Aphelion Issue 257, Volume 24
December 2020 / January 2021
 
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Peach Clobber

by William Joseph Roberts




"See, they need these long dangly thingies like this,” Tiff said, scribbling a crude design on the corner of a napkin. “They need to be able to wrap around the player like tentacles and pull them in where it can start chewing on them.”

“You do realize that will cost extra,” the programmer said with a heavy Russian accent. “If I have to develop and program new character features on top of translating this alien code, it could take years to complete this project. It is do-able, but until I dig further into the code I will not know what sort of changes I can even do.”

“You’re the top software engineer back on Earth, Ivan. If anyone can figure it out, it’s you. That’s why I hired you and brought you to Anderson.”

“You put a lot of faith in a drunken old man, little girl,” Ivan said then blew out a laugh. “I promise nothing, but as long as you pay and cover the room and board, I will do my very best.”

“Gravy! Let’s get to work then. The Polsians just hooked me up with a jackport this morning so I can test out the system for myself.”

“What was this software originally used for?” Ivan lit a cigarette, then adjusted his glasses, looking down his nose at the code as it scrolled across the screen.

“From what D’urket, our Polsian liaison said, it was originally a training program developed by the Krubrednu. They adapted it to their own technology from some long-dead and ancient race so they could complete training requirements in a fully immersive virtual reality instead of having to physically lift a finger.”

Ivan looked up at Tiff with a perturbed look of disdain. “I can see why it would be useful in some situations, depending on the training required, but you make it sound like they are a race of lazy slugs.”

“Well, they sorta are, actually. Not like, slimy or anything. They just look like four-foot-tall slugs with this weird tentacle hair and teeth.” Tiff smiled. “After D’urket and the Luvarian ambassador saw me kicking ass in an online tournament of “Gunnerworks” they made the comment that a fully immersive program similar to the video game would allow their soldiers to train in any environment without the cost of transport. That’s what spurred my idea to sweet talk Lizz, the Overseer of Anderson, into letting me bring you onto the payroll. If we pull this off, not only can we sell it to the aliens we’ve been dealing with, but we can train our own people and sell it to folks back Earthside as the hottest new game system.”

“Did they say if there were any side effects to the procedure?”

“They said there was some sort of chance of seizures with this one particular alien race, but I’d never heard of them before, so no biggie.”

“Peach. You going to get on with this or what?”

Ivan looked around at the multitude of speakers around the main console. “Who the hell was that?”

“Oh, shit. I forgot to tell you a few of my gamer buddies were going to hang out and watch while we test the system.” Tiff tapped at the console controls and pressed the talk button. “Just hang on one more second, Dirty. I’m fixing to jump into the system.”

“Just remember Peach. Violence isn’t always the solution.”

“I will, Pskokillz.”

Ivan quirked an eyebrow up at the irony of the gamer’s name.

“Just remember to stay safe in there, Peach. We wouldn’t know what to do without you on a raid. No one else can pull off a distraction like you, with your sexy southern voice.”

“Oh my God, guys! I will! Would y’all chill already? Geez! Don’t worry, Redbeard, I’ll be fine. Promise.”

Ivan turned in his chair, placing his glasses on the workstation. “Peaches? That’s what they just called you?”

“Yeah, man. That’s my gamer handle. Well, it’s actually, PeAcHyCrEePiN, but most people who know me on the VSphere just call me Peach or Peaches.”

“Wait?” Ivan scratched at his head. “They are all on the VSphere? We are light-years from Earth. How is this even possible?”

“The Geek worked his magic awhile back,” Tiff said with a nonchalant wave. “He came up with some sort of relay network through the fLUX point so we have a real-time connection with Earth.”

Ivan nodded with a skeptical look on his face. “I did not know such a thing was possible, but good to know.” He turned, facing the console. “As far as I can tell the base program has finished loading. If you are ready, let’s get you jacked in.”

