Shane pulled the pin and tossed the grenade around the corner before covering his ears and ducking low as he counted off the seconds to the sounds of men screaming in panic.  At the count of three, the corridor filled with flames and several bodies flew into the main hall, their limbs flopping limply.  The flames dissipated, leaving behind shattered bodies and paneling, and Shane launched forward through the intersection at a full run, a dozen men following him with their guns as ready to fire as his.

Scanning from side to side with their machine guns, they ran down the beautifully built hallway with their trench coats flapping.  Cries rang out from behind them and bullets whipped by, shattering paneling all around them.  A grunt of pain came from one of them and he fell to one knee, rolling himself behind a small raised flower garden that shielded him from further fire.

“Ah can’t keep up,” he drawled slowly as Shane and the others slid to a stop behind other similar shields.  “Ah’ll hold them off,” he added painfully and Shane looked at the blood seeping through the leg of the man’s pants.

“Don’t give up, James,” he ordered firmly then pointed out four of the others.  “Stay here and hold them off.  We’ll be back.”  Then he grabbed another grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it down the hallway towards the men firing at them.  On the count of three it sent more guards flying away with their clothes on fire, and Shane shot out from his cover, seven men running behind him.  Staccato gunfire erupted again as James and the others covered them, and they reached the stairs at the end of the hallway.

Taking the steps three at a time, they shot up them at a full run as guards on the next floor tried to move to deal with them.  Shane winced as one of his men screamed and fell back down the steps until he stopped at the bottom, no longer moving.  Another fell and the man on Shane’s left tossed up a single grenade as the rest returned fire with their guns.  Three seconds later the guards were of no concern to them.  Shane and company flew off the stairs onto the burnt and bloodied flooring, sliding to a stop as they scanned the room for enemies that had survived the explosion.  None had.

“This way,” Shane muttered after a quick exchange of nods and shot off down the nearest corridor, machine gun ready to fire.  A guard poked his head out to aim and a three round burst blew the back of his head into the wall behind him.  Then another guard let off a long volley of wild fire and Shane winced as several bullets whizzed by him and he heard the thud of them finding someone else.  A quick grenade handled that problem, as well as a good a part of the walls, and Shane turned to see who’d been hit.  He blinked as he saw the blank eyes of a friend, blood seeping from a hole in the forehead, before turning back to run through the intersection and up to the elevator at the end of the corridor.  There was nothing more he could do here.

The four remaining men ran up as he pushed the button and they waited on either side for the elevator to arrive, constantly scanning the corridor for new arrivals.  It finally came to a stop and opened up, bullets flying out the doors.  Shane grunted, pulled the pin from another grenade, counted to two, and lobbed it into the elevator, shielding his eyes.  The grenade went off, bathing the area in so much light he could literally see the bones of his hands and he blinked away the spots in his eyes as he inched his machine gun into the opening, pulling the trigger.

Bullets sprayed into the elevator, some clanging into the walls with the high-pitched sounds of tearing metal, others hitting their targets with the dull meaty thuds of hitting bodies.  The gun stopped firing and Shane dropped the empty magazine, instantly replacing it with another.

“Let’s go,” he whispered and walked into the elevator, his boots sliding slightly on the blood-soaked floor.  The others followed, one holding a bloody shoulder and Shane frowned.  “How bad?” he asked and punched in their destination.

“Not good,” Vihon whispered painfully and leaned against the wall as the elevator shot upward.  “But I can still move.”

“Good,” Shane muttered casually as the elevator slowed to a halt and he grabbed another grenade from inside his trench coat.  He pulled the pin before the door opened, knowing exactly how long it would take, and then tossed it through on the count of two.  The explosion singed his eyebrows as it back blasted into the elevator, but did considerably more to the half dozen guards waiting for them, tossing them into the walls like rag dolls.  Shane could have sworn he heard their bones shattering even through the sound of the explosion.

He stepped calmly onto the landing and looked around for active enemies as Vihon and his other three companions followed.  “Guard this room, Vihon,” Shane muttered.  “You too,” he added as he looked at another of his men.  “We’ll be back.”

“I would expect nothing less,” Vihon whispered back and Shane smiled at both of them over his shoulder before walking down the main corridor.  He’d been here often enough to knew exactly where he was going, and exactly where the guards would be stationed.  He motioned towards his last two partners and a grenade flew down and bounced around a bend in the corridor.  The guards screamed and the grenade exploded.  Shane turned the corner to look at the doors at the end of the corridor.

