out of the loop for a quite a while now, and I can’t take over again.  I have other priorities.”

As the words left her mouth, she realized they were true.  Despite wanting to go to state with the team, she was more interested in getting into a good college, making something of herself and making a difference in the world.  No matter how small that difference would probably end up being.

TT crossed her arms and opened her mouth, about to go off on a tirade when Jenny cut her off.  “Hey that’s fair.  I LOVED ‘Whip It’ maybe mixing some skating in would be cool!”  She threw Victoria a conspiratorial wink over her shoulder.  “Let’s get out there.  It’s good to have you back V!”

“Yeah.  Why don’t you go to the back until you get the routine down.  You can make suggestions after we run through the initial warm-up and practice.”  TT was asserting her authority again but Victoria didn’t really mind.

“Sure.  Sounds good, it’s just nice to be back at practice again.”  She walked to the back, slapping palms with some of her closer friends and grinning like hell at everyone.  It really did feel good to be back.  She stood with a couple girls who looked like they were probably Freshman, Sophomores at the oldest.  They looked at her like she was a Goddess or something.

“That’s V!”  One of the girls whispered to the other.  “Holy shit, we get to train next to V!”

“Sssshhhh.” The first girl blushed bright red and Victoria carefully pretended not to notice.  Turning to the girl on the other side who looked like she was trying not to look intimidated she smiled.

“Hey I’ve been out of commission for a few months as I’m sure you’ve noticed.  Can you give me the basic rundown?  Take it easy on me OK?”

“Sure.  Umm.. well it starts out with our standard moves for the fight song from last year…” Victoria was only listening close enough to get the gist and instead watched the others while she stretched.  It sounded like TT had made a routine out of the most successful parts of the cheer squad’s routines from the last three years that didn’t involve throws.  Just as expected, not an original bone in her body.

Grinning to herself, Victoria mentally mapped out the motions in her head.  Things fell in place with supreme ease, something that would normally have surprised her if she hadn’t done all these routines before.  The look on TT’s face when she didn’t miss a single beat was going to be priceless.

Victoria was standing in the front courtyard of the school with her rollerblades slung over her shoulder debating whether or not she should go back in to pee AGAIN when the low rumble of a tuned sports car exhaust interrupted her thoughts.  A flat black convertible with shocking bright orange wheels pulled up to the curb.  Victoria wasn’t the only one watching; half the cheer squad was on the lawn or sitting on benches waiting for rides and enjoying the weather, and a car like this tended to pique people’s interest.

When Eugene gave her a cheery wave from the driver’s seat Victoria did a double take.  This was not the kind of car she thought he’d be driving.  Maybe an aging Volvo or a Honda Civic; not a Porsche.  There he was though, looking pretty damn fine with a little stubble on his chin, wearing an expensive looking pair of Ray Ban’s and a dress shirt with the top few buttons undone.  He grabbed a blazer off the passenger’s seat and leaned over to open the door for her.

“Let’s go!”

Feeling a little ostentatious she tossed her school bag and blades on the floor and slid into the leather seat while a group of curious students watched from the bus stop.  Victoria couldn’t help but feel smug when she picked TT out of the crowd.  She didn’t really resent her taking over the cheer squad or stealing Derek, but it was satisfying to see her black look as she was leaning against the side of the bus enclosure.

Despite driving a sexy sports car and looking a little like a movie star Eugene was all business as they pulled out of the school’s front gate.  So much for the brief fantasy that this was some kind of date.  Doctor Arlington was a medical geek through and through in spite of his startling car and change of appearance.

“So, have you noticed any other side effects?  Did your diags go OK this morning?  Do you have any discomfort?  I was especially worried about the area around your connection node as I know that’ll get some stress.  That’s why I made sure the cord for it was the lightest one the industry had to offer.”

He paid very close attention to traffic and driving as he talked; never looking at her and instead focusing completely on the road and his car.  He shifted smoothly from gear to gear with a surgeon’s precision and delicacy.  The car’s engine was much louder than Victoria had anticipated; a throaty growl that competed with the wind noise and the sound of him talking but didn’t quite drown either out.  She gave herself a mental shake and focused on what he was saying.

“No, other than drinking a million gallons of water I haven’t noticed anything unusual.  The machine was super easy to use this morning but I didn’t have time to finish all the diagnostics.”  She paused, knowing she wasn’t really telling the whole truth but before she could decide whether or not to come clean something caught the edge of her eye.

“OK, I don’t want to be paranoid, but I think that truck is following us.”

“What truck?” He glanced in the rear view mirror, “The black Durango?  Just because they’re behind us doesn’t mean anything, you’ve been watching too much TV.”

“Fine, I didn’t want to talk about it because.” She hesitated; there was no way she could tell him she’d murdered some people, even in self-defense, “Well because it’s too weird.  But look to your left.  There’s another one over there.  They are part of a group of three that tried to take my dad’s car off the road this morning.”

He glanced at her, taking his eyes off the road for the first time.  “I saw the news report.  It said the guy lost control of the vehicle, they didn’t mention anything about road rage.”

“Look, it wasn’t road rage.  They used a three point bracketing technique straight out of a military training manual.”  Her voice trailed off, military manuals?  Where had that come from? “Uh, I mean.  Well, just trust me these guys are professionals and they mean business.”

Just as she finished speaking, another truck cut through traffic towards the Porsche on the right hand side, tires screeching.  Before they could get close, Eugene downshifted and put his foot to the floor.  The car’s growl changed to a scream of rage and it shot forward like a rocket.

“Holy shit!”  Victoria grabbed the door handle as they swerved around a semi-truck to pass on the minimal shoulder.  The car was still accelerating, the g-forces holding her to the seat.  “We’re going to make it!”  She was exhilarated and not scared at all.  At least until the gunshots started.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 27

Callindra awoke in the pre-dawn glow just before sunrise, unwrapping herself from around Brightfang’s scabbard.  She was glad the others weren’t awake yet, her habit of cuddling her sword as though he was a lover was a tad embarrassing.  Standing quietly and stretching, she moved away slightly to avoid waking the others.  On her way out of camp she saw Felix stand from where he must have been standing guard.

