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Chapter 1 The International Robotics and Technology Institute
The same day that headlines announced possible detection of an unexplained object
approaching known space at speeds exceeding those of light in vacuum, Satsuki Nagayama
found her name on a plaque after stepping off of her plane, held by the tall white haired
man she had met at the Japanese national science fair that spring. He bowed to her, and
she returned the bow, too disoriented to realize that he was doing her an honor.
Two other students were standing by him, luggage in hand. They were led into an
official International Robotics and Technology Institute shuttle, which sped them an hour
or so along the California coastal highway to a tree-lined secluded group of tall stone
buildings. Construction appeared to be continuing; the shuttle had to dodge large
earthmovers in the driveway. Suki and the others who had arrived at the same time were
led into a large rec room with IRTI-logo-carpets, blue couches and a green sofa chair, to
wait for the orientation meeting and for everyone else to arrive. Mr. Westing left,
presumably to collect more arrivals. A huge screen taking up one wall was reporting live
feed and tv broadcasts of the astounding news. A few students started talking, but Suki
had been awake for 26 hours now, catching flights and connecting flights and more
connecting flights. Despite her wish to meet her fellow classmates, she blacked out as
soon as she sat down, head on her duffel bag. That was the curse of not being able to
sleep in moving vehicles.
Someone shook her after not nearly enough rest, and pointed to a room down the
hall. He said something in English so accented Suki didn't have a clue what he meant, if
indeed it had been English at all. But she followed him anyway.
It was a conference room. Suki blearily looked at the faces surrounding her, and
was suddenly and acutely aware that she was the only Asian, the shortest of them all by
about four inches. One of only three girls. The Americans, Europeans and African looked
so lively. Muscular. Tall. Awake. Considering at the representation, she suddenly
wondered if her acceptance in the group was due to her ethnicity, and not so much her
qualifications. But the same thing could have been said of them all, she noted,
wondering what lay behind the new faces.
Mr. Westing walked into the small conference room, shaking each of the student's
hands and congratulating them by name. A tall blond girl introduced herself to Suki as
Mary Eaton-Cowles, and thumbed her friend, a very hip hispanic boy called John Marquez.
Suki smiled back, and nervously shook their hands. She had to keep reminding herself not
to bow. When Mr. Westing was done milling, he stood at the head of the oak table, and
made a clearing noise with his throat.
"If you would all please have a seat?"
Suki found herself sitting between a lanky, Judaic looking boy with red-brown
hair and an empty chair. The boy had an Andy Cutting T-shirt on, Suki's favorite
American singer and tekone artist. He glanced at her, raised a pierced-eyebrow in a
friendly manner, then looked back at Mr. Westing. Suki had to refrain from putting her
head on the table.
"Thank you. Thanks very much." Mr. Westing ran both hands through his thick
white hair, which stood up from his head as though he had given up trying to manage it.
A cartoon haircut. "Welcome. You have all proved to me by your applications and resumes
and some, ah, covert observations, that you are excellent scholars, decent people, and
uncommonly insightful. We are very excited to work with you. Welcome to IRTI, and to
the beginning of a new era." Mr. Westing surveyed their faces, a pleasant expression on
his face. Suki felt herself blush when his strange eyes met hers.
"I'm not one for lengthy introductions, and this is a place of higher learning,
not meeting keeping. All of you have class today, physics/aviation if I remember
correctly, in room 104, right near the rest rooms. If you would put your baggage in the
rooms assigned to you, you will find drinks and food in the corridor. Please pick up a
schedule from this pile of reprints, here in front of me. Er. . .yes. Have a nice first
day, and don't hesitate to contact me with any questions. My mail is available on any of
the hall monitors."
Everyone looked around for a few minutes after Mr. Westing's abrupt departure,
but when Mary and John got up, the rest followed. As they waited in line to get their
schedules, that Andy Cutting T-shirt boy, Ben Shulman, and the girl next to him, Rachel
Twodeer-Begay introduced themselves to Suki and to each other. Finding common ground,
they struck up a conversation about rockclimbing. Suki just listened, feeling too
nervous to really follow the rapid and American accented English.
As a group, they passed along the hall with everyone's rooms, and everyone found
their keys. It turned out that Rachel and Mary were rooming together. Suki opened her
single room and stepped inside.
It was spacious, plenty of hooks on the wall to hang things. There was a
comfortable bed, an installed monitor with the IRTI logo on the screen, a cushioned
window seat, and a large desk in the corner. For free rooming, the furniture were
amazingly stylish and well made. Suki dumped everything on the floor, and picked out
what she thought she would need for class. Time later to set things out. She couldn't
believe that they had class so soon. Well, she had come for the accelerated pace of the
Institute, rather than one of the huge Japanese universities.
Suki shifted her now emptier bookbag more comfortably on her shoulders, and made
her way slowly down the corridor to her combined physics/aviation class. According to
the schedule, all her classes were combined like this, except anthropology, which from
what the prospectus had said, seemed such a hodgepodge of other disciplines that it
didn't need to combine with anything. When she pulled the door open, it seemed that all
the other students were there.
"Auwa! Gott, Mary, watch where you flip those braids!" The taller of the
European boys quipped, smiling, with a slightly germanic accent. "I'm not your horse!"
"Sorry, Jurg." Mary said, pronouncing his name like it started with a y. Suki
made a mental note. "I don't ride with strangers anyway." The blond American looked him
straight in the eyes for about three seconds before breaking into a huge grin. They both
laughed. Rachel was here too. When she and Mary found out they were both "hyphens" they
"Yeah, I'm half Ojibway and half Navajo," Rachel said, "but wholly me." Mary
laughed, then started asking Jurg questions about where in Germany he was from.
"Not Germany– Switzerland. Everyone mistakes that."
Rachel, meanwhile, was discussing something with the tallest and darkest of them,
who Suki hadn't met yet. He laughed in a way that was almost contagious. Suki grinned,
and he looked down at her. He could have been easily twice her height, and was not
entirely thin either. His hands were enormous, and strong when she took one to shake.
"Hi. Quinn Nobuteh. I'm from Algeria."
"Nagayama Satsuki. Please, call me Suki."
He said something else, but the words just didn't sound right to Suki's weary
ears. She had to ask him to repeat himself, and apologized. How embarrassing. "That's
fine, I just asked where you were from?"
His accent was less strange than that of the remaining white boy, dark haired,
very friendly too. The one who had woke her. That boy and Ben were talking about an
article in the latest Popular Science issue. Quinn turned back to Rachel, and they got
into a discussion about living in the desert. Mary laughed suddenly.
How was it that everyone was already getting along so well together? Suki felt
like she had missed some important meeting. It almost felt like they had all been there
for a month and she had just arrived.
"Want to bet John is late?" Mary asked Suki, turning. Suki shrugged, pleased to
be included. She could tell already that the Hispano-American boy John stuck out a
little, much more pop culture oriented than the rest. Brash. A football player type,
Suki thought, to be completely stereotypical. Mary smiled smugly as the professor
"Afternoon folks. I'm Professor Gerald O'Donabhain. On loan from CIT, as it
were. Seats, if you please. Wow– this is so exciting! Have you all seen the news? I
wish I could. . .but. . .yes. We'll work up to that.
"So. I hope all of you have some sort of screen and typewriter. I'd like a
short essay before our hours are up, demonstrating a connection between Amelia Earhart
and the Rennaissance's mission to the moon. Besides the fact that they both didn't make
it. English, though you won't be graded for grammar unless that's your prime. I've been
over your profiles, so I do know. Yes, that's you too." The professor said, smiling, as
the one Suki hadn't met yet raised his hand. "The Scottish do speak English."
"I wanted to ask how long," the boy corrected, humor in his voice.
"Oh." The professor laughed at himself, and named something around 500 words.
Suki wrote the topic down on her lapscreen. Quinn raised his hand and asked
(before he was called on) if he could write it out on paper. Suki guessed she was going
to have to get used to a more informal style of school. No uniforms either. This was
all too confusing. The professor shrugged Quinn's question after some consideration. "So
long as it's legible.
"Now let me help you along a bit, by discussing a few of NASA's more spectacular
failures. Starting 1985, with the explosion of the Challenger, we see a degradation in
the faith of the public--"
"Sorry Prof." John said, swaggering in. Suki wondered idly if he practiced
that. "Phone call."
"Take a seat. Like I said, we see a degradation in the faith of the public that
space travel. . . ."
The lesson continued.
Suki was on her way down the same corridor early the next morning, dressed in
elastic shorts, halter, and a jacket over her top in case anyone else was around. She
felt a little better now, after twelve heavenly hours of sleep. Mary suddenly came into
the hall, still in pyjamas, leaving a different room. The physics computer lab, Suki
saw, written on the door.
"Hi." Mary said, stopping. "Where you off to?"
"Outside. To run."
"Oh. Well, have fun."
"Thanks." Suki said, with a nod of her head. Everyone here was so nice, she
As the map had indicated, the end of the corridor exited on a large park,
bordered by the workshop's several buildings. There were large metallic objects, hoses,
pipes, and machinery sitting in random piles around the running path. Suki didn't know
what a lot of the strange equipment scattered around the park was for. Perhaps it could
be just strange mechanical-looking sculptures, or more things for the construction
crews. With a sigh, she stripped off her jacket, hid it under a strange, large metal
thing that looked like a miniature tank flipped upside down, and stretched out her calves
and hamstrings. Taking out her earphone, she pulled out the control pin, and pushed
play. It slipped easily back into her left ear. Nuvo-tekone started beating in her
brain, and she took a deep calm breath despite the energy in the music before setting
The first five minutes of a run were the best, when she had no feeling at all of
working, and could bounce off the soles of her shoes along the path, the wind rushing in
her face. The tekone was a background, setting the mood, effortless. Suki felt like a
superhero during the first five minutes of a run. And here, it was something that just
felt like home.
The school– they kept referring to it as the Institute– was almost a kind of
boarding school, she guessed. Well, that wasn't exactly it. There was a definite lack
of juvenile antics. Life here was a such a strange amalgum of structure and freedom.
Structured in the requisite classes and extra activities required. And yet, endless
opportunities in the manner personal time could be spent, times meals could be eaten,
sleep scheduled. It held an order that Suki felt she could fit into, given enough time
to adjust to being on her own. That would not be the hard part.
The part that she was scared of, something that she hadn't admitted to her mother
or grandparents, was the other students. They all had to have been aggressive in their
studies, in order to have gotten in. And with only eight of them, they would soon be at
each other's throats, once grades came near and the first of the final projects
completed. Suki had been competitive in her school mainly by quietly staying out of the
way of all the others as they bickered and fought and tried to sabotage each other. She
didn't know if she would be able to do that here. The smallness made everything very
And America was such a strange place anyway. Everyone was so large. Such a huge
complex shift of cultures and ideas and colors. Japan was definitely consumer driven,
but here, ‘the purchase' was religion. It had always seemed such a mix of tolerance and
ethnocentrism on the live feeds and tv. In person though, the country was
just. . .large.
And that made her feel even smaller.
True, she was starting to be able to find her way around the Institute. Which
made it feel a little more comfortable. A very little. At least she could keep her mind
occupied. After all, that's why she was here, right? Suki relished the incomparable
chance to learn– it didn't matter what. An amazing amount of technical skill and theory
was offered in the special tutored classes, the chance to work with these obviously
bright other students was appreciated, how quickly they were advancing into the really
new stuff was just overwhelming right now. The robotics lab with equipment and free
materials had not yet been opened but when it did. . . . There were so many
opportunities here. And to top it off, Suki was almost smug at how little she missed her
But at the same time, at odd moments in between brain cramming and lab and class,
she couldn't help feeling a little overlooked. Fine, she admitted it. Lonely. Everyone
else was so good at conversation. So social. It had always been a frustration, but here
it was compounded exponentially.
The running helped through. That was something she could do anywhere and be
steady. Something that let her think, and made her feel good. Even when she was gasping
for breath and her legs refused to move without tripping.
Although she was feeling tired, Suki decided to take an extra lap anyway. Just
for the circulation of thoughts.
The one thing that really felt comfortable was her room, Suki thought, towelling
off after her shower. The tall ceilings and white paint were artfully done– it was real
paint, not the changeable beads that all the Apartments in Japan used, so they didn't
have to paint to change colors, just run programmed magnets over, like the flimsy
reprints that had replaced paper about ten years ago.
Suki had put up the few posters left from highschool that didn't want to make her
retch. A hubble photo of Mars, one of the Moon, a sat-pic of the Japanese islands, and a
wall prayer for enlightenment. All were framed except the prayer scroll, so they looked
pretty classy. Her box of papers and books was shoved under the rather high bed. She
had slept on a western bed at home anyway, so it was not a significant change. The
closet full of her clothes, running shoes by the open window. Toiletries in plastic
drawers under the sink that stood in the corner. The size was just right for one person.
Suki was half jealous, half relieved that it was Rachel and Mary who were
roommates. She would have liked to have someone to talk to, but the solitude was also a
nice change from that four room apartment where two of the four occupants never left.
Not to mention the little kids on either side of their room in the Kinkara Apartments,
her family home for fifteen years. The quiet here gave her time to think, freedom to
work whenever she wanted, and to get up as early or late as she liked.
She pulled on jeans and a T-shirt, then sat down at the console and accessed her
mail from home.
Saturday afternoon, after a delayed breakfast, Suki wondered if she could
actually handle more time by herself. She didn't have a class scheduled– no one did.
Suki had gone for a run in the morning, and was still a little too tired to go for
another one. She had finished her phys-av homework, and her genetics-chem homework, and
didn't really feel like continuing the mystery she'd been skimming for a rather odd
assignment in anthropology.
So she lay on her bed, looking at the ceiling. It felt like there was so many
things she should be seeing, something that everyone else knew, but she was not making
the connections. That was what this was all about, she thought, looking at the perfectly
smooth white ceiling. All the combined classes. Making connections from separate
disciplines. Not just lateral or linear thinking, but spacial. Suki smiled. It was not
like her to be philosophical.
She wondered what everyone else was up to.
Well, the best way to find out was to go and see for herself. Stretching hugely,
Suki hopped off her bed, and slipped shoes on. She made sure she had her keycard as she
left, feeling in the back pocket of her jeans, looking back to make sure the light was
off. She didn't see Ben until she ran into him.
"Oh, excuse me!" Suki bowed, and caught herself, feeling even the more worse for
the breach in custom.
He was smiling. "I was just coming to get you. The others are in the rec room,
playing a video game Dare's designing for eight people with his CS tutor. Wanna play?"
He looked sleepy– Suki knew he and Mary and Jurg and John had gone out dancing last
night, having bribed the shuttle driver to take them into LA. Suki wouldn't have wanted
to go, but it would have been nice to have been asked.
"Sure." Suki said, relieved to be included this time, and let him lead down the
Everyone was in the rec room, remote joysticks in their hands. Soft blues were
playing in the background, Ben's choice. "Good, good!" Jurg said, as they entered, and
opened the screen where everyone could choose a colored robot figure, 3D'ed and real-
ized. Rachel handed Suki the extra joystick, and scooted over so she had room near the
arm of one of the two long couches.
"I think you'll be able to figure this out." Dare said, and Suki had to strain
for the words behind his terrible accent. "It's straightforward, just pick a color."
Rachel sighed. "I'm horrible at video games."
"Press the yellow button to select your player– right." Jurg said. Suki waited,
then chose the remaining dark blue after everyone else had picked, surprised that she
hadn't been left with brown. The first bad guy descended, a parody of their phys/av
prof. Suki was surprised to hear everyone laughing when they were all killed off very
quickly. And wondered how this game fit in with the rest of the instruction.
Suki also found herself wondering why kickboxing and tae kwan do were mandated
classes for all the students in the IRTI. Ben complained of the tae kwan do constantly–
he did the moves well, but it was as if he was making fun of them the entire time. John
complained too, and just flailed. Dare, (not Alasdair, his given name) on the other
hand, was an acrobat. He had done gymnastics and springboard diving in secondary
school. A natural. Mary, on the other hand, hated the kickboxing, but she was a fierce
opponent all the same. Suki found it mildly entertaining to have a reason to move around
like that, better than aerobics, but decided that when it came down to it, she'd rather
They were talking about economy of function in their combined robotics/artistic
design class– undoubtably Suki's favorite. The professor was a young Hispanic woman Mr.
Westing flew in every week from Santa Fe, named Emmanuelle Sisneros, though with less
adamance than Dare, she suggested they call her Emmi. It was very strange to call
professors by their first names, but Suki understood about nicknames-- there had been two
Satsuki's in her elementary school, so she'd opted for just ‘Suki' and couldn't get used
to her full name ever since. Emmi seemed excessively mild at first, but once she figured
out who she was dealing with, she launched into incredibly technical esoteric discussions
and seemed in heaven having people this interested and this competent. She had actually
met Rachel before coming to the Institute, though only briefly, and they talked a lot
about things in New Mexico. Suki hadn't even heard of New Mexico before.
In lecture, she said that the beauty people perceive in practical objects is
often merely the economy of form fitting functions. A sleek arrow-like plane. A shiny
straight sword. The human body stripped of fat. Sometimes adding decorations
distinguished products from each other, but mostly, it made them gaudy. Suki understood
the simplicity from her Japanese upbringing. It was like haiku, some of the products
that Emmi demonstrated in slides. Suki couldn't wait until they started designing more
advanced robotics themselves. She was getting tired of the bit by bit assignments.
Looking at the group before the lesson started, Suki decided that if Dare had the
body for tae kwan do, Rachel definitely had the body and pace for kickboxing. Very
efficient. Beautiful to watch, with her long shiny hair swinging with the punches and
kicks, always in the same old red T-shirt. Rachel turned, from her discussion with Dare,
and smiled when she saw Suki's eyes on her. Suki smiled, feeling a little guilty, then
Not wanting to be alone, Suki stayed after class to work on a sketch of a
mathmatical equation they had derived in phys-av. Quinn and Dare had stayed too. Their
chairss were pulled up to desk cover sporting a huge reprint of their kickboxing-model
schematics, but it was clear they were not to concerned about their work. Every once in
a while, Suki understood a reference one of them made, but mostly they were talking in
their own impossibly accented pop-culture language. They seemed to have forgotten that
she was even there.
"But I don't think that George had everything. He may have been quote unquote
brilliant, but he was dumb as a post. I mean, you saw that episode ‘Take me home.' He
stuck around that woman far after he knew that she was pure evil– "
"Yeah, I completely agree. She needed to be hanged, for sure. Say, what do you
think of Mary and Jurg? I heard they were outside talking until at least 2."
"I don't know. They're really compatible. Blonds."
"Yeah, sure. Almost too compatible."
"Nothing that interesting in the relationship. Man, Jurg likes to take the
iniative. He and I were talking about Mary just a few days before. He was asking what I
thought about her. I thought there was something between Mary and John, you know they
knew each other before? Were recruited as partners. But no."
"I went out with this kid once, I'd known since elementary school. We couldn't
find anything to talk about. It was like dating a sibling."
"You have a sister?"
"No, brother. You?"
"I've got three sisters. Only my older sister is cool. She's a bird
physiologist, lives in Belize. The other two, Ninée and Nala, are short and whiney and
insane over any band that had boys under 26. Some of the pictures they have on their
walls," Quinn whistled. "What does your brother do?"
"My brother has AIDS-B." Dare said, sounding younger than his 17 years. There
was a silence. Suki sketched the top curve of the hypotenuse, and watched the computer
project her complete shape. Tried not to look like she was listening.
"I'm so sorry." Quinn said. He squeezed Dare's upper arm with his large hand.
Dare smiled. "It's okay. He's had it for about four years now, as AIDS, like,
so we're just glad he's still here. He's twenty-six. They said he should have died two
"We tried. Didn't take. They suggested further treatment, but we didn't have
the money. It was one of the reasons I applied here. No money for university. He was
ecstatic when I got in." Dare pushed his dark hair out of his face. The lilt of his
accent reminded Suki of her English teacher in second grade at times.
"Hey, you're getting a better education anyway."
"You're right, and I know it."
"What about you?" Quinn asked. Suki looked up from her pad– he was talking to
"Me? Only child." She knew she was blushing.
Dare nodded. "Tom's not around much, so I was raised as the only kid in the
house too. It's hard sometimes. But my mom and dad are great."
Suki smiled. "I have a grandfather and grandmother, who act like my siblings
Quinn snorted. "I asked John about his family– he has seven siblings! His
mother is Martina Marquez, you know– that Catholic Talkvid host?"
"Shite," Dare said, "No wonder he thinks he's all that."
Suki had never heard of the woman, but guessed it was probably no different than
the more conservative Japanese Talkvids. The kind her grandparents loved to watch on the
Quinn sighed. "Well, I've my tutoring session for structures, so I'll see you
later." Dare stood up, and then Suki followed suit. She didn't want to stay in the room
by herself. They all walked out into the hall, Dare closing the door and switching off
the light. Suki felt a little guilty, like she had engineered their inclusion of her in
their group, but it was very nice. Dare walked her to her room, even though it was two
doors past his own. Yeah, maybe things would be all right.
Suki looked out of her window, at the rain lashing down. It was a bad day– maybe
she should go to the gym to run. Test it out, now that the building was done. She was
about to turn away from the window when suddenly she noticed that there was someone
outside in the driveway. Suki climbed up onto the seat to get a better view.
It was Mr. Westing. He walked a few paces, then brought out something that
looked like a skipping rope, which he looped. Was this some strange American custom that
she didn't know about? Suki glanced quickly at her doorway, to see if Dare was there
still to confirm what she was seeing, but the doorway was empty. When she looked again,
Mr. Westing had disappeared. From the empty driveway.
Suki blinked– and decided that the rain must be playing tricks on her vision.
It was an American holiday called Thanksgiving officially, which Rachel got quiet
and pensive about, dubbing it the American Indian Day of Mourning instead. She– and Ben
and Mary and John– had gone home for the extended weekend. They had talked about family
so much in the last few days, that Suki decided it was high time to actually call her
mother and grandparents, instead of just mailing as per usual.
"Moshimoshi, Nagayama." Suki smiled at the sound of her mother's voice.
"Ohaio, Okasan! Suki desu!" Suki said.
"Suki-chan!" It was a shout, and she could hear a scramble as her grandmother
and grandfather tried to get to the same phone. It was a relief to be speaking Japanese
"Genki des'ka?" Suki asked, hoping for more than a ‘fine'. But her mother
chattered away about other things than herself, defending her position on the other line
with random curses. Suki glanced at the map on her wall as she listened, eyes on her
shyutsushin, a small town to the north of Nara.
"Genki des'ka, Suki-chan?" Her mother asked after a while. Suki didn't know
what to say, exactly. She described her studies, briefly, and how she was getting along
with the other students. After a while, it sounded like her mother was losing the
battle, so she asked to speak to one of the grandparents. She repeated herself. Asked
to the speak to the other. Repeated herself again. It became the usual chore, everyone
wanting to get precious info to dangle in front of the other over some meal, proof that
their little smart Suki liked them best. Finally, she said she had to go.
"Sayonara, Satuki-chan! Be good! Don't socialize too much! Study hard! We are
thinking about bringing you home for New Years. Keep in touch!"
"Sayonara, Ojisan, mata."
Suki just sat for a little after replacing the phone, running a hand backward
through her hair. She had been so homesick for the past month and a half, since she had
arrived. But talking with them just made her realize how nice it was to be away from all
that. How badly she had needed to get out. Some how, that thought made her feel older
than she had felt since she had arrived in the U.S. Independence.
"Hey." Suki jumped, and whirled around. Jurg stood in her doorway,
laughing. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you!"
"Not scared, just startled," she said, trying to not sound so relieved.
He leaned against the jamb, arms crossed. "I couldn't help listening in. I
think that's the most I've ever heard you say at once. Was that Chinese?"
Jurg nodded. "Mm. It's weird, talking to people back home, isn't it.
Suki smiled. "Yes." Maybe that was the word she had been searching for. There
was a steady, directing quality about Jurg that somehow made her feel almost admired
every time he talked to her, but at the same time like he was doing her a favor. It was
"Especially if it's a different language. I don't think the Americans understand
"You come from Switzerland?"
"Yes," he said, grinning, "I came here from Bern, the capitol. But I only lived
there when I was doing my mandatory military service, most of the time I lived here in
the States with my grandparents, or in Geneva with my mother. Say, Ben and I wanted to
play Dare's VRfighter game. I know all the Americans are out visiting their families
this weekend, but do you want to play anyway?"
"Sure," Suki smiled.
Side by side, Jurg doing all the organizing, they wandered to the classrooms and
labs rooms, hunting down Dare and Quinn. Dare was in the CS room, not a huge surprise.
He was actually putting together the next level of the video game, and quickly turned the
screen so Suki and Jurg couldn't see what he was doing.
"Yes, I'll play. I've no clue where Quinn is. He said he was going exploring.
I think he went this way. Come on, then!"
Suki felt kind of nervous– with four people off visiting for Thanksgiving, the
three-building complex suddenly seemed so much emptier. And it wasn't as though the
Institute boasted many off limits areas, mainly those that were under construction. And
They found Quinn standing just under the trap door, hand on his chin.
"Did you try it?" Jurg asked.
Quinn shook his head. "No. Trying to decide. I saw something really weird
yesterday. Mr. Westing went out of the Institute into the forest, I thought he was going
for a walk. But then two seconds later, I saw him walking down the Engineering corridor."
"What does that have to do with the attic?" Dare asked, "I trust Mr. Westing."
"Me too," Quinn said, "I'm sure it was my imagination."
Suki bit her lip. She didn't want to explain what she had seen earlier, in case
it actually had been some American custom that everyone else knew about. Quinn shrugged,
and to Suki's relief, decided that he'd rather play VRfighter than break down doors
Mr. Westing surveyed them, eyebrows and hair doing spiky things Suki didn't
realize human hair could do. They were resting easily in the rec room, feed screen off.
Dare was grinning, propped up on a couch with a neck brace on, letting Quinn do his
talking. Suki sat on the arm of the other couch with her elbows on her knees, chin in
"And then Mary plopped this perfect kick-spin right on Dare's head," Quinn
explained, "but before he lost it completely, he scissored and managed to hook her leg.
She came down on top of him."
"So that's the real story, how we both ended up with concussions." Mary said,
leaning against Jurg's legs as he sat on the arm of her plush chair. "Of course, we told
the hospital it was an accident, climbing a tree. We were fine, so they didn't really
"And there are no hard feelings, like," Dare said easily. "Honestly." Mary
nodded, reaching over to squeeze Dare's knee.
Mr. Westing did not looked particularly distressed. "Well, we'll let you
recover. Next time, use the sacks, not each other. That's what they're for. Emmi said
she was having you work on a human-type model, remote controlled? Maybe you can each
make a model. That way none of you will have to fight each other. Let's not have this
happen again, right?" Mr. Westing smiled, and walked out of the door. Suki wondered
suddenly where exactly it was he went and what he did when not supervising a class or
teaching or meeting with them. Maybe he lived up there. Perhaps that was why the attic
was off limits.
John was in Suki's sight line, as she watched Mr. Westing retreat. When their
professor was gone, he rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner. "Shit, man, that guy
never gets angry. You notice how he's always smiling, it's like his mouth's permanently
in that position."
"He's such a sweetie," Rachel said. "I don't think he's got a mean bone in his
"Yeah, but he's so. . .weird, you know." John waved his hand. "Shit, you guys
would never understand."
"That's rather presumptuous, isn't it?" Jurg asked, not harshly, but
nevertheless Suki noticed tension in the air.
John stood. "Don't get me wrong, we're all smart. But just because you can
build a robot. . . .well, some things about people you can learn from books, about. But
other things, like the guy has no style. He's a total loser, completely unmarketable.
How does he expect to succeed in this industry? How can he expect to teach you to sell
yourself? Sometimes, man, I'm really glad I grew up in Santa Monica. I swear the rest
of you will never have a clue."
Suki furrowed her eyebrows, and glanced at Mary. Her blue eyes were icy. "Try
me," Mary said, "or don't you consider my part of L.A. ritzy enough, John? Somehow it
was good enough in high school. What's put you on a pedestal?"
"Bitch," John said, and walked out of the room.
"We should lock him in the attic." Quinn suggested. "Tie him up."
"Did you ever figure out what's up there, anyway?" Ben asked.
"Will we ask Mr. Westing already?" Dare said. "Ach, I'm starved. Who wants to
wheel me to dinner?"
"Oh, you can walk." Quinn said, and pulled the Scottish boy gently off of the
couch. Mary laughed as Jurg scooped her up, staggering. Suki looked at Rachel, who also
had a wistful expression on her face. She giggled with Suki, and followed the others out
into the hall.
Suki pulled the pin out of her earphone, and was about to push play, when Ben
wandered over. He winked in her direction, and pulled off his own jacket. Bare chested
underneath, slightly tanned, obviously fit. Suki couldn't help an appreciative grin.
She stretched against the upside down tank, feeling the tension in her shoulders leave as
she breathed in slowly. Pulling out the earphone again, she set it at low volume, and
She set off, flying for those few minutes. Ben was pacing her, so she ignored
him until the flying sensation was lost. It seemed a long time. More like ten minutes
now, she was getting in better shape with all that kickboxing, tae kwan do and regular
runs. Ben started to pull ahead a little, but she upped her pace to match him.
It was amazing all they had accomplished since arriving at the Institute, Suki
thought, mind wandering as she ran. Their models, potentially controllable now, had
turned into a master project with all of the students contributing designs for specific
aspects of the whole. For a month now, they each had been involved in intensive tutoring
grinds, brainstorming sessions with Mr. Westing and their teachers, where many of these
designs came to pass. The designs would then go to the lab and with the machinery
provided and Mr. Westing's uncanny skill at metalworking, many appeared in physical
reality as early as the next day. The final testing of the models would take place in a
few weeks now. Suki couldn't wait. She spent almost all her free time in the robotics
lab, swapping tricks of the trade with whoever happened to be in at the same time. Suki
shook her head from her work, and tried to concentrate on the run.
But instead, her mind wandered to the latest level of VRfighter. Last night,
around eight o'clock, Mr. Westing had called them into the rec room to play a level he
had designed himself. He had said he was thinking of submitting it to a game company,
giving Dare partial publication rights, and wanted to see what people thought of it. The
machines they had fought with resembled their respective model robots, funny because the
colors they had decided to paint their models had been the same they had chosen as their
VRplayer's colors the first day. Suki liked the circularity. The bad guys had been huge
metallic robot things, called ‘drones,' which went around bashing people and their job
was to kill them by working together with a huge array of weapons they could pick up
along the way. It had been kind of spooky– Mr. Westing had left out any music, so the
only sounds had been the chatter from the students. But when they were concentrating, it
was eerily silent. Not like the silence of Ben this afternoon. There was no room for
talk between gasped breaths on a run.
Without speaking, they had followed the sod path through the park, through the
forest, and back to the Institute around and around some five or six times. Probably
about three, four miles. Suki was thinking of stopping, but Ben didn't slow down the
next time they came close to their jackets. So she kept running, surprised at how easily
she kept up. They took three more laps. Finally, he started walking, breathing hard.
Suki jogged lightly, to keep up with his longer legged stride, but he grinned and slowed
so they could take another lap to cool together.
The day was sunny, a rather cool breeze blowing high puffy clouds. Cumulus, she
thought, wondering if it would rain later. Thinking of the physiology of her heartbeat,
that she was learning in functional physics-anatomy. Lub-dup, Lub-dup. Ben seemed
comfortable just walking with her, without talking. It was a companionable silence.
When they got back to the upside down tank, Suki collapsed onto the grass, and
breathed for a little, before starting crunches as per her usually running routine. Ben
sat next to her, for a while, then stood up, and got his jacket.
"See ya," he said, genially, and walked back into the building. She raised a
hand, trying to conserve breath. It was strange, she thought, watching him leave. So
often you don't need words. So often it's better without them, without the complications
of putting awkward concepts into the shackles of language. Or the general stress of
small talk in a foreign language. Suki relaxed on the grass again, breathing with a sore
stomach. After about thirty seconds, she put on her jacket, and went to find some
water. Thinking of the physiology of that, her mind started putting electrodes and metal
plates together to imitate it.
She quickly showered, and decided that she was hungry enough to eat an elephant
so she might as well go to dinner early. Perhaps she could finish the hands of her model
tonight in the lab. The bulges of their robots under the sheets were growing every day.
It was supposed to be a contest of sorts, but Suki knew that Dare and Quinn were helping
each other out with the frames. And Rachel and Ben had been swapping materials, because
they were both doing something with chrome fittings. That was also not counting the
designs and mechanisms they created together in the grinds.
Suki walked into the cafeteria, studying a scheme for her model's hand's
electrical grid system, and almost didn't notice how quiet it was. She looked up
suddenly when Rachel put a hand out onto her arm.
John and Jurg were facing each other. John was in a boxing stance, bouncing,
encouraging Jurg to fight between two long tables. One of the tablecloths had a water-
glass tipped over, and water dripping onto the floor, echoing with each drop. John
twirled his fingers out then into fists again and stuck his chin out.
"Come on, put up your fists, big boy."
"I said I was sorry," Jurg said, very quietly, very evenly.
"You just know I'll beat you until your shit-faced stupid. Oh, wait. That'd be
redundant, wouldn't it?"
"He said he was sorry," Mary said, stepping between them. "John, do you want me
to get you another glass?"
"No, get out of the way, bitch!"
Suki widened her eyes, and glanced at Rachel, who was looking just as surprised.
This was crazy– what did John think he was going to prove? They all had the same
opportunities here! Just when Suki though they were going to punch each other, Jurg
stepped back once, then a few more paces. Mary stepped next to him, then they turned and
walked slowly out of the cafeteria. Suki glanced at Rachel, who nodded at her, and
started to walk out too. Suki ran to catch up, leaving John alone with the dispensers
and mechanical cooks. Mary slowed up for them, once they got into the hall. Rachel
looked furious, but Jurg wore a strange smile.
"He needs a head job," Mary suggested. "Ooh, if I knew any good voodoo
curses. . . . He was like that in high school, too– he used to beat up the freshmen
football players for fun. Took junior high girls to the dances, and then had sex with
them in his car afterward. Some reason he respected me, and because he didn't really
respect anyone else, I thought that was cool. I thought he might change, you know? I
convinced him to come. I thought it might help him, to be stuck with smart people. I'm
"It's okay, Mary. He's just used to being the best at everything." Jurg
said. "To people liking him because he's cool, and not caring that he never does his
work on time or contributes to discussions. I'll bet he's frustrated because he doesn't
have the right kind of girls around to suit his needs here."
Mary smiled, and Suki decided it must have been a compliment. Rachel nodded,
sighing. "We should talk to Mr. Westing about him."
"Could he get kicked out?" Suki asked.
Jurg shrugged. "Come on, let's see if Maggie's at the front desk. Maybe she can
get the shuttle and take us into the city to eat."
Later that night, after they snuck in, Suki was letting herself into her room
when Ben walked down the same corridor. He looked a little paler than usual under his
"Hey," he said.
"Um, did you hear about John?"
"No," Suki said, "Did he get expelled?"
"He. . ." Ben looked really distressed. Suki felt her heart
clench. "Apparently he burst a blood vessel in his brain, Mr. Westing texted us. The
note was vague, but it was apparently due to some sort of delayed drug overdose. He went
into a grand mal seizure, just flopped over while we were playing a game of 3-P
VRfighter. Scared the fucking shit out of me and Dare."
"He's at the hospital now, with Mr. Westing. We're going to wait up for a call.
In the rec room."
"I'll come too." Suki said immediately.
"I'm just getting a pillow. I'll walk down with you."
He disappeared into his room. Suki felt a chill run under her skin. It was so
silly, but Mary had said something about voodoo curses. And Suki hadn't been wishing him
well herself. Suki wondered if Ben was feeling the same sense of guilt. He came out of
the door, carrying a pillow with a black fleece pillowcase and a cordless vid-screen.
Didn't say a word. She fell into step beside him, staring at the off-white tiles that
made up the floor as they flowed by with each step.
Mary was the only one not in the common room, and she joined them presently,
carrying Rachel's Navajo blanket and her own down comforter. She and Jurg snuggled
together on one couch. Dare and Ben and Quinn started up a subdued vid-screen game on
the other. Rachel pulled out a novel, and curled in the arm chair. Leaving Suki the
floor. The silence this time was not comfortable. Anticipatory, and tense.
Suki sighed, and put her head on her arm.
She had been asleep on the soft blue carpet for maybe an hour when someone shook
her lightly. Mr. Westing's face was huge on the central-screen. He was calling from the
hospital, clear from the parade of uniformed doctors and nurses behind him. His mouth
was contorted, still turned up at the corners, but clearly not happy.
"John's parents want him back in Santa Monica. He's going to be all right, but
not coming back to school. There might be some brain damage, we can't tell this soon."
Mr. Westing continued, "There's nothing more to worry about. I just wanted you to
know." He looked at them, watching him, for a long time.
Finally Jurg spoke. "Thank you."
Dare cut the connection, tears in his eyes. Rachel was crying too, and smiling.
She mumbled something about it being a relief that he was okay. Suki felt a little
guilty still at the tiny voice somewhere that said: if it had to be anyone here, thank
the gods it was him.
Mary put her arms around Rachel, then went over to where Jurg stood. Quinn
cuffed Dare lightly on the shoulder, then stepped in front of the double doors. They
swished open, letting him out, and Suki decided she should probably go to bed too, rather
than spend the whole night on the common room floor.
The night had a surreal feeling. The bright white corridor was too harsh on her
eyes, so she kept blinking them shut for longer than necessary. Someone put their arm
around her: Rachel. Suki smiled, and leaned her head on the taller girl's shoulder. It
almost reminded her of her best friend Reika in the first years of high school, before
Reika had decided boys were more cool than books.
Rachel squeezed her hand when they got to Suki's room. Suki said good night,
then collapsed into bed without taking off her clothes and putting on her yukata.
Despite the unnerving and conflicting feelings surrounding the John's sudden departure,
sleep was a more persistent calling.
Chapter 2 A Proposal for Human Defense
The next day dawned little brighter.
A respite would have been welcome, under any other circumstance. They had had
three whole days off for Thanksgiving, but both before and since then, classes took
place, tutoring sessions took place, there was always lab work, or an engaging side
project to work on. Learning, at the Institute, was both work and pleasure.
Suki could tell the other students were restless at lunch, upset that Emmi hadn't
been there this morning. But now their afternoon phys-av class was clearly canceled too,
though there was no note on the door. Something was definitely wrong. Was this because
of John? And if so, why had there been no word from Mr. Westing, indicating what they
were supposed to be occupying themselves with in the meantime?
"What are we going to do?" Jurg asked.
Rachel furrowed her brow. "I hope nothing's wrong. I tried to call Prof.
O'Donabhain, but his message said he was out of town. The tutors rooms are dark. Even
Maggie is gone." Maggie was the new secretary/shuttle driver, as of. . .a month
already. Time had flown.
"You mean the whole IRTI is deserted?" Quinn asked. He paced one side of the
corridor to the other, strides almost five feet long, taller than Jurg by a head. Suki
still marveled at his sheer size, having known him almost four months now. "Even the
plumber who was working on the main in the west wing is gone. Why haven't they told us?"
"Maybe we should go to the front hall. In case anyone calls. They'd call the
front desk, right?" Mary suggested. "Before they try anyone's personal number?"
Jurg nodded thoughtfully. "Better than staying here."
So they trooped together down the hall. Suki peeked into the robotics lab one
last time before following them. Her completed model, ready for inspection as her final
project by her robotics tutor sat in the closet somewhere, behind the closed door, under
a sheet. Untested.
They waited past dinner, but there was still no word. Rain started to fall
outside. Mary assured them somewhat optimistically that it wouldn't last. Suki was
feeling antsy; she couldn't sit still for more than five minutes without changing
position or moving to somewhere else. Rachel and Dare and Quinn were playing a card game
on a lapscreen. Ben was staring out the window; he seemed lost in thought and half
asleep. Jurg was pacing back and forth in front of Mary, who was watching him with a
After they had continued this restless behavior for about an hour, Quinn suddenly
"Hey, you wanna check out that attic room?"
Suki wondered why this had become such an obsession with everyone. Suki bet it
was just storage space, and everyone would be disappointed. But it was something to do.
She had forgotten how to deal with boredom, these last few months.
Dare looked up. "You got a key?"
"Well," Jurg said, "we could probably pick it. Or break it."
Mary stood and stretched. "It sure beats sitting here."
"Someone want to stand guard? In case someone comes back? Or calls?" Jurg
looked at Suki, then at Ben.
Suki nodded. Ben glanced at her, then shrugged. "We'll stay, if you want."
The rest of them took off at a slow march down the hall. Ben wandered over and
sat next to Suki on the couch. She suddenly had the feeling that there was a huge piece
of information she had looked over. Some sort of important connection right under her
nose. Disappearance of the staff and faculty, the drawing to completion of various
robotics projects, the VRfighter tournament a few nights ago when they had beat Mr.
Westing's level by one of Dare's sneaky tricks undermining the logic of the machine
program. Something was missing. And it wasn't just John's bellicosity.
Suki looked at Ben, who still had eyes on the window. He looked at her when he
noticed her gaze, but she quickly dropped her eyes to her hands on her lap. Japanese
standards forbid staring at other people, and though she knew Americans were actually
insistent about it, she still felt guilty every time she was caught. Ben got up, closed
the curtain, and plugged the lapscreen into the live feed. He flipped through a few
channels, before sticking with a news program. He set the screen on end, on the table in
front of them, and sat down next to her. He looked about to relax, but when the sound
came on, Suki hardly noticed that they had both bolted upright.
". . .rioting and furor in all nations, over the appearance of the twelve non-
Earth-made rockets in orbit around Mars. These are the blips scientists had been
tracking since late August, when physicists finally admitted that the speed of light
might not be an uncrackable ceiling. No contact has been made with the supposed aliens,
although several rumors have started as to their origins, including of course, that this
is a hoax. According to Professor Martin Beutler of Yale:
‘As humans were able to evolve on earth to the extent that we have, our mere
existence precludes the impossibility of life on other planets. If these are in fact a
hoax and not from another galaxy, I can only assure you, it is only a matter of time
before we make contact.'
"As to the content of these rockets, remote spectroscopy and isotope counts have
so far determined that very little organic matter is aboard, which suggests perhaps, a
different chemical based life form, or alternately, the absence of any sentient matter or
life on these craft.
"Back to our regularly scheduled programming now, this is Mark Xiao signing off.
Please tune in to Channel 4, WNBC, for hourly updates on this situation. And we'd like
to say, from all of us at the studio, to the alleged aliens: Welcome to our Solar System."
The two of them stared at the screen, even letting it go into a commercial.
"Was that real?" Suki asked, finally. Ben switched the feed to source, and
looked at the headlines in today's papers. All read various versions of "At Last,
They're Here," to "Aliens!" to "Unknown Space Craft Orbiting Fourth Planet." He pursed
his lips, then switched off the screen all together.
"I think we should tell the others," he said. Suki nodded. Before heading down
the corridor, he flipped the lock on the main door. The security system armed itself
There were harsh exclamations coming from the attic before they got there. Suki
looked at Ben, who shrugged.
"Perhaps they found something interesting." He scrambled up the ladder. Suki
followed close on his heels, then was almost tumbled backward down the hole when Ben
reeled. She caught herself just in time, and saw that all around her a semi-fierce fight
between the students and two white haired men in lab coats was erupting.
"Fuck!" Ben exclaimed, using his position to swipe the leg of one of the men,
letting Dare free. Suki flipped the lab coat over the head of the other one, and held on
for dear life as he flailed around. Jurg kicked Suki's capture in the stomach, but he
didn't seem affected at all. In fact, it seemed like Jurg's boot had collided with metal,
the way he bounced back.
Finally, Mary grabbed an electric cord, ripped the plug off, jammed one of the
wires into the socket, then completed the circuit on one man's neck. He started
vibrating and smoking. Suki let go when she felt the hair start to rise off her head and
neck. The other man had been subdued by removing his head with a strip of metal. There
was no blood.
And the head, lying haphazardly against a white sheet, looked sickeningly like
that of Mr. Westing.
"What the hell happened?" Ben asked, as soon as there was silence.
"They're both machines," Rachel said, panting. "They attacked us when we pulled
off the sheets. I didn't know you could make androids like that!" She knelt down and
started inspecting the machinery inside the decapitated one, pulling at wires and tapping
slim black boxes. Little flaps of rubbery faux-skin curled out from the slit edge of the
neck– Suki couldn't help staring in horror.
"Thanks for popping up when you did, we needed that distraction," Jurg said.
Quinn helped Suki to her feet with one of his huge hands. Mary was rubbing her fingers,
and she looked over. "You okay?" she asked.
"Yes," Suki said, taking a quick survey. She tried to flatten her hair with no
success. Well, it would settle on its own. "You're not burned?"
"No, I don't think so."
Suki panned the attic; a few rows of what could be more sheeted robots, more
strange gadgets, a stack of flat metal and rubber pads, some goggle things, and rolls and
rolls of electric and fiberoptic wire. Suki had a sinking suspicion she knew what they
were– it looked like the material representation of a hasty schematic for remote
controlling the robot models that she and Quinn had been working on in a tutoring grind
with Mr. Westing and Emmi.
"Emmi wouldn't do this. At least, she wouldn't attack us," Quinn said to Suki,
though he sounded unsure. Dare shook his head, inspecting an obviously sore knee from a
Ben was looking around at the objects in the room, peeking under the rubber pads,
hefting wire, the goggles. "You don't suppose anything else will try to attack us?" He
hesitated for a second, then pulled off a bunch of white cloth.
Suki couldn't help gaping.
"Our projects!" Dare said, "Painted! Finished! Oh, brilliant, look at the
"So what are those?" Jurg asked, pointing to the goggles and pads and strips.
Suki was standing near them, and automatically picked the yellow pair up and put them
She was suddenly transported, looking at the group from the opposite side of the
room. No, she was just seeing the other side of the room. She was still on the floor.
These goggles were directly wired to the optics sensors of one of the models, something
Ben had been working out.
Ben yelled, looking straight at her view. "It's on! My machine! It moved!"
Suki took off the goggles; she was back where she started. The small LED in the
yellow painted machine's optic-shield faded.
"Look at this," Rachel said. She put on the white pair of goggles and slipped
her arm through a row of white electrode strips sized loosly for that purpose. The white
painted robot on the other side of the room lighted up around the head, and moved its arm
in a direct parody of Rachel's movement. She threw a punch, and Mary yelped.
"They're plugged into the wall," Quinn said, "or at least that's what we came up
with in the grind last week. But this was all just random planning. And most of it was
Mr. Westing's idea. . . ."
Rachel turned and stared at him. Suki nodded. "We just took notes. I didn't
"Yeah," Quinn said. "Which means that these pads– they're individual
smart. . .what was the word?"
"Treadpads?" Suki asked, unsure herself. It had been something like that.
Ben was still staring at his machine. "But you never took this off paper?"
"Never. Not even drafted." Quinn lowered his brows, and started pulling sheets
off of the rest of the equipment in the room.
"So you know how they work? Let's get these untangled." Jurg said, playing with
the wires. He sounded excited. But Suki felt more sick to her stomach than anything.
This was not normal, what was happening. And no one seemed to be noticing that they had
just killed their professor or something that was supposed to look like him. Twice
over. That head, lying there, staring at her. . . .
Of course, this did explain to some extent how Quinn had seen Mr. Westing appear
to be leaving and also inside at the same time. But now– she tried to remember exactly
what she had seen Mr. Westing do in the driveway that rainy day near the middle of term.
And who was controlling these robots? Was there a real Mr. Westing somewhere? And what
was the point of the entire Institute, if someone had actually been able to create robots
like theirs already?
Several hours later, Suki knelt on the floor, hooked up around her arms, legs,
waist, fingers, neck with soft dark blue strips, blue goggles resting on the top of her
head. Everyone else was still walking their machines around outside in the Institute's
floodlights. They looked funny moving around on their treadpads– which the rubber pads
had indeed turned out to be– moving arms and legs blindly. It was quiet in the room,
except for everyone's breathing, and their shoes as they stepped on the rubber and went
Watching Jurg's movements, she imagined the huge red tank-chested model moving
outside, almost three times as large as a regular person. Rachel's brown stocky
opposable toed one, Mary's green tall sleek acrobat. Ben's yellow model ran on all fours
with a cavity for carrying things in his stomach, though in here, his body only ran on
two. Suki had also used that schematic, though her model had a mode for two legs too.
Dare and Quinn's were mirror images, black and white respectively, one large arm to help
with locomotion, one small arm for holding things, spiney backed like an ankylosaur.
Their software was also enhanced– thanks to Dare– to include an automatic defense posture
and an instinctual optic-shield defense maneuver in case the robot fell.
It was amazing how easy it was to feel like you were the model, that those were
your legs and hands, to aim for the ground with your foot and hit. Nothing like even the
most sophisticated video games. It was so incredibly corporal. Dare did a strange jump
move, landing on both feet with a huge crash.
Suki looked at her dark blue model, which she had walked inside to inspect.
Spare, compared to everyone else's, shorter than Quinn in person. Hers looked mostly
human in this mode, except for the arms and legs (which were a little elongated), the
round featureless head containing optics and brain, and the tail. The latter was
purposeless, but she had added it nonetheless; the design had been fun. She could move
her tail by a combination of finger, rear end motion. When she had designed it, and
wrote the (badly pirated off of Ben's schematic) program, the motion had been a certain
twist of a knob and a push of a joystick button. This way was a lot more effective– and
She had grown not-quite-bored of playing with it, confined just to the yard. Her
mind kept asking too many questions to concentrate. And she didn't dare push it into the
cheetah-inspired four footed mode with nowhere to go.
Her stomach was growling. No one else seemed to be bothered that they had missed
dinner. They just kept tromping away, going nowhere as the tread-pads sensed direction
and speed changes to keep them exactly where they were. How could they just play with
their toys, when so many questions lay unanswered? Nothing about what had happened had
been comfortable. And what was going on seemed bigger than just the IRTI or the robot
Stretching, she unhooked the strips from her arms and legs, and wandered to the
wall outlet, where a dusty lapscreen was plugged in. Earlier, she and Ben had shown the
rest of them the news about the aliens, but that seemed to have been forgotten in the
excitement of learning how to use the models. Now, determined to answer some questions
for herself, Suki turned it to source and looked up the chemical composition picked up on
the inside of the spaceships. Mostly polymers of silicon, some tungsten, steel,
titanium, a little carbon, some plastic polymers.