“Alrighty,” Tiff chirped as she stepped into her game station. The convoluted seat looked like someone had welded a roll cage to a dentist’s chair and mounted the entire contraption into a hydraulically-driven gyroscope. Tiff strapped on the haptic leggings and jacket before securing the seven-point harness over herself and plugging in a number of sensory cables. “You’re going to have to jack me in, Ivan. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do that to myself, honestly.”

Ivan stood and walked over to the rig. “Why is that?”

Tiff picked up the end of a thick cable harness, twisting the end connection. A short interface spike shot out from the end and extended a series of thread-like metallic tendrils.

Ivan took the cable, closely examining the connection then looked up at Tiff over his glasses. “Are you sure that you want to do this? It doesn’t look comfortable in the slightest.”

“D’urket said it doesn’t hurt. It just feels weird for a few minutes while your mind makes a full connection to the system.”

Ivan shrugged then blew out a long breath. “If you say so.” He rotated the end connection, retracting the interface.

Tiff looked away, pointing to a port just behind her left ear. “Just get it lined up and lock in the connection.”

“Here goes nothing.” Aligning the end of the cable to the port embedded in the back of Tiff’s head Ivan engaged the interface.


*****



Tiff stood alone on an empty gray landscape that seemed to extend out to forever in all directions.

“Can you hear me, Mrs. Crowley?”

“Yes, Ivan. I can hear you. It’s like you’re everywhere all at the same time. And you can just call me Peach. Mrs. Crowley sounds way too formal and weird.”

Ivan grunted. “Da. Peach it is. It looks like you are now fully integrated into the system and your vitals are looking good.”

“That would be the base program that establishes the parameters of the environment itself.”

“Alright, then. Let’s load something and test this thing out.”

“Drop her into the middle of the pit in ‘Warriors’,” Redbeard said, chiming into the conversation.

“Naw, Dog,” Dirty said. “Put her into a rumble royal in ‘Days of Valor’.”

“Are you kidding,” Pskokillz added. “I want to see what she can do in ‘MindCrack’ without the restriction of a controller. That has to be epically cool to be inside an actual game.”

“You know, that’s not a half-bad idea actually, Pskokillz.” Tiff turned in place, looking for anything to use as a reference point. “Alright, I gotta have something in here. All of this nothing is starting to make me sick. Hey, Ivan. Can we only load existing programs or can we start building our own?”

“If I am understanding this coding correctly, I think we could load different aspects from other software on top of the base program to create a custom environment.”

“Hell yeah, then let’s do this shit,” Tiff cheered.

“What should we start with?”

“Weapons!”

“A Dungeon!”


“Mute them if you would please, Ivan. I’m trying to think.”

“Gladly, Mrs. Peach.”

“I think Dirty was right though. We should load the weapons first.”

“One moment, please,” Ivan thundered overhead like the voice of God. “Here’s something that might be of use. Loading.”

Wooden racks and shelves covered in every conceivable bladed or bashing weapon suddenly materialized in front of Tiff.

“Freaking sweet, man.” Tiff hurried over to the racks, browsing through a number of blades, she draped a bandoleer of throwing knives over one shoulder then realized she was totally nude. “Um… Hey, Ivan. Why am I naked?”

“Because we haven’t programmed you any clothes yet.”

“Well, you ain’t’ gotta be mean about it.”

“Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer.”

“Could you load something up for me?’

“Like what?”

“Is there any way you can pull my last saved skin from Days of Valor?”

Ivan sighed. “Possibly. Let me see what I can do. One moment, my naked little Peach.”

“Dude, that just sounds creepy as hell when you say it like that.”

“But it is truth. You can not deny that. Here. See how this looks on you.”

A massive golden mirror appeared hanging in mid-air just in front of Tiff. She turned, checking herself out from different angles. She smoothed the lines of her digicam trousers over her round rear, then adjusted the fully packed utility harness secured over her shoulders and around her waist.

“Damn, I make this look good!”

“Would you like that I should load a frilly fluffy dress for you to try on next,” Ivan suggested.

