I whistle lightly as I toggle on the power to the Qdisc. The baseline propulsion tech is at least two generations old but still solid and reliable. In my spare time (ha!) I’ve been focusing instead on improving the UX – navigation, status, other controls – as well as security features, and ancillary systems.
Tonight I get to put it to the test.
“Are you coming?” Alycia – Charade, must remember to use her code name – mutters in my ear, most but not all of the whine of her V-cycle filtered by her mic. “I’m already half-way there,” she adds, with a bit more emphasis.
“On my way,” I say, tapping on the nav screen to track Alycia’s signal, then cross-referencing the incident site to intercept. The nav system upgrades look like they’re working perfectly, drawing on QMaps data, ATC feeds, and news alerts to plot the best course possible for the AI autopilot. “I’ll be about … twenty-eight seconds behind you.”
“I’ll try to leave some for you, then. Wouldn’t want you to go to all this trouble and not get a chance to flex your muscles.”
“Don’t rush in if you don’t need to,” I say, as the Qdisc clears the rooftop hatch and begins zipping at high speed across the cityscape, a dozen stories up. The familiar metallic hum fills the air around me. “Wait until we can --”
“Chivalry is dead, Jason,” she says, her voice flat. "You’re the one out of practice here."
She isn’t wrong – but she isn’t completely right, either. Sure, I’m officially “retired” from the super-heroing thing, but I’ve seen some action since that decision last year-- that mass insanity in Madras last Thanksgiving, the Anti-Bodies attack in Halycon, the rogue AEGIS unit that tried to take down the UN Science Council meeting. Most of my involvement in that world is, at most, supportive and coordinative, but some things are all hands on deck class emergencies.
Besides, I was at that Science Council meeting. It would have been kind of goofy not to get involved.
And I do, on occasion, almost like a date, go out on patrol with Alycia. I enjoy it just enough to welcome the moments, and just little enough to be glad I’m out of the life.
Still, those exceptions mean I do a lot to stay in good shape. And being with Alycia means plenty of good exercise. No, not like that. Well, not just like that. (Alycia is, to extrapolate the obvious, athletic in all things.) No, I mean she insists that I stay conditioned, practice my martial arts, use the nanobots for something more than holding my coffee cup or my briefcase, etc. If I start to show any flab, any loss of muscle tone, she lets me know it.
Not in a fat shaming way, though someone might mistake the snark in her tone for that. No, as she puts it, “The body is a honed weapon; let it get dull, let it grow rust, and you might as well use it for a plant stake.” And, “Also, your exercise forces me to stay in shape.”
And, honestly, I grew up with an exercise regimen (in Rusty’s merciless school-of-hard-knocks), and even Dad never let himself go. You don’t explore the far corners of the Earth, go flying around with a personal lift belt, or fight the forces of Achilles Chin with a thirty kilo spare tire.
So physically, I’m in good tone. It’s the combat reflexes, the body / muscle memory that can be a problem.
Alycia helps with that, too, in the gym/dojo – but it’s still different from an actual shooting situation.
“ETA 45 seconds,” she calls out to me. She and I know it’s unnecessary; I have her on the map with all that info called out. Including the very, very illegal speed she’s making up Byers Blvd. Even at 8pm there’s too much traffic for that to be safe, but –
“I’ve pulled up to 17 seconds behind you,” I tell her. “Hold off until I get there.”
“Targets sighted; they’re outside on jet packs, 20-25m up. Engaging,” she says, as the even the stealthed turbofans on her cycle roar her to a stop.
I don’t even bother to curse.
The sitch as reported is pretty straightforward – Chou Labs, located about midway up Perez Tower, by New Park. Most of the cameras had been knocked out, along with building power, but a hardened AEGIS surveillance suite had shown a set of lightly armored figures breaking into the vault. Since the vault was very hi-tech, and Chou does engineering work for AEGIS, they gave Alycia a holler while they rolled their own forces.
We don’t work for AEGIS – well, I don’t – but there is a certain symbiosis. Whatever’s in that lab is probably better there than in the hands of whoever’s trying to steal it.
