First: Part 01
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.
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.