“What? Hell no! I ain’t wearing anything frilly or fluffy or anywhere close to being a dress!”

Ivan’s laugh boomed god-like, reverberating from seemingly everywhere all at once.

“Shut up and load the rest of the gear, please.”

“As you wish, Princess Peaches,” he said, chuckling.

Displays of weapons—from simple flintlocks to high-tech plasma rifles—suddenly appeared, littering a multitude of countertops all around her.

“I trust that this is a sufficient selection for Her Highness?”

“Shut your face-hole,” Tiff said, grumbling under her breath as she took a selection of weaponry from the deadly buffet. “Alright, you can clear out all the gear, I think I’m good.”

“What would you like me to load next?”

“How about the environment. It’s awfully, blegh in here.”

“What sort of environment would you like?”

“How about a jungle?”

A lush, tropical rainforest instantaneously appeared all around her. Bright blue skies peeked through small holes in the tops of the canopy high above. She wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. Humidity hung heavy in the air. The sounds of strange creatures echoed throughout the forest.

“No. How about a tropical underground biodome?”

“You don’t expect a lot, do you?”

“That’s what I hired you for, Ivan.”

“You think you’ve hired me. Remember, I have not fully committed to this project yet.”

The world around Tiff abruptly shifted to a tropical hillside dotted with fruit trees and palms of all varieties contained within a cavernous domed space made up of large hexagonal tiles. Huts of bamboo and thatch sat next to a small stream that lazily flowed across the valley floor.

“Wow,” Tiff gasped. “That’s perfect, Ivan.”

“What next, my Peach?”

“How about some bubble gum? I need something to chew on or I get fidgety.”

“Done. Now what?”

“I guess go ahead and load up a mission from one of my game files and see if you can incorporate it with the Polsian training software. If it works, we can give it a full test run.”

“Von moment.”

A middle-aged man in a straw hat and ragged shorts suddenly appeared in front of the hut nearest to Tiff. He scratched at his bare beer-belly while shifting his stance at regular intervals.

“Do you see a character standing near you?”

“Yeah,” Tiff said.

“If the rest of the programing code is this easy to understand, then building our own system should be a piece of cake,” Ivan said. “I am literally copying code elements from our software and pasting it into the alien code, then adjusting the syntax as needed. Go talk to the character to initiate the quest sequence. If all goes well, he will give you the information after a little question and answer dialog before the task activates.”

“Alright,” she said, sauntering up to the half-naked pot-bellied man. “So what’s shakin’ ham and bacon?”

“Greetings adventurer, and welcome to Hudson’s colony, the very first colony to be established on Pluto. I am Gerald, guide and gardener extraordinaire, how may I be of service?”

Resting her combat shotgun on her shoulder, Tiff popped a bubble and chewed loudly as she examined Gerald. “Well, he might look like a skanky creeper, but he sounds impressive.”

“Ask him a question to start the sequence.”

“Hey Gerald, you got any work that needs to be done around here?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” Gerald said, pointing at her with a flourish. “I’ve had a terrible time eliminating the recycling slimes from the agricultural domes. I thought that if I borrowed a few of them from the waste processing facility that I could boost the efficiency of our composting, but I fear that I was wrong. And now, they have nearly destroyed our potato crop. Please help us, brave adventurer, the colony needs you.” Gerald flashed a mechanically wide smile.

“What game did you pull him from?”

“Something called...Ashadame,” Ivan said.

“Greetings adventurer, and welcome to Hudson’s colony,” Gerald began again.

“Skip,” Tiff said. Gerald’s expression flashed back to the same wide smile. “Can you make a note to remove repeat dialog like that from the finished product?”

“Done. What next?”

“Time to smear some slimes.” Tiff turned back to Gerald.

“Greetings adventurer…”

“Accept,” Tiff said, sliding the pump of her shotgun. “I’ll get rid of those little buggers. Where them slimy lil’ bitches at?”

