Machine Girl: What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas – Prologue

General Charles Regan Hallbeck was a man of grand vision and true grit.  He was a man who decided what he wanted, planned for it and then got it.  He enjoyed the occasional challenge along the way; it was boring to have everything handed to him on a silver platter unless it was his morning coffee.

He turned on the news while stirring cream and sugar into his coffee cup.  Nobody knew he preferred cream and sugar, he considered it to be a weakness.  His father, God rest his soul, had always said ‘Real men drink their coffee strong and black’ so that’s how Charles drank his when anyone was looking.

“We have news that in a quiet neighborhood on a street called Honeysuckle Terrace an apparent gangland style assassination has taken place.” Said a newscaster on his television, “We now go live to Jessica Hutchison who is on the scene.  Jessica?”

Charles nearly spit coffee onto the desk while his favorite reporter came on screen.

“Thanks Rob.  The police won’t let us anywhere near the block where neighbors claim there was a police raid just yesterday afternoon.  That raid apparently did not result in any arrests, however we expect something to come of it today.  You can see the vehicle the victims were driving behind me.  According to sources inside, this black Dodge Durango is registered to a group suspected to have ties to the Italian Mafia.”

A man in crime scene gear was approaching the Durango which was just behind the crime scene tape and began looking it over.  Jessica approached and put a microphone in his face.

“Excuse me, Jess Hutchison from channel thirteen; can you give us an idea of what’s going on?  Do you have any leads?”

At that moment the walkie-talkie on the man’s shoulder squawked, “Gold!  These assholes used gold bullets, there’s no way we can trace-” he turned the sound down.

“No comment!  Shut that camera off damn it!”

“Do you know of any groups that use gold bullets?  Have you seen anything like this before?”  Jessica was leaning over the crime scene tape, “The public deserves to know what is happening here.”

“Excuse me Miss Hutchison; we would prefer not to have the press involved until after we bring this case to trial.  Exposing too much information could infringe on our investigation and make jury selection difficult.”  A police captain had approached from the left hand side of the shot.  “Please stay back from the crime scene.”

Charles reached for his phone and it rang just before he touched it.

“This is General Hallbeck.”

“General, we may have a situation.”

“The violence near Miss Scott’s house?  I just saw it on the news.”

“Negative sir, that situation does not need our intervention.  The Silent Star has been compromised, we don’t know yet who or how, but they downloaded literally gigs of classified data and were gone before we had any idea we’d even been hacked.”

“Our most advanced spy satellite is hacked and you tell me we MIGHT have a situation?”  Charles yelled into the phone, “You have one hour ONE HOUR to get me a name!  By the time I’m in the office I want this fucking hacker’s nuts on a string!”  He slammed the phone down.  So much for a leisurely morning.

Dmitri hadn’t slept.  Some part of his brain screamed at him to rest but he had long since learned to ignore it.  Trivial things needed to be put aside when confronting a major problem.  In order to fully realize his father’s vision it was necessary to go further than the old man had ever dared go.  If he was going to be able to maintain control over the organization he didn’t dare fail.

“Are you certain of this intelligence?”  Dmitri looked at the man who lounged defiantly in the chair on the other side of the polished mahogany desk that had been his father’s.

“I trust the man.  He works in Hallbeck’s office and hasn’t led me wrong yet.”

“You had better trust him with your life.” Dmitri rasped, “If this proves to be incorrect it shall be forfeit.”

His informant turned slightly pale and sat forward in his chair, “Sir I have been finding you valuable information for years now, surely you wouldn’t react so rashly.”

“Correction, you have been providing my father with intelligence.  You have yet to prove your worth to me and my requirements differ from his.  If you are confident of your intelligence then there is no reason for you fear.  Since I will be risking my life and the lives of my associates if I choose to act on it I feel that it is only fair for you to share in the danger.”  He paused for emphasis, wishing he wasn’t out of cigarettes.  “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, of course sir.”

“Good.  You may go.”  Ivanov walked from behind the alcove where he watched these meetings, analyzing the body language and forming his own opinions about the interaction from his own unique perspective.

“I think he’s telling the truth Sir.”  Said Ivanov, “I have heard rumors about a certain title on the

web changing hands.”

Dmitri often forgot that Ivanov was a master of all things related to intelligence, even keeping tabs on the blogosphere and a few online forums.

“Tell me more.  What is this title?”  Asked Dmitri.

“It is ironic, the title is ‘The Kai’ meaning king or ruler.  Apparently it is given to a White Hat, ah that is a hacker who uses his or her skills to improve the safety and security of the web and the world at large, who has achieved some major victory.”  Ivanov took a fresh pack of cigarettes from his pocket, opened it and handed one to Dmitri before setting the rest on the desk.

“What is the irony?  Is this man truly a king?  Is he perhaps not one of these so-called White Hats?”  Dmitri asked, lighting the cigarette.

“Not at all; the irony is that I believe the man who has inherited the title shares its name.  His name is Kai Dae-Hyun.  He is a North Korean defector who used to be part of their nuclear program.  Rumor has it his family was liquidated when the Korean government got wind of his plans to leave.”

“So he has stolen data from a spy satellite.”  Dmitri mused, exhaling smoke through his nostrils, “Data we can possibly use or sell at a premium?”

“I believe so.  We would have to move quickly sir; there are other interested parties who will be converging at the same time.”  Said Ivanov, then almost as an afterthought added, “Not to mention the military, although they aren’t much of a threat.  Governments are always constrained by laws and procedure.”

“We fly out tomorrow to Las Vegas then.  I think I am due for a vacation.”

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The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 33

Something awakened Callindra at full alert.  She wasn’t sure what it was, but Brightfang was half out of his sheath before she had finished sitting up.  Padding across the room on cat’s feet, she saw the pre-dawn glow on the horizon and shook her head.  It was probably just another dream brought on by too much drink the night before.

She walked to the basin next to the window and poured water into it from a pitcher, splashing some of it on her face and rinsing out her mouth.  A slight noise outside her door caught her attention and a gust of wind blew through her open window, whirling around the room for a moment before calming.  Gods she felt jumpy this morning.  She blamed the cursed skirts.  They were too long and kept threatening to tangle in her legs if she took her normal strides.

Yanking the door open, she startled Ardie who had just set a stack of packages down.  “I got yer things miss.”  He said, almost tripping as he tried to walk backwards, bow and not drop the steaming bowl of porridge and the mug of light ale he was holding in his other hand.

Callindra realized she had partially unsheathed her sword again and sighed in exasperation.  “Sorry Ardie, I’m a little out of sorts this morning.  Thank you.”

She took the breakfast he offered and gave him a silver coin.  He shook his head and held it out to her, “I still owe ya change miss, ya ain’t gotta give me nothin.”

“Nonsense.”  She said, waving a distracted hand at him.  “Now move those packages in here so I can pack them in my saddlebags.  And I told you my name is Callindra.”

He looked at her, his mouth set in a firm line, “I don’t need no charity.”

“I don’t need the money.”  She said, “Besides I like to reward a good assistant.  Unless you’re telling me you don’t think you’ve earned a little extra?  In that case I can certainly find more work for you.  I’m sure my horse needs combing and my saddle could use a polishing.”

He scuffed his feet, “I done it already.”

“Consider it payment then.”  She said, “Now go away unless you want to help me get dressed as though you were my maid?”  Artie bolted as though she’d asked him to scrub chamber pots.

Callindra was just returning from a brief practice in back courtyard of the inn when she heard Vilhylm’s voice ringing out through the Inn.

“Where is she?  Has she been taken?”

“Vil, it’s too damn early to be so loud.”  Cronos muttered, looking up from where he nursed a mug of ale and nibbled a plate of sausages in the common room.

“Took who?”  Callindra asked, stealing one of Cronos’s sausages.

“I guess the Countess wasn’t in her room this morning.  Her carriage is still here though, she’s probably out…”  He waved in the general direction of the town.

“You think that someone like her has just gone out, what, shopping?  In a town like Maple?”  Callindra laughed, “You must be suffering from the effects of last night’s drink.”

“Whatever.  She was more trouble than she was worth anyway.” Cronos grumbled.

“I’d better go and see what’s going on before he breaks something.”  Callindra said with a sigh.

When she arrived at the top of the stairs, she saw Tryst standing at the door to the room Countess Adbar had been sleeping in.

“Calm down Vilhylm, I’m sure this isn’t what you think.”  Tryst was saying, trying to calm him down, “Let’s just take a moment to look at things before jumping to conclusions.”

She looked at the room and noticed several things that didn’t seem right.  “Tryst, I think he may have something here.  Look, this door was broken in from the outside.  That window has been broken as well and from here it’s an easy drop to the roof of the stables.  Nothing is missing but that only makes it more suspicious don’t you think?”

“Exactly what I’ve been trying to say!”  Vil exclaimed, “See?  She understands what I’m trying to say.”

“I know a stable boy.  He will be able to tell me if anyone came or left last night.”  Callindra said.  “Why don’t you come down and have some breakfast and I’ll go talk to Ardie.”

Vilhylm allowed himself to be led down into the common room while Callindra went to the stables.  Ardie was laying unconscious on the floor, the side of his head swelling from a harsh blow.  She knew better than to move him, instead running full speed back into the common room.