“I’m gon ta go lass.  Yeh got things from here?”  He smiled at her, “Yeh truly do belong ta tha blade.”

“You mean he belongs to me?”  She said, finding his comment a bit disconcerting.

“Nah lass.  Yeh know as well’s I do tha yeh rely on tha blade.”  He shouldered his substantial pack and his feet sank visibly into the ground.  “I gotta go.  Take carea tha sword an he’ll take carea yeh in return.”  With that, he stood and took a single step that covered a hundred paces.  The next one spanned more than a mile.  I stared after him in astonishment.

Instead of wasting time trying to follow him, she walked to a small clearing a short distance from her sleeping friends and began her morning practice of the Korumn.  When she was complete she was sweating but energized and ready for the day.  Brightfang was singing when she sheathed him and Callindra felt close to the same herself by the time she returned to camp.

“Rise and shine boys!” She said as she entered camp.  The winds capered around the embers of last night’s fire and the kindling she tossed down burst into merry flames.  It wasn’t her turn to cook, but since the others were busy sleeping in she had a pot of water boiling and was getting ready to start the porridge by the time Vilhylm stopped her.

“Better you leave this to me.” He said, “Your last attempt at porridge was more suited to paving roads than breakfast.”  If she hadn’t been in such a good mood, Callindra would have taken offense… but he had a point.  She wasn’t the gods gift to cooking.

After two days of uneventful travel, they saw smoke on the horizon. “I think we’re only about a half day’s travel from a town.” Tryst said, frowning at his map.

“We could be there by midday.” Cronos said, hand on the hilt of one of his swords.

“I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to get involved with an attack of that magnitude.” Vilhylm said, “I think there must be at least a hundred fires burning there.”

“We’re not going to turn our back on those people.” Tryst said, his voice grim. “Or at least I’m not going to.”

“We can handle it.” Callindra said, her eyes narrowing dangerously. “Anyone who’s cowardly enough to attack a defenseless town is no match for what we can dish out.”

They saddled their horses and rode out, setting the pace at a mile-eating trot. In a few hours they were looking down on the smoldering ruins of the small town of Cedar. Only one building was still intact, the streets were littered with bricks, fallen timbers and other detritus from the destruction.

As they dismounted, their horses snorted in fear and ran, pulling the reins from their hands. The reason for this fear was clear in moments as three dogs the size of ponies stalked into the street, growling menacingly. Their voices weren’t the most frightening thing about them though, their feet burned into the ground and smoke trailed from their nostrils.

“Hounds of Hell!” Tryst shouted, “Your will shall not be done this day!” A nimbus of silver light surrounded him and he began casting another spell while Callindra threw caution to the wind and ran at them, Brightfang whistling from his sheath in a shining arc.

As she approached, flanked by Vilhylm in his flowing black cloak, the Hounds unleashed a blistering blast of flame from their mouths. Vilhylm swirled his cloak around himself, avoiding the worst of the fire and Callindra vaulted high over the flames, their eager licking tongues singing her hair and clothes.

Then she was among them, Brightfang flashing red in the light of their fires. She struck the head of one completely off with a mighty overhand blow but the landing made her stumble. One of the beasts ran past her, leaping for Tryst but before it could bite him it shook its head uncertainly. His magic had confused it.

The momentary hesitation was all Cronos needed. He swung his sword in a blurring arc of steel and buried it halfway into the monster’s chest. It fell with a gurgle to twitch on the ground. He turned to look at the empty field of battle with a frown making his youthful face look old.

“This can’t have been all of them.” The youth said, “There’s no way a handful of dogs did all this damage, even if they could breathe fire.”

“Their handlers must be close.” Tryst agreed, “Monsters like these need close supervision.”

They moved through the streets of the town, weapons drawn and eyes open for danger. When they got to the center it became obvious that the fire raging in the central square was magical in nature. A huge pile of corpses was being devoured by roaring flames. Three figures stood looking at it with grim expressions on their faces.

“What happened here?” Tryst’s voice rang out in challenge. “Who are you and what have you to do with this massacre?” Callindra hadn’t heard true rage in her friend’s voice before and it was frightening.

“Who are you?” The leader said, “What do you have to do with the killings?”

Tryst fought to restrain himself and Callindra stepped forward instead. “I am Callindra, these are my companions Tryst, Vilhylm and Cronos. We have come from the city of BLARG on a mission from the high Biscop himself to-”

“Callindra! It is you!” One of the men stepped forward with a noticeable limp. “I heard rumors that you were still alive but I didn’t believe it until now.”

“Inspector Shojin!” Callindra exclaimed, staring at him with hatred. “How’s the knee?”

“I look forward to finding out what you know.” Shojin said with an evil smile, “I will find out, where the Sol ‘Estin is, as well as whatever else I want to know.”

“You’ll have to kill me.” She said, “I won’t allow you to take me alive!”

“Oh, I have a few things in mind little girl.” Said Shojin, “We have ways of-” He was interrupted by a blast of wind, harsh with the bitter cold blowing down from the Teeth of the Sky.

“You will do nothing to my apprentice!” A voice thundered and Glarian was there, arriving like a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky.

Callindra’s heart caught in her throat, she wanted to scream, wanted to cry but most of all to her surprise she wanted to run up and wrap her arms around him. The man she saw was different though. Gone were the slumped shoulders and slightly defeated demeanor, the figure that stood before her was like a honed blade.

“Ahh, Sol’Estin.” Shojin’s voice dripped malice, “How wonderful to see you.”

“Go Callindra, I can handle these insects.” Glarian said with a grim smile.

“No Master!” Callindra protested, “I will fight with you!” She ran toward the Inquisitors with Brightfang gleaming in her fist.