“Flasher,” he muttered and another grenade appeared in one of his partners’ hands as Shane pulled out his last two.  Clenching one in his teeth, he pulled the pin and tossed it towards the doors, then ducked back around the corner to wait for the explosion.  It roared and the heat wave washed over him, then the man swung around the corner and let fly with his own grenade.  A second later, Shane turned to see the doors blown off their hinges and sent his last grenade into the room, covering his eyes.

The flash grenade went off first, blinding everyone in the room, and then the other grenade exploded, ripping apart anything close.  “Now,” Shane ordered and all three of them rushed down the corridor, their machine guns ready to fire.  They emerged into a room in flames, plants turned into infernos and guards holding their burned out eyes in pain.  Shot after shot rang out as the three killed each guard in turn and then moved on to their real targets.

“You won’t get away with this,” one of their targets cried out blindly and Shane shrugged calmly.

“I didn’t work with the Shang,” he muttered and pulled the trigger.  Again and again, their guns spoke until the entire board of directors lay in puddles of blood and gore.  Then Shane sighed and turned to leave, his gun hanging from his shoulder pointing at the floor.

“Not so fast,” a voice said and a single gunshot rang out.  Shane heard the thud of a body and turned to his partner pointing a gun at their fallen comrade. “What are you doing?”

“Taking over,” he returned and swung around to point the pistol at Shane.

“Traitor,” Shane whispered coldly.

“Somebody wants you dead,” the man responded simply.  “And I want their money.  Looks like two of us get what we want.  Not a bad average.”

“I brought you in,” Shane snarled.  “Gave you a place to belong to.”

“I belong to no one, least of all you.”

“What about the others?” Shane asked slowly and the man shrugged.

“It’s such a shame.  I tried everything to save you, but it was a stray shot,” he noted with a sad smile.  “The guards got lucky.  There was nothing I could do.”

“Erik!” Shane shouted as his partner pulled the trigger.  His body jerked as the bullets smashed into him, sending him catapulting backwards through the window and out into the open air.  Glass glittered around him in the sunlight as he fell past the giant Vilian Corp sign to the street fifteen stories below.





 Jack swung his pistol up to aim at his old partner.  His finger twitched and shots rang out.  First he felt the pain, and then he gasped as he flew back through the door into the hallway behind him, blood and pieces of bone filling his field of vision.  His body bounced as it hit the floor and his back arched in agony as he rolled over on his side.

The remains of his right arm leaned against the wall with his pistol still gripped firmly in his hand, and he winced against the pain.  “Erik,” he growled angrily as more gunshots filled his ears.  Then the darkness claimed him.





Nova fired off another round and Ben winced as he tried to line up a shot of his own.  They were just too far away for him to get a good bead.  Then he ducked back as the entire hallway filled with flames, smoke, and lasers.  “What the…” he trailed off as Nova rolled up beside him, the left shoulder of her jacket and shirt simply gone.  He got a good look at her scorched blue armor and she pushed him back firmly.  “What was that?” Ben asked and she shook her head.

“That was a Mark 26…with upgrades.  They aren’t very smart, but really pack a punch.

“I noticed,” Ben whispered in awe as she poked her rifle around the corner.  She fired again before ducking back under cover as it opened fire again, bathing the area in explosions.  “Holy mother of…” Ben muttered at he brought his hand up to wipe blood from a cut on his cheek.

“He’s more upgraded than I thought,” Nova noted coldly.  “He’s got a localized absorption field.”

“How’d Barlon get a hold of one of them?” Ben muttered in surprise.  “Even I was lucky to get one.”  Then he looked at her left shoulder and squinted his eyes as he recognized the damage pattern.  “Wait a minute.  How did you get one?” he asked accusingly.

“You don’t want to know,” she muttered and leaned out to fire another shot.  She came back fast, barely in front of a volley of missiles, shells, and energy blasts that stripped the molding off the walls.  “He’s good.”

“So what?  I’m working with a felon now?” Ben asked and she smiled innocently before leaning out for another shot.

“Only if I get caught,” she responded as the corridor thundered with weapons fire.  “This so sucks,” she added and reached a hand into a pocket of her slacks.  “He’s gotta be a Zed Zed Niner upgrade.  Smarter than normal.  He’s gonna kill us all if I don’t get really nasty.”  Her hand came out with a container twice the size of the barrel assembly on her rifle and Ben’s eyes bugged out.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“That depends on what you think it is,” she responded with a nasty smile.  “But if you’re thinking it’s a plasma charge, it is,” she finished as she snapped it in place under the barrel.