After staring at the screen for about a minute, Suki rose, and went down the
ladder. From the phys/chem lab, she retrieved the workshop's own spec, and lugged it
awkwardly back up to the attic. Pointing it in the direction of the two robotic corpses,
she calculated the percents of composition by mass. Polymers of silicon, tungsten,
titanium, a little carbon. Some plastic polymers. Not quite the same, but certainly not
a human being's readout.
"Shimata," she breathed, though that should have been expected.
So was Mr. Westing an alien? How much of the composition recorded from distance
specs was the space ships, how much the aliens themselves? She pointed the spec at her
own model. Polymers of silicon, tungsten, titanium, a little carbon in the nanotube
structural components. Chrome. A very few plastic polymers. But the composition wasn't
too far from the Mr. Westing spec.
Well, that made a little more sense. So someone might be controlling the Mr.
Westing's from afar, just like their models, though how far the remote control could
stretch, she had no clue. But if that was the case, how did that fit in with the
rockets? Suki was convinced that there was a connection there. It was the only variable
that had changed to prompt Mr. Westing– or whoever– to attack, at least as far as she
knew. Well, that and John.
Suki wondered if anyone else had noticed that John's orange model was quietly
And then the alarm went off downstairs, just as a glassy crash echoed softly from
somewhere below. Someone had broken in.
Rachel murmured for everyone to stay calm. Jurg asked Suki to pull up the ladder
and told everyone to be quiet, hoping they wouldn't be noticed up here. After Suki had
complied, he continued. "We can investigate this with our models. That will be a lot
safer than going in ourselves. Make sure you're quiet."
Suki pulled her goggles on, then climbed her model out through the window and
dropped down on the front of the house. The weather had gotten a lot clearer, but now
the sun had set and only the huge flourescent lamps that lit the driveway shone light
onto their dilemma. The driveway was clear except for a large circular crater– not
burned, just carved out– like something sculpted out of the tarmac on purpose. But it
hadn't been there that morning. Suki turned to the main building of the Institute.
There was no question where the intruder had come through. The entire entrance to the
front room had been bashed in– the doors were still closed, lying in a heap of splintered
cement. Jurg and Ben dropped beside her with quiet jumps on their tread pads. She
pointed. Jurg's red model put a hand over its mouth, and Suki stopped what she was going
to stay. Whatever had broken in was big. Huge.
Jurg's arm pointed up over the house, to the others. Suki made her model nod,
then set off at a lope. The gyros in the legs gave her about ten feet a stride. The
world flew by. When she had Mary and Dare and Quinn and Rachel's attention, she
motioned them to quietly spread out along the perimeter of the main building. Rachel
pointed to the roof, then took a few steps, and leaped up. Rachel's model had a strong
Suki ran back around front, and slipped quietly through the hole the intruder had
made. It had left broken floorboards as footprints, and she followed it down the hall to
the left corridor, to their rooms. All the doors had been broken down, and she almost
yelped when she saw red jellied liquid smashed among the ruins from Rachel's and Mary's
room. Luckily there were green and blue splotches nearby, which stopped that breach of
security. Mary would miss her paints.
Suki's own door was smashed, but the rest wasn't ransacked. Whatever it was had
turned down the hall, according to the broken glass and the hole in the rec-room wall.
She followed it, turning up her night-eyes, an installation Ben had worked out. Now
everything looked bright as day, though less brightly colored. The trail stopped.
Suki turned around, and retraced her steps, finding a cavity in the south hall
that was probably a footstep. Set off again. She wondered how much noise she was
\making; there was no way of knowing.
Something huge was in front of her– not a wall, something moving! She heard Ben
swear suddenly. "I'm hit," he whispered, in the silence of the attic room.
"We have you covered," Jurg said, and the big hulk in front of Suki suddenly
flew back toward her. She couldn't scramble out of the way, and ended up with her
model's legs trapped beneath the intruder. Mary's sleek model, pale-greenish in the
nighteyes, showed up beside her. Right in front of Suki's optics was a large gash of
exposed wires in the wall of metal, which swung away as the huge thing got up of the
ground, releasing her. Suki managed to get her model out of the way before the fist of
Jurg's model punched it down again. So strange, to be seeing but not to be hearing the
crashes! Mary grabbed a shard of glass, and while the intruder was still down, jammed it
into the opening. It didn't move that appendage again, but it got up.
Jurg hit it down yet again, as Quinn showed up beside him. Suki could barely
make out Ben's model in this light, smashed against the rubbled floor. Quinn grunted
next to her as the huge intruder landed a blow on his white model's back– then the
machine suddenly started fizzing. His spines must have cut a major electrical
connection. The thing collapsed in on itself, and did not move again.
"Everyone okay?" Jurg asked, as they were making their machines walk or limp
into the back yard. It was dizzying when Suki took her goggles off, as though she had
put her Grandfather's prescription eyeglasses on.
Ben looked pale. "That was fucking close," he mumbled.
Mary nodded. "We'll all help you and Suki fix your machines."
"Yeah," Rachel said. "I think we need to get out of here as soon as possible."
Suki felt herself shaking. What had they done? Why had they been attacked? What
were they going to do now? Once the initial flurry of shock had worked itself into a
more steady beat, only one question remained. If Mr. Westing was an alien, why would
the aliens invite them to study, fund them, build them machines, then attack them? More
"Where are we going to sleep?" Dare asked. "Our rooms are completely trashed,
"Up here, I guess," Quinn said. "Want help cleaning up, Rae? Mary? I think
yours was the worst."
"Sure," Rachel said. Jurg looked about to say something, but changed his mind.
Dare and Quinn and Rachel climbed down the ladder. Mary wandered over to Jurg, and
hugged him tightly. He put his hand on her head, stroking the length of her loose blond
hair. They started talking softly, and sat down on a huge wire spool. Suki carefully
started detaching herself from the dark blue strips. She looked up, when all were lying
in a pile, and saw that Ben was watching her. Suki couldn't tell what he wanted, but she
quickly looked away.
After checking out the damage to their rooms, they went down with flashlights and
inspected the huge robotic thing in person.
"Do we know what it was doing?" Rachel asked, "It did attack first, didn't it?"
"Oh look," Mary said, before anyone could answer. By putting pressure on one
area, another area opened. Taking the pressure off, it closed.
"It threw me against the wall first thing," Ben said to Rachel. "Everything went
dead– I was suddenly staring at the back of my goggles. It took me a sec to figure out
what had happened."
"This is so bizarre," Quinn said. "It's like some sort of wicked game."
"No," Dare amended soberly. "Like Mr. Westing's level of VRfighter, but with
this setup, like, not joysticks."
Almost exactly, Suki realized, with a shock. Another piece in the jumbled puzzle
box; the way they had to work together in the game and the way they had worked together
tonight had been quite similar. Except there was no soundtrack, only the strange scary
breathy silence when everyone was concentrating.
Ben picked up a chrome piece that had come off of his model, hefted it in his
hand. Jurg made sure the intruder was dead, poking everywhere. He sliced some more
wires with broken glass. "We should do some autopsies," he suggested. "The robots
upstairs and this one. See how they work."
Mary found another pocket that opened at the touch of a button.
"Hey look!" Quinn said, hanging over her shoulder. He pulled out a juke. "I
wonder if they sent us a message?"
"Who's they?" Rachel said, "I don't like this! Someone obviously knows what's
going on, and they're obviously not telling us!"
Mary yawned. "I really am tired. I want to go to bed. I want to deal with this
in the morning." She looked a little angry.
"Did you see your bed?" Dare asked, gently.
Rachel gave a slight snort. Mary shook her head. "Everything's smashed. I can
sleep on the lab cot."
"That's a good idea, actually," Jurg said. "I'm guessing they attacked our
rooms because that's where they were expecting to get us. I say we take the pads and
our models, and camp out in. . .how ‘bout the gym?"
"I like that," Dare said. "It's not a logical place to be, like, and there's
that pole as a quick escape route. You think we should gather our money and valuables
and pack some kit in case we do have to leave real sudden like."
"Pack some what?"
"Clothes," Mary translated. She nodded.
Quinn seconded. Suki sighed, and started wading with the others through the
plaster and wood splinters from the door to find her belongings.
It was a good thing that she lived frugally, she admitted. Dare, for example,
could not possibly carry all his computer equipment. Ben would probably have to leave
his guitar. Mary her paints and her paintings. Suki packed her running bag full of
normal clothes, her money, and grabbed her pillow, then waited for everyone else. Though
the dark corridor was a little scary, it would feet a lot safer than going the outside
route to the gym. On second thought, she loped back into her room for her lapscreen. She
had an idea where she could find some more answers.
Suki finally worked up her courage, feeling insecure and childish. There was
probably not going to be a better time to approach Jurg; he seemed to be the one who
might know what to do with what she had just figured out. She cleared the window on the
lapscreen, then rose, joints cracking stiffly, and padded softly over to where Jurg and
Mary were sitting.
"Can I talk to you?" Suki asked softly, kneeling on the floor.
Jurg came immediately to attention. "Sure."
Mary looked like she had been crying. Suki felt a stab of guilt. "Is this not
a good time? It's not urgent." Mary shrugged but Suki saw the clutch of her hand in
Jurg's. Suki bowed slightly, and rose. She was definitely disturbing them, and this was
not a good time to get on anyone's nerves. "I'll come back later."
Suki didn't dream often, she was usually too hurried when she got up to remember
her dreams, and they always seemed random bits of trivial information she had no use
for. So when Jurg's head came out of a takoyaki vendor's scalloped frying pan, and the
vendor tried to poke it with a toothpick, she was terribly confused until he asked if she
"Yes," she said, automatically, and then the Kyoto street scene faded, and she
was in the dark gym and Jurg was crouching beside her. Suki sat up, and tried remember
exactly what she had been planning to tell him. "Can I have a second?"
"Of course." He sat cross legged on the floor in front of her, while she ran a
hand through her hair tried to breath the sleep out. Images of the dream still haunted
her– she could smell the tangy tonkatsu sauce. "Suki?"
"Yes." She rose and retrieved her lapscreen, and pulled up the files showing the
correlation between the materials on the space ships. "I analyzed these this
afternoon." She showed him the data that linked the Mr. Westing machines to the robots.
Then, she pulled up a new graph, something she had taken a scary jaunt back inside the
main building to gather. "These data suggest a 89% correlation between the materials
composing the intruder machine with the contents reported inside the alien rockets
orbiting Mars. I also went back through the files, when we were testing the spec on
ourselves to calibrate it, in September." Suki flipped through the windows, pointing to
the jumps on the graphs.
"Do you remember that it went crazy when Mr. Westing walked in the room?"
"These are the readings we dismissed." The graph fit exactly on top of the dead
Mr. Westings in the attic. "And once the spec of the intruder is taken into account, the
spec data of all of the machines we met personally show an 92% correlation with those of
the alien materials."
"Wait," Jurg said, squinting at the screen. "You mean to tell me that Mr.
Westing was not only a machine all along, but is probably an alien?"
"Mn," Suki nodded. "Look, also, new about an hour ago." Suki flipped the
lapscreen to source, and got the latest headlines and pics. "The aliens from Mars are
demanding resource rights and privilege to visit by radio. In exchange, they'll give
technology and help with space travel and security."
"Then the. . .why didn't you bring this up earlier?"
Suki shrugged, hoping he wasn't mad at her, it was still mostly conjecture
anyway. It wouldn't do to tell him she felt intimidated, or that her research had been
mainly something to do to keep her mind away from the fact that she was internally
"Stay here. Don't move." Jurg said, and Suki watched him walk to each of the
sleeping students and wake them, point to her, and tell them something. Soon everyone
was gathered around, looking disgruntled. Quinn almost fell over, falling back asleep,
but Dare righted him before he got squashed. Finally Jurg hauled Mary to her feet, and
coaxed her to the circle.
"Look at this, guys," Jurg said. "Bear with me, I know we're all tired." He
shifted through Suki's graphs, explaining what each one was and what it meant in much
clearer and persuasive terms than Suki had used. Jurg was probably the best English
speaker of the foreign students, Quinn at a close second, and he knew how to use that
skill. Finally he got to the place Suki had left off.
"Which leaves us with several questions," Rachel said. "Such as, if Mr. Westing
was an alien all along, if indeed these are aliens and not some earth hoax hostile
takeover army thing. . . ."
"Right," Mary yawned, "get to the point."
"Well, why would he invite us here. Train us. I mean, you have to admit that
was what he was doing." Suki smiled. It was nice to know her own thoughts weren't
completely random. Finding and submitting this information, though not quite solid
evidence, and quite stringy connections, had gotten people to talk about the situation.
And that felt like great load off of her chest.
"Right," Mary said hesitantly. "So why would Mr. Westing disappear? Why would
he– or they– attack us?"
"Perhaps he trained us to assess our strength?" Jurg said. "Maybe the attack–
both the attic and the intruder– were final tests? It's hard to say, of course."
"Which is the problem in all this," Ben said, and stood up. He didn't continue
right away, but somehow all eyes were still on him. Suki wondered how he did that.
Pacing slowly, brows (and eyebrow ring) down, he started to think out loud. "If he was
malicious, we should have been dead by now. None of us expected anything in the first
place; I mean, he could have poisoned us in our sleep. First off, if he is alien, he was
most likely here for observation. Logically, I'm sure the aliens don't look like us.
However, a good– though not perfect– disguise would be something like our models, which
even enhanced, are really crude compared to those dead androids in the attic now.
Obviously the technology exists somewhere to create and control those robots.
"With that in mind, there are several possibilities why he attacked us. First,
perhaps because he realized that he couldn't control us, that we could beat him
eventually. Second, maybe because he received orders from a higher power. Third. . ."
He trailed off.
"The model could have been powered by a different alien– what if the Mr. Westing
alien was sabotaged?" Dare suggested, a little desperately. "He always seemed so nice!"
Ben nodded. "Which leaves us with the fourth possibility, we're on four, right?"
"Perhaps we failed some test or another with John," Mary suggested softly. "I
mean– we're only eight people. And we couldn't even get along among ourselves. Maybe
the aliens decided we weren't worth it."
Ben nodded. "Yeah. There's that. But we also have to realize that if they're
aliens, they probably have an entire different cultural system. I think the most likely
solution is that he did it for some other reason, something we can't even begin to guess
Jurg stood up too, opposite Ben in the circle. "But there's another reason that
you left out. That he may have done it because he wanted us to think that he was evil,
and to be stopped at all cost. By attacking us, he caused us to band together. And
rendered himself irrelevant. He may have known that intruder was coming– I'd be willing
to bet it was off of those rockets orbiting Mars. We had to use our new equipment to
defend ourselves, because we thought we were the ones being attacked!"
"Wait, so where did Mr. Westing– both of them– come from?" Suki asked. The
chronology of the story-line that was developing was wrong. Everyone just shook their
Rachel put her feet in the middle, and rested back on her arms. "Here's
something else. Do you realize that he's given us technology and resources that we do
not want to give back– just like the promise of the aliens in the headline? So
technically, unless we part with our models, we've already accepted the treaty."
"Kak," Quinn said, "this is like second-guessing my mother. What if he– alien
or government– predicted our reaction in defense. Then, he could also have predicted
this discussion we're having now. I mean, all of us have a social conscience. What were
the anthro classes for then?"
Mary shook her head. "That's all well and good if he is an alien. But say this
is, as Rachel said, some sort of government conspiracy thing. All these reasons hold up
too, except for the last two. I think we need more information, it's late. I'm dead
"I'm completely knackered." Dare mumbled, or it sounded something like that.
"Okay," Jurg said, "but no one go out alone tomorrow without telling anyone. And
we need to figure out what we're going to do now. I mean, eventually the cook will run
out of food."
It was still grey when the sun finally came up. Suki was sore from the fight
with the Mr. Westings yesterday. The discussion she had started, once the floodgates
were open, continued, and continued. She was almost regretting it now. To boot, Jurg
had finally posed a scenario Suki did not wanted to face: whether it might be a good idea
if the eight– no, seven– of them took on some kind of defensive campaign against the
"Make like we're super-heros?" Dare asked, blinking amazedly. "That's daft."
"Not super-heros. But you have to admit, we have a technology that we can't
waste." Jurg said. "Go on, plug in that jukie."
Dare slipped the slim juke into the lapscreen port. Suki waited just out of the
visible range, sure she'd have a chance to see it too. There wasn't enough room around
the thing with six other people crowding for the best view.
"Greetings," a booming voice said. Suki jumped and whirled around. No one was
there; she sat back down, amazed that the speakers on the lapscreen could be so
powerful. "You are possessed of illegal knowledge and technology. This attack will be
followed up by a more destructive and direct assault, should it fail. Any bystanders
caught in the crossfire will be added to your record as willful manslaughter. . . .
Formed Legalized by on earth date 12/4/28."
Dare popped the juke out of the machine. "They knew our technology. How
superior to our own do you think they are?"
"If these are aliens, the Westings and the big intruder got into the atmosphere
without our noticing." Mary pointed out. "The aliens in the news are still just sending
messages. The Westings much earlier– we didn't even see the ship. Not that I don't
doubt Suki's data, nor the complexity of the control systems inside those androids. But
it's all just probabilities and guesswork."
"What else do you propose to go on?"
"You can't stand to just wait and see?" Mary asked, looking at everyone.
Ben hung his mouth open. "We were fucking attacked, remember?"
Suki shook her head. Layers of vagueness building on layers of confusion. If
this all was a hoax, it was a fantastically elaborate one– she couldn't even tell what
whoever was running this wanted to appear to be. Mary asked for the juke and pushed play
again. Suki felt her stomach clench. She really really couldn't stand to listen to it
again. Something in her brain already hated that voice, hated the idea. Hated the fact
that she had been put in this situation. Suki suddenly, desperately, wished she had
stayed in Japan for University. Stayed home. Stayed safe. Suki picked up her IRTI
sweatshirt, and walked quickly out of the room, trying not to cry.
Someone was behind her in the corridor. She turned around quickly; it was just
Rachel, thank the Gods. "Hey," she said, "you okay?"
Suki shook her head, not trusting herself to speak..
"I don't like this either." Rachel pulled her Navajo-bear-patterned, red, white
and black rug closer around her shoulders. "I'm going to go lie down for a little, I
think. Jurg's being a control freak, but you might check in with him before you go
Suki nodded. "You can use my bed," she managed.
"You're such a sweetheart! I might take you up on that." Rachel smiled, and
followed Suki over the rubble and in through the hole that had once been her door. There
was no reason to attempt privacy any more, Suki admitted. She changed into her running
clothes, while Rachel curled up on the bed and pulled the rug over her head.
Suki and Ben stretched together, against the upside-down tank, which Suki still
couldn't find an explanation for. Her thoughts were already running around in circles,
and Ben seemed his usual introspective self. It was nice to get outside.
He turned to her. "Ready?"
She nodded, and they set off along the path. The earphone was somewhere lost in
her room, so she was more aware of the sound of her breath, Ben's breath, the plodding of
their feet on the ground. The physical movement felt so good– needed, after the stress
that they had been under the last few days. Suki half closed her eyes, just feel herself
better, not distracted by the sight of more mechanical equipment littering the grass.
California was good for one thing– running weather all year round.
One minute Ben was next to her, pacing her fast sprint out of the gate, and then
he was gone. Suki stopped, looked around. She was about to call his name, when he
appeared behind a particularly strange contraption. Suki jogged over to him.
"You know what this is?" he asked, breathing hard. She shook her head. "I would
bet you anything it's a weapon! Remember in that last VR, how Jurg's red-guy picked up
this metal backpack with a power supply and a gun? Look." Ben traced the ribbed
cylinder with a finger. Suki started backing up, to get a better look, when something
caught her eye in the air.
"Look!" Bright flashes, several of them, as though something was burning in the
sky. Or entering the atmosphere.
"Oh-holy-shit," Ben said, and took off at a sprint for the house. Suki almost
beat him there.
The large alien rockets had spouted strange jets from their original Mars
hangout, which had entered Earth atmosphere in the California area. They were buzzing
the California State Capitol building in San Diego. Riots had broken out all over L.A.
All the vids were screaming bloody murder in both headlines and editorials. Suki looked
from the vid to the scene in the room, and found it disappointingly similar.
"We have to make a decision now!" Jurg was saying. Rachel had huffed off into a
corner. Ben was pacing a ten-foot swath, cursing violently not quite under his breath.
Dare had his arms folded across his chest, glaring at Quinn, and Mary had been on the
verge of tears for a while now. Suki looked at them all, oddly detached, cold in her
halter and shorts.
"Fight!" said Dare, shouting. "Just fecking grand! But I still don't have a clue
why this is so important! What difference could we make?" But neither Jurg nor Quinn
"It's a do and die thing," Mary said, "and I really don't want to die. Let
someone else do it!"
"Who, pray tell? And it's your model that will be fighting, not you!" Jurg
said, "It's a machine. We can fix it. We can build more. We can stop at any time!
This is just a proposal. For an agreement, to defend ourselves, if it comes to that."
"All right! Fine, I guess!" Mary said, though she didn't sound like she was too
happy about it either.
"Good, that's four," Jurg said. "Ben?"
"I fucking hate this," Ben said, almost shouting. "We're fucking playing God.
Who are we, to make decisions for everyone? What if we're wrong? For Chrissake, what if
someone does get killed?"
"We have four out of seven," Quinn said, the only reasonable tone in the
group. "We could just go with us four."
Jurg shook his head. "I'm not going to go unless we are unanimous. This
technology belongs to us seven, all of us. Logistically, we need to be together. Come
on, Ben, make a decision. Think of what it did to your model. There's nothing to defend
people if those big robots decide to start attacking others."
Ben stopped pacing, and took a big breath. "Okay, fine. But on one condition."
"We talk first, then shoot. They obviously have language capabilities."
"Good. Super. Rachel, please? We can't do this without you." Jurg looked at
Rachel with an expression of great sobriety. "I know how you feel. But don't you think
this is important?"
"Of course it's important." Rachel took a deep breath. "I have some conditions
too." She padded slowly back into the group, and ticked off items on her fingers as she
named them. "A, We can back out at any time. B, We can change our minds. We have to
remember this isn't good versus evil, it's just defense."
"Okay," Jurg nodded, thoughtful. "We'll take a vote before each engagement,
Rachel nodded. "C, In battle," she added, "we have to trust each other
explicitly. No arguing. Just do what the other person says. Right? Because that
hesitation is extremely dangerous."
Several people nodded. "D, We go to all costs to avoid destruction of property.
E, we have to avoid affiliation with any government. F, once the military arrives,
should such an event occur, we disappear. They're professionals. And finally G. This
should not just be defense of ourselves. That's selfish, and stupid. They kill us, what
do they gain? But who's going to protect the real people? It needs to be human
defense. Can we get this in writing?"
"Brilliant," Dare said, "Human Defense. That sounds brilliant."
There was a silence. Suki felt Jurg's eyes on her.
Now everyone's eyes were on her. It was hard to think like this. Violence,
fighting, destruction– even if it was just a ‘proposal' for ‘defense' of all ‘humans'.
No matter how politically correct that sounded, some of this would turn out to be just
kids playing with their powerful toys. Like Dare said, what real difference could they
make? But how many history books had she read, how many times had she been enraged at
guerrilla groups for ruining everything? That Japanese guilt complex people still
discussed from World War II.
Of course, there was the joy of using her model for a purpose-- the joy of the 10-
foot stride. She thought of the size of that alien machine. How easily it would have
crushed them all had it found the attic. She thought about saying no. Give up that
technology? Go home. Give up what she'd spent four entire months working toward, in
that blue model. But humans had always fought. Samuri, and Ninja in her own culture.
She was sure Rachel and Quinn and Dare and everyone had soldiers in their ancestry.
On the other hand, if she did back out, the whole process would stop. By saying
no now, in some parallel universe or fatalistic realm, she could possibly be saving her
own life. Promote the transition to pacifism scholars were heralding now that there had
been ‘peace' on all of Earth for two whole years. But Suki wasn't really sure she
believed in the fatalistic nature of her grandparents' religion. Or in the ability of
any society to enculturate a human not to fight back.
Jurg was right about the defense. The armies of the world could unite and try to
fight, if something went wrong. From vids of the Nippon-Korean war of 2010, Suki knew
just how ineffective that could be. Everyone else was agreed. It would not be a good
thing to do right now, as far as stress levels were concerned, to disagree. And it
always could be that nothing would come of it.
"Yes," Suki said slowly, "for human defense, under Rachel's proposal. But we
must make some changes to our models."
Jurg whooped, and spun Mary around. "Let's get going," he said, "Let's get this
operation up and going!" Mary's laugh sounded like it had been surprised out of her.
Rachel rolled her eyes, and huffed out of the room.
Suki closed her eyes, and ran a hand backward through her hair. The
amplifiers inside stood silent in the room, despite the music playing right in front of
her model, outside. Something was wrong– there must be a bug somewhere. But she had
gone through the program about five times already. Everything seemed right.
"Dosh'te?" she muttered, tapping her forehead in time. "Dosh'te, dosh'te,
Sighing, she put her goggles back on, and ran her model back in through the
garage door of the robotics lab, so it was standing in front of her.
Visible in the opened optic plate, several uncrackable slim black boxes–
resembling pieces of slate more than anything– housed several wires, each of which
controlled a certain aspect of the model's movement. It was not un-similar to the
original design, but the sensitivity and the coordination of the control mechanisms were
improved beyond any program Suki had ever even heard of. The additions and
modifications inside their models– intertwining and complex– were none the less not
completely impossible to figure out. Suki had fitted a tiny chip to the sound hook-up, a
tiny chip near the optics plate in the round featureless head. It had worked earlier, at
much shorter range. She couldn't figure out why it had stopped.
Suki pulled the whole thing off the model, and spoke into it. Her voice
reverberated from the amp. She put it back on the model, and spoke into it. The amp
responded. She walked the model outside again. Nothing. And then she saw Dare walking
past the garage door, it looked like he was heading for the forest. Suki dropped the
goggles and wriggled out of the strips, to run outside after him. Maybe he could help.
Once her eyes had adjusted to the brightness of the day, she noticed that the
music was off. He had turned it off! No wonder she hadn't been hearing anything! Suki
flipped the lapscreen to play again, brushing her model as she ran back inside, and heard
it through the amps.
"Yata!" she exclaimed breathlessly. The next step came easily, and as soon as
she configured the earphone with Dare and Mary's program, the amp shut off. Slipping the
small piece into her ear, she heard the music clearly. One problem down.
People walked in and out of the lab– so many improvements and adjustments needed
to be worked out. Most of the time, Ben was working on reconstructing his yellow model,
which hadn't been as crushed as they had thought initially. Still, it had a lot of
little bugs to be worked out. Suki worked with him for a while, and then had offered to
help Rachel when she started poking around under the optics plate for the first time.
They had set up the sound system, a bunch of other ‘necessities,' and were now working on
installing one of the weapons from the garden. Trying to figure it out how it attached
and how to control it– and the robot– at the same time. It was strange trying to learn
how to work something you thought you built and knew all the secrets too.
"So then, if you put this wire here–"
"But what about the control of the hand! I don't want to blow my own fingers
"Don't worry, it's sympathetic!" Suki said, grinning.
Rachel shook her head. "I'll trust you."
"I don't understand it either– Quinn figured out. Try it," Suki suggested. She
had been in the robotics lab all day– she didn't even know what time it was. Her blue
model stood in the corner, at rest, newly configured with a sound system, a homing
beacon, armor, a few of the tiny charged stars they had found in the park, and
a "stapler," as Mary had dubbed it, though it wasn't, exactly. More like a long impaling
tool that withdrew back into its shaft after punching a hole in whatever she held it
against. A springloaded diamond switchblade.
Rachel had decided to install a Uzi-type rocket launcher inside one foot, and to
add some claws to every finger ‘for climbing'. They looked so effective, that Suki and
Ben decided to steal the idea for her own model. But that would have to wait until
Rachel was done– there were only two laser saws anyway. Working together made the repair
and retrofit a lot of fun, it was great not to be so secretive any more, and not to worry
about grades! They were almost finished. Jurg's model was the only one left without a
sound system now– they had all sacrificed their earphones for the project, and Jurg's had
been too old to take the software Dare and Mary had worked out. Ben had borrowed them,
and was now in his own world of music as he worked across the room. Suki was a little
envious. She missed the comforting beat of tekone already.
"I've loaded it with a rocket shell I emptied of charge," Rachel said, blind
already with the goggles. Her model stood up on two feet, then stood on a foot and an
arm. The hand on the foot clenched suddenly, and the shell went streaking toward a
target illuminated outside. It hit with a resounding smack.
Ben whirled around looking as though his heart had stopped fibrulating; Suki
realized belatedly that he couldn't hear them talking with the earphones and wasn't
expecting the blow. She and Rachel smiled at him, and he made some sort of wave of
"You hit the mark exactly!" Suki realized. The target was ripped only in the
"Perfect!" Rachel said. "I knew rifling jackrabbits would come in handy
someday." She shucked the strips, then gave Suki a big hug.
"Thanks so much for your help! Is that it, then?"
"I made a checklist," Suki said, wandering over to the lab bench. "Ears.
Speaker. Optic-screen armor. Saftey reflex. Goggle-lock. Weapons. That's it."
"Good. Great. Should I let Jurg know he can have the laser saw now?"
"Yes," Suki said. "Unless you can think of anything else you want."
"Hmm. Well," Rachel said, "I had been thinking. These strips are hard to get in
and out of. What if we had a harness that was more like, well, something that we could
wear all the time, and then hook up by putting the goggles on? Or another plug. Just so
we didn't take so much time unharnessing."
"Yes, we can do that, now, I think we'd need. . ." Suki's mind started whirling,
and she grabbed a pad of paper before the ideas went away. The barrage was so quick, she
lapsed into kanji after one or two words. "Not tonight," she said, realizing the
shopping list she was creating.
"What is it?"
"What if we had thin suits, comfortable and light enough to wear under clothes.
With gloves, so we don't have to scramble into hand nodes too. Like this." Quickly, she
sketched what she was thinking. Rachel smiled, and grabbed the pencil.
"Exactly. We have to talk to Quinn. The project Mr. Westing recruited him for
was harvesting energy from micro-conductors sewn into cloth. . .if we could get a remote
transfer, we might even be able to run these things on lighter batteries and lose the
"Rippa!" Suki said, and belatedly noticed she had lapsed into Japanese
again. "I mean: great!"
Rachel laughed at her. "God, this is turning into quite a project. It's
probably not even the most urgent of modifications anyway, and I don't want to fix
something and then not be able to work the models. We do need to figure out the
technology a bit more."
Suki nodded. "Well, anything else?"
"Not really. Do you need anything?" Rachel looked pointedly at the bowl of half
eaten mac-and-cheese sitting on the lab bench. Suki shrugged. "I was busy." Rachel
shook her head, then coerced Suki into the kitchen and turned on the cook.
Training sessions, led by Jurg, were scheduled for twice a day. Too early, Suki
thought, dragging herself from the cot in the lab to the park outside. After the burst
of activity yesterday, she felt like she needed a week's worth of sleep. But Quinn was
patiently hulking in the doorway. She grabbed her jacket, and led him down the corridor.
"This morning we're going to just go through boxing and tae kwan do that we can
use in person," he said, consulting a notebook. "If that's okay, I thought we'd work
with the models this afternoon."
Suki put a hand to her cheek, and leaned her head on it. She could almost feel
herself nodding off while standing. She tried to shake herself out of it.
"So, how about two laps?" There were some groans. Suki took a breath, then set
off running. Only almost as she came to the starting point the second time did she feel
herself waking up. It felt like yesterday had lasted a century, the day before like ten
years. She didn't want to stop running, but she slowed down anyway. Her heart kept
saying, ki-te, ki-te, ki-te, come on, come on, come on.
The practice ground on. Rachel and Dare refused to talk to Jurg when it was all
over, and although Suki was sympathetic, she was too exhausted to really make a stand.
Instead, she wandered into the front room, in the rubble, away from everyone. Brushing
pieces of plaster off of the couch, she made a little nest with the cushions and fell
Waking up after unclear dreams, Suki suddenly felt a stab of fear. It would,
after all, only be a matter of time before they were attacked again. Regardless of who
the aliens were, it was obvious that they were no longer safe. More than anything, she
didn't want to be alone right now. The Institute was too deserted, out in the middle out
here. If there was a fire, and the warning system malfunctioned, they could all be
charred hulks before anyone knew. She wanted to call her mother.
Blinking the sleep out of her eyes, Suki padded out to the school building,
toward the back entrance to the robotics lab. As she was pulling the door open, Dare
came screaming up to her, pointing to the western sky. A huge bright light, coming
straight at them. Jurg was yelling too. As she scrambled to get the dark blue strips on,
easier every time, she felt almost a kind of relief. Almost.
"There goes the afternoon training," Jurg said, slipping his goggles
on. "Everyone in?"
"Yup," Mary said. "I'm on the roof. Should I see what that thing is?"
"Go ahead," Jurg said. Mary's green model formed itself into a compact ball,
then sprang skyward, flapping a little awkwardly on suddenly unfurled wings. Suki heard
her laugh. "I'm okay, I got it."
"What's going on?" Rachel asked, knuckling her brown model over to the rest of
"Well," Mary said, "Whatever it is looks like a huge, um, pill. Like a short fat
"How close are you?"
"It's still coming at me. I could try to get closer, to try to see more clearly."
"Well, let's not. Not yet." Jurg said.
Ben's model sat on its haunches. "Let's let it confront us first." Mary made an
affirmative noise, and glided back down to the roof. Her wings were iridescent in the
sun, fanned out in thin pieces of titanium alloy. Suki could almost feel admiration
radiating from Jurg's model, like a chunky fire truck beside her.
Whatever it was took almost an hour to arrive, because it seemed to have slowed
to a crawl as soon as it crossed a jet path in the sky. Suki sat her model down on the
grass too. The nap had helped, but she was still tired. She was also annoyed at herself
(and Jurg), that she wasn't in a good physical condition for this. The morning's
practice had worn her out.
Dare grumbled something about having to wait all the time. His hands went up to
his face, as though he were trying to see them, and then his robot went into the safe-
reflex, crunching into a protective ball around the head and optic-screen. Offline.
Suki sighed, and put her head in her hands.
But it wasn't for long. Dare shouted suddenly. "Jesus-Mary-son-of-Joseph!"
"What!" Jurg demanded, springing his model to its feet.
"They're in here!" Dare shouted, "They–" He cut off.
Hastily Suki scraped her goggles off her face.
When the vertigo cleared, she saw several large black metallic robotic forms in
the gym with them, watching them. They didn't seem to be doing anything. Just standing
With some trepidation, she tipped her goggles back, got up, and ran her model
carefully to the back of the athletics building. No more robots, she guessed they were
all inside. Trying to be quiet, she climbed her model up the wall, so she could look
into the window, hanging on with her claws. Mary's model was there too, hanging off the
roof. Rachel's was right next to Suki's.
Her model was picking up sounds from the machines, though no echoes were in
Suki's ears from the gym. It was strange to watch herself, blind with the goggles, from
her model's eyes. What to do? she wondered. Dare was looking at the nearest machine,
goggles in hand, speechless. Suki craned her neck to get a better view, and at the very
same time, saw herself craning her neck inside. What a weird sensation!
Dare wasn't just looking at the nearest machine. The nearest machine was looking
back. The nearest machine was moving one of its appendages down to Dare's height. Dare
didn't seem to be able to move!
But Quinn could. Without regard for the wires, Quinn hauled Dare behind him. At
that moment, Rachel's brown– the closest model– cannoned through the window and stood in
front of the pair.
"What do you want?" she demanded, from her mouth and her model's speaker. There
was a pause, as though the machine were scrolling for the right answer. To their
surprise, it came out in English. The same voice as on that juke.
"All participants in the Primary Infusion project are under arrest. Any attempt
to run, escape, or in any resist will be seen as a direct affront to the Documented Law
of the . Please wait for the collection vehicle."
"Why are there so many of you?" Quinn asked, scanning the room. Again, there
was a pause, as though it searched for the right answer.
"Security must be established."
"Who do you work for?" Jurg tried.
". . .the Documented Law of the ."
"What have we done?"
"All participants in the Primary Infusion project are under arrest."
"Who controls you?"
"Security must be established."
"What's your name?" Rachel asked. It scrolled for a long time.
"Do we have a right to a lawyer?" Dare asked, his accent more cryptic, muffled
"All participants in the Primary–"
"Yes, we heard you. But we want to know, specifically, what we did wrong."
"All participants in the Primary Infusion project are under arrest."
"This is useless." Jurg muttered, soft enough that Suki only heard it through
her own ears, not her model's.
"Are you a puppet?" Dare asked, stepping out from behind Quinn.
"Security must be established." it said.
"Well, they're not attacking us," Rachel said from two directions. "You won't
attack us, will you?"
"Any attempt to run, escape, or resist in any form will be seen as a direct
affront to the Documented Law of the ."
"How many recordings do you have?"
"Security must be established."
Suki relaxed, but kept her grip, thinking they were at an impasse. Something
caught her eye, though, in the sky, and she turned her model's head up to look. Another
machine had simply appeared on the roof. Mary yelped, and faced it, boxing stance.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"We have come to collect you."
"What have we done wrong?"
"Yes, we've heard that, several times."
The machine bowed, if that were possible on five or six legs and several strange
appendages. "Security must be established."
Jurg made a motion, in Suki's direction, to get beneath the awning so it couldn't
see her. Suki complied, losing her view through the window.
"What if we refuse to go?" Mary was asking. "We want a lawyer."
"Negative, you. . .participants. . .in. . .law-breaking, . . .no court." it said,
as though it was searching a different recording for every word.
"But this is Earth. And the United States government does not recognize your
authority." Mary said, sounding exasperated.
Suki heard something then, something like wailing. Sirens, she suddenly
realized. Peeking through the window to the other side of the building, she saw several
police cars arrive, a few fire trucks, and about ten or twelve media vans. They had
their cameras on Mary and the machine on the roof. Mary glanced over, spooked a little.
Slowly, she climbed down on Suki's side of the building.
"Damn, what do we do now?" Mary whispered.
Suki shrugged, keeping her grip.
"Wait and see what happens," Jurg answered, in a voice Suki could barely
hear. "But don't let yourself get caught. Keep away from the windows."
"How long will they keep talking?" Dare asked, looking at the muted lapscreen,
that showed a huge 5-armed robotic behemoth with a large box-car type structure
(presumably to collect them in) on the roof of the Institute athletic/laboratory
Quinn shrugged. "Until that machine decides to leave, I guess."
"These guys are off," Mary said, snapping her fingers in front of one of the
larger robots in the gym with them.
"I wonder," Rachel said. She picked up one of her rocket launcher legs, and
pointed it at the drone. No response.
"Who are you?" Dare asked, slapping one on the leg. He cringed, smiling wryly,
and shook his hand. The robot didn't respond.
"Okay, everyone over here," Jurg said, urgently. Suki hopped off her tread-pad,
unplugging herself, and joined the huddle. "I'm pretty sure we can get out now, if we go
quietly and together. But we can't leave our models. Right? We all have the
necessities we took from our rooms in our pillows?"
"Right," Rachel said. "But we could just take the pads and strips, and walk the
models out later, or fight them out. Hide them now."
"Good point," Mary whispered. "But where will we go?"
"I don't know."
"The YMCA or a student hostel might take us," Jurg said, "but probably not our
Ben snorted. "Not likely in the U.S. How much money do we have?"
Jurg squinted, thinking. "There was about 2,200 left in the cashbox, which may
still be good, unless they've frozen our assets."
"Well, I have about three hundred," Quinn said. "I can share that as far as it'll
"I have about three thousand on me," Mary said. Suki raised her eyebrows– that
was a lot of money! "It should still be good. I'll give that up."
"That should be enough for now. The airport then?" Jurg put his hand in the
middle of the circle. Mary put hers on his, and everyone else followed suit. Suki put
hers on last. "When your model is hidden, leave quietly, one or two at a time. Meet up
at terminal one, on the big globe mosaic. Don't say anything. Don't look around. And
more than anything, try to avoid the media. Take the hiking trail through the woods on
the far side of the field, and Dare-- would you call a bunch of cabs for that rock by the
"Already done– and scrambled too," Dare said, slipping his thin mobile into his
jacket pocket. "Will we go?"
Rachel nodded, and slid down the pole.
Suki jumped out of the bus, her treadpad and equipment in an architectural
portfolio. Manhattan. In December. She needed to find Mary so she could buy a coat.
"Ambassador Hotel," her note read. Suki sighed, feeling more than a little
claustrophobic in the crowd. Slowly she passed along the edge of Central Park, past the
American History museum, down a few blocks. Crossing the street, a yellow cab honked at
her as it tried to turn right. Suki was still trying to get used to traffic coming from
the right. She jumped onto the sidewalk. But instead of passing, it stopped on the side
of the road.
"Suki!" The back door opened, a parka-ed figure jumped out. Suki was about to
drop her case and put up her fists, when she realized who it was.
"Get in." He held the door open for her, and, shivering, she climbed into the
cab, portfolio first.
"What's going on?" she asked. The cab was electronic, and the sound box looked
like someone had ripped it out of its socket.
"Mary got to the hotel this morning– had to sneak out again. We don't know how
those monster aliens found out, but suddenly they were everywhere. We're going back to
"Does everyone else know?"
"Yes. She snagged Jurg, and then they waited for everyone else. They decided to
secure the flights while I waited for you."
Suki nodded. "Sorry I was late. There was a delay at the connection in Salt
"I didn't wait long. You cold?"
"Here." He took off his coat.
Suki protested. "You'll be just–"
"Take it," he said, with a note of annoyed finality. Suki huddled into the down
coat on the cab seat, not really any happier.
Suki took the pillow off of her head when Mary walked in, calling for a short
meeting. Dare yelled from the other room that she should talk loud– he had just gotten
out of the shower. She cleared her throat, and put her hands on her hips. "I just
bought all the tickets. The money's practically gone," Mary said. "There's more on the
way, but we really need to watch it."
"What do we do now?" Rachel asked.
"You know we're in the media? We really need to watch ourselves. They think
we're aliens. We should construct some sort of cover story," Ben said, looking to Quinn
for back up. Quinn nodded. "I've been doing some research. I have a few ideas."
"So how do we get the equipment, materials?"
"Get a job, if ye like," Dare said, from the back of their hotel rooms. "Lay
low for a spell. I bet I can hack us into a trust fund or two, if we need cash."
"No!" Mary looked shocked. "Just wait, my stocks will come through!"
"No," Jurg said, agreeing. "Nothing illegal."
Dare shrugged. "Just a suggestion, like."
Jurg stood up, and started to pace. "I'm tired of being bait. I want to
confront them. But on our terms. I want to try to find them."
"In their spaceships? That sounds a little antagonistic. And a little
unrealistic," Rachel said. But she sounded tired, as though the protest was merely
routine. And Jurg didn't say anything else after that. Suki felt a stab of worry, as
Dare turned off the lights. Was everyone as exhausted as she was? Close to breaking
down? They had flights, spaced out over the next day– all heading for different
connecting cities and meeting back at LaGuardia. Suki felt herself close to tears
again. Maybe they should just forget this.
She pulled the pillow back over her head before anyone saw that she was crying.
In the end, they made it through the Boston airport without being discovered, and
found an abandoned house in the South of the city. The models were going to be a
problem, it looked like, because they had to be walked all the way. From California.
Everyone strapped up, that morning, setting their shoulders and dreading the day. Suki
secretly relished it. She put her new earphone from the airport playing lovely Andy
Eaton tekone in one ear, her robot's earpiece in the other, and started running. Ten
foot strides leaped into twenty, and she extended her hands into feet so she could get
the cheetah lope.
This was just how her model was supposed to work. She looked up, saw the highway
sign, and ran along in the grass beside it, dodging gas stations– sometimes just jumping
over them. It got hard about the Nevada border, but she kept going, lapsing into a
slower, steadier jog that she hoped she could keep up for hours.
It was almost lonely, almost too crowded. Around Elko, she turned the tekone off–
just a strange paw to her ear, and the music stopped.
Flow along the side of the highway. Fast as the cars, sometimes faster,
depending on how hard you kicked off. How strange it was, to feel shoulders hunching, to
feel the impact of forefeet, hindfeet, one foot at a time. After a time, you forget that
you're on a tread pad in a leaky three-story in Southie, and think only where next to put
your fleet paws.
"Catch a ride, if you can." Jurg was saying, from miles away, gasping for
breath. Suki looked at the cars she was pacing, passing, and decided she'd rather run
for right now. The sound of tires, her paws hitting the ground, a buzz from the
electric/fiberoptic wires underground, a bird cry now and then. This was where she was,
but not in the next second. This was what she was meant to do.
"I can't believe you made it to the Wyoming/Nebraska border without a ride,
like," Dare said, with his mouth full. "I'm only in Salt Lake."
"She did run a lot longer than we did." Quinn said, taking a bagel off of the
tray Suki was holding. They had raided the nearest shop's dumpster for day-olds.
"Still. You must have some gorgeous gyros in your thing."
Suki shrugged. "It will still be days before I get here."
"Mary's in the lead," Dare said. "She hooked on top of a semi and made it to
Minno-- Min? What was that city?"
"Right. But I bet you could pass her tomorrow."
"Where are you?" Suki asked Quinn, collapsing onto a rusting mattress. She was
"Salt Lake too. Dare and I are going together."
Jurg sauntered in, looking equally exhausted. "I figure," he said, "that if we
can make it here by Sunday, it'll put us in a good position to supervise the UN-alien-
conference on Tuesday. In case anything happens. Rachel and I are working on a plan."
He stopped to yawn. "I hate to ask, but does anyone want to stand guard tonight? We can
do shifts. Who wants to be first?"
Suki nodded, thinking a posted lookout was a good idea. "I will." She doubted
she'd be more alert if she slept for a few hours. Rachel rolled her eyes, and patted
Suki on the shoulder, heading for her bed. Jurg nodded, eyes closed, and managed to find
his way into the next room, where Mary was already out for the count.
There wasn't much to look for. The neighborhood sprouted several frightening
characters after ten, and Suki watched them walk by with their hoppy music blaring for a
while, staring out of the loft window. The sky was clear of really bright lights, though
she didn't have much of a view. Every half an hour, she made it a point to get up and
check the rest of the house. If her nerves hadn't been already too hyper, it would have
helped keep her awake.
The drip of the faucet seemed to permeate the whole house, marking the slow
steady passage of time. Any slight movement made her jump. Suki decided she didn't like
being up alone, especially this tired. Cockroaches. The little blinking light next to
the ripped out power cable, that told them it needed fixing. The hum of the several
makeshift space heaters.
About half past midnight, she worked up her courage to touch Ben on the
shoulder. He put his hands over his eyes, sitting hunched over, then stretched out his
back as though it was sore. "Anything?" he whispered.
Suki shook her head. "Nothing. Just spooks." She flashed him a smile, which he
"Sleep now," he said, with a casual hand on her knee, and walked quietly up the
Suki let herself collapse into the mattress Ben had vacated. The idea was
someone should be up at all times, so they only made six beds on purpose. Despite her
deep weariness, Suki found her body unwilling to fall asleep. Every noise was
magnified. Ben startled her when he looked in the room, just checking on everyone. He
caught her eyes, stared for a second, smiled slightly, then went downstairs. Suki pulled
Ben's coat over her head, and started reciting the periodic table of elements in order,
and their valence electron configurations.
About five o'clock in the morning, Suki became slowly aware of soft, sharp voices
next to her.
"This is insane," Mary was saying, growing louder and more upset. "I can't live
like this. I'm tired, and I'm hungry, and I want to go home. I don't want to fight. I
don't want to run."
"We can't give up now." Jurg said, soft, flat. Suki had never heard such angry
intensity in his voice. "The element of surprise is crucial. And if you go, they'll
trace us. For sure. We have to stick together."
"Give up what? You don't understand."
"I do. But I'm thinking of other people too."
"Yeah, yourself. But you're not thinking of me, or my mother, or my father or
everyone else's families." Mary stood up, and started gathering her clothes. "Only
yourself and your precious power game." Jurg stood too, shirtless in the lamplight.
"It's not a game."
"Really." Her rumpled blond hair went flying as she whirled around to face
him. "Then tell me why you're so bent on winning."
"We haven't even fought anyone yet! You think I'm being selfish!"
Mary's face seemed to twitch, then she fluttered her fingers into fists at her
side. "You are! I'm hungry. I'm cold, and I'm leaving. Now. We agreed we could back
out at any time."
"No, that was as a group, not individually!"
"I don't care."
"No," Jurg said, even softer, and caught her hand as she tried to brush past
"No." Suki wondered if his teeth hurt, clenched like that.
"Let me go!" Jurg's face remained blank, expressionless except for the angry
pitch of his eyes, reflecting the light from the window. Mary tried pulling her hand
away, then failing, smacked him with the other. Jurg caught both of her wrists, put them
in one hand's vice grip. Mary growled, then kneed him in the stomach. He gasped, still
managing to hold onto one of her hands, just avoiding the space heater. Mary went to
slam her heel into one of his ankles, but he kicked out and she had to jump to remain
standing. He lunged again, but this time Mary's knee hit his groin. He bent double,
completely losing her. They stood facing one another– Jurg blocking the doorway with an
"Damn you." Mary spat, as Jurg wiped blood from his mouth, still hunched but
definitely blocking the door. She adopted a boxing stance. Jurg finally straightened
and mirrored her.
Suki rose slowly. "Please, you guys," she said. Neither paid her any
attention. When Mary's weight went to her toes, Suki lunged directly between them, and
was amazed to see she had caught two punches in her palms– Jurg's fist at face level,
Mary's fist low. She held them there, suspended. It was as though they were surprised
to see her.
Ben and Quinn crowded through the doorway, sleep rumpled. Slowly Suki pushed the
fists down, releasing them.
Mary turned around, arms crossed. Jurg looked at everyone's faces, then stormed
out of the room. Suki rubbed her hands, and finally let her breath out.
"I want to ring home," Dare said, looking pointedly at Jurg over breakfast.
"We have to get the media off our backs," Ben said, tossing a lapscreen in Dare's
direction. "They're investigating the Institute, but somehow all the records have been
changed. They're calling it an Invalid's home. IRTI to them means Institute for the
Rehabilitation of Traumatic Injuries. They supposedly closed the place last year when it
was condemned. I bet that if we don't peep now, the media won't locate us."
