Chapters 1-14 can be found here. Much thanks as always for reading! <3
A dozen starship commanders stood silently around the strategy table, surveying countless blueprints, grasping for some key element there they hadn’t yet seen, coming up blank. It was a lull in the heated discussions that had been taking place since they’d arrived at the secret Mexican bunker. The bunker had been set up expressly for this purpose, a place to meet in the event of a disaster like this, its coordinates hidden deep within G.L.E.E. codes to prevent any spies getting a hold of them. Most of the starships that had been within the solar system had made it back to Earth within hours – the Cazadora among them – and now their captains were faced with the task of finding a way to win the very heart of the Galactic League back from their robot enemies.
They were leaderless, and that was a problem. Tripp and the other Rear and Vice Admirals were trapped within the robot-held Headquarters, and there had been no further contact with them after Tripp’s initial message to Up. Every commander had his own ideas about their situation, but none of them actually seemed to stand a chance of working.
“Headquarters has the highest security known to man,” said Commander Li, breaking the silence. She was Up’s former commanding officer – before he had been assigned to the Eagle, back when they’d still been actively skirmishing with robots here on Earth - and the most senior officer there. She was also the only female in the room. “It’s going to be damn near impossible to get in.”
“The robots did,” said Up, for what felt like the hundredth time. “We just need to figure out how.”
More pointless arguments. They were talking in circles. Headquarters was built to be virtually impenetrable, the last fortress of its kind. No Ranger had ever expected to be trying to break into it.
Elbows on the table, Up put his head in his hands and rubbed his temples. They were getting nowhere. He found himself wondering what Taz would have to say about the situation. She would likely cut through the pragmatic bullshit and get right to the point, help them find some brilliant, simple solution they were overlooking.
She couldn’t though, because she was still confined to quarters. A minimum of twenty-four hours had to pass before Up could release her, according to G.L.E.E. regulations, and he just couldn’t bend the rules for her this time. There were already too many people asking questions about their relationship. If the wrong people thought that Up was treating Taz differently from any of his other crewmen, she could find herself reassigned to another ship, and he needed her on the Cazadora, on his team – with him.
She hadn’t been real pleased when he told her to stay put.
The arguing faltered. Up raised his head as the door opened and a large, imposing figure in black entered the room.
“Making any progress, gentlemen?”
Taz stared at the ceiling of her quarters, watching it move back and forth as she pulled herself up into a crunch and down again, her hands resting behind her head, her rep count rounding into the three hundreds. What she’d really like was a punching bag – maybe with Up’s face on it. Like anyone was really going to care if he followed the rules at a time like this, when the biggest development in the history of the Robot Wars was happening right now? She should be out there with the rest of them – with him.
“Confined to quarters,” she muttered. She was going to lose it if she had to stay in here much longer. Some way to spend your birthday.
A knock at the door, and she paused mid-rep.
Pedro poked his head around the door. “How you doing in here, Taz?”
“How’s it look like I’m doing, idiota?” she said, continuing the crunches. “I’m killing time until Up se despierta and realizes he needs me out there. What’s happening, anyway?”
“The Commander’s been in meetings with all of the other starship commanders since we arrived at the bunker. They haven’t come out in a while, I don’t think it’s going well.”
“What is there to meet about? We’ve got to go in and destroy the hijos de puta.”
“That’s the problem, we’ve got to go in – you know how hard it is to infiltrate Headquarters when it’s fully locked down like this,” Pedro said, coming in and sitting on her bed, wrinkling his nose at the trace of blood on her pillow. Taz’s glass-shredded palms were wrapped in bandages and hurt like hell, but the throbbing pain was only helping her focus her growing frustration.
“The robots did,” she said. “We’ve just got to figure out how.”
Pedro shrugged. “That’s the commanders’ problem, isn’t it?”
Taz sat up and glared at him. “It’s everyone’s problem, hombre.”
Pedro casually picked up her pillow by the corner and moved it out of his way, stretching out on her bed like it was his own. “Whatever happens, I have to admit it’s nice to be on Earth again, even if we have to stick to the ships and bunkers.”
Taz froze, halfway to standing. “We’re on Earth?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Why would I know, Pedro? I’ve been stuck here with no viewscreen, no radio contact since Up got the call from Tripp!”
Pedro looked at her accusingly. “Why was Commander Up in here when he got the call?”
Taz crossed her arms and didn’t answer.