“Tryst, he’s been hit on the head.”  She said, quiet enough that only he could hear, “Can you come take a look please?”

“Who?”  Tryst looked up from where he was giving good attention to a plate of eggs, bacon and fried potatoes.

“Could you just… come with me for a minute?”  She asked, meeting his eyes.  “Please?”

The priest rose with a nod and followed her to the stables.  He knelt next to Artie and ran his hand over the boy’s head.  After a moment he muttered a few things that were either prayers or curse words… maybe both.  Callindra bent over him, her brow furrowed in concern.

“How long ago did this happen?”  Tryst asked.

“It couldn’t have been more than an hour.”  Callindra said, “He brought me some supplies just before I did my morning Korumn.”

Tryst continued to mutter and a gleam of Power trickled from his fingers and settled over the boy’s head.

“Is he going to be all right?”  She whispered and almost made a very undignified squeak as the boy’s eyes flew open.

“Miss Callindra, I knew you’d come!”  He exclaimed, throwing his arms around her waist and burying his face in her midriff.

“Uh.”  She said, blushing crimson, “Well I didn’t really do anything.  Tryst is the one who saved you.”

“No need to be modest Callindra, you are the one who brought me.”  Tryst said, hiding a smile.

“Artie, we need to know who did this.”  Callindra said, ignoring her burning cheeks and holding the boy out at arm’s length.  “Did they do something with the Countess Adbar?  She is missing.”

“Yes!  They rode in this morning after breakfast and asked about the Countess.  When I told them she was here they hit me on the head.”  He began to cry in hiccoughing sobs, “When I tried to stop them, they hit me again and my head got all swimmy and I felt sick and I just knew you’d come to save me.”

“I’ll… bring you to your mother.”  Callindra said, picking him up and walking back toward the common room.

When they told Vilhylm and Cronos about what they had learned Vil rose from his chair, knocking it over with the force of his standing.  “We must go at once!  We must find her!”

In spite of herself, Callindra couldn’t help but agree.  This was an urgent need; kidnapping someone from their rooms, even someone like the Countess, wasn’t something they could overlook.

Tracking the kidnappers had taxed Callindra’s skills to their absolute limit, but she managed to trace the hoof prints of their horses along the road heading north.  Once they were on the road, they rode hard and just as the dawn light was breaking they could see a small camp ahead.  Their quarry had apparently ridden a long way to get to the town of Maple and now their animals were spent less than an hour from the town.

“We should prepare ourselves.”  Vilhylm said grimly, dismounting from his horse.  “They won’t expect someone from town to have found them this quickly.”

“It looks like haven’t even posted guards.”  Cronos said, looking down at the camp.  “Either they’re mad or supremely overconfident.”

“Are we sure about this?”  Tryst asked, his brow furrowing with worry.  “I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.”

“Have you even looked at the camp?”  Callindra asked, “They have her wrapped in her blanket from the inn and trussed like a huntsman’s kill.  If they don’t intend her harm, why would they have taken her from her room at night?  I may not like her much, but it’s obvious she didn’t go willingly.”

“We must at least give warning before we attack.”  Tryst said.

“What?”  Said Vilhylm, “We will do no such thing!  If they know we are attacking they may well kill or injure my Lady!  That cannot be allowed.”

“We must hit them hard and fast.”  Cronos said, “I will target the furthest with magic while the rest of you hit them full on with everything you’ve got.”

“I can hit them with more than steel.”  Callindra said with a feral smile.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”  Said Cronos with an apologetic glance, “You don’t have restraint or control and might hit things you don’t intend to.”

“I guess you’re right.”  She said, not happy about him being right but acknowledging that the winds resented being ordered around.  “Let’s get to work before they notice us.”

With that, they swept down the hill at a run, Cronos firing bolts of arcane power to strike two of the men nearest the trussed up woman.  Their enemies didn’t stand a chance, Callindra cleaving the head from one and severing the leg of another while Vilhylm took the two remaining men and smashed their heads together with brutal force.

Callindra almost felt remorse at slaughtering them in this way, but she quickly suppressed it.  These men had chosen to attack her friend.  They had chosen to take the Countess from her bed against her will.  Actions had consequences and they were now answering to whatever Gods they believed in for them.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 15

Victoria

Victoria couldn’t sleep.  Her body was exhausted but her mind wouldn’t stop churning the day’s events over and over.  The men who had died in the car accident in the morning.  The likelihood that others had died on the freeway when she incapacitated their vehicles during the chase.  The fact that those men had tried to at least kidnap if not kill her.  Then, to top it all off the police had invaded her house only to be turned away by a General of all people who apparently had financed some of Eugene’s research.

There had to be some connection, she wondered who the General really was and what department he actually worked for.  She was especially curious because his presence had frightened Eugene so much.  The more she thought about it, she was sure she’d seen him on a TV news show once.

She sat up suddenly, the memory flooding back.  He had been featured in the Discovery Channel program “Modern Warfare” he was on the commission that had funded the design the Predator Drone and some high-tech bomb disarming robot.  This type of technology would align very well with his department indeed.  Victoria shuddered, just thinking about it made her nervous.

At the same time, she was an American citizen and eighteen, so it wasn’t as though they could just sneak into her house in the middle of the night and take her off to some government facility somewhere.  She laughed nervously to herself, catching a glimpse of something outside her window.

“It’s just my imagination.  You always see things when you start to look for them.”  She was talking out loud to herself like she always did when she was nervous.  Victoria looked outside and was certain that she’d caught a glimpse of something move but just couldn’t see through the darkness no matter how she strained.

After a few minutes she took a deep sigh, “Nothing out there but the neighbor’s dog crapping in our yard again.  That’s a relief.”  She stretched, finally feeling the exhaustion of the day.  “Time for bed I guess.”  A feeling of calm washed over her and she snuggled under the blankets, falling asleep almost immediately.

A.D.A.M.

ADAM was waiting for the Host system to go into the dormant state he had learned was normal for this time in the Western time zone of North America but found that despite his best efforts to calm the systems it persisted in staying active.  Not only that, but it was continuing to process extraneous data at an astronomical rate.  He decided to bide his time until the Host settled down and then continue his cataloging of the vast amounts of information in the Host’s databanks.

Something out of the ordinary flagged in ADAM’s systems; suspicious activity in the outer perimeter of the Host’s home territory that fit the MO of a military trained organization.   He tried to use the Host’s input devices to sense what was happening but was unable to gather pertinent data.

He knew something going on out there but there didn’t seem to be anything suspicious.  In spite of this, he continued checking and re-checking the perimeter looking for evidence of any kind of breach.  ADAM ran a scan of his circuits trying to locate the source of his illogical behavior; after all, if there wasn’t any data indicating danger he shouldn’t be constantly investigating it.  Interestingly enough, his search uncovered a subroutine that appeared to have been added by the Host system itself.

Further investigation found it to be some sort of system by which the Host was able to predict future events based on accumulated data.  Although the conclusions drawn rarely fit a logical pattern it was interesting to not how often this prediction system turned out to be correct; it was far above the standard margin of error.

Deciding there was way too much he still didn’t know about this system he cohabited with, ADAM settled in to do some serious research.  On the surface the odd and often self-destructive tendencies exhibited seemed to serve no purpose at all.  Some of them stemmed from ancient protocols that no longer applied to the current OS but were still connected through a system of reverse-engineered coding.

Careful not to disturb any of the delicate matrices without knowing their exact function, ADAM dug even deeper.  The capabilities he discovered frightened him.  Without the careful limitations the system had built in from the ground up, the unit literally had the power to tear itself apart.  Perhaps the most amazing thing was that the system was cognitively aware that it had this ability.

Dredging through the unit’s memory storage ADAM uncovered several instances in which it had either knowingly or accidentally done just that.  Twice to the point of immobilizing itself, the concept amazed him.  It was so illogical that he checked it a few hundred times just to be sure.

Despite his best efforts he couldn’t dispute the fact that the illogical behavior had been able to predict future outcomes with an above average success rate.  How strange.  ADAM flagged the behavior for advanced monitoring and continued studying the systems in an effort to improve their performance.

Eugene

After only about an hour and a half of waiting nervously in Dmitri’s study with nobody but an aging Jack Russell terrier who would occasionally look up from where he lay on the rug in front of a heat vent to give him a hopeful look before sighing mournfully and lapsing back into slumber, the door opened and a grinning Dmitri swept into the room.

“What a pleasant evening.  They never expected us to be there; I am sure it will make them think twice about messing around in my territory again.  Well it will make their friends think twice anyway since they will not be thinking about anything ever again.”  He glanced back through the doorway and a pair of his men dragged a partially conscious man into the room.

“Now then, I have a few things I need to speak to this gentleman about.”  Dmitri was still smiling but this close Eugene could see the smile never touched his eyes.

“Fuck off Russian scum.”  The man was bleeding from a nasty looking cut above his right eye, there was a bruise forming around it that darkened his forehead.  Eugene felt a twinge of sympathy in his own swollen face.  Then the captive turned his head to look at him, “YOU!  What the hell did that crazy bitch of yours do to my brother?  It was supposed to be a simple kidnapping and ransom operation this morning and instead she turned it into a goddamn bloodbath.”