"I don't care about the media," Dare shook his head, sounding small. "I want to
"If there's no Robotics Institute, our parents will be frantic. We need to let
them know somehow," Quinn seconded. "Or make up some sort of stupid cover story. Just
so they won't be worried. They'll be watching California. They'll want to know our
"Dare, you're the geek," Rachel shrugged. "Is there some sort of open website we
could write them from?"
"Em," Dare said, and scratched the back of his head. "I don't. . .wait. ‘Twas
something I heard lately. . . ." He grabbed the lapscreen and started tapping and typing
furiously. Suki felt her heart leap when she saw him grin. "Yes, there is."
"But we need a cover story," Ben said. "We can't just tell them we're out on our
"What if we transferred to some school or another?" Jurg said, scratching his
blond-stubbled chin. "Each a different one. Would it be possible to worm in a fake
student ID into the records?"
"Oh, sure, like. Universities or other third levels are the easiest. Say, the
institute folded but the free tuition was picked up by the institution of your choice.
Where do you want to go? Ye can even write from their servers. All proper-like. But I
don't have a clue how good the aliens–"
"Alleged aliens," Rachel corrected.
"--are at tracing us." Dare rolled his eyes in Rachel's direction.
"Well, let's pick big universities for now. If something happens, we can adapt,"
Jurg said. "Top ten, and keep out of Ivy League. And try not to write too often. And
pick different ones, everyone."
"Grand," Dare said. "Mind if I take UCLA? I'll set up mirror attendances for
all ye lads after. Okay?"
"Fine," Jurg said. Mary didn't say anything, just glared with her ice blue
eyes. Suki was suddenly glad she was not on the receiving end.
Suki was in Chicago when she smelled something. It took a second before she
realized she wouldn't find it along the road. She stalled under a bush. Cooking eggs.
Her stomach growled. Everyone else had stopped for the day, or at least she didn't hear
anyone in the room with her, below the tekone. Mary's model was hiding under the back
porch; she'd made it in about noon. She was still threatening to leave. Suki considered
unhooking, hungry, but really didn't want to join everyone. The hostile silence between
Mary and Jurg was unbearable. So she ran on.
She had reached the point where exhaustion was everything and nothing. Running
was the only world, the jump from one second to the next, as though distance and time
happened just as effortlessly, just as painfully.
"Suki?" She caught a glimpse of yellow, stopped in midspring, turned, hunched.
Ben's model, jumping off of an exiting milk truck joined her field of vision.
"Hi," she said, surprised, matching his pace. Maybe they hadn't all stopped for
the day. Her tekone was playing rather loudly. She pawed her ear, and the incessant
beat stopped with a rush of silence. She could hear Ben breathing as they jogged
"You want to make it all the way tonight?"
"Sure," Suki nodded.
"Lead on. I'll try to keep up." So she loped ahead, back to her rhythm,
checking for the flash of gold in her rear optic. His breath wrapped around her, a
steady counter beat to her own.
Ben had his arms tight against his stomach. Suki lay back on her pad, still
wired, and tried to get the world to stop spinning. Everything was numb.
"Hey, I heard you stop," Rachel said, coming into the room. She had just gotten
up to take the watch. "You make it?"
Suki smiled at the ceiling, her eyes closed. "Yes," she breathed.
"Well, there's dinner downstairs if you want it."
"Thanks," Ben grunted. Rachel went upstairs, huddling in her blanket. Suki
thought the cold felt good. She hauled herself up, and pulled off the shirt she'd
stapled the wiring to. She realized belatedly that she only had a bra on underneath, but
was too exhausted to care. Slowly, she limped into the bedroom, dodging sleeping bodies,
and found another T-shirt. Ben was still sitting there when she limped back out.
"You ok?" she asked. He looked green.
"I feel like I need to throw up." And then he lunged for the garbage can and did
just that. Suki let herself fall down beside him, and held his forehead with shaking
hands. When he was done, he lay back against the pad, trembling and pale.
"Maybe we should have waited," she said, feeling helpless. There was no way they
would afford a doctor at this point. Medicine might even have to wait.
"No," he said, "I'm all right. This always used to happen at track meets." Then
he lurched, peeling the wires off, picked up the garbage can, and went downstairs. Suki
sighed, and lay back against his pad.
"Get up! Everyone up!" Jurg yelled, running into the tread-pad room. It was
4:30 a.m. "Schiesse! There's an alien attack at Harvard University! They're doing the
same thing they tried to do to us in California!! And I'm in St. Louis!"
"I'm here." Mary said. "Ben's here. Suki's here. We can go."
"I'm on my way." Quinn said, and strapped up. "I stopped just outside the
"We split up around half one," Dare explained, "so I could work on the
Suki started pulling her wires on, and tried to clear her head.
"What happened?" Rachel asked, brushing her long dark hair out of her eyes.
Dare pulled the lapscreen over so she could see. "They tried to get a professor to stop
his research, like, barging in. He called security, and they opened fire when the aliens–
"–robots," Rachel corrected, always reminding them she was not yet entirely
convinced of the authenticity of the ordeal.
"–when they started herding a few people into a box-like truck thing," Dare
continued, only a small glare in Rachel's direction. "‘Twas on the live feed. They're
at an impasse. Two people dead, and about five more in that box, like."
"How do you get to Harvard from here?" Ben asked, goggles on. Suki pulled hers
down, heart already pumping rapidly.
"I'll find a map," Rachel said, doing something with the lapscreen. And they
were off. Whispered directions in their collective ear, they found the campus without
"Make sure they attack first," Jurg said. "And don't use all your weapons at
once. Don't show them anything. I'm guessing they'll come after you–"
"Jurg," Ben said, "go away."
"Just some strategy pointers."
Ben turned and motioned Suki and Mary to follow him through a tunnel, and then up
a building where they could get a better view. The campus was flooded with light, the
Georgian brick eerily bright.
"The things to look to take out are the optics and the brains, though they
probably keep them–"
"Where are they?" Mary interrupted. Suki looked around, then caught one of the
mechanical behemoths in her view. She pointed.
"I'm guessing they'll have weapons too–"
"Jurg, shut the fuck up!" Ben said, so fiercely his model struck the air with
its paws. Suki sidled over to give him room. "You're not helping!"
"Jurg, come on," Rachel said, and they heard the door shut.
"Let's go," Mary said, a little triumph in her voice, and jumped into the night
Suki knew it the minute that thing saw her. Something the way its blank eye-
plate changed. She crouched and came up standing on two legs.
"You must release these people," she said softly, indicating the large metallic
box-car like thing housing the people. "They've done nothing wrong." She could hear Ben
and Mary talking to their confrontations as well.
"You are of Primary Infusion. . .under arrest, all privileges revoked," her robot
said, and pulled out a hose type thing, pointed the spray end at her. Suki leapt at the
box, and extended her claws into the back. The steel came apart like a knife through
tape. Upturned faces. Something flickered in her rear mirror, and she let herself fall
off. A stream of something, something corrosive, splashed the place she had been. The
people in the box screamed when it touched them. Suki bit her lip. She faced the
"Oh, fuck. Talk to them. Talk to them!" Ben whispered, with his speaker off.
"Who do you work for?" she asked, flipping her own speaker on. It filed for the
answer. In that stolen second, she grabbed a piece of the steel, and tried to figure out
where to lodge it in the machine. The shape of this beast was familiar, the same as the
big bad guys in Mr. Westing's final VRfighter level. No time to think back– Suki forced
her mind into the moment.
"Security must be established," it said. Same voice, same tone, same accent.
"What have I done?" she said, quickly. It dropped the hose, and was bringing up
a huge claw thing from its backside when it paused to answer. Suki almost laughed, but
turned up her ears, trying to concentrate. She listened for the whirring, placing it.
"You are under arrest." Suki found a piece of sharp steel from the box, and
vaulted high off of the truck. All four feet, pressing down, willing gravity to turn up,
speed up, make the force from the mass greater, she aimed the point of steel at the
alien's body. But it just scratched down the thing's front, only leaving a mark. All
her weight. Maybe force wouldn't work. The claw thing grabbed the steel, and swung it
"Nihongode hanashite des'ka?" she asked, dodging. In that blink, she caught that
arm, and ground her muscles (and gyros) to lift it off the ground an inch. It filed for
the answer, then spoke in clear Japanese as though in answer to her question.
"Security must be established." The legs and other arms flailed, as she put her
back into it. The robot rose into the air, sideways.
"Kono robotuwa nan'des'ka?" It struggled, trying to find an answer. Suki threw
it down. There was an explosion of fluid on the pavement, and the parts of the machine's
shell it touched started dissolving. Suki pulled another strip of steel from the truck,
now empty of people, and jabbed it. The steel started dissolving, emitting some sort of
fumes. Suki was glad she had no olfactory senses. It never answered that question.
But she didn't feel triumphant. If it had been able to tell her what it was,
Suki wasn't sure she could have destroyed it like that.
"One more. There," Mary said, pointing in the direction of the dorms. Her
model was trailing a wing, it looked painfully bent. "Quinn, where are you?"
"I'm at the café." Suki saw him knuckling over from the ‘au bon pan', huge tank
on his spiny back. It was nice to have more company. Suki waved, leaping a few
"Lads," Dare's voice said, a little sheepishly. "There are more coming. Loads
more. They're on the feed news."
"The turnpike, north. They just appeared there, out of nothing, like. Same as
"Shit!" Ben said. "We've got to get out of here. Everyone's free or dead.
We've done all we can."
"But I just got here!" Quinn said. Suki looked up at Mary, over at Ben.
"Set your beam on that last guy there, and we'll split."
Quinn nodded, and opened the tube in the end of his huge hand, standing on both
feet. He sighted, aimed, fired. Nothing came out.
"Well?" Ben asked.
Quinn shook his head, then stopped. "Look at it." The machine started walking
funny, then put its hose into an opened cavity in its right breast. It took about ten
seconds to dissolve.
"Damn," Mary said. "Some sort of remote control?"
Suki heard sirens. "Let's go," she said, quietly. Ben leapt into the air,
heading south. She crouched into all fours, and matched him.
Suki grinned, and accepted Rachel's relieved hug. Her stomach felt hollow and
the room was spinning a little.
"Look!" Dare squealed, pointing to the lapscreen. The news was on. The shot
showed Mary's model flitting out of the grasp of the claw on the back of a machine. Her
hand grabbed the top of its head, the other placed itself over the right breast of the
alien robot. There was an explosion, then it fell over.
"Sweet move!" Quinn said. "Man those guys are tough."
"I just wish I knew what they were thinking," Jurg said, pacing. His jaw was set
tight, eyes flashing.
"They look like the those guys in the first part of Mr. Westing's level in
VRfighter again," Suki said.
"You mean the drones? I think that's what they were called in the game, right?"
Mary asked, leaning closer to get a better look.
"Drones," Dare agreed.
Mary said, "I hope that's not an indication of what we're up against next.
Remember how the bad guys got smarter? Started blocking our moves?"
"Yeah," Rachel said. "But whoever designed these weapons knew what we were up
against, I guess. They're pretty effective. Remember– it took all of us to get that
first intruder. Here, it was four against five and we won."
"They look slow," Jurg said, watching footage of Ben's model ducking under a
swipe and leaping to punch in the alien's eye-plate.
"That's because I kept asking it questions it didn't know the answer to," Ben
said. "Let's see if they show it here." The camera switched to Suki's performance. The
commentators said something about how these new robots might be different aliens fighting
for human rights, as the footage showed the truck being ripped open. Suki was amazed at
how effortless it looked on video. It sure didn't feel that way. The reporters kept
postulating in low volume that the different ones were different species. "Right there,
see? Every time she asks a question, the drone stalls a little," Ben said. "Kinda funny
that the reporters aren't picking up what we're saying though. Maybe they don't have
good enough mikes."
Jurg nodded, blank faced.
"Excuse me." Suki reached down over Dare's shoulder to turn it up when they
started talking about the liquid.
The scene turned to a chemistry lab. "Scientist Martin Buetler, known for his
accepting views of alien life, assures Chanel 5 that this is some sort of extremely
volatile reagent," the anchor said. "Reacting only with metals of high tensile and
torcial strength. The smoke you see here is also being analyzed." An arrow indicated
the vapors rising from Quinn's shot. "A preliminary investigation has indicated it
contains helium as a byproduct. This, folks, is strange science."
"Shaa," Quinn said, "What sort of scientist? Of course it's strange! What does
he know? That Martin Buetler guy is just a media pawn. Let's turn this off."
"I just want to make sure they didn't follow us," Rachel said. The rest of the
group started to scatter to their various beds, all but Jurg.
"Well," Jurg said, and started strapping himself up. "I'm getting here."
Suki woke up suddenly, terrified. Nothing, in the darkness, just breathing. She
tried to calm her heart. Creaking house noises, the faucet. Whoever it was on watch had
the volume on the live feed turned low. She ran a hand through her hair, and was about
to turn over, but there was another bang outside. So she had heard something.
"Nani?" she muttered, squinting, and crept to the window. A huge group of the
drone-type machines were moving slowly up the street, all loaded into a strange tank
thing. Suki had never seen that before– why would that be? Shimata, she thought
wearily, it's found us somehow. She started strapping up before Rachel even
screamed "Get up! Everyone up! They found us! They're here!" from upstairs.
"Why does it always have to be night?" Mary groaned, launching herself onto the
pad next to her bed. The tank ground to a stop. Suki pulled her goggles over her face.
"All the same ones, it looks like," Rachel said, from the roof.
"Here's the plan. Everyone but, uh, Quinn, run about a mile away to the South,
then run back, as though we're not here, but are coming from that direction." Jurg
said. His voice was close in Suki's ear. She leapt from ball to cheetah, streaking
through the night. Suki loved the feel of her tail. "Quinn, if they get into the house,
remote vapor them."
"It'll catch the house on fire! Didn't you see the smoke at Harvard square?"
"We'll get out."
Suki stopped, turned, leapt back in the direction of the house. She sailed past
a lit store, and reached the machines in a hundred bounds. But as she faced them, they
didn't say anything. They turned and aimed their hoses at her, but didn't fire. Suki
didn't know what to do. She twitched her tail, paced a little.
"They're just sitting there," Quinn said.
"What do you want?" Suki asked the foremost drone. She saw Mary join her in her
"Your privileges are forfeit," the first one said, stepping farther out of the
crowd. On second glance, it suddenly looked different– like two drones put together.
Bigger, more complicated. What had been the little platform now turned into one of the
people boxes, attached to this superdrone. "And yet you still fight. Why?"
"Not a drone!" Quinn whispered, his model's speakers off. "A real waldo, you
think? Someone actually controlling it?"
"It's different– brain in a different place, like," Dare said, also turning his
speaker off, punctuated by quick breaths. "The right shoulder is empty, I'd almost swear
"Where do we hit, then?" Quinn asked.
"Wait," Jurg suggested. "Quinn, keep hidden. I don't think your attack will
work. Ben, is that you coming up from behind?"
"Don't attack!" Rachel almost whispered forcefully. "It's trying to talk to us!
We might get some answers! Don't you remember what we agreed on at first!"
"Yeah!" Ben said, as Suki caught a flash of yellow in the streetlight, behind the
superdrone. It looked like everyone was at the scene now.
Jurg's model stepped up, speaking out, almost annoyed. "What do you want from
us?" Odd that only ten or so meters away, there was still a tiny echo of time lapse
between Jurg's voice in here and from his model.
"From your people: rights to resources, land, and your technology is the official
response. In return, you will receive knowledge of our technology. Unofficially, we
will give you freedom from , and possibly the opening up to a universal society.
From you specifically, we wish the return of illegal technology, your non-interference in
our business, and your custody, due to the knowledge of such technology."
"You have not given us say in this matter," Rachel said. "You have killed
"That is not true, though you have killed many drones." The word made Suki stop
her step. "Your name for our kind is familiar to us. We know about your training, you
are the Primary Infusion. is clever to have found such loyal pupils. But you do
not understand . You are in great danger, should you persist. You must let us
Suki could almost feel Rachel tense. The sound it kept making was horrible– she
couldn't even begin to come up with words to describe it. It seemed to get worse with
every time she heard it. It made her want to retch.
"What would you do to us, if we came with you? If we gave ourselves up?" Jurg
asked, taking a step forward.
"You will be processed in the manner in which all criminals are dealt with. The
privilege of control bears a responsibility. Your control was given to you illegally,
and you have used it in manners which will harm your own planet."
"I don't want to die," Mary said, suddenly standing tall. Her patched wing was
uneven, reflecting the angle in the streetlights. "I will fight to preserve myself. I
will fight to preserve my friends and fellow people."
"You are small and ineffective," the machine said, "Six or seven cannot stop us
should we opt for genocide instead of protection, to secure ." Suki winced, and
saw that Ben was doing the same. Jurg didn't seem to be phased by the horrible
sound. "But you hinder our purpose," the drone continued, still the same flat even
"We have a belief that everyone born into this world has the right to existence
free from pain and the threat of violent death," Rachel said, slowly, through her
speaker. "This is a prerogative held by all nations and subscribed to according to a
ratified agreement forged two years ago by all human societies."
"I have read this agreement. And we agree. does not understand ,
unlike our peoples. We are a stratified society spread among several star systems.
did not sign this treaty."
Suki almost felt her eyes tear, inside the goggles. Who were the people who had
such a horrible name? Was this machine, waldo, super-drone, part of it?
"In that case," Rachel said evenly, "I would like to declare before you that I
and my fellow humans have the right to exist in this, our natural habitat, and that any
transgression on your part will prompt reciprocal action." She stood her model tall,
earth-brown, solid, before the immense machine. It seemed to consider this carefully.
Then slowly, it raised an appendage. Suki saw a hole open in the base of it, saw it
point toward Rachel. She leapt at the arm.
At the impact, Suki heard a crash like lightning. Whatever the weapon had been
had just missed Rachel. Then she was on the ground, rolling out of the way of multiple
worm-like cords extending from both legs. They reached out like blind fingers, shining
in the lamplight. Mary flew up out of the way, everyone else hopped.
"Suki, turn, now!" Jurg yelled, and Suki jumped and pounced at it. Her claws
crushed its eye socket, as she vaulted over its head to Ben's side. She couldn't see the
fighting on the other side. But suddenly the silent drones surrounding the superdrone
waldo came to life. She knew what to do with those. She leapt.
But as she threaded through random buildings in attempt to disguise the way home
afterwards, Suki had the sense that something had been misunderstood somewhere. Of
course, there was no room for thinking in a fight, especially when their models were
taking such a beating. And when Jurg demanded they pack up all their belongings, get
into the T at different stops, make strange connections with all their luggage, and
finally let them move into a different abandoned house farther north in Boston proper, it
seemed unimportant in the light of the weariness and high strung emotions from everyone
Chapter 5 A Crazy Family
"I can't believe it." Dare said, looking at his model standing quietly in the
living room. He had been having trouble with the hardware mesh on the spikey-armored
back of his black model. "It looks new! When I saw the insides of my goggle after that
waldo smashed me. . ."
"I figured out that the setting of the torch has to stay within a few points of a
degree to get the armor straight, and I hooked up a little air-tube so I could blow it
like glass." Suki smiled and wiped her sweating hands on her pants, running a hand down
the model's black arm. The torch was hot, and she had been working with it all
afternoon. "I just wish I could dissect that weapon."
"Em," he blinked down at her. "I don't fancy that idea, Suki."
"Oh, I know." She was afraid she couldn't put it back together.
Dare smiled. "Great. Grand. Oh, wasn't it brilliant the way Jurg just crushed
it's arm? Who'd have guessed the brain was there, like. Pow!" He brought his fist
against his palm, making a smacking sound.
Suki shrugged, finding herself sporting a grin to match his. "It may alternate.
Or be random. I'm glad you like the repair."
He beamed at her. "Rachel said dinner'd be ready about half six. Coming?" Suki
looked at their tools and her new, yet unfinished, drawingboard of a side project: spoils
bought with three nights of contract work programming a security robot for the Radio
Shack downtown and some extra money Mary came up with somewhere.
"I'll be there in a second."
Dare nodded, and bounded out of the room. It was a relief that Dare could be so
happy, so agreeable tonight, when it seemed that everyone else was picking some constant
bone of contention. Suki hoped that she didn't come across too dour, she knew they saw
her as a little reticent. What a crazy time. What a crazy thing to be doing.
"Hey," Mary said, poking her head into the living room. "I just wanted to let
you know Jurg's latest orders." She was obviously a little angry. "Now he won't let us
write our parents at all. He decided it was too dangerous. So send a vague message to
your mom that you will be too busy to write for a while. And maybe that you're not
coming home for the holidays. I guess Jurg expects this to continue for a while, though
on what money I don't have any idea. I can't believe the high horse he's gotten himself
on. Just because he's had military experience-- not even experience, training! Military
training. He thinks he can lord over everyone. . . ."
"Okay," Suki said, when Mary finally breathed. "But don't you think he's just
Mary stopped, and looked at her. Then she actually started to laugh. "You're so
cool, Suki, you know that? Coming to dinner?"
"Yes," Suki said, and let Mary lead her out.
"Japanese is so beautiful." Suki turned around. Rachel (whom Dare and Quinn had
outlawed from doing dishes because she had offered out of frustration to do most of the
cooking) had just wandered out of the kitchen after mixing pancake batter for the
morning. She was now looking over Suki's shoulder at the lapscreen. "I don't understand
a lick of it but I love the writing. It always seems to say something mysterious and
"Really? I like the kanji artwork, but the rest of it always just seemed like
words to me. Nothing special." Suki shrugged.
"What does that say?"
Suki traced her finger down the screen as she read, rearranging the words so the
sentences made sense in English.
"Hi family, wanted to let you know I'm doing fine. Life at Berkeley is getting very
hectic. I am studying hard, and enjoy the robotics department. I have been invited to a
friend's house for Christmas. I would like to go, if it is all right with you. Please
post back on this page. Love, your daughter. It's really not that special."
"But you put that so nicely. It took me so long to write my last letter."
"It's taken me all night."
Rachel nodded, and stared at Suki's note for a while. Suki wondered if something
was wrong– Rachel wasn't really the silent type. She turned to Suki after a while,
though, and made an attempt at a smile. "What Jurg said– did that scare you?"
"Yes," Suki said.
"That this won't be over by New Years? And that we can't talk to our families
Suki nodded. "Dare's pretty upset."
"Yeah– want to come upstairs and try to comfort him?"
"Sure," Suki said. She hesitated for a moment, then pushed the ‘post' key. Then
she turned the server back into English so the next user wouldn't have to, and followed
Time passed, and life continued. It does that, no matter what you try to do to
it, Suki mused, even if it felt like it should stop and breathe for a little while. She
was listening to Ben and Quinn fight about some Scientific American physics article or
another. Going for a run sounded very nice (and quiet), as she had been cooped up inside
all day. But it wasn't very good weather again. And it was hard to get dry after
getting soaked, because the house was always damp. Jurg had also put everyone under
quarantine, because he was sure there would be another attack in the Boston area any
minute. How he knew this, Suki had no idea.
There were models to repair, but Suki's was in good condition. She had been
working on the schematics for her surprise project all morning, but was afraid that if
she kept on, someone would come over and ask what she was doing. Instead she turned over
to the feed, and checked the little Berkeley page Dare had isolated for her and her
family's use. Her mom had written back a long missive, explaining that she'd really like
Suki to come home for New Years. Suki switched the screen off.
Restlessness, too much energy. She felt like a child, while everyone else was a
working adult, a concerned citizen, doing their part for humanity. The whole time, even
though things had been her decision, she couldn't help feeling pushed and pressured.
Now, she wanted her head. She wanted away from people for a little while. She wanted to
Suki got up, erasing the file path so no one sitting down to the lapscreen next
could see what had last been on the screen, and looked once more out the window. The
neighborhood here was nicer, though the house they had moved into was not. The yard was
all tall grass and weeds, with a small stream in the background that ran into the river
farther down. People avoided the house, but still they had been careful not to shine too
many lights at night. She wandered down the stairs, into the front room they used as a
work room. Rachel was working on something. Mary was asleep on the couch; she had the
early watch. Suki said hello, then went on into the kitchen. Dare was listening to the
news on the feed, eating a round roll from the local bakery.
"Hi," he said, looking up. "There's fruit too, but no milk. We need to go
shopping. Who went last?"
"I did," Suki said. It had been her first time in a supermarket since arriving
in the States, and the place had swamped her. It had taken her twice as long as expected
to find everything, the currency was unfamiliar, and even then she had come back without
rice, which had been her whole impetus for going. She had been so pampered at the
Institute. "We should send someone else."
"Yeah," Dare said. "According to Jurg, you and Quinn and even Rachel stand out a
little. He said we should get Mary or Ben or me to go, to keep it looking normal. What
a load of shite, Rachel is more American than anyone, and even you sound less foreign
than I do, like."
Suki nodded. He was right, her English did sound a little more American, if she
said so herself. He shook his head, and went back to listening to the news. Suki pulled
open the fridge, but nothing really looked appetizing. She closed it, and decided to
pour herself a glass of water instead. None of the random dump-salvaged glasses were
clean. It was someone else's turn to do the dishes, and Rachel had scolded her last time
she had gone out of turn. Glancing at Dare, she wandered back out of the kitchen.
Mary was still asleep. Rachel still had the laser saw on, and the facemask
down. Her model gleamed, a rich mud color. It looked like she was attaching something
feathery to the arms. Suki took a few steps closer.
"What are you doing?"
Rachel smiled, pulled her facemask up, and turned off the saw so Suki could hear
her. "It's funny, my Diné grandfather always complained that the warrior line was
running out. That there was no place for warriors in today's world. But that's what we
are, right? So I was putting some feathers on my model. For luck. Kind of
superstitious, I know, but I always loved the stories."
She stepped back from the model, and Suki saw that feathers had been attached on
the sides of the arms. "Are they sharp?" They looked bright, more iridescent than the
chrome usually was.
"Yes, I lined the bigger ones with the synthetic diamond bits from that broken
drill. They should give a pretty sharp cut. And if I lose them, it's not a big deal
either. Decor, you know? I kind of felt angry when the insides of the models were
redone– I guess I felt I had to personalize it a little more." Rachel flipped the mask
back down, and went back to work. She was a good artist, or sculptor or whatever with
the saw– the feathers looked really good. Like Suki's own tail, she thought. Something
unique. The sheet of chrome she was working with right now was of a different shape
though. Probably a head dress or something. Rachel was definitely absorbed in her own
Suki sighed, and walked back up the stairs. She could hear Ben and Quinn
laughing now. Well, that was better than fighting. She wondered if they had resolved
the problem with the article. Ben came tumbling down the stairs before she reached the
top– it was strange how he always ran from place to place in the house. "Hey Suki," he
said, "any news?"
Suki shrugged, and he kept on down the steps. He obviously had something else to
do. She wondered what Quinn was up to. As she rounded the corner, Jurg stepped out of
the other bedroom. "Hey," he said, "come here for a second." Suki stepped into the room
with him. It was empty. What could he want? He bent over, to whisper in her ear.
"Did you notice anything out of the ordinary downstairs?"
Suki looked at him. "No."
"Perfect," he said. "Could you go into the other bedroom and keep Quinn occupied
for a little while longer?"
"It's his birthday. We're trying to make a surprise for him. I'm not going to
tell you so you can't tell him, okay? Could you keep him occupied for an hour or so?"
"Er, all right," Suki stammered. Was that why no one would talk to her? What
were they doing? No wonder everyone had been so busy today. What day was it, anyway?
Jurg gave her a small push in the direction of the other bedroom while she tried to
figure out what to say to Quinn.
"Hi," Suki said, creaking the door open.
"Hey, Blue, how is it?" Quinn grinned from the floor.
"Fine," Suki said, grinning at his nickname for her. She had a sudden
inspiration, as he looked back to a schematics design on the lapscreen. "I've been
working on something," she said. "Without telling anyone. But I need help with the
material construction. I was wondering if you could help me. With the fabric."
Quinn grinned, teeth bright in contrast with his dark face. Suki loved his
expressions, his face was an endless source of fascination for her. And he always struck
her as such a sincere person. "I'd love to. What did you have in mind?" Suki, then
called up her project: the transfer of the tread-pad into a more compact and versatile
form: the ‘tread-shoe.' She watched Quinn's face as he read the proposal (which Suki
quickly translated into English) and was gratified when he started his own modifications
and suggestions immediately.
They were only halfway through deciding how to approach construction of her idea
when Jurg announced that the aliens were attacking again, and that everyone was needed
downstairs. Suki jumped up, frightened, but then Jurg winked at her. Oh yeah– Quinn's
birthday. She had actually forgotten. They scrambled downstairs, Jurg leading. As they
reached the front room, a whole bunch of streamers shot off. Colored balloons were
batted in from the kitchen.
Dare presented a huge cake, while Rachel solemnly crowned Quinn with a makeshift
white chrome crown. Ben started music pumping, and threw Quinn a beer from somewhere.
Mary and Jurg gave him a card, which contained a voucher for a ‘night-watch reprieve' and
a twenty dollar bill. Suki felt bad, she had nothing to give him. So instead, she
hugged him and offered to do his dishes next time. Suki wished she had a pic of the
expression on Quinn's face. She didn't know anyone could smile like that.
Although there were people being abducted all over the world, there was really
nothing they could do, until another attack in the Boston area followed about a week
later. This time it was just drones. Odd, to be fighting in the daytime, with enough
sleep. But she didn't need her visor, as she had on the run. The weather was black,
and spitting freezing rain. Somehow her optical plate remained clear, despite the ice
sheeting through the air. That was another thing to figure out, when she got back.
Pedestrians had fled the wet streets as the three drones approached the Massachusetts
state capitol building. The people-box was just being packed by the front drone. Media
vans, helicopters just under the big black clouds. As usual, she was the first on the
"Do you need everyone?" Jurg asked, suddenly. "We have another pair at MIT!
They're trying to spread us thin!"
"Go on," Rachel said. "I've got the capitol."
"Great. Mary, uh, Quinn with me." Jurg said. Suki saw Ben's yellow leonid form
start to turn in the corner of her vision, then face forward again.
Once the drones started to raise their acid cannons at them, Suki used her claws
to catch a leap onto one drone's back and drove her diamond impaler into its brain. It
fizzed then froze, dead. Ben had another, seemed to be having a harder time with it.
Rachel impaled a third with a charge from her repaired rocket launcher.
"It's ignoring my questions," Rachel said, switching her speaker off, and squared
up next to Ben. "Watch it!" The drone's claw came out and swiped, leaving only a brief
second for Suki to leap out of the way. She landed a kick to its leg, denting the foot,
then had an idea. Pulling out the diamond-blade, she impaled it, then stuck a piece of
metal rebar through its foot, into the ground, and held it there. It tried to lunge for
Ben, but couldn't, and slipped on the wet pavement. "Su–" she heard, then saw the
punch too late. The world spun, as she rolled out of control down the hill. Ouch! she
thought, then realized that no, nothing was hurting. Oh yeah. It was just the model.
Slowly, she righted herself, and tried to step on her left front paw. She fell,
Dare already had the other one short circuiting, with a specific electric charge
to the brain. The one left looked at Rachel, and lunged, falling over onto its front.
There was a huge screech of ripping metal as it bent against the spike still in its
foot. Dare lifted his club fist, and brought it down in the center of the thing's back.
Ben leapt on the cavity, and tore the brain out with his claws. An electrical storm
erupted, from the freezing water in the electronics. Ben dodged easily.
"You guys need help?" Rachel asked Jurg, speakers still off.
"Nope. Wanna finish that card game, lads?"
"I already beat you!" Quinn laughed
"No you didn't!"
"You okay?" Ben asked Suki, turning his yellow leonid head to look at her.
She nodded. "I'll be a little slow getting back though."
Trying to ignore the cameras, she switched to human-mode and started the jog
back. They kept following her, so she hid out in some bushes while they left, then snuck
as much as a blue robot can, back to the house.
That might be dangerous, she realized, circling once more through the slippery
bushes at the edge of the river. Should anyone obsessed with the robots attempt to
follow them, with everyone in the same house, it made things a lot more dangerous than it
would have been separated. Groups were always more visible than singles.
That was how she had survived high school, invisible until she won some
scholastic award or another, and then she'd fade back into the shadows. It was somewhat
similar, and yet quite different within the dynamics of the group. She was everyone's
friend, never taking sides– though feeling them sure enough. Suki guessed it was a good
thing Rachel and Jurg were always arguing about the philosophy of what they were doing.
It checked the balance of power. If they separated, would that still continue? If they
did go their own ways, Jurg couldn't boss them around any more, he and Mary couldn't
fight and be in love and then fight again (over and over, very confusing) and Ben and
Quinn couldn't get into scientific arguments either. But at the same time, they couldn't
support each other as strongly.
For the past week or so, since his birthday, Suki and Quinn had been working on
the surprise project. When they both disappeared into the ‘lab' living room, and shut
the door, the rest of the group noticed. It was the butt of some jokes, now. Quinn said
he didn't mind, and told Suki a little embarrassedly that he didn't really go for girls
anyway. Suki didn't really care either, joking was better than fighting. They would
probably finish in a week, in time for Christmas, if the drones gave them the time to
work and not to fight. They were just finishing sewing the soles of the ‘treadshoes'
onto the strong sneakers they had bought in everyone's sizes. If everything went
according to plan, they wouldn't need the huge tread pads anymore either. Finally, all
the improvements they had planned out at the beginning were being carried out– the suits,
the model's repairs, the remote battery controls. All those, Suki realized, would
facilitate more independent movement. Separation.
It was something to think about, Suki mused, pulling her goggles off in the
empty ‘workroom.' That, and where they were going to get their next meal.
Suki had never seen so much snow. She powered her model through the stuff,
sinking a little into the drifts. In Nara, the snow melted after a day or so. Christmas
was rarely ever white. Here, people seemed to expect it. Quinn kept exclaiming every
time flakes filled the sky; he wasn't used to it. Acually, Suki thought, only Jurg and
Ben had grown up where there had been regular snow, though Rachel said she had spent a
few winters with her father's family in Ontario.
Up ahead of her, dim in the low light, was a barely recognizable plaza in the
middle of a commercial research complex. Two drones were hulking by a doorway, people-
box lying discarded to the side. They weren't doing anything, just sitting there. Four
police trucks had made it to the scene, but if anything, their red and blue lights made
it harder to see. A media van had skidded and crashed headlong into a stone garbage can
as it pulled into the plaza. Ben's model was suddenly behind her.
"What are they doing?"
Suki shrugged, her model echoing the movement. Snow was starting to stick to
Ben's broad leonid back, and Suki wondered what the drones thought about all this. This
was the second time they had fronted an attack in the daytime, not that the heavy clouds
and flurries made seeing any easier. In fact, visibility was worse than most nights,
Suki noticed. Somehow, her optic plate was not freezing over. She wished for the
umteenth time that she knew exactly how Mr. Westing had built these models.
"Will we just sit here until they move, like?" Dare asked, as he and Quinn
arrived on the scene. Rachel's brown model nodded. "We've never fought unprovoked
before, let's not start now."
Jurg swore. Suki didn't see his model anywhere. "You guys will have to go this
one without me. I'm stuck in the snow."
"Hey," Dare said, laughing. "Do you need a hand?"
The drones continued to sit there. Suki could hear the reporter from the crashed
van start to talk to his camera.
"The ‘colors' have arrived on the scene, with two pounders standing in the
MediChem complex plaza. No action yet, but as you can see, the collection box is ready.
It's a tense scene, but no action yet. This is Mark Wexler reporting live. Back to
Ben gave Suki a blank look, but she could guess what he was thinking. Rachel
started to giggle. "Don't even think of it, Ben."
"For fuck's sake," Dare said. "He's just doing his job."
"But. . ."
"No." Jurg said, "I don't even know what you're talking about but, no."
"Aw," Quinn joined. "You have to admit, it's really annoying."
"Wait," Mary said. Suki didn't see her, she was probably perched on some
building or another. "I think they're moving."
Suki looked back at the drones. Yes, they were moving. Someone was coming out
of the doorway of the nearest building.
"Get ready," Rachel said. Suki crouched into tetraped, shuddering slightly to
shake any snow off before it got into her gears. She didn't have a good view, but all of
a sudden, something didn't seem right.
"Woah," Mary said. "Hang on."
"The guy just disappeared. The person coming out, I mean. I didn't see what
happened, but there's no one in the box."
The drones suddenly turned, and made their way into the center of the plaza and
down a side alley. Suki blinked, straining to see through the curtain of snow. Were
they still there?
"They're gone," Mary said.
"Would anyone care to guess what just happened?" Jurg asked, annoyed.
"The press scared them off?"
"Well, folks, it looks like the pounders have moved on without taking any
prisoners. Perhaps this is their way of wishing us a Merry Christmas this Christmas
Eve," the reporter said, talking to the camera again. His voice echoed through some
amplifier in the van.
"Jesus Christ," Ben said. He leapt into the snow before Rachel could stop him.
Suki followed, thinking to front him before he hurt anyone. But he stopped before
getting to the van, after feinting a challenge to the camera. Suki spun to follow him,
leaping right over the boom mic and other contraptions. Ben started laughing. "Follow
the leader, eh?" he said. "Come on!"
"Okay!" Suki said, finding the challenge irresistible, not feeling the snow, not
feeling the cold, needing the exercise. Rachel muttered something about going back to
help Jurg. Ben scampered up onto a raised garden platform, and Suki followed lightening
fast, still circling the reporter. The auto-tracking camera had to work to follow them.
He was ten meters in front of her. Six. She was closing fast. She was just about to
reach his yellow model when something plucked her off the ground and spun her around by
"Mary!" Ben said. "Thanks!"
"Not fair!" Suki couldn't help squealing, as she was dumped into the snow by
Mary's Green model. Ben turned around and ran to pounce on her, but Suki rolled out of
the way. "I thought I was chasing you!"
"Tag, you're it."
Suki feinted left, then took a few bounds up center and onto a flight of cement
stairs leading to the veranda of one of the buildings. In her rearview, she could Mary
and Ben about equidistant, following close.
"Okay, Jurg. You're free," Quinn yawned. "I'm heading home."
"When you're done playing, come downstairs guys," Rachel said. Suki didn't have
the time to nod in acknowledgment. She leapt off of a wall by the staircase into a tree,
claws grasping at a branch and the trunk, then leapt out onto something dark and solid.
A police truck with the lights off. She leapt again, throwing new-fallen icy snow into
the air. It was deep here. Suki got an idea and crouched suddenly. She could see
nothing but snow in all her views.
"Hey," she heard Mary say. "Where did you learn that disappearing trick?"
Suki couldn't help it, she started to giggle, and that made her shake. The world
spun as her model was knocked to the side. "Gotcha!"
Suki tried to get up, but Ben's front paws were holding her down. "You win," she
sighed. "But it was two against one."
Mary pulled up suddenly, and landed right into Ben, knocking him to the side. He
started chuckling, then laughing, and said something incoherent. Mary was laughing too.
Suki stood, and turned to look. The media van's camera was completely tangled in the
boom mic and wires, unable to track them any more. The reporter was gaping at them.
Mary launched herself into the flake-heavy air, and took off toward home. A delicious
smell filled Suki's nose.
"Think you can catch me?" she asked, as Ben's model wiped its nose with its paw.
Suki could hear Ben snuffling beside her. She wondered if he had laughed himself to
Suki turned tail and took off, a blue blur in the snow. Amazing, though she had
never had a white Christmas before, how much it contributed to the feeling of the season.
It wasn't the right smell, in Suki's opinion. Whatever it was that Quinn was
cooking did smell heavenly. But Suki's family always had a traditional oden soup on
Christmas and New Years Day, just because it was easy to make a lot of it. They had
omochi melted with brown sugar and little flower petal sprinkles for desert, and custard
cakes, and as always lots of good rice. Eggs, pickles, fish. Only since they couldn't
write back did Suki realize how much she missed her mother.
"My parent are terribly worried that I won't answer them," Quinn said, as he
handed paper plates to Suki to set out around the blanket they were using for a dinner
table. "Even my sisters wrote to the University page. Christmas is such a big deal for
us. We always had a midnight mass bonfire on Christmas Eve, and me and my sisters used
to practice the songs for weeks beforehand. The house was so musical."
Ben nodded, smiling. "My sister and I never really sang together except for
Chanukah. She was in choir in school, and I knew a few traditional Hebrew songs on my
guitar. My Mom would literally bribe us to sit in the kitchen and sing Chanukah songs
for her while she cooked."
Dare looked a little withdrawn, sitting against a wall, staring out the taped up
kitchen window, lapscreen neglected by his side. Suki wondered if he was feeling well.
Quinn must have noticed too.
"Are you all right, kid?"
Dare shrugged absently, obviously hoping to be forgotten.
Quinn pursed his lips. "Come on, it's Christmas! Did you not get what you
wanted in your stocking?"
Dare shook his head, not even smiling at Quinn's joke. They had each given one
other person a gift, Secret Santa, Rachel called it. Quinn had given Dare a pretty
expensive memory chip he had found in a junk shop while looking for tools to help build
the tread-shoes. He had been ecstatic then, but now, Dare just sighed. "It's just
"Why?" Suki asked, concerned. Ben turned around and gave Dare a scrutinizing
"Well," he said, finally. "I told you lads about my brother, right? Well, they
gave him until Christmas last year, as a generous estimate. Because Tom contracted it
from the first phase AIDS vaccine, they were surprised he'd lasted for this long. I've
been checking my UCLA page and the obits in the Edinburgh Press, and there's nothing.
But still. I know he doesn't have long. I'd really like to let him know I'm still okay.
"And I worry about my parents. They've no clue where I am, like. Both their
lads gone or going, and they'll have to spend Christmas alone."
Quinn nodded slowly. "Maybe we could ask Jurg if we could send a Christmas
letter or something. I know it pinpoints our location, but we could be really vague."
"Maybe we could slip out to an ecafé?" Ben suggested.
"I could rig a secret mail program, no problem," Dare said. "In fact, I already
have done. But it can't be used more than once. I was going to give it to someone for
Christmas, but then I reckoned Ben would like the new Panic album better."
"I think you guessed right," Ben said, smiling. "So you should use your program
to mail your family."
"Could you set it up so it could send several messages all at the same time?"
Suki asked, feeling guilty about her own mother and grandparents as well.
"Hey, a mass mail," Dare said, nodding thoughtfully, then smiled brilliantly. "I
think that might work!" He pulled the lapscreen onto his knees and started typing
Quinn gave Suki a relieved grin.
"Do you need a hand?" Rachel said, walking into the kitchen. "It smells
"No, your present was that you couldn't cook or do dishes for an entire week!"
Ben said, almost warningly. It had been his gift. Rachel smiled and shook her
head. "Fine." She sat next to Dare to watch what he was doing.
"Hey Ben, if you and Suki want to make a salad, I think we're about there,"
Ben stood, stretching. "I'll tear lettuce if you chop." He held the faucet for
her as she washed her hands, and then handed her a bunch of carrots, a half a dozen
tomatoes, some radishes, a celery stalk, and two bell peppers. It took a lot of food to
feed seven active people. Mary's stocks had finally come through– and as though
anticipatory of Suki's guilt– and she had made elaborate proclamations on how they were
to use it as they saw fit and that she was absolutely sure she'd be paid back someday.
Suki found the knife in the sink. Well, at least she could contribute a little
to the festivities. Suki drew the knife lengthwise against a few carrots, gouging out
grooves so that when she chopped through them, dozens of orange flower-shaped chunks fell
onto the cutting board. She did the same for the radishes, and cut the celery and
peppers into small curls. Ben shook his head at the care she was taking. "That's so
Suki almost wanted to stick her tongue out at him. "It's nice to eat food that
"You're a perfectionist," he said, almost laughing, as she scraped the vegetables
into the bowl with the lettuce. "But it's a beautiful salad."
"Call Jurg and Mary, will you?"
"We're here," Jurg said, walking into the kitchen, holding Mary's hand. "Is
Quinn nodded. "Where were you? Or do we want to know?"
"Shopping," Mary said, cheeks flushed and almost glowing. It must be cold out
there, Suki realized. It was so cozy in here. "Here," Mary said, and pulled out a box
of Cabernet and a half-dozen long-stemmed glasses. "I'll just use a teacup or
something. I didn't think it would be a proper Christmas dinner without wine. And you
can't have wine without wine glasses. There were only six in a box."
"Bon Apetite!" Quinn shouted, above the side conversations. Suki was amazed how
quickly everyone came to attention.
"All right!" Ben said, as everyone sat down. "Let's eat!"
"Two seconds," Dare muttered, still staring and typing at the lapscreen.
"Come and eat, Dare," Jurg said, sitting at the head of the blanket. "While it's
"Hang on," he said again, louder.
Suki held her breath, hoping they wouldn't start to argue. It had been such a
nice day, everyone so cooperative and amiable. A fight now would just spoil the whole
atmosphere. But Jurg just shrugged, and started to pour the wine. Before he had even
gotten to the sixth glass, Dare said "That'll do," and set the lapscreen aside.
"Did you get it?" Ben asked.
"It'll send to multiple addresses completely untraceable. But only one message.
So we'll have to write something generic."
"What's this?" Mary asked, as she handed a teacup to Jurg to fill with the
seventh portion of wine. "Another Christmas present?"
"Sure, if you like. We can send one letter from this house, to multiple
addresses, completely undetected by any human equipment right now. The program
completely erases the history of its origin as it travels through four hubs. But once
the program is loosed, the program itself is traceable if a match is found later. That's
why we can only use it once," Dare explained, finding a place at the corner of the
"Are you absolutely sure it's untraceable?" Jurg asked.
Dare nodded solemnly. "I promise. I want to move again just as much as everyone
"Which is: not at all," Rachel said. "But let's worry about that after dinner,
Mary raised her tea-cup. Jurg raised his glass. "A toast, then," Mary
said. "To. . .hmm."
"To our families," Dare said.
"Yes," Mary said, and put her wine glass to her lips. "To not having to battle
"I second that!" Ben said. "Cheers!"
Quinn smiled, and caught Suki's eye. They were planning on giving out the tread-
shoes tonight, now that they were finished and actually worked most of the time. "To the
Christmas presents we haven't opened yet," he said.
Rachel was looking around like she was waiting for someone else to contribute.
When no one spoke up, she raised her glass again. "To us. After all, we do have to live
together, work together, earn money together, fight together– both among ourselves and
with others. If that doesn't make kin, I don't know what does. To this crazy family."
Suki smiled among everyone's laughter, and tasted her sweet wine again. She
tried not to think about the trend toward separation, the logic of heading their
estranged ways, the danger of living together like this. She thought instead of what she
wanted to tell her mom and concentrated on her beautiful dinner.
Suki and Quinn were not the only ones that had surprises after dinner. However,
theirs were the most involved, and everyone looked stunned that they actually worked.
Ben said he liked the design so much, that he wanted tread-pad soles on all his shoes.
Rachel hugged Suki when she got her pair, and said that Dare the acrobat could really use
a pair of tread-gloves too, when he wanted to walk on his hands. Dare thought that was
so funny, he actually snorted the eggnog he was drinking. He gave a demonstration right
there in the front room; he really could walk on his hands, and very well too. Suki was
very glad he was in higher spirits.
Jurg and Mary, using money Mary had pulled up from yet another stash of stocks,
had given everyone new color-coordinated fleece jackets because several of the students
didn't have many warm clothes. Suki's new blue one was so clean and so soft inside and
so warm, she felt like curling up and sleeping there on the living room carpet, head full
of wine and cheer.
But Dare offered to script the letter, and that obviously took precedence. The
conversation turned into a dialogue, as it usually did, Suki noticed, but this time it
was Dare and Rachel instead of Rachel and Jurg.
"I think we should be specific about letting them know we're okay. Say, we're
well but might be in some danger," Dare said. "Just so if something does happen,
like. . ."
"But nothing's going to happen," Rachel said. "And if we let on that something
strange is going on, they're going to actively try to find us. If we just say school is
going well and that it's been so hectic that we couldn't write--"
"No, that's lying! We're not in school."
"Okay, you're right. How about: studies are going well, things are very hectic,
doing well, wish I could tell you more. Wanted to let you know I was okay."
"Grand. That sounds grand," Dare said. "The only problem: how are we going to
sign it? How are we going to address it? And if our parents are split, like yours and
Ben's, who are we going to send it to?"
"My mom," Ben added. "My dad can go to hell."
"Well, I'd send it to my mother too," Rachel said. "But what about Quinn and Dare
and Mary then, who have both parents at home? You couldn't say just ‘Dear Mom,' though
it might suit all of us." That was odd, Suki thought. She wondered having a mother had
been selected for by the aliases, and what effect that might have on their interaction.
"Actually," Mary said, in the middle of a yawn. "I always talk to my dad. He
relays info to my mom. She's bad at writing and communicating and stuff." She and Jurg
were snuggled in their fleeces, in the middle of the sagging couch. The red and green
contrasted so highly that the places their coats touched seemed to vibrate. Suki
couldn't look at them for very long.
"So how about ‘Dear Family?'" Quinn asked, also looking bright in the huge white
Rachel nodded. "That might work, though my mother might think something strange
was up if I called her ‘Family.'"
"We have to compromise, like," Dare said. "How's this: Dear Family, studies are
going well, things are very hectic, doing well, wish I could tell you more. Wanted to
let you know I'm okay. Em, Happy Christmas. Love. . . ."
"Happy Holidays, instead? And how can we all sign it?" Rachel asked. "Would it
work to leave it blank? Assume they know which child would send a letter like that, if
there's more than one kid?"
"I guess we could leave off the name," Dare said. "Sound good, lads? The
important thing is that we don't cause more anxiety than by not writing at all."
Suki nodded with the rest of them, knowing her mother would probably appreciate
the note. It certainly made Suki feel better.
"They assume we are independent, right?" Rachel said. "I haven't noticed
anyone's parents with a ‘look-out' up on the web yet. I think that will work."
"I'll second that," Jurg said.
"So," Dare said, and blew up the font on the lapscreen so they could all see the
letter as he typed. "Does that look good?"
"Sure," Rachel said. "Ready to send?"
"Hang on," Dare said, running through his code quickly, changing a few carats and
a few letters here and there. Suki decided she needed to get him to show her how to make
a program like that. He looked around at everyone, then ceremonially raised his finger
and pressed the ‘send' icon. "Happy Christmas, everyone."