“Oh no, adventurer, you cannot kill them. The colony needs them in the waste treatment facility. They must be returned and unharmed.”

“Well, shit.” Tiff slid the shotgun into a holster strapped across her back and looked around. “Can you at least point me in the direction you saw them in last?”

Gerald pointed down the hill, toward a terraced plot of garden. “They were last seen over there, ravaging our potato crops.”

“Alright, let’s check this out then.” Tiff bounced and skipped her way down the dusty dirt path to the area Gerald had indicated. Three neon-green slimes oozed about the garden plot, making sing-song chirping noises as they did so. They didn’t exactly eat the plants, more like they absorbed the crops as they oozed along, leaving what looked like glittery lumps of coal in their wake.

“Hey Ivan, give me a bucket.”

“As you wish,” he said, and a small metal bucket suddenly appeared in front of Tiff.

“Perfect.” Standing over top of the first slime she placed the bucket over the creature, then drawing her short sword, she used the blade to hold the slime in place as she rotated the bucket, scooping up the creature. “Well, that was easy.” She let out a disappointed sigh then slid the sword back into its scabbard.

“What is wrong?”

“I was honestly hoping for something a little more exciting, not this level zero blueberry crap. Is there any way you can turn it up a notch?”

“Absolutely, my little Peach. I can turn it up all the way if you like.” Ivan chuckled.

“Hell’s yeah!” Tiff drew the shotgun from its back holster and pumped the slide action. “Turn this thing up to eleven and let’s kill some shit. Survival mode!”

“As you wish.”

The scenery suddenly shifted to burning fields all along the hillside. Pockets of orange flame showed through the smoke that billowed upward, filling the top of the biodome.

“Adventurer, save us!” Gerald shouted from somewhere up the hill, but his voice sounded raspy and strangled.

“This is already looking better,” Tiff said as she sprinted uphill, her shotgun at the ready.

Beside the burning hut, she could make out Gerald’s form in the thick smoke.

“Accept!”

Gerald let out a gurgling gasp, then lurched forward, blood pouring from his mouth. “Help us, Adventurer! You are our only hope,” he whispered, then his face contorted with agonizing pain. Blood gushed from his now severed neck as his body fell to the ground and his mouth worked, gasping for breath. The disembodied head floated forward from the billowing black smoke, held aloft by the artificial hand of a humanoid robot.

“Colony integrity must be maintained. All threats to be eliminated,” the figure said in a synthesized voice. It dropped Gerald’s severed head and stepped forward. Its features were formed in what looked like a molded white plastic, to resemble the body of an average man. Gaps in the coverings revealed glowing blue-green lights that blinked and pulsed beneath. “State your function and identification number.”

“Ain’t he cute,” Tiff said, admiring the detail of the robot.

A deeply metallic sound of rejection emanated from the robot. “Invalid response.”

“Oh shit!”

Tiff dove to the right just as an acrid fountain of flame shot out from the robot's arm. Rolling, she tucked left, bounded high, and landed on top of a partially burnt wagon. She fired. Pumping the shotgun as fast as she could, she emptied the magazine into the robot.

Raising its other hand, rounds fired in rapid succession.

Tiff ducked. Rounds chewed into the side of the wagon, penetrating the aged wood. Tiff rolled onto her back, reloading the shotgun as quickly as she could, then rose to a crouched position and fired.

The robot fired again, getting off three rounds before its hand exploded from the impact of a one-ounce slug.

Tiff dropped sideways into the wagon, grabbing at her left leg as it collapsed beneath her from two rounds penetrating her upper thigh.

“Oh my God, Ivan! What the hell just happened? That freaking hurts, man!”

“Your heart rate and blood pressure are spiking through the roof.”

“No shit, Sherlock, I just got shot, man!” Tiff pulled her hand back to look at the damage and saw it was coated in blood. “Holy crap, man!. I’m bleeding!”

“Well, you did take damage. Health meter is down by twenty-seven percent. You have a health potion in your inventory. Drink it and let’s see if that portion of the program is working.”