“It turns out this operation of his was not sanctioned; he was trying to get revenge for his brother dying earlier today.  Something about him slamming into a garbage truck I understand.”  Dmitri had a satisfied look on his face.  “That is the inevitable result of interfering with my will.”  Without warning he pulled his gun from his shoulder holster and pistol whipped the man across the face.

“We rule here, and we do so with absolute divine power.”  His voice was flat, not just calm but devoid even of anger or satisfaction.  The man fell to the floor and Dmitri put his perfectly polished shoe on his throat.  “We will crush any resistance underfoot with no more remorse than you would have crushing a cockroach.”  The man on the floor flailed, trying to push Dmitri off.

“Boss, we need him for questioning don’t we?”  Ivanov glanced at him in a way that almost seemed nervous.

Dmitri turned a baleful eye toward Ivanov, “What did you just say?”  His voice was unsettling.  It still sounded calm but there was an undercurrent of inhuman rage just below the surface.  “Did you just tell me what to do Ivanov?”

Ivanov held up his hands, “Kill him if you want Sir, but maybe after we get some answers out of him about their other activities right?”

Taking a few deep breaths, Dmitri’s grip on his pistol tightened until the knuckles whitened.  “Don’t do this to me, I need you Ivanov.”  His other hand shook as he pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket.  Putting one in his mouth, he patted his pockets for a lighter.

“I know you do sir.”  Ivanov stepped into the pistol Dmitri had aimed between his eyes and lit the cigarette for him with practiced ease.  “I apologize for my insubordination; do as you will.”

Taking a deep drag, Dmitri exhaled with satisfaction.  Leaving the cigarette dangling between his lips, he curled his left hand into a fist and struck Ivanov in the face spraying blood from the impact and nearly taking the larger man off his feet.

“Fine, take him to the interrogation chamber.”  He took his foot off the man’s throat and listened to the rasp of his tortured breath.

Eugene was speechless; he wanted to stop what was happening but knew there wasn’t anything he could do.  Dmitri was at least as unhinged as he had heard; if he’d nearly killed his own man for suggesting they keep him alive for torture; what would happen to Eugene if he opened his mouth?

“Doctor, you look a little pale are you feeling unwell?”  Dmitri walked around and sat heavily behind his desk.  “I am so glad you came over tonight Mr. Arlington, without your visit we never would have been able to teach those interlopers the lesson we did.”  He tossed his gun carelessly on the desk and leaned back to put his feet up.

“What did you end up doing?  Is Victoria OK?”  Eugene swallowed hard, trying to keep his cool.

“We disposed of some trash, exterminated some insects and brought one in for questioning.  They were planning some sort of midnight capture.”  Dmitri waved it away as though the past wasn’t worth talking about.  He leaned in, appearing to notice Eugene’s battered condition for the first time.  “What happened to you?  Girlfriend get pissed off at you or something?”

“Yeah, something like that.  So you aren’t going to have Victoria followed are you?  They should leave her alone so there’s no need right?”  He winced as he said the words, hoping they wouldn’t be interpreted as a command.

“We already have someone assigned to her but do not worry; he is very good.  Besides the only times she needs a babysitter is at night or when she is between home and school.”  He frowned slightly, “Did you think she needed more surveillance than that?  You’re obviously worried about her safety or you wouldn’t have come here.”

“Well you’re right about that, I am certainly concerned with her safety-”

“Good, then we have that in common.  I want to protect my father’s investment, especially now that it’s MY investment.  Why did you come here anyway?”  Dmitri paused to light a cigarette from the butt of the one he’d just finished.

“Initially I wanted to tell you to call off your dogs.  Turns out it wasn’t your boys, it must have been… your prisoner’s brother?  Could I have one of those?”  Eugene reached out his hand and Dmitri gave him the cigarette he’d been smoking after lighting another from the cherry.

“I realize you have had a difficult day Eugene.  I apologize for that but there was no helping it.”  He gestured and Ivanov brought glasses of vodka, “My day has not been all that amazing either.  Let us get drunk together and forget our woes.”

Knowing it would be dangerous to say no, Eugene accepted a glass of warm vodka and another cigarette.  It was going to be a long night.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 32

After nearly a week’s travel across wilderness that was more remote and barren than Callindra had ever remembered seeing they finally came to something that resembled a road.  From what they’d seen by looking at the map that Cronos had, they were only about an hour from the small town of Maple if they managed to keep their current pace.

As their tired band rounded a corner in the road, they could see down a short rise.  A traveling carriage was disabled alongside the road, one wheel having come off in a pothole.  A pair of guards were straining to lift the wheel while a gowned and coiffed Lady stood to one side, a maid holding a lace parasol over her head.  Even at this distance her strident voice was audible, although the words were still indistinct.

“A Lady in trouble.”  Vilhylm said, “Perhaps we can offer assistance.”

Callindra sighed and rolled her eyes, but the others seemed eager to help and she didn’t see any reason not to.  Nobility were difficult and entitled but fulfilled a necessary role; certainly not one she wanted to fill.  They rode toward the struggling men and were caught completely unaware when a dozen misshapen creatures with jaws that dripped glowing green ichor leaped from the trees.

Half of the monsters sprang on the men, slashing with razor sharp claws and biting with wicked fangs.  The others landed close enough to Callindra and her friends that they could smell the decaying flesh on their breath.

“Arm yourselves!”   Callindra shouted, vaulting from the saddle and swinging Brightfang from his scabbard at the same time, severing the thing’s arm off just above the elbow.  She landed, bringing her blade to guard just as one of the monsters tried to remove her head from her shoulders.

Cronos unleashed a burst of flames from his fingertips, but he only managed to kill one of them.  The blast knocked him from his horse and onto the dust of the road where he struggled to his feet, cursing like a soldier.  While the others attempted to dismount and keep control of their horses, she drove their opponents back with a wall of flashing steel.

“Take heart against these demons from the Abyss!”  Tryst said, “Fight and destroy thine enemies!”  Callindra felt his magic form around her, bolstering her resolve and her physical strength.

Vilhylm let go of his horse’s bridle and slammed a fist into the midriff of one of the creatures like a hammer, throwing it back into the trees.  Ignoring the monsters that threatened his friends, he bounded forward with giant leaps, landing between the Lady and the other group of beasts.

Cronos incanted a spell that made his muscles swell to strain against his armor and drew his hand and a half sword.  He swung with the same motion, finishing off the monster Callindra had wounded.  They spun and fought back to back, slashing their way through the attacking creatures with a series of coordinated strikes.  In spite of the danger she had to smile at how well they fought together.

The first few of the fallen creatures began to swell as though they were rotting from the inside at an incredible rate.  The flow of the fight took them away from the fallen and they began to explode one after another, each throwing showers of boiling ichor on anyone unfortunate enough to be close.  A few drops spattered on Callindra’s cheek and burned like cinders.

“Pox and rot!”  She shouted, “Ware the corpses!”

Even as she spoke, she saw the two guards go down screaming as several more of them exploded.  The lady’s maid was already laying in a pool of her own cooling blood but Vilhylm had managed to keep the Lady alive somehow.  The horses screamed in pain, one going down thrashing and the other dropping like a poleaxed cow.

As suddenly as it had begun, the attack was over.  All the creatures had been killed and then had exploded, some of them had even killed their own kind then their bodies burst.  Tryst looked them over swiftly, making sure none had serious injuries before seeing to the horses.

“I will need to heal this mare.”  He said, “Her foreleg is broken and this carriage is too large to be pulled by one.”

Callindra approached and helped him calm the animals, something that normally Vilhylm would have done.  Vil was occupied with the Lady, she was crying out at his few burns and minor cuts, exclaiming at his bravery and lavishing praise on him.

“You!  Boy!”  The Lady said, “Get my parasol, I will not risk burning my skin in the heat of the day!”

Callindra waited for the outburst she was sure Cronos would unleash for such treatment, grinning to herself as she loosened the harness of the frightened horse.  Tryst was chanting softly under his breath, a glimmer of light emanating from his hands and the shield on his back as he called upon holy powers to heal the wounds of the other animal.

“Boy, I said get my parasol!”  The Lady said again, “The Countess Adbar will not be left second to the ministrations of animals!”

Callindra glanced up and saw that the Countess was pointing at her, Cronos having left to gather their own horses.  She met the other woman’s gaze levelly, her sea green eyes meeting the Countess’s dark brown.

“I am Callindra Sol’Estin, a warrior who slew monsters that would otherwise have been gleefully dancing upon your corpse at considerable risk to myself.”  She said coldly, “I am no boy, nor will I cease tending the beasts that will otherwise be unable to pull your carriage.

“Oooh, you’re a girl.”  The Countess said, eyes artfully widening in surprise, “I never would have guessed what with that hair and those clothes.  Or that sword.  Or that armor.”

Callindra sighed inwardly at the foolish prejudice of the nobility.  She had seen as much before, although this particular noble was more direct and rude than most.  Instead of rising to the bait she turned her attention back to the horse.  Stroking him on the nose, she kept him calm as she unbuckled the last two straps of his harness so he could struggle to his feet.  Other than a few scrapes and some small burns he seemed fit enough.

Tryst finished his spell and the other horse shuddered, the sound of the bone setting itself and knitting back together grated in Callindra’s ears.  She winced, but the animal didn’t seem to feel the pain.  instead, she lurched to her feet and eagerly nudged Tryst’s chest until he rose to his feet and patted her neck reassuringly.