"Yeah," Ben said. "And Chanukah and everything. There's more wine. I'll put on
the Panic album. Who wants to get drunk?"
Jurg rolled his eyes, as Dare, Quinn and Mary followed him out of the living
room. "I'm going to bed," he announced. "Wake me if anything attacks. Including those
fools in the kitchen."
Rachel smiled at Suki. "Good night, Suki. Hope you enjoyed Christmas. It's a
little weird, when you don't have a holiday to coincide, isn't it."
Suki nodded. "We celebrate New Years, though."
"Yeah, that's what we do at home too. Well, we'll have to have another party."
Rachel stretched, then pulled her lovely brown jacket tighter around herself. "I'm for
bed too. See you in the morning."
Suki smiled, and watched her leave. Maybe she wouldn't tell anyone about the
splitting up idea after all. Maybe she could just pretend it didn't make so much sense.
Try as she might, every attack somewhere other than Boston seemed to draw sharp
claws down Suki's nerves. She imagined all sorts of horrors the aliens were committing
on innocent people when they swooped down with the horrible boxes and acid. The festive
nature of the past few days made it that much more difficult to talk to Jurg, but she
couldn't hold it in any longer. The day after a New Years day attack in Tokyo was the
top vid headline, she approached him.
"I wonder if I could talk to you," Suki said, hoping she wasn't interrupting Jurg
and Mary too much. Jurg smiled, and looked up from the robotics journal he and Mary were
reading togther. "Sure, Suki. Anytime."
"Well," she put Ben's pile of clothes on the floor so she could sit in the
folding chair in the bedroom, to better talk to the pair at their level. "I was thinking
it might be a good idea to think about splitting up for a while. To cover more area.
And so we're not all in one place if something inescapable happens."
"I'm glad you brought that up," Jurg said, and stood so he could pace. Suki
watched him walk back and forth, dodging blankets and other people's clothes
piles. "I've been having thoughts along the same lines. There has to be a way to save
more people. Having everyone here is practically redundant. I think you're right,
Mary leaned back against her pillow, which was up against one wall, and tented
the journal. "Maybe we'll have to have a good-bye celebration," she said, looking up at
Jurg with raised eyebrows. He stopped and grinned brilliantly. Suki tried not to roll
her eyes. It was so much nicer when they were getting along, but sometimes it did make
the two of them hard to talk to.
"We'll keep in touch of course. But you're right. It is like all us eggs are in
one basket. We'd probably be more effective anyway, without fighting all the time. I've
been worrying about how to stop all the other attacks." He was working out Suki's
arguments before she even made them! "And it's easier to travel now with the tread-
shoes, instead of the pads. Those are great, by the way. We can't even be ID'd by
luggage, with the new international accord." He nodded his head slowly– Suki suddenly
had a vision of his red and chrome model doing the same thing– and put a hand to his
unshaven chin. "They seem to be leaving Boston alone more, anyway. And any one of us can
beat a waldo single handedly now."
"I'll call the others," Mary said, and trailed her hand on Jurg's stomach as she
passed between him and Suki.
"Good," Jurg said, raising his eyebrows at Mary's sly smile. "See what they
It was amazingly easy to come to an agreement.
"I think this is a good decision– even if the attacks are going down in
frequency. You have to admit it gets a little tense with everyone at each other's
throats all the time," Ben said. "It might also be a good idea to head to places where
we wouldn't be conspicuous."
"You mean, places suited to our ethnicity?" Rachel asked. Dare rolled his
eyes, but Rachel ignored him. "I guess that might be a good idea. You know, Quinn might
stand out in China, for example."
"The problem with that is we have too many people from the U.S," Mary
said. "Even if we took different parts of the country, or went up to Canada, that still
leaves all of South America. And Australia. And Suki has to cover all of Asia."
Suki raised her eyebrows. That was a large territory! Rachel shook her
head. "I bet Dare would fit in in Australia, a lot of of Scots and Irish go there,
according to my Australian highschool teacher."
"I know about a dozen people there," Dare said. "That's true."
"And I'm fluent in Spanish," Rachel continued, "I could head down south. I
wouldn't stand out that much in terms of appearance. Only culture. There are also
plenty of aid societies I could pretend to be in, as an alternate identity."
"It might also not be a good idea to go too near home," Quinn said. "As much as
I want to know how my family is, that would easily put them in danger."
Dare nodded quietly. "It's a good point. We should also try to stick to large
cities. It's a lot harder to be conspicuous somewhere rural."
"We should come up with fake identities, just so no one will trace us from place
to place when we move. Keep some things the same, but not names and origins," Jurg
suggested. "Just make sure we tell each other our new names."
"Now that's really superhero-esque," Dare said. "Is that really necessary?"
"Well, I guess not if you're going somewhere far away. But if we go close to
home, I mean, Japan's a small island, right? So the chances of running across people who
might know you is greater. You don't speak Chinese or Korean, do you?" Rachel asked.
Suki shook her head. "I can read it, but I wouldn't understand a word."
"Well, it looks like you're back to Japan then," Quinn shrugged. "I suppose I
could head to South Africa. There are still some Sindebele speakers down south. I bet I
could get along in Johannesburg."
"I've always fancied going to Australia," Dare said, rubbing his palms
"So all that's left is to get the tickets," Jurg said, standing and stretching
his back. "Let's see if we can chase down some cheap fares."
Rachel muttered something to herself as both she and Suki headed to the kitchen
to prepare dinner.
"Just that. . .a problem like this was so easy to solve. Almost like. . .like
Mr. Westing planned this in the first place. Like maybe the school wasn't so politically
correct because of desire for internationalism and multi-racialism and multi-culturalism,
global perspectives and all that. What if, instead, they needed us to be able to do
Suki shook her head in agreement.
Ben rubbed the bridge of his nose and sighed.
"We're off now. Peru, here I come!" Rachel called back, hand to her earpiece so
everyone could hear. The high whistle of the airplane went up a few notes as the engines
revved up. Rachel rounded the bend in the accordion walkway, and was out of sight.
"Just me and Suki left, then," Ben said, putting his own hand up and touching
the tiny speaker/transmitter Dare had connected not-quite-illegally to a cell-phone
satellite network. He looked uncomfortable. Suki nodded, feeling her stomach tighten
in odd places. Her blue model was waiting in a crate, already loaded in the belly of a
huge plane set for LAX and then on to Tokyo in four hours.
"I'm still here in your head," Jurg's voice came rather eerily through their
earpieces. "We're all still here."
"Yeah," Dare said. "Ye can't get rid of us that easy."
"Shush, boys," Quinn said, in a plane somewhere over the Atlantic, "I'm trying
Ben put his hand down. Suki scanned the crowd, feeling a bit conspicuous, then
saw the "ladies" icon above the restroom.
"I'm going to the toilet," she said, "then do you want me to walk you to your
"Yeah, okay. Here, let me hold your bag."
Suki dodged her way into the women's room, and waited in line for an open
stall. She glanced in the mirror, catching her own eyes. With almost ironic
disappointment, she thought that this round face, this short body, these black eyes were
not the likely face for a guardian of human freedom. She was almost a little surprised
at how young she looked, even with the dark circles under her eyes. It had also been a
while since she had a haircut.
Someone else caught her eyes in the mirror. The face was familiar. The tall
woman looked too masculine. Like someone had taken the white hair off and put a brown
wig on Mr. Westing! Suki froze for an instant, knowing she was recognized, wondering if
she should make it obvious she knew that person was a machine. A free stall opened.
Suki darted in, locked the door, and flushed the toilet.
"Ben," she whispered over the noise, hand at her ear, "there's an alien machine
in here. The human look-a-like kind. What did you call it?"
"An alias, Jesus, does it know you?"
Suki didn't even wince. "It's not going into a stall, it's waiting by the sink."
"Um," Ben said, "make a run for it. I'll be at the door."
Suki closed her eyes, and breathed. Counted down– san, ni, ich'– and then ran.
Ben caught her arm as she came out, and swung her behind a phone booth. The machine
dodged a pedestrian, and looked around. Ben draped his coat over Suki's shoulders, and
led her slowly walking down the opposite way.
"Don't turn around. Don't look anywhere but straight ahead, maybe we can fake it
out," he whispered. Suki heard footsteps closing behind her. His plan wasn't working.
She heard soft approaching footsteps beneath Ben's panicked breaths.
"Ben–" she whispered.
"Run," he said. They ran. Not too unusual in an airport– still, they got a few
looks. Suki dove for the glass swinging door at the end of the terminal, and pushed out
into the sunlight. It was blinding. And then something caught her arm. The grip
tightened, but she had known from the start that it wasn't Ben this time.
"What the fuck do you want?" Ben demanded, writhing. It dragged them behind the
building, the grip relentless. Two more human alias aliens joined them; one took Ben and
kicked in the back of his knees so he knelt, arms twisted behind him. He screamed–
frustration or pain, Suki couldn't tell. The one holding Suki grabbed her other hand,
then likewise forced her to the ground. Suki could feel her metacarpal bones crushing
against one another, behind her back.
"We've come with two things; a demand, and a gift." The voice was the same
muttering tone Mr. Westing used but up maybe three or four tones. Suki bit her lip
against the pain, surprised to her it's voice louder out of the opposite ear. Ben had
his free hand to his earpiece. "But first I must tell you two things. The first is, you
are not safe. The second is, the Red Banner will arrive in approximately three months."
"Here's my demand. You must watch and be prepared for the Red Banner. Repeat
it. Watch for the Red Banner."
"Watch for– ouch!" Ben said, "the fucking Red Banner. I got it!"
"You too." The one holding Suki squeezed her hand tighter and shaking it
"Watch for the Red Banner," Suki managed. She closed her tearing eyes, almost
not hearing it. She was sure her left hand was broken or breaking in at least one place,
maybe more. If anything, the hold got tighter as one of its partners moved to extract
something from its shirt pocket, ignoring her struggle. It threw a tangle of wirey
strings to the ground, about the diameter of a jumping rope.
Suki gasped– almost forgetting the pain for a second. At the Institute. . .Mr.
Westing, in the parking lot. . . .
The robots exchanged glances, seeming to be communicating or something. In the
meantime, Suki kicked out at the foot nearest her leg. To regain its balance, her
captor hauled her into the air, then let go suddenly. Suki hit the ground hard, landing
on the hand, wrist and elbow of her sore hand. The machine had thrown one of the string
things into the air like a lasso, and now it jumped through the hoop flashing into
nothing, taking the hoop with it. The other two were already gone.
"Holy shit," Ben said, rubbing his red forearms. "You okay?"
"I think so," Suki said, and gritted her teeth, cradling her hand.
"That looks bad," he said, reaching for her arm. Suki pulled it out of the way
feeling suddenly angry; there was nothing he could do about it. "I'll be fine," she
said, and was surprised at how harsh it sounded. Maybe it was just frustration, or
pain. "Sorry. It hurts but I'll be fine." He stared at her for a minute, until they
heard a burst of noise from their earphones.
"What was that?" Rachel's voice demanded, coming clear of the other student's
Ben explained into the earpiece, while poking the string things. There was a
small silence, then Jurg's voice came on. "Do you think they're some sort of, er,
transportation device?" Suki picked Ben's yellow fleece jacket up from where it
had fallen during the skirmish, then scooped the wires up in it, one-handed.
"I bet you're right," Ben said to Jurg, then glanced at his watch. "But I have
to run or I'll miss my plane." He collected their fallen luggage, and turned to
Once the wires were stuffed safely in her bag and stowed under her seat, Suki
examined the difference in size between her hands. She knew she would need to have
someone take care of the puffy pink and purple left one, but she didn't know how. Her
two end fingers wouldn't move. She was still shaking. But she had very little money,
and was bound by Jurg's prerogative to stay away from family and friends. All that
waited was the pre-arranged place to stay in Tokyo.
"You feeling all right, honey?" A slight brown-haired woman asked, sitting down
in the seat beside her. Suki nodded, and hid her left hand under the blanket, pulling it
up closer to her chin. Calling the group would serve no purpose, and draw attention to
herself besides, talking to people who weren't there. When the steward came around, she
asked for aspirin, and chugged the water he brought her too. Then Suki put the blanket
over her head, and waited for take off.
About halfway there, the pain was driving her crazy. It was a fire under her
skin, throbbing, pulsing like plasma. More than anything Suki wanted to get up and run.
Run away from the pain, from her duty and responsibility to Jurg and the rest, from what
was happening. Tears sprang hotly into her eyes, and she quickly glanced at the woman
beside her. Luckily asleep.
Suki started counting backwards from ten thousand, but couldn't keep her mind
steady. She kept seeing the face of those human-look-alikes in the people around her.
Aliases, Ben started to call them, and Jurg liked the word. It sounded a little like
alien, but also carried the meaning of a deliberate deception. Why were they here? Why
were the regular drones, the strong-silent drones and the large waldos really here? The
news kept calling them pounders, and didn't seem to distinguish between the three. The
huge aliens seemed not to have taken the mining rights and resources offered to them to
get them to stop kid-napping people. The media was still following the ‘colors,'
wondering what was so special about Boston that warranted protection. Governments were
in uproars all over the world. The Neo-UN was denying any country the right to mobilize
troops against them for some reason, and there was talk of conspiracy.
But more desperately– why had she been the one thrown into battle with them? Why
couldn't it have been someone else? It wasn't fair. Suki licked her lips and tasted
salt. If she held really still, if she breathed shallowly and kept her right hand under
her sore left, against the cool metal of the armrest, she might be able to fall asleep.
A flight to Japan from LAX took about 7 hours, and luckily she was staying in
Tokyo, so she wouldn't have to ride the train for hours now. Their luggage had been
delayed a little, so the throng of grumpy and sleepy passengers now milled around the
depository belt. Suki closed her eyes, but they flashed open as another wave of dread
washed up from somewhere. She looked around behind her. No one suspicious. But she
didn't even know what to look for, or what to be suspicious of. The lady that had sat
next to her on the plane was still around. The kid crying two rows up, with his
parents. The French people. Several girls in school uniforms, all looking the age of
the girl Suki had seen in her reflection. She felt decades older.
She hadn't slept in 22 hours. Every movement jarred her hand, which hurt worse
than anything Suki had felt before. She sighed, and waited for her crate.
The taxi driver dropped her off at the front walkway of the hostel, and helped
her carry her box in. Luckily it had wheels, and her model was light. She didn't envy
Quinn, but then, he could probably lift his anyway. And it was easier to find someone to
pay to carry your stuff in Johannesburg. Dare would probably have trouble. Jurg was
staying with Mary in the States for a week, before heading to Hamburg, Germany and Mary
back to L.A. He'd have a lot of trouble.
Suki handed the taxi driver 2000 of her 25,000 yen– money she had stuck in her
pillow when they had moved from their rooms to the gym that first night in California–
and he bowed slightly then drove off. The hostel manager showed her the tiny single
room, and bobbed good-night, promising a ‘continental breakfast' in the morning. Suki
collapsed onto the futon, and put her good hand to her ear.
"I'm here," she said.
"Is it night there?" Rachel asked.
"Yes. 1:45 a.m."
"Good night then."
She didn't remember taking off her shoes, or pulling the kakibuton over herself.
Suki woke to the sounds of distant sirens. It was still early morning, grey,
rainy. Her hand was hurting like ‘fucking hell', as Ben would say. Slowly she sat up,
pushing the down cover aside, and tiptoed down the hall to the restroom. In the bright
light, the swelling appeared purple and red, misshapen and lopsided. She didn't dare
touch it, to see where exactly it was broken. There were dark circles under her eyes–
still. Carefully, she ran her hand under cold water and almost didn't feel it. Suki
knew for certain she didn't have the money even the affordable Japanese health care would
It was an odd feeling to be so helpless. So alone.
So she went running.
Suki bandaged her hand loosely in the kerchief that Rachel had lent her a few
days ago. The jog was more to get her bearings than anything else. A market here, that
sold groceries and fresh produce. Just setting food out for the day. Bananas for 450
yen. Mikan's 1000 for a basket. Nashi's for 50 each. Daikon for 500 yen. Yakimo
vendors still working the streets. Tourist shops. Tokyo tower in the background,
placing her neighborhood in the vicinity of the Shinjuku district. Everywhere, people
speaking Japanese. The fruity, tangy, smokey, exhausty smell of Japan. It was so
comforting. Even though it wasn't her city, or her scene, it certainly felt like
Which was weird, because she knew no one.
About 7:30, the highschool students started coming out of their houses, dark blue
uniforms and red cardboard backpacks. Running to catch busses. Shrieking about the
latest live feed show, the newest manga, showing off their new electronic toys.
Suki passed through a crowd of college girls, all studying while waiting for the
lightrail. The running helped the pain, she realized, or at least took her mind off it.
It wasn't dulled, but was combated by pain from her limbs and lungs. But she had been
going for almost forty-five minutes now, so with some reluctance, Suki turned around, and
started jogging back at a slower pace.
On the opposite side of the road, she saw a ‘hiring' sign in an electronics shop
window. Dare had said to get a job, and Jurg had approved, on the condition that they
didn't work under their real names. Suki could definitely use the yen. A quick glance
left, right and she cut across the street and pulled open the door.
"Konichiwa," the man behind the counter said. "Welcome. Can I help you?"
"Please, I'd like to inquire about that job." Suki realized belatedly that she
didn't look fresh and eager as an applicant should, but sweaty and disheveled and
disgusting. She politely averted her eyes from the older man, and tried to catch her
"Well, what we need is someone to assist in the repair section. Do you have an
electronics background, miss?"
"Yes, a few years of high school robotics. Some instruction at university in the
States," she said, vaguely. "If you give me a chance, I can demonstrate it to you."
"I don't know," he said, looking her up and down.
"Please, sir." Suki bowed slightly again. "Just one chance."
The man put his elbow on the glass countertop, and stared at her. A middle-aged
woman peeked out from behind the cloth curtain separating the employee space from the
"Rei-san, let her try. It won't hurt."
Suki looked up with a smile of relief, and bowed to the woman. "Domo arigato!"
She put her left hand behind her back.
"All right. Fine. Follow her." He thumbed at the curtain. "But if we say no,
you leave, understand?"
Suki nodded once. There was nothing to be nervous about, she'd been able to do
this kind of repair for years now. So why did she feel so scared? Slowly, Suki pushed
back the curtain.
"So I just re-routed the cathode through the secondary chip," Suki said,
struggling to carry a volt meter and a welding iron at the same time in one hand, "and
there's no more overheating."
Rei Kakutani nodded slowly, and took the tools from her. "Good, Ao-san," he
grunted. When pressured, Suki had Japanesified Quinn's nickname for her. She was still
getting used to it, but it wasn't as hard as she had expected. For pulling something out
of the air, it was probably the best fit she could find. "That's all for today."
Nana Kakutani pushed him gently out of the way. "He really does like you, Ao-
chan. He's just an old oni. Now get home and have someone look at that hand. Where are
"The student hostel on Kawa, at least for now."
"Well, hurry up then, so you can get there before dark. 8:00 tomorrow, then?"
"Arigato, Kakutani-san," Suki said, bowing. Politeness was a good way to avoid
unnecessary questions. It was also very nice knowing the customs here, which made it
that much easier to be inconspicuous.
Nana-san waved her away, smiling. "Sayonara. Mata ne!"
At 7:32 the next morning, Suki was walking down the street, munching on a cold
okonomia from last night's dinner. The world had taken on a kind of surreal tone,
spinning when she stood, swishing when she walked. Hot and cold at strange times. She
knew she needed to see a doctor somehow, even without the money.
Tomorrow, she promised herself. After I've discussed health insurance with the
"Suimasen, miss. Do you have the time?"
Suki looked up. Before her, like some sort of horror movie scene, stood a
shorter Mr. Westing, black hair, no eyelids, black eyes. She jumped back. Someone was
running from the other side. The one on front lashed out, trying for her arm, but she
blocked it with her shin and upper-cutted him. Now her right hand was sore too. He
flailed a little, then went back to kick her. She jumped and brought her heel down on
his free ankle. He missed the kick, but her pounce didn't hurt him. The footsteps were
right behind her now. She whirled around, dodging, and blocked a punch with her arm.
A third alias grabbed her sore hand from the side.
Suki couldn't hold in her scream; the pain was a blinding explosion in her whole
body. She felt herself start to fall, but only barely felt the ground.
A dark room, absolute silence except for words or sobs that seemed to be coming
from the walls– oh, and her own mouth. Her hand was a ball of fire. Something touched
it, and she heard screams echoing off of the stone walls.
The weak spot, the weak link in the fragile chain. She had failed. Utterly.
Not merely in getting to work on time, and not only in the little skirmish in the
street. With the earpiece, with her model, knowing she was here. . . . Not to mention
that she was probably going to be dead in a matter of minutes. Suki wondered how long it
would take before the rest of the team would figure this out.
Someone must have turned on the lights.
"Sumimasen, Miss? Are you awake?"
Suki blinked her eyes open. Hospital lights. White linen beds. Voices down the
hall– Japanese. Nurse in a white uniform. Near her head, a large friendly window, first
"Yes?" she asked. "What happened? Doko–?"
"We were hoping you could tell us that. You had three metacarpea in your left
hand broken, a severe concussion, and abrasions all down your left side."
"Oh." Suki thought fast. I'm okay. I'm still alive. I need to get out of
here, I need to get to the Kakutani's, I need to call the group. "There were two men,"
she said vaguely. "They attacked me. There was a fight."
"Could you give us your name, please? Residence? We were very worried."
"Sasami Tiara," she extracted from the air, using a different name than she'd
given the Kakutani's and the house mistress. "Student dormitory." Quickly, she gave the
complete bullshit address. "When can I go?"
"Well, the doctor wanted to see you again. He's had a few sleepless nights over
"A few? How long was I here?" Suki asked, dread filling her otherwise empty
"Three nights, two nights." The nurse smiled, and left, clutching her clippad.
Suki was almost going to lay back in defeat when saw that the large friendly
window had a latch. Without hesitation, she yanked the IV tube from her arm, quickly
climbed into her clothes which were folded at the end of her bed, and ran a hand through
her hair. One hop, and she was out.
She heard the doctor cursing, as she crept along the garden ringing the
building. She caught herself as her head spun slightly. But the world cleared, and Suki
stepped onto the street.
Freedom. Kind of.
Her earpiece was still in her ear, miracle of miracles. "Hello?"
"Suki? Is that you?"
"Yes, I'm sorry."
"Oh, fucking Christ." Ben said. "What happened! Where were you! If you turned
us off, I'm going to fucking kill–"
"Ben!" Rachel exclaimed. Then, "Suki, talk!"
"Blue, you okay?" Even Quinn was awake.
"I'm sorry, I think. . .I don't know. I ran into a few Mr. Westing aliases, on
my way to work. There was a fight and I lost," she said. "I woke up in the hospital."
"You've been out for four days!" Jurg said, obviously annoyed.
"Five," Dare corrected.
"Five?" Suki said. "The hospital said two!" Even worse!
"Have there been any drone attacks yet?"
"I don't know, I don't think so," Suki said, glancing hastily at the source
headlines posted on the billboard above a bank on the next block. There wasn't mention
of anything. She threaded her way around a cart selling watches and necklaces and all
sorts of pawn-able goods, hoping it looked like she had a tiny cell phone.
"Just the alias robots, then. Mr. Westings?" Jurg asked.
Suki nodded, then realized belatedly that he couldn't see her. "Yes."
"Where are you now? Are you walking?" Mary's voice was accompanied by bursts of
music. She must have had the radio on.
"On my way to work to apologize."
"You're not going to hide? Restart?" Jurg said, "Isn't that taking a big
"I'll take a different route to work," Suki said, feeling the blood rush to her
cheeks. "I think. . .I think I need a little stability. Just a little."
Jurg was silent.
Ben spoke, "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I think so. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to let you down."
"We're not mad, just glad you're okay!" Rachel said. "Can you talk for long?"
"No. I'm here. Can I talk later?"
"Of course. Take care. Good luck." Mary said, yawning. Suki felt a little
overwhelmed as Dare, Rachel, Quinn and Jurg professed their relief.
"Sorry for yelling. Call if you need anything, ‘kay? Ciao Suki," Ben said, the
last to sign off. Suki took a deep breath and pushed open the door to the shop.
The reaction she was expecting was not the reaction she received. Well at least
from Nana-san. Rei-san was wearing a look of pained resignation the entire time Nana
fussed about Suki, after she told them she had been jumped by muggers and spent the last
few days in hospital. Nana-san wouldn't let her work today, but instead sent her off to
the hostel to rest. And gave her an obento to take with her.
Suki found herself smiling on the walk home– something had actually gone in her
favor! It was amazing how much easier people were to deal with than the confusing
aliens, even when their motives made just as little sense.
And then the first attack came. Hidden in the dark damp unfinished basement of
the hostel, Suki pulled her goggles and gloves on carefully, then broke her model out of
its box. "I'm off."
"Good luck." Jurg's voice said.
Something had changed. Less resistance, or maybe it was that she had actually
been craving this moment for weeks. About half way there, on an impulse, Suki leapt her
model into the air, and tried to match the pace of a speeding police aircar, undoubtably
heading to the same place. She passed him without trying. Bump, bump, bump against the
streetlit pavement. I didn't even jar her hurt hand too much, as though her blue model
knew what it was doing.
The night scene was like something out of Godzilla. Three drones with a people-
box, stomping about a crowd of frightened bystanders. There were maybe two or three
suited business men in the holding tank.
"What are you doing?" she asked, flipping her speaker on. "What have these people
"Security must be established," it said, in clear Japanese, trying to shake her
off. A new anger rose in Suki's throat. Those drones probably had no clue how
frightening it was to be kid-napped, how powerless you felt, how much it worried those
closest to you. Well, those baka aliens wouldn't get these people! She impaled two
through the mech-brains in their right breasts before the other could even maneuver to
attack, from its position behind the people box. Suki ripped the back of the box open
silently, ushering the poor souls out, and then leapt to the shoulder of the reacting
drone. A claw to its right breast tore the brain out easily.
With a groan, the final drone brought its hose to its shoulder. Suki flipped
under its three legs, and set a charge in the intake valve. There was an explosion, but
the drone kept on. It raised the claw in its back, now, threatening a huddling group in
a shop veranda. Like that day in Boston, Suki tacked its frontmost foot to the ground by
jamming a piece of rebar through her diamond-blade hole, then leapt to its shoulder. The
blade didn't go through its right breast. Protective armor? She clawed its eyepiece out
instead, dodging swinging blows.
And then it roared. Suki had never heard anything like it! She almost fell the
sound was so startling, but flicked her earpiece out of her ear just in time. Everyone
around her was crouching and putting their hands to their ears– except the business men
she had just freed, who turned and stared at the drone as if listening carefully. Odd.
Opening the shuriken slot in her right hand, Suki leapt and set three charged stars in
one of the drone's leg joints. The metal snapped, exploding, and the machine started to
Was this yet another kind of drone? That scream must have been a dozen times
worse than that noise the waldo kept making, if that were possible. The machine didn't
appear to attempt to answer her questions, just crashed as it fell. Suki was about to
turn around and get home, but the one behind her ripped its stapled foot out of the
ground. It wasn't dead after all.
Suki hurled herself toward it, executing a complex set of moves she drudged up
from the days when she had been in practice and her hand hadn't hurt. Her legs came
crashing against the armor plate, which flew off, while her good hand extended its claws
and streaked down the control system. The thing fell over against the ground, dissolving
in it's own exploding fluid. Suki surveyed the damage, a little frightened by her own
destructive ability, then turned tail and ran.
Media helicopters gave her chase for a while, so she ducked into a random alley
between two apartment buildings and hid out for a while. She had fronted her own attack
by herself. And succeeded. That was something. But at the same time, Suki found she
missed Jurg's bossy comments. Rachel's hesitations. It was lonely in the dark basement
by herself. The cheers after successfully fronting an attack. This felt so
anticlimactic. Her hand hurt. Maybe splitting up had been a stupid idea.
Well, she had survived the changes before. She could survive this one, Suki
thought, and tried to convince herself it was true.
Suki finally got her model home after leaving it curled up in the attic of a warehouse
until the next evening. Japanese media were somehow more persistent than the others.
Her day at work had been pleasant despite continuing frustration with her hand, Rei-san
had only yelled at her once. Suki showered, and fixed herself a bowl of rice from the
fridge. It was nice to use chopsticks again– she hadn't completely gotten used to the
knife and fork thing yet, and knew she wouldn't have managed with one hand After a sober
meal, just herself and the rice with green nori flecks that was in the fridge. Suki
decided to take a bath.
Once she had showered and soaped off, Suki was unwrapping the hospital's gauze
from her hand in the communal sink area, about to slip out of her yukata and into the
women's bath when a young man she'd never seen in the house before came in. His hands
were covered with axle grease.
"Oh, excuse me," he said, and looked at the second spigot. "I was helping Tamako-
san with her bike."
"Let me." Suki turned the faucet on for him. He smiled– perfect white teeth.
Larger than usual light-brown eyes. Rather tall for a Japanese. At first it almost
seemed he looked familiar– maybe someone from secondary school? Somewhere in her past?
But no, he looked a little older. She decided she must have known someone like him.
"Oh, itai," the young man said, looking at her hand as he lathered his
own. "What happened?"
"I broke it," Suki said. Then surprising herself, "I had to sneak out of the
hospital because I couldn't pay the bill."
"Really. That's brave! I'm Yuzo Suzuki."
Might as well be consistent, she thought, and gave him the same name she had
given the Kakutanis. "I'm Ao."
They bowed. When Suki looked up, he was grinning at her. "I'm studying medicine
at the University, actually. My residency's almost done. Maybe you'd let me take a
Suki was surprised the way her heart fell when she realized he must be at least
seven years older than she was. He didn't look that much older. She shrugged, hoping
she looked less flustered than she felt. "Maybe later. My bath is hot. Okay?"
"Daijobu." He nodded, still smiling. "Later."
By the time she got to the communal breakfast table the next morning, Suki had
completely forgotten about Yuzo. She looked bleary eyed at the fish on her plate, and
sipped her tea slowly. Despite the fact that she still woke up at least once every night
half shrieking in fright, there had been two attacks in the Tokyo area last night. One
in Hokaido. That she had missed. Jurg hadn't exactly yelled at her. Not exactly.
Quinn had missed one in Eastern Africa, and had been very stolid in his self-
defense. "Shaa, Jurg, I'm not a robot, I'm only human! I need sleep. And food. And
rest. Just because I'm closer than you doesn't make 2500 square miles any easier to
"You still have those string things, Suki?" Ben had asked. Suki had replied in
the affirmative. "Well, by all means, figure out what they do! I'm sure they're a
transport deal. What's stopping us!"
So Suki faced breakfast grimly. It wasn't that she didn't plan on enjoying the
process of figuring out the new technology. But she had been looking forward to sleeping
in on a Sunday.
"Konichiwa," Yuzo said, hand brushing her shoulder as he knelt next to her. Suki
jumped, then managed a pathetic smile. "Get much sleep?" he asked.
"No. Work," Suki said. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thanks. But I have to work today too. Say, you want to meet me for dinner
sometime this week? I'll buy." He had a devious look on his face. "I get to choose the
Suki couldn't help but look incredulous. Was there a polite way to back out of
this? No, not really. "Okay," she breathed. The morning seemed clearer all ready.
After struggling an hour or two by herself, Suki had finally called and asked for
help from anyone who was awake. Dare was about to take a nap, he'd been up all night
trying to front attacks in Adelaide, but he cheerfully set up a one-time-only way she and
Ben could talk and discuss the problem through their lapscreens.
Ben's smiling face was like a warm sweater for Suki's psyche. The connection was
via wrapped tightlink so everything she did on her palmscreen, everything she said, was
picked up and scrambled according to Dare's specific signature, then shot to New York by
a somewhat shady hack into a vid satellite, then unscrambled. His face appeared in the
corner of Suki's screen, just as hers appeared in his.
"So there are basically two components," Suki said, pointing her arrow to her
diagram. "One is the string, the field boundary. The second is the retriever and
guide. You set your desired location by HGPS coordinates, then jump the model through
the thrown loop. If it's attached, the retriever attracts the string behind you, and you
end up wherever you determined, trailing the boundary like a lasso. If I can find a way
of remote programming the retriever, we should be able to attach them to our models."
"I bet Dare or Jurg could even get a library voice recog," Ben said. "So do we
have to throw it in the air like it did?"
"Technically, though you could hook it to a frame or something, I guess."
"In the bag you have seven different devices, right? Three different sizes. Do
you think could go to the post office tomorrow? Send the huge one for Jurg, mediums for
Quinn and Dare and Rachel, smaller for you and me and Mary."
"Sure. I'll ask Dare and Jurg to help with the software, if you and Mary want to
do the physics. Also– I think it might be a good idea to continue that materials
analysis," Suki said, pointing to a graphic she had constructed in the corner of her
screen. "I hooked the cord up on a frame and started throwing things through.
Chopsticks just fried. As did the eggs I stole from the kitchen. They ended up charred
lumps. But anything metallic seems okay. It makes me wonder how the clothes on the
aliases survived the transportation."
"Yeah– maybe they have special cloth. I can't figure out why the spoons will go
through but the wood ends up charred." He shook his head, then leaned out of the screen
for a second. "Wait, I think I have just the reference for you. Hang on." Ben's face
disappeared, and suddenly his half of the screen switched to a Popular Science article
discussing the merits of different materials in architectural construction. "You could
follow this chart."
A table of materials organized by chemical composition appeared on her screen.
She could probably manage to find most of the stuff around the house or the electronics
shop, and they probably wouldn't be trying to send the more unusual things through anyway.
"Maybe it's something about the carbon in organic material," she guessed.
Ben shrugged. "You're better at the chemistry side, Suki, but we really should
get Quinn or Rachel on that problem. Whatever you do, don't try to go through yourself,
Suki nodded. "Yes, we should warn everyone else."
"Sound's fine." Ben said, yawning. "Hey, I'm dead tired, I gotta get some
sleep. I'll at least hear you at roll call in the morning, ‘kay?" His eyelids were
drooping, and he looked ready to fall over.
"Yes," Suki said, amused. "Though it will be night for me. Good night."
He winked at her, then said "Ciao," with a wave. His face vanished. Suki saved
and secured the file, then secured it again. Time zones were something she was still
getting used to. She stretched, her back cracking, then slowly wandered across the stone
steps in the backyard's garden, and into the house. She slipped off her shoes, and
carried them with her toward her room. As she was halfway down the tatami-carpeted
hallway, the house phone rang. The hostel secretary had the day off, and no one else was
around, so she picked it up.
"Moshi-moshi, Ao," she answered, knowing that if she didn't state her name
according to Japanese custom, they might expect something was up. Might as well be
"Moshi-moshi. Suzuki Yuzo okudasai."
She looked around the hall. No Yuzo. He had a hospital pager, so it probably
wasn't urgent. "I don't see him. May I take a message?"
"Iie." The voice said, then hung up. Seconds later, it rang again. That was
"Moshi-moshi, Ao ."
"Moshi-moshi. Nagayama Suki, okudasai." Suki almost dropped the phone. It was
the same voice, the same accent.
"Who please?" she squeaked. She had always been a bad actor, and she had been
stretching her limits lately, but she could not remember telling her real name– nor her
preferred nickname– to anyone here. No one in the group of students would have cause to
call her, they all had earphones. And none of them spoke Japanese. If it was someone
she had known from secondary school or from her home town, they would surely identify
"Suki Nagayama. Maybe this is the wrong number."
"I'm sorry. I think it is. Good-bye."
After cradling the house phone, Suki retreated to her tiny room. She found
herself pacing restlessly, unable to sit. Her hand hurt. She put on her running shoes
and barely made it out the door sane. Just run away from it all. Just run.
Chapter 7 Guinea Pigs
And of course, nothing stays the same. New things grow more familiar, but
familiar things grow strange with the same velocity, often all at once. Just when Suki
had started to feel safe again, Dare had not responded to roll call. The silence had
been frightening. Then, there had been a brief burst of sound around three a.m. her time
two days ago, and that was the last they had heard of Ben. Since her own vague
abduction, she had had prolonged contact only with the two of them. The guilt crept up,
Suki felt herself shaking against the futon's coverlet as she stared into the
dark of her room. Yet another nightmare faded into the shadows, a nightmare that perhaps
held some uncertain clue to those missing days, that perhaps held some clue that might
help her two missing friends. But as she woke, the shadows faded into frustrating
nothingness. Her lapscreen, programmed to alert her every time live coverage of aliens
came on, was silent. It still felt like something was wrong. And if one were to take
Suki's grandfather's advice, if something felt a certain way, one shouldn't just sit
"Is anyone up?" she asked, putting her hand to her ear.
"Yeah, it's noon here." Mary said, easily. There were seabird cries in her
background. "What's up?"
"Have Dare or Ben checked in yet?"
"No," Quinn said, agitated. "Mary keeps threatening to fly out to New York to
look for Ben. It's been two days. Maybe we should send someone to look for Dare.
Blue? You're the closest, right?"
"I could," Suki said, unsure if she could get time off work.
"You could sent your model over, Quinn, if you were really worried," Mary
"Speaking of which, I got your package finally, Suki," Rachel interjected. "The
trick to the throw, according to these crazy Venezuelan rodeo pals of mine, is to spin
the rope like a frisbee when you throw it." Her voice was soft. "Hey, is everything
okay? Isn't it four in the morning there?"
"Yes," Suki said. "I woke up."
"I never remember them."
"Hey, shush," said a strained male voice. Jurg? Suki heard a gasp in her ear.
But he shouldn't be sleeping, it would be. . .8:00 p.m. in Germany.
"Ben?" Jurg's voice asked, clear, strong. No answer.
Then: "Ye need to be quiet, lads. I'm serious."
"Mmph," he mumbled.
Suki felt the silence where Ben's cursing should have gone.
"Everyone be quiet, right now," Jurg said, deadly serious. All background
noises faded. Suki stared into the dark of her room once more. Her eyes wouldn't
close. The creaky house noises, drip of the faucet, sound of the drains under her
floor. A few cars swishing by. The nii-nii,nii-nii of a distant siren. She draped the
cover over her shoulders, pulling her lapscreen onto her hard square pillow, and
downloaded a robotics journal. The kana dripped down the page. She read a paragraph,
then started at the top again, twice. Even the third time, Suki didn't comprehend a
After begging off dinner three nights in a row, Yuzo showed up at her bedroom
door as she was settling down with the newspaper after work one evening, and dragged her
(not entirely unwillingly) to the American Burgerland on the tourist strip. Suki felt a
little strange as they passed the newsstands. Her picture was on it– well, her blue
model's pic– snapped during one early ever frustrating escape back from a fight.
Someone had coined the name aorusui, ‘blue keeper,' a term with deliberately religious
connotations. Everyone on the Japanese islands were being very patriotic about it,
though she had fronted an attack in China yesterday, and Korea the day before. Jurg was
adamant that with the GPS jump-rope things, they didn't need to miss a single battle. It
was a challenge. But Suki felt up to it.
"You ever had a real American hamburger, Ao-san?" Yuzo asked, while they waited
for their orders at the counter. Suki reigned her mind in. The plastic display outside
promised patties as big as her plate, but in reality, they were several times
"What's the difference?" she asked. "Meat, ketchup, lettuce, bun."
"You have no sense of humor. Real American burgers are made by American hands
with American beef, and only eaten in America. You can't export the excessive malaise
that gives it that. . .overfed cowboy feel." Suki laughed in spite of herself. Yuzo
grabbed both plates, while Suki struggled to get their beers in one hand without
spilling. They sat down at a corner table, overlooking the main strip. Small yellow
taxis whirred by, vendors, foreigners.
"So you're from Nara?"
"Near there," Suki said, "and you're from Kyoto?" Turn the tables, Rachel had
advised yesterday when Quinn had been having trouble keeping things secret. Ask
questions. Suki was surprised that it worked.
"I lived just off of Philosopher's Way, absolutely beautiful in the spring with
all the cherry blossoms," Yuzo said, hamburger all but forgotten. "After secondary school
I headed down here to J t U, but I've only had this residency at the hospital for two
weeks. My other apartment was too far and they wanted it for student housing so I moved
into the hostel. Not a bad deal when you look at it. Government subsidized housing is
really great, isn't it? Though it's a little frustrating having no choice about
Suki nodded vaguely. A blond American couple with two children was sitting
behind them, and the boy was suddenly loudly complaining about the food.
"Why would you eat American food in Tokyo, if you're from America?" Suki
whispered. Yuzo shrugged, his mouth full. He swallowed.
"Maybe they're homesick. Or frightened of Japanese food."
Suki smiled, suddenly remembering Ben's comment about that salad for Christmas
Yuzo continued his easy conversation. "Yeah, you're lucky, you got the one single
room. How did you finagle that? Gods, I have the worst luck with roommates. But it's a
really rippa residency. When I'm not in the ER, I get to work on tiny little cellular-
computers, all this really innovative software. You know, micro-surgery, sometimes
people call it nano-technology, but it's mainly a lot of cellular chemistry. My mentor
is incredible, and she actually recruited me, based on a fair project I did last
year. . . ."
Suki failed to stop her thoughts from drifting elsewhere. She missed being in a
family, though hers had never been as loud as the one behind them. Her mother had been
on her mind lately, every time she cooked in the hostel kitchen, she was reminded of
hours spent in with her mother over a pot of something or another. The posts on that
Berkeley page were getting frantic. But Suki knew exactly how dangerous it would be to
emphasize that connection right now. Cooking in Boston– and even at the beginning
eating meals at the Institute– had been a communal affair. Suki missed the constant
honest companionship of the other students, even though those houses in Boston had been
wrecks. Rachel had been right; they were a crazy family. She missed having someone
always watching over her. She missed being physically there to watch over her friends.
She missed her name.
". . .so the Lions won in the third inning. And I think the waiter's in love
with you, Ao-san, so I'm going to give him your phone number and tell him you like him
"Nani?" What was he saying?
"Is my conversation that dull?"
Suki looked down, feeling tired and inconsiderate. "Sorry. It's not you.
Really. I just. . ." There really wasn't a good way to explain it, without coming up
with yet another lie that she probably wouldn't remember if he asked her about it again.
"It was a joke. Look, is there something wrong? We don't have to stay here.
Did you want to go?" It was as though he had shifted gears. The easy banter was gone;
suddenly he was intense, quiet, peering into her eyes. For a breath, she didn't even
hear the complaining English behind her, the car sounds, the fryer. He reached out a
hand, to touch her good one lightly. "Ikimashoka, ne?"
She took a second, then nodded. Something held her tongue. Something she was
not supposed to know about this man, some reason that concerned look was too familiar all
of a sudden.
They walked slowly along a stone wall together, past a crowded cemetery. Yuzo
seemed a little uncomfortable with the lack of conversation, but seemed willing to endure
the silence for the companionship. Suki didn't really trust herself around him– he
seemed to break down barriers she had thought were invincible. The fact that she had put
her good hand in his about two blocks from the restaurant, and that it was still there,
was a perfect example.
"I feel like I know you," he said quietly. "Like I can already anticipate what
you're going to say. Like I know what to say to make you smile, most of the time.
You're so familiar. Though there's something else on your mind all the time. And I
don't think it's work."
Suki cocked her head to look up at him, a little startled. He stopped, and
peered into the neat straight rows of crosses and shrines, full of shadows in the closing
light. Strange how she had known him only a week or so, yet he felt like an old friend.
"Tell me what you think of me," he said, avoiding her eyes. Suki looked the
opposite way, past a traditional screen house, into the dark blue of the western sky.
Dark blue, and running toward the sun.
"I think. . ." she said, as the stars glared at her, and let the phrase linger.
Simplicity of design equals beauty, form and function, sleekness. This was a time for
truth, among all the lies, if she was ever going to remember which was which. "I like
you, Yuzo-san. You make me feel welcome. It's very nice to have someone to be with."
He finally looked at her, then leaned down and let his lips touch hers softly.
Suki felt her cheeks blazing, and couldn't hide the smile when he pulled back from the
kiss. They walked back to the hostel together in a much more comfortable silence.
Yuzo came in during a crazy check-in sometime the next week. Suki barely grabbed
the phone in time, and pretended to be blocking outside noise with her good right hand
against her ear. He waited patiently, looking at the objects lining the shelves of her
"Dare, what happened?" Quinn was yelling. He sounded more upset now that their
friend was back than he had when he was missing.
"If I knew, I'd tell you! For fuck's sake! I told you, there was an alias on
the boat, and nowhere for me to go, so I jumped into the water and started swimming. I
thought I was safe, when I got to the beach, but four aliases started running at me,
like. Some don't look like Mr. Westing. They seemed to be fighting over me. I did my
best, but they knocked me out!"
"And you remember nothing!"
"I do, Quinn luv, but I'm just not going to tell you," Dare snapped. She had
never heard him so sarcastic. Suki knew they were all imagining his dark eyes flashing,
and she was a little frightened. If Ben were here, he would have made a retort about
that. Bring it into the open. As it was, the anger just settled. Suki sighed.
"Is Ben back yet?" Jurg asked impatiently. Silence.
"It's been almost two weeks now," Suki said. Yuzo turned around and gave her a
weird look. She tried to ignore him.
"I'm flying out in an hour," Mary said. "I'm actually at the airport. My model
would be too obvious, now that the media has noticed we have territories."
"Any attacks today?"
"Two drones in the Outback, for some reason," Dare said, quieter now. "Doing
"Did you attack?" Rachel asked, warningly.
"No, just watched carefully."
Jurg sounded mad still. "If that's all, I need to get back to work. Coffee
"Night to Suki, have a good flight, Mary. Dare, go to bed," Rachel said. Suki
wondered how she kept all the time zones straight.
"Night, Rachel. Wake me if Ben shows up." Suki hung up the phone, and put her
hand down. It had started throbbing worse than usual as she held the phone, though
really it still hurt all the time. She smiled apologetically to Yuzo. "Gomen, it was
"I didn't know you spoke English."
"Friends in America. Sorry."
"Bad news?" She nodded, though Dare's reappearance was a profound relief. Yuzo
made a sympathetic noise. "You have so many tools in here!" He swept the room with an
arm. Her bookshelves were piled with wires and electrical equipment. Torches, sautering
irons, a laser saw, several things from the shop she got to keep for fixing them. A few
projects she had taken home to work on.
"And I can't use half of them yet. I don't think it's healing right." Suki
cocked her gauzed hand. Yuzo had been stealing bandages for her for the past week. He
padded over to her on the tatame floor in front of her futon and knelt.
"Can I look at it?"
Suki nodded. He had been closer on the walk, and a few times at meals they had
together since, but suddenly this was different. His fingers unwrapped it gently, and
seemed to leave ghosts behind everywhere as they touched her wrist, her fingertips, her
elbow. It hurt, a lot, when he touched the bones beneath her fifth and fourth fingers–
she couldn't help a sharp intake of breath.
. "Sorry," he said. He touched it again, almost massaging it. Suki closed her
eyes and clenched her teeth, not breathing. The pain ran like fire up her arm and back
down, tracing each nerve, almost as bad as it had been originally. She could almost feel
it threatening to black her out again.
And the pain was gone. He smiled, questioning, eager. There was a metal device
in his hand, the size of a telephone or calculator. "Well?"
It felt good– or maybe it was just that it didn't feel like anything. "How did
you do that?"
"Don't move it." She looked down. Two tiny needles were poking through her
skin, the last three fingers of her left hand tied between several centimeter wide bamboo
strips. "Acupuncture, and a little of my special touch. You've heard of nano-technology?
Really small cellular computers. These are specifically engineered micro-processor-like
cells, that temporarily disable the pain signals from your nerves as well as speed up
muscle repair by about ten times."
Suki realized she must have looked incredulous, because he burst out laughing.
When he had control of himself again, he pulled the two needles out carefully. The pain
"You stole this from work!"
"It's my equipment, my stuff. Plus we need guinea pigs. I'll explain it all in
the morning." He rose gracefully to his stockinged feet, set the machine on the counter,
and went to the door.
"Wait," Suki said, surprising herself again. The rest of the house was
sleeping. They were both in their yukata's. She had already rolled out her futon. He
turned, expectant. But . . .but that was just a little too much too soon, and not a good
idea under the circumstances. Instead, she rose, and tiptoed to give him a small kiss on
the cheek. "Thanks," Suki said.
He smiled, squeezed her good hand, then slid the screen door shut behind him.
It was nice to be in Japan for National Day, even though in early February the
weather got nasty. Yuzo finally got tired of laughing at Suki's ‘cute restlessness' and
let her use his rec-pass at the hospital gym to get some of her excess energy out. Over
the first two weeks in February, she got to know Yuzo even better, though somehow never
pressed her for more stories about herself. She even helped him a little with a
machinery problem they were having at the hospital, and his advisor sent her flowers in
thank you. Yuzo kept promising to take her in to meet his mentor.
She was growing more comfortable being by herself, except for the occasional
panic when someone walking in the street faintly resembled Mr. Westing. Luckily, Suki
had also become better at disguising her horror. Drone attacks seemed to be spaced
farther apart all over Eastern Asia, but every time she thought that was going to be it,
her lapscreen would wake her in the middle of the night. She'd get up "blitz" (as Jurg
called it) the aorusui to the disturbance, and destroy the drones. It was becoming
routine, which let Suki's mind wander more.
For instance, Suki wondered how many drones were left; it wasn't as though they
had a continuous supply. She wondered if the attacks would just peter out and maybe she
could start to study for entrance exams into J t University and get a normal life
again. Maybe call her mother. Maybe really invest in this relationship thing with Yuzo.
But as she was musing on these thoughts, while buffing the side of a newly un-
smashed surveillance video recorder, the lapscreen on the counter near her suddenly
turned on, broadcasting a live feed vid of drones in the midst of media vans and running
bystanders. They had already ushered two people into their box, and were going after a
third. Suki dropped her rag.
There hadn't been a single attack in the daytime in Eastern Asia before. Suki
apologized profusely to Nana-san as she rushed from the shop, promising to be back in a
half hour. The older woman looked about to say something, but Suki couldn't take the
time to be polite and wait. Running top speed against the wind, she made it to the
hostel in fifteen minutes, and pounded down to the basement. Suki cursed her now shaking
left hand as she tried to pull on her equipment efficiently. Maybe Rachel was right–
maybe they should be wearing the harness all the time. Oh, I shall be too late! she
thought, pulling her goggles down. Quickly she logged in the GPS coords, which were only
a few points away from her present location. This attack was close. The blitz-string
shot out of her tail, where she had spring-loaded and quick-retrieved it (so the tail had
a use after all!), and jumped through the loop.