“But why can I feel it? My leg is killing me, Ivan.”

“It probably has something to do with the full immersion. You aren’t only seeing, hearing, and smelling things within the program, you’re fully experiencing it because the stimulus is being fed directly into your brain.”

“Can you do anything to shut it off?”

“No, sorry. I don’t think I can. At least not without some in-depth research into the program. It looks like it is part of the core programming.”

“Then why can you change all of this other stuff?”

“How do I put this properly? Hmm… I only add garnish to an already excellent dish. It’s nothing more than window dressings, you see?”

“Well, put that at the top of the list to fix.” Tiff reached into her pocket and produced a small foil-wrapped ration bar. She shrugged then tore open the package and ate the health bar.

“That boosted your health by twenty percent. Your wounds should be nearly healed.”

Tiff looked down at her leg to find the bullet wounds had turned from bleeding holes to scabbed over scar tissue.

“Wow, that worked crazy good, Ivan.” She poked at the wound. “Still hurts a little and itches, but otherwise nothing like it was.”

“State your function and identification number,” the synthetic voice said as a robotic hand ripped away the side board of the wagon.

“Oh crap! Almost forgot about the murder-bot!” Rolling to the side, she drew her short sword in one smooth motion, placing the tip of the blade between the robot’s eyes and through its head.

“Compliance... is…,” the robot said, its synthesized voice stuttering before it collapsed to the ground and dissolved into nothing, leaving behind a small laser-edged kitchen knife and a power cell.

“Hu,” Tiff grunted, then lowered herself to the ground. “Don’t know what these are good for yet, but loot is loot.” She reached to open her belt pouch when a translucent screen appeared in the air in front of her. “Well, I’ll be damned if that isn’t cool.” She dropped the items into her inventory, then paged through her stats.

“This isn’t half bad, Ivan. I think this will do just what we want and make an amazing training program."

“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Ivan said with a chuckle.

“Alright then, I’m over it. Pull me out and we can start going over the full layout,” Tiff said, closing her inventory. She sheathed her sword then retrieved her shotgun from the broken wagon and holstered it.

“This is odd. I do not see an option anywhere to end the scenario.”

“Do what?” Tiff brought up the options page and searched for the save and exit. “Oh crap, Ivan. I think we’re screwed.”

“I only work here. You can not blame me for doing what I’m told.”

“Okay, fine. I think I’m screwed, how about that?”

“That works perfectly fine for me.”

“Uh-huh… Well, I think I remember D’urket saying something about once you go into survival mode that you had to complete the program.”

“That would make sense, considering I do not see a way to get you out.”

“Can’t you just disconnect the jack link or something?”

“I have no idea what it might do to you.” Ivan let out a frustrated sigh. “For all I know, it could kill you, or leave you as a vegetable.”

Tiff kicked the side of the wagon, letting out a frustrated scream. “Alright, fine. What do I have to do to get out of here then?”

“You have to make your way through both of the agricultural domes, colony hub, and water treatment facilities to the power generation plant in order to shut down the robots.”

“Then let’s get this shit started. Which way?”

“You should see a series of waypoints that I’ve set in the distance. You can also see their locations via the map.”

“How do I access the map?”

“Just look down at your wrist-mounted data unit. Tap on the screen to enlarge the display.”

“Let’s get to it then, shall we?” She pulled the shotgun from its holster, slid the pump action, and sprinted downhill. “How many of these things are blocking my path?”

“I count twelve active units spread out across the complex. The first of which is just ahead of you at the bottom of the hill.”

Through the smoke and flame, she could make out the blue-green internal glow of another murder-bot. She sprinted down the path then pushed off in the low gravity. Leaping into the air, she flew the final distance in a high arc, her shotgun poised, ready to fire. She fired two slugs downward into the murder-bot. It stumbled with the first round then fell backward with the second. Tiff landed with her knee crushing in the chest plate of the robot.