“You’re welcome girl.  Humans aren’t the only ones who deserve the attentions and healing I can offer.”  He said with a smile.

“If we are going to reach that town before the sun sets we need to get moving.”  Cronos said, approaching with their horses.

Now that the adrenaline of the fight had worn off, Callindra was beginning to feel all of the scrapes, cuts and burns she had suffered but not noticed before.  With a heavy sigh, she began to buckle the gelding back into his harness while Tryst did the same for the mare.

It was just after sundown when they limped into the small town of Briarwood, the horses as tired as they were.  The lights of the tavern were inviting and they were drawn as moths to a candle flame.  A boy came to take their horses and Callindra tossed him the reins.

“Careful, she bites if you don’t watch her.”  She warned.

Vilhylm was helping the Countess Adbar from her carriage, all bows and smiles.  Callindra rolled her eyes; she expected most men to be god rotting predictable, but had imagined her companions were of a different sort.  Ah well, she supposed the Lady was pretty enough, if you like soft curves.

They walked into the common room, the light and sound overwhelming at first.  A large man in a clean white apron stood behind the bar pulling tankards of dark brown ale and flirtatious barmaids made their way among the patrons, handing out frothy mugs and saucy winks in equal measure.

“Hey hon, what can I getcha?” A wench walked up, swaying her hips invitingly before she noticed that Callindra was a girl.  Her eyes stayed on Brightfang’s hilt for a few moments before going back to her face.

“Ale.  Dinner.  We need rooms and stabling for the night too.”  Callindra said smiling and rolling a gold nobel over the back of her hand and flicking it to land in the girl’s hand.  “That ought to at least get us started?”

Grinning, the wench bit it and tucked it into her generous cleavage, “Aye that’ll be a good start.  Find a table an we’ll getcha sorted out right enough.  Good bitter tapped tonight an fresh venison on th spit.”

“I declare, what a quaint place you have brought me to Vilhylm.”  Said the Countess, looking around the room with a derisive smile on her lush lips.  “Barmaid, you will prepare a bath and your finest room.  I will wait here with whatever passes for wine in this town.”

Vilhylm led her to a table and pulled out a chair for her.  Callindra sighed and sat down at the table, taking a long pull from the tankard the wench brought.  The strong bitter ale washed the road dust from her throat and she felt the annoyance she had at the Lady’s attitude fade.  It wasn’t her fault that she’d been born to privilege, and it didn’t make a lot of sense to expect her to change her ways immediately.

The common room resumed some of its noise, but was much subdued compared to how it had been.  When their food arrived, a young girl in a brown dress came and nervously informed the Countess that her bath was ready.  She rose, handing her cloak to the girl and following her from the room, her silk gown whispering like a bedroom promise.

“I’ll be waiting for you later.”  She purred to Vilhylm as she passed him.

Only Callindra was close enough to hear.  She ignored the comment, watching Vil over the rim of her tankard.  He shifted slightly on his chair, looking as though he was trying to decide if he should run after her or run out the door.

She caught the attention of the wench, “I would like a bath as well I think.  To wash the filth of the road and the rest away.  Do you offer laundry services?”

“That blood ain’t comin out.”  She said, giving Callindra’s stained and much mended clothing a critical look.  “But don’t look like you care.”

“It rained on me a few days ago, other than that we’ve had a bad week.”  She sniffed herself and winced.

The woman laughed,  “I’ll send my boy.  He’ll get yer things an have ‘em back for ya th morning.  Normal bath’s is just outside an round th back less ya want private?”

“No thank you, I’m not finicky enough to require a private bath.”  Callindra said with a chuckle.  “As long as it’s hot and the water is clean it’s good enough for me.”

She walked out of the common room and around the corner.  The smell of strong soap met her nostrils as she sat in the changing room, first  removing her armor and then the sweat crusted padding beneath it.  When she was unwinding her breast band, a boy’s voice carried over the half wall that separated the bath by sex.

“Hey.  Ma says ya got some clothes needs cleaning?  Jest toss ‘em over th wall an I’ll get ‘em done.”

“Thank you.”  She said, then frowned, “Can you find me something else to wear in the meantime?  A robe or whatever’s fine.  We lost most of our gear just over a week ago, honestly I could really use a few spare sets of clothes.”

“Ma can size ‘em an bring ya sommat.”  He said as she wrapped her clothes in a bundle and passed them over to him.  “Did ya want me ta clean th armor too?  I work in th stables so I knows leather care.”

Callindra hesitated, she liked to care for her own gear, but was sadly lacking in supplies and time.  “That would be great, thanks.  I would gladly pay you for running some errands too if you’d be so kind?  But first I need to get clean.”

“I’m th best runner in town.”  He boasted, as though this were a city that was big enough to have real errand runners.  “If i can’t get it we don’t got it.”

She thought about that for a minute and supposed that finding things in a small town might actually be more difficult than finding them in a big city in some respects.  While she was still soaking, allowing the hot water to ease out the aches from days in the saddle, her runner returned.

“I gotcher spares … miss?”

“I’m sorry, my name’s Callindra.”  She said lazily, “Can you bring them in here?  I’m the only one over here right now so don’t worry about getting into trouble.”

“What?”  He squeaked.

“I don’t want them to get wet if you toss them over the wall.”  Said Callindra, “It’s no big deal, but I’m sunk into water up to my neck if you’re shy.”

“I ain’t shy!”  The boy said defiantly, “I just don’t wanna get my head busted if another girl comes in.”

“I can protect you if that’s your worry.”  She said with a chuckle, and he ran in, set down some clothes on a bench and ran out again before she stopped laughing.  “What’s your name?”

“Ardie.”  He said, “What else ya need?”

Callindra climbed from the bath and toweled off, “I need a couple spare sets of breeches and shirts, a riding cloak, some travel rations, a tent if you can find one, and l really need a whetstone, polishing cloth, oil, and a kit for my armor too… if it’s not too much trouble.”

The clothes he’d left were skirts and a blouse, obviously for a girl much younger than herself.  With a sigh of resignation, she put them on.  It wouldn’t hurt to wear women’s clothes for a night.

“Ya, I can get it for ya.”  He said without hesitating, “Cost ya twenny five silver.”

She put the clothes on, picked up her sheathed sword with her baldric and pouches on it and walked around the screen.  Looking at the boy, she decided she liked him and handed him three gold marks without arguing.  He stared at them for a moment, then looked back at her with his mouth slightly agape.

“Go on then.  I’m paying for swift and efficient service.”  She said in a mock stern voice.  Before she could smile or show that she wasn’t serious he had run from the room.  Callindra sighed and ran her hand through her short brown hair.  Maybe she looked more intimidating than she had thought, although she doubted it while wearing skirts.

She wandered through the common room, the minstrel was playing a more lively tune now that the Countess had gone upstairs and more than one man tried to pull her into some kind of a dance before they noticed the sword slung over her back.  Instead of heading straight to bed, she walked back to the table where her friends were lingering over their tankards and sat, signalling the wench for her own ale.

“Excuse me – “  Tryst stopped, his cheeks reddening slightly, “Callindra, I hardly recognized you.”

“Ha, you owe me!”  Cronos said, pointing a finger at Vilhylm, “You said she’d never wear ‘em!”

Vilhylm passed over a stack of gold coins and Cronos gave one to the serving wench who was bringing Callindra’s ale.  She took it and looked at him with a raised eyebrow.

“One for sizing the clothes for her.”  He laughed, seeming to be tipsy and focused his attention back on Callindra  “I thought that was gold gone sister!”

“Don’t mind him.”  Vilhylm said, noting the dark look on her face.  “But you really shouldn’t sit like that in skirts.”

“I’m no damn lady.”  She snapped, taking a pull from her tankard and ignoring the winds that tugged at her clothes and made the torches dance.  “I’ll sit however I want.”

The common room went completely silent as all eyes were drawn to the top of the stairs.  The Countess Adbar stood there, clad only in a thin silk robe that did little to hide what lay beneath.  One slender finger beckoned and Vilhylm rose as if summoned by magic, even leaving his pack and cloak behind.

Watching him go, Callindra felt nervous.  She was surprised to find that she actually distrusted the Countess, although she couldn’t say why.  It wasn’t as though she begrudged her friend a tumble, she certainly had no designs in that direction, but it was hard not to dismiss the feeling as simple jealousy.

“Another round on me.”  Cronos said, and fixed her with a sloppy grin.  “Since you were kind enough to win me some gold and I am feeling a bit generous.”

Rather than give into her feelings of fear and mistrust Callindra gave over to the comfort of good ale, good company and a warm taproom.  It had been a long time since they had been able to enjoy themselves and they had all earned it.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 14

Eugene

The ride back to his destination only took about fifteen minutes which was a blessing since it was one long extended awkward silence.  Eugene’s mind was racing; all he could do was try and prioritize the feelings of panic by danger level.

The first and foremost was that thought he’d seen some of Nikitin Fedorov’s men around the corner from the Scott’s house.  He was pretty sure they weren’t going to try anything with the insane police presence that was there but it was worrisome nonetheless.  They were impatient and he was pretty sure it was them who had tried to kidnap her today on the freeway; if they didn’t mind a broad daylight carjacking the odds of them being worried about an after-hours kidnapping were unlikely at best.