The scene resolved in front of her, and Suki made a quick catch of herself– she
was about ten feet in the air when she popped in. The lapscreen cam which had given her
the GPS coords was on a wobbly crane, tracking the drone's movements with a continual
shouted commentary from a pair of highly made-up women.
The wind was blowing stiffly, Suki could almost feel it through her model, and
the sky was like a black ceiling, though not raining yet. In front of her, two drones
pounded around the street– they were of the new screaming-armored variety that her
diamond-impaler wouldn't cut through. Suki wondered how long it would take before they
realized she was here. She looked around and got her bearings. Were those the
hospital's lights, on the corner of the block? Everyone was running that direction. The
drones were moving from that direction. Carrying a box of people.
She saw something she hadn't before– one of the captives was managing to cut
herself out, and the drone didn't appear to be setting the box down. Which meant Suki
couldn't just cut open the back, because the people would not survive the drop. Shimata,
she breathed. This was going to be harder than it looked. She couldn't even blitz the
people from the box, because of the transports' tendency to destroy flesh. Suki paced a
little, then leapt.
The first one had its hose up, before she saw it. It was luck only, and the fact
that her body back in the hostel jumped that made her twitch midair out of the way. The
spray hit the tank, and the people inside started screaming as it dripped. Shimata! Suki
cursed, again. She had really messed up this affront. The drones circled up to her, and
she dodged their blows one at a time, trying to get them close enough to hit each other.
Twice, one was knocked off its feet by the one opposite. But she didn't see how she
could get the one to kill the other.
What happens if the blitz string doesn't go all the way through? Suki wondered,
and immediately discharged the string from her tail, hooking it around an arm of the
drone nearest her. It disappeared as it entered the space of her former GPS coords, some
twenty feet away and ten feet up. As she pulled away, the string sliced through the
metal as easily as cutting warm butter with wire. Soon, there was a pile of severed
machine limbs piled where she had blitzed in. Suki tried to blitz the corner off the box
when all the drones were trashed, but it wouldn't cut through. Odd. That should be
looked into. Instead, she pulled out her claws, and created an opening for the medics to
get in. She was barely sweating.
Something caught her eye as she was about to blitz back home (much easier to
evade the persistent media this way): a dull metallic gleam from one of the people in the
box, hit with the acid and now with pelting rain.
What was that? Was there a connection there? With the fact that you couldn't
blitz through a box? But she had to get back to work.
Suki decided to work through lunch, and an hour or so after closing, to make up
for skipping off that morning. Nana-san was sympathetic, Rei-san patient, and to Suki's
utter delight, even grunted something complimentary about how responsible she was.
Funny, how little time it took to fool people.
Suki's mind had wandered when there was a sudden burst of static in her ear.
"Oh, my God! They're everywhere! Oh, lads. . ." Dare's voice faded off into
oblivion. Suki unconsciously froze, acetylene torch in midflare.
"Dare? What's up?" Rachel yelped.
"Can't– I'm fine. Look in your mailboxes. I'll send it soon as possible. Don't
pick up and move for a few days."
"Dare? Dare!" Quinn said, then the link was silent. Suki turned off the torch,
and wiped her brow under her facemask. Just when she thought her life was getting a
little more normal.
When Suki finally walked out of the shop that evening, locking the door behind
her as the Kakutani's were already upstairs in their apartment, Yuzo was half asleep on a
"Hey," she said, tousling his hair.
"Hey," he said, and grabbed her waist in a tight hug. A long tight hug, burying
his head in her shirt. Finally, he sighed, and let go of her.
"What's wrong?" Suki asked, crouching to his level; his usual sunny demeanor was
absent. He looked tired. Spent. Like he had been crying.
"You didn't hear? The hospital got attacked today. By those huge alien
pounders. The aorusui, the blue keeper, got there a bit late– though did some great
damage with a new weapon– but," he sighed again, as though ridding his entire body of
air, "my mentor– that fantastic brilliant woman I told you about– she, she was killed!
The big pounders tried to kidnap her. Some of the acid that the pounder sprayed at the
keeper got into the box."
Suki sat down hard, replaying the scene in her mind. "Oh no."
"Which is really strange. I've worked cleanup in the ER after pounder attacks
before, and never ever treated anyone for acid burns. There've been people drenched in
the stuff, and it didn't effect them. But these two strange doctors just carted her off,
without even letting me look at her! I can't help but feel so angry! Of all the people
the aorusui managed to save, the one time. . . ." He shook his head. "So what, if the
blue keeper's managed to save at least– what was the last count?--"
"Eighty-nine?" Suki could feel her cheeks flushing.
"No, I think it was 124 people. So what? It failed, saving one of the best,
brightest, most important researchers in human history!" He pounded his fist against his
leg, then rubbed the spot. "Ow." There were tears in his eyes.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Suki said, amazed at how little her voice quivered.
Time had stopped, eddied, reversed. She was numb as a stone, dragging against the world.
"It's not your fault. But thanks for the sympathy." Yuzo said, and ran his arm
across his nose. But it is though, Suki thought. There must have been dozens of people
she had killed by not being quick enough. Even that first night, at Harvard, when they
didn't know what to expect from the drones. They sat there in silence. Finally, she
looked at her watch. 18:57.
"Come on," she said quietly, and pulled him to his feet. "Let's go home."
On the way home, they stopped at their mailboxes. Suki's was high up, so Yuzo
reached her mail down for her. There was a slim package from Dare– probably what he had
been talking about. It had gotten her fast. She gave Yuzo a hug when they parted at his
door, and decided it might not be a good thing to let him be alone tonight.
Slipping the parcel into her back pocket, Suki slid open the screen door to her
room and suddenly found herself face to face with someone she didn't recognize, standing
in her room, rifling through her tools. She wasn't totally surprised when it sprang up
and lashed out at her without a word.
Suki blocked the hard metallic blow, with her shin, and swung her left arm for an
elbow punch, still favoring that hand. It clanged off painfully, but the machine was
knocked off its balance. They circled each other.
Screams started leaking through the walls from upstairs, and a funny smell.
After ducking another of its blows, the screen door slid violently open.
"Ao!" The machine whirled, rushed past Yuzo, knocking him down. "Who was--?" he
gulped, as Suki rushed to help him up. "Never mind! The house is on fire! We have to
get out of here!"
Suki's mind flashed to her equipment in the basement, her model under the back
porch. "I've got to get–"
"There's no time!" He tightened his grip on her good hand when she tried to pull
out. For one heartbeat, Suki stared at him. "I'm sorry," she said, then struck his
elbow with the heel of her left hand and her knee all at once. His hand spasmed open.
She was free.
The garage door. Stairs. Her shoes, the gloves, the harness. She started to
cough from the smoke, but pulled her goggles down over her eyes. Her model went from
ball to cheetah in mid-spring, flying up through the window and over the backyard fence
to hide in some garbage cans.
Then her model's ears started picking up screams– people were saying someone was
still inside! She reached out a paw, tail twitching, ready to leap back into the house
when she realized they were talking about her!
Quickly, she pulled the goggles down around her neck, ripped her power cord from
the wall, turned off the tread on her shoes, and ran up the stairs. But as she hit the
smoke, she choked, her whole body spasming before she even got to the door. Through the
black, she could see flames licking the flimsy paper screens and tatami floors. No way
out. She managed to roll back down the stairs, rasping breaths beneath the smoke layer.
No way out. She couldn't reach that one tiny window her model had so easily vaulted out
of. Her face and hands were sticky with sweat.
One last resort.
"Hey," she choked, "I need help."
"Suki? What's wrong!" Jurg's voice.
"There's a fire. I'm trapped. In the basement."
Suki could barely see her watch through the smoke, but rattled them off as best
she could. Quickly she scrambled to the wall. She heard a pop above the roaring flames
some fifteen seconds later. Jurg's model stood there, huge, red, cold.
"Here," she choked. He looked around, then reached up an enormous hand and
punched the wall out around the window. Suki ducked under the shower of burning
cinders. "Sorry." Jurg used one mammoth arm to make a lift, and Suki scrambled onto it.
As he raised it, she reached for the hole he had made, and vaulted into the blessed
blessed fresh air. Suki staggered on the grass, choking and coughing. Behind her, there
was a light pop as he blitzed behind her.
"You okay, Suki? You can handle the rest of this?" His voice was soft, strange
to be coming from such a large machine.
"Yes," she managed, standing to look up into his eyeplate. "Go before someone
"Tell us everything later?" And then he swung his blitz-string into a perfect
circle and was gone. Suki limped around to the front, just in time to see Yuzo trying to
fight his way into the house. Firemen were yelling, holding him back.
"Yuzo!" Suki screamed, cracking horribly. She put her hands up, cupping her
mouth. "YU-ZO!" He whirled, gaping, then came running toward her, and didn't stop until
he was crushing her in a hug.
"How dare you," he said, trying to control his sobs. Suki found herself holding
all his weight as he sank down to his knees. She knelt with him, and took his face in
her hands, wiping the tears with her thumbs. "I thought I was going to lose both. . ."
"I'm okay. I'm okay," Suki said, a little scared. "Look at me. Atashiwa daijobu
des'yo." He finally let her meet his eyes. They were trembling with what?–fear?
confusion? relief? rage? Yuzo took a deep breath, and seemed calmer. His face was
streaked with soot.
"You're more than okay. You're here."
The Kakutani's were more than willing to let Suki and Yuzo crash in the storage
room of the shop that night. Suki stared at the ceiling, her brain pounding against her
eyes much the same way her heart beat against her rib cage. It was the same nightmare,
still fading too fast to remember. And it still left her feeling cold. Ugly. Paranoid.
She hoped, belatedly, that Yuzo had slept through the yelp that had woken her. And hurt
her throat, which sent her into a coughing fit.
"Ao? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," she shuddered, and pulled her covers up tighter. "Nightmares."
They lay there in the dark. She could tell he wasn't sleeping either. Finally,
he turned on his elbow to look at her from his sleeping bag.
"Why did that package you picked up earlier have the name ‘Suki' on it?"
Shimata, she thought, stiffening. She hadn't even noticed, nor remembered to
tell everyone to address packages to Ao. There were enough Nagayamas around that she
felt her last name was not indicative enough of her former identity; lucky thing, or else
the mailman wouldn't have found her. "Suki is short for Satsuki. Ao's just another
nickname," she said quickly. "I prefer it."
"I wondered. I thought it was kind of strange someone would name their
child ‘Blue,'" Yuzo said sleepily, smiling at her. Suki tried to smile back. And waited
for the next questions to fall. Such as, how had she managed to get out of the burning
hostel? and what was this equipment that she had risked her life to save? why did she
never talk about her family? how had she hurt her hand? And the ones she couldn't
answer. What was that alias doing in her room? Surely it started the fire to cover up
whatever it was planning. Why did some aliens sort of help them, and others fight them?
How did she know they were harmful? What was the Red Banner? Where was Ben?
But Yuzo was silent, then turned to lie on his stomach. Suki looked at the
patterns the pipes made against the wood beams on the ceiling. Even with the sleep in
his eyes, Yuzo looked devastated. Still thinking about his advisor, she bet. Then Suki
closed her eyes and watched helplessly as her mind flash the imagined faces of all the
people she had failed to save these past three months, and dreamed their families and the
funerals. She almost preferred the unexplainable and unmemorable nightmares.
And then there was the question of repairs.
"It'll only be here a few hours," Suki had promised. Nana-san had actually gaped
open mouthed at the half covered model sitting in her back room. Rei-san shook his head.
"I don't see why the aorusui came to you. It makes me nervous. Just make sure
none of the media gooks find out, you hear?" He included Nana-san in the glare. She
shook her head at him. "It's an honor, Rei," Nana-san had said, then dragged her
husband off and left Suki to her work.
Now she sat outside, munching on a yakimo with burning fingers. The model had
been bent out of shape in a few places, which was easy to fix with the Kakutani's new
welder, compressor and laser saw set. All the dents pounded out, all bolts tightened.
Dare's software– that's what the package had been– was now installed in her model. She
even modified the diamond-impaler to have a harder force, hopefully to pound through the
new armor of the screaming drones, and fixed the spring-load on the blitzer so she could
use it even more effectively as a weapon. It was not as professional a job as she would
have been able to do had she had the equipment provided at the Institute. But that felt
like years ago. Now the blue model was hiding behind a pair of small shrubs behind the
video store next door. Out of the Kakutanis' hair.
The older couple had really warmed to Yuzo for some reason, and Suki got the
impression that Nana-san was fulfilling her version of the ‘mother role' by feeding them
too much breakfast and packing Yuzo an obento to take to the hospital with him. It was a
bright day, odd for late February. In a week it would be ‘Girl's Day,' and Suki thought
she might spend some time and money on making a tiny model doll for Nana-san, a thank you.
Jurg had reminded everyone yesterday at check-in that the Red Banner she and Ben
had been warned about would be arriving in little less than six weeks. No, Ben hadn't
shown up yet. Mary was recalcitrant, too busy fronting all the attacks on both coasts
from her YWCA room in New York. There was all sorts of speculation in the news and all
over the web, who these aliens were, why they had been so ineffectual capturing people.
And when they weren't talking about aliens, it was the rusui, and who the keepers
actually might be. The current theory was renegade terrans who had stolen the alien's
technology. That was a little close to comfort, for Suki.
On the up side, the governments had made new laws about interaction with the
drones: still somehow keeping the armies away, and including a stipulation for complete
non-intervention with the ‘colors.' They were obviously recognized as benevolent. And
attacks were getting fewer and farther between. Rachel had suggested they visit a random
unlinked hidden web-address one night, which turned out to be a linear regression plot of
the areas and frequency of attacks. The main centers, all big cities, all
commerce/industry/education centers were spread fairly evenly over the major powers of
the world. The attack frequencies showed a clear disappearing trend.
On the down side, more strange crafts had been picked up by scientists and
satellites yesterday. Jurg was guessing that these were the Red Banner, whatever that
meant, and said they had a big battle in front of them. Suki wasn't sure if she agreed.
It might just be another shipload of drones. Which meant this might never end. She
shuddered to think she would spend the rest of her life hiding and fighting and never
telling anyone her real name. And Rachel had come up with another theory concerning
their relationship with the Mr. Westing aliens. Since no one else even suspected there
were human look-alikes, their response to the unveiling may have precipitated the first
attacks. Their kidnappings were somehow warranted in the aliens' mind (mind?) because
they were lab rats of a sort, and sacrificial. Somehow that didn't raise any of Suki's
Suki closed her eyes, and breathed in the not too clean– but not smoky– air. It
would be nice to take a nap, she thought. Or go for a run. She wouldn't have time
later, because she and Yuzo were going to go apartment shopping. He was so insistent
that Suki didn't have the heart to tell him her suspicion that things would not remain as
Something cold suddenly nudged her leg, and she looked up. A yellow leonid model.
"Ben!" she exclaimed, almost tripping herself by rising too quickly. "What are
you doing here? Where are you?"
The large gold machine shook its head, then started backing up. Suki couldn't
help noticing the stares she was getting from the street.
"This is dangerous! Can't you talk?"
Again, he shook his head, then butted her.
Ben pawed the air, then started off down the street. Suki jumped to follow, but
he started to run. She was forced to top speed just to keep up, dodging pedestrians.
When they got to a small park, he stopped.
"What?" Suki gasped, holding the stitch in her stomach. "Please?"
With a claw that extended from a paw, he drew a series of symbols in the
sandpit. Suki leaned forward to examine them, and there was a pop behind her. He was
gone. Shimata, she thought, suddenly finding herself close to tears. Where was he?
What was he doing? More odd stares from the two families in the small park. Suki caught
her breath, then drew the symbols on the palmscreen from her back pocket, and put her
hand to her ear. As she whispered, she rubbed out the motifs with her foot, and looked
around to make sure no media were in the area. Even so, she headed farther into the
little forest attached to the park.
After about a ten minutes of trying, they finally got in contact with Mary.
"I have no idea," she said, whispering, "and this isn't a good time!"
"Where are you?" Jurg's voice was quiet, intense.
"It's midnight and I'm in the Bronx. Did you check out Dare's package?"
"Yeah. Nothing changed. What does it do?"
"Don't say," Dare said. "We're not secure. You'll be able to see later."
"Oh, shit," Mary said, and then they heard her breathing heavily.
"Don't hang up!" Suki found herself shouting.
"You know, I could use some help," Mary said, then the line went blank. Two
seconds later, she read off a triplet of GPS coordinates. Suki took a breath, then ran
headlong back to the shop, watching as two media vans rolled up the street to where she
had been. Tough luck for them, hopefully the families wouldn't say much.
Nana-san gave her a curious look as she banged the door open, and Suki tried to
wave and smile like nothing strange was going on. This was not the way to be
inconspicuous, she wailed inside. Suki grabbed her equipment and locked herself in the
bathroom, and had to climb into the square bathtub for enough room.
A flick of the blitz string, and she was in the middle of a pile of glowing red
figures in a dark alley. They were attacking someone, long blond hair flying.
"Mary!" she gasped, and realized she ought to be very quiet to avoid more of the
Kakutani's suspicion. The red figures looked up– it was one that looked like Mr.
Westing, again, that filled in the gap in Suki's connection. Other than that (and the
red halos) the others looked perfectly human. A few scattered, when they saw her, but
many tried to attack her now, leaving fewer for Mary to contend with. Easy, compared to
the drones. Suki fought in upright, blue arms flying, perfect kicks. But there were a
lot of them, and their flimsy blows started to take their toll. Mary was now lying on
the ground. Red everywhere, but she couldn't tell if it was just the machine glow from
Dare's gift, or blood in the dim streetlight. From somewhere, probably blitzing, more
aliases joined the fight.
"Suki, you're losing it." Mary's voice quavered in her ear, as Suki tried to keep
them away from where she was lying.
"Coords, dammit!" Quinn shouted. Mary repeated them weakly as Suki tried to
fend off more blows. One of the machines grabbed a lightpost, and started swinging it
around like a baseball bat. They never hit each other– unlike the drones, it was a
perfectly choreographed charge– and managed to block almost all of Suki's blows from one
direction or another. Yes, there were too many.
Another lightpost joined the fray. No space between them now, and Suki suddenly
realized she was going to be sliced in half. One thing to do. Suki blitzed back home,
took a breath, then recalled the New York coordinates. They had sliced empty air.
Another pop– Quinn's white model blazed into existence. His large fist swung at the
first lamppost and it splintered. The aliases restocked, it seemed, then scattered in
several directions, blitzing as they went.
"Mary," Quinn said, leaning over her. It was blood on the sidewalk. Mary was
out cold. "Suki, is she. . .alive?"
Suki reached down her ear to Mary's chest, and turned up the sound. The
heartbeat was very faint. The pulse was slow compared to her own. Getting slower.
"She needs help."
"Is there a hospital near here?"
Quinn shrugged. Dare's voice came on suddenly: "Two streets down, take a left,
then immediately turn right. Emergency room doors have a red sign."
"Thanks, kid." Quinn said, softly. He hefted Mary into his arms. Then shook
his massive white head. "You're faster, Blue, even on two legs. Take her."
Suki nodded, and carefully lifted her friend from his model to hers. "Bye." And
"Ao-chan," Nana-san's worried voice floated through the bathroom door. "What's
wrong?" Suki sat on the covered toilet, hair bunched in her hands. She had put her
wires on under her clothes so if anything more happened she would be ready. "It's
unlocked." she managed.
Slowly Nana pushed the door open. She brushed her hands on her skirt, then bent
over and peered into Suki's eyes. It was such an odd thing, from Nana, that Suki
couldn't help but stare back.
"There is so much you don't tell us," the older woman said, almost sadly. "I
respect your privacy. But when it starts interfering with your work, Rei starts to get
grouchy. And then he starts grouching at me. If we only knew why, Ao-chan, it would be
Suki closed her eyes. Mary was dying– too much blood lost. How to convey this
in context to Nana? And preserve her dignity, and her false identity? "I–" she started,
but choked, and tried not to cry. Yuzo could spare tears for everyone. Yuzo. The
thought was like a heart attack: painful, frightening, possible. "I just figured out
what I need to do! Thanks, Nana-san! I'll be back soon!" She gave the woman a quick
kiss on the cheek, and flew from the room. The hospital was only a few blocks down.
So she ran.
"I'm sorry, miss. This area is closed to visitors."
"I need to speak to Yuzo Suzuki. It's urgent. I'm family," she added, as a last
resort. The security guard finally shrugged, and opened the glass door. Suki flew down
the hall, looking for 258B. Here, on the right.
"Ao!" Yuzo stood in front of her in the hall, holding a cup of coffee.
"Yuzo," she panted. "I need your help."
"Why? What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
"I can't explain everything now," Suki said, hoping it didn't sound
pretentious. "I really can't. But I have a friend in hospital and I need you to try to
save her. With that nanotech you were working with."
"What's wrong with her?" he said, and motioned her to follow him into the lab.
Boxes everywhere– packing up after the death of the advisor, of course. Suki felt an
echoing blow of last night's guilt, but pressed on.
"She was. . .mugged a few hours ago. . . and lost too much blood, plus apparently
they found someone had given her an anticoagulant and she was practically anemic in the
first place. The report was, her blood pressure was about enough to keep her alive for a
few hours, with compression help, and even then she'll probably loose a few limbs. They
were trying to find the right blood for a transplant when I left, but. . ."
"Let me guess, hyper-hemospecific."
"Well, we've only been working on this as prelim research, barely onto the beta
testing phase. I don't know. . ."
"Really, please. We will be too late."
"Ah," Suki stammered, "it's not actually here. It's in New York, actually."
"Right." He sat on his stool, arms crossed. "So you want me to fly to New York
in two hours?"
"No," she said. "Come with me, I'll show you."
"They don't look pleased to see me." Yuzo said, as Suki slipped the goggles over
"Do you see her?"
"Yes. I can't hear anything."
"I've got the earplug. The doctors won't interfere, it's in her papers."
"This is just like the waldos we use for microsurgery!"
"Great. Then you know what to do, right?"
"No guarantees, okay Ao? You have to understand that."
"Please just try, Yuzo."
His brow furrowed in concentration, and his hands made strange movements in the
storage-room air. Suki watched his eyes blink, through the semi-transparent blue, focus
and refocus. She wondered, suddenly, if she would do the same for him, if he had come
with the same bizarre request. Right now? Probably. Things had gotten so strange. She
was going to have to explain everything later, she knew. Not only to Yuzo, but to the
Kakutani's upstairs in their apartment and to the other students. And if it failed. . . .
Suki shook her head, trying to clear the thought. Trying to come up with a
plausible story. Praying the hospital wouldn't let the media know a rusui was hanging out
and fixing a certain patient. She paced up and down, hands shaking every time they went
to push her hair behind her ears.
Finally after about an hour, Yuzo sighed, dropped his arms, and pulled the
"I don't know," he said. "If that doesn't work. . . But anything else I do may
hurt instead f help."
Suki squeezed her eyes shut behind the palms of her hands, then asked for the
goggles, and slipped the arm-wires off of his shoulders and shrugged them on herself,
fixing the velcro back to her size. An immediate full view of Mary's inert form thrust
itself upon her. The sounds she had been hearing took focus: blips from monitors.
Strange murmurs from nurses, traffic in the hallway. Doctors looking under the sheets at
a small silver patch at Mary's collar bone. She turned the model's speakers off
"How does this work?" she asked, softly. "So I can explain if she wakes up?"
"Can you see the node on her neck?"
"It regulates the nanos I inserted with the pins, sort of its own glandular
system. It can be controlled by a DNA specific remote, which is the piece of equipment
on the side table. Same thing I used on your hand, though this is systemic instead of
specific. Right now, it's programmed to provide extra support for vasoconstriction and
blood cell production. Every mast cell that was in line to differentiate is now
replicating like mad, and the offspring are going to become the right blood cell, in the
right place. It's set to stop at a level just below her body's natural h-count. . .
Sorry, was that too technical?"
Suki shook her head, and one of the doctors jumped away from her with a strange
look. Suki sighed.
"She'll recover from there by herself," Yuzo continued. "Ideally they'd have a
super high glucose concentration in the IV, but because she's in good shape, the muscles
can atrophy a little and she'll still be okay."
"Do you want me to tell them that?"
"You can do that?"
Suki nodded, which caused another ripple of movement among the doctors. "Tell me
specifically," Suki asked Yuzo. He rattled off a few chemicals that luckily Suki could
translate into English. She cleared her throat, turned up the speaker, and explained the
details to some very surprised doctors. They nodded, and complied, mumbling something
about aliens sure knowing their medicine. Suki had to hold back a hysterical giggle.
Something brushed her neck, causing shivers to run down her spine. Lips.
"What are you doing?" Yuzo's familiar warm arms wrapped around her corporal
shoulders. She felt her body fit itself to his, and actually almost relax.
"Keeping watch with you, Ao-chan," he said, into her ear.
"Domo arigato, Yu-chan," she whispered. She felt his chuckle by her ear, and
leaned back against his invisible chest. It was like a good kamui, keeping her safe.
Mary's eyes opened around 4:30 a. m. Tokyo time, 2:30 in the afternoon in New
York. She smiled slightly as she turned to look up at Suki. "Hey. What's up?" she
"Just making sure you're safe."
"Thanks, Su– I mean, you should get out of here."
A nurse ran in. Suki reached out her hand, touched her Mary's arm, then made her
way into the hall so she had enough room to blitz quietly back to the bush outside the
Kakutani's neighboring video store. She hoped Mary would remind the nurse that what was
going on was strictly confidential. Though for how long was anyone's guess.
Yuzo was sprawled out on the coverlet of his sleeping bag, breathing heavily in
the dark. Suki thought about crawling over to hers, but she was rather warm in the
harness. The floor was not soft, but somehow, she didn't care. Slowly, she leaned over,
lay her head against her arms, and felt nothing more.
It was bright day when she woke– she didn't recognize the room. Hastily, she
sprang from the western bed, to find herself dressed in her yukata. Her harness and
clothes were hanging on the back of a chair.
"Doko?" she whispered, then glanced out the window. The street in front of the
shop. Suki sighed, and sat on the edge of the bed. The poor Kakutani's, forced to deal
with this irresponsible, unhealthy behavior from some orphan they had reluctantly offered
a job. Poor Yuzo, dragged into the mess because of his professional and then romantic
interest. Suki ran her fingers through her tangled hair, dearly hoping that she hadn't
missed an attack in what had been left of the night. Jurg was going to be so so so angry.
There was a knock on the door, and Rei-san walked in.
"Gomenasai! I'm so sorry!" Suki said, hastily pulling her robe tighter and
"Your young man said you were required to get rest. And to eat," he proclaimed,
and plunked down a tray with rice and miso soup with tofu and small sliced green
onions. Green tea, and a glass of milk. The smell was divine.
Suki bowed to him, still clutching her robe. "Thank you so much!"
"Thank my wife," the older man grunted, then left. Suki put her head in her
hands again. At least he treated her as she deserved to be, under the circumstances.
But it didn't help somehow.
She was halfway through the rice when Dare called her lapscreen.
"Good guess, it wasn't any Earth language," his face was tanned, and he grinned
to see her, holding up the code she'd posted him yesterday.
"Is this safe?"
"No," Another grin. Someone pushed him aside, and Quinn's face appeared in the
"What!– does Jurg know–"
"Yeah, reunion! Rachel's here too."
"HI!" someone shouted from the background.
"Where are you?"
"The west desert of the U.S., somewhere on the Utah/Nevada border. Seriously in
the middle of nowhere. Mary's supposed to get here in a few hours."
"Jurg got you a plane ticket, but you missed the flight. He's a little pissed."
"But," Suki started, but Quinn shook his head. Dare pushed into the window. "He
wants you to catch the, em. . . ," Dare consulted his watch. "3:45 flight. Tokyo Int'l
to Salt Lake City, via Bangkok, Dusseldorf and New York. You're going the wrong way
around, but Jurg'll be on your flight from Germany,"
Suki checked the time at the corner of her screen. "In three and a half hours?
What's going on?"
Dare shrugged. "See you tomorrow. Oh, and, don't use your earphone unless it's
absolutely an emergency." Quinn's dark hand came down on Dare's shoulder, but the
connection cut before anyone else could say goodbye.
Oh, shimata, Suki thought.
She had about 70,000 yen in her bank account, from working every day plus an
allowance that Mary insisted on wiring her every few weeks. Somehow Mary had gotten back
to her bank and had cleaned out her savings, Suki guessed. She could get about 40,000
yen three hours in paper, electronically it was good indefinitely. She had about 30,000
yen worth of tools, if she sold them to the right people, and gave up the patents. That
didn't include her harness or the model, of course. That couldn't happen in three hours.
She had three people who weren't going to be happy if she just disappeared. And
six more she knew she couldn't live knowing she had betrayed. She had almost failed at
her duty to them once. Her duty to their cause. It wasn't just a Japanese thing, nor
the whole Samuri bushido thing, it was more personal than that. No one else had given
up, (well, Ben was still a mystery) and heaven knew they all had past loyalties and
families and people they loved elsewhere.
There was a moment somewhere, Suki thought soberly, when it could have gone
either way. There will be a time when I will have made the wrong decision. Who could
have guessed, when she had met that strange man at the airport in August, that she would
be in this situation? Caught between Yuzo and life in Japan, and the life of fighting
aliens with her friends in America. That that recruiter at the National Fair would have
turned out to be a machine himself? Maybe the wrong decision had been then, when she had
decided to accept IRTI's recruitment.
But not now. It wasn't really even a decision. Suki knew, sure as the flash of
the face of the woman in the box, when she had been hit by acid, outside the hospital.
Yuzo's hard words. Rei Kakutani suffering his wife's pet in silence. The nightmares.
The time she had woken in the dark room somewhere, and known that she had failed. Suki
knew she would have to be on that plane in three hours.
At the very least, I should leave a note, Suki sighed.
Chapter 8 Connections
Connections. That's what they were called, in English, when you had to leave one
plane to get to the next. It was what she had severed, when she had stepped through the
accordion walkway onto this jet. It was also, Suki thought, what she was missing here.
Maybe the plane rides were worth something in the time they gave her to think.
Yuzo was gone for good, she was sure of it. He wouldn't want her if he really
knew her history, and he especially wouldn't want her now. Never again. The Kakutani's
were gone too. She had lied to Nana-san, telling her she had found a cheap hotel for the
night, but that Yuzo might be staying for longer. Rei-san had raised his eyebrows
critically when the airport taxi had pulled up, but hadn't said anything. Never again
was a long time. Well, maybe when this was all over with. . .if she actually survived.
And then there was Ben. Where was he? Why had he come to her with those strange
symbols? Did it have something to do with where he was? Something he wanted from her?
Suki couldn't even say for sure he wasn't dead or hadn't deserted. Why did she feel so
guilty about that? Maybe if she had moved after her abduction, or not talked to him
about the blitz strings that day. . . but try as she liked, Suki knew she could not
change the past. She could only hope Ben was alive, though realistically, he was
probably not free and probably not too healthy. When those baka aliases let him go, he'd
surely join them in the. . .the west desert? Was that what Rachel had called it?
Between two republican states in the middle of a huge dead wilderness.
There were so many questions. What was the strange code? Why the metal flash of
the woman in the tank? Why were humans mostly immune to acid, yet unable to blitz, while
the models and aliases were completely opposite? Except for Yuzo's advisor? Suki had a
sinking suspicion about that one. A brilliant mentor. Exciting new technology. Except
for the flowers, Suki would have bet on the fact that the woman had been an alias. But
why were the drones capturing her? Had it been a mistake? That attack had been unusual
all around; no one had ever tried to cut themselves out of the box before either. Maybe
Yuzo's advisor had helped kidnap people. That might make sense.
What did Suki have that the alias who started the fire want? Why that night?
Her mind jumped. Of course, that's when they had delivered Dare's package. One positive
The software, when installed, showed red glows around the aliases that were
beating Mary. Mary didn't glow– nor all but one of the doctors. Which meant that the
aliases didn't want to be seen, or separated from regular humans. Two positive answers.
So why would they use the drones at all? It was obviously easier to kidnap
people with the aliases. In Mr. Westing's final version of VRfighter the enemies had
been four kinds of drones, that got bigger, stronger as the levels went up, until the
last ones that were like lions or horses, black, four-legged, tailed, with huge weapons.
Until Dare had found a hole in the code of the program, and they turned the final bad guy
into a frozen blur then jacked up its sensitivity so Quinn could kill it with one quick
Had she really saved 130 people as the aorusui? It didn't matter, really. What
mattered more were the ones she had failed to save. Alias-aliens, people, who besides
the former IRTI students could tell the difference? Were they controlled by the
same ‘whoever' as the drones? And why should they watch for the Red Banner? Well, at
least drones were clearly aliens, they weren't pretending to be anything else. Seven
people could beat two human aliases. A drone could catch about five people in one
holding tank. It had taken at least three of the aliases to render Suki unconscious,
five to capture Dare, who knew with Ben.
Why kidnap them, anyway? And, still more perplexing, why let them go? Dare had
talked about some sort of questioning session, talking to computers, aliens, injections,
things he'd seen in his dreams that he knew were from the missing days. Suki still
remembered nothing. And Ben was still gone.
And then there were questions she wasn't sure had anything to do with the
aliens. Such as why had Yuzo looked so familiar from the day she had met him? What was
that mysterious phone call?
Too many questions, not enough connections.
Suki bolted awake– the Japanese man in the next seat (who had also been on her
flight from Tokyo) had put a hand on her arm. She was sitting in the Bangkok airport, in
an uncomfortable chair, catching the last sleep she knew she could get before climbing
into the bumpy plane to Germany.
"Daijobu?" he asked, "You were whimpering."
The man nodded, then went back to reading the stock section of his news paper.
Suki checked her watch. The gate attendants came on and said something about a small
wait for the runway, and then called for third class boarding. Suki sighed, and gathered
her baggage around her. People queued up in front of the gate door, then waited to get
in, waited to find their seats, then waited while the plane carried them into a different
continent, a different country, a different time. Suki wished she could blitz.
The flight was uneventful. A stupid American movie dubbed in whatever language
you wished showed on the huge screen in front, but Suki mostly ignored it and read up on
the latest alien speculations on the lap-feed supplied with her chair. There was only
one mention of a kind of alien that looked like people, posted by some guy who believed
he was the grandson of Christ and believed the drones were the Gods' punishment for the
wicked. He obviously had a head neither for biology nor math. Suki was tired and
generally annoyed when the plane finally landed.
Germany. She always felt nervous in countries where she didn't speak the
language, even if it was just the airport. Finally they taxied to the gate, and the
doors swished open. Suki grabbed her small blue duffel, and followed the throng off the
plane. The stewardess smiled a pastel pink goodbye.
And then there was Jurg, large as life, waiting patiently by the rows of seats.
He smiled when he saw her, but didn't wave. His blond hair was shorter, red fleece
jacket almost revealing a familiar patchwork of wires underneath. Suki couldn't hold in
"Hi!" He hugged her quickly, then put an arm on her shoulder and started
walking. His arm was heavier than Yuzo's, more angular. Suki tried to push away the
comparison. "I was a little worried," he said, English a relief among all the German and
French and various other languages.
"That I wouldn't come?" she asked. "I thought about it."
"Yeah," he said, sounding like he was struggling for words. "I just, I think, I
wanted to thank you. For Mary, I mean."
"You're not mad?"
He shook his head, pulling her out of the way of two obese women heading into
their path. "Look, I don't know what it is with everyone lately, assuming that because I
take the leading role that means you guys can't make decisions too! I'm not a tyrant.
Yours was a good decision. How much did you tell him? Your boyfriend, right?"
Suki shrugged. "Yuzo. We never really got the chance to talk about it. I left
before he got home from the hospital." She looked down, surprised to find herself
blinking tears. "He didn't even know I had left."
Jurg was silent as he led her to their gate. Suki wondered how much he
understood. What connections he had made.
There were hugs all around– and an awkward moment when Jurg took the time to kiss
Mary, who didn't seem like she appreciated it. Dare and Quinn were never more than three
feet from each other at any time, laughing at their own jokes, speaking in their own
language. Rachel was wearing braids coiled in the back of her head and hoop earrings,
which made her look older and even more exotic. Finally, after some coaxing, everyone
gathered together for a late lunch under the veranda of the large dilapidated house they
"So," Rachel said, after catching-up conversations gave way to chewing. "How do
you like the place?"
"It's better than Boston, except for the water situation," Jurg said, before he
downed his glass of lemonade. "It's really dry here."
Suki could almost hear an Australian influence in Dare's brogue. "We need a
"I could dig one– I helped with several last month. Big drought in
Johannesburg," Quinn supplied. "But, Jurg, Rachel, what are we here for?"
Jurg gestured across the table. "Rachel?"
Setting her sandwich down, Rachel smiled and stood. "Besides just that I missed
all of you drastically, there are some things we've been figuring out. Things that
suggest us being together might not be a bad idea, most especially because we need to
discuss this in person instead of relying on technology that– despite Dare's best
attempts– may still be bugged. Blitzing will help us fight off attacks while we're here.
I really need your input on all of this.
"It was Ben's code, and Dare's package that secured my ideas. And what Suki said
about her boyfriend's advisor. Did any of you front an attack while you had the software
Dare nodded, Jurg nodded, no one else moved. Quinn looked at Suki and shrugged.
"Well," Rachel continued, "you'd have noticed. In these last three, the drones
weren't capturing humans. They were capturing red-glowing aliases. Exclusively."
Suki had to consciously close her mouth. Quinn shook his head. "Why?"
Rachel laughed almost humorlessly. "Why would an alien take human form, train
us, scare us off, encourage us to scatter, then kidnap us? Why would the alien drones
capture the alien human alias's? Why would a group of teenagers be given the task of
protecting the human race? That's absolutely crazy. It is! Which is why none of this
"So I was thinking hard, about what Dare said about his kid-napping, about what
Suki said about her boyfriend's advisor and her kid-napping, and about Ben's continuing
disappearance and reappearance last week. All the stuff we've managed to come up this
past month and a half while we were away. I called Jurg, and we've been doing some
demographic and statistical modeling using information from about every source we could
think of. Separately. And to our surprise, some very similar patterns started to
Jurg stood up now, and pulled over a lap screen and started passing it
around. "Here's what we've figured out," he said. "First, there are three different
kinds of drones. Very little difference between the drones and the waldos-- just a brain
mechanism that allows for more speech. And the third, the armored kind, that don't speak
at all, just screams horribly." Suki nodded, she had thought that had already been
"They have been evolving as we fight them to be harder to kill, until Suki
discovered that trick with the blitz-string. Then they just sort of started to give
up." Suki felt herself blush. Mary reached around Rachel and handed Suki the
lapscreen. On it were several charts and equations and statistical studies– graphs of
spectrophotometric data and tables from studies the scientific community had been
carrying out on the drone's shells, acid, and even some bad spec-photos of their models,
caught by some enterprising science journalists at MIT from their Boston days. She
listened as she flicked through the different files.
"There are too many kinds of the human aliases to count, although the major
population seems to resemble Mr. Westing," Jurg was saying. "The only really sure way to
tell them from other people is by looking through Dare's software, which I guess measures
movements per second? NMR? Mass Spec?"
"No, it's a combo of audio and mass spec in a motion detector. It picks up the
sound of the heartbeat and looks for air fluxuation in breathing. It's sort of a
negative criteria program; it only alerts if the parameters are not met. It's also coded
to recognize our models by the shape, so we don't glow. Otherwise we would."
"That has interesting connotations," Rachel said, but instead of expounding,
smiled and gestured for Jurg to go on.
"A large number of them can't talk. And they're everywhere," Jurg said, shaking
his head. Dare nodded, and put his chin on his hands. Jurg sighed. "So, looping back
through hours and hours and hours–"
"–and hours and hours and hours," Rachel interrupted, rolling her eyes.
"--and hours of life feed, we've pretty much come to the conclusion that all
the "people" the media has us saving were actually aliases."
Suki found herself staring at Jurg in disbelief.
"So we've saved no one?" Mary said. She seemed unusually withdrawn, pale in the
coat she was wearing despite the 70 degree weather.
"We think," Rachel cautioned. "We don't know that drones have ever gone after
people, except us."
"Wait," Suki said, mind whirling. "What about the medical help they gave us,
like Yuzo's advisor? What are all the other aliases doing?"
"That's still a mystery," Jurg said. "We think the ones that can talk are mainly
working in industry, especially chemistry, robotics, and medicine. They are very hard to
track. Those are the ones that go in the people boxes and cause such an uproar."
"Remember, this is hours and hours of vids, of news reports, of speculative
fiction, fan sites and web pages devoted to the aliens, some devoted to us!" she
chuckled. "Well, technically, not us, but our models. Talk about an ego boost. But
before you start arguing, think about it."
"Really, we've been doing the alias's dirty work, setting them free from the
drones. It's really none of our business after all." Jurg concluded.
"Although," Rachel cautioned, almost glaring at Jurg, "we can't presume that the
drones aren't doing anything anti-humanitarian, nor that the aliases aren't doing
anything humanitarian. All we know is, it's not us that we're saving. Well, that and
that Ben's probably somewhere he doesn't want to be. And that the code he gave us was
most likely a cry for help."
Dare and Quinn begged out of the second half of the meeting before it started,
and walked together out into the short grasses and spikey plants and rocks. Jurg helped
Mary up the stairs. Suki heard her crying about three minutes later. Rachel had stayed
up all night to meet Jurg and Suki's flight with a taxi, and fell asleep on the living
room couch. So Suki was left to clean up the lunch.
The refrigerator was an old ice box with an electric cooler that was attached to
some degrading solar panels on the roof. It felt too warm, as she put the cheese in the
lower back drawer, so after everything was stored, Suki figured out how to climb onto the
roof. Probably more than a few years of wind had cemented millions of sand particles to
the old cells, and it took some thinking to figure out how to get them off without
hurting the fragile reflectors underneath. Finally, she pulled up soap, a bucket, water,
and scrub brush.
Soon they were shining brightly– too bright to look at– so Suki wandered up
over the top of the A-frame, and sat on the hot tiles. It felt good to in the sun after
the months of winter. And the air here was hundreds of times fresher than Tokyo's. She
had a good view, all around, of the rocks, the dry gulleys, a shining river in the
distance, dry creek with soft feathery trees. Rusting old cattle wire, an old trough.
And something else, in the air, flashing toward them!
Suki yelled as she scrambled down the ladder. "Something's coming!"
Jurg ran out the front door.
"It's nothing!" he yelled back, as she pulled open the back door. "Just planes
from the base!" A deafening roar engulfed their little valley as the formation flew
So they were. Only human planes. Suki's heart slowly stopped its thundering.
"That's one of the reasons we chose this place," Rachel said sleepily from the
couch, having been woken up. "No one thinks twice about all the strange things they see
in the air. We figured it was a good a testing site as any."
"Testing for what?" Suki asked, noting Dare and Quinn walking arm in arm out of
the grove of tamarisk down by the drying stream to the south.
"Let's call everyone else together. It's time for the second half of the
"New weapons and modifications?" Mary asked, raising an eyebrow. She was
huddled in Jurg's red jacket. "Why? Using what for materials?"
Rachel shrugged. "The husks of the drones are filling up dumps around the world.
That's why they're not easy to dispose of, they can't be recycled in plants. But we
could blitz them here, try to figure out what they try to fight the aliases with."
"I still don't know if that will work," Jurg said, and Dare nodded. "The power
system they run on is completely different, right?"
Quinn shook his head. "It's all electricity, whether it's pumped or juiced or
whatever. We could figure it out."
"I don't think it's necessary," Mary said.
"What do you think we should do?" Quinn asked, almost a pounce. Mary threw her
hands into the air, while Dare gave Quinn a cautionary glance. Jurg and Rachel looked at
each other. A silence filled the room.
Suki wished Ben were here. He knew when to make sarcastic comments. He would
have said something, though brash, that would clear the air. Something Suki agreed
with. He could have figured out the drones power systems. He would have gone running
Dare leaned wearily against Quinn. "This is for tomorrow, though, right? Not
today. Can't we have a semi-free day, like?"
"I guess," Rachel said. "But we really should start working tomorrow morning
"5 weeks and 3 days can go pretty fast," Jurg said, counting on his watch. "We
want to be prepared for the Red Banner, whoever they are. Whatever they are. But I do
think we all need some rest. Most of us are jetlagged."
"What if there's an attack? Won't the public think we've abandoned them?" Suki
asked, as the smiles started to come out on her friend's faces. To her relief, they
"They're not people, remember?" Quinn said. "No problem."
"Yes, it is. Suki has a point. People perceive the aliases as people." Rachel
brushed a loose hair out of her face. "And if we stop, the aliases might think we know
what's going on."
"What about keeping one person on guard?"
"Okay," Rachel said. "Fine. Stick close to the house in case anything funny
shows up. Delegate according to the areas we covered before, so they don't suspect
"As you wish," Quinn said, and rested his chin on Dare's spiky black-haired
head. Dare grinned up at him. Suki found herself smirking; they really were a cute
couple. She grabbed the lapscreen.
"I'll watch first," she said, and headed to her room to put on her wires.
It was a quiet night, after an uneventful afternoon. Uneventful almost to the
point of being boring, except that everyone was here, and it was so nice to see the whole
group again. Now, everyone was asleep. Suki was still struggling along on Tokyo time,
and felt wide awake, though it was about 3 a.m. here. She pulled her yukata tighter
around her shoulders, and wandered out onto the veranda, to an old, rotting couch had
been left there to flake away over the years.
Outside the moon was shining, bright with reflections of the lunar solar arrays
piled over every stray centimeter. Powering the earth. It had been a dream, once, to
work there. After finishing college in the States and then grad school in some elite
University in Europe. Strange, how things like that just got plowed under. Maybe when
this was all over. How many times could she get away with thinking that?
It was almost uncanny how peaceful the night was, here in the desert, without any
lights on. The moon-cast shadows of the tamarisks were blowing in the cool wind, and she
could hear them rustling softly. That was the only sound. Once or twice, she thought
she heard a bird overhead, though it could have been a bat or large insect. So different
from the buzz of Tokyo at night.
Yuzo was probably furious and deeply hurt. Suki stared out at the salty white
sand, sage brush, grasses. Her physical distance from him was somewhat anesthetizing,
and the knowledge she would probably never see him again, to face him. Or the
Kakutani's. But other parts of her were screaming, demanding she send a letter, do
something to let them know she was all right, that she still cared. Not to miss this
chance to have a person like him. And still other parts were terrified, more than
willing to cut the strings, sharp as a katana through silk. Too close. They had gotten
too close. And she had let them.
Suki felt the tickle of a tear on her cheek, surprised that she was crying. She
tried to stop, but all those hideous and frustrating thoughts picked up their velocity
into a barrage of woes. All the aliens. Her school failing her. Ben's disappearance.
The fragility and confusion of all this. Not knowing anything. Missing her mother. The
knowledge that she could do serious violence. Yuzo. Again, and again. Her tears seemed
to come from nowhere, bubbling up and out, as though held under pressure for the last
three months. And that made her more angry with herself, that she could break down so
completely when nothing was actually harming her, without out real impetus. After a
while, there was no coherent thought, just sobs into the cushion of the old couch.
The house door opened. Suki tried hastily to wipe her face, but knew it was too
"Hey Suki," Rachel said, sitting down.
Suki managed a smile, feeling ridiculous, and finally was able to take a clear
breath to answer. "Hi."
They stared out at the desert together for some time, before Rachel scooted
closer and put her arm over Suki's shoulders.
"It's tough, isn't it," Rachel said. "To start and stop and start and stop. And
not really know why its you fighting. Or what you're really doing."
"Mm," Suki nodded. "It's difficult." She leaned back against Rachel's arm, and
closed her eyes. No more tears, just the wind against her raw face. "But not impossible."
"No. I think you take it better than the rest of us."
Rachel twitched a smile. "I don't know. Maybe because you're so quiet. I argue
and blabber so much because I'm scared. And if you want to know, I cried so much at
first after we split up that I thought I was going to give myself a sinus infection. I
know Dare and Quinn are only so bubbly because they missed each other so much. Neither
of them are particularly excited for these next weeks. Jurg– well, he's more excited to
get this over with, I think. And he takes every one of our mistakes personally. He
beats himself up over everyone."
"I've seen him pacing," Suki added softly, "after a bad fight. Making lists of
things not to do next time."
"And then in Boston, right before we left, Mary told him not to wail to her.
That she was sick of it." Rachel shrugged. "That must have hurt. I think Jurg's still
"Mary's not well."
"She needs some time to get better. We all need a vacation. And we can't afford
one. But Mary especially. She can't be expected to bounce back so soon after losing
that much blood."
Which made Suki think of Yuzo again. She bit her lip, surprised that still a few
more tears were within her. Rachel didn't even notice, thankfully. Suki wiped her nose
on the sleeve of the yukata.
"So Jurg started wailing to me, once we split up." Rachel said, and sighed. "We
sent emails under pseudonyms on public servers, at libraries, schools, cafés. I'm glad
to be an ear for him, to give Mary some space. But it's not fun. He worries all the
time. All the time. It's not easy."
"No, it's not."
They sat in silence for a while, again, each staring out at the night.
"Do you think," Suki said after some time, "that the aliases know where we are?
That they're thinking about us?"
"I don't know." Rachel was staring up at the moon, which still shone brightly
over the mountains. "It's an interesting question, actually. If they think."
"What else would you call it?" Suki asked, wondering that she had never thought
about it like that before. "Processing?"
"It's active. But Jurg and I were thinking it might be communal somehow."
Suki nodded. "So that's why they always fight so coordinated."
"Yeah. Which, if you really want to get into philosophy. . .?"
Suki shrugged. It was a moony night, what better time. "Yes?"
"Well, technically, are they even alive? The aliases or the drones? They're
mechanical. Not carbon based. We know they are constructed somehow, but is it self-
replication? Are they independent of their source, or still hooked into some mother-ship
type thing? Because if they have no organism powering them, they'd have to reproduce
somehow. But they're not carbon based, so by current scientific definitions, they're
just as alive as viruses."
"Oh," Suki said. If they weren't alive, would it be easier to kill them?
