Read Chapters 1-16 here.
This is a quiet, largely transitional chapter. I thought our heros needed some time to deal with the fallout from Chapter 16 before I threw any more epic drama their way. The good news is that Chapter 18 is already written and won’t be far behind.
All my love.
The dissonance of human screams. A metallic whir, a robot’s tread. A hot zapper in her hands, set to kill. Pedro, his eyes accusing, looking at her through a blue forcefield. Up, unblinking as the guts of half a dozen Marines splatter across his face. The smell of shit and death in each trench they left behind, each body they left unburied and unburned. The cold purpose in each robot’s metal face, faces modelled after their human creators, a constant reminder of the arrogance that had brought them to this point, the idea that they could create life, when all they had created was hell, living, breathing hell…
Taz couldn’t tell her sleeping nightmares from her waking ones anymore.
She lay awake and shivering, looking at the thin strip of clouded stars through the opening of the trench they called home tonight, somewhere in Mexico, deep within robot territory. The destruction of both the robot and human fleets had not ended the fighting, merely relocated it to Earth, where it was hand-to-hand, dirty, real. Taz was a foot soldier now, one of a few dozen left under Up’s command after weeks of stark, blooded warfare. They were all that was left of the Cazadora’s homeless crew. Pedro had only been the first to die.
She’d woken herself up screaming every night since it had happened, something she hadn’t done since she was a girl at the Academy, and she hated herself for it. The only woman left on the team, and she was the one letting the grimy truth of war get the best of her, when she was asleep, defenceless, powerless to stop the raging images through her mind. She could face them awake. She was still here, wasn’t she?
Sometimes their missions were successful. Sometimes they managed to destroy an important outpost, a stash of weaponry, a whole league of robots. But there were always more. More outposts, more weapons, more robots. And the G.L.E.E. was growing weaker and weaker.
They persisted, not just because of their orders but because they had to in order to survive, moving their makeshift base every few days, sending out spies and praying to a dead god that they’d return, blowing up everything robotic they could find. Searching for some ace in the hole, some way to end the ceaseless robot reign, some chance at saving the human race.
It wasn’t a question of hope. The Rangers had long ago given up on that. It was only Up’s cold determination that was holding them together now.
Because Up – Up had changed. Taz saw now the soldier she had only caught glimpses of before, when he’d rescued her from her quinceañera, when they’d met their enemies in combat. She saw now the man who had piloted the Eagle back to Earth on sheer willpower, who made alien children draw back even as they cheered his name. The man who had destroyed a Bird of Prey with his bare hands. The man who intimidated even his own Rangers. The man they whispered slept on a bed of fire, ate eagles for breakfast…
Gone was the Up she knew, the Up who let his guard down and laughed, the Up who liked to listen to her read and had learned to dance with her and whose favourite movie was The Karate Kid. In his place was Up the commander, Up the soldier, Up the solid wall of stony muscle, Up who could look a hoard of murderous robots in the eye and not even blink. Up who may as well be a robot himself.
She had heard of this Up, the Up the galaxy called hero. But never before had he put this face on for her.
The stars traced familiar patterns in the Mexican sky.
A sudden flame, small and hissing, lit up across the trench. Up sat on his sleeping bag, the orange glow of a cigarette illuminating his face. Up was always smoking now.
“You’re awake,” he said. It wasn’t a question. Even his voice seemed cold to her.
Taz sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. “Nightmares,” she said. There was no point in hiding it. She’d been keeping them all awake for weeks.
“It’s his name you scream,” he said, his face a mask. “Every night.”
He didn’t have to say which name. It hovered in the air like a ghost between them.
“He haunts me, Up,” she said, and she didn’t know why she was telling him. The relief that he was talking to her, perhaps, the hope that maybe he was still her Up, the one who’d taught her everything she knew, the one she’d idolized since she was fifteen, the one who had been her dearest friend. “His face, in my dreams. He sacrificed everything for me.” For us. So I could have a second chance to tell you-
Up’s eyes, in the flickering light, seemed a little less stern. Almost pained. “I know you and Pedro-”
“What-” she said in a low voice, searching his face, “-do you know about me and Pedro?”
Up was struggling. “That you and he- that you were-”
Understanding hit her. He had it all wrong. “He was my friend,” she said. “And he loved me, but I never loved him back the way he wanted me to.” She took a deep breath, and said the next words before she could change her mind. “It was never Pedro that I cared about.”
She had said it once before to him, but not in a language he could understand.
Up went very quiet.
“Commander Up?” called the Ranger on watch. “Message from Headquarters, sir.”
Up looked at her for a long moment before getting up, putting out his cigarette with the toe of his boot, and walking away.
Taz was alone again.
Their attempted assault on this robots’ hideaway had not gone well. They’d been surprised just as they’d pulled the pins on the grenades meant for the stash of weaponry – a huge, winged robot, white and blue, had dropped from the sky before them. Some of his Rangers had managed to throw their grenades… some of them hadn’t. More deaths on his watch. On his conscience.