“How’d you get that?” he asked and she cocked her head at him.  “Let me guess.  I don’t want to know?” She nodded and leaned out to fire it.  The entire canister glowed for a moment, and then “whoomphed” with enough power to drive Nova back into the corridor before the other AI’s weapons could lock her up.  A blast of flames filled the main hallway, leaking into the corridor, and Ben ducked his head away to keep the flames from his face.

“That smarts,” Nova muttered and stood up slowly before patting a handful of flames off Ben.

“Hey, be careful where you pat me,” he said in a quelling voice and she shrugged.

“If you really want to start losing limbs,” she responded and turned to look around the corner at the flames burning in the hallway.  “Excellent, the plasma’s working.  It’ll take him a while to get out of that, and even his powercore won’t be able to maintain the drain on his absorption field for long.”

“You actually think he’ll survive that?  Those things are designed to take out tanks.”

“Yes I do.  The absorption field can handle just about anything if you have enough power running to it.  And Mark 26s do.”  Then she lined her rifle up and fired into the plasma.  “Nailed him.”


“Searched for the coolest part of the area with infrared,” she responded and fired off another beam.

“Why isn’t he firing now?” Ben asked as he noticed the absence of return fire.

“The shield is draining too much energy so he can’t afford to fire his energy weapons.” She fired again.  “Missiles and shells can’t make it through the plasma fires.” Again.  “They melt if he tries.” Again.  “But if he’s a Zed Zed Niner, I’ll give him three more seconds before he does something.”

“Like what?  And why?”

“Most Mark 26s would just wade through this,” she noted coldly and then paused as an explosion rocked the hallway.  “But he’s smarter than most.  He’s trying to turn the tables.”

“What was that?”

“He just blew a hole in the wall.  He’s trying to bleed off the plasma.”  Another explosion rumbled down.  “And again.  This really sucks.  You should go.  Now.  I don’t think I’m going to be able to stop him.”

“Not a chance,” Ben muttered.  “There’s no way I’m going to let you die before you have a chance to kill me,” he added with a smile and she shook her head slowly.

“This is no time to joke.  Now go,” she finished and ran out of the hallway, firing energy beams from her rifle into the flames as fast as she could.  Ben just shook his head and sidestepped up to the weapons-ravaged corner before peeking around to look at the plasma firestorm.  He was watching as the AI walked out, his absorption field glowing brightly as it pulled in the energy of the plasma and tried to divert it into other spectrums.  He looked humanish, with the same basic shape of four limbs, a core, and a head, but two multi-barreled missile launchers crowned his shoulders, a multi-barreled autocannon hung beneath each arm, and what looked like two laser emitters sprung out of his torso.  He was also a lot thicker than the average human, and Ben was willing to bet his torso was packed with powercores and ammunition, most likely making any shot that penetrated spectacular.

The tricky part was penetrating of course.  Nova aimed and fired a quick shot and Ben winced as the Mark 26’s torso spun quickly to lock her up.  Missiles exploded out of his launchers, followed by autocannon shells and laser blasts as she ducked behind the corner she’d been running towards.  The Mark 26 just kept plodding along, intermittently firing and Ben scowled in anger.  This just wasn’t the kind of fight Nova was designed for.  She was a sniper, not a short ranged bruiser and he doubted there was any way she could win this one.

He would later remember the next few seconds as a man watching but with no control.  His arm came up, aiming the pistol at the Mark 26, and pulled the trigger without so much as a pause to aim carefully.  He remembered feeling the recoil slam him back, seeing the AI step back to keep his balance as the high-speed slug smashed into his absorption field, and even thought he saw some of it break through to hit armor.  The next thing he would remember was the AI spinning to light him up like a candle with lasers.

A second later he was lying two meters back in the hallway, well out of line of sight from the Mark 26, the lower half of his right arm burned off and his pistol no where in sight.  He looked across the hallway to see Nova making her move and smiled painfully as he realized he’d given her an opening.  She ran into the hallway, sending several grenades arcing towards the AI and firing repeated energy blasts from her sniper rifle.

He heard shots begin burning armor more and more with each successive blast as the Mark 26 spun back towards her.  Lasers, autocannon shells, and missiles opened up, filling the hallway with destructive force and Ben gasped as her absorption field completely failed and she shed armor and limbs on her way to the ground.  And then her grenades exploded.  Ben saw the light of a larger explosion, the combat AI disintegrating into a million pieces as its compromised ammunition bays exploded all over the hall.