They glared at each other for a moment, then finally Pedro pushed himself up out of her bed. “You’d better watch yourself, Taz, you know the G.L.E.E. doesn’t have much tolerance for unauthorized relationships between commanding officers and their subordinates.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Taz spat, feeling herself grow red. “There is no relationship. But if you go and start shooting your mouth off-”
“Do you really think I would do that?” There was hurt in Pedro’s voice. “Up’s the best commander in the fleet, and you-” The rest of that thought hung in the air between them. Pedro sighed. “I don’t want to see either of you lose your jobs. But you’re kidding yourself if you don’t see the way he looks at you.” He looked angry now, too. “Enjoy your solitary confinement, Taz. I’ll let you know how it all turns out.”
“Wait-” she said, her brain still trying to take in everything he’d just said. “At least tell me where we are – where on Earth did we land?”
He stopped in the doorway, and turned, a strange look on his face. “Why, mi hermana,” he said. “We’re in Mexico. We’ve finally come home.”
Dr. Samuel Claw did not look like your average ship’s doctor. Up had heard him spoken of before, and met him once or twice in passing. He was supposed to be some sort of genetic genius, a specialist in robotics who’d invented a controversial method of fusing robot parts into human bodies to replace those lost to injury or illness. Lauded by some as the key to immortality, and abhorred by others as the end of humanity itself, Dr. Claw’s research had made waves across the galaxy a few years ago. The doctor’s own hands and forearms shone with a sinister metallic gleam, and it was rumoured that it was because he had used himself as a test subject in the early stages of his research, many years ago. There was something eerily super-villainesque about him, which was perhaps why the feeds had taken to calling him by his press-given nickname: Dr. Space-Claw.
“Dr. Claw,” said Commander Li. “What a surprise. I didn’t realize the Panther was in the area.”
Dr. Claw folded his hands with an unsettling whirring sound. “We’re badly crippled, I’m afraid, and were on our way back to Earth for repairs when we got the distress call.” He made eye contact with each commander in turn as he spoke. “We lost Jackson in our last attack – I have been Acting Commander in the interim. I may not have a working ship to offer but perhaps I can be of some assistance anyway.”
There was a moment of silence at the news. Jackson had been a good Ranger, a good Commander. The Cazadora and the Panther had collaborated on missions many times - it was the Panther that had rescued Up and Taz from the Graali desert moon only a few years before.
Dr. Claw came closer to the strategy table and peered at their plans. Everyone instinctively stood a little taller – he had at least a foot on anyone else in the room. Up wondered if that was another robotic enhancement. “Going for stealth, I see. Not getting you very far, is it?”
“Do you have another idea, Doctor?” said Up, who was well past tired of this meeting.
“Blow them up,” Dr. Claw said with a shrug. “Stop wasting time in this bunker and show the bastards that we can be just as ruthless as they are.”
Silence. Finally Commander Li spoke.
“Every high-ranking officer in the Galactic League is trapped inside Headquarters with the robots, Dr. Claw. Bombs aren’t selective in their targets.”
Dr. Claw leaned across the table, inches from her face. “There’s a reason we haven’t won this war yet, Commander.” He drew back and looked at them all, his voice deep, powerful, assured. “We care too much. If there’s one thing we did right when we created those tin cans, it’s that we took away that particular human folly.” His volume dropped nearly to a whisper, and the gathered commanders leaned in. “If we want to win this war for good, we’ve got to think like they do. We’ve got to act like they do.”
“No,” said Up, shaking his head, and everyone turned to look at him. “We start acting like the robots, we lose what little humanity we have left.”
“We were born human,” said Dr. Claw smoothly, smiling. “We will always be human. But not if they drive us to extinction. And you all know the reality: we are on our way to extinction, Commander Up. Our planet hovers on the brink of environmental collapse. What happens to humanity then?”
The tension in the room could have been sliced and served for lunch with a side of fries. Commander Li cleared her throat. “We’ve been at this for hours. Why don’t why take a short break, clear our heads? We’ll reconvene in fifteen and discuss Dr. Claw’s suggestion.”
Up was the first to leave, his hands shaking and his mind coming up with a thousand retorts, none of which sounded quite as good as what Dr. Claw had left them with. Blow up the entire Headquarters and everyone in it? What kind of plan was that? They’d never agree to it, they couldn’t possibly-
He stopped short as he passed the bunker’s garage, where the land vehicles were kept. He could hear someone bumbling around in there.
Pedro turned around guiltily, one foot already in a camouflaged Jeep. “Oh, hi, Commander.”
Up was at the end of his rope. “Planning to go for a joyride, were you? You know that we’re deep in robot territory, Ensign. No one is to leave the bunker, it’s not safe for humans to be out there alone.”
Pedro opened his mouth, then closed it again. Up crossed his arms and waited.