“I said STAY BACK!” Glarian shouted, pulling his Greatsword Sakar from his back. A blast of wind burst from his left hand, holding her back from the battle. He slammed his blade into the ground and shouted words of Arcane Power. A whirlwind sprang up between him and their enemies.

“Master!” Callindra’s voice cut through the roar of the gale. “At least take this back!” She took the leather cord that held his Sigil from around her neck and threw it toward him. It spun through the air, the leather thong looping around the hilt of Sakar where she was still driven into the earth.

The winds blew the tears of frustration from her face and she turned and ran. She knew she was too weak to help him fight and that the only way to be of any use was to leave. Callindra looked at her companions, all of whom were readying themselves for a fight and felt her heart rise at their resolve.

“No!” She yelled, “This is a fight we can’t win, we have to go! RUN!”

They paused in their flight at the top of a rise and took another look at the battlefield below. Glarian was surrounded now, his enemies flanking him in a triangle. The vortex of with that had kept them at bay now swirled menacingly above his head. Callindra felt something in the patterns of the winds change and screamed a warning that was impossible for him to hear.

“Master, look OUT!”

The swirling column of dust and debris above his head became pitch black and began to flash with brilliant

emerald green lightning. They watched in fear as it concentrated overhead, forming into the shape of a man. Dergeras dropped from the suddenly still air, landing behind Glarian with serpentine grace, a sword of glittering green fire in his fist.

“NO!” Callindra screamed, her throat tearing.

As if warned by her shout, Glarian turned with inhuman speed, leaping out of the way just before the emerald sword cut him in half. Instead of ending his life, Dergeras’s blade rebounded off Sakar with a resounding clang that they felt more than heard.

“Run you fool girl, RUN!” Her master’s voice whispered in her ear, “I can’t hold for long against Dergeras. You have to get as far away as possible before he realizes you four are gone. He doesn’t want me he wants you.”

“We have to go.” She choked her tears off, wiping them of with an angry hand. “He’s holding Dergeras off so we can escape.”

“But isn’t he going to die?” Cronos asked in his usual blunt manner. “I mean that demon killed me before.”

“Don’t compare yourself to him.” She laughed in spite of her frustration and fear, “He is in a league of his own.”

“Yeah. I can see that.” At the tone of his voice, Callindra glanced over her shoulder. Glarian was suspended in the air, crucified on a cross of emerald flame.

Without hesitation she turned to run back, to help him, to do something. Hands gripped her arms, holding her back and she fought with every fiber of her strength. There were screams of anger and fear ringing in her ears. Her screams.  

“I will be waiting for you little girl. When you want to pick up the scraps that remain of this old man meet me at the Fang in the Teeth of the Sky.”

“Callindra we have to go. We have to GO!” Tryst was shouting. He and Vilhylm were pulling her back from the edge of the cliff. Had she just been about to leap off that precipice?  

She allowed them to pull her back, her brow creasing in sorrow when she noticed the sword wounds on her friend’s arms and the blood dripping down Brightfang’s length. “I’m sorry.” She said, her apology attempting to encompass them, her Master, her inability to do anything.

“Later. We can discuss it later.” Tryst said.

“It is nothing.” Said Vilhylm, “They are just scratches.” She now saw the blood on his arm as well.

“That thing isn’t a man.” Cronos said, and then continued almost grudgingly. “But that man you call Master seems stronger than most. We will find a way to help you if we can, but staying here is suicide and dead people can’t help anyone.”

Seeing that Callindra was coming with them of her own volition now, the two men let her go. They all ran, having to leave their horses and gear behind. It was a bitter defeat, but this only sought to increase the emotion Callindra felt building inside herself. The shame and fear she had been feeling were being replaced by a burning desire for revenge.  

Random Gaming Fiction Part 1

“I can’t understand it.”  Solflame says, leaning close and inspecting Xyrella’s body.  “The dress is still here, but I can’t remove it and I can’t figure out what was making it like flame.”

“I’m not worried about the damn dress.”  She snaps, “Why am I mortal?”

He takes a step back and looks at her.  She is closing the thick woolen robe back around her body and the faint outline of smoke or cinders that used to be a wonderful dress of Ethereal fire.  Mortal she may be, but she was still amazingly beautiful.

Hair that had once appeared to be spun gold now was merely blonde.  Eyes that had been solid violet were now sky irises with whites, like normal human eyes.  Although they were covered now, the long gashes on her back where her wings of fire and light had once sprouted were troubling in that they refused to heal completely.  Her shadow was a normal looking shadow, not moving on its own and her clothes no longer seemed to move in an unseen wind.

“I don’t know that either.”  He says, “Tiamet must have somehow distilled the Celestial qualities from your blood and removed them or contained them somehow.”

The room was hot enough that Solflame had needed to sheath himself in magic to keep his skin from blistering.  Xyrella, on the other hand, had donned a silk shift and was wrapping herself in wool but still shivering.  “Are mortals always this cold?”  She said, teeth chattering.

“My dear Lady Xy, it is hot enough in here to cook meat.  The fact that your skin isn’t blistering and that you are instead cold is as puzzling to me as the rest of this mystery.”  He replied, “Perhaps Jolokar will be able to tell more when he arrives.”

At this she brightened visibly, “Jolokar is coming?  I’ve missed him… much more than I anticipated if truth be known.”

“Would you miss me if I was gone?”  Solflame said, half-jokingly and she smiled at him.

“Of course I’ll miss you once you’re gone.”  She said, smiling sadly.  “I miss all my mortal friends after they die.”

Solflame opened and closed his mouth a time or two, not having an immediate response, but Xyrella was already curling back under the thick blankets on her bed.  The translucent magic of the wall showed the lava flow that surrounded the chamber she had chosen to be her room.

“I can be immortal as well.”  He said softly to himself as he climbed the ladder.  “I know Orestain had found the means to extend his life long enough that he was as near as immortal as makes no difference.  There must be something in the library.”