The winged robot was faster, more maneuverable than any Up had ever seen. The Rangers’ zapper fire rebounded from its armour, sending them rolling out of the way. The robot raised its own rifles and then became a white blur in the sky. Up couldn’t get a mark on it.
A hoarse yell rang out as a stream of rifle fire found its target in an ensign’s chest.
“Hey, you big hunk of scrap metal!” Up yelled, trying in vain to draw its attention. No more, no more of them. It’s me you want, big boy, it’s my team-
The robot dropped to the ground with an earth-shattering thud and advanced toward him, raising a powerful rifle toward his chest -
And then it looked down as a sharp metal rod emerged from its own breastplate. The winged robot shuddered, sparked, and fell to the ground, revealing Taz standing behind it, a look of shock on her face as the jagged metal scrap was pulled from her hands. It was covered in blood.
“Are you hurt?” Up asked sharply, taking her hands, turning them over, checking for injury.
She shook her head, and pointed.
Blood, real human blood, was bubbling from the robot’s chest where Taz had impaled it. Up stared at it for a moment, then knelt and pulled at the robot’s neck, seeking a latch, a clasp, a way in.
A whirring sound, and the robot’s head opened up to reveal a young man, blond, round-faced, dead. It wasn’t a robot at all.
There was a terrible retching sound as Taz threw up behind him.
The Rangers whispered of it, a human within a robot, their enemy suddenly made flesh before them. They wondered where it had come from, whether there were more, whether he had joined the robots willingly or if he was a brainwashed prisoner of war. They sent the corpse and its metal exoskeleton off to Headquarters, and tried not to think about how many more of their own they might be destroying, might have already destroyed, with each grenade, each rocket launcher, each zapper blast.
In an effort to take their mind off of it, Up moved their base again, this time to the ruins of an ancient Mayan fortress. Once a tourist attraction with ticket booths and fences, it was now forgotten and lonely, a sentinel overlooking the stormy Caribbean sea. He liked the idea of it, making it a fortress once more, its blackened stones serving their protective purpose again. It was better than digging another trench, at least.
He let his Rangers set up the radio equipment, the sleeping quarters, the makeshift kitchen and climbed up to the top of the fortress’ tallest pyramid-like structure, a temple perhaps, the closest to the cliff’s edge. He took out a cigarette, though his supplies were getting low, and struck a match, letting the night wind numb him, listening to the crashing waves.
Four more of his Rangers dead today. That made two hundred and thirty-two men and women who had looked to him for leadership, and who he’d led only to their deaths. He added their names to the list he’d vowed never to forget. It was too long now, far too long.
Movement at the corner of his eye. Up tensed, then realized that it was a human figure, in white and green, too small to be anyone but Taz. He watched her creep to the edge of the tall black cliffs, peering over at the moonlit waves, the slim strip of white sand below.
“It was never Pedro that I cared about.”
Her words had echoed in his brain all day. He’d allowed himself a moment of hope, after weeks of pushing her away, putting distance between them. He told himself he was giving her space to grieve, but really he knew he was just hurting her so as to try and soothe his own hurting heart. Did she mean what he thought she’d meant?
He watched her test her weight on a tentative set of wooden stairs once intended, he assumed, to help tourists find their way to the beach below. They listed now at a frightening angle, but Taz seemed to have decided that they were stable enough, for she crept lightly down, occasionally sidestepping a missing plank, or railing. Up could hear the structure creaking under her weight. He frowned.
The full moon illuminated her path. She reached the sand, and immediately tugged off her black boots, dusty and war worn now. Her utility belt came next, and her bandana, and then her heavy camouflage pants.
“Taz, what are you doing?” Up said into the wind, leaning farther over the edge of the temple. Waves taller than he was smashed violently into the black rocks dotting the beach. It was not the kind of night you’d want to go for a swim.
She’d been ashen-faced all day. He thought of the young man in the robot costume, the blood spurting from his chest, the stained metal scrap Taz had killed him with.
Up climbed down the temple a lot faster than he’d climbed up.
The sand was soft, gentle, a rolling massage on her aching, boot-trapped feet. She wiggled her toes and breathed in the air. There were no metal smells here. No burning robots, no zapper fire, no blood. She took a step, and jumped back as the remnants of the most recent wave tickled her feet, cool and churning and so, so inviting. She walked out into the surf, feeling the pull of the undertow, letting it lead her deeper. She stood, waist-deep in the water, waiting for the next wave to come and take her -
Strong arms wrapped around her just as it arrived.
She kicked, and opened her mouth to scream, but swallowed salty water instead. She gasped as her head emerged from the water and she found herself thrown over a broad, slippery shoulder.
“Up, you big idiota!” she coughed, trying to spit out the taste of salt. “What are you doing? Put me down!”
Up was rubbing the salt from his own eyes. “What am I doing? What are you doing, Taz? Are you trying to kill yourself?”