“It’s Taz,” he said finally. “She’s gone.”
“Gone?” Up said dangerously.
“I went to visit her and I let it slip that we’d landed in Mexico,” Pedro said, very quickly, his hands half raised as if to defend himself from an expected attack. “When I went back a half an hour later, she wasn’t in her room. I checked the ship’s log and she’s not on board.” He pointed at a set of tell-tale tire tracks heading toward the bunker’s garage door. “And there’s a Jeep missing.”
“You told her we were in Mexico?” Up said, raising his communicator to check the logs himself. They confirmed what Pedro said – Taz was not on board the Cazadora. If she had checked the navigation and realized that they weren’t more than twenty miles from her obliterated village… “Are you soft in the head? Do you know what today is?”
Pedro furrowed his brow and shook his head. He didn’t.
Up rubbed his temples again, wondering what to do. His duty was here at the bunker, in that meeting, listening to all that useless back-and-forth. But Taz, if last night was any indication, was in no state to be wandering around a robot-infested land by herself. Not today.
“Get out of my way,” he said finally, and Pedro stepped aside. Up swung himself over the door of the Jeep as the ensign scurried around to the other side.
“I’m coming with you,” Pedro said, jumping into the passenger’s seat and putting his hands on his hips like a defiant five-year-old.
“Fine,” Up said, too exhausted to argue. When was the last time he’d slept? Backup wouldn’t be a bad idea. He turned the ignition. “Buckle up, Garbage-sniffer.”
Taz sat cross-legged in the middle of a blackened memory. Dead trees dangled, and grass no longer grew where there had once been life, family, laughter. It should have been unrecognizable but it was a part of her, this place and its horrors, its haunting of her dreams. She could see it all, lanterns and lights and dancing, chickens and ice cream in the summer, bicycles and running barefoot with her cousins, her mama telling stories at night while fireflies hovered to listen. Her first sticky kiss with the boy down the street. Watermelon seeds and smoking bodies and spilt champagne, screams cut short and mechanical laughter, the sweetly searing smell of burnt flesh. Being lifted off her feet by arms too inhuman to fight, seeing the end of the world coming at her upside down. Knowing death was coming, and almost welcoming it, knowing she would join her family soon…
And then the Ranger, sweeping in like a dead-goddamned knight in shining armour, destroying them all, doing what she couldn’t, making her feel more helpless than before. He’d cut her down and caught her, and they’d stared at each other, the only two survivors in a world of destruction. As soon as she saw his blue eyes she’d trusted him, inexplicably, irrefutably. She’d never stopped.
There was nothing left of the house but the remnants of a raging fire, a few broken pieces of pottery, and a photograph, somehow preserved in its shattered frame. She held it now, tracing her finger over the faces she had only seen in her dreams these past ten years. It was an impromptu family portrait, taken when she was twelve or thirteen, her aunt and cousins and mama and her all gathered together under the biggest tree in the yard, the baby screeching, two of her cousins pulling each other’s hair. Her mama with her big, comfortable arms wrapped around Taz’s skinny, braided younger self, both of them all smiles for the camera. Taz blinked. The tears were there, just behind her eyes, but they wouldn’t come.
She should get up, get back in the Jeep, and return to the bunker before anyone realized she was gone. But she couldn’t make herself leave.
Suddenly behind her there were footsteps. She nearly jumped out of her skin, but then she knew who it would be.
It was Up, of course. He looked down at her sadly, and she couldn’t speak, because it was just like him to have her figured out so precisely, to know exactly where she would have gone and why, to come and look at her like that, like her pain was his own. He sat down next to her, without saying anything at all. She allowed her head to fall to his shoulder and rest there, seeking his strength. Finding it.
They stayed like that for a long time.
Suddenly a crackling sound came from Up’s wrist. “Hey, Commander?”
It was Pedro’s voice, and Taz looked at Up in surprise. He looked a bit abashed as he raised his wrist and said, “Go ahead, Ensign.”
“Sorry to break up this nice little moment, you two, but I think we’ve got company.”
“Shit,” said Up as the two of them leapt up and looked around. Pedro was sitting in one of the bunker Jeeps atop a hill not too far in the distance, gesturing wildly behind him. As they watched, he started the ignition and careened down the slope. The metallic form of one very large, very angry-looking robot crested the hill.
“You brought Pedro out here?” Taz yelled as they ran toward the oncoming Jeep.
“If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t even have known you’d left the ship, Taz!” Up shouted back. “I left him in the Jeep to keep watch!”
“Great idea!” she said, only halfway meaning it. “Now what?”