The Institute for Scientific Cancer Research was really a shadow organization Nikitin had used to funnel money into Eugene’s research.  He hadn’t wanted to get involved with either the Russian mafia or the Department of Defense but his options were limited after his grant money had run out.

He was also uncertain about what the damn General was up to.  That old bastard was after his fourth star before he retired and Eugene wouldn’t put it past him to have some hidden agenda here.  He wasn’t on a Veteran’s Affairs board; he was in the Spec Ops Development division.  That was definitely trouble regardless of the specifics.

Eugene also shuddered at the possibilities of what might be happening to the girl herself.  He was astonished with her reactions to even the most basic of situations.  Not just leaping from a speeding car the instant before it had hit the guardrail and escaping unscathed; something which had hospitalized and nearly killed him.  No, she had also responded like a battle hardened soldier during the police raid.  He had scanned the logs and her heart rate had been rock steady, no adrenaline, not even erratic breathing.

His breathing, on the other hand, was anything but stable.  Eugene forced himself to take a deep breath, “Mr. Scott, please make sure your daughter’s safe OK?  I know she’s important to you but I want you to know that the technology she has is the culmination of my life’s work.  I won’t let anything happen to her next weekend when we go to the trade show.”

“I don’t know about what the fuck happened today, but if it happens again I won’t hesitate to call this shit off.  There’s no way… listen, if you let those assholes get within a hundred meters of her I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”  Rich was shaking as he parked in front of the address Eugene had given him and there was little doubt as to his sincerity.

“No need for the melodramatic threats Rich.  I certainly don’t intend to allow any harm to come to her.”  He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair, “I really don’t know what General Hallbeck was talking about but I’m pretty sure your daughter being an American citizen of legal voting age will keep him from forcing her to do anything she doesn’t want to.  That and her indomitable spirit, I think she’d tell the devil himself to get stuffed if he made a request that didn’t suit her liking.”

Rich seemed to recover his composure slightly, “Well there is that.  She has always been a strong willed girl; well young woman now I suppose.”  He leaned over and extended his hand, “I won’t apologize because I meant what I said; but I appreciate that you’re concerned for her too.  Even if it’s mostly for what you have invested in her.”

Leaning over to take his hand, Eugene shook it firmly.  “Thanks for the lift.”  The grip Rich had on his hand tightened to the point of dizzying agony.

“Have a good night Doctor.”  He let go and Eugene quickly got out of the car.

“Yeah, you too Rich.”  After the car pulled away, he looked up at the apartment building he’d asked to be driven to.  “Now to talk with Nikitin and get him to call off his goddamn dogs before this whole thing comes crashing down around me.”  He squared his shoulders and walked up to the doorman.

“I’m Doctor Arlington, I need to see Mr. Fedorov.  He’s not expecting me.”  As the man turned to talk into a speaker on the wall, the bulge of a large firearm underneath his jacket was a stark reminder of exactly who he was dealing with.

The doorman was turning back to him, “You come at an opportune moment Doctor.  The young master has requested your presence.”  He smiled; a humorless slash across his face, “I’ll see you again, but you may not see me on the way out.”  He adjusted his shoulder holster meaningfully.  “Take the elevator to the penthouse.”

“I’ve been here before Jeeves.  Just watch the door; I’ll be out in a few.”  What was Dmitri doing giving orders? The eldest son shouldn’t be overstepping like this if Nikitin was in town.  That had to be what the doorman meant by ‘The Young Master’ what else would that mean?

Pushing the button for the 30th floor, Eugene attempted to get his thoughts in order.  He knew almost nothing about Dmitri other than he was young; in his early twenties and rumor had it he was a little mentally unhinged.  Damn, this wasn’t going to be easy.  The door opened all too quickly for Eugene and a man in an immaculate blue pinstripe suit was waiting for him.

“The young master will see you immediately.”  The man gave him a cursory pat down and then turned and gestured, “This way please Doctor.”  He began to lead the way through a foyer towards a set of carved doors with ivory handles.

“What does Dmitri want to see me for?”  Eugene was trying to get anything he could to prepare himself for this meeting; he was completely in the dark.

If it was a surprise that Eugene knew he was here to see the son and not the father, his guide didn’t show it.  “He has instructed me to say nothing until he can tell you himself.”  The man kept walking and opened a door, motioning for him to enter.

“I’ve been waiting for you Doctor Arlington.  I understand you had some business with my father, and now I wish you to have some business with me.”  Dmitri didn’t sound like a wet behind the ears punk.  He sat behind a large mahogany desk, presumably his father’s.  The suit he was wearing fit perfectly and looked freshly pressed.  An ashtray on the table was full of cigarette butts and he was lighting another.

“Where is your father?  I’m surprised to see you sitting behind his desk.”  Eugene felt the urge to smoke; something he hadn’t felt for five years.  He forced it to the back of his mind.

“That’s why I have called you here.”  He leaned forward and tapped the ash of his cigarette in the ashtray.  “He is in a coma.  Apparently the Italians caught wind of some investment he made with you and tried to capture it today.  It ended up in a car crash that left two of his men dead and him unconscious and at the edge of death.

“I need to know what he was involved with and I need to know now.  Those Italians are going to make another move now that they think we’re weak and if I don’t have all my cards on the table we are going to be at a disadvantage.”  He leaned back, took a deep drag on his cigarette and exhaled a cloud of smoke.  “So what do you have that is so amazing that my father was willing to die for it?”

Eugene was caught so completely off guard that he forgot to lie.  “You’ve heard on the news about the so-called cyborg?”  Dmitri nodded, “Well she’s real.  I invented the technology that created her and your father financed part of that invention.”

“Ivanov.  Vodka.”  The man in the blue pinstripe suit seemed to appear from nowhere with a bottle and two glasses.

“Of course young master, do you require anything else?”  At a curt shake of Dmitri’s head he set a fresh pack of Nat Sherman Black cigarettes on the desk and left as unobtrusively as he had come.

“So… a secret worth killing for.”  Dmitri poured two generous glasses of straight vodka and slid one across the desk into Eugene’s waiting hand.  He then took the final two cigarettes from a pack, put them in his mouth, lit them and passed one over.  “So what do we need to do in order to protect this investment?”

“I don’t really know Dmitri; this is new territory for me.”  Eugene’s resolve failed him and he took a pull on the cigarette.  Yeech, how had he used to smoke these things?  He stubbed it out in the ashtray.  “She’s just a girl you know, just a normal girl.”  The vodka, however, was amazing, “What do you have in mind?  It’s not like we can give her a guard day and night or anything.”

“Correction.  You cannot have her followed, but for me it would be a simple thing.  If this is as big as it seems to be what happened today will not be the last attempt they make.”  He had already finished his glass of vodka and was pouring another.

“She’d notice; that’s why.”  Eugene shook his head.  He’d underestimated Victoria as well.  “You seem to think everyone’s as smooth as your Ivanov but even I spotted your goons outside her house today.”

Dmitri leaned forward on the desk fixing Eugene with an uncomfortably direct stare. “I do not have anyone watching her house.  How could I?  Until just a couple seconds ago I did not even know about her.  If you value the life of this girl you need to give me her address.  Now.”

An icy finger of fear began sliding down Eugene’s spine.  This man was used to having people obey without question.  “Not to worry, there are cops crawling all over her house.  It seems someone called in a terrorist threat there and a SWAT team kicked their door in this afternoon.  Not even the hardest of criminals is going to try anything with that many black and whites in the area.”

Dmitri closed his eyes and leaned back, taking a deep drag on his cigarette.  “You would have no way of knowing this but the Italians own the police.  That is likely why they were called in the first place.”  Exhaling through his nose he stood, pulling a pistol from the top drawer of his desk “What is the address?  What is her name?  You will be staying here; you would only get in our way.”

“Listen this is a quiet residential neighborhood, you can’t just go in and start a gunfight!”  He was halfway out of his chair when a hand pushed him back into it as though he was an infant.

“What.  Is the address?”  A quiet voice that was obviously used to getting what it wanted purred from behind him, “We don’t exactly have all night here Doctor Arlington.”  The hand on his shoulder tightened like a vice.

Not having any other option, Eugene killed the rest of his vodka and told them, “4487 Honeysuckle Terrace.  Just don’t kill anyone if you can help it OK?”

“You are a doctor.  Stick to what you are good at and I will do what I do best.”  He gestured to the men standing behind Eugene.  “Time to go.  Those Italian bastards have overstepped their boundaries twice today; we are going to make them pay.”

As he reached the door he turned back, “4487?  That is Victoria Scott’s house.  Derr ‘mo, I went to high school with her.  She’s this… Machine Girl?”  He scrubbed a hand over his face, “I had a thing for her for a while ago but she was too young and way out of my league.  Fate is a funny thing.”

With that he turned and stalked from the room, leaving Eugene to wait alone.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 31

“I don’t believe it.”  Vilhylm muttered for the tenth time as he stared through a spyglass at the city far below them.  The rest of them were too speechless to utter a single word.

The city of Dagger’s Falls was burning.  All of the farms outside the walls were nothing but charred stubble and beyond the Third Circle wall there wasn’t a single house standing.  Fighting raged between the wall of the Second Circle and the First Circle walls.  The entire First Circle was covered in a huge translucent dome crafted of pure arcane energy that glittered in the early morning sunlight like it was wrought of precious stones.  None of that compared to what was above.