Perhaps. She still felt hesitant in any other kind of destruction, though with the
drones– well, it used to be easy because she thought she was defending her kind. Now,
would she feel differently during the next attack? The wind started up again, blowing
gusts of dust toward the house. Perhaps the sun would come up soon.
"It's kind of lonely out here," Suki said.
"But at least we've got each other, right?" It wasn't a smiling question.
Rachel sounded a little scared, small, even though she had been the one trying to comfort
Suki. Suki reached her arms around Rachel's chest, and sat in the hug for a while.
Some time after dinner a few days later, Rachel made a strangled noise from the
"Holy cow," she said, "I think I got him."
"Where?" Jurg said, diving down next to her.
"Here. Dare hacked me into the UNSSA. We pinned his last location by a random
security cam pic in New York that matched his description– Mary actually did that this
morning. Our man was ushered, though uncomplaining, into a truck by several quite
probable aliases. I followed the truck they loaded him into. The truck stopped at this
harbor." She scanned through the pictures. "We had to switch to naval sat's here. But I
think I got it. This is the sat-pic now."
"The Outer Hebrides!" Dare said. "That's the Isle of Lewis and Harris. I've been
"There's no guarantee he's there. But I filtered and got a unproportionately
high heavy metal reading. And I'm assuming that he's surrounded by aliases."
"Are you sure it isn't just lots of bog? The peat is really dense. No one lives
there anymore. Too desolate. Though," Dare cocked his head, "that might make it a good
"Just like here, I guess," Quinn added.
Rachel shrugged. "You can look at the spec graphs if you want."
"Can we get some closer pics?" Dare asked, and pulled the keyboard away from
Rachel. The picture, changing every five or so seconds with updates from the satellites,
resolved to a finer scale, and the compound became more clear. It looked like a
dilapidated bunch of small thatched houses.
"Blackhouses, ‘tis a live museum, but it's closed for the winter," Dare said,
authoritatively. "Think they're underground? We could blitz in here, behind this rock
outcrop. Here's the GPS coords– got a pencil?" Rachel pulled out a pen, and wrote them
on the cover of a Scientific American issue that had been lying around. Quinn's,
probably. Now that Ben was gone, he was the one that read it.
"Could be underground," Rachel said. "Something funny's going on there, at any
rate. Jurg? What do you think?"
He stood, hand on his head. Suki watched his face; it grew more closed as his
brow furrowed, eyes squinted as though he were thinking hard. Then he put his hand to
his unshaven chin, and stood still for a second. "I guess," he said at last, "we had
better be ready for a battle against the aliases."
"But is it provoked?" Rachel asked. "Do you really trust my research that much?"
"Well," Jurg said, "what do you think?"
Rachel looked down at the screen, at the fuzzy security cam pic of the Ben look
alike, and then back up at Jurg. "I really want him back."
"Everyone together, then?" Jurg said, quietly. He met each student's eyes until
they had either said yes or nodded. Mary hesitated, then held out a hand for Jurg to
pull her to her feet. She faced him, eye to eye. Suki sometimes forgot how tall she
was. "Let's go," Mary said. Jurg smiled slowly.
Deep breath. Another, contrasting with the rapid beat of her heart. Suki pulled
on the last glove, and waited for Jurg's signal. With one nod, all were seeing out of
their model's eyes.
Rachel blitzed first, a small flash in the semi-darkness and she was gone.
Quinn, Dare, then Mary. Suki flipped her string over herself, and came out in a blustery
grey afternoon. Jurg's red hulk was right behind her. They had their speakers off. It
was nice to be in the same room, not needing to touch an ear every time they wanted to
"Rachel, take Suki and Quinn, head to the left. Dare and Mary, with me to the
Rachel's brown simian model knuckled gracefully around the crop of boulders, onto
the green heathery peat bog. It squished, under Suki's feet, and she folded into
quadraped so she wouldn't sink as much into the black black mud. Quinn maneuvered beside
them, the white almost like a piece of the Scottish sky next to her.
"Should we each take a house?" Rachel asked, as they approached the side of the
"Okay, but be careful," Jurg said. "Mary, that one, Dare, that." Suki couldn't
see him any more, he must have been pointing. "If there's nothing there, take the next.
Ten in total?"
"That's my count," Rachel said. Suki headed toward one near the middle,
following Rachel's sign. She could hear her breath, and the breath of those nearest to
her, Jurg on the left, Quinn just behind. Their feet pattered on the floor, running,
stopping, jumping. Above that, through her earplug, something scratchy was coming from
inside the tiny dark house. Suki crouched lower, and slunk through the door.
Her eyes were suddenly blinded with bright red. A glowing alias aimed a kick
above her head, pulling out some sort of weapon. Echos of the red streaked behind every
movement. Rolling out of the way of whatever the gun thing was, Suki panned the small
square room. Four of the aliens. Beside her, the others sounded like they were fighting
too– Quinn cursed in Sindbele. Something metal, disc shaped like the cover to a garbage
can, lay in the middle of the one room, bordered by glowing lights. Suki caught one of
the alias's punches, amazed all over again how easy it was to fight the smaller aliases
with her model. One pull, and the machine flew onto the floor, knocking the metallic
thing to the side. What was it, a doorway? a hole? a well? Suki dodged the shot from
the first assailant's weapon, then pinned the third one. She snapped the head, and
dropped it down the hole. No crash.
But as she stopped to listen, the alias with the weapon fired and hit her leg.
Suki found herself rolling on the floor, out of control. Had it shocked her? No! The
leg was severed!
"Shimata," she breathed. "The guns–"
"I'm gone." Mary said, weakly. "It cut off. . . my head."
Suki flipped to quad– well, now triped– and lunged unsteadily for the gun. The
hand that held it was too strong, she couldn't pry it away, and her model seemed to be
shorting out sporadically. Someone screamed. She couldn't tell if it was her own ears
or the earplug that picked it up. The second alias came for her, managing to pull her
bodily away from the first alias. Suki turned on it, punching, and caught a glowing red
flash from behind. She streaked her tail out– and mentally crossing her fingers for aim–
and brought her blitz string around the gun hand. More yells around her.
And more aliases climbing out from the hole. Suki's claws flashed– too many to
count, though they went down easily enough. Her eyes swam with the red. Punch, dodge,
kick, hop out of the way, back kick, leap, loop.
"Enough," Rachel panted. "There are too many. We can't beat them like this."
Suki heard a faint pop as a model blitzed into existence outside the house.
"I'm out." Jurg said, sounding surprised. "It hit me with a laser-gun-thing.
Sliced through metal like butter."
"Wait," Quinn said, close to Suki's ear. "I think I've got through the stash
here. I'm going down this passage."
"Dare?" Jurg asked.
"Just a. . . ." He didn't continue. Suki barely heard him. Punch, block, kick,
roll. She caught another weapon with her string just as the alias was climbing out of
the hole. Something on the inner lip of the well caught her eye. Script, like the code
Ben's model had written for her, though not the same order.
Then there was a silence in her little house, and something else behind her.
Suki turned around. Ben's model stood face to face with hers.
"Ben!" Suki couldn't help gasping. It didn't reply. She ignored the commotion
from her friends in the room around her, staring into the silver uni-eye on the leonid
model. He leapt for her– going for the tail. Suki whirled, jumping out of the way. His
claws came out, and he lunged again. Foot, to block the mouth going for her throat,
fists punching the yellow chest, flipping him over her back. He flew forward at her
again– it was all she could do to keep an eye on him! "What're you doing?" she panted,
slapping his right claw with her left hand, but he didn't reply. Suki found herself
backed into a corner. All four of his feet had claws out, scraping on the metal floor.
She had never seen him so fierce in practice nor against drones.
She blocked his first swipe, punching out with her other hand in a semi-upper
cut, but his claws managed to catch in her arm's blue chrom, and Suki watched in horror
as the blue armor just peeled off. Bright wires were exposed to the humidity, a few
spots shorted but did not completely break the circuit. She tried another punch, but Ben
was waiting. He caught her arm, and the floor came hurtling toward her face. A
desperate measure– her tail-loop blitzed away a section of the wrist that held her. She
landed in a crash, but on standing two good feet. Ben stared down at her. His mouth
opened above her, forming the barrel of a strange gun they had fashioned together, in the
lab below the gymnasium, while listening to some hot new tekone he had just bootlegged.
No time for memories.
"No!" Suki yelled, but he fired. It was a faint hope that her tail was fast
It was. Suki saw the outside of the house, from their blitz-in spot. Various
hands, heads, metallic objects scattered around her feet. She grabbed the weapon the
first alias had pulled on her, and launched herself back toward the door on her remaining
two and a half legs.
He was waiting for her, also missing a foot now. This time he came down on her
skinned arm, bent it to a 120 degree angle with a front and back paw. Suki brought up
the weapon with the other arm, standing on one foot. He froze, and backed away.
She didn't know where the trigger was. He stared at her.
"Nani-o?" she asked, panting, realizing belatedly it was the wrong language.
Something bright below her– her good leg started shrinking, crumbling, corroded. Someone
had sprayed acid. There was a drone behind her.
Her beautiful model, Suki thought. She squinted her eyes, and squeezed the
weapon's handle, finally finding a small switch. There was a bright searing green light–
Ben fell into two halves as the beam hit him mid-center.
Suki saw the back of her goggles as she brought her hands down in defeat.
Hands on her, shaking her. Suki looked up barely recognizing where she was, and
that Mary was lying on the ground, collapsed. It was Quinn, with his hands on her
shoulders. She was kneeling, the room blurred by blue semi-transparent plastic.
"What the hell just happened, Blue? Where's Ben?"
"He attacked me. He destroyed my model," Suki said, feeling anger, wonder,
anger, balling in her throat. She pulled her goggles off, and set them on the floor. "I
had to fight back! He killed me!"
Quinn gave her a hand up, intent on her face. "Him? His model?"
"Oh, the model." Suki said, but it didn't seem to make a difference.
"Maybe it wasn't him after all," Dare said. "Maybe they overrode his security,
like. They could have stripped him of the wires, found a hook-up for the power cable.
Of course the aliases would know how to use our models, they practically designed them.
Plus they knew you wouldn't attack as readily."
"He didn't say anything?" Quinn asked, though he already knew the answer. He
chewed on a lip. "Well, kak, this is great. Dare and Rachel and I got back all right.
Fifty percent loss."
Suki sighed, and looked to where Jurg was kneeling over Mary, hand to her throat
as he tried to check her pulse. Dare turned to follow her gaze.
"She's okay, just fainted I think," their leader said, but sounded
trepidatious. "We should get her to bed."
Quinn stepped over a pile of wires, and knelt. "I've got her, if you want me
to," he said. Jurg nodded, then followed, head down, as Quinn carried Mary's inert form
down the hall.
"Where's Rachel?" Suki asked, while Dare turned to leave the room too.
"Watching the news," he shrugged, "seeing if anyone noticed. If you lads need
me, I'm going for a walk."
The news was only depressing; even though there was no discussion about the Isle
of Lewis, there was all sorts of speculation about the new behavior of the ‘colors':
visiting certain unknown girls in Tokyo and New York. Quinn and Jurg had escaped
detection somehow, they only had noted the yellow and the blue. And both of those models
would never be seen again.
"What should we do?" Suki asked, fighting back more tears.
Rachel turned, and reached over to squeeze Suki's hand. Suki winced, but didn't
let Rachel know that her left was still quite sore. The battle had been tough on it.
"I don't know, Suki. What do you think? Should we expose the aliases? Expose
"What?" That seemed a little drastic. And she had meant about the models, not
"Of course, the army has never tried to fight these guys, they wouldn't know what
to do, and they don't really have the equipment to deal with the blitzing aliases."
Jurg walked in, shaking his head. Apparently he had heard the conversation from
the stairs. "No, and I don't think it would be a good idea, politically. If ever Earth
does have to forge a treaty with the aliens, army attacks wouldn't demonstrate
willingness to cooperate."
"They wouldn't, would they. No, I think we should keep on as we are. We can
make those new model like we were planning. We can let those model sightings be isolated
incidences. And try really hard not to have to use them in public again, except if
drones are involved."
"That sounds like a good idea," Jurg said nodding.
"Oh, and Jurg," Rachel said, flipping the feed off and standing. "Don't make a
list this time. I don't think anyone would appreciate it."
He chuckled wryly. "I know."
"You're doing well, you know? With Mary and everything."
"Yeah, you are." Rachel said. She smiled slightly, then hugged him hard. They
rocked back and forth in the embrace, and to Suki's surprise, she thought she saw tears
in Jurg's closed eyes. Rachel stepped away, then glanced at Suki as if she had forgotten
she was there. She smiled at Suki, then grabbed her hand.
"Dare's on watch. Come on, Suk, let's go to bed."
Luckily she grabbed the right one this time.
"Suki! For heaven's sake!" Rachel was saying, leaning over her in the dark.
There was sweat on her forehead. The fading strings of a dream. "You were screaming
bloody murder. What were you dreaming?"
Suki squinted her eyes shut, and sighed, almost angry. "I don't know. I can't
remember them. I wish I could!"
Rachel's face softened in the shadows. "It's probably a good thing. You kept
saying something– akamata? No, it was akahata. Yeah. Does that ring a bell?"
"Red flag?" Suki translated. "Like in soccer?"
"Red Banner," Rachel whispered. "It must be. Anyway, sleep. Quietly. We'll
figure this out in the morning." She tiptoed back to her own sleeping bag.
Suki stared at the ceiling. Akahata? What was that? The same mystery, a
different twist. She closed her eyes, making herself breath evenly through the sore
muscles from this evening's fight. Through the knowledge that she was only herself now.
No longer the aorusui, with the ten-foot stride.
The morning dawned bright as ever, though Suki felt cloudy inside.
Rachel made Jurg go to bed with the promise that Suki would watch over Mary while
he slept. Quinn was running Rachel into the nearest town so she could pick up more
supplies and check out the area hospitals in case Mary got worse. Dare had come with a
quick backpack type carrier over breakfast, and it was only a matter of a few sutures and
a few stitches before Rachel had a comfortable– well, relatively comfortable– place to
sit on the white model's back.
"Neigh," Quinn had said, mouth full, "pass the oats."
Jurg didn't even smile.
"Hey," Dare said, snapping his fingers. Jurg looked up, bleary eyed, apologized,
then left for Mary's room again.
So now Suki sat in a rotting armchair, feet on the windowsill, lapscreen set to a
complicated weapons spec search routed through two other connections so it was
untraceable but very slow. Every now and then she glanced at Mary's sleeping face. The
chair had a good view down onto the back patio, where several kinds of birds had gathered
to peck at a loaf of moldy bread someone had put out for them.
Quinn, apparently done with the taxi service, wandered out onto the stone
cobbles, a few magazines and a lapscreen in hand. Dare was not three seconds behind,
dragging two kitchen chairs. It really was a beautiful day outside.
Mary's eyes fluttered open. "Hi," Suki said.
"You want something to eat?"
"Something light," Mary said, licking dry lips. Her veins stood out against her
pale skin, giving her a purple sheen. "And water. If you don't mind."
"There's a full glass on the floor here," Suki said, handing it to her, then went
to see what was left in the kitchen. She settled on toast, and a package of soup. That
would go down easy. After the toaster popped up two pieces of bread, she walked out into
the front room on her way back. Jurg was passed out on the rug, curled around a pillow.
Even in sleep, his brow was furrowed in worry. Suki stepped past him quietly.
"Here," she said, handing Mary the plate of toast upon her return. "Soup's
"Thanks," Mary said, and struggled to sit up. She finished one piece before
collapsing against the wall behind her sleeping bag.
"You okay?" Suki asked, stepping forward. She didn't look like she should be
out of the hospital. Maybe Jurg was feeling guilty, Suki wondered.
"Just dizzy," Mary said, and attempted a smile. "I'll be fine." Suki helped her
slide down under the covers again. In a minute, she was sleeping. The oven beeped.
Suki sighed, and sat back in the armchair, deciding to leave the soup there to reheat
Quinn and Dare were standing now, shirtless, muscles flashing in the sun. Dare
was showing Quinn a kind of acrobatic kill-move that involved flipping over his hands.
He had a silver pendant on, that flashed in the sun every now and then against his pale
chest. They, at least, were having a good time. Laughing.
Suki smiled in spite of herself.
Dare made a motion, and the two faced each other in a boxing stance. Quinn
punched, Dare blocked, and swept Quinn's legs with his foot. Quinn jumped, twirled with
his leg out for a spinning kick. Dare rolled easily out of the way.
They faced up again, grinning, panting. Dare said something, Quinn laughed with
his head thrown back. Suki saw the exact moment Dare took this as an opening, and the
two crashed together, a flurry of blocked throws. It was beautiful. Breathtaking. Two
ebullient creatures in a delicately opposing dance, as deeply familiar with their
partner's moves as with their own.
Dare did a backflip in the air, scrambling out of a hold Quinn had used to lift
him off the ground. The smile was gone, but his black eyes still laughed. More punches,
more blocks, quick leaps out of the way. And then Quinn suddenly had the upper hand.
Dare succumbed to a tripping catch Quinn made with his foot, and landed on the cobbles.
He rolled out of the way of one kick, then Quinn found a momentum somewhere. And
executed, perfectly, the kill-move Dare had been showing him not ten minutes before.
Dare didn't move beneath him, frozen with eyes wide as Quinn's hands came flying toward
his neck, ready to snap it in half with their force.
The lapscreen crashed to the floor as Suki stood in alarm.
At the last moment, Quinn's hands parted, slapping down on either side of Dare's
face. He kicked from the handstand onto his feet, and stepped away.
It was a strange moment. Dare and Quinn just stared at each other. No smiles.
Then Quinn said something, and Dare nodded, still on the cobbles, propped on his elbows.
There was a bright trickle of blood dripping from a cut by his eye. Quinn's back was to
her; both his elbows were scraped raw pink.
Dare said something, grinning slyly. Quinn laughed again, and lunged for Dare.
Tickling. They landed in a compromising situation– Dare doing a low push-up over Quinn's
back. Quinn rolled over under him as Dare knelt back. Quinn relaxed against his left
elbow, then reached his other arm out to the cut on Dare's face. He wiped it gently,
then looked at the blood on his dark fingers. And went in for a kiss.
Suki looked down, picked up the lapscreen, and glanced at Mary's sleeping form.
She tried not feel like she had been trespassing. Oh, if only Yuzo were here, she
thought, not for Mary– for me.
"Ho-kay. So. What works best in a model?"
"That would depend on what you want to do."
"Escape, so, stealth."
"You catching this Dare?"
"Stealth to sneak in?"
"So how about the animal world for inspiration? Millions of years of guess and
"Already kinda did that. Suki, Rachel, Mary. . . Ben. Only one of the four
left, though Suki only got killed because of Ben, so that's not an accurate measure."
"Big works too. Jurg, Quinn, Dare. Two of three left."
"So we want big, fighting animaloid or humanoid-shaped models that fight, defend,
protect, and are stealthy?"
"We have more than one person. We can have more than one design."
"So who wants what?"
"What we like or what we can do?"
"There's a difference, Quinny?"
"Sure, kid, sometimes. Doesn't have to be."
"‘Kay guys. Pick a carnivore, any carnivore. Double, treble, quadruple its
size, and we can fit its adapted skills to our specs. Fill the niches."
"Use your imaginations, and your experience with your current model. Don't think
about being realistic just yet."
"Here's the drawing pads. Take 6 minutes."
Suki scratched her head while bunching up her hair. These were the eighth, ninth
drafts. Some had new ideas over their lunch break, some still brainstorming.
They had lapsed into a physical state of ridiculousness. Mary was wearing one
of Rachel's bandanas in her hair, snuggled in one of Jurg's shirts, and Quinn's sandals,
which were about 5 centimeters too long. Jurg had gotten sunburned yesterday, and had
borrowed Mary's chapstick, which was tinted, so now his chapped lips were bright red to
match his shoulders. Rachel had not dressed this morning, but made it a point to wear
her tread-shoes with her long t-shirt pj's. Jurg had drawn a large A on Rachel's copper
forehead with the chapstick, after Rachel laughed at his lips. Suki was technically on
watch, so she had her wires on, and the lapscreen on alert. She felt out of place,
dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.
"I know it looks just the same," Mary said, "but it's not. Its smaller, and the
rocket packs actually unfurl into gliding wings. I worked out the equations ages ago.
And the weapon is a vacuum-tube plasma beam. A laser creates the vacuum, and the molten
"–flies down the compression tunnel created by the laser. Yeah, this is German
Military stuff," Jurg interrupted. "I bet I could even help build this, if Suki wanted
Suki was looking at Rachel's design, rounding out some penciled lines. "But it's
so human!" she couldn't help exclaiming.
"You told me to think of the fiercest predator I could."
Jurg looked up, then barked a laugh. "You have a point. But isn't our brain the
reason for that?"
"I think I work best in a form I can feel. I never got the hang of running on
all fours like Suki or Ben or threes like Dare-n-Quinn."
"Speaking of. . ."
"God, those two. . ."
"They gave me their designs," Suki said. "They're not identical."
"Woah," Mary said, and took the pads with a pale arm. Suki watched her
reaction. The amused smile that had been playing on her lips all morning grew larger.
She started to giggle.
Jurg sighed and shook his head. "So Dare wants to fight with a. . .whale, and
Quinn with a. . .bunch of flying sparks?"
"No, those are the weapons," Suki said. "Quinn's model is back here. He said,
it was prettier behind the screen."
"Jurg," Mary said, raising a long finger and jabbing it slowly into his
knee. "You're the leader. You get to go up and get them. We're not on vacation." He
opened his mouth to protest, but there was a noise on the stairs.
"Are you making fun of my model?" Quinn said, coming down. His shirt was
unbuttoned, revealing a dark chocolate washboard. "I told you I couldn't draw."
"Is Dare coming down?"
"In a while. I've got the specs for my weapon too. This arm shoots spinning
discs of a few millimeter thick tungsten alloy with a charge in the center. This arm has
a shield made from that polypolymerized paralastic that expands to about five meters at
full tension. According to some calculations I've seen, it can withstand about sixty
atm's. The drone's acid won't burn it. And I just bet the air force base here has a
Rachel pointed in the direction of the kitchen door, beyond which, and about 50
miles further, lay the base. "You can go out there and get it yourself. I'm not going
in there. That's highly illegal."
"Maybe we could just see what they are planning," Jurg suggested, rising. "It
might not be a bad idea. They know that someone's are coming."
But models were so big, Suki thought. There had to be some other way to do
that. "Maybe we need a spy model," she suggested. "A tiny bot that can blitz itself
somewhere, maybe hook on to something and blitz it back. With eyes and ears."
"Good idea," Rachel said. "Though I still don't like where this is headed."
"Disaster, an you ask me," Dare said, coming down the stairs. His hair was
standing straight up. "We need to know more about what the Red Banner are, like. And
the relationship between the large drones and the aliases."
"And what they plan to do," Rachel added. "And what happened to Ben. Yes, yes
we've already established that we don't have enough information!"
"Well," Jurg said, and sat back down. "How does this sound. Some of us
scavenge, some of us research, and some of us build. We've so much to do we have to
split it up."
"I call scavenge." Mary said, and put her hand on Jurg's knee. "You too." Suki
had to admit, it was very nice to see them back together again. It made living in the
same house much more pleasant.
"Research," Rachel said. "Dare, help me."
"Build, I guess," Quinn said. Suki grinned, and flexed her hands, glad to get
back into the lab. Nice, to be able to use her left one again, though it was still sore
when the weather was bad. This was her niche, right here.
In the end they voted for a standardized body shell, just to make production
easier. It came out looking quite human, though bulkier with broad shoulders, more like
Quinn-n-Dare's models. Small fine retractable hands, a very low brain cavity that could
pass for a head, but looked more turtle-like. The blitz string shot out of one wrist.
It was not built for speed, much to her disappointment. But she could always modify her
model the way she wanted it later. Now, it was enough to get it to move at all.
Rachel led a clean up operation on the Isle of Lewis, and sent back the pieces of
their models that looked salvageable. Suki shook her head when she saw the blue bits.
She hadn't realized how attached she had become to that model. At least the little black
boxes that had taken their control ability to the next level were still intact, mostly.
It took Quinn and Suki a while to figure out how to string them up with the wires, but
they were successful. Even though they didn't know what made them tick.
They also kept their colors. Mary's green, Jurg's red, Quinn white, Dare black,
Rachel brown, and Suki blue. Every time she glanced at the row of legs, or goggles, or
wires, the absent yellow seemed to stick out like a canker sore. Much more than the
orange ever had. Suki caught herself. She hadn't thought of John since they had left
the Institute. She wondered how he was. She wondered if anyone else thought of him.
Rachel was camped out on the floor, staring at a trio of
lapscreens. "Find anything?" Suki asked, pulling her mask over her face.
"Sort of," Rachel said, projecting so Suki could hear her over her laser
saw. "Mainly I was thinking how little has changed since they got here. I mean, most
people don't even think about aliens– the drones I mean. Pounders, like the media calls
them. Only something like one in ten thousand actually have seen one. And only fifteen
humans have ever been killed outright by alien intervention. And that was because they
didn't get out of the way. Even the media has picked up on the quietness of the victims'
families. Though you'll get a kick out of this– there's a sham charity organization to
help the families of abductees!"
"What's happening on Lewis?" Dare asked, carrying a stack of motherboards into
"Nothing. Quiet as death. The piles of metal are still sitting there, I guess
they don't really care if anyone sees. Did Quinn say how far he got down the tunnel
before he decided to blitz back?"
"He saw a lot of screens, some socket-like things, that alien script."
"We should have installed a recording device."
"I'll make a note," Suki said, shaking her hair off of her neck, and borrowing
Dare's pen to write it on a growing list. The model-arm she had been sawing was ready to
be attached to the body's frame. She pulled the screwdriver in her back pocket out, and
put it in her teeth. Because of her height, there was no way to reach the shoulders of
the model, but to climb on something. So she put the welder and facemask down and pulled
a kitchen chair over. The best way was to attach the upper arm with screws, then weld it
around the edges, smoothing the suture with small metallic staples. She had stuck a temp-
indicator on the torch, so she could keep it within those few degrees and get the metal
really smooth and therefore much stronger. The room was quiet.
She glanced over, to find Rachel and Dare staring at her.
"What?" she said, around the metal in her teeth.
"It's just a funny picture," Dare said. "With the welder and stapler and the
torch, and the chair, and your hair, like– you look like a mad inventor."
"Snap!" Rachel said, clicking an imaginary camera. "This will be my pic of
Suki, to keep folded in my head so I can see her years from now. Doing what she loves,
and does so well."
Suki giggled, and shook her head, definitely blushing. Yes, there were very few
things she would rather be doing than playing with wires and metal, in the company of
There was a knock on the door about the time Suki was thinking about dinner.
Mary and Jurg and Quinn weren't back yet.
"No one knocks," Rachel said. "That's weird." Suki set her tools down. Dare
slunk to one side of the doorway, nodded for Suki to take the other. Rachel rose,
slowly, and put her hand on the knob.
She pulled the door open, blocking Suki's view. Stepped back. Her mouth was
"You. . .?" she squeaked.
Ben smiled, glancing around. Suki's heart leapt– and then crashed. Something
wasn't right. The angle of his chin. The set of his mouth. He would have said
something. Was he hurt? He put his hand on his throat, looking serious, and made a
slashing motion with his hand. And shook his head.
"Those bastards!" Dare exclaimed, putting a hand on Ben's arm. That would
explain why his model hadn't talked to her that day. But on the whole Ben looked vaguely
amiable. He glanced at the half-finished models, and seemed lost for a second. Suki's
heart started pounding.
Something was still not right. Flashes of Boston, of California. What she
thought of when she thought of him. On the runs. In her ear, the sound of his breath.
Now, standing here, there was no sound at all. Even if they had cut his larynx, he would
need to breathe. The chin was not right, it was too sharp and the angle was wrong. His
eyes were droopy too, more so than usual. It was like a cruel parody of him. In an
instant, she grabbed the other club-like arm from the floor and swung it with all her
strength at the head of the alias of Ben. Rachel screamed.
It connected soundly, and the thing went sprawling on the floor, just as Suki
found herself being thrown through a pile of sharp metal scraps right into the wall. The
momentum from the arm swing carried her just enough that she didn't hit it straight on,
but rather rammed it with the side of her head and her shoulder. Through sparks, she saw
Dare and Rachel kneeling over the fallen robot. Suki felt suddenly sick to her stomach,
as she got to her feet, and grabbed the wall to steady herself.
"Oh, God, " Rachel said, "it is an alias."
"No pulse. No blood. Metal here." Dare pronounced. He put his feet by the
head and snapped the neck, though the brain was already bashed in. Seconds later, much
to their surprise, the thing vanished with a blitzing pop. Well, that would explain why
no one discovered the ones they had fought before.
"I'm so sorry, Suki," Rachel said, carefully stepping around the sharper
scraps, "I didn't know what you were doing. You okay?"
"I'm fine," she said, but still felt ill. Connections. The reason for
kidnaping, was that to make molds of them, and create aliases that could infiltrate? But
why? The picture growing clearer, and muddier. Where did this fit in?
"Oh, Jesus. You're bleeding." Dare said, making a sympathetic face. Suki heard
Rachel curse softly, and looked down. Her legs were all cut up, and various bits of
sharp metal poked out. It didn't hurt that much, but looked bad. She sighed, and let
them lead her into the kitchen to patch her up. It had been such a good day until
now. "We found them, but they found us now. Itai!" Suki gasped.
Rachel jerked a nasty silver splinter out of her calf, and held it up for her to
"I guess this means we need to move again," Dare said at last, sounding very
young. He was avoiding watching the procedure. Rachel handed Suki the bloody cloth,
then walked over and hugged the taller boy. Suki dabbed her stinging knee. It was only
going to get harder from here on in, she thought, not easier. They were all going to
have to be strong.
Chapter 9 Changing Bear Woman
Jurg not only thought it was a good idea to move, he had them pack up and leave
that very evening. They stashed the half-completed models in an empty watershed half a
mile from the house, intending to blitz them later to wherever they ended up that night.
"I don't think it's particularly wise to stick together," Rachel said. They
were in the back of an otherwise empty bus, heading for Carson City at about 120 miles an
"I know. I know."
"But do you really think we can go it solo? I don't want Mary to be by
herself," Quinn said, looking at Jurg. They both glanced over to where she was curled
up under a pile of coats, sleeping.
"I don't fancy being alone either," Dare offered.
"Me neither," Rachel said, sounding a bit exasperated. "But I really don't
think it's safe. Not only do we look really conspicuous wandering around in a pack, but
one well aimed bomb or something, and we're all dead. This isn't a game! We are going
to get ourselves killed!"
There was a silence, as the last word echoed. Suki put her hands over her face,
but caught Jurg's eye through a fingerslit. He was looking at each of them in turn.
"I think that's a chance I'm willing to take, for now."
Rachel pursed her lips, but was silent.
Jurg took Rachel's advice to heart to some degree. After they decided to keep
moving, he suggested everyone go up to the counter and buy tickets either alone or in
pairs with at least an hour time lapse in between. While waiting, he pointed out a few
dusty Carson City restaurants and coffee shops down the street from the bus station in
which they could pass the time. No contact meanwhile.
Suki found herself alone in an strange Chinese delivery/takeout/eatin run by a
pair of young Germans. Perhaps that made as much sense as being here herself. While
playing the noodles around with her chopsticks, listening to the casual accented
conversation, Suki could almost pretend that she was who she claimed to be: just a
foreign student touring the States out for a meal that was closer to home than
hamburgers. Just like in Tokyo, at first, no one suspecting anything because there was
no reason to suspect what she said. No reason to doubt her mumbled story. Not that she
really thought ignorance was blissful, but what Suki knew– and knew she would have to do–
was something that did not sit easy.
The time alone was nice in a way, time to think, time to relax for a little
while. But she found herself uncomfortably wary of every person who walked into the
eatin. When her appointed time scrolled around, Suki was glad to rejoin the silent
group, if only for the extra pairs of watchful eyes.
About an hour from Chicago Suki sighed and turned off the tekone she had been
trying (to no avail) to sleep to, and heard Dare laughing at something Rachel had said.
Suki sat up and leaned into the conversation.
"I'm not sure if this is the right season to tell it. But the medicine man who
lived next door to my mom used to tell me that I was in danger of being courted by Coyote
if I didn't get married real soon, and then tell the story. When I was seventeen.
"So tell us!" Dare said.
Rachel was grinning. "Okay, here goes. I'll try to do this properly." She
closed her eyes.
"In a time in the beginning of the world, there lives a lovely woman who Coyote, the
trickster and fool, falls in love with. She keeps house for her 12 brothers, and doesn't
want to get married, so they come up with fantastic tasks for Coyote, her suitor, to do.
Which he does, using trickery and magic. So, despite their wishes, she has to marry him."
"Sounds like a Scottish fairy tale."
"That's just the first bit. Living with Coyote makes her evil and bitter, for a
number of reasons, and soon she is using magic too, to turn into a bear. That becomes
her name: Changing Bear Woman. She pulls out her eyeteeth and sticks bone awls in their
place, and then fur grows all down her back. She takes out her vital organs and lays
them in a safe place, then goes out and hunts down her enemies. No one can kill her
because nothing that hits her stops her heart. This continues for some time, until
Changing Bear Woman goes crazy, and starts killing her brothers. She systematically
kills them from the oldest to the youngest, until only the little boy is left. He sees
everything, of course, so he hides in a cave.
"Changing Bear Woman knows how to find him though– don't laugh, this is the way
the story goes– by defecating and seeing which way the bolus of shit points."
"Eew!" Dare said, trying unsuccessfully not to laugh. "That would never happen
in one of our tales!"
"Go on," Suki said, finding herself giggling at Dare's expression.
Rachel shook her head. "Right. It lands standing straight up and down. So
Changing Bear Woman digs down right beneath her, and finds the little boy. They have a
furious fight, but every arrow that the boy shoots at her just gets shaken off. Finally
they're battling near Changing Bear Woman's cave, and he looks around himself when he
gets knocked down once, and sees her vital organs sitting in a bush. He shoots an arrow
straight into the bloody pile, and at once the Bear falls down dead."
"Oh. Oh wow." Dare said. "I get it."
"That's what made me think of it. It's too close. And I am never comfortable
Suki looked at her. The models of course, and their bodies hidden away like the
vital organs. That was uncanny. "But you aren't evil or crazy," Suki said, softly.
Dare nodded. "At least, I don't think we are. And we will guard you too, like.
You're not fighting by yourself."
"I know. But I think there's a part of me that truly believes the parallel. I
can't shake it."
"Is there some ritual you could perform to protect yourself?" Suki asked,
familiar with the echoing power of a mythologically based culture. "An offering?"
"No," Rachel smiled, and gave half a laugh, "I never really participated in Diné
magic. I wouldn't know where to start. But thanks for not thinking I'm off my rocker."
When they got to Chicago, Jurg suggested they head North, perhaps as far as the
Canadian border. Bus tickets were easy to secure, but the busses only ran once every
day. Quinn, offering so Suki and Jurg could sleep, went into the restroom with his gear
and transported the tools and half-finished models to their present location. Time
seemed to blur as she caught a few hours of black dreamless sleep. Suki didn't
understand why she could sleep with so many people moving around her, talking, music
playing, but the minute she was in a moving vehicle, her body just refused to relax. She
felt a lot better after she woke up, but still restless.
Everyone was quiet. It wasn't a hostile silence, more anticipatory, more
resigned, more weary. The station in Chicago was semi-crowded, and they had camped out
on a pair of facing benches. Mary was awake for once, sitting with Jurg's head in her
lap. She hummed softly as she ran her fingers through his short hair. Rachel had her
earphones connected to her lapscreen, and was busy scanning the live feeds for any
attacks or information. Since the battle on the Isle of Lewis, there had been no
attacks. No sightings of any drones. Aliases everywhere, still. Quinn and Dare were
working out some software glitches, trying to figure out exactly how to create a new
wireless suit, with a transportable rechargeable power system.
Suki rose and stretched, feeling itchy. She needed a run. The bus left in three
"I'll be back in an hour," she said. Mary nodded, gave her a half smile, and
kept humming. Rachel waved distractedly.
So Suki pulled open the doors of the bus station, and confronted the crowded
street. She wasn't exactly dressed for a run, but she didn't feel like changing. Her
shoes met the pavement squarely, and she ran through the steady stream of businessmen
returning home, women on the sidewalk with children, school kids. A lot of them were as
dark as Quinn, which probably would have unsettled her at one time. Now, as long as
their eyes didn't slant just so, their faces a strange resemblance to that of Mr.
Westing, she didn't care. She just ran.
One street looked enough like the next that Suki was careful not to turn any
corners. After a while, she came to a more upperclass residential neighborhood, where
the sidewalk was separated from the road by a swash of mowed Kentucky bluegrass. The
houses turned into restaurants and shops. She started to lose her breath against a huge
pain in her side, and took in how fast she had been going. Too fast. No need to make
herself sick. Suki slowed to a jog, then a walk, and came to a row of short mailboxes
outside of a terraced Italian diner. Perfect for stretching against.
Her chest heaved, as she closed her eyes and leaned over her leg.
Suddenly, something grabbed her hand, hard. She didn't even know what she was
doing before feeling her punch land against Yuzo's face.
Her jaw dropped. "Gomen, gomen!" she cried, putting her hands to his face. His
nose was bleeding. How had. . .what was he doing here?
"Ao, what the hell are you doing here?" he asked in nasal Japanese, shrugging out
of her hands. He looked furious. Suki felt a matching anger rising in her.
"One could ask the same thing from you!" she bit back, and immediately regretted
it. There were too many people around. Grabbing his elbow, Suki pulled him into the
"Two, please," she said. The waitress didn't even glance at them, but pointed to
a table in the back.
"Now," Yuzo said, sitting opposite her, and using a bunch of napkins from the
dispenser for his nose. "I think I deserve an explanation."
"How did you find me? What are you doing here?"
He now looked puzzled and angry. "I saw you from across the street, I was on my
way from the airport to the bus station. I made the taxi stop. Didn't you send that
"A note?" Suki asked, and shook her head. There had been nothing of where she
would be in that note– she hadn't known she was going to be in Chicago at all! She had
recopied it four times, getting the kana just right, clear and rational enough to let him
know she was alright, but vague enough that there had been no hint of what she was going
to be doing. There was no way it was a coincidence. Something else was going on.
His eyes softened a little, at last. "Sorry I scared you."
"Sorry I punched you. Are you okay?"
He nodded, the first hint of a smile. "But like I said. I want an explanation.
Suki also wanted details: how she could get out of here without spilling
everything to him. It was dangerous for him to be here. The waitress wandered over, and
Yuzo hastily picked up a menu.
"Two rasagna pu-rese," he said, in broken English. "An' two watah."
The girl didn't even write it down.
Yuzo set the menu down, and looked directly at Suki. She felt herself blushing,
and swallowed hard.
"I don't know where to start," she said. Someone else must have left the note.
Someone else, as in: the aliases. Which meant they were being followed. She needed to
get back to the bus station– without Yuzo– and warn the others.
Yuzo shrugged. "Why don't you start at the beginning?"
Suki shook her head. Too complicated. How do you distill an entire four and a
half months of confusion into a few comforting elusive sentences? There had to be a way
to tell only part of the truth. "The aliens," she said softly and slowly, "were here
before the ships came. It's complicated, but I got mixed up in it all and now we're
trying to find a safe place, so I have to go." No, that wasn't right. Suki shook her
head. "I want you to believe me. But I can't explain it all at once. They could be
anywhere. And I'm endangering you. "
"You are the aorusui," Yuzo said in a whisper. It was like a slap. The need to
flee became overwhelming. It took considerable strength to rise slowly.
"I. . .I can't do this." she said. "I need–"
He grabbed her hand, again, almost desperately. "Don't go! Was it what I said
about my advisor?"
"Iie, iie," Suki shook her head, "not at all. It wasn't you. The akahata– "
"Did you love me? Do you love me?"
His eyes were glowing gently in the low lamplight, mouth tight, every ounce of
him hanging on her next words. Suki suddenly couldn't see, her eyes were full of tears,
and she was sobbing uncontrollably. He stood and pulled her close to him, warm arms
holding her as she sobbed. Watashi wa baka, she thought, what a great way to attract
attention. Wasn't I thinking I had to be stronger now? Stupid, stupid. Baka, Baka.
Yuzo rocked her back and forth, stroking her hair. Every touch tingled.
"Yuzo," she said at last, pulling away a little. "I have to go. The bus leaves
in. . .two hours."
"I'll walk you there," he said. The waitress grumpily put their food in two
plastic boxes at Suki's muffled request.
He was silent, arm around her shoulder. She had run a long way, farther than she
had expected. Suki put her arm around his waist, and leaned into him.
"I want to stay with you," Suki said, feeling the need to fill the air. "I wish
I could just forget this."
"Can't you?" he said, "What can be so important? The attacks have stopped. The
pounders have disappeared. You've succeeded." Pounders– the media's name for the
aliens, Suki reminded herself. It was hard to remember that everyone else in the world
saw the aliens differently. As an annoyance maybe, as a puzzle, possibly. As a minor
threat. But not something to run from, to hide from, to fight.
"They're not gone, they're hiding, and there are more coming. We think the ones
here are just robots, controlled from afar by the aliens themselves. You can't transport
organic matter faster than light, it ends up charred. So they sent the robots ahead.
And now more aliens are coming, and we're not prepared, we have no clue what will happen
when they get here."
"More aliens? What do you mean by we? The other robots– the other rusui. Wait-
- that girl?"
Suki nodded. "She's one."
"Midori," Suki said. "The green."
They lapsed into silence again. Suki felt drained, tired. Grim. And
"I had a weird dream about you." Yuzo said, suddenly.
"Before I met you, I mean. Before I went to the hostel. When I first started
working for Wanabe-san. I was so excited about the prelims of the research on the murine
anatomy that I pulled a few all-nighters. I also didn't have a place to stay in Tokyo
yet. Sometime in the middle of the night I dreamt that my advisor came in with a
floating gurney, with you on it. They were doing something. I kind of tried to make
them stop, but it was one of those vague black dreams, where most of the time you are
struggling to merely see what's going on."
Suki stopped walking. And she had woken in the same hospital in which his
advisor worked. "What?" He asked, stopping along side her.
"Was that it? Was that all of the dream?" she probed. This, too, was no
"I don't think it was a dream." Puzzle pieces falling into place. If she had
been taken in Tokyo and kept in Tokyo, maybe New York really was the place to concentrate
on searching for Ben. She started walking again, and Yuzo fell into step. "What did she
do to me?"
"I don't remember. Like I said, it was hard to see. You were screaming, I
think, at some point, and there were all these other twins, exactly identical. And weird
symbols flashing on the wall. And no one said a word. I really don't remember anything
more. It was like they were installing something, or doing an experiment. Also they had
Suki pulled up a display on her watch of the marks Ben had made in the
sand. "Did the symbols look like this?"
"Um. . .yeah. Sort of. But there were more. And rounder."
"We think they're a kind of alien script."
"Can you translate it?"
Suki shook her head. The bus station glared ahead, flourescent white lights to
eliminate all the shadows. And the busses pulling up symbolized the lost chance of good
rest. They lingered at the doorway. He held her hands tighter than before, and suddenly
she could see tears in his eyes now. Hers were dry.
"You have to go. I have to go," she said, at last. "If I make it through, when
this is over. . . ," He looked down. "I'll be in Tokyo. I'll leave word with the
"I'll find you. Just, don't tell anyone, Yuzo."
"Of course not," he said. "Professional discression." He winked.
Suki pushed the bus station door open, and watched him turn.
"Yuzo," she called, just before he was out of earshot. She felt her chest
"Ash'ta des'ne." I do love you.
And then around her the glass shattered.
"Kyots'kete!" Suki yelled at Yuzo, then ducked, sidling for a wall. She knew it
was too dangerous for him!
"Watch out!" someone else echoed, as Dare's black machine swung for a person
running outside. Short, black hair, muscled, young. One swing of the club-arm, and the
victim came flying inside, landing in a crushed heap by Suki's feet.
It was her own face, staring up at her! Suki screamed, trying to climb the wall
to get away.
"Oh, Jesus," someone said from far far distant. Suki closed her eyes, sobbing in
fright. She was herself, not looking at herself through her model. She was not on the
floor, but huddling against a cold wall. This was not a dream, not a premonition, just
an assault. Just an alias. There was a pop as it disappeared. The thing had an
automatic blitz-back or something. No evidence.
"Ao-chan! Shhh. Daijobu, ne!" A hand against her arm. She let Yuzo pull her
away from the disappearance site of that doppelganger alias, then lead her around a
corner, and sit her on a bench. "You're okay, right?" It was as though her throat had
constricted. She struggled to breathe.
More footsteps came in their direction. Suki flinched, trying to hide. That
face, it was her face, but dead and cold. How had she become an alias? "Who are you?"
Quinn's voice sounded a million miles away.
"What are you doing here?" Rachel's voice. "Suki told us about you."
"Shouldn't you be in Japan?" Jurg added. Someone put large hands on Suki's
cheeks. She jerked, then opened her eyes to a close-up of Quinn's worried face.
"Are you okay, Blue?"
Suki nodded into his palms, finally feeling the panic recede a little. He hugged
her hard, a fatherly, muscled embrace. Quinn's arms could chase all the demons in the
world away. "It came while I was gone?" she asked, finally finding her voice.
"They must be watching us somehow," Jurg said in answer. Dare came out of the
bathroom opposite Suki's bench, panting. He flicked a worried smile at her, running a
hand through his sweat-spiked dark hair. "We weren't as observant as you Thursday last.
It took us a fecking hour to figure out it wasn't you." Quinn rose and gave Dare one of
his rippa hugs.
Jurg was fuming about something. "Christ, now we'll be on all the vids,
the ‘colors attacking humans' now. What were you thinking?"
"For fuck's sake, Jurg, it was an alias?" Dare pounced. "What was I supposed to
do? Let it get away?"
"You could have waited for some consensus!"
"There wasn't time!"
"Jurg, get off his case. I don't think anyone here really knows what just
happened," Mary said, sitting down on the other side of Suki from Yuzo. She turned to
Suki. "The damn thing just lay there, looking at us."
"I don't think it stole anything."
"We should be on the lookout for a Dare alias as well." Jurg said, "What would
you two say to a password, every time you rejoin the group?"
"Annoying, but safe," Dare said, holding Quinn's waist. "Better give one to
everyone, just in case that lying there and staring thing wasn't to get everyone else's
"They don't talk, do they?" Rachel said.
"Yes, but Mr. Westing sure did. Maybe they just can't replicate the voice as
"How ‘bout just call roll every so often," Jurg suggested. "We could just
Suki nodded in agreement. Yuzo was staring at everyone. She suddenly wondered
how much of the rapid English conversation he had caught. "Are we still leaving?" she
asked. "It seems they can find us anywhere. They told Yuzo where to find me."
"Might as well, we've bought the tickets. We should probably get away from the
commotion here at any rate," Rachel said.
Almost as a group, they rose and walked back to the benches they had occupied all
afternoon to retrieve their belongings. A crowd of police had arrived on the scene,
poking through the glass, glancing in their direction. Yuzo clung to Suki's hand, as the
group shielded her from view. "What about him?" Jurg asked, as they made their way to
Mary shrugged. "We have enough for another ticket."
"Another egg," Rachel said.
Jurg just shook his head.
March meant different things to people on either side of the 49th parallel. Suki
felt almost as if she had taken a step back in time with the weather getting colder
again. A small cluster of attacks occurred one night, in South Korea, Zimbabwe, and St.
Petersburg. They used the new models to fight the drones for the first time– they worked
well, Suki noted with a small amount of pride. As Suki disabled the last drone, she felt
almost guilty, letting the stupid aliases out of the box. How easy it would have been
just to lash them into pieces. But the public demanded. And Rachel thought it was
actually a good thing as far as human relations for the ‘colors.' The episode in the
Chicago bus station was commented upon, but the boon of Dare's model being black was that
it almost looked like a smaller version of a drone sometimes. The security cam pics were
very blurred. The more upstanding media, for some strange reason intent on making
the ‘colors' into heros, decided that the attack had been by a ‘pounder.' Jurg and Dare
were still peeved at each other.
Even the deserted warehouse they had found in Brittish Columbia had been attacked
one night by a dozen or so aliases, just blitzing into existence during a rather dull
lunch. They had fronted it easily enough, but it was nerve-racking all the same. Suki
knew Jurg would make them move.
"I guess we're just going to have to get used to the fact that they can find us
anywhere," Rachel said, grumpily throwing the metal bits from a pair of prototype
model's legs an alias had managed to destroy into the scrap pile. When the floor was
swept, she went back to organizing a bunch of flicker feathers she had been attaching to
her model: apparently a Navajo warrior custom or something.
"Jurg said we need someone suited at all times," Suki said.
"That'll be easier when Dare and Quinn finish the new suits," Mary yelled down
from a broken light fixture, also hit in the skirmish. Since they were trespassing, they
decided to make sure nothing was worse for the wear.
It was just the girls in here, Suki realized, as she prepared to light the laser
torch and attempt to fix those blasted legs. Dare and Quinn in the corner suited and
only paying attention to their model's senses didn't count. Mary yelled a lookout, as a
piece of wiring came flying down from the ceiling. Not long after, she herself came
sliding down the rope they had strung up.
"Ow. That burns," she said, shaking her hands. "I don't think we need to tidy
that much. It wasn't too clean in the first place. And I bet they'll be back."
"Suki," Rachel said, wiping her hands on her pants, "how did Yuzo find you?"
Suki shrugged. "I don't know. He said something about a note. I thought he
meant the note I wrote when I left, but that doesn't make sense. I think the aliases
copied my handwriting or something. Told him I'd be in Chicago. He was on his way to
the bus station, and saw me from his taxi."
"I don't think it could be a coincidence." Mary said. "I'd be very suspicious,
but he's human. Right?"
"Of course!" Suki said, shocked. He didn't feel like metal when she hit him at
least, she admitted, and felt guilty that she knew that. No, he was too idiosyncratic.
"Don't underestimate the blindness of human nature," Rachel said. "He did work
for an alias, and really respected her."
"But good came out of it, at least for me," Mary said, tapping the silver node
sitting right below her collar bones. "I owe my life to it."