She hammered on his back with her fists, for once hating his strength. “Kill myself, what are you talking about? I’m a goddamned Starship Ranger, not a child. Put me down!”
He dumped her unceremoniously back into the water as another wave, this time smaller, crested around them, and she struggled to regain her footing. The water that had been waist-deep on Taz barely made it to Up’s thighs. He’d removed his utility belt and body armour to come out after her, and his chest and feet were bare. His grey commander’s pants clung to him in ways that would draw anyone’s attention.
She turned her gaze upward, and found him looking at her with perplexity. “So if you’re not trying to kill yourself, what the hell are we doing out here?”
She stared at him a moment. “Yo estaba jugando,” she said. “I was playing.”
Up stared back. Then he put his face in his hands. His shoulders were shaking.
“Are you laughing at me?” she said.
It erupted out of him then, a great guffaw, and it was the most beautiful sound she’d ever heard. She couldn’t help it - laughter bubbled out of her too, the first since Pedro had died, and it felt good. She took advantage of the moment to push Up backwards into the water just as another wave came upon them.
He came up spluttering, and the chase began.
They stumbled out of the waves eventually, dripping and gasping for air, and collapsed side by side on the sand, looking up at the falling moon. It was an unearthly, beautiful place, but Up was distracted by Taz’s bare legs, the shape of her body beneath her translucent tank top. The sky was beginning to lighten in the east.
“They call this place Zama, the City of Dawn,” she said, when they had caught their breath. “My uncle took us here once. I think I was seven or eight. We didn’t live near a beach, so it was one of the only times I can remember that I got to play in the waves like that. It’s one of my favourite memories.”
“There weren’t a whole lot of waves in Alabama, either,” said Up. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d shared so much about her childhood with him, and he felt oddly touched. They watched the hidden sun draw closer.
“I never killed another person before, Up,” she said.
So it was bothering her. “I know,” he said. “You did what you had to do. And you saved my life doing it.”
“Do you really think a human would join them willingly?” she whispered to the sky, not looking at him but something far above that he couldn’t see. “Betray their own race?”
“Others have,” Up said. “Like your friend Mr. Brown…”
He had a sudden vision of Taz in a red dress, moving as gracefully on the dance floor as she did on the battlefield. Taz, dirty and bruised in her fatigues, shouting orders, mowing down rows of robots with zapper fire, bending to help a fallen comrade. Taz, a ball of anger and grief, always fighting for the family she could never get back. Taz lying here next to him, sticky with salt and sand and flushed with exertion, her dark eyes a reflection of the moon above. Different, but the same. And he wanted all of them. All of her.
His hand found hers, and she let him thread their fingers together, hers so much smaller but equally calloused, equally worn. The rightness of it overwhelmed him.
“Taz,” he said, turning to her. “I-”
He stopped. Taz had closed her eyes, and her breathing had become even, peaceful. The sun was peeking out over the edge of the sea, giving everything a pinkish glow, making her look like some kind of sea-swept, dark-haired angel. She was sleeping soundly for the first time in weeks.
Up smiled, and closed his eyes too. Here, in this place, he couldn’t help but feel like they had all the time in the world.
Taz was slurping up rehydrated noodles with the rest of the team when Up beckoned her over to where he crouched, one ear pressed to the receiver of the team’s radio. He put his finger to his lips and turned the receiver just enough so that she could listen too.
“They’re called Wing Gundam Zero units,” said the scratchy female voice on the other end. “And they’re incredibly sophisticated, they’re operated directly through the human brain, so they’re instinctive, that’s why they can move so fast. They’re damn near impossible to destroy, the one you sent over is the only specimen we’ve managed to get.”
Up nudged Taz proudly, and she gave him a half-hearted smile.
“But we’re estimating that they’ve got thousands of them, Up. You’ve seen what just one can do, and that was just a prototype. The G.L.E.E. is running out of resources.”
“You mean running out of Rangers, Li,” said Up.
“Well, yes,” the radio said. “We need to stop these things before they get them off the ground. And luckily for us, there is one thing – besides human operators – that these bastards need to make the units work. According to our intelligence reports, they’ve already reached an agreement and will be transporting the material back here to Earth within the week.”
“So we’ve got to get to this stuff first,” Up said. “And blow it to hell.”
“It’s the only shot we’ve got left, Up. If the robots get those units operational, it’s all over. And there’s only one place in the galaxy that has enough phason for them to do it.”
Up’s eyes locked with Taz’s, and she felt a sharp jolt of fear, a sudden feeling that something was about to go very, very wrong. “So where are they sending us, Li?”
“The Klingon homeworld, Up. You’re going to Qo’noS.”
This is it, my friends. Qo’noS.
The City of Dawn is a real place in Mexico, currently called Tulum, one of those epic places of beauty so unreal that you can’t quite believe it til you see it. I have played in those waves, and it was some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. I’ve put Taz and Up through so much pain that I wanted to give them a small piece of that before… well, you know.
Read Chapter 18 here.
Thank you, as always, for reading. Your comments?