An immense winged shape, black as midnight glided above the dome of the First Circle.  As they watched, it breathed a jet of liquid obsidian streaked with flickering emerald fire that splattered thickly against the dome, evaporating into a sickly fog that burned as it touched down in the Second Circle.  The were too far away, but Callindra imagined she could hear the screams of the dying.

They moved back from the edge of the hill, crawling on hands and knees so as to avoid notice.  None of them wanted to attract the attention of that monster, no matter how unlikely it might be.

“There’s no way we can cross here.”  Tryst said grimly, “We shouldn’t even be this close, an army that size probably has outriders for miles.”

“I didn’t see any outriders.  I didn’t see any supply wagons or the usual trappings an army has.”  Vilhylm said, stowing his spyglass.  “Something’s definitely not right there.”

“Let’s get out of here first and chew gristle about what’s not right about the city being destroyed by an army following a god rotting dragon later!”  Callindra hissed, finally finding her voice.

Cronos nodded his agreement, his face as pale as hers.  “I don’t like this.  Not this place, not that fight.”  He looked at Tryst apologetically, “Not this mission either.”

“But we don’t have a choice.”  Tryst protested, “We must cross, we must complete our mission!”

“Nobody is saying we won’t go.”  Callindra said quickly, “Just that it’s suddenly more difficult than it was in the beginning.  Especially now that we can’t cross the river here.”

They made their way back to where their horses were tethered in a small meadow.  Callindra looked mistrustfully at the foul tempered dun mare she’d been given.  She didn’t blame the creature for being cranky, that small keep had been full of mistrustful angry people and little fodder.  To her surprise, the animal bumped her playfully with its head and whickered a welcome.

“Good to see you too.”  She said scratching it behind the ears before mounting up.

They cantered upstream, following the steep riverbank and looking about for any way that they might be able to cross.  It was a fruitless effort though.  The river had cut through soft stone to form deep ravines, the only places that were not cliffs were where the stone was harder but waterfalls had formed there and those were certainly not passable either.

After riding for the rest of day, they made camp in a copse of trees, taking what shelter they could from the horrors they’d witnessed that day.

The night was blessedly uneventful and the next morning while Vilhylm busied himself preparing breakfast, the rest of them sat around the fire.

“How in the hells are we gonna get across the river?”  Callindra said, “We can’t possibly travel all the way up the next bridge, it’d take at least a month.”

“Our mission is far too important to wait that long.”  Tryst said, “We absolutely must communicate with the Druids in the High Forest before the situation becomes more desperate than it already is.”

“Perhaps I could be of some small assistance?”  The voice was coming from Cronos’s mouth but it wasn’t his.  This was the dry, emotionless voice Callindra had heard before when the boy had been killed by Dergeras in Tyreen’s tree.

“No!”  Cronos struggled, trying to get up from where he sat.  “Master, I don’t want-”

“What you want is immaterial apprentice.”  The voice interrupted, cutting him off.  “This mission is nearly as critical to the world as the young priest believes it to be.”

“Really?”  Tryst’s face shone with religious fervor, “I mean, I knew it was important but-”

“I said nearly as critical.”  The voice said, “You have a vastly inflated opinion of yourself youngling.  Something that seems to run in your family.”

“But how can you help us?”  Callindra asked, “What are you going to do, fly us over to the other side?  I thought Cronos said you were dead.”

“Ha!  You have a mouth on you girl.”  He laughed, “I like that in a whelp.  Shows your grit, and Gods know you’re going to need every single shred of strength you can muster to survive what’s coming.  I’ll let you all eat your breakfast, then we’ll take care of your little river problem.”

Cronos looked at them with a haunted expression on his face and Callindra folded her arms.

“Talk.”  She said, her voice flat, “Before I was willing to just let it go and watch you to see if you went crazy on us again, but now I want answers and by the Absent Gods I’m going to get them.

He took a deep breath and blew it out.  Callindra reached into her belt pouch and took out her pipe, stuffing the bowl with tac and lighting it with a splinter from the fire.  She puffed it alight and leaned back against her saddle with the air of someone who had all the time in the world.  When Vilhylm brought over toasted bread and cheese Cronos finally started talking.

“My Master was working on some kind of experiment.  I don’t know what it was and he won’t tell me… but it was important.  It had something to do with a power of old and some war long since passed, but he had done things like it many times before so I just assumed it was more of the same.

“Something went wrong.  I don’t know what it was, but I believe something … felt him probing.  It saw him from the other side of… time?  Whatever it was saw him and with a flicker of power more vast than worlds destroyed him.  Being the God rotting bastard that he is, he had LINKED our minds and bodies.

“So when he died, a part of him and part of his power attached to me.  At times he is able to use it, or to force me to use it or…”  He ran his fingers through his hair, bowing his head for a moment.  “I don’t know how it works.  Even though he has apparently used it to save my life I’d almost rather he’d let me die.  Nobody should be forced to live with another person in their head.”

The food in Callindra’s mouth lost its flavor.  She cleaned the dottle out of her pipe and carefully stowed it in its watertight case.  “I’m not sure if it’s a good idea to trust a dead man living in your head.”

Cronos laughed, “I DON’T trust him!”  He said, “Would YOU trust someone who did this to you?”

“I must cross the river.”  Tryst said grimly, “I will take whatever chances I must but I will not ask the rest of you to do the same.”

“Oh don’t be so cursed melodramatic of course we’re coming with.”  Callindra said, punching him on the arm.  The look of relief on his face as the others chimed in made her forget her fear about what was to come, and even deadened the pain she felt about failing Glarian.  She would get through this.  They would get through this.  The only other option was to give up and that just wasn’t something any of them would accept.

“So you want us all to just… ride toward the cliff at speed?”  Vilhylm asked, staring incredulously at Cronos.

“You expect our horses to jump?”  Said Tryst, “These nags?”

“My girl can do it.”  Callindra said with a feral grin.  She patted her horse’s neck and the animal whickered eagerly.  “See?  Let’s do this!”

“The only way the magic works is if you believe it works.”  The voice that wasn’t Crono’s voice said.

Callindra couldn’t help it, she burst out laughing.  “Oh come on now, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!  Magic is a God rotting curse, if it was that easy to get rid of it I’d be free.  How about you stop playing the fool so we can get this over with?”

“Oh you’re no bedamned fun.”  He said, giving her a disgruntled look.  “The beasts will be happier if you blindfold them.  You all can close your eyes too if it makes you feel better.”

They all bound cloths over the eyes of their mounts who snorted and tossed their heads in annoyance but otherwise took the treatment with good grace.  Walking their mounts to the edge of the cliff, they paused to look down at the water churning far below.  The horses snorted and stamped nervously.

“Time to go.”  Callindra muttered, swinging into the saddle.  Looking back along the road that followed the river she caught a glimpse of something moving.  “Hey, someone’s out there.”  She whispered to her companions.

“What?”  Vilhylm had been looking dubiously at Cronos but now he swung his gaze to follow hers.  “Trouble, we need to move!”

Cronos grimaced and his master’s voice cursed, “Sorry, no time for the kid gloves.”

A group of humanoid creatures, running fast and using their arms as much as their legs broke from the bushes near the road.  Before they had covered half the distance, an impact like falling into water from on high slammed into Callindra and her friends, tossing them through the air like thrown stones.  The horses screamed in fear, thrashing about.

Timing the landing, Callindra managed to tuck and roll, absorbing most of the shock of the landing but still bruising herself on rocks and sticks.  The others didn’t fare so well, Tryst getting the worst when he tumbled into a thorn bush.  Cronos crumpled as though he was a puppet with broken strings.

The best part was the creatures on the other side of the ravine screaming their rage to the sky.  Their anger made it all worthwhile.  Callindra laughed and made a rude gesture toward them and fell onto her back.

“We made it!”  She said, her voice rough from the terror that had gripped her until she realized she was going to survive.

Machine Girl: Welcome to the Machine Chapter 13

“This room is clear.”  A couple of cops were cuffing Victoria’s parents and one was moving in on her while the rest moved throughout the house.

“What the fuck is THIS?”  He tugged on the cord plugged into her head.

“Please don’t remove that!”  The man paused; the desperation in her voice was as genuine as it could possibly be.

“Is this hooked up to an explosive?  What did these people do to you?”  He was already on his radio, “We need the bomb squad in here!”  He put his knee on her back to hold her still and snapped the handcuffs on her wrists.

“No, it’s for my prosthetic.  It’s just a charger for my prosthetic I won’t be able to move until it charges.  Please just leave us alone we didn’t do anything.”  Several cops with tool boxes and diagnostic devices burst through the door.

“She’s wired?  Let’s have a look.  This doesn’t appear to be anything dangerous.”  One of them squatted carefully down next to her and followed the cable to the wall and scratched his head.  “It’s just a 12 volt power source at the wall but I can’t figure out why it’s going under her hair.”  He lifted her hair gently, exposing where her scalp was shaved and the shining steel coupler that was surgically grafted to her skull.  “Holy shit!  Greg, take a look at this!”

“It’s my prosthetic damn it!”  She wasn’t sure why they had come here, but was afraid it might have had something to do with the ‘accident’ with the SUV this morning or possibly with the men who had attacked her and the Doc in the afternoon.  “Why are you here anyway?”