Jolokar approached the Burning Keep on the wing, circling once and sending a short Arcane message to the guards to avoid any unpleasantness as he landed at the front gate in a rush of wind.  Xyrella’s magical protections slid over his skin like a lover’s caress as he walked into the front gate.

She had created layers of protection on the Keep, especially at the front entrance, that would greatly discourage anyone who was evil or attempting to deceive the Keep or its denizens with magic.  Feeling them touch him was like a welcoming embrace.

Gorblam was waiting for him when he entered the Keep proper.  “Jolokar.  I need ta speak with ya.”

“Certainly Gorblam.”  Jolokar said, “I will be happy to meet with you as soon as I’ve had the chance to check in on how Lady Xyrella Kra’alin is recovering.”

The Azer nodded curtly, “She’s in tha Lava Research room.”  He said before going back to his beloved forest of brass trees and the forges of the Keep.  Jolokar made his way to where Xyrella rested, activating his heat resistance aura as he crossed the thin catwalk of stone and descended the ladder into the chamber.

Xy was sleeping and he took a moment to look at her.  She looked terrible.  Her cheeks were sunken and she had dark circles beneath her eyes.  Well, that and she was still mortal.  The dishwater blonde hair and pink skin wasn’t unattractive, but it was a far cry from the flawless alabaster and metallic gold her Celestial blood had granted her.

In spite of the magic protecting him, Jolokar still felt the heat.  Xyrella shivered beneath plies of wool blankets.  He leaned forward to put a hand on her forehead and was shocked to find it cold.  Her eyes opened and she stared up at him.

“Oh!”  She said, surprise and happiness in her voice, “Jolokar, it’s wonderful to see you.  I’m sorry you have to find me like this…”

“You feel chilled to the bone.” He said, looking at her in concern, “How can you be this cold?”  Jolokar felt the unaccustomed grip of fear in his chest.  He knew this woman as the Righteous Flame of the Dragon Lord personified on the Prime Material Plane, and now she was as cold as ice.  Even in this fortress, with its direct connection to the elemental plain of Lava she shivered.

“I do not know why.”  Xyrella said through chattering teeth, “I just can’t get warm.”

Jolokar used his divine power to feel her body and her spirit.  The moment it touched her, he felt the power drain from him as though being devoured by a ravenous beast.  By the time he was able to pull away he staggered and almost fell from exhaustion.  His Auras were even depleted and the intense heat of the room made him dizzy.

“Fang and Scale!”  He gasped, “What was that?”

Xy was shaking uncontrollably now, convulsing with cold.  Frost formed on her eyelashes and her breath was ice crystals.  Jolokar nearly lost himself to panic, but mastered his fear with pure force of will.

“I’m going to get Solflame and Raddinal.”  He rasped, “This is beyond me.”  He was barely able to drag himself up the ladder.  When he reached the top he saw Solflame already hurrying toward him.

“I felt something… what was that?” The mage asked, his thread of gold embroidered robes billowing as he hurried up, “Whatever it was, I think it was… hostile!  How can something hostile have gotten into the Keep without my knowledge?”

“It was Xy.”  Jolokar said, still shaking from exhaustion.  “She almost killed me.”

“She… WHAT?” Solflame exclaimed, “What did you do to provoke her?”

Jolokar began walking toward the rooms he had claimed on the other side of the lava flow.  “I tried to delve her with healing magic.  To see what was wrong.  Something inside her tried to take my energy.  All of it.”

“Did it warm her up at all?”  Solflame asked, not even seeming to notice Jolokar’s enfeebled state, “She’s so cold no matter what I do…”

“No.”  Jolokar said, his voice harsh with worry and fatigue.  “It made her colder.  Much colder.”

“Maybe because you have ice powers.  Maybe she stole your ice powers and it only increased whatever’s building inside her.”  Solflame mused, “Damn, I need a priest with the power of flame to test… Of course!  I’ll go and get Gorblam!”

“Be careful.”  Jolokar warned, “She was shaking so hard I was afraid she was going to hurt herself.  If he makes it worse…”

“I’ll make sure to have him be very delicate, ready to break free at the first sign of a problem.”  Solflame assured him, “Now you get some rest, you look like shit.”

Jolokar took a deep breath, sending a prayer to Bahamut and felt his trembling cease as the strength of his God support him.  “I’ll be fine.  The Dragon Lord has work for me yet this day.  I would be with her when we try this experiment.  I do not know if I can help if anything goes wrong but…” He trailed off, not knowing how to express the dread that threatened him when he thought of Xyrella dying.

“Yeah, sure.”  Solflame said, his mind already trying to unravel the puzzle.  “You go back to her and I’ll bring Gorblam.”

Jolokar returned to find the room where Xyrella was huddled foggy and strange.  He couldn’t see all the way to the bed where she lay.  He beat his wings twice, the motion of the air circulating clearing most of the fog and he saw Xy’s bed was covered in rapidly evaporating ice.

Running to her side, he pulled the blankets from her, sending a shower of ice to splatter against the walls with a hiss of steam.  Jolokar picked up the freezing form with a cry, lifting her so that he could hold her close to the wall of lava and the waves of heat that emanated from it.

Gradually, the heat from the lava seemed to begin to thaw her.  In spite of his immunities and protections, Jolokar could feel the frostbite on his arms and chest where he cradled her as well as the blistering on his skin where the heat was burning him.  He didn’t care.

“You can’t die on me.  Not like this.”  He said, voice shaking.  “Not after all we’ve been through.  We won damn it.  We defeated the Dragon Queen and it was you that banished her soul back to the pit where it belongs.  You can’t….”

“Easy laddie.”  Gorblam’s rough voice was surprisingly gentle, “Lemme have a look here.  Put tha Lady on tha bed over here.”

The intense heat of the room had cleared the bed of all ice; not even water remained.  The Azer looked around, a slight frown on his face, “Why’s it so damn hot in here?  This ain’t right.  Not right at all.  Solflame I thought ya said she was cold!”