“Taking fire. Automatic weapons, AP rounds.” Her voice is cool, with the low affect monotone I associate with bridge crews reporting on everything from course changes to incoming missiles.
I do bother to curse at that point, especially as the acoustic sensors on the Qdisc, tied into neighborhood police monitoring systems, are picking up the gunfire, and it’s a lot heavier than I’d prefer, with Lycia on the receiving end.
The disc slides around Gardner Center and I see them, a floor lower than I am, maybe five above the ground – six in something that looks like flying leathers, pouring automatic fire downward, two more struggling with something at the building window, another (bigger than the rest), just hovering there. None of them are very visible, against the darkened building, except illuminated by their gunfire and their flight systems.
Alycia’s returning fire from the ground, but not a lot – their numbers are keeping her either moving or taking shelter under the concrete port cochere or a few lone cars in the open. Still, a small blast of fire blossoms on one armored figure as Alycia’s pellet gun strikes home. Unlike these dolts, she’s using non-penetrating ammo that has about a five second life span before going inert when exposed to air. She’s not likely to cause any collateral damage – but the robbers are, even at this late hour, if they’re not stopped.
The bots are already enfolding me in black armor – Configuration 12, in honor of Alycia’s quip about chivalry, something that resembles a medieval black knight, because I can be snarky, too – as I take manual control and angle the disc down toward them. There are no weapons aboard, but the disc itself will hit like a truck, and give me an opening to –
The larger figure spots me, and pivots slightly. I see they have something large on their back and shoulder, and it’s pointed my –
– WHITE –
My eyes can’t focus, my ears are roaring, my skin is on fire, something is wrong, which way is up why is everything swinging –
– I’m tumbling through the air, weightless in a ballistic arc, the Qdisc doing likewise on a divergent tangent. I’m shouting but not hearing my own voice. Some of the nanobots have snapped back into their default torso protection configuration, but most of them are tearing away in large, wispy sheets of inert black sand – a combination of massive system failure and a fragmented reboot process my mind realizes, based on the subconscious awareness I maintain about them.
I realize (in another cognitive thread) I’ve been hit with some sort of EMP, powerful enough to penetrate the moderate hardening of the Qdisc, enough even to fry most of the bots (carbon-based but held together by electrical impulses) and mess up my own nervous system (ditto).
Along with realizing that the good news is I’m going to miss the building; the bad news being I’m not going to miss the plaza in front of it.
How long will it take for sufficient bots to reboot and reintegrate and regenerate to create a crash sphere? It’s a default function, still – my brain’s not quite working that well yet, either, but the first draft calculations are not looking promising.
My vision is clearing, at least, and my hearing is improving enough to hear the ongoing automatic fire – and I’m glad they’re not shooting at me, but why should they bother when I’m going to be –
“GO LIMP!” Alycia’s voice screams out, through the air not through the dead comms, and I reflexively obey as something hits me in a mid-air tackle, knocking out my breath with the impact.
“Are you all right?” she shouts, even as we twist around, and she shifts me from one arm to the other like a bag of potting soil as her freed arm lashes out. I hear a loud electrical crack I recognize and am trying to place, even as we jerk in a different direction.
And we’re shooting through the air past the visored faces of the robbers, who are swinging their machine guns in our direction, but slow, too slow, and then my weight shifts and another crack and we’re shooting off another direction, swinging in a shallow arc.
"Gāisǐ, are you fucking all right?!"
“Yyyeah, I think so.”
“Can you --” Grunt, shift, crack, lurch in another direction. “-- armor?”
“I’m not – the bots are still --”
I get three words back in, I think, Hindi, two of which I recognize (thanks, Rusty) which makes me figure out the general tone of the third, then twist, crack, something shatters, we veer in a new direction, and “Tuck your head!”
I do so, burrowing against her, even as I keep trying to rearmor, but … well, I can’t put the feeling into words, but I know the bots are still only half there, and it’s a half-assed –
We smash through the shattered remains of a window of the Perez Tower, Alycia rotating us around at the last moment so her lightly armored back takes the brunt of it. We roll and tumble across the floor between two rows of cubicles, gunfire chattering on the carpeted floor behind us in the darkness. We lie there, stunned for half a second, then I skip-scramble-lurch to the side, dragging Alycia behind me, out of any line of sight (and line of fire) from the window.