“Just try and keep still, if this is some kind of explosive device I don’t want to activate it by accident.”  He was still

holding her hair in one hand and put his other on her shoulder in what was probably supposed to be a calming gesture.

“Don’t touch my daughter you bastard!”  The officer had finished handcuffing her father and he was able to see what was happening now.  “Who are you and how dare you invade my house like this?”

“We got a tip there was a terrorist plot being planned here and that there were possibly bomb making supplies inside.  Maybe even completed explosive devices.”  He turned and looked at the officers who had Victoria and her parents subdued.  “We’d better clear the house just in case.  I’ve never seen anything like this before.  We need to wait for an expert.”

The door slammed open and every officer in the room swung their firearm towards it.  “An expert is here.  I’ll have your badge if you’ve damaged that piece of equipment.”  As a group they all lowered their weapons as a man in a military uniform with stripes all the way down the arm and enough metal on his chest to build a battleship walked in.

“General, I thought you were at the Congressional budget meeting.  What are you doing here?”  One of the officers was looking up in surprise, “I knew you were here to oversee our last spec ops training but-“

He was interrupted by the man at the door, “No time for that right now.  I’m not sure who tipped you off that this family had something to do with terrorists but I can assure you they do not. Uncuff them immediately; this family is participating in a project of the utmost importance to National security.”

The officers hurried to comply and Victoria and her family were released quickly.  She sat up, thankful that the charging cable was still plugged into her head.

Her father was rubbing his wrists, “Who are you and what do you think I’m involved in?”  He fixed the man with an angry glare.

“His name is General Charles Regan Hallbeck.  He’s the commander of the Special Forces division of the US Marine Corps and head of the recently formed Cybernetic Research department.”  Victoria tried to keep the shock from her face as she relayed this information; she had no idea why she knew it.

“Your information is impressively accurate Miss Scott.  Perhaps we could talk a bit more privately?”  Charles glanced meaningfully at the officers in the room.

“I’ll put on some coffee.”  Her mom was taking refuge in being domestic; something which suddenly seemed like a wonderful thing to fall back on.

“Coffee would be great.”  He pulled up a chair and sat, “I’d like to know exactly how you know who I am?  I funded the project which gave you this new lease on life but I don’t believe that even Dr. Arlington knew about my involvement.”  He leaned forward and folded his hands, “So exactly how is it you know this?”

“I don’t know; I guess I must have seen it on TV or something.”  Victoria was trying to find a comfortable way to sit with the cable plugged into her head.  She glanced out the window, “Looks like your ride’s here.”  A black Tahoe pulled up in front of the house and she could see ‘Military Escort’ floating over it in ghostly letters.

“You mean OUR ride.  I need to take you in for a debriefing of the utmost importance.”  He glanced at her father then back at her.  “Your country needs you and you need us.”

“Did you know the mafia is out there?”  She looked out the window at a nondescript sedan parked down the street.  “Am I to understand they’re here for me too?  The military, the mob and the cops all at once?  How do I rate anyway?”  She was trying not to panic, taking refuge in sarcasm but was surprised that her voice was even and calm in spite of the fact that she felt like a trapped rat.

He grimaced, “I can explain everything to you but I would prefer to do so in a more secure area.”  Victoria’s new cell phone vibrated in the pocket of her skirt.

“Wow, I can’t believe this thing survived today.”  She pulled it out and saw Eugene’s number, “Hello?”

“Victoria?  Thank God, I was afraid you were… well that they’d gotten you.  Listen, if the military arrives before I can make it there don’t tell them anything.  Not about your prosthetic, not about the fuckers who attacked us today and absolutely nothing about the shit that went down this morning on your way to school, understand?”

“Yeah no problem, I’ll see you tomorrow.”  She wondered how he knew about the military being at her house; everyone seemed to know what was going on but her.

“I’ll be there in five minutes or less.  Just hang in there and find some excuse not to leave.”  He hung up and she looked at her dad.

“Just cheer team drama, nothing to worry about.  TT’s throwing her weight around again.”

“Listen Miss Scott; we need to leave immediately.  Especially if you have reason to believe there are undesirable elements in the neighborhood.”  He leaned forward urgently.

“I can’t leave yet.”  She gestured with the cable plugged into the base of her skull.  “If this doesn’t charge all the way I risk compromising the integrity of the main batteries.  At least that’s what the technical documents I was sent home with claim.  I’m worried that I already screwed something up by draining them all the way down today, I don’t want to risk further damage.”

He looked less than pleased, “Fine, the last thing we want to do is damage the equipment.”

“Listen General, I don’t think my daughter is old enough or recovered enough to handle whatever project you think she needs to be involved in.  She has barely gotten over the surgery and besides; she’s still in high school.”

“We wanted to wait until the prototype was fully tested but I’m afraid this situation has become more urgent than we anticipated.  I’m afraid I don’t have clearance to tell you anything else unless you’re involved in the mission.”  Victoria’s mom came in the room with a carafe of coffee and a tray of cups.

“Cream?  Sugar?”  She handed Victoria a cup of black coffee and mixed cream with one spoonful of sugar for her father.

“No thanks, I prefer it black.” The general accepted a steaming cup from her and his cell phone rang.  He answered it and then looked up sharply, “Are you expecting someone?  A man just got out of a taxi and is coming up your sidewalk.”

“How do you know that?”  Victoria looked at him suspiciously, “Are you having our house watched?”

“It’s just my driver, I asked him to keep an eye on things for me.  You don’t expect me to just be sitting in your living room without backup do you?”

“Why not?”  The doorbell rang, “After all this is just a normal suburban neighborhood.”  Her father was getting up to answer the door.

General Hallbeck glanced at his phone again as it chimed with an incoming text message, “Never mind, it’s just Dr. Arlington.”

Victoria heaved a sigh of relief that turned into a gasp of dismay when the door admitted a battered and bruised looking Eugene.  His left arm was in a sling, his face had several freshly stitched cuts and his left eye was swollen nearly closed.  He looked like shit.

“Ohmygod are you sure you should be out of the hospital?”  Victoria would have gone over to him if the damn cord hadn’t still been plugged into her head.

He laughed and grimaced; she guessed broken ribs.  “Actually they didn’t want to discharge me but I needed to check on you to make sure you were safe.”  He glanced involuntarily at the General, “I know you’ve been through a lot today.”

“What happened to you?”  Victoria’s dad walked back to his chair shaking his head, “You look like you were hit by a train!”

“Doctor, come in and sit!  You shouldn’t be on your feet!”  Victoria’s mom was herding him into an arm chair and pressing a cup of coffee into his hands.  “Victoria’s fine except for a dead battery and some miscommunication with the police.”  She rolled her eyes and laughed a nervous little laugh, “Someone apparently reported that we are terrorists.”

“I got in a car accident.  I’m lucky Porsche builds such a solid car; I got off easy with just a fractured radius and a few contusions.  That’s what I get for talking on my cell phone right?  The car’s totaled though, thank goodness for insurance.”

Victoria heard a hiss of static, like she had in the hospital and this time, she put it together.  Somehow this was a warning that someone was telling a lie.  Could this be some sort of a glitch?  Or a program?  Or…

Charles stood and straightened his jacket, medals jingling.  “I should get back, the work doesn’t stop coming in when I leave.”  He handed Victoria a business card, “Think about it and get back to me.”  With a nod to her mother he added, “Thanks for the coffee.”

When he had gone, Eugene let out a breath he seemed to have been holding.  “Don’t deal with him OK?  I’m not sure what he wants to use you for but it’s bound to be dangerous and probably experimental.”  He took a sip of coffee.

“What on Earth is going on here Dr. Arlington?  First the police and now the military?  Toria mentioned the mafia and while I don’t really take that seriously I guess I wouldn’t rule it out at this point.  What could she possibly do for the military?  Why would the police think we were terrorists?”  Her father stood abruptly from his chair and paced to the window, then back to stand in front of Eugene.

“I’m not stupid Doctor. I want some straight answers and I want them now, otherwise the deal’s off.  I’ll work for the rest of my natural life to pay off the bills but I won’t have my daughter involved in any dangerous or criminal activity.”

Eugene opened his mouth to answer but Victoria beat him to it, “Daddy, you’re overreacting.  I’m sure the terrorist thing was just a mistake.  I don’t know what the military wants but they won’t get it from me.  Just sit and have your coffee and let’s talk it out.”

“Yeah, I’m sure the police were really just some mistake.”  Eugene shrugged, “Who knows what the General wanted, but I will come clean about one thing.  I know him.  In fact he funded part of my research that led to the creation of the prosthetic you now wear.”

Victoria was certain that he wasn’t telling the whole truth.  He knew a lot more than he was saying but it was

difficult to know what

“But why would the military want to fund such research?”  Her father leaned in and set his coffee cup on an end table.  “It just doesn’t make sense.”

“He said for rehabilitation of soldiers injured in the line of duty.  After all, this technology has already worked wonders for soldiers who have lost limbs and has great potential for those who have become paralyzed.”  Eugene seemed sincere but Victoria knew why they would want this tech.  She had begun to experience it herself.   “I think he leads a committee on veteran’s affairs or something.”

Victoria didn’t need the whisper of static in her ear to know that Eugene was definitely lying.  He was scared too; not just worried but downright frightened.  Her dad still had a doubtful look on his face but her mother was already trying to smooth things over the way she always did.

