First: Part 01

Part 02

A cloud of black smoke, back­lit with the gold­en glow of fire, bil­lowed across the ceil­ing. Tian watched the rail­gun twitch, seek­ing a tar­get and find­ing none. The heat of the fire prob­a­bly con­fused some of its sen­sors. Then a mas­sive con­bot crashed over the cen­ter spine of pipes and wires, and strug­gled to right itself on the floor. Two mechan­i­cal legs were miss­ing on one side, giv­ing the mech a drunk­en look as it attempt­ed to com­pen­sate. Red lasers strobed in the direc­tion of the fire, then twitch-focused on the tiny, dark fig­ure of a man as he dove off the pipes toward the con­bot. He rolled against the floor, popped up sud­den­ly to the left, and dodged the con­bot’s first laser shot by inch­es. He acti­vat­ed some mech­a­nism on his arm that glowed blue.

The rail­gun in the ceil­ing found the stranger. Red lights began to charge. Tian hissed at Salene, ”Shoot it.”

She stood straight, drew, fired. The arrow flew in a beau­ti­ful line, strik­ing the sen­sor tow­er direct­ly at the base of its gun. The EMP trig­gered on impact, shut­ting down the rail­gun before it could fire. But the con­bot rotat­ed its red laser eye toward Salene.

”Shit,” she said.

She and Tian ran. The con­bot’s nine remain­ing legs pound­ed the cor­ru­gat­ed floor with echo­ing doom, mov­ing the mas­sive robot far faster than either of them could hope to escape. If it did­n’t shoot them dead, they would be crushed under the mech’s met­al spike legs, skew­ered like tro­phies.

An ener­gy shot made Tian duck instinc­tive­ly, but it was­n’t from the con­bot. Blue elec­tric­i­ty enveloped the mech, freez­ing it in place for a heartwrench­ing moment. Then the con­bot col­lapsed to one side, and as the body of the beast fell, Tian saw the strange man perched on the pipes. His right arm was extend­ed, and the mech­a­nism there smoked. The entire lev­el shud­dered when the con­bot crashed to the floor.

Salene grabbed Tian’s shoul­der, pulling him away, but he resist­ed. He want­ed to know who this stranger was that could bring down a con­bot with one shot, who could appar­ent­ly blow up its legs to inca­pac­i­tate it. How had he launched it across the pipes stacked fif­teen feet over­head?

”Who are you?” Tian called. The fire glowed red behind the stranger, out­lin­ing a sil­hou­ette, Tian was sure he’d nev­er for­get. Even at this dis­tance, the man looked tall and his shoul­ders were broad. Tian need­ed to know more about him.

The stranger lept light­ly off the pipes and approached them. Tian moved to meet him, despite Salene’s grunt­ing protest. As he came clos­er, Tian real­ized the man was wear­ing a skin­suit from head to toe. It glit­tered sub­tly with stored pow­er, and out­lined every angle and bulge of mus­cle. Tian licked his lips and tried to focus. ”Do you have a name?”

”You two should­n’t be here,” he said.

The stranger’s voice was odd­ly rough. Dark with some injury or dis­tor­tion. It sank into Tian’s ears and made his whole body tin­gle.

Salene grabbed Tian’s shoul­der. ”Hey, we just saved your life.”

”No, you inter­rupt­ed my hunt.”

The stranger took anoth­er step clos­er, close enough to loom over Tian even though his skin­suit­’s mask hid his eyes behind flat black pan­els. Then his knees gave out.

Tian caught the man rough­ly and col­lapsed under the unex­pect­ed weight. They both hit the ground hard; Tian on his knees, while he hugged the stranger awk­ward­ly around the chest. Tian pealed one of his hands away, and it was red with blood.

”He needs help.”

”No,” Salene start­ed.

Tian rolled the man onto his stom­ach and gasped. The entire back of his skin­suit had been torn away, the body beneath burned and bloody. ”We need to help him.”

”No we don’t.” She took a step back. ”We’re out here to get more meal blocks, Tian, not res­cue an idiot.”

Tian pulled his small back­pack off one shoul­der and dug out a pre­cious med­ical kit. ”Don’t you want to know how he took out the con­bot?”

”It was an EMP–”

Tian pealed the seal off the med­pack and pressed the gel sur­face firm­ly against the stranger’s mid-back. Immediately the pack acti­vat­ed, seal­ing and san­tiz­ing the injuries as the gel crawled out­ward on its own. There was­n’t enough to cov­er the man’s entire back, but Tian only had one. It would have to do.

”Conbots are immune to EMPs,” Tian said.

Salene snort­ed. ”It was a big EMP. Look, I don’t care. We can’t drag him around and expect to get home safe.”

Dragging… yes, he could drag the guy. A sled would be a lot faster. Tian turned to assess the fall­en con­bot.

”Tian!”

He whirled on her. ”You go get the meal blocks, Salene. I’m not leav­ing him like this.”

She gaped at him for a moment, then threw her bow over her head and shoul­der, and scoffed. ”Then you’re an even big­ger idiot,” she said. ”Have fun.” Salene did­n’t even look back at him as she jogged away.

Tian dis­missed her con­cern. Food was impor­tant, sure, but if they could fight back against the city? That was even bet­ter. Maybe they could carve out a space larg­er than six or sev­en car­go crates. Maybe Tian could even have his own room rather than shar­ing with six oth­er men. This stranger had tech­nol­o­gy Tian was des­per­ate to learn about.

Satisfied that the med kit was doing its job, Tian took a moment to check the stranger over for addi­tion­al injuries. He manip­u­lat­ed each limb, search­ing for bro­ken bones, scratch­es, and the like. The skin­suit still glit­tered with stored ener­gy. Tian hoped it would­n’t dis­charge by acci­dent. Was the dam­age in the back crit­i­cal?

He checked the man’s right arm close­ly. Tian ran his fin­gers across a met­al brac­er there not unlike his own scan­ner. But he’d seen this device shoot and inca­pac­i­tate a con­bot with one ener­gy pulse. Clearly it was more than a sim­ple scan­ner. Whatever gen­er­at­ed the laser was­n’t imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous, though, and Tian moved on.

Tian found anoth­er rip in the suit along the front of the brac­er. The dam­age had tak­en the skin suit­’s glove with it, expos­ing the stranger’s dark, flush skin. Undamaged, sup­ple skin. Tian fold­ed the torn edge of the skin suit away from the wrist and exposed a tat­too. A num­ber sev­en dig­its long.

”Who are you…?” Tian stood. He got to work dis­as­sem­bling a pan­el from the con­bot that he could rig as a tem­po­rary sled.

Salene would make it to the meal block print­er with­out a prob­lem. She was quick and always took safe routes. That meant she would­n’t come back this way, though. With the dam­age from the fire, and the fall­en con­bot, the local con­struc­tor had prob­a­bly already sent more mechs to inves­ti­gate the dam­age and affect repairs. If they found Tian, he would­n’t stand a chance. But the uncon­scious stranger would be even more vul­ner­a­ble.

He had to move quick­ly.