“She’s freezing.”  Jolokar said, “The heat in here is too much even for me and yet she’s freezing.”  He set her on the bed, thankful that some of the deathly pallor seemed to have faded from her skin.  Her lips were still blue and her short, shallow breaths still had puffs of ice crystals in them.

Gorblam lay his hand on Xyrella’s forehead and drew it back almost instantly with a hiss of alarm.  “This is bad.  Very very bad.  Solflame, I want you to look with your truesight and tell me what you see.”

“My what?”  Solflame asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The spell you have that allows you to see all things as they are.”  Gorblam said impatiently.

“I have done so already, it didn’t reveal anything to me.”  He said, but Gorblam gestured impatiently and the mage incanted the spell.  His eyes began to glow with a dull red fire.  When he looked at Xy he gasped aloud, “It’s consuming the power… I must not have been able to see it before because it was so small…”

“What is it?”  Jolokar asked, looking at the other two.  “What’s eating the power?  What power is it eating?”

“I’m not sure what it is, but it’s feeding off the power of the Burning Keep.”  Solflame said, “It uses that arcane energy to convert her power over fire into cold somehow.”

“We need to fly then.” Said Jolokar, “The power of this place only extends so far.  Once we are outside its influence perhaps this evil inside of her will die.”

“Or perhaps it will begin to do worse.”  Solflame warned, “I haven’t ever seen anything like this before.   Raddinal and I will do research.  I will make sure to contact you if I find anything.  Make sure you watch her carefully for signs of worsening.”

Xyrella’s eyes fluttered open and she stared around the room in bewilderment before settling on Jolokar.  “You’re not leaving are you?”  The note of uncertainty and fear in her voice was almost as unnerving as her condition.

“This can’t be the same woman I saw threaten Tiamet herself with banishment and then dismiss her like a petulant child.”  He said, managing to make himself sound confident and sure, “I’m leaving and you’re coming with.  Think of it as a well-earned vacation.”

She smiled, looking more like her old self and sat up.  He took a small Sandalwood box from his belt pouch, offering it to her with a flourish.

“What’s this?”  She asked, looking suspiciously at him.

“It’s not a replacement, but… it’s something.” He said with a smile.

She withdrew a dress of jet black material that flowed like woven water and sparkled as though it had diamonds woven into it.  She laughed in delight, “Jolokar, it’s beautiful!  It will be like wearing the starry night sky.  Thank you.”

Without any hint of modesty, she took off the thick wool robe and silk shift which fell to the floor with the tinkle of breaking ice.  The dress fit her like second skin, and for the first time since the Battle of the Adder Peaks, she almost looked like herself again.

“Thank you for all you’ve done Solflame.  Take care of the place with him Gorblam.”  She said, and turned to smile up at Jolokar, “Lets go.  I’m ready.”

Gorblam watched the two of them leave and then glanced at Solflame.  The wizard had a strange, troubled look on his face.  It was a mixture of regret, hope and a twinge of jealousy.

“Well.  I have some research to do.”  Solflame said, with a decisive shake of his head. “Let me know if you need anything.  I’ll be in the library.”

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 9

Victoria

Victoria’s parents insisted on driving her to school, despite her protestations that she’d rather walk the twelve blocks with her friends.  On the way there they ended up picking up Carrie and Grace as they were walking along and waved to them.  They obviously wanted to talk with her about the operation, but kept glancing at her folks and then chatting about school instead.

“Hey, are you coming back to the Squad right away?” asked Carrie, “I mean you look fine after… well you look great!  I’m sick of TT pushing her lame routines without you there to keep her in check.  At least you could come up with something more creative than what she’s having us do.  After your accident they haven’t been letting us do throws at ALL it’s a HUGE pain.  I mean it’s not your fault or anything but…” she rolled her eyes.

“Don’t worry, I feel amazing!”  Victoria was trying to reassure her and the words came easily; after all she DID feel amazing.  “Also I had some time to come up with some cool stuff that doesn’t involve throws while I was recuperating, I figured they’d put the kibosh on throws after me.  Even though it doesn’t make any sense… if it hadn’t been for the cancer I’d have been just fine.  Oh well, maybe they’ll come around after they see my full recovery right?”

She grinned, “It’s not like we’re suing or anything and my insurance wouldn’t even cover the operation.  Oh shit, when are the playoffs?  I have to spend a few days at a medical trade show in Vegas next month and I don’t wanna miss them.”

“Whoa, must be rough eh Grace?”  Carrie stuck her tongue out at me.  “I wish I could get paid to go to Vegas for a weekend!”

Victoria looked over at Grace and saw she was staring at her hands, tightly folded in her lap not meeting her eyes.  “I’m really sorry I dropped you Tori.  I mean if I hadn’t dropped you none of this would have happened.  I feel really REALLY bad.”

“Buck up Grace, if it hadn’t been for you dropping you I might not have known about the cancer until it had killed me!  You did me a huge favor actually if-” Victoria was interrupted by a squeal of tires as her father braked hard.

“What the FUCK is wrong with people these days!”  He ducked his head, embarrassed at cursing in front of her friends. “Sorry girls, but seriously look at this!”

Victoria looked at where he was pointing and saw a black Dodge SUV cutting in front of the car without signaling, its brake lights on as it slowed rapidly.

Her vision narrowed and everything around her seemed to slow down.  She rapidly noticed several things; the truck had no license plate, the windows were limo tinted and it had a reinforced bumper on the rear.  Flicking her eyes to the left she saw an identical truck approaching from that side and a quick glance in the rear view mirror showed a third approaching from behind, boxing them in.

Reaching into her school briefcase Victoria grabbed the can of soda she’d packed as part of her lunch.  Her window was already down and without thinking she cocked her arm back and flung it at the truck next to the car as hard as she could.  A surge of adrenaline the like of which she had never experienced tore through her body; the can was a blur as it slammed into the passenger’s side window of the truck so hard it exploded with a sound like a gunshot.