"At least we know a little more about the purpose of the kidnaping," Rachel
granted. "But I have scanned every hospital in the world for an unknown patient matching
to Ben's description, for the two weeks after his kidnapping, and nothing came up."
"Maybe he gave a fake name." Mary shrugged.
"Or dyed his hair," Suki added. "Or grew a beard. We were all using false
identities. Remember, I was in Tokyo. They didn't take me far. I'm only flesh."
"I'll tighten the search radius around New York and try again," Rachel nodded,
and left. "I'll see if I can pick up any street fights around the time of the kid-
napping." Mary rolled up her sleeves, and grinned at Suki.
"You want some help building?"
"I'd love some."
The boys came back from the survey and shopping, filling the warehouse with the
sound of voices again. Yuzo looked a little more comfortable than he had before.
Perhaps doing something constructive had made a difference. And getting to know Jurg a
bit better. It was nice to have seven people again, though Suki still felt Ben's absence
all the time.
Suki waved vaguely in Yuzo's direction, but kept working. Two more of the new
models were finished, except for their personalized effects. Jurg claimed one, and
hooked up his own torch to the power source to start fiddling around with the new weapons
specs and materials Dare had retrieved for him. Yuzo handed him a bucket of red metallic
glaze. The last two only needed the brains attached to the heads, and the nodes trouble-
shot. Mary had just put the finishing touch on the legs.
"When are you going to finish the suits?" Jurg asked, as Quinn came over with
some bottled water.
"Do you know how to sew?" the taller boy countered, then grinned. "Probably
tomorrow. We need everyone's body measurements. Dare claimed you. He stuck me with
Suki and Rae."
Jurg laughed. "Don't get jealous now."
"Mm-hmm." Quinn nodded. "I'd be more worried about Mary's reaction, if I were
Mary jumped up from her work, turned and put a protective arm around Jurg's neck–
then tightened it into a headlock. Jurg protested, so she knuckled his scalp. "Yup.
He's mine. You don't s. . . ." she trailed off.
Suki turned around at the silence. Something had changed in Mary's posture, and
she fell forward into Quinn's quick catch.
"Schiesse!" Jurg breathed, helping Quinn roll her over. Her eyes were closed,
"What happened?" Rachel asked, hurrying over.
"Yuzo!" Suki called, motioning him over. "Let him in, move back!"
Slowly, Yuzo took Mary's pulse, felt for breath, put his hand on her forehead.
In soft Japanese, he said, "She seems to have a weak pulse, but I have no ECG or any
"What about that controller for the node?"
"Exactly. I'll see if I can get it to measure that. Do you know where she put
Suki shook her head. "Do you know where Mary kept the remote for the node?" she
asked in English for the rest of the group.
"In her purse," Jurg said, and rushed to the pile of sleeping bags that marked
their bedroom. He sprinted back, sliding on the rubbery linoleum for the last few
"Oh," Yuzo said, after tapping a few buttons. "Her blood pressure is at 80/56.
Did she stand up quickly?"
"Mn." Suki nodded.
"Probably just orthostatic hypotension. Hang on." He pressed some more, feeling
her pulse again. "It might take a few minutes."
"What did he say?" Jurg asked. Suki translated as best she could, she didn't
know a lot of the medical terms and left those vague. Yuzo bit his lip, staring at the
small calculator-sized device.
"Me-ri?" Yuzo said, after a while, squeezing the hand Jurg wasn't clinging to.
She gave a small moan, then opened her eyes.
"What happened?" she asked, looking confused. "Another attack?"
"No, you fainted," Jurg said, almost panting with relief. "But you're okay now."
Yuzo nodded. "Tell them that she should probably get some rest, so the nanotech
can work its magic. I've asked it to monitor venous constriction."
Suki complied, moving out of the way as Jurg helped Mary slowly stand and walk to
her sleeping bag. Suki suspected no one was going to want to continue working tonight,
so she cut the power to the tools. A wave of silence washed over the room.
"Arigato," Suki said, but Yuzo was out of earshot and didn't hear her. Even if
it hadn't been a coincidence, there was a good reason for him to be here.
"Gomen, gomen. Sorry." Suki panted, lying back down against her pillow. Quinn
and Yuzo and Rachel had all been sitting there when she woke up screaming, again. Quinn
mumbled something, and snuggled back up to Dare.
Yuzo rolled over into his sleeping bag again, eyes still open. Suki watched him,
wondering what he was thinking. His jaw was set, lips tight.
She looked away, closing her eyes. Ben was still lost in that nightmare, Suki
thought, or else in a hospital. Or dead. Images flashed in her brain, of his yellow
model disintegrating as her view became more blue static. The last time she had seen him
in person was at the airport, in January. The last time she had seen him electronically
was only a few hours before they got him. What was the purpose of those ideographs
written in the sand? Suki wondered. Was that really Ben or just someone stealing his
model? The last time she had thought she had seen him was the day before they had left
the desert, when she had bashed his head in with a model arm.
Suki had killed him twice. In western cultures, three was ‘the charm,' in her
own, it was the fourth. Superstition was stupid, she thought, but couldn't help wishing
that it would be the Japanese way. At least it let her see him one time more.
Akahata. "Yuzo, what's your middle name?" Suki asked. Sometimes traditional
families gave their clan name as middle names when women were heirs. Was it a clan
"Don't have one."
"Does akahata mean anything to you?"
"In soccer, it means you're out of the game. Why?"
"We're supposed to watch for it."
He was silent for a few seconds, watching her as she dressed. Pointedly glancing
at Jurg and Dare, still hanging around the sleeping area. Suki didn't care anymore.
"I'm going to go for a run," she said. "You want to come?"
"I'll just tread in here. I bet Dare's shoes would fit you."
"That's okay," Yuzo said, shaking his head with a slight smile. "I think I'll
help Re-che-ru with breakfast."
Suki nodded, and tied her shoe. "She'll appreciate that. None of the rest of us
like to cook."
Yuzo propped himself on both elbows. "You all get along so well."
"Mostly," Suki said, glancing around. People were moving slowly this morning.
Mary was sitting, sipping something from a mug, smiling at whatever Jurg was saying
softly to her. Dare was hooked up to two lapscreens, still in his sleeping bag. Quinn
was doing push-ups in the workshop area.
"No, it's amazing. Take a random group of seven people, and they'll band into
twos or threes or fours and fight. Never make a decision. Get angry over relationships."
"We were selected," Suki said. "The International Robotics and Technology
Institute. I even have a sweatshirt. We thought we were going to school. And we do
fight. A lot."
"Mn," Yuzo said, "Regardless, whoever did that knew how to pick people."
"It wasn't a who, it was an it," Suki said. It was a frightening thought, to
think that the aliens might know humans better than humans could know themselves. "But
they made few mistakes."
"Really? Like what?"
"Like, you should have been there from the beginning."
Yuzo laughed out loud, precisely the goal of Suki's declaration. She leaned in
and ruffled his stiff hair. He caught her hand, and kissed it. "Ash'ta. I'm so glad
you let me come," he said. "Even if it is dangerous and scary."
"Ash'ta mo, Yu-chan. Now, if I don't get some exercise I'll go crazy."
Suki turned, unable to erase her smile. Quinn caught her eye and winked.
"On guard," Dare said, as Suki put up her blue model's hands. His black made a
feint to the right with his gun, then went in for a punch on the left. Suki was ready,
and blocked it with a high kick that made the warehouse echo with the crash of metal.
The black recovered quickly, and came in with a flurry of punches, a good portion of
which Suki managed to deflect. Toward the end, though, he was moving too fast, and she
jumped out of the way, flipping her weight so she spun in the air and landed facing him.
She aimed, fired, and hit his shoulder with her gun.
"What are you doing!?!" Jurg yelled, and Suki felt someone grabbing her hands.
She sucked in her breath; didn't anyone remember that that hurt?!? She looked over to
where she and Dare stood, corporally, goggled and gloved.
"It's paint!" Dare said, the black also turning to look.
"Mench, you scared me." Jurg let go of her. She watched him start to move away.
"Hey, do you want to join in?"
"Er. . .sure!" Jurg slipped on his shoes and peeled off his sweatshirt to reveal
body-tight red underneath. Thin as lycra, and more comfortable. It actually felt good
to move in these new
suits, compared to the weight of wires. The red model came to life as Jurg snapped his
"I still don't like the idea of fighting each other," Rachel voiced, from the
sleeping area. "Can't you just go outside and find a cliff or something?"
"Cliffs don't move," Quinn said. "Wait, I'm playing too."
"Rachel? Come on, you need a break, like. You're forever working."
"If Mary does."
"Is it all right Yuzo?"
Yuzo shrugged. "The machine say you are okay. But carefuru." Even Suki winced
at his poor English. It made her realize how she had taken her own language ability for
Mary jumped up, and raced Rachel to their equipment. "Last one in is a rotten
Suki turned just in time to block a blow from the new red model, but not before
catching the half longing, half frightened look on Yuzo's face.
They went outside anyway, into the snow.
The brown spun around, Suki could hear the grin in Rachel's voice. "The Ojibway
and Cree weren't as renowned as the Inuit for their igloos and winter hunts, but it does
get cold in the east. My grandfather loved telling stories about people getting lost and
then having to eat each other to survive. Turning into windigos, eating people stew.
People roast. People cutlets. People frie-"
"Rachel– on guard!" Dare squealed, as Mary's green smacked her brown model with
a snowball. "That's cheap!" Rachel returned the fire. Soon it was a snowball fight,
instead of hand to hand, which suited Suki because she figured out a blitz attack that
plastered Jurg's red model in frozen whiteness three times before he blocked a move.
Quinn was whispering to someone, and Suki ducked behind a drift with only her
optic screen above the mound so she could see what was going on. Suddenly Mary shifted,
unfurling wings from her arms and legs. Quinn grabbed her, dunked her in a snowbank,
collecting a four meter by two meter chunk of snow. Jurg put his hands on her ankles,
then swung her in the air. She wedged her wings so the snow wouldn't fall out.
"Now!" Quinn said, and Mary dropped her left wing. The snow arced through the
air to crash into Dare and Rachel's close quarter battle. They both ended up buried,
"Okay, enough. You win," Rachel gasped, at last. "Lunch? I'm starving."
Quinn held out a hand to Suki, pulling her out of the snowbank.
"Hopefully you can wait long enough to cook the freezedry stew. Traditions are
hard to break, eh Rae?" The brown model made an insulting gesture, and vanished.
"I say we eat Quinn first," Mary said, and blitzed inside. "That way Rachel is
still here to cook him."
When Suki removed her goggles, the two girls were arm in arm, walking toward the
kitchen. Jurg sighed, also watching them. He had an unconscious smile on his face.
Dare glanced at him too, then pulled Suki away to help wipe off the models, leaving Jurg
to his reverie. Suki agreed– he deserved it. Gods, what fun it would be if Ben were
here too. Like a whole family reunion.
"Okay, got it," Rachel said. She projected the image on the wall, Quinn doing a
makeshift rerout of the screen image through Mary's portable vidplay. The picture was
snow. For miles and miles.
"Northern Siberia," Jurg said. "It wasn't until the sun went down that we could
get an accurate reading of the fission track of the heavy metals. The radiation from the
sun against the snow blurred it. There's a fresh crater."
"That looks like an avalanche," Rachel said.
"Or a clearcut," Dare added.
Yuzo shook his head. He spoke softly into Suki's ear, "The angle isn't steep
enough, and that's refrozen ice in the center."
Suki nodded. "Sodes'ne. We don't think it's natural."
"It's not." Rachel said. "Here's the other thing. A strange flight from JFK of
an un-IDed military vessel four weeks to the day after Ben disappeared. I looked at it
before, but because it was daytime, I couldn't get accurate readings. It was a long
shot, but the more I followed it, the more solid it got."
"I'll bet anything this is the original touchdown spot."
"Of the aliases."
"Right," Rachel took a step back. "The pounders– that's the media name for
drones, sorry, I've been watching too much feed– didn't touch down until November
obviously. The oldest snow here, according to the specs, is roughly April."
"Didn't any satellites see it? Any UFO sightings?"
"No, several experienced a mild static."
"I bet it was a reloop," Dare said. "Simple."
"But 47 satellites at once?" Quinn asked, looking over his boyfriend.
Dare shrugged. "They're brilliant. Shite, they gave us the models."
"So these are pics from the spy-ders Suki and Mary put together yesterday." Jurg
said. More of the script in metallic insets. Silent choreographed walking of various
aliases– three or four of which were Suki models. Yuzo squeezed her hand, as she closed
her eyes. She felt a mild pinch of panic. More silent unmoving aliases, one that looked
like Ben. Some foggy rooms with large metallic sounds.
"All the spy-ders were crushed at once, when the nearest alias suddenly turned
and smashed them. They all got the signal at once. These were the only pics we got."
"So here's the question," Jurg said, signaling Quinn to turn off the vid. "Do
we attack now? We don't know if Ben is there or not, or if it'll just be another suicide
like the Isle of Lewis. Should we wait the two weeks until the Red Banner get here?"
"Two weeks by what calendar?" Quinn asked. "Their current velocity says 8 days."
"Verdammt." Jurg said, and paced a little. Suki found it weird that everyone
always swore in their respective native tongues. Maybe that made it a little less
harsh. "But they may have to slow for a while. All I know is, they've infiltrated twice
using copies of us as models."
"Wait," Mary said, sitting up from her lounging position against Rachel's
knees. "I just had an idea."
"We could do the same. Infiltrate. I pushed my model to mach two yesterday, in
a dive. I could power Suki or Dare to Siberia. They'll take them for one of the
"Oh, I don't know," Rachel said. "That's awfully dangerous." Jurg was silent
for a while, then turned to look at her.
"What do you think?"
"No feckin' way," Dare said.
Suki glanced at Yuzo, then back to Jurg, her heart pounding. "If you think it's
a good idea, I'll do it. We have only eight days," she said, softly. "But who knows how
much longer Ben has? If he's still alive? Any minute could be the crucial one. Just to
know some answers."
"It's not like Blue's helpless," Quinn said. "Maybe we could figure out some
body armor, or something"
"Rae?" Jurg asked. Rachel detangled herself from the wires, and walked over to
Jurg. She whispered something, making a series of quite gestures with her hands. Jurg
answered her just as inaudibly. She nodded, then turned around to face Suki.
"You can back out any time you want," she said. "We'll all be ready to blitz at
the slightest hint of danger. Sound okay?"
"Yes." Suki said. "Tonight?"
"I don't like this," Dare said, "it's deadly risky. There are so many aliases."
"It's up to Suki," Mary said. "Don't pressure her." Suki didn't feel pressured,
if Jurg and Rachel thought it would be a good idea, she trusted them, especially if it
meant getting Ben back. She felt more comfortable being the doer, anyway, rather than
"I'll go," Suki said, again.
"Let's get ready, then." Jurg said, though he didn't sound happy.
Chapter 10 Eggs in a Basket
Suki closed her eyes, and took a breath.
"You good?" Mary asked.
Suki couldn't nod, her head was pressed against a squishy mat, and the rest of
her bundled tightly in three sleeping bags in case she got cold. On her fists, shins,
feet, forearms, thighs, and stomach were close pieces of hastily shaped paraplastic,
conforming to her body, tied together with strings; over her blue suit but under her
clothes. Yuzo made a snide comment about Samurai armor. They were still warm, and made
the ride a lot more comfortable. They had brought two extra sleeping bags in case Ben
could be rescued. Mary assured Suki that the weight wouldn't be too much. Suki guessed
Mary knew what she was talking about.
"Here's a countdown," Jurg said, in her ear. "On one, Mary's going to take off
upward. It should take about four hours."
"I know," Suki said, barely able to move her jaw.
Jurg counted down softly, and Suki felt her body tensing despite her
willingness. When Jurg said "one," there was a huge lurch, and her stomach dropped.
They were falling. They were going to die before they even got to Siberia, to the
aliases lair. Suki felt an incredible calm wash over her.
But then her stomach lurched again– they were rising. The calm disappeared as a
set of shudders ran through her body. Everything was fine. She tried to put her mind on
the task at hand. Right. The pressure monitor kicked in, and she popped her ears. She
had four hours of darkness, in this semi-warmess, knowing she was up for a trial when
they landed. Just as Rachel's grandfather had told her stories, Suki was struck by an
image of her own ancient great-grandfather, sitting cross-legged in an incensed room,
telling her softly how to meditate. Bitter sandalwood, the tatami floor, huge fading
grey suns decorating the screens behind his cushion. Slowly, Suki remembered what he had
said about fighting in World War II. About the importance of duty. About how it felt to
"Wake up," Mary said. "We're here."
"I'm awake," Suki mumbled. There was a rush of cold air as the carrier door
dropped open. She wriggled out of the sleeping bags, stepped into the waist-high snow,
and pushed the green casing closed again. The green model turned to look at her.
"The entrance is right in front of you. If you can't open it, I'll try the blitz
string. Then I'm out of here."
Slowly, Suki pushed through the drifts. Her teeth started to shatter as the
cold invaded entirely. "I-I don't see it."
"Here, sorry," Mary said, and scooped up a pile of snow with a wing. "I could
see it glowing."
Suki looked at the dials. Pushed one. Nothing happend. Pushed another.
"Let me," Mary said. She flipped her blitz string out of her hand, and the door
disappeared with a crash.
"Watch it!" Jurg said, into her earpiece. "You almost got Dare."
"Move out of the blitz-in spot, silly," Mary said. "I'm coming home."
There was a pop, and Suki was alone. Jurg must have put his hand down, because
she didn't hear Mary arrive at the warehouse. Suki took a breath, and started climbing
shakily down the ladder.
It went down for about thirty meters before leveling out. The place was dimly
lit, but comfortably human sized. Heated, but only barely comfortable. It would make
sense that the aliases functioned at human body temperature– that way they could adapt to
any human habitat. It was the same reason they looked like humans, and talked like
humans. It wasn't the best adapted naturally selected form, but it was what they had
need for here. Footsteps. Suki composed her face, and clenched her fists. The first
It was a Mr. Westing model. It didn't look at her as it passed, and she made no
extraneous movements to attract his attention. Another model followed him, a black-
skinned one who would have looked at home in Africa or Australia. Luckily, they had no
set uniform of clothing, though some went around naked. Suki wondered casually if it was
special clothing made of metals that could blitz. Another alias passed by, carrying a
welder and sheets of metal pinned together. A work crew, Suki realized, to fix the
Suki followed the corridor down to a large common room where several aliases were
bent over large compressors and overhead machines that gave off steam at a steady beat.
She walked purposefully around the edge of the room, making sure the tiny drop-camera on
her forhead was picking up everything. To the right, along one wall, were bins with
various body-parts. Suki absently rifled through one, avoiding eye contact with a model
that looked like Yuzo's advisor. Something yellow, in the bin of flesh.
"Woah," Rachel said softly. "Grab it."
It was a piece of Ben's model. A back paw. Here to be recycled, it seemed.
"We've got to be on the right path," Dare said. Suki turned around to the
right, attracted by some letters glowing gently in the dim light.
"They don't seem to be bothering you," Quinn said, stating the obvious. "Don't
do anything out of the ordinary– they may actually ignore you all together."
"Wait," Jurg said. "Turn left." She complied smoothly, not missing a
step. "Keep going." There was a door, and another corridor. Letters above the
corridor, in the same script.
"The first three match the code Ben's model gave you. Walk around to the left."
Suki turned, and hugged the common room wall instead of heading down the hall as
she had planned. Above the next corridor, more letters. "Four are the same. Keep
going." An alias of Ben walked in front of her, coming out of the next entrance. Suki
tensed, but managed to keep her step.
"You're okay," Rachel's voice soothed. "Keep walking."
"Five are just alike. I bet it's a number system," Dare said. "Two more doors,
the characters should be what he sent us."
Suki walked a bee-line for the door-after-next, not looking at the rest of the
room or avoiding the steam. She got blasted, in the middle, but the warm felt good
against her face. The letters matched.
"Go ahead," Rachel urged. So Suki went, at a steady walk. She didn't flinch
when there was a crash in her earpiece, and the sound went dead. She didn't flinch when
she saw herself walking down the hall toward her. She didn't flinch when Quinn's panting
breath came back on.
"You know those aliases that were just standing there? Go and stand next to them
for a while, ‘kay Blue?" And there was silence once more.
Her legs were sore and her back was sore and her neck was sore and she needed to
pee. And it was damn cold.
Slowly Suki stepped out from her little cell, and walked back down the corridor
into the main room. She turned, and walked down the sixth hall. At the end of this one,
a huge ceiling circled what looked like a tall generator or something. Maybe this was
what powered the place. Any power company would notice this much of a drain on their
resources. It must be independent. She was the only moving thing here. So she turned
and walked back to the common room, where aliases were now waking up and forming two
straight lines. She joined at the end of a brigade, feeling like she was living a
bizarre dream. Do what I'm doing, follow, follow. . . .
Three by three they filed into the third corridor. Various popping noises. No
light at the end of this passage, just an illuminated ring. A blitzer! Suki tried to
stop, but was pressed forward by the aliases behind her. The walls were close, and
rough. Finally, desperately, Suki jumped and caught a grip with her feet on one wall and
hands on the other, bridging the steady stream of aliases of all races and
denominations. None of them seemed to notice, oddly enough.
After three or four minutes her arms started to shake, hands sweaty against the
stone. Down the hall, she saw the end of the rows. They passed, beneath her. The last
ones disappeared. Suki dropped, panting. Where had they all gone? She wondered if she
was the only one left.
Looking both ways, Suki started back toward the common room. The compressors and
machines were off, and the steam had cleared. One other alias was there, motionless.
She steeped up to a different machine to get a better view, and was not surprised. Molds
of human form. Small capsules to construct more aliases. Even though the drones had
apparently been eradicated, the aliases had a production line going here on Earth.
Footsteps, in unison, from the sleeping-area. Three aliases, the tall Mr.
Westing kind, spread to do a survey of the room. Suki ducked behind a block, hoping she
hadn't been seen. The center one approached the frozen alias, and cut it into pieces
with a whip type thing. The head was thrown into a vat of the acid, the rest sorted into
bins to the left. The three left, down the second hallway– the one that led outside.
Suki was left alone in a dungeon with bins of body parts.
There was only one door she couldn't get open by punching the lock in and pulling
out the wires. It seemed their electronics was very similar to human's, or at least,
their functional electronics. The mechanisms of the aliases were still far in advance of
anything Suki could imagine building.
That one uncrackable door was down the corridor with the code that matched
Ben's. She stared at the closed metal surface, trying to imagine what was on the other
side. It could be another army of aliases. Or a broom closet. Or Ben. Or Ben's body.
Or a communicating device. Another way out. The space ship they had arrived in. Or
Only one of those things Suki particularly wanted to see. She sat down, head in
her hands. It was too cold to sleep, she thought, but pulled herself into a ball anyway,
huddling against a little corner in the stone wall. Her left hand started to hurt. The
paraplastic was stiff. Suki's eyes closed.
"Suki? Suki?. . .Suki! Verdammt! Answer me!"
Suki blinked open her eyes, and then closed them again.
"Schesse. Suki!. . .um. . .Blue!"
Someone was calling her. "Blue!" She sat up, looked around. Oh, the earpiece.
"Oh, God. Thank God you're okay," Jurg said.
"What happened?" Suki asked, feeling a shudder through her entire body as her
eyes readjusted. Her hands were frozen, face frozen, legs numb. So tired.
"About sixty drones were. . . ." she couldn't concentrate on the voice. It
seemed like the stone had grown softer, while she slept, because the only thing she
wanted to do was to lie down against them again. Slowly, she let her eyes close.
"Suki! Stand up!" It was sharp– a command. Jurg's voice.
Suki sighed. "I can't. I'm too tired." she said, "‘s cold." It would be so easy
just to drift off again. Funny how here, she had no trouble sleeping. It was so cold.
"Now!" Her legs were stiff, and she couldn't feel them against the floor, but
somehow they still supported her. There were noises from the corridor, as several
aliases passed her and went down to the rooms with the large computers with very small
screens and several flashing lights. They didn't seem to care that the door had been
forced open. Suki let a grateful breath out.
Had they seen her lying there, they probably would have cut her up.
After they had gone, Jurg's voice spoke again. "Put a charge in the crack of the
door. Walk away, wait ten seconds, then when the crews start coming to fix it, walk back
and walk in."
Feeling not much more clearheaded, Suki complied, fumbling under her sweatshirt
for her hip pocket. Her hands were so cold, they didn't want to move correctly. But the
small compacted putty was warm in her hand, and grew hotter as she spread it down the
crack of the door. Looking both ways, she cracked the detonator cell. Ten steps and she
felt a painful heat from the blow. It didn't take long for crews to come again. They
didn't seem to find it unusual when Suki stepped through the hole, and into the dark
It was as though some strange God had granted her wish. Ben lay there, pale, on
a gurney. Several machines were hooked up to him, though they looked like they were
"It's really him!" Jurg said. "No glow!"
Suki stepped forward, and touched his forehead. The tickle of his warm soft red-
brown curls against her hand. Her mind flashed a sense memory of Southie. He moaned,
eyes flickered open. "Get the fuck away!" Ben shouted suddenly, jumping up, and smacking
Suki across the face. She staggered into the wall, disoriented by the pain. It took a
great effort to get up again.
"Itai!" she gritted. "It's me! The real Suki!" Ben had collapsed onto his
knees, and Suki bent over next to him. He looked up into her face, and wiped blood off
her lip. Soft fingers. Her eyes still wanted to close– it was a lot warmer in here.
"Sorry. Fuck. The aliases– copied you. Wanted to copy me too. I got away, but
they caught me again. Fought as best I could. Didn't fuckin' work."
"Came to take you home." Suki found she was also speaking in half sentences. It
"Knew you would," he said, smiling. Barely holding himself up.
There was a pop, as Mary's green model blitzed into the room. The white one
next. Quinn set up a blitz-string trip wire, fighting off all the aliases that suddenly
were tying to get into the room. Suki managed to drag Ben off the ground and roll him
into the carrier on Green's back. She pulled the sleeping bags around him, then around
herself and closed the door.
"Quinn– clear a path so they can get to the exit," Jurg's voice said.
Quinn grunted, and Suki felt them lurch. Ben's breath was quiet beside her. She
found his hand, in the warmed darkness. It was just as cold as her own. Suki closed her
eyes, again, and leaned her head on his shoulder. His head bent to lean on hers. She
had gotten her fill of being the active one. It was not up to her, anymore. For now.
Suki let Quinn lift her out of the carrier, then transfer her to Yuzo's arms. He
set her on her feet, carefully, a strange look in his eyes. Goggles around his neck.
"Hai, Yuzo-mo?" Suki asked, feeling like fainting.
He nodded. "Hai." He put a warm hand to her forehead, shook his head as though
he was worried. She watched them take Ben out, watched Yuzo taking his pulse and
temperature and everything too. So warm in the warehouse, compared to that dungeon. But
wait, it wasn't the right warehouse. Suki was too tired to let herself wonder why. Mary
came over, also a pained look in her eyes.
"You okay?" she asked, as she hugged Suki.
"Yes. You?" Suki let Mary steady her as she pulled back.
Mary nodded. "Come on." Suki let herself be blindly led to the sleeping bag
laid out for her. She fell into it, and barely felt someone removing her shoes, then her
shin-armor. Her helmet. "‘rigato," Suki mumbled. Mary pulled the top cover over her.
Ben was back. Cold bliss.
No, there had been something seriously wrong the night before.
"You didn't tell me," Suki said, shaking.
She had gone to see why Rachel hadn't gotten up this morning. Her light brown
skin had a green sheen, and when she'd pulled the Navajo style blanket down farther, she
saw that a jagged red cut had soaked Rachel's blouse from the neck downward. Brown, on
the white linnen. No pulse.
"You needed sleep. I tried while you were in Siberia, but Yuzo started yelling
about hypothermia," Jurg said, taking the corners from Suki and pulling the blanket back
over Rachel's body. The brown and black and red weaving had been the one possession
Rachel had refused to part with over their many moves.
Suki had the urge to pull it back down, to look at the wound again. Make it real.
"They all attacked at once– I don't know how many. Yuzo was fending them off
with a butcher knife from the kitchen, while the rest of us scrambled into our gear. We
had to form a circle around our bodies with the models. It was about ten on one for a
while, then the odds started getting better. Mary's model suddenly stopped. Rachel went
to see what was wrong, before I could– I wanted to– stop her– she. . ."
He put up a hand, trying to regain his composure. Suki found that she was
sobbing softly herself, clutching a corner of the blanket. The blanket covering what
they didn't want to face, though its placement broadcasted the meaning all too clearly.
Footsteps behind her, she turned to see Yuzo coming with a pair of mugs steaming with the
smell of tea.
"Douzo," he said, setting it by her knee. She nodded for thanks, not trusting
Jurg stood, and put a hand on Yuzo's shoulder. "You tell her."
The Swiss boy wandered down to the sleeping area, where Mary got up and folded
him into a hug. Yuzo gently removed the blanket from Suki's hand, taking her fingers
into his own. "How much did he say?"
"Mary. . . ." She blinked, and more tears fell down her cheeks. There was a
little blood that had soaked through the blanket. Suki couldn't take her eyes off of it.
Yuzo took a breath, massaging her hand. "Mary was fighting just as strongly as
everyone else. And then one of the aliens got through the circle. It didn't do
anything, just stared at Mary. Then it raised its hand, like this, pointing it at her
chest, and she fainted. Her model stopped in mid-punch. Then Rachel pulled off her
goggles, and ran to Mary before I could get there. An alien attacked me, and I hit it
over the head with something, I don't even remember. And when I looked up again, she was
on the ground too. Bleeding, but the alien was dead."
"You– You couldn't save her?"
Yuzo set his jaw, and looked straight into her eyes. "Even I can't perform
miracles every day."
"Gomenasai," Suki said, realizing belatedly how harsh that had sounded. "I'm
sorry. I know you tried. I know you wouldn't let her go without a fight."
He shook his head, almost yelling. "I think every one of them must have saved
my life at some time last night! And when I could have returned the favor. . .
Bakatare!" Suki pulled back a little, suddenly frightened, then took a breath and pulled
him to her, wrapping his head in her arms. "I think we all knew this would happen,"
she whispered, not knowing where the words were coming from. "I think we accepted the
risk, the day we decided to fight." His head pulled back, and Suki wiped his face with
her hands. "It's lucky we've survived this long."
Yuzo sighed, dry eyed again. Put his hand to her forehead. Looked at her
face. "I should check on Ben-san too. You're so brave, Ao-chan."
He rose, leaving Suki alone with the offending blanket.
"Your boyfriend?" Ben asked, nodding in Yuzo's direction. He had a funny
expression on his face, as though his last bite of sandwich had been sour.
Suki nodded. "He doesn't speak much English. I met him in Tokyo."
"He's a doctor."
"He was studying to be one. He would have finished in May."
Ben nodded, then looked at Suki as though he was resizing her. "How old is he?"
She half smiled. "Twenty-six."
"Fuck! The old man!"
"Which makes me the old woman?"
"You bet," Ben said, grinning. "How's Dare?"
"He's recovering." Dare had been hit in the shoulder by some random fire that
had gotten through the model screen, and was plainly pretending that it didn't hurt as
bad as it did.
"Your lip is swollen. That was me, wasn't it?"
Suki nodded. "I did it to Yuzo once."
"Really?" Ben squeaked. He held out his hand for a high five, and Suki slapped
it, feeling ridiculous. It was so nice to have him back. Even if he did look thin and
weak and sick.
Quinn wandered over, with his plate in hand. Suki scooted over so he could have
part of the sleeping mat to sit on. He squatted, balancing the food on his knee.
"Jurg wanted to call everyone together. Meeting. Then a funeral, for Rachel."
Ben looked at Suki, then back at Quinn, face blank.
"So we have 5 days, by current estimates," Dare said, in prelude. His eyes were
still puffy; Suki wondered how much he had cried. Jurg stood, nodding.
"We have very little additional information as to what to expect." He stood
formally. "This is a diagram of the incoming craft. We've all seen these before. But
Mary and I found something of interest this noon, after the Hubbel III got good pics,
less distorted by the speed because of a few film tricks."
A close-up, still motion-blurred, of a large metallic disc backdropped by steady
stars. "Look here." On the underside, apparently guarded by several large boxey things,
was a glowing red swash. It could have been a flag, if one had a good imagination.
"The Red banner?"
"I can't think of anything else it could be."
"What are we supposed to do with this information, now that we have it?" Ben
asked. "I've been gone for. . . five weeks? You'll have to keep filling me in."
Jurg shrugged. "Nothing much more than I said before. The human aliases are
apparently in a kind of conflict with the Red Banner. And us. Though we're the only
humans they've ever attacked. So far. All the people in the drones boxes? They were
"First they teach us, then they trick us, then they try to kill us," Mary said,
sighing. "You know."
Ben squinted his eyes, thinking hard.
"Some were good," Yuzo said, actually contributing to the conversation in
English for once. "My teacher. Why good, why bad?"
Ben nodded in acknowledgment. "Yeah. There are still things we don't know."
"And we haven't seen any drones since January," Quinn said.
"After the attack on Lewis," Dare amended.
Ben looked confused. "So when the drones disappear, the aliases step up?"
"There are major questions we've been asking since the beginning," Dare pointed
"All the who, why, how's. We need to know the answers before we even ready ourselves to
fight the Red Banner, lads."
"I've got a list," Jurg said. "You haven't mentioned whether or not we should
even be involved, or who's side we should be fighting on, if there is a battle. If we
should go to some government or another and go public."
Suki found herself staring open-mouthed at Jurg. Not two weeks ago, he kept
talking about readying for the big battle with the Red Banner, as though there were no
question of their compliance. It was though he was being hesitant, self-reflective,
critical, because Rachel wasn't here to do that for him.
"So we need to fix up the models," Jurg said, meeting Suki's stare.
She blinked, and nodded. "I touched up the armor this afternoon, fixed your hand
and Dare's knees. The only thing left to do is the extra weapons modifications. And
adding in Quinn's shields for everyone."
There was an expectant silence, eyes on Jurg. He closed his eyes, and Mary stood.
"Quinn– get your white?" she said, softly. He nodded.
In silence, they followed the white model, who cradled Rachel in his arms like a
baby, out into the snow and wind beyond the cement foundation of the warehouse cluster.
Yuzo grabbed Suki's hand, and she leaned into him. Step, step, step through the ice.
The cold cut through her coat like it was a cotton shirt, not layers of down. No one
could bring themselves to say anything. The wind would have made talking difficult
anyway. Ben was walking on Suki's other side, and Suki took his hand too. Silent
They laid Rachel, blanket-wrapped, on a snow bank while Quinn extended a laser
and burnt through snow and to outline a square straight hole. He blitzed the dirt out,
forming a pile not three feet away.
"Gut?" Jurg asked softly, after a few minutes. The white model bobbed a nod.
Carefully Mary climbed into the hole. Yuzo squeezed Suki's hand, then slid down the bank
too. They reached over, then carefully lifted Rachel's body into the hole. Then they
No one made a move. It was as though they expected the earth to swallow Rachel
without help. Making this take longer, when it was so cold, and so hard. Suki took a
deep breath, then filled her hand with the icy crystalline dirt. Played with it in her
hand for a minute, unsure of the right ceremony. She looked at Jurg's distant
expression, then let the handful fall into the hole. Ben took another handful, sprinkled
it down. Mary led Jurg to the back-fill pile, and they each filled their mittens. It
made no sound, filtering down in the dark snow-bound stillness. Yuzo let it crumble
through his fingers. Quinn, inside his model, scooped up a handful, shaking slightly.
Dare at last, grimaced in pain as he bent for the top of the pile, dropped his scoop down
Then they all helped fill the rest of it in. A gust of wind blew white crystals
onto the fresh dark soil. And without any sound, leaned into their neighbors and made
the trek back to the deserted cluster of warehouses.
To Suki, it seemed a cruel trick of time that life should go on, for the living.
Jurg called another meeting that night, and Suki was only too glad to have something else
to think about. She had already run until she was absolutely exhausted, and Yuzo had
gotten mad because he thought she was going to make herself sick. Suki didn't feel so
much sick as she felt completely empty.
"So if they attack with those fierce lasers? Like what got us at the Isle of
Lewis?" Mary asked, watching the lapscreen's vid modeling of Jurg and Quinn's shield.
"Lasers will be absorbed by this layer, and if the shield is extended to full
capacity, they will reflect off at the same frequency. Blow up the gun that shot it."
"Do you think their own weapons will harm them?" Dare asked. He was sitting at
Quinn's side, where the large darker boy had collapsed after attempting to do a third
1000-set of push-ups. Suki wasn't the only one who worked her body to exhaustion when
she was upset.
"Probably– I can't think why not," Jurg said.
Suki looked at the current satellite projections, watching the blips in their
area of the sky. Ben was looking over her shoulder, playing with the pointer.
"Holy shit!" he suddenly shouted, pushing Suki bodily out of the way. "I
think. . .We have to get everyone out of her now! There's a fucking missile headed this
way! Launched from Siberia!"
"Can we block it?"
"Do we have the weapons?"
Jurg looked around him, as though the answer lay in the various wires and metal
and lapscreens. "Yes. We can blow it up before it gets here. Mary, figure out the
"I'm on it," she said, and flipped open her pocket screen. "I can't remember the
firing capacity of Jurg's rocket launcher. Do we have the tests? Ben, can you give me
They argued about trajectory for a few seconds. Suki wriggled out of the way,
and started throwing the bedding in a pile. Yuzo got up from his books and started
helping, then gestured for her to get the blue model.
"I'll send everything to the West Desert," she said to Jurg, "because we know the
area." She looped her string, then froze the model in that position and helped Yuzo
throw everything through. "Are we going to make it?"
"I don't know," Mary said.
Ben looked up. "Better send the models too."
Suki nodded, and put her goggles back on. It was a tight squeeze, especially
with the backpack on Green. Swing, change the coords by a few meters. Swing change,
swing change. With a quick glance around, she blitzed her own blue model out too. The
huge space was now empty except for the hastily set up counter-missile launcher and the
computer equipment needed to monitor and fire it. Quinn and Jurg got up to push it
outside, following Mary and Ben's specs.
"It's all safe. Except us," Yuzo said, in Japanese. "What if they can't get
Suki shrugged. "We'll find out, I guess."
Two Armored Mounty trucks pulled up outside. Dare called all the students and
Yuzo over from his perch at a tall shatter-proof window. "We should probably get out of
here, lads," he said. "They'll think something's fishy, especially with that missile
"Do they know about the missile?"
"I'll bet that's why they're here." Jurg shook his head, and sighed. "I'll bet
they're checking out what someone in Russia would fire at. To see if they need to worry."
"It's a pretty bold attempt on the part of the aliases, don't you think?" Quinn
asked. "It really broadcasts their presence."
"They clearly think we're a threat," Mary said, sitting up and stretching. Jurg
put his hands on her shoulders and started kneading them. She sighed. "Oh, don't stop
"Why don't we send a model out to talk to the Mounties?" Yuzo
suggested. "They'll recognize that as benevolent. Put the two together."
Suki nodded, and translated. "Too bad we recycled the old ones. Mary's is
probably the one that looks most like the old."
"Or Rachel's," Mary said. There was a silence.
Suki bit her lip. Jurg took his hands away from Mary's shoulders.
Ben stood, slowly. "I'll do it, if you think it's the best way." Suki looked at
him, trying to read his closed expression. It wasn't his usual no-hesitations reaction.
"I don't really like that." Dare said, sounding small.
"Me neither," Quinn said. "Not at all."
"Do you mind, Mary?" Jurg asked.
"No, of course I don't mind," she said, and pulled her goggles up to her eyes,
snapping her gloves on. Ben nodded, sat back down. There was a pop, and the green model
blitzed into the room, opened the door, and stepped outside. Ben stayed by the monitors,
hand on the cancel button of the anti-missile missile, as everyone else except Suki
wandered over to the window to watch the exchange. Ben's eyes flickered as he read and
reread the screen's output.
"We'll build you a new one," Suki said, putting a hand on his knee. He looked
at her and smiled.
"It's a bit lonely, isn't it. Without her."
She nodded. His smile didn't stay, though his focus didn't shift back to the
screen. He seemed like he was remembering something painful. Like he was hurting. "Are
He nodded. "Yeah."
"No, really." Suki said, feeling a bit selfish. His eyes were tearing and he
was about to answer, when he clutched his ear.
"Mary, we're firing in fifteen seconds. Warn the police. . . .That's ten.
Nine. Eight." He counted down quietly, but everyone was watching the launcher. A sharp
fizzing noise filled the air, then some cursing.
"They caught it! In a peace-net!" Dare squealed. "Cancel! Cancel!"
Ben hit the key several times, just to be sure. "For fuck's sake! Damn bastard
police! What are we going to do now?"
"Mary's blitzing the ‘quipment to the desert," Quinn shouted back. "So they won't
confiscate it. They–"
"They're coming in!" Jurg said, "Mary, grab these monitors in here, then get out
Suki and Ben scrambled out of the way as the green model floated down from above
them. She scooped up the computer, closed it, and disappeared. Mary pulled her goggles
off, and rejoined the group from her corner just as the Mounties broke open the door.
Two officers looked at them, small peace-rifles out in the open.
"This is private property," the tall Mounty-woman said. Her breasts were too
large for the bright red uniform she wore, pushing the fabric tight against the
buttons. "You kids need to move out. There's a missile on its way. You know anything
about a robot counterattack?" Suki stared at the peace-rifle, sizing up just how one
might remove it from the officer without setting off the smoke-pack. A little kick to
the right, punch to her face, duck and cradle. Suki held herself back. It was strange
to know your own power, sometimes.
"No idea," Quinn said, his best American accent.
"We have no wheels," Jurg said, out of the blue. "We just hiked out here. Could
you give us a lift?"
"Hiked?" The taller man said, looking at each of them in turn. "Where's your
"We're from Gortech. We're testing a new cold-resistant fabric," Jurg said, and
pointed at Mary, who showed off her green body-suit and gloves. "It works like magic."
Suki wondered how he could think up explanations like that so easily.
"We have no time for this," the woman said, sighing exhasperatedly. "All of you,
get in the back of the first truck. You can explain everything when you get to the
station. Now." She gestured with her peace-rifle. "Line up, and move."
The ride was bumpy, but not uncomfortable. Yuzo sat on the floor in front of
Suki, with her knees draped over his shoulders, holding her ankles. Ben was leaning his
head back against the blackened boards next to her, trying to sleep. Across, Dare yelped
at every large bump, clutching his shoulder. Quinn sat next to him, oozing concern.
Jurg and Mary were talking softly, facing each other on the two opposite benches.
"No, I don't know how we're going to get out of this," Jurg said.
Mary shook her head in commiseration. "The hiking Gortech idea is good. But we
need to get somewhere where we can keep building up our models. And I don't think a jail
cell is the best place."
"I don't want to trample on anything the government here is trying to do though.
We're not fighting them, we're fighting for them."
Ben's head rolled onto Suki's, then jerked up again, as the truck came to a full
stop. There was a rumble, then a low rumbling sound. The vehicle shook a little.
"There goes the warehouse," Dare said. He looked pale, and leaned his head
against the truck wall. Yuzo extracted himself from Suki's legs and went over to look at
his shoulder. Suki scooted over and gently pulled Ben's head down onto her lap. He
offered her a half smile, then shut his eyes again.
"Why isn't the truck moving? Are we there?" Quinn asked, after they had been
stopped for fifteen minutes. He put his hands up to the mirrored glass separating the
front from the back, but took them away shaking his head. "I can't see. Something's not
Jurg sighed. "Hang on, guys, I'll get my model and check it out."
They all moved over so he had enough room as he snapped the goggles into place.
It had been a brilliant idea to convert the power to motion activation by muscle
movement, Suki thought. Sometimes she felt completely left behind by everyone else,
especially when quick thinking was concerned.
"Ach, scheiss," Jurg said, "An entire roadblock of aliases. They're armed with
lasers, but it's hidden in their clothing. They haven't seen me, they're talking to the
Mounties. They're saying we need to be handed over to them."
"Plan?" Mary asked. "Shall we get other models out?"
"Can we get the hell out of here?" Ben asked, sitting up. Suki's leg had fallen
asleep, and she wiggled her foot gratefully. "I'm getting fucking claustrophobic."
"Kak," Quinn sighed. "Another fight. I don't think we're ready." He was looking
at Dare, who shook his head grimly.
"Wait," Jurg said. "I don't think they're going to hand us over. They're
getting back in the truck. The aliases are parting." They felt the door slam, and they
started rolling again. "I'm setting Red on the back of the second truck." Jurg said,
Ben sighed, and lay back down on Suki's knee. Yuzo asked Dare something softly.
He nodded and carefully started undressing his left shoulder. Quinn reached around to
help. Suki closed her eyes, willing her heart rate back down. Maybe it had been a lucky
thing after all, to have been arrested.
"Until tomorrow night?"
"You have no one to pay the bail, no papers, it's standard procedure. Lucky the
owners didn't press destruction of property as well," the secretary shrugged.
"Fuck!" Ben shouted, and hit the bars of his cell. The elderly woman raised an
eyebrow, then let herself back into the main office. Suki glanced at Mary, who looked
equally flustered, though was managing to keep a slightly better grip on herself.
"Damn it, just get a model in here and bust us out!" she cried.
"No," Jurg said, "we were trespassing. And we're probably safer here than
anywhere else. The aliases seem to want pass themselves off as human still. Though I
don't know why they thought a missile was covert."
"You'd think someone would have stumbled on the truth by now," Quinn said. "We
get a feed jack. Want to blitz us a screen?"
"Nothing fishy," Jurg said, "Any other requests?"
"My kit." Yuzo said, hidden in the cell he was sharing with Dare. Jurg nodded.
Quinn and Ben maneuvered in front of him– glancing at the obvious spy-cam– while he
snapped his goggles on.
"Left corner of the cell," he said. "Incoming." There was a slight crash as the
lapscreen fell to the floor of the leftmost cell and bounced, a jangle as Yuzo's medical
supplies blinked into the center one.
"Maybe we should slice through the wall just in case. An escape route."
"I don't have the right weapons for that." Jurg said.
Suki looked up. "I do." Her diamond impaler, which extended from the heel of
her new model's hand had been set up to deposit a charge under any drone's skin. Or
puncture any alias' brain cavity. She had turned it into a kind of bomb syringe, her own
design. She was about to pull her goggles up when Jurg held a hand out.
"Wait. There are bound to be guards everywhere. We may even be sound
monitored. If we need to get out, we can. At any moment really, though not
"Fuck this." Ben said, hitting the bars again. Suki heard Dare curse softly
under his breath too, as the metal reverberated. "Why not? Why the compliance! What
happened to your initiative!"
Jurg sighed. "We're not fighting humans."
"Suki, please." Ben said, turning to her, pressing against the bars. "I'm going
Suki looked at Mary, then back at Ben. "I don't like the jail either."
"Yow!" Dare said, at something Yuzo was doing. "Me neither."
"Watashi mo." Yuzo said, loud enough for Suki to hear. "This would be easier
with a real bed and a water."
"I vote we go with what Jurg says." Mary said, crossing her arms.
"Look," Jurg said, putting his hands on the bars. "Just because I say
something, doesn't mean you have to do it. It's just my opinion. The only reason I took
the leadership position was because I thought we needed one. But we're only. . .seven.
Four of us are able and have able models, me, Mary, Quinn and Suki. I can't know what's
best more than anyone else."
"It wasn't your fault with Rachel," Mary said suddenly, rising and putting her
hands on the bars. Suki felt the words like a slap. Mary must have seen her expression,
because she suddenly got defensive. "It wasn't! That was her decision, and my weakness.
Jurg, you've never led us astray." Jurg looked as though Mary had struck a nerve.
Suki nodded slowly. "Mary's right. Someone still needs veto power. We're used
to taking your word as instruction."
Jurg looked at them with a funny expression, as Quinn joined the conversation.
"We do need someone to be the coordinator," he said, just loud enough that Suki
and Mary could hear. Dare made another painful sound, and Quinn winced. "You're steady,
Red," he said. "You're the steadiest of us all."
Jurg shook his head. "But you were right from the beginning, Mary, it was a power
trip. There was no reason behind it, other than I wanted the control."
"There is a reason now," she said. "You know how this sort of thing works. Like
you've always said, you are the only one of us with any bit of military experience."
Jurg looked down. "I guess."
"For what it's worth, I'm behind you," Ben said. "I may not agree, but I'll
stand behind you."
"Me too," Quinn said, sandwiching Jurg's hand between both of his own on the bar
of the cell. There was a murmuring chorus from the rest of the group. Jurg broke into a
lopsided grin, and Suki could tell there were tears in his eyes.
"Don't be behind me," he said, pulling away from the bars to the back of his
cell. "Be next to me. Be with me."
"Damn it!" Dare yelled, and there was a crash. Yuzo cursed in Japanese,
accompanied by the sound of scraping metal against stone. "No, I'm fine. Thanks.
Suki wondered what Yuzo was doing. She herself was feeling more restless than
she ever had in her entire life. She had given up doing push-ups and sit-ups, because
Mary had lain down and was trying to sleep. They had decided treading was suspicious.
So now she paced quietly, back and forth, back and forth, pushing off of the walls with
her hands as she reached them. It was dark outside, no mention at all of any strange
activity on the part of the aliases. Consistent speed of the incoming spaceships put
them orbiting earth in a little under four days. What if the aliases launched a missile
at the police station? Seven eggs in a blinking bullseye.
Something about Dare's wound made it really painful and somehow Yuzo couldn't get
it to heal. The trip over had dislodged some of the micro-sutures, and they were not
resealing. Suki knew Yuzo was beating himself up over this. Compounded by the fact that
he felt he had lost Rachel. Still restless but finally giving up, Suki let herself
collapse against the corner of the bars and the wall. She hung her hands out, looking at
the blue gloves. Free. Hanatsu. She brought them in. Captured. Torawareru. Hung them
out again. Hanatsu, torawareru, hanatsu. . . .
Suki suddenly saw Yuzo's hands stick out of his cell, and he strained, trying to
reach her. Suki pushed hers out more, and they met, just barely. It was like a wordless
"Daijobu?" he asked. She squeezed his finger.
"Too much waiting."