The Jeep was almost upon them. Pedro slowed down ever so slightly and both Up and Taz managed to grab hold of either side and swing themselves over as he passed them. Taz growled at the pain pulsing in her palms as she steadied herself in the backseat. The robot was gaining ground.
“That son of a bitch is huge! They’re making them big here on Earth these days!” Pedro said, looking in the rearview mirror. “Hi, Taz.”
“I can’t believe you told on me, idiota,” she said in return, pulling a couple of zappers out of the Jeep’s cargo and checking to see if they were charged.
“I think you mean ‘thanks for coming to rescue me from that crazy-ass robot chasing us, Pedro. You’re a real pal.’”
Taz cursed as the Jeep pitched and she was thrown roughly into Up, who was holding tightly to the rollover frame. She pushed one of the zappers at him.
“Hey listen, Taz,” Pedro continued, rising about a foot into the air as they went flying over another huge bump. “I understand, really I do, this is my homeland too, remember? But you don’t see me defying orders and taking off to go have a look-see at my burnt village, do you?” Their eyes met in the mirror. “Sometimes the past is best left in the past.”
She didn’t have a chance to respond. A shadow fell, and a monstrous robot hand reached out and plucked Pedro from the driver’s seat as easily as if he was a popcorn kernel in a bowl.
“Grab the wheel!” shouted Up, and Taz threw herself over the seat as Up stood up with one foot on the back of the Jeep, his gun levelled at the robot, seeking a target. He didn’t shoot, and Taz knew why: if he brought the robot down, then Pedro would come down with it. And it would be a long fall to the hard ground below.
Steering with just the tips of her fingers, Taz had barely managed to regain control of the speeding Jeep when she felt it jolt, and then suddenly leap ahead. She looked in the rearview mirror. Up was no longer there.
“Some big rescuers you two idiotas are!” she bawled up at them. The robot had a tight grip on them, one in each hand, and was still coming after her. Intent on making a neat job of it, she supposed.
She turned her attention back to where she was going just in time to see herself drive into a lake.
The Jeep shuddered and pitched forward, filling quickly with water. Taz used the windshield to push herself up and away from the suction it created as it sunk, taking all of their weapons with it to the bottom of the lake.Estúpida, estúpida, estúpida. She should have known it was there, she’d learned to swim in this lake, pulled leeches from her legs on its shore. She tread water and turned to see the robot still coming, Up and Pedro struggling to free themselves from its grip.
The robot, its blank eyes fixed on her, stepped into the deep water. A strange buzzing sound, and sparks. Suddenly the robot’s hands opened, and Up and Pedro both dropped like rocks into the lake below, twin shouts of surprise abruptly interrupted as they hit the surface with two large splashes. Taz watched in alarm and amazement as the robot listed forward, electric currents humming the length of its body, vibrating through the water into hers. Its eyes went dark, and then it was falling forward, creating a tidal wave as it struck the water, sending her whirling head over heels, disorienting her. Where was the surface, where was the light, where was the air? She twisted midwater, seeking, searching, her lungs straining with too little in them-
Then she felt hands, and she was being pulled up, and she broke into the beautiful Earth atmosphere with a grateful gasp. It was Pedro, who waited long enough to see her start treading water before diving again. Taz looked around. She couldn’t see Up anywhere.
Pedro’s head broke the surface again, his dark hair plastered to his forehead, a frightened look on his face. “I can’t find him, Taz.”
At his words she dove, straining to see through the blackness of the lake. She could just make out the robot’s body, lying prone against the bottom. And there, pinned to its leg and struggling to free himself, was Up, a mere ten feet below the surface near the edge of the lake. He had to be almost out of air.
She rose up again and pointed out his direction to Pedro, swimming faster than she ever had in her life, not waiting to see if he was following. Taking the biggest breath she could manage, she used the edge of the robot’s foot to shoot herself straight down.
Up looked at her through the dark lake water as she reached him, his eyes glazing over, clearly losing consciousness. Taz grabbed his shoulders and pressed her mouth to his, forcing air into his lungs, giving him all she had. She kicked off from the bottom and gasped as she reached the surface again. Pedro had reached them.
“He’s caught,” she said, before pushing herself down again. Pedro followed.
Together, they worked to free Up from the dead robot’s grasp. Taz pulled her knife from her boot and sawed at his utility belt, snagged in the joint at the robot’s knee, willing him to stay conscious, hold onto the air she’d given him. Just a few seconds longer. A few more-
Finally, finally, he was free, and they pulled him up together, reaching the blessed surface, sucking in oxygen, hauling him to land. She heard Up cough, and sagged with relief, flopping onto the barren lakeshore as her muscles gave out beneath her.