“Death from above, bitchboy!” Racking the slide of the shotgun, she aimed one-handed at the murder-bot’s head and fired.

“Well, hell, that wasn’t so bad.”

“Need I remind my little Peach, that that was only one of twelve currently active bots,” Ivan said with a smug, know-it-all tone.

Tiff collected another power pack and box of shotgun shells then opened her inventory.

“Five more of those power bars, a power protein shake, and one medkit. I think I’ll be alright. They shouldn’t be that much worse.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“Naw...” She popped a huge bubble with her gum then reloaded the shotgun. “Ain’t nothing but a thang, man.”

Checking her radar, she turned in the direction of the next target and sprinted into the second agricultural dome.

Three murder-bots marched along in her general direction, their flame-throwers belching liquid fire onto everything surrounding them. Firing on the run, Tiff nailed the first of the three bots. It staggered backward from the impact of the shotgun slug. Pumping two more rounds into the bot as she charged through, she ducked, sliding past the other two. Turning as she slid, she fired upward into the bot to her right.

The top of the bot’s head exploded in a shower of electronics and plastic. The bot spun as it fell, engulfing the second bot in its still firing flame.

"Harumph,” Ivan grunted. “That was almost impressive.”

Tiff stood, dusting herself off. “I’ve been gaming for so long it better be impressive.”

Checking the map, she moved to the tunnel connecting the agricultural domes to the water processing facility. Four more indicators showed on the map moving about the facility. The overhead silhouette of what looked like water tanks stood out on the map.

“Hey, Ivan?”

“Yes?”

“On the map, it looks like a main corridor runs right through the processing facility. If it is, I might be able to bypass these guys. They are all off on one side of the complex.”

“It looks to me like it might be a catwalk that spans the length of the facility.”

“Even freaking better, man.”

She continued through the water facility unabated, turning down the primary access tunnel leading to the hub center of Hudson’s colony. Tiff skidded to a halt at the main pressure doors leading into the hub. A harsh beep sounded as she pressed the activation key on the door access control panel.

“Access denied? What the hell, Ivan?”

“We may have a little problem.”

“Oh really? I hadn’t noticed,” she said sarcastically. “Any chance you can open the door?”

“Yes, but you’ll need to hurry. A countdown timer just started at five minutes.”

“What’s it counting down?”

“If I knew that, I would have already told you.”


“Then hurry up and open the door so I can get moving.”

“Already on it,” Ivan said as the pressure seals released with a hiss and the doors slowly slid apart.

Bodies littering the entranceway blocked most of the corridor. Most were dismembered, bullet-ridden, charred husks.

“Oh my God, Ivan. That is just brutal!” Tiff dry heaved. “Oh my God, the smell!”

“You need to hurry.”

“I know, I know!”

Leaping over the first pile of bodies, Tiff continued into the hub center. Shops and offices lined the sides of the commons, surrounding a burning park area in the center. She turned, sprinting through the statue dotted park.

Automatic gunfire erupted from overhead. Diving, she skidded for cover behind a low stone wall landing on top of a body.

“Dude is so freaking squishy, too. OMG, this is uncomfortable. I must be laying on a rock or something.” Tiff rocked to the side and reached under herself, pulling out a grenade.

“Freaking sweet!” Pulling the pin, she threw the grenade in the direction of the gunfire. In response, countermeasures in the form of liquid fire poured down over the top of her, covering the lower part of her body.

“Ivan! Oh my God, it hurts! Make it stop, Ivan!”

The grenade exploded, silencing the hail of projectiles.

She kicked and writhed, spreading the oily flames to her hands and arms as she attempted to wipe it away.

“There’s nothing that I can do! Treat it as a real flame. Roll around to try and put it out,” Ivan suggested. “Cover yourself with a blanket or something if you can find it.”

Tiff struggled to roll. Exhaustion slammed into her hard. She laid back and watched the thick gouts of smoke billow upward, roiling as a great cloud at the top of the chamber, obscuring the lights. “It feels so warm, man. Like it doesn’t hurt any more, it’s just kinda warm and tingly.”