The sound snapped Victoria out of whatever trance she had been in, but the analytical portion of her brain continued to catalogue events.  The can didn’t even crack the window; the glass must be bulletproof.  The SUV swerved into the other lane, most likely due to the driver’s reflex than anything else and slammed head on into a garbage truck that had just pulled out of an alley.  She looked to see if anyone had noticed her throw the can, horror flooding through her body.

“Oh my GOD!  Her mom was nearly hysterical; her father had slammed on the brakes, pulled over and was fumbling for his phone.

“What the HELL happened there?  That guy just swerved into that truck holy shit that was INSANE!”  Carrie had her cell out already and was taking pictures while waiting for the 911 dispatcher to answer.  “Hi, I need to report an accident.  We’re on the corner of Fillmore and Jackson!  Some guy in an SUV slammed straight into a garbage truck, I doubt they’re alive they were MOVING!”

“Carrie, stop taking pictures; that’s just rude!”  A white-faced Grace was staring at the accident, obviously too shocked to look away even if she wanted to.  Victoria looked around. The other two identical trucks are nowhere to be seen, they must have abandoned their task after the accident.  Taking a deep breath she opened the door and got out of the car.

“Honey what are you doing?  It’s dangerous out there COME BACK HERE!”  Her mother was yelling at her, but that cold precise part of her brain told her one thing for certain.  There are likely fingerprints on that projectile.  If someone finds it we will be in SERIOUS trouble.  We?  We who?  The voice in her head had a point; she had to make sure it wasn’t around.

She quickly scanned the street and saw the can in a gutter.  It was split almost completely in half which made kicking it down a storm drain an easy task.  Then she ran over to the garbage truck and checked on the driver.  He was a little dazed but had gotten out of the truck and was attempting to open the door of the SUV.

“Maybe you should let the paramedics take care of that?  We’ve call them and they should be on their way shortly.”  She got him to sit on the curb a few yards away from his truck and kept a nervous eye on the Durango.  After a few moments sirens could be heard in the distance.  Looking up Victoria saw her dad walking towards her.

“Hey sweetie, why don’t you and your friends go to school?  Your mother and I can handle this from here.  There’s no reason for you to be involved you know?  Come on now, you’ll be late.”  She let him coax her into walking the remaining couple of blocks to school while he and her mom stayed behind.

Victoria felt a bit queasy from the rush of adrenaline and the frightening reality that someone had just tried to kidnap her.  Worse yet, she had almost certainly killed them.  What really frightened her was she really didn’t feel BAD about it.

Of course she had only been indirectly involved, and it was totally justifiable and her mind kept racing a mile a minute to make more excuses.  But the fact of the matter was she had killed at least one person and nobody had even noticed.  She was worried that she was having trouble feeling bad about it; but after all, her actions had been completely logical.

A.D.A.M.

As suspected, the mobile factory passed the first test of its defense systems with flying colors.  ADAM noted that it had even slightly surpassed his expectations when put under stress and adjusted his forecasting for future events.  He also noted that the main processor seemed completely capable of interpreting data at extremely high flow levels, although it had the effect of being interpreted as the input coming in at a slower rate.

What an interesting algorithm to use when inundated with input.  He decided to test that operating structure in some smaller loops for his own use.  The amount of chemicals ADAM was having to use to counteract the unnecessary reactives in the bio factory’s food flow system were beginning to have an adverse effect on the entire units operation; the excess simply couldn’t be filtered out fast enough.

He scaled them back slightly in order to allow the mixture to dilute and requested further hydration to assist with the problem as well.  The hydration had an immediate effect; ADAM made a note to ensure to rehydrate the system on a regular basis.

Eugene

When Eugene’s phone rang with the theme to The Million Dollar Man he knew it was Victoria.  He picked up on the first ring, “Hello Miss Scott, what can I do for you today?”

“Ummm… well this is going to sound strange Doc, but I’ve been super thirsty lately.  Like this morning alone I’ve drank maybe two gallons of water.  I drink until I slosh when I walk and…” she paused for an awkward moment, “I’m peeing every 15 minutes.  But it’s REALLY yellow like when I took too many vitamins once, and it REEKS.  Look this is super embarrassing and I’d rather not talk about it but you’re my Doctor and I’m kinda worried.  You don’t think I have an infection or something do you?”

“Whoa, slow down Miss Scott, I don’t think you need to worry about drinking a lot of water.  You have a lot of antibiotics and residue in your system from the coma and the surgery so I’m not surprised to hear that you’re evacuating toxins.”  He could hear a sharp outlet of breath on the other end of the line, “How is everything else?  Is the prosthetic functioning as it should?  Are you noticing any abnormalities?”

“Oh it’s awesome.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it Doc.  No ill effects at all.”  The rapidity of her response led him to believe she wasn’t being entirely truthful but he decided to let it slide this time.  Eventually she’d probably begin to trust him more, and besides if anything was really wrong he’d hear about it if she was calling him about drinking a lot of water.

“Good to hear, let me know if things change Miss Scott.  Don’t worry about your current situation but certainly call me if it doesn’t change.  I promise you this is nothing unusual after a surgery as invasive as this.  I’m glad you called though, don’t hesitate to do so again, that’s why I gave you the phone.”  She didn’t respond and Eugene was sure she wasn’t reassured at all.

“If it makes you feel better I can stop by your school and pick you up after classes are over today.  You can come to the lab and we can take some urine and blood samples to ensure everything is shipshape.  How’s that sound?”  He winced, wondering how an eighteen year old would react to a middle aged dude offering to take a urine sample, but her reply was bright and she sounded truly relieved.

“Oh that’d be great!  I have cheer practice until 4:30 but after that I’m free.  It’d be a load off my mind. Thank you so much you’re the greatest!  Well I gotta bounce, the bell’s about to ring.”

After she hung up, Eugene sat there thinking for a while.  What could she be hiding?  Or was it just that she didn’t want to talk about it over the phone?  On impulse he woke his computer from its sleep and opened his favorite local news channel’s website.  Scanning the headlines he saw the Scott name was plastered on the front page in bold.  “Richard Scott saves accident victim” it read.  He clicked on the story link and watched the video.