The three of them lay there, panting with exhaustion, for what seemed like forever.
“You know what this means?” said Up. His voice sounded raw, but he was speaking, and that was good enough for her.
“The fuckers aren’t waterproof,” said Taz.
“How could we not have known?” said Pedro.
They lay in silence a little longer.
“Sprinklers,” said Up.
“The robots will short-circuit-”
“But the humans will be fine!”
Up got up quickly, though his legs shook a little. “I’ve got to get back to that meeting. Taz, where did you park the other Jeep?”
He got back in time to watch Headquarters explode.
The commanders were gathered around the strategy room’s viewscreen. Up knew it was too late the moment he saw the orange plumes unfurl across the screen, the thick grey smoke clouding the satellite images, the shattering boom hit his eardrums. They’d actually done it. He couldn’t believe it.
Some of the commanders watched the screen avidly, or with a sort of grim determination. Others were looking firmly at the floor. Dr. Claw watched calmly, his robotic hands propping up his chin.
“How many Rangers?” Up said darkly. The other commanders turned to see him, framed in the doorway, dripping wet, his uniform slashed and hanging in tatters. Some wouldn’t meet his eyes.
“Commander Up, how good of you to finally join us,” Dr. Claw said warmly. “That must have been some detour you took.”
“How many?” he repeated, this time directing his question at Commander Li, who at least had the grace to look upset at the horror unfolding – the horror they’d unleashed.
“Five hundred and fifty seven,” she said. “Eighty-eight of whom were high-ranking officers.” Our superiors, her eyes said, though she didn’t say it out loud.
“It didn’t have to be like this,” Up said.
Dr. Claw opened his mouth, but it was Commander Li who spoke. “But it did, Up,” she said. “Dr. Claw is right – we’ve been losing this war for hundreds of years now. It’s time to turn things around. We should have done this a long time ago.”
He looked at them all, friends and colleagues, and saw them solemnly agreeing with her. Dr. Claw sat in the middle, smiling like a Cheshire cat.
Up turned his back and walked away.
Taz opened her door to find Up standing there, still sopping wet and looking ready to kill someone. She stood back to let him in, and he started pacing the room.
“What did they think of your idea-” she began, and then jumped back as Up picked up her desk chair and threw it at the wall. It broke in two.
“It’s too late, they did it, I should have been there-”
“They did it?” she said, watching him with alarm. “They blew up Headquarters?”
He stopped moving and stood in the middle of her room, looking suddenly lost. It was such an unusual expression for him that she rushed over and took both of his hands in hers. “And- and Tripp?”
“And everyone,” he said, his voice suddenly devoid of emotion. “All dead. Dr. Claw has convinced the other commanders that it’s time we started playing this game by the robots’ rules. The Cazadora has been ordered into orbit to protect Earth against the retaliation we’re certain to receive. This war’s about to get dirty.”
“Ordered by who?”
“Ordered by him,” Up said. “Dr. Space-Claw. The commanders have voted. He’s Acting Admiral until the government can meet and give the matter proper consideration.”
Taz didn’t know what to say.
“This is all my fault,” she said. “Pedro was right. I shouldn’t have gone looking for the past. If I had stayed put, you would have been at the meetings, and you could have stopped them-”
“I don’t think I could have,” Up said, still looking blankly at the wall behind her. “He’s got this way about him – they were all his from the moment he stepped into the room.” He finally focused on her. “And if you hadn’t gone out, we would have never learned about the robots’ vulnerability to water.” He let go of her hands and dropped onto her bed, the fight gone out of him. She had never seen him look so defeated.
After a moment he said, “You saved my life today.”
“Pedro helped,” she said, sinking to her knees in front of him. “Besides, you’ve saved mine a hundred times.”
He snorted. “At least.” His face grew serious again. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
She wasn’t sure. All she felt now when she thought of it, home and family and that awful night, was hollow.
“You know,” he said. “I think we need a new reason to remember your birthday. Something not quite so terrible.”
Taz frowned. “Ten years ago-”
“Ten years ago,” he echoed, putting a finger to her lips. “I met you.”
She was sufficiently silenced. They stared at each other, for a long moment. Two survivors in a world of destruction.
“Come on,” she said finally, because if he said anything else like that she was either going to cry or kiss him, and she wasn’t sure how he’d react to either. “Let’s get you out of those wet clothes.”
He raised his eyebrows, looking intrigued, and she laughed and threw a pillow at him.
Read Chapter 16 here.
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