“Listen to me closely, Peach,” Ivan said, panic lacing his voice. “You need to open your pack and eat one of those power bars or something. Your health meter is dangerously low and I do not know what will happen if you die within the program.”

“Die?” Tiff laughed. “How could I die, Ivan? It’s just a game.”

“A game that I have spliced together on top of a piece of alien software that I don’t completely understand. Remember, you are jacked into the system, which is why you can feel, taste, and smell everything on top of sight and sound.”

Tiff opened her inventory, selected the power protein shake, and immediately felt the extreme pain return to her legs. Looking down she watched them go from desiccated husks to scorched, bleeding flesh, the clothing all but burnt away.

“I don’t understand, Ivan. Why does it hurt again!?”

“Because you are only partially healed. Your legs were almost gone just a moment ago. Eat something else or use the medical kit. See what it does.”

Pulling a power bar from inventory she devoured it then selected the medical kit. Opening the small white box with a green plus sign on its side, her wounds were automatically bandaged and her health meter climbed a few more notches.

“Does that feel any better, Peach?”

“Wow. That’s hella crazy, Ivan. It’s like those gunshots from earlier. It all still kinda aches and itches, but otherwise the pain is pretty much gone.” Tiff rubbed at the bandages wrapping her legs like tight-fitting leggings.

“Well, you are inside of a video game. Healing doesn’t have to take weeks.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s true,” she said, peaking over the edge of the low stone wall. “How much time do we have left, Ivan?”

“Less than two minutes remaining,”he said, clearing his throat. “If you hurry, you might be able to make it. The power generation facility is only a few hundred feet down the next corridor, past the Constable's office.”

“On it!” Tiff hurried to her feet, sprinting in the direction of the waypoint arrow.

“It looks like there may be two bots just inside the loading bay of the power facility. It’s hard to tell for sure. It almost looks like they are standing on top of one another. It doesn’t make sense.”

“It does if you take the third axis into account. That means there must be a catwalk or one of them is on another floor. Just keep an eye on them and let me know if anything changes.”

Continuing down the mined-out corridor, she dodged around disabled carts riddled with bullet holes and heavy lift equipment whose frames were warped by super-heated fire. Bodies lay scattered about in all forms of mangled dismemberment. As soon as she reached the power generation facility, a klaxon belched, followed by an abrupt warning.

“Self-destruct sequence activated,” a digitized voice announced. “One minute to self-destruct.”

“Dammit, Ivan! You didn’t tell me it was a self-destruct sequence.”

“How was I to know what it was? All I saw was a countdown without a warning of any kind,” Ivan defended.

“Fine! Fine! I’m sorry. How far is it to the control center?”

“Fifty or so meters to the right of the entrance.”

Drawing the two pistols holstered at the pit of her back, she tapped at the door’s control console then took on a ready stance. Smoke billowed into the corridor from the opening as the doors slid slowly apart. Red lights flashed in time to warning alarms.

Gunfire erupted from the obscuring black cloud. Tiff dove left and rolled, landing on her feet at the edge of the entryway. Ducking low, she waited for a break in the gunfire and slipped inside the entrance behind a pallet of shipping containers.

Gunfire resumed, pelting the containers with rapid automatic fire.

Tiff rolled her eyes, letting out a frustrated huff. “Come on already. You gotta reload some time.”

Crouching low with her back to the containers, Tiff waited again for the lull. Diving to the right, she rolled, charging forward in the direction of the shots. The murder-bot’s arms recoiled from the reloading mechanism with an audible click. It turned, looking in her direction, then aimed.

“I don’t think so, circuit breath!”

Dual-wielding the autopistols, she fired, walking her shots upward with the recoil of each previous shot. She placed nine rounds in the robot's torso and five into its head. The gun in her left hand clicked, the slide locking open. She stepped under the robot's right arm and placed the pistol in her right hand just under its chin.