Shrapnel flew in every direction, bouncing off walls, ripping long gashes into Ben’s suit, and he gasped in pain as other pieces actually ripped along his skin.  It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.  But then the explosion’s rumble died down and he sat back up with a grimace, bracing himself on his one, more or less, good arm.  He painfully pulled himself up to his feet before limping towards what was left of Nova and a quick glance showed him nothing was left of the Mark 26 beyond shrapnel buried in the walls.

She turned her head to look at him and he let out a slow breath.  Half her face was just plain gone, exposing the composite materials designed to look like bones that had also been heavily ravaged.  Any human with that much damage to their head would be dead, but an AI’s datacore was always buried in his or her chest, behind at least one layer of armor.  And the fact that she could move meant it was at least partially intact.

“How are you?” Ben asked weakly as he dropped down to his knees beside her shredded torso.

“I told you to leave,” Nova muttered in a disgusted tone.

“I guess I’ve always been bad at following orders,” he returned painfully as he ran the fingers of his one hand across the intact side of her face gently.

“Tell me a new one,” she muttered with a smile.  She looked good when she smiled.  Then her expression shifted to a colder look.  “Just so you know.  I’m still going to kill you,” she finished and he nodded his head slowly.

“I know,” Ben returned with a sad smile.  “I know.”

“Just wanted to make sure we were on the same page,” she whispered and smiled softly again.  “It may take a while though.”

“Oh?” Ben asked carefully.

“I have repairs to make,” she whispered slowly.  “It may take a while.”






“Dahmn,” James muttered slowly as they walked into an area of the main hallway full of shattered AIs and Terrans.  Behind, they could still hear what sounded like a war going on, and the plasma flames were still easy to see.  But here it looked like another war had been fought.  “This reminds me of the day Shane died.”

“When was that?  And who’s Shane?” Cat asked with a shudder as she stepped around the bloody pulp of what had been a hand.  The very walls were pealed down to bare armor plating, and sometimes even further.

“Twelve years ago,” James muttered sadly.  “Vellian Cor. We lost a lot of fahn men that day.  As for Shane, we all thought he was dead.  Erik told us the guards got lucky.  We never questioned him.  They were good buddies yah know.  Erik wouldn’t lie ‘bout that,” he finished as he walked around the remains of a barricade that had been blown apart, along with the guards holding it.

“Why are you questioning it now?” Cat asked slowly and James turned to look at her for a moment, measuring her up.

“Ah see he still doesn’t say much even now,” he whispered slowly and she blinked in surprise.  “You’ve been fighting with him for months.  Or whoever he is now.  He is different yah know.  I guess dying does that to yah.  And losing your best friend.”

“Oh my God.  I never would have guessed,” Cat whispered slowly as she nodded in realization before getting back to scanning around for enemies.  “But that explains a lot.  So you’re helping him now, not anybody else,” Cat added as she followed him past the broken bodies of humans and AIs.

“Aye,” James responded carefully as he kept his pistol ready to fire, scanning around the shattered area for any threats.  “So why you helping?”

“He helped me when he didn’t need to,” Cat said with a shrug.  “He cared.  I guess I just want to.”  James turned to look at her for a moment, and then nodded as he turned back to thread through more grizzly wreckage.

“Ah see,” he finally muttered.  “He has that affect on people.  It’s why ah fought with him back then.  Why we all did.  He don’t lahk to show that he cares about anything.  But he does.  Always considered it a weakness to care too much.  Didn’t want someone using it against him yah know.  But he couldn’t stop it back then.  Made him good in the faghts against the others.  Yah always knew he wasn’t going home without yah.  Made everyone faght harder.”

“I know what you mean,” Cat whispered sadly and James glanced at her again.

“Aye.  Ah see that.  Ah’m glad he hasn’t lost that,” he whispered and stepped gingerly around another pile of human and AI wreckage.  It would take a long time to clean this place up.  Up ahead he heard some fighting and picked up his pace.  He didn’t want to get there too late.  He stepped around a partially collapsed part of the main hallway and saw Vihon, bloodied and shattered lying near one wall.  “Vihon,” he drawled in shock and stepped forward.  Then he looked further up and saw Jack lying on the floor in front of two doors, missing an arm.  Not again.  “Ah shit,” he mumbled and started moving forward slowly.  This was not going as planned.