“Well I’m glad that’s settled.  I mean we don’t want to cause problems for someone who has been so helpful to us.”  She was refilling coffee cups and had also brought a plate of cookies.

“Thanks Mrs. Scott, but I really should run the tests I need to and be on my way.  I’ve had a busy day and it looks like you could use a little family time yourselves.”  He pulled out a compact aluminum cased netbook and handed a diagnostic cable to Victoria.  She plugged it into the proper port without even looking; the slight click sent a warm shiver down her spine.

Eugene was already typing; his fingers a blur on the keyboard.  “Interesting, it’s adapting to you with amazing speed.  Look here; I think you’ll appreciate this Victoria.”  She leaned over his shoulder and saw nothing but a set of numbers that spun into a graph with many spikes and a plateau that dropped off after a short span.  His intention became clearer when she looked at the caption of the graph.

“Water intake?  What was it doing?  Cooling itself or something?”  She asked as he kept punching keys and after a short time responded with a chuckle.

“I’ll be damned.  I guess you did have some leftover chemicals from the operation in your system and it was working to clear them.  Look at this; even your sodium and potassium levels were off the charts.  It’s a good thing it triggered such a thirst or you would likely have had kidney stones.”  After a few more keystrokes he closed his computer and she handed him back the cable.

“Thanks for all your help today Doctor, I really appreciate it.”  She looked at him, wishing they had the chance to talk but knowing it wasn’t possible in front of her parents.

“No problem.  Stop by the lab tomorrow for a few more tests?”  It was as though he had read her mind.

“Yeah, sure.  Whatever you need Doc.”  She gave him a relieved grin.

“Well I suppose I should get going, I’ll call myself a cab.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, I’ll give you a ride home.”  Victoria’s dad was already putting on his hat, “I’m not going to make you pay for a taxi.”

After her father and Eugene left Victoria suddenly had the realization that her books and homework had been in the Porsche.  Shit!  She sighed and pulled her phone from her pocket to text Grace.  After all it wouldn’t be a good idea to try and talk to Jenny at this point.

“I forgot my books at school, I’m going to get ahold of Grace; she’ll get me what I need for tomorrow.  Can you bring my laptop from the den?  I don’t want to get up until this thing finishes charging.” She stayed sitting on the floor, leaning against the couch and sent a couple of quick texts to friends all the time wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself into.

The Callindra Chronicles Chapter 30

Closing her eyes, Callindra wove Brightfang in an intricate pattern, keeping her breath measured and even.  She called the arcane power that drove the very world to spin into herself and harnessed it.  Her eyes flashed open and she rushed the creatures, moving faster that she ever had before.  She was the wind and she danced between her enemies, her sword cutting huge rents into their bodies.

Pausing at the far side of the room, Callindra realized that the corpses hadn’t fallen and that they now stood between her and the door.  Cursing in fear and frustration she gathered herself, looking for a way out.  A had grabbed her ankle in a vice like grip.  She had forgotten the nurse.

The door burst open, Cronos and Vilhylm coming through nearly at a run.  Vilhylm leapt through the air, smashing both hands down with brutal force and bludgeoning one of the monsters to the floor.  Cronos was incanting arcane words and summoning bolts of power that flew from his fingertips to strike another.

Two still remained, both focused on Callindra.  One had her leg and continued to hold it, clawing at her unprotected calf with its other had but she kicked the hand away, managing to stumble out of the way of the other’s clumsy attack.

“Hurry, they’re getting stronger!”  She warned, hacking awkwardly at what had been the nurse.

Behind her friends, shouts of alarm could be heard.  Soldiers came through the, weapons drawn and eyes angry.  When they took in the scene, their horror was strong enough to send two of them running back out the door screaming in panic.

“Help her you thrice cursed cowards!”  Cronos shouted at their retreating backs.  The others seemed too shocked to do  more than hide behind their shields.

Vilhylm took one of the heavy beds and hurled it at the only creature still standing.  The frame cracked from the impact and the monster was crushed beneath it.  Callindra shrieked in pain as the one remaining enemy raked her leg with sharp claws.  With a sharp double swing of Brightfang she severed both its arms (Dragonfly Lands on the Pond).

“This is what you were hiding?”  She demanded, “You had infected here the whole time?”
“I didn’t know.”  One of the soldiers said faintly, “They never told us…”

“Well you certainly could have guessed!”  Cronos shouted, “Or perhaps you could have god rotting CHECKED!”

“They said it was contagious, that only those with special protections against the illness could hope to enter.”  The soldier said, “How were we to know?”

“My brother was exposed to this.”  Cronos said, his voice dark with anger, “If it truly is contagious and he’s infected it will be a very bad day for you.”

Vilhylm had removed his mask and returned to a more normal size and demeanor, but his anger was also apparent.  “This was a grave mistake.  I will speak to the Mayor about it.”

The measured tramp of feet came from outside.  The last creature that Callindra had hacked into pieces was still writhing on the floor but she left it there.  Let them see what evil Mayor Iason had been hiding.  The soldiers stopped outside the door.

“I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”  Captain Luca said, his voice flat and emotionless.  “We shall give you provisions and horses for your assistance, but you must leave now.”

“You’re all mad if you stay here.”  Callindra said, looking at the ranks of soldiers behind him, “You’ll all die.  There’s something here that’s spreading THAT!”  She pointed at the figure that still moved on the floor in spite of not having a head or hands.

“This never happened to people before you came!”  One of the soldiers in the back shouted, “Get gone and be thankful we’re giving you anything!”

“We aren’t thieves.”  Luca said, “We have brought your belongings to the front gate, along with provisions and horses.  Your priest tried his level best and we appreciate that, however he only made things worse.  His presence seems to aggravate the condition.”

“You may not be thieves.”  Tryst’s tired voice said from behind the ranks of armed men, “But you are fools if you think you can hide from this behind walls.  I do not know what this sickness is, but if it ravages the world there is no wall that can possibly keep it out.”

Callindra looked in Luca’s eyes as she moved to join Tryst, and she could see the despair in them.  He knew they were right and that he had no way of keeping his people safe and he knew it, but he didn’t know what else to do.

“Good luck.”  Callindra said quietly to him as she passed, “You are going to need it.”

They had been making much better time now that they were mounted again, after three days the forest began to thin and give way to rolling hills.  Vilhylm began to get more and more tense the further they traveled.  He began to ride ahead when they approached taller hills in order to get the lay of the land before allowing the others to continue.  After a day of this, Cronos finally lost his patience.

“What in the hells are you doing?”  He demanded when Vil had returned from one of his forays, “It’s going to take us forever to get to the High Forest at this rate.”

“The lack of any human presence is disturbing me.”  Vilhylm said, “We should have at least come across a patrol by this point, but we haven’t seen anyone.”

“What city are we approaching?”  Callindra asked, wondering why there would be patrols this far out in the wilderness.

“We are only about a day or two from Dagger’s Falls.”  Vilhylm replied, “That smoke is also worrisome.”

“Smoke?”  Tryst said, “What smoke?”

They all scanned the horizon and Vilhylm pointed to what they had all thought was a thunderstorm.  Now that they looked, they could see the black and gray smoke rising from a fire of unimaginable proportions.

“What could possibly cause that large of a blaze?”  Callindra whispered, “There’s just… no way….”

“I’m afraid it’s the city.”  Vilhylm said.

“That’s impossible.”  Said Cronos, “There are over a million people in that city, the guards alone number in the hundreds of thousands.  Nothing could destroy a city that large.  No army in the known lands could possibly lay siege to it.”

“True enough.”  Tryst said, his voice grim. “Unless that sickness or whatever it is has spread.”

The idea stopped all of them cold.  It was almost too much to contemplate.

“You don’t think that’s possible do you?”  Callindra asked, “I mean, wouldn’t we have seen… something?”

“Exactly my point.” Said Vilhylm.  The rest of them fell silent.

“All right.  So we continue cautiously until we can see the city.”  Callindra said, “If I recall what I’ve seen of the maps, it’s on the coast right?  We should have the high ground, it ought to be easy enough for us to see what’s happening there.”

“Yes, but until we get there we must be careful.  If the city is truly besieged the odds of us running into hostile forces are high.”  Vilhylm said, “We do not number nearly enough to survive such an encounter, so I am being careful.”

“If the city is under attack, how will we cross the river?”  Callindra asked, “I thought the only bridge of the WHATEVER river this far south was at Dagger’s Falls.”

“We might be able to find a ford.”  Cronos said doubtfully, “I don’t remember this part of the world very well though.”

“No, the WHATEVER river is far too swift and generally runs through deep ravines that it has carved out of the landscape.”  Callindra said, “If we can’t cross at Dagger’s Falls then we will be forced to backtrack for days, or maybe even weeks before we find a safe crossing.”

“Well, we will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”  Tryst said without a trace of amusement.  After a moment, he added, “Or not I suppose.”  He was so deadpan that Callindra broke out laughing in spite of herself.  Cronos’s laugh was surprisingly mellow, reminding her that he was younger than she was, even if not by much.  Even Vilhylm smiled, the first time she had seen him do more than quirk up a corner of his mouth.

“We’ll get past it one way or another.”  Tryst said, smiling. “It can’t be as bad as all that, else we would have heard of it.”