“Lycia!” I hiss, leaning her against a potted palm.
“Charade,” she says, her voice dull for a moment, until she gives herself a violent shake. “Dammit, Jason, OpSec!”
“Hell with that, are you all – what --?”
She holds out one arm back the way we came and makes a jerking motion. A cable extending from her gauntlet reels in at high speed, retracting back into place.
“Holy crap,” I say, eyes widening. “You used them?”
“I’d have been just as happy picking the perps off from the ground, but when I saw you falling --”
When Leo announced his retirement from the Menagerie (a more effective departure than mine, but he was getting married and starting a family with his robot girlfriend, which not only justified the action but managed to put him one up on my own romantic situation for general weirdness), he’d gifted Alycia with some tech he’d developed for his own armor, a pair of high-speed grapnels. He used them to climb, swing around, etc., giving him some vertical mobility without need of a propulsion system.
But I’d never seen her actually make use of them, even in practice, even though she still incorporated them in her outfit. And not only had she just caught me in mid-impending-splat, she’d managed to avoid our being shot by the robbers even while half carrying me, even as swung us through a window, using a grapnel to smash the glass so that we didn’t bounce off of it.
She clambers to her feet. “Stay here until you’re recovered. I’ve got this.”
“Lycia, wait --”
“Mission first, Jason – mission first.” She pivots, pauses, gives her head another shake, and then dashes out toward the window. She pelts down the space between the cubes and literally dives out the building window into the darkness, bullets spattering around her.
Yeah, this is one of the reasons I retired. But I also realize I am not going to let her do this alone – and that all my systems have finally finished their restart.
Dad was a horrible person (it’s an unguarded moment, I can just run with the emotion without equivocating a bunch of half-honest caveats), but he built good shit. The bots slide smoothly across my skin, multiplying as they go, drawing on dust and debris and even impurities in the air to multiple, building up thickness, slipping back into armor configuration. I get up, take a deep breath, and follow Lycia’s path – right up to the edge of the broken window, and look out, briefly freezing at the tableaux.
Below me and a bit to the side, a set of plastic shipping crates a couple of meters to the side are floating, antigravs strapped to them, as more are wrangled out the window to a pair of jetpacked guards. Presumably once they are all linked and lifted, the guards (and/or the mooks inside) will tow them away from the scene.
But it’s in the open space over the street, between the Foxx and Perez towers, where my attention is locked. Alycia is out there, using the grappling cable systems like she was born to them – swinging about, pulling herself upwards, enmeshing one of the jetpacked gunners trying to draw a bead on her, whipping around, changing directions every few seconds, and doing it all with such grace it’s as though she’s dancing in three dimensions, limbs darting about in controlled freedom at all possible angles, body twisting and posing, as she slides along trolley lines, runs up building faces (pulled by a retracting cable), dives backwards into the abyss and then catches herself with still more maneuvers.
She’s drawing all the gunfire, which is good – and, of course, awful, except that nobody seems able to hit her. But though it looks like a defensive battle, every now and again one of the fliers is staggered or taken down – smacked with a cable, kicked by Alycia as she swings by, hit by fire from one of their compatriots whom she’s suckered into the properly angled shot, and so forth.
She shouts something at me which I can’t hear (the comms remain offline, probably permanently fried), but which I assume is some variation on “Get your thumb out and make yourself useful, Quill,” only with more exotic and less complimentary language.
She’s not wrong.
I jump, diving down toward the raft of crates, armor flaring to give me some braking and control – who needs to know how to glide when you have intelligent wings? Multiplying bot extensions reach out spider-like to grasp the building exterior, one of the large crates (an AEGIS inventory code saying something about exotic atmospheric conditions), and one of the jetpacked robbers, all helping me land, smash the other outside guard in the face with an armored fist – even as I feel a nanobot drag chute morph into a shielding umbrella as some of the flyers turn their guns toward me (and, idiots, their swag and their comrades).