“Just the tip, baby.”

The murder-bot’s head jerked backward, drawing its body along with it in a slow arcing fall.

“You need to hurry, Peach!” Ivan warned. “You have less than a minute left!”

“Which way?”

“You should see a flashing indicator.”

Looking around she found a flashing red arrow at the top of the stairs to the right of the entrance. She sprinted, taking the stairs three steps at a time in the low gravity, then followed the arrow into a side corridor that looped around to the right. She leapt left, running along the surface of the wall she stepped from the left side of the corridor to the right then left, she leaped continuing down the path ninety degrees to the right.

“There! Just ahead of you is the control center,” Ivan said. “You should be able to deactivate the self-destruct from there.”

“Got it!”

Firing her last round at the access panel, the door opened just as Tiff slid through the opening. Automatic gunfire erupted from her left, peppering her torso with rounds. Doubling over in pain, she dropped the pistols.

“I can’t do this, Ivan,” she gasped.

“You can, my little Peach. You can and your will! Use the remainder of your healing bars and finish this!”

“But it hurts too much! This is worse than a freaking kidney stone, man!”

“Then you are what I feared,” Ivan growled disappointedly. “You’re nothing more than a loud-mouthed wannabe.”

“I don’t think so, buddy!”

Accessing her inventory, Tiff activated the remainder of her power bars then drew two of the throwing knives from the bandoleer across her chest.

The murder-bot’s arm guns jerked, reloading.

Tiff chucked both throwing knives at the bot then tucked and rolled to the right, drawing two more. Leaping high and to the side, she pushed off from a control console, flying headlong into the murder-bot, impaling both knives into the back of its head.

The robot shook violently, its head wobbling out of control. Automatic fire sporadically erupted as it fell over backwards.

“That’s right! You like that?”

Ivan cleared his throat. “Need I remind you of the self-destruction in progress?”

“Crap!” Tiff sprinted for the control console she had pushed off from, pressing the disable self-destruct sequence. “Hell yeah, man! Woot! That was freaking intense.” Her leg arched around like a kicker kicking a field goal as she landed a steel-toed boot to the side of the murder-bot’s head. “Take that you freaking walking toaster!”

“And just in the nick of time as well.”

Tiff looked over the screens and noticed two seconds remained on the countdown timer. She laughed. “If that ain’t by the skin of my teeth then I don’t know what is.”

“The option to exit is now available. I can disconnect you from the system any time you are ready.”

“Hell yeah. Pull me out of here.” Tiff stood straight and closed her eyes. The world lurched around her suddenly. It felt oddly disturbing when the jackport disengaged from the side of her head. When she opened her eyes, she was back in the lab, Ivan lingering over her.

“How do you feel, my little Peach?”

“That was freaking wild!”

“I’ll delete what we have and start with a fresh set of code in the morning,” Ivan said as he looked down the bridge of his nose at the computer monitor.

Groggy, Tiff pushed herself upright and sat on the edge of the seat. “Hell no, you won’t. I love it just the way it is! We’ll need to do some tweaking, but that’s alright. Save that back and let’s build on it tomorrow. Right now, I could use a shower and a nap.”

Ivan grunted. “If you say so. What should I name the file?”

Tiff tapped a painted nail to her lower lip as she thought. “How about, Dark Star?”



THE END


2020 William Joseph Roberts

Bio: In a previous lifetime, William Joseph Roberts was an F-15 mechanic and Staff Sergeant in the United States Air Force. He has traveled the world and experienced many things in his few years. During his tenure in this lifetime, he has been called a Jack of all trades, a Renaissance man and insane squirrel wrangler by his peers. Since his enlistment ended, he has perused careers as an industrial and architectural designer, design engineer, and now, eclectic writer. William Joseph Roberts currently resides in the quaint southern town of Chickamauga, Georgia with his loving wife, three freaky smart nerd children, and small pack of fur babies.

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