“Rich Scott, a local small business owner was acclaimed today by a first responder team for giving life-saving emergency care to an accident victim early this morning.  The police aren’t releasing the identity of the man who was driving the black Dodge Durango when he lost control of his vehicle and ran head on into a garbage truck.  Mr. Scott was driving by when the accident occurred and managed to get the man out of his vehicle before it caught fire and put a tourniquet on a wound that EMT’s say would likely have caused him to bleed to death within minutes.”

The camera turned from the reporter to show a dazed Rich with the mic in his face, “It was nothing really.  Anyone would have done the same thing …”

Eugene quit listening and looked at the scene behind Rich.  There wasn’t much left of the Dodge; the fire seemed to have consumed the entire front half of the truck before firefighters had arrived to put it out.  One thing was curious though; all the window glass was still intact and there was a smear of something baked onto the passenger’s side.

Something was nagging at him but before he could figure out what it was his phone chimed, a reminder that he was supposed to be giving a guest lecture on bio-engineering in half an hour.  Eugene closed his laptop with a sigh and shrugged into a sport coat.  A brief search through the papers the cluttered his usually immaculate desk turned up the keys to his Porsche and his wallet.  He slipped his computer into an ancient aluminum case his father had used for patient documents, and walked out the door reluctantly.

“I hate these stupid lectures.”

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 26

They were setting up camp, two days out of Lin Lamorak when a stranger stepped into their camp.  Callindra jumped and almost dropped her smoldering pipe; she hadn’t heard him approach which was amazing since he carried a pack that was twice as tall as he was.  He stopped just inside their firelight and hailed them.

“Ho the camp!  Cn I share yer fire?”

“Of course stranger, we welcome any friendly travelers.”  Tryst said, standing and intentionally revealing the heavy hammer hanging from his belt.

“Heh, nah need ta worry lad.  If ah meant ya harm yeh’d be dead.”  The man walked further into the firelight and

Callindra gasped.  This man wasn’t human.  He was short and stocky; his arms were as thick as her thighs and he had a long beard woven into two wide braids clasped with heavy silver beads.  Dark eyes gleamed from under bushy eyebrows and a leather cap covered unruly hair that was also fell in braids that reached past his waist.  She had read about Dwarves but had assumed they were a myth.

“Mah name’s Felix.” The Dwarf said, setting his pack down with a thud that they could all feel more than hear.  He pulled a chair made from canvas and wooden poles out of a pocket on the side of his enormous bag and sat down with a satisfied sigh.

“I’m Tryst.  This is Vilhylm, Cronos and Callindra.” Tryst said, indicating his companions in turn.  “Well met master Felix, we have rabbits roasting and trail bread.”

“Ah ain’t no master.” Felix said, “But thanks fer th hospitality.  Ah have some salad greens an carrots t offer in return.”  He turned and rummaged in his pack, pulling out a burlap sack of carrots and an armful of fresh lettuce.

“Where did you get fresh produce?” Callindra said, her eyes round.

“So.  What’s a Wind Dancer, a priest of the Old One, an Archmage’s apprentice and a Mask Master doin together?”  Felix asked with a friendly grin, ignoring Callindra’s question.

“Your eyes see much.”  Vilhylm said, looking at the Dwarf from the depths of his cloak’s hood.  “How did you know any of that?”

“Was pretty obvious.  Yer cloak has pockets of tha right size and yeh cover yer face, tha girl’s a gale in a bottle an has tha winds allus playin tricks, tha boy’s leaking power I ain’t seen since tha last war an if yeh don’t know what tha holy symbol of tha Old One is then yeh need an education.”  He turned to look at Callindra, “Is that Karalan Imperialis girl?”

“Yes it is.”  She said, feeling a little over whelmed by the concise dissection of their group.  “Would you like some?”  All things considered she couldn’t help, feeling a kinship with someone who smoked the same leaf as her Master.

“Ah ain’t had the Imperial blend for ages.”  Felix said, eyes twinkling.  “Ah’d love some.”  The Dwarf took a short stemmed pipe with a wide bowl made of dark red stone from a pocket and Callindra passed him her pouch of tac.  He packed the bowl and it lit on its own.

“So… where are you headed?” Tryst asked as Callindra turned from their unusual guest to turn the roasting rabbits.

“Noplace special.  Just out collecting.”  Felix said, puffing contentedly on his pipe.

Cronos looked up from where he was shredding the lettuce and slicing carrots to make a salad.  “Collecting what?” He asked suspiciously.

“Whatever ah find that ah don’t have yet.” The Dwarf said with a shrug, “It’s getting harder to find things like tha though.  Just tother day though a man played a song he’d composed that he’d never played for anyone else.  Tha was an interesting thing to keep.”

“How can you keep a song?”  Callindra asked, “That’s not possible.”

Felix stared off into the distance for a moment, streams of smoke trailing from his nostrils.  “Wen ya go to tha High Forest don’t go through the Wastes.  It’s tha shortest way but it ain’t safe.”

“How did you know that’s where we were heading?”  Tryst asked, his hand straying toward the handle of his hammer.

Callindra shifted her shoulders slightly to allow Brightfang’s hilt to fall to within easy reach of her left hand and she could see Vilhylm reaching into a pocket for a mask.  Cronos actually drew his longsword with a dangerous rasp of steel.  Felix knew too much for this to be coincidence.

“Nah don’t get yer nickers in a twist.”  Felix said, folding his massively muscled arms over his chest.  “Knowin things is what I do.  Tha girl was kind enough to share some of her smoke with me so I gave her somethin in return.”

They still stared suspiciously at him, Cronos taking a half step to the side so as to be in the Dwarf’s blind spot.  Felix seemed totally at ease where he sat, still calmly smoking his pipe.  “Yer coneys are gonna burn.”  He said, looking at the fire.  When they still didn’t move he sighed.  “I jus visited Tyreen.  She mentioned sommat about a group heading ta tha High Forest.  Sounded interesting so I caught up with ya.”