The big guy – the one who zapped me with the EMPulse (probably also the one who took down the building power), jets into view, trying to get an angle on me that won’t take down his buddies. I hurl some nanobot spikes in his direction, but he ducks, weaves, and I hear the weapon spinning up –
A cable flickers past, and Alycia is suddenly on EMP Guy’s back, and (with irony I, at least, can appreciate), she’s punching her tasers into the mechanisms there, actinic flashes masked quickly by smoke.
I whip around a nanobot tentacle into the face of one of the shooters who zips down too close, and …
Well, suffice it to say, in timeless short order the bad guys are defeated, all but one of the jetpacked gunsels apprehended and turned over to AEGIS (when they arrive a few minutes later), the crates resecured inside, and all’s right with the world.
Alycia drops back onto the cushions in the conversation pit, her limpness still not disturbing the glass of iced tea she is holding.
I echo the movement, across from her, far less elegantly, and let out a loud whoosh. “Again, thanks.”
She shrugs. “We need to talk about tactical approaches, Jason, and effective opposition engagement, because your diving the Qdisc headlong into --”
“And thanks as well for not giving me a lecture tonight. It’s late, and I have a board meeting in the morning.”
She gives me a dirty look, but only sips her tea and says nothing more.
After a minute or so of companionable silence, I add, “You were awesome out there with those cables.”
She tilts her head back and forth, a neutral gesture, but something passes over her face.
I frown slightly. “What?”
Another shrug. “Not … well, it worked out in this particular circumstance. I --” She cuts off, takes another sip, and subsides.
“Well, you saved my life. And ‘engaged effectively with the opposition.’” I stilt my tone a bit to drive home the point. “It was … pretty cool.”
She frowns. “No. It was an indulgence.” She holds up a hand. “Not the saving-your-life, but … the rest of it.”
“You were amazing, Lycia! It was like watching a ballet. If I hadn’t had bad guys to smack, I’d have just enjoyed watching you swing around.”
Alycia snorts. “You probably would have if I hadn’t told you in no uncertain terms to stop staring and start punching.”
I shrug. “Truth.” A grin. “But you were really something out there.”
She closes her eyes. “I know,” she says, quietly. A moment, a deep breath, a slow exhalation, and her eyes open. “I loved it, Jason. It was like … I could feel the space, and I was completely free within it. I’ve told you about that before, that extended kinesthesia I have, but you still don’t get it. I always know what’s around me – volume, vectors, velocity. I’ve --” She pauses, then continues, “-- I’ve practiced with the systems. Extensively. In private. I know how each cable will pull me, how to bend and flex them. It hurts like hell jerking on my arms, since I don’t have a convenient hard-shell platform like Leo, and I’m probably going to guzzle a handful of ibuprofen later, even if it gives me an acid stomach and supports corrupt Big Pharma in this hell-hole nation. But --” She pauses, looks at me with those eyes. “It felt so free, so liberating, like flying, only in my control.”
“So why don’t you use them more often? Or, like, at all?”
“Are you insane?” Those eyes roll. “Jason, any decent automated targeting system could figure out my vectors in short order, and react to them faster than I could change them. Just because these zhùchóng were doing manual targeting doesn’t mean I can assume that same advantage in any given battle. Fine for Leo in his oh-so-fabulous armor --” She downshifts her tone as though it’s an inner comment given voice. “-- not that I couldn’t have shot him out of the sky on any given day if I’d had cause to --” And then continues aloud, “-- but not so good for me. I’m a tactical damage-dealer, not a tank.”
“Well, you don’t look like a tank.” I grin. “And I appreciate the risk you took, then, in rescuing me.”
She smiles back. “I have no doubt you’d do the same for me.” The smile widens, and there’s something wicked in her eyes. “Which gives me some ideas for an enhanced conditioning regimen that I want to implement with you. And, maybe, some exercises with your high-six-figure vehicles on how to use them properly and sustainably, so that you not only don’t lose one, but have to pay the city for the damage it did to the pavement when it crashed.”
I close my eyes and groan. Maybe having hit the ground alongside the Qdisc would have been a better fate.
“But first,” she says, and my eyes snap open because now she’s standing right in front of me. “I expect a more … demonstrative reward for saving your life.”
And, in need of ibuprofen or not, she remains athletic.