“But, are you joking?”

Vardy looked at him with her piercing, white-blue optics. They reminded Jack of ice when it is lit by a low sun. Clear, hard and subtly blinding. “I had my ability to joke deleted several years ago, so no.”

Jack heard himself grunt. Well, he’d suspected she’d be two gigabytes short of a full hard-drive, but this was something else. “Right.”

Vardy’s long, needle-like fingers worked danced over the jet black circular terminal before her. She sat in the center of several such concentrically larger panels, suspended above the dirt ground. Backlit as she was by a wall of screens that stretched high into the air, which she could reach by virtue of the armatures of her chair, she looked…well, demonic. The headdress of metal, and the fact that she was nearly more augments than flesh didn’t help that impression any.

“No one’s ever attacked the Einz like this and lived,” Jack pointed out.

“But don’t you see? They would have to remove the shields on the outer rim of the city in order to let the smog seep through and choke the lower tiers. That’s when our armies can strike and use their own plan against them.”

“But you need people inside already.” Jack shifted his weight, taking his time in thinking how it was he could say this. “You remember what their safeguards are like?”

“I have no use for memory. It slows down my processing. I can, however, retrieve every schematic of every system up until the time of my departure from Einz and calculate our chance of success. Processing. Processing.” She looked off to the side, her cybernetic eyes glowing with activity.

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Calculations complete. At current estimates, we have a four percent chance of success.”

“So, you agree with me? This shit is crazy.”

“I do not agree. I had a zero percent chance of succeeding before you arrived. Things are moving in the right direction.”

Jack folded his arms over his chest. The heat caused by the massive amounts of technology in the chamber was stifling, and Jack’s already sweat-stained vest was sticking terribly. All the same, it was nice to be out of danger. At least for the moment.

“They’ll deploy the Hammerheads,” he said, thinking out-loud.

“They are scheduled for round-the-clock patrols from Day 20 on wards. They are also running select patrols now. I also intercepted communications about the Moons going live.”

Jack almost started. “Then there’s no way. If they have the Moon sentinels in every area of Einz, we can’t infiltrate.”

“I can hack them,” Vardy said, though she didn’t sound quite sure. “I know I can, I just need the relevant data. You can collect it for me when you get up there.”

“You…want us to catch one, don’t you? They’re people–”

“They were people. Now they’re just…circuitry and tissue. I have been able to collect some observations based on a defective unit that fell through the smog to land in the tar fields of Omcron. The fact that it remains in one piece after such a fall speaks to their regenerative powers.”

A proportion of the screens above Vardy flashed to a soft white, then in that rectangle a human cadaver was displayed. It’s skin was bleached a terrifying, onion silver, and running at its core was a spinal unit of vicious augments. From its back were long fibreoptic branches that, it was said, could spread over vast distances, knocking out technology and paralyzing organic life. To meet a Moon was to meet Death itself.

“This is what I have been able to extract: Cutting off the head or other limbs will do nothing. They will regenerate. However, if you can damage the central column of tech, you can prevent them from transmitting data. Cut from the hive, they are vulnerable. Their weakest point is a hand’s-width above the base of the back.”

“The sacrum?”

“Essentially, yes. The problem is–”

The tentacles of fibreoptics reared up and closed around an arm that had reached into view with a scalpel, ready to cut into the body. A scream, and the operating man’s skin began to bubble and then liquidize, running off his flesh in a thin slop.

“But, in Gorgenstan, a coder by the name of Jesule managed to create a data bomb that, for the moment, appears to slow the Moons down. When your friend Lee wakes up I can code it for him and he can download it. I also think Lee will be an unusual asset in the field.”

Jack lent against the wall, picking at the skin on his fingers that had cracked thanks to the desert sands and dry heat. “What he did out there…no person should be able to do, right?”

“Well, hacking a vehicle isn’t difficult. But that’s not exactly what he did. The data spike alone drew my attention.”  The metal of Vardy’s adornments turned an exquisite canary yellow. “How he is able to process the calculations for such total system control is baffling, let alone his ability to execute without major hardware interfaces. I can do it, of course. But I am here. Always here. There is a price for such high level augments, and this is mine. I am bound to this place now. My mind is no longer in this body, but throughout this technology. For him to be mobile…”

“That’s a heavy cost you paid.”

“It was necessary. To destroy the Einz: I would do it a thousand times over. I would pay again and again. But the question…the question…the question…”

Vardy was lost for a moment, her lights dimming, her fingers pausing in their always tapping dance. Then she looked up, and her metallic sheen turned deep blood red.

“We have visitors, seven life-signs. At least four are Einz. Two heavily augmented. Approaching from the north side.”

“That’s where we came from, right?”

“Yes. It is likely they are following your trail. What Lee did was extraordinary, but…the data spike. I attempted to mask it, but there is only so much one can do after the fact.”

“Can you let me see them?”

Vardy shot up into the air, spinning around and around as panel after panel of interfaces slipped under her fingers then slid away to make room for others.

A large monitor came forward, its armature creaking and squealing, and it angled down to Jack with impressive precision. It flickered, and then a face came into view.

“Sahara,” Jack said, looking at his vice-captain’s dark flesh and augmented laser eye. “That’s one of my crew. And Captain Flynn,” he pointed, noticing the tall man behind with the always twisted face. “I don’t know the others though.”

“I can’t find data on them. They are Wraiths. They are not in the stream. Threats alert: high. Initiating termination sequence.”

“No, don’t. Sahara’s on our side, I’m sure of it. She doesn’t like Trine, and she definitely ain’t a fan of the Golden Chain, but she’s not an Einz devout either. We could use her. And Captain Flynn, he’s got tactical knowledge and clearance codes.”

“The others?”

Jack eyed the band. One of them was a mutate, thick fur over all of his body and eyes like a bear’s, black as the darkest wells. “I don’t know, but Sahara was helping to intercept the Einz so we could get here. Could be she found some others or sent word.”

“Alternative theory: She called for reinforcements to destroy me and my work. I cannot allow that. Termination sequence is resumed.”

“No, don’t do that!”

On the screen, Jack watched as the sand exploded and from concealed pits there rose huge midnight blue hexacorallia, their stubby tentacles dancing in the air as their central masses pulsated. Electricity spun from their branches, lancing the ground around them. The group scattered, Sahara launching into a forward roll and then finding her feet to fire, once, twice. A direct hit to one hex knocked out its weapons, but there were several more to take its place.

“Stop!” A voice called from across the chamber.

In the cavern’s doorway Lee stood. His skin had greyed and there were dark circles under his eyes. He held to the door frame. “Their augments. Can’t you hear it?”

“I hear nothing anymore,” Vardy said. “Initiating sound analysis–”

“Don’t bother. They’re sending out a message. Must be on my secure frequency. I’m guessing Sahara’s not just a sharp shooter, right?”

Jack grunted.

“What is their purpose?”

Lee stumbled forward and then straightened up as best he could.

“They have come to answer your call, Vardy.” Lee looked right to Jack then and he smiled. “They are here to be your army.”


DAY 11>>>