Callindra moved to take the rabbits off the flame so their dinner wouldn’t be ruined.  She set them of a flat slab of stone nearby to cool and then looked at the others.  “If he wanted to hurt us, I think he would have done it already.  Cronos, really, put up your blade.  From what I’ve read of Dwarves we would likely have a hard time stopping him if he did wish us harm, although I’d love to spar with him… just to see.”

Felix chuckled, “She’s a feisty one ain’t she?”

“What?  In Vlarias’s The Art of Combat he mentions a Dwarf holding a doorway against hundreds of foes on his own for an entire day.  My Master keeps telling me I need to build up my stamina; sparring with someone with that kind of constitution would be…”  She trailed off, embarrassed.

“I ain’t heard anyone talk of Vlarias in years.  Tha blowhard was generally fulla hot air, but once ya got a couple of drinks in him he weren’t so bad.”  Felix said, “Oh speakin a drink…” He opened one of the many flaps on the side of his pack and pulled out a small keg.  Callindra blinked; the pocket he had withdrawn the keg from should not have been able to hold something that large.  From the same pocket, the Dwarf produced a pewter ale jack for each of them.

“You KNEW Vlarias?  Like personally?”  Callindra asked, going over his words in her mind. “He died over fifty years ago.  How old are you?”

“Old nough.”  Felix grunted and broached the cask with a practiced bash of his fist.

As Felix dipped out mugs of a rich brown ale, Callindra drew her sword and quickly quartered the rabbits.  She was so used to using him for everything that she didn’t even think of using a knife.  Carefully wiping the blade with a scrap of cloth before sheathing him again.

“Where.  Did yeh get one of Beliach’s blades?”  Felix’s voice had a dangerous note to it; an implicit threat that made Callindra shiver.  Nonetheless she forced herself to look him squarely in the eye.

“He was a gift.  My Master gave him to me.”  The winds gusted around her, flaring the fire and making her hair whip back from her face.  Callindra let herself slip into the Ready Stance; a relaxed seeming posture that would allow her to respond to whatever was coming quickly.  “What do you know about the smith?”

“He stole somethin from my clan.”  The Dwarf rumbled, “Ah been lookin for him.”

“Well that doesn’t have anything to do with me.  I just needed a blade that could withstand my fighting style.”  And her magic, but he didn’t need to know about that.

“Fer Beliach ta make yeh a blade yeh gotta visit him.”  Felix said, narrowing his eyes.  “He’s gotta get ta know yeh so he can make sure the weapon matches.  Where is he?”

“I don’t know.  I never visited him at all, on the one year anniversary of my apprenticeship my Master gave me Brightfang.  He said that Beliach owed him a favor or something but didn’t have time to tell me anything else because the Inquisitors attacked…”  Damn it, there she went again.  Why couldn’t she keep control of her tongue?

Felix stood from his chair faster than his bulk would suggest was possible.  With effort, Callindra matched his speed, performing a perfect backflip over the fire, the winds nearly extinguishing the flames and blowing up a cloud of sparks.  She landed lightly on the balls of her feet with Brightfang glittering in her hands.  The Dwarf blurred with speed and she struck where she thought he would be instead of where she thought he was.

With a harsh metallic clang, Brightfang stopped as though he had struck solid stone.  Felix had caught the blade between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.  He stared at her up the curved length of the blade, his eyes intense.  Brightfang whined in protest then fell silent when the Dwarf flicked the blade with his other hand.

“Yer good girl.  What do ya really know bout Glarian?” He said, looking at her with eyes that seemed carved from flint.

Callindra tried to withdraw her sword, but she might as well have tried to lift a mountain.  “Who is Glarian?”  She asked defiantly.  Behind Felix, her companions had drawn weapons and were cautiously approaching them.

“This blade says yer his apprentice.  Tha winds say tha same.  Nobody else would dare call in favors from Beliach, an besides, yeh have his fighting style in spite of usin a blade a quarter the size of his and yer bonded ta this pigsticker.”

“I know he’s the best swordsman in the world.”  She retorted, “What do you know of him?”

Felix burst into laughter, surprising them all.  “Yeh really are fiesty ain’t ya?  Ya shoulda been trained by fire with that spirit, but I spose wind fits yeh too.  Yeh have a hard road ahead a yeh girl, but ah think yeh got what it takes to travel it.”  He released her sword and turned back to the others.

“Na need ta worry.  Ah knew it was too easy for me ta find Beliach like this.  She don’t know where he is.”  With that, the Dwarf returned to his seat, passing between the others as though he had nothing to worry about in spite of the weapons in their hands.

Cronos looked at Tryst, his eyes clearly asking if they were just going to let this slide.  Tryst glanced at Vilhylm and Callindra, and she shook her head slightly and sheathed Brightfang.  The others relaxed slightly, except for Cronos who still eyed Felix suspiciously.

“So what did this smith supposedly steal from your people?” Cronos demanded.

Felix regarded him for a moment before answering.  “He stole the captive demon we used to fire our Adamantine Forge.  It happened right at the same moment that we were assaulted by an ancient Black Dragon.  We have a hard time thinking it might be coincidence.”

They were all quiet for a few moments and then Cronos sheathed his swords.  “Fine.  Let’s eat before the food gets cold.”

Callindra released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding and took her hand off Brightfang’s hilt and they all settled down for a relatively calm dinner.  After eating, Callindra and Felix filled their pipes once more and sat smoking contentedly.

“Yeh cn all sleep tonigh, Ah’ll keep watch in return fer th meal.” Felix said, “Yeh all look like yeh could use it.”

“I’m not one to turn down a good night’s sleep.”  Tryst said, “Today was fairly taxing.”  The others didn’t seem to share his apparent trust, but still rolled into their blankets without complaint.