"I've. . .I've been thinking," he said, sounding nervous. "I don't really feel
like I belong with you. I can't fight worth anything, and you are such a tight knit
group. . .this medical tech of theirs is beyond my abilities. They are definitely
messing with our physiology– both Me-ri and De-ah. I think you may have had a brush with
it. De-ah-san has been poisoned, and I don't know how to fix this. And being in jail
like this scares me. And I'm so bad at English."
Suki had a cold feeling in her stomach. "You want out?"
"It's what you were saying to Yurugu– I hate that name! the akarusui– that got me
"You mean Jurg? Thinking what?"
"That I don't belong. That I am not really prepared for what you're going to
do. And we haven't had time alone for a week or two now. I can't do this like that.
It's not. . .it's not you, Ao. Suki. Believe that."
Suki took a deep breath, and tried to think for a little. "It never was your
choice, to get caught up with us," she reasoned, trying to help him. "The aliens tricked
"It wasn't your choice either."
"But we've made some decisions, that I'm obligated to stick by. You don't have
He squeezed her hand. "So you're not going to be mad, if I leave, after we get
"Not mad. Sad." Suki said, not sure if she was telling the truth.
"After this is all over?"
"Yeah. Like you said. I'll look for you in Tokyo."
He took his hand away. Suki let her forehead fall against the bars. Picked her
head up, let it fall again. One more blow.
Chapter 11 Gestures of Trust
"The Canadian government is embargoing Russia until they launch an
investigation." Quinn said, as they munched on the pastries the guards had brought them
for breakfast. "Other than that, no relevant news all night. I guess the police didn't
let on that the ‘colors' had something to do with that."
The door opened again. The guard was chaperoning someone in, explaining
something in a confidential manner.
It was Mr. Westing, complete with suit and tie and spiky white hair.
"Hullo kids," it said. "Thank you, officer. I can take things from here." The
Mounty touched the brim of his hat, unlocked all of the cells in turn, then let himself
out of the room.
Suki heard Ben mutter "flying fuck,"as the rest of them backed up farther into
their cells. Jurg had his fingers on his goggles, but the alias put up a hand.
"I'm not going to kill you here," it said, smiling, cordial, just as he had
always been at school. "In fact, I'm not here to kill you at all. I've convinced the
guards to let you out this morning, if I take you with me to Minneapolis. Out of the
country, out of their jurisdiction."
"What if we refuse to go?" Mary asked, fingering her own goggles.
"I'm alone. You could easily defeat me. Is that an indication of trust?"
"Just because you trust us, doesn't mean we trust you," Jurg said. "What do you
want? Why are you trying to kill us?"
"What are the Red banners? What's going to happen when the spaceships get
here?" Quinn demanded. "What are you doing here?"
Mr. Westing shook its head, still jovial. "It's a lot more complicated than you
can imagine. And you deserve some answers. But not here. Will you trust me?"
"About as far as I can throw you," Mary said. "We need a gesture."
"Yes. A gesture of good will." Jurg said.
The alias nodded, still that damned faint smile on his lips. "As you don't see
your release as that gesture, I am given authority to perform another." He put his hands
on the bars of Yuzo and Dare's cell, and made a proffering gesture. There were
footsteps, but Suki couldn't see who was stepping forward. Oh please, she thought, heal
Dare! She ran to the door of her cell, and pushed it open, crowded by Mary.
The alias was not next to Dare. Instead, it had Yuzo by the wrist. Yuzo looked
like he was sleep-walking. Dare was sleeping, or something. Mr. Westing led Yuzo out of
the cell, halting to support him when he stumbled. Suki bolted in, seeing the angle of
the alias's wrist, where to place a kick. But there was a hand on her shoulder, and she
was hauled, struggling, back into Quinn's chest.
"Let me go!"
"We're in a police station!"
"What have you done?" Jurg asked. Mr. Westing walked through them, Yuzo as
pliant as a puppet. Suki tried to get out of Quinn's grip again, and failed. The alias
had a shining metallic object, concealed in the same hand that held Yuzo's arm. She
couldn't tell what it was, but she knew it wasn't good.
"Don't hurt him!" Suki cried, feeling Quinn's hands tightening even more on her
upper arms. "Itai! Let go!"
"I suggest you follow me," the alias said, "and bring Dare, will you?"
Quinn finally pushed her into Ben, and ducked into the cell. Dare moaned, as
Quinn shifted him into a standing position. Jurg hurried to get his other arm, and they
walked him out together. Mary fell into step behind them, with Ben and Suki trailing.
Ben's grip on her shoulder shifted to a friendlier one, as she raised an arm to wipe her
He led them to a large private flying cargo truck, setting Yuzo in the front.
There was a gurney, and eight seats in the back, which he gestured to with his
head. "The trip should take approximately two hours. As long as you behave, your friend
will be fine. Relax."
Then he shut the doors.
Quinn put a hand out to Suki. "Sorry, Blue. You okay?"
Suki took it. "Yes." He pulled her in for a hug.
"We have to get out of here," Ben said. "Get Yuzo too. Fuck."
"Yes," Jurg said, and snapped his goggles on. He didn't move. Suki stared at
him, leaning forward in the darkness. "Schiess," he finally said. "I'm getting nothing
but the back of my goggles! They must have something lining the walls of this truck that
the signals can't project through!"
"Like the people-boxes?" Quinn suggested. Mary shrugged.
"What did they do to him?" Suki asked.
Ben shrugged. "He was there when you were kidnaped, right? Maybe they fixed
something in him that sends him into a walking coma at their signal. The same way they
can turn Mary off."
"You sure he's even human?" Jurg asked.
"I'm sure." Suki said, thinking of his bloody nose in Chicago. His tears. That
strange phone call. His lips against her neck. His sleeping breath. What he had said
last night. "Yes."
"How's Dare?" Jurg asked.
Quinn looked pained. "He's got a fever. There are red lines from his wound
heading for his heart, a bad infection. Yuzo did all he could for him."
The truck lurched to a halt, throwing Suki off her seat.
"What's going on?" Ben asked, giving her a hand up.
Jurg shrugged. "Customs? How long was that?"
"That sounds right," Mary said. "We'd need to land at the border."
A silence. Ben stood up, and paced in the small space between the two rows of
four seats. "What do we have with us?"
"I have a knife." Jurg said.
"My billfold." Mary said. "Chapstick."
Suki patted her hips. "Screwdriver."
"Dare?" Jurg asked. Quinn checked his pockets. Dare's eyes fluttered open, and
he tried to sit up. "What's up?" he asked, softly, croaking. Quinn put his hand to
Dare's head, and Dare leaned into it. "Hey Quinn."
Quinn smiled; Suki thought she saw the glint of tears. "We're going to
Minneapolis, kid. Nothin' to worry about."
"Mmh." And then Dare was sleeping again.
"Nothing in his pockets," Quinn said softly. "Only his silver pendant."
"I'm not Martha Stewart," Mary shrugged. "I don't know how we're going to get
"Fuck." Ben said. That was probably his favorite word, Suki mused. At this
point, however, she couldn't agree more.
The truck stopped again.
"We're here," Jurg said. "That was an hour and forty-one minutes. Everyone clear
on the plan?"
"Yup." Quinn said, supporting Dare. Mary grinned. Suki nodded.
"Stand back," Ben said.
There was a noise outside, and the door unlatched. Ben rushed, kicking out at
the door so it would knock into the person opening it. Jurg already had his goggles on,
and Mary and Suki helped push him out of the truck as Red blitzed into the air above
them. They were in a deserted parking garage, underground somewhere. Old glass on the
ground. Dim yellow-orange lights.
Yuzo was lying on the ground, under the alias. Dark blood pooling under him.
Popping noises, and more aliases appeared. Suki hesitated for two seconds, then ran to
his side. She rolled him under the truck's taxi-wheels and only then snapped on her
"Backs to the truck– Ben, get Dare, stick him under the truck too," Jurg said
softly. Suki snapped off the tread on her shoes, and carefully felt for the back of the
truck with her hand, then turned them on again, and waited for the aliases to move.
"What do you want?" Ben asked. One stepped forward, dark skinned, African
"Surrender or termination, either will do."
"Us?" Jurg asked, almost incredulous. "But you told us to watch for the Red
banners! And they're not here yet."
"Yes. Your activities have caused our mission to changed its goals. The Red
banners will arrive in three days."
The aliases just smiled. All of them. "Like we said, it is too complex for you to
understand," the dark skin one said.
From the front of the truck, there was a huge explosion. Suki turned to look–
and was suddenly attacked by about four aliases at once. She pulled out her gun and
fired. A blotch of paint hit the nearest alias, who kept coming.
"Baka," she said, and switched cartridges. Two went down with a single shot, as
the plutonium discs penetrated and passed through the chest cavity, severing the
electrical connection with the rest of the body. They would bite, and flop, but they
weren't going anywhere fast. The moving aliases were trying to get to their bodies, she
realized, scanning the pattern of movement, facilitated by her new model's greater
Behind them, a huge drone suddenly appeared in the short space, accompanied by a
shower of cement as its head burst through the ceiling.
"Shit!" Ben said. From the corner of her eye, Suki saw him duck under the
vehicle. He had no model, and was fighting hand to hand. Quinn had been fighting with
his dart gun, but dropped it in Ben's range and pulled out his daimon-point spear type
thing and started bashing their attackers left and right. She kept firing. Mary pulled
out of the circle, to draw her blitz-string. Suki wondered why, when the gun clicked
empty in her hand. Out of ammo.
"Vorsicht!" Jurg shouted, then fired off a large exploding grenade thing. The
aliens around it withered. "Where are they coming from?"
The drone, moving slowly, started snaking out small wires, catching aliases by
the feet. A huge explosion, and the whole ceiling started to fall in.
"Ouch!" Mary cried, "Shields up!"
"Up!" Jurg echoed. Suki brought her model back enough to cover her body as
well, and inflated the paraplastic dome. Huge crashes echoed around her, as cement
started falling in huge blocks. The sound became unbearable as something bounced above
her head, onto the truck. And then it was a low rumble, and the dust started to clear.
"Check in!" Jurg shouted. "Now! Red!"
"Black!" Dare said, "Didn't tell me. . . we were fighting, lads." Suki looked
to the side, to see the Black model hunched over, holding the truck's shot-out back-end
up with one arm. "I could use a hand here, like."
Quinn's white model set a chunk of cement under it, next to Yuzo's still inert
form. "Good to see you're up."
"Sure." Suki could hear the smile in his voice. It was infectious.
She looked around at the wreckage, scanning for more red streaks. Hard to see
the red streaks in the daylight, she noticed. None were moving on the rebar-pocked
surface, though several limbs were visible below. She heaved a sigh of relief, and
snapped her goggles off.
Yuzo had a nasty gash in the back of his head, and it seemed to be bleeding more
than it normally should have. Quinn agreed.
"My littlest sister fell like that," he said, "gave herself a concussion. But
she was awake in a half an hour, and maybe lost a pint of blood. And we never had any
fancy nanotechs to sew her up."
"Isn't there anything I can do?" Suki asked.
Ben shrugged. "I'd say wash it, but we have no water."
"We're twenty miles from the outskirts of the Twin Cities." Jurg said, checking
his watch. "I think we should try to get to somewhere populated. What do you think?"
"I agree," Mary said. "Although it seems they're able to pick us out of a crowd,
they'd be less likely to do anything showy."
"What was up with that drone?" Dare asked, sitting in his black model's lap.
Quinn shrugged. "I think it blew up the ceiling. I don't know. Sure was
effective, but it managed to disable itself in the process."
"Would you feel bad stealing a car?" Jurg asked, "I don't see any other way to
get there at this point. We can't walk."
"Buy it," Mary said, and tossed Jurg her pocketbook. "Most places deliver. We
have a lapscreen, right?"
"Okay," he said, pulling out her card, as Quinn rummaged in the truck for their
screen. "How much is on here?"
"My stocks went up. About 40,000."
"Jesus Christ," Ben said. "How do you do that?"
Mary winked, and flipped a lock of tangled hair behind her back. "I never give
out trade secrets."
"Any requests?" Jurg asked. They looked at him. "Fine, I'll just grab
something," he said, and snapped his goggles back on.
Yuzo stirred, finally. Suki caught her breath, and took his hand.
"Waa," he said. "What happened? Who was that man?"
"It was an alien. He did something to you, took you hostage. Flew us here, to
be ambushed. You got in the way when Ben kicked the door of the truck open."
He winced, and probed the back of his head. "Itai."
"Sorry," Suki said. "Um, I don't know, but I don't think it's healing right."
"It doesn't, feel right. I think." His dark eyes were over-dilated. There was
a low roar, as the sound of a personal flyer zeroed in. Jurg ran up the stairs to meet
it, then stuck his head down and motioned everyone to follow. Suki helped Yuzo up
slowly, and helped him limp towards the shaft of sun. Quinn was doing the same for
Dare. Ben and Mary ran up and out into the daylight. "Well?" Jurg asked, as everyone
emerged. He stood near a bright red economy class eight-passenger Mazda Flutterby. The
piggy-back for the car-dealer was flying off into the cold clear afternoon. "I don't
think they saw anything. I told them our car was crushed."
"Nice," Mary said. "Let's go."
"No, land there," Ben said, pointing to a hotel. "We deserve to sleep in beds,
for once. Please?"
Suki nodded. "Clean sheets, for Dare and Yuzo."
"And me," Mary said.
"Gut, gut!" Jurg muttered, and landed them on the parking strip and wheeled into
a space. "A hotel. With the rest of Mary's money."
Yuzo said something in his sleep, nonsense syllables. Suki put her hand on his
forehead. It was burning.
Dare looked over at her. "Is he okay?"
She shook her head. "I don't know."
"I had a thought, about what he was saying. How there seemed to be a systemic
reaction to the wound. Like maybe something they injected us with, and then put the
allergen on the end of a weapon or something."
"He said that?"
"Yeah, in jail. He told his nanites to find a antibody blocking the healing
"But it wasn't the alias's weapons that got Yuzo. It was when Ben kicked the
"Yeah." Dare shrugged. "Maybe it's a general reaction to any cut."
"Maybe." Suki said. "I'll be careful. Tell Ben too."
Dare nodded, and climbed carefully out of the car. "I already did."
The phone was ringing when Suki stepped out of the shower.
"Hello?" she said, expecting room service or something.
"Moshi moshi. Is Suki Nagayama there?" Clear, precise Japanese.
"Ah," she said, scanning the room, as her throat constricted. Yuzo lay sprawled
on one bed, Quinn on the other. The shower running next door. "Chioto-mate, kudasai."
Hopefully that voice would hang on a minute, so she could get some advice!
Quickly she rapped on the closed connecting door to the next room. Ben opened
it, barely glancing at the towel.
"There's a phone call for me."
"Well, are you going to take it?"
"Do you think I should? I told you about the call earlier."
"Take it," he said, and handed her an earphone, placing the opposite one in his
own ear. "As long as they're talking. . ." Ben turned, and called Jurg and Mary into the
"Moshimoshi, Suki," she said, into the transceiver. "Do you speak English?"
"This is a recorded message, received March 12." Today, it said, in the same
clear Japanese. "Please refrain from immediate combat with the Red Banner. We wish to
communicate with you and your colleagues. You may access two messages in your name by
pressing the following numbers on a touch-tone phone now. 1678, to receive a message
recorded March 1st, and 41510, to receive a message recorded January 18th. Thank you for
Slowly, Suki translated.
"Well," Jurg said, "let's hear the others."
"Yeah." Ben seconded.
Suki took a breath, then dialed. 1-6-7-8.
"This is a recorded message, received March 1st. The arrival of the Red Banner
is expected within two weeks. Please refrain from immediate comb–"
There was a loud screeching noise in the room, and suddenly the windows blew in,
shattering against the beds. Quinn yelled, brushing the glass from his arms. Yuzo
jerked, but didn't wake.
Two aliases launched themselves into the room, through the cleared windows. Ben
punched out at one, while Jurg slammed the other back out through the broken pane.
"Who's dressed?" he yelled. Mary slipped her goggles on, and raised her hands.
But before she could even blitz her green into the vicinity, two more aliases had broken
in through the door. One pointed something at the silver node on her collarbone, and she
Suki hit at the one that came for her with the telephone, breaking the receiver
against its head. "Go away!" It lurched, caught off balance, and she kicked it with her
heel, sending it flying toward the alias Jurg was now fighting off with his pocket
knife. Quinn snapped their necks.
"Well," he said, "that was prompt. I guess they didn't want us to hear those
"Mary?" Jurg asked, her body still senseless on the floor.
Suki went to Yuzo, barely clutching her towel, and started pulling shavings of
glass from his arms and chest. So much blood.
"Here," Quinn said, pulling her away. "Go get dressed. I can nurse him."
So Suki grabbed her clothes and wandered into the other room, careful not to step
on any of the shards. Just as she was done pulling on the blue suit, Dare stepped out of
"Jesus," he whistled, dressed just as Suki had been: only the white towel. "What
did I miss?"
They got a whole night free of attacks, free of charge because of the "wind" that
blew the windows in, free to come and go from their rooms as they pleased. Suki had
spent her time finishing up the model for Ben and tending to Yuzo. Dare was feeling
better as the evening progressed, and he and Quinn sheepishly requested a room to
themselves for an hour or two. People were happy to oblige. Suki couldn't help feeling
like they were on the brink of something, an unsettled feeling in the bottom of her
stomach. Jurg acknowledged as much, working with Mary on the aerodynamics of a netting
weapon for her model.
Now, the only one awake, she looked at Yuzo's sleeping, gauze-patched body in the
pre-morning light. He looked green. Ill. He needed doctors, and nurses, and not to be
around when the aliases came back.
Slowly she crawled out of the soft bed, and tapped the wallscreen on. It showed
her clearly where the nearest hospital was. She popped her blue model into the room, and
gently picked up her wounded boyfriend.
They fit through the door, barely, and the elevators were nice and big. Yuzo
absently clutched her model's head. No one was up yet, at 5:23 a.m. on a winter morning
in Minneapolis, to see the strange pair. It must have been cold, because snow was still
blowing around. Yuzo didn't have a coat, so she ran.
The emergency room lights glowed like a fighting alias. She fit her model
through the door, and set Yuzo in a chair against the wall. She bowed, to the several
nurses staring opened mouthed at her, then blitzed back to the hotel room. Never a
glance backward– no time.
Suki decided that she could almost feel when the next attack would come. A
certain stillness, when they had stopped running and rested for too long.
Jurg shouted a warning, pulling his goggles up. Suki saw the red flash before
she saw the aliases themselves. They were at a rest stop in Nevada somewhere. A 10:00
am phone call from the Red Banners had instructed them to make it to a small beach in
Oregon before midnight tonight. Since the new aliens were actually polite, actually
talking to them, they had decided as a group to take them at their word.
It was only a single gross of aliases this time, and Quinn mumbled something to
Dare about him taking it easy. Mary, too, stayed in the flyer. Ben, in the old wires,
walked his unpainted model next to Jurg's red, and started fighting hand to hand with a
fleet of Suki-aliases.
"Don't waste your weapons," Jurg said. "Just box them unless more blitz in and
it looks like we're outnumbered."
"Sure," Quinn said, and the white model sheathed the gun. "Suki, stay where you
are. I don't want to hit you accidentally."
"Yes," Suki said, between punches. A Ben-alias crashed into the one behind it,
as she kicked out sideways to block another. It wasn't that the fighting was desperate.
Just that a mistake, letting one through the circle, could be fatal. And that was enough
pressure to keep her paying attention.
"Watch your back, Quinn!" Mary yelled from the flyer. He didn't turn fast
enough. The alias had drawn one of the laser-guns, and sliced through his model's
hamstring springs. Suki heard the crash, distracted by another alias drawing a weapon in
her quadrant. "Shit, we've got tourists coming!"
"Keep fighting!" Jurg countered, as Suki managed to take the weapon-toter down
by throwing one of its colleagues in its direction. And then the aliases were gone.
Just like they had never been there in the first place. Even the body parts, blitzed
away by an unknown, more efficient mechanism then the strings. She sighed, then blitzed
Blue to their latest cache; in the crater of what had been the warehouse complex. They
piled back into the Mazda, and flew off before any of the other people at the rest stop
could really understand what had just happened.
And then it was eleven thirty, and they stood on the rocky beach. There were
clouds overhead, blocking any lights they had hoped to see from the arrival of the space
vessels and the group that called themselves the Red Banners.
Dare was sitting on a rock with his head hanging, every now and then jerking it
up as he nodded off. Quinn and Suki were still trying to get his model's leg reattached
correctly. Jurg and Ben kept arguing about a moment in the 10:15 a.m. battle, when Ben's
model had hit an alias into the red model; something had happened and it had blown up,
taking out four other aliases but only doing minor damage to Jurg's shield. Mary was off
somewhere, Suki was too exhausted to keep track.
"I think I know what their strategy is," Ben said, his words whipped in all
directions by an unsteady wind off the waves. "They don't have much fire power, and we
clearly have stronger machines. But if they keep this up, pretty soon we'll all just be
too tired to fight."
Jurg nodded, casting long shadows from Quinn and Suki's floodlamps. "That's
obvious. There's too many of them, and they don't need to rest."
There was a popping sound, above the wind and waves. Quinn, in goggles, came to
battle ready, almost knocking Suki over. Everyone scrambled, as thirty or more aliases
started pouring down the beach from every side but the water. Their new flyer erupted
"Fuck!" Ben said, "Look at all of them! They've been saving up!"
"Circle!" Jurg yelled, as Suki scrambled for footing in the sand while fending
off a few laser shots with her shields. She could feel the grains in her gears, grinding
against the tread mechanisms.
"Dare– watch it!" Mary yelled, but Suki couldn't see what was happening. She
felt someone at her back, then the touch went away. An alias came at her model with a
claw-like knife thing, but before it could get an effective stance, she kicked it into
the ocean. The water glowed green in her nighteyes. The alias got up again, struggling
against the undertow. She swept a kick, hitting three aliases at once. They were like
swarming bees, she thought. Pretty soon, she wasn't targeting one at a time, but
flailing at the several hanging on to various limbs. People swore around her at first,
then were forced to conserve their breath.
"I think that's a rocket launcher! Shields!"
Suki clenched her fists, and the paraplastic ballooned around her, effectively
clearing her model of robots– she should have thought of that earlier. She felt the heat
from the blast, but barely saw the light from it, even with the enhanced thermo-
sensitivity and heat targeting. "Mary!" Quinn yelled.
A quick glance to the left– her model was balled in default.
"Keep fighting! Pull in!" Jurg shouted, "Watch to the right, I'm launching some
grenades." There were a series of blinding explosions, and Suki couldn't see for a
second. An alias had almost gotten through, but she whirled around and impaled it with
her extended drill. Planted the charge. Threw him into the center of the foray on the
"Watch left!" she said, and turned her vision down barely long enough to block
out the excess light.
But they kept coming. There were so many of them. This was the longest fight
they had ever had-- twenty minutes later the aliases were still popping into existence.
But none had yet gotten into the inner circle of humans.
Suki could feel her attacks getting weaker. Her punches connecting with a lesser
force. She defaulted into a switch between a blitz-string sever and a drill and blast
bombing move, hoping she could keep up long enough for the models to give up. One model
caught her blitz-string, as it only half furled, and almost pulled her down. Quickly
Suki brought up her knee and decapitated it.
"Ow, shite," Dare cursed, barely audible above the crashes of metal. His model
stopped using its left arm, swinging only with the black right. His two-handed bludgeon–
really just a bisected alias– fell into the hands of a pair of Mr. Westings, which
rushed him in perfect synchrony. Quinn's spear caught them and flipped them overhead
into Suki's quadrant. A minor explosion, and Suki had a blindspot in the center of her
vision. Then she saw the backs of her goggles.
"I'm out." she said, not loud enough for anyone to hear, and was about to shout
it when realized that she wasn't out: her optics were gone. Don't pull off the goggles,
that'll disconnect, she thought. Like Jurg said, keep fighting.
It was twenty times harder in the dark, but every explosion was a help now,
illuminating for a brief moment the next few attacking. And she had a double view of
both the humans and their machines, moving in parallels. She walked her blue back more,
blind to what was happening to the direct front of her model. She doubted she could have
kept up like this a month ago. But now it was desperate. She grabbed an alias– slippery
with sea water– and swung it in a circle, clearing a brief path in front of her. Punch
with the diamond drill, insert timed charge, throw. It landed in Dare's swath of
incoming aliases, knocking five or six over in a domino effect.
"Center!" Jurg called, and fire and sand flew into the air directly in front of
the red model's shields. The pit it created started filling up with dark water, and a
few aliases got stuck in the slippery sand. Suki punched out again, swinging her blitz
string quickly, catching a few heads and more weapons. Mary's model suddenly came to
"Ok, Mary?" Jurg shouted, "We need some air resistance!"
"I'm going swimming!" Dare said, "They're pushing me back!"
"Quinn– what happened to your limp?" Ben laughed, as he leapt, shielding, into
the way of some high laser fire.
"I fixed it!" Quinn said, kicking out with the mended leg. "Suki, watch in
front of you! You okay?"
Suki shielded just in time, as three synchronized lasers went off. "I'm blind,
but I'm in!" she said, "I've got a good view of the circle!"
"Front and center!" Jurg called, as another explosion blew sand and metal and
aliases into the air.
"Mary, you're drawing fire!" Quinn said, and Suki caught flashes of the laser
against shield about thirty meters above her head.
"Front and center!" Mary yelled, and dropped her net. The fibers spread out,
just as they were supposed to, holding everything within its grasp still for a moment.
Long enough for Suki, Quinn, and Jurg to plant explosions in tactical places. The net
closed, and the entire lot of captured aliases was swung into the air.
"Watch–!" Jurg started, as four of the dozen or so free aliases dropped to their
knees and started to fire at her. It was Dare's model, springing from the sea-side of
the battle, that launched itself straining into the path of fire. Absorbed it into the
paraplastic shielding. Somersaulted. Suki's view of the jump was paralleled by Dare's
body, straining into the leap, flip, then landing on his feet. The model landed on its
feet, crushing the firing aliases, paused for a three seconds, as though suspended, and
collapsed in on itself as Dare folded, shaking with the pain of it.
And that left a hole in the circle. A laser got through, and Jurg screamed.
Suki crushed that alias's head a fraction of a second too late. Kicked it into two
others. Went after it, drilled it, blew it up. Again. The next charge didn't go off.
She was out of ammo.
"I'm out." Quinn said, confused. White retracted into a sparking, smoking
default, but the mended foot wouldn't bend, and it crashed, almost knocking Ben's model
over. In the confusion, another alias got into the circle, with a huge blade. Probably
the same thing that had caught Rachel, Suki realized, as she yelled a warning.
Quinn put up his fists. Suki's attention was drawn by a rush of a foursome of
aliases on the other side of her quadrant. A strangled gasp and something hit her
bodily, knocking her into the sand.
"Incoming!" Mary shouted.
A huge crash, bursting into flaming explosion, as perhaps forty aliases fell to
the rocks from 500 meters in the air. But some didn't die.
"Shields!" Jurg grunted, as random laser fire came from two directions. The red
models's paraplastic shell flared and held long enough to absorb a nearby explosion, then
started punching out weakly at the tireless machines. Suki couldn't see what was going
on– her model was buffeted back by a trio of aliases.
"I can't go any more." Ben said. "I can't."
Suki was thinking the same thing. But she got up. Raised her fists once more,
and punched out. Didn't draw it in soon enough– the alias dodged it and brought its
knife around to strip the outer armor off. Suki tried to shake it off, but her arms
wouldn't lift any more. Ben kicked an alias over into her quadrant, which got up
uninjured and came for her. Jurg flared his shields out, and set them there as a
barrier. It stayed up.
He had stopped fighting.
And then a huge sucking noise. Suki put her hands to her ears, clenching shields
up over her model. The noise grew into a screech, as the sky filled with lightening and
started to fall. The aliases frenzied, probably summing up for a final attack.
This is it, Suki thought. We can't win. This is where they win, and we die.
She put her hands down.
"No," someone said, "keep fighting!"
Ben grunted, behind her. Mary had fallen on him. Fainted, again. The green
tumbled the last 15 meters to touchdown in default shielded position, and crashed as she
But then, somehow everyone was up again, and it seemed they had a second wind.
No breath spared for talk. Suki pushed out her shield, absorbing sudden laser fire. An
alias swerved from its backpedal to lodge itself into the black model's shoulder– Suki
upper-cutted it off before it stuck. Like brushing flies. The perimeter of cleared sand
expanded by a step. By another. Suki pressed outward, slamming metal into metal,
keeping pace with the models on either side.
And then there were no more aliases. Just as before, the parts blitzed away into
thin air with a cascading chatter of pops. A clear beach pocked with glass patches
marking explosions and a few battle-scarred limping models.
But the noise didn't stop. Instead, it was getting steadily louder. Suki slowly
pulled her sweat-soaked goggles down with trembling hands.
Ben was the only one standing. He looked down, at Mary's collapsed form, at Jurg
sweating over his burned, sandy, thigh. At Dare with Quinn's head in his lap, eyes on
Suki. Quinn gasping desperately for breath, eyes rolling. But who had gathered for the
final run? she wondered.
"What are those?!" Ben shouted, above the din, pointing at twenty or so four-
legged mechanical models still sitting in a guarding ring around them. All had a red-
flag-flying insignia printed on the backs. A grinding noise, above the screech, and they
"Look!" Suki yelled back, pointing up into the sky. Shafts of blue light on the
water's surface, cascading down from the metal underbelly of a sleek, hovering craft.
The light moved, slightly, as the jet-like contraption hovered down onto the ocean. It
touched down into the waves, and the sound cut off in an instant.
Quiet rushed over them.
And then a large, mechanical animal was facing them. Same model: black, four-
legs, a tail, a red banner. Suki hadn't heard the pop from the blitzing.
"Will you come into our vessel?" it asked, in clear gender-neutral English. "You
are wounded and tired."
Jurg shook his head, still grimacing from the pain.
"No," Ben turned and faced the creature. "We don't know if we can trust you.
Even though you managed to save our asses at the last second."
It bobbed its head again. "Would you like us to give you a gesture of trust?"
Suki turned to her companion's startled expressions.
Jurg shook his head again. "The last time. . ."
"No," Suki said firmly. "We're here for answers. Like you promised."
It paused for a moment, looking at them. Suki found her gaze turning too. The
battle-pocked beach, the grey sky above, the wind whipping their hair. There was a sense
of timelessness, as though the world had stopped and shrunk around them. Reduced to a
single meeting of six and one on a deserted beach in a secluded spot of western North
America. How did I get here? she thought, and, what are we doing?
"We are most impressed," it said, slowly, "with your tenacity and courage. We
felt we might explain ourselves to you, before you mistakenly attacked us as well. Thank
you for that much trust. Thank you for coming here." It bowed a little.
Suki bowed back, the machine's politeness triggering a formality somewhere lost
within her normal carriage. There was a faint noise, beside her, and she finally let her
eyes off of the new machine.
Dare was crying softly, stroking Quinn's still forehead.
"He's. . .not breathing." Ben said, kneeling.
The machine flicked its tail. "Will you please let us take you into our vessel?
Time is pressing, and this place is unsafe."
Suki watched Jurg as he took his time to decide. His eyes flickered to Mary,
still unconscious, then to Quinn. Met Ben's eyes, looked at Dare's back, then directly
A huge screeching wail filled the air, and Suki broke away to look around them.
Six or seven dozen aliases were marching toward them, from all sides. Her stomach
"Shit," Ben said, quietly, reaching for his goggles. Several new machines
appeared in front of them, and the beach was once more full of the sound of metal against
metal. The one black model in front of them twitched its tail.
"Please make your decision."
"Fine, get us out of here." Jurg said, clutching Suki's proffered arm to pull
himself to standing. "Now."
Chapter 12 The Red Banner
They were carried, by the black machines, over the water and in through a tall
It drew them into a darkly lit room, done in blues and greens, containing a rug, several
rather tall cushioned benches, upholstered walls and ceiling. Somehow, it smelled
"We have no time to perform ceremony for your deceased, if that is your wish,"
their host said. "We appologize," Ben gently laid Mary down on the carpeting, and
helped Dare take Quinn's body from the machine. Dare had not yet stopped crying. Suki
was too exhausted to cry, to make herself believe that Quinn was dead. Jurg was heavy.
"We're tired," he said, letting Suki sit him on a bench. "We're hurt. But more
than that, we would like some answers."
"We will give you a time frame, as your battles are not yet over."
Ben started, eyebrows lowered. "That's for us to decide."
"Of course," the voice simpered. "You have three minutes."
Suki sighed, but stayed standing, fearing she would black out if she sat. "Okay,
um," she stammered, "what are you? Why are you here?"
"We will give you a background," it said, and sat down like a dog, or a cat,
folding its hind legs.
"There exist several races of organic life in the known reaches of space. Some
of these races have crafted mechanical races, which have since gained their own
autonomy. Your planet and culture have been infected by a race of these purely
mechanical beings called by our race, ."
Suki put her hands over her ears. Mary winced next to her, still unconscious.
"Your pardons. These beings are unable to evolve by themselves; as machines they
have little prowess for creativity or innovation. So they infiltrate by copying other
races and use the ingenuity and random inspiration of the organics to supplement their
inability to adapt for themselves. In most cases, the– your name for these beings,
"Aliases," Jurg said, resting his head against the wall.
"The aliases," it repeated the germanic accent perfectly, "are unobtrusive. They
find what advantages they can from their hosts, then either live in symbiosis or leave.
In rare cases, they are discovered, in most, they are discrete and can live unnoticed
among organic hosts for decades. From time to time, however, there is a malfunction in
the replication process of information from one generation to the next. On your planet,
this has been the case. The aliases here have lost their ability to receive signals to
stop growth and development from the colony that originated them. I believe there exists
in your organic model the same defect."
"Our fucking planet has cancer," Dare said, snuffling. "Brilliant."
"It is standard procedure for the aliases to recruit a group of young organisms
to study under close examination, and to train in order to perhaps bring about the
introduction of other societies in the nearby universe. I believe this translates to
Primary Infusion, in your parlance."
"That's where we came in!" Ben exclaimed. Suki shifted from one foot to the
other, wrapping her head around the information. Puzzle pieces in her picture.
Connections. It was such a relief to get straight answers. Assuming these were straight
answers. "Of course."
"Then who are the drones?" Jurg asked, "The huge robot guys that came in the FTL
ships in November? The pounders?"
"The first wave of planetary defense. When the mathematical constant of the
product of ratios of aliases with timely, expensive and delicate communications and
translation organs to aliases built without is overstepped, drones are alerted. That
constant was exceeded in July of your timescale. The drones are also an autonomous
mechanical race, but with intelligence and skill only to seek out and capture erring
aliases. They are a unique race, having been built by the alias's mechanical race
exclusively for the purpose of control. They got here as soon as they could. To disguise
their intentions, which may prove mentally distressing, a more plausible request for
planetary resources and a promise of technological help is offered to the citizens of
most planets. Their presence is also hoped to alert social and political authorities to
the presence of the aliases.
"However, here this was not the case. To our knowledge, only your small group
knew about the identity of these creatures."
"And who are you?" Ben asked.
"The drones failed, due to your intervention. We are the second wave, organic-run
machines much like your—"
The vaguely feline machine stopped, in mid sentence. Dare snapped his fingers in
its direction. It didn't move.
"What the hell?" Ben asked. Suki felt her blinks getting slower, willed herself
to stay awake. She shifted her feet.
The machine jerked awake suddenly, and spoke with a different, lower, faster
voice. "There is no time more for explanation. You are requested to comply."
A graphical, rotating globe appeared in front of them, some sort of projection
but perfectly opaque. "This is a spread of the manufacturing sites for the aliases,
which are requiring immediate extermination. Please assist with cultural details.
Government jurisdiction?" It asked, highlighting a place in southern Australia.
"New South Wales." Dare said, "Sydney." The picture zoomed in so swiftly Suki
felt herself rock back, and nearly lost her balance. She felt for a bench, and sat
"The entire plot of land may need to be blown up, to ensure extermination."
"That's the opera house!"
"Often aberrant aliases build production centers under cultural icons, so
destruction of their colonies is undesirable. Is this building culturally revered?"
"Next." Suki closed her eyes, as the picture shifted.
"That's the outback, I think. Wait– yeah." It was making her sick to her
stomach. The voices were fading. Images going too fast. She had been awake for 26
hours, and had fought a dozen battles in that time.
She forced her eyes open. A totally new slide.
"The United Nations," Jurg said. The picture shifted, Suki fought to get her
blink back up.
Siberia. Suddenly familiar countryside, new tire tracks in the snow. "Russian
China somewhere. No. But it was a bleak countryside.
"Manchurian Republic," she said, and closed her eyes again. "Not a cultural
Opened her eyes.
Tokyo tower. "Iee." Suki said, feeling her disbelief being overthrowing by her
body's need for rest. "You can't blow that up."
The image shifted again. Ben was answering now. Suki put her head back against
the upholstered wall. Blackness.
"Suki," Jurg snapped. She forced her eyes open. The projection was gone. The
black model was gone. Mary and Quinn were still lying on the floor, though Mary was
breathing. Jurg leaning against the wall.
"You up to another battle?"
"Ben's just left. Dare too. They're training us, so we can run the battles in
the places we need to save."
"Help me up, and I'll show you."
"Okay," Suki stretched painfully and got up off the bench. He took a step,
almost collapsing on his injured leg before she got there. "Careful."
The black model fizzed into the room, almost seeming impatient. "Please come
It indicated a console and a screen, Jurg flopped into the one on the left, Suki took the
"The idea is to introduce a ‘virus' into the control system of the alias, without
triggering the self-destruct of aliases among humans. A broadcasted homing signal is
used to draw all of the aliases back from their occupations within the human culture. It
is imperative that you take into account the nuclear weapons we have discovered the
aliases have placed around the construction capsules," the machine said, to the four of
them. "Therefore, you will each control one infected alias, and through it, accomplish
your goal of infecting the entire system. In the end, you will plant a corrosion charge
in each of the construction capsules. If your alias is destroyed, you may be able to
jump your control to a different infected alias, before the sensed presence of the virus
triggers the alias to ‘blitz' to the stem-colony's recycling barge. When the time comes,
you will be in view-screen equipped car at the scene of the battle. This precludes
severing of communication lines, but it does place you in some danger."
"I press this button to jump hosts?" Jurg asked.
"Point and aim. Would you like a practice run?"
Suki set off in her little borrowed uni-car, eyes glued to the viewscreen in
front of her. Only Mary was left on the Red Banner's vessel– well, Quinn too. The ship
lifted silently into the air, and flashed away across the curve of the earth. Tokyo came
into view, the lights, then the skyscrapers, then the tower. It was just getting dark
here, people coming out for the nightlife. She braked and hovered down, matching speeds
with the usual air traffic.
Even before she was in range, the first alias showed up, glowing blue, with a
health indicator hanging above its head like some sort of perverted first-person VR
game. Spiraling, she reached for the electrical signal gun and clamped it. ‘HOMING
SIGNAL ACTIVATED,' a sign read in the corner of the viewscreen– English, German, and
Japanese. Now the glow around it turned red. She instructed it to send a duplication
chain reaction signal to individual aliases, on either side of her. A human came up
beside her, interspersed in the group of aliases. Another human up ahead. Someone
shouted something about her dangerous driving. One alias walked by, into the doorway of
the hive, right under the tower. There was a three-underground-story complex under the
Shinjuku district of Tokyo, the akahata had said. Suki had a hard time believing that no
one out of all the millions in Tokyo had noticed.
She turned the view, and could see the hospital tower in the distance. So
thought. If she drove two or three miles that way, she would reach the Kakutani's
shop. But no time to think that.
Suki followed her red alias, instructing it to signal every alias it passed.
There were a lot of them. She clamped another with the signal. Another. This clamp was
free, according to the ‘RB's' as Dare had dubbed them, and they would systematically
check in with others in the Tokyo-suburban area. Everyone would be coming back to the
hive. Wait the ten seconds the akahata had advised. Then head into the hive.
The door was small, but she fit through. It was like driving a moped down the
hall of a hotel. Something her dad had done as a kid, her mom said once. Random
thoughts through her head. Suki shook it to clear her purpose.
The same dim lighting as the hive in Siberia, Suki noticed, as she picked out an
alias to target with the self-destruct clamp. This clamp was a single-time thing. She'd
need to keep her virus alive long enough to infect everyone. Or else they would blow up
With that in mind, she bit her lip, and picked one that looked like herself to be
the host. Walked herself down the hall, sending the signal by eye-contact with other
aliases. The glows around some turned green, and there were puffs of smoke as they
exploded. A Ben-type alias came up to hers, and she managed to change the clamp just it
Close call, she thought. She grabbed that host. Scanned the crowd and got
about ten more to turn glowing green. Her Ben-alias was glowing red, but started slowly
to turn green. She jumped before it too exploded, signaling one of the ones that had
attacked her first day back in Tokyo, in January. Don't lose the string.
She hovered near the doorway, with her red glowing alias. This one was lasting a
long time, like a heavily waxed candle. Passing the flame. Two aliases walked in. Two
steps, four, then they were green. Finally, she caught a yellow-glowing one. On its way
to the construct capsules. The strategy seemed so logical– destroy the bees by
destroying the hive. Get to the source of the flood.
Her green-glower followed it, and she flew along behind. Two rooms. A door,
which she barely made through before it closed. She wondered how everyone else was
Up ahead, the capsules. Target locked. She clamped the ‘plant bomb' info beam
onto the yellow alias, and it turned purple. Violet. It turned, and started firing at
"Shimata!" Suki yelled, as the car rocked. She took grabbed the controls, and
tried to get her green alias to stare at the violet one. She couldn't see to aim. The
flight mechanism crashed to the floor, and Suki was thrown to the ceiling. Her forehead
hit something, and there was a sharp pain in her left arm. The controls came off in her
lap. Still working. Still tracking.
Quickly, she opened the car door above her with her right arm, and manually
pointed the self-destruct clamping beam onto the one that had been violet in her
viewscreen. It stopped, suddenly, then ticked and blew up. She had lost her string.
No, the green alias, no longer green of course, was still staring straight at the
spot the violet one had been. She'd have to track by guessing, but she could do that.
And she'd have to destroy these capsules herself.
But first get out of the car. It took some effort, because she realized she
couldn't move her left hand at all. She guessed the arm was probably broken, above the
elbow, where she had landed on it. Tired, nauseous. Keep fighting.
Keep fighting– she still had her blue suit on. Her goggles. Her watch, with GPS
coords. Suki pulled the goggles up, and saw nothing. Of course. Her optics were out.
Blindly then, she went through the motions that would release her blitzstring and jumped
through. A pop in the air, as the battered model came into view.
She could have cried.
Her green alias blew up. Now she had really lost her flame. No matter.
Suki took Blue's right arm, and rammed it into the construction capsule. A
satisfying shatter. Rammed it into the second. She connected a charge somewhere, and it
actually blew up. A small, safe, contained explosion. Went to the third. But then she
heard measured quick footsteps from behind her, and knew that the aliases she had brought
here with the homing signal were not going to be forgiving. With some effort, she raced
the blue model around the room, severing pieces of the capsules with her blitz string,
one handed. A wall to go, maybe thirty or forty, but she stopped and glanced at the
It was opening. Suki limped behind Blue. The first aliases through looked in,
and pulled up lasers. Fired. Suki balled her hands for the paraplastic shields, hoping
for full strength to get them with their own fire. But it didn't inflate. Her left hand
wouldn't close! The shots clanged off of Blue's front armor, and left smoke in the air.
They fired again, and Suki tried once more to get her fingers to curl, tears springing at
It inflated completely but only on one side, and the shot bounced off lopsided,
into the wall. Into the wall of construction capsules, blowing maybe three or four up.
They shot again, and Suki curled again, harder, sending the shots ricocheting farther
down the wall. Again a shot, and Suki grabbed her left hand with her right and forced
the fingers shut. Her shields flew out to full power, and the rebounding shot blew up
the aliases firing, knocking them into the ones behind.
A huge burst of sound, and something else was in the room with her. A drone.
Suki was startled for a second. She had thought that there hadn't been any more
left. It had cement lodged in one of its arm cavities. The one from the garage.
"Security must be established." it said, in a wavering voice. It brought around
its hose, aiming steady at the wall.
Suki just watched. The flush of acid exploded from the hose, caking the walls
with a green solute of something that must have contaminated its supply. But the
capsules, one by one, exploded like kernels of popcorn, as the excess dripped and started
pooling on the floor. The aliases in the door started firing at the drone, their shots
bouncing around in random directions as they hit its armor. Suki cringed, and tried to
hide behind Blue more, but her model's feet were smoking in the pooling acid, giving off
harsh fumes. She started to choke, praying the random shots did not set off the nuclear
A bright light, as the drone caught fire. Somehow the lasers had ignited the
coagulate dribbling out of its hose.
More smoke filled the air. Suki couldn't see what was going on. She pulled her
gloves off with her teeth, and balled them both in her right hand. Blue's shields sprang
out one last time, and held there. She laid her model down in the acid, shield-first,
and then ducked under the shield herself as it crumpled with the weight of her model
against the ground. Sat in the wet, leaned against the smoking blue model, gloves as
balled as she could make them. Closed her eyes.
Someone or something was pounding on the plastic. Suki moaned, and managed to
open her eyes. She couldn't move. It hurt to breath. Her right hand was still closed
around her gloves. She dropped them, and there was a whoosh of air as the shield
It was a wind, blowing the hose from the dead drone. With the shield gone, it
slapped against her model, only superficially dissolved. Suki took her goggles off with
her right arm, and managed to pull herself up. All the aliases around here were gone.
Not a sound, except for the slapping of the hose.
So she picked her gloves up, tenderly, and limped through the jammed door. Up a
sloping passage, following where the wind was coming from. A gutter. Suki sighed, and
turned around. Tried the next corridor. Found the ladder, just like Siberia, but
empty. Heaved herself up out of a small door near a graveyard. It was dawn.
Was that it? There was no way to know. She leaned to rest against the door.
Saw a phone booth. Wandered over to it.
The phone rang.
"Moshi-moshi." Suki said, arm muscles protesting as she reached for the receiver
Clear, genderless Japanese of the akahata. "Please stand by, our vessel will
She hung up, and looked around her. Semi-deserted street, cold for this time of
year. A boy on a moped rushed by, not sparing a glance. Tokyo Tower rose behind the
train station, dark against the lighting sky. She didn't feel relieved, she felt tired.
The Red Banner expressed appreciation, assured them it was over, then dumped them
back on the beach, and flew away. Perfectly cordial, perfectly cold. Just like the
sand and waves and fog.
"Is that it!?" Jurg asked, looking like he couldn't decide whether to cry or
yell. Dare's pale body lay next to Quinn's and Mary's. Mary had never woken up.
Whatever the aliases had done to her that last time, it had been effective. Dare looked
like he had taken laser fire in several places.
Ben sniffed, face distorted, and tried to turn away, but the sand was uneven and
he end up sitting cross-legged. Heaving. Half his hair was singed a curly black.
"What do we do now?" Suki asked, then had to ask again because no one answered.
"I don't know," Jurg said, at last. "I'm hungry, I'm sore, I'm tired. My
friends are dead. I can't be expected to make a rational decision."
"We have to bury them," Ben finally said. Suki nodded. Jurg nodded. No one
moved. So Suki pulled her goggles on with her right hand, and blitzed her crippled model
back to the beach. It crashed terribly when it walked, limping as Suki put her weight on
her right leg. She didn't even know what had happened to it-- it hurt, so she suspected
it was a problem with her and not with her model. Slowly, without tread on, she walked
Blue up the hillside, far enough from the beach that the sand turned to gravel, then dirt
and trees. She knelt, and started digging with one hand. Jurg and the red model
followed, cradling Mary. Ben's unpainted with Quinn. Jurg went back for Dare, falling
every dozen or so steps on the uneven ground. More careful when he was carrying
someone. Ben helped her, then pulled out his blitz string. One grave. Two graves.
"Is this legal?" Ben asked, as he stood up, muddy-kneed.
Jurg shrugged. "You're the American. You want to go to the authorities?
Explain how we died?"
"You're not dead yet." Suki said, startled. "I'm not."
"Might as well be," he said. Ben jumped bodily into the first grave, and Suki
and Jurg knelt to help roll Mary in. Jurg went for his model to lower Quinn into the
longer hole. Dare into the third.
They looked at their friends, all dry-eyed. This time, it was Ben who broke
first, picking up a handful of moist brown earth. Organic earth. Sprinkled some on top
of Dare. Another handful on Quinn. Another for Mary. Dare, Quinn, Mary. Suki
suppressed a sob, and followed Jurg's example. Ben shoveled a pile onto Quinn with his
model. Suki made Blue scrape from the backfill pile onto Dare's body. Hard thumps as
the earth hit. Jurg just stood above Mary, not moving. Finally Ben moved over, and
started pushing dirt onto her. That woke him up. He filled the red model's hands with
dark sandy soil, dumping it quickly so that it wouldn't seem like he was covering a
friend. A love. Just a body.
There was a loud crash, and they all jumped. Thunder. It rolled, masking the
sound of the waves. Another crash, and the blue model fell over, fizzing with electrical
shorts. Giving out, finally. Lying in a row with the graves.
Suki looked up at Ben, pulling her goggles down. He shrugged.
"What do we do with the models?" Suki asked Jurg. Who was staring at Mary's
grave. He turned, and shrugged. "Blitz them somewhere, I guess. Do you want to bury
them?" Suki looked down at her poor machine. It seemed everything she had made,
relationships, friends, models, connections, had failed within the last day's battles.
"I don't know, space?"
"Should we see how far out there we can get them?"
Ben smirked sadly. "I've got you, Suki." He scrolled the height parameter of
the GPS code until it had gone past 100 million miles. "Ready?"
With a pop, they were gone too.
It took a half an hour walking to get to a road. It took an hour before someone
stopped and gave them a lift.
Jurg mumbled something about a car accident, but the driver didn't ask. Just
pulled down the back end of the pick up and gave Suki a hand in. Ben took her from him,
possessively. Jurg lay down on his uninjured side, and silently cried himself to sleep.
Ben huddled in the other cabin-side corner, leaving Suki with the wind. She closed her
eyes, now understanding how Dare had felt on the truck ride to jail and the flight to
Minneapolis. Every little bump jarred her arm, making the bones hit together like
snapping teeth when they passed cattle guards and gravel patches. Suki tried to blink
back the tears, thinking she had cried enough for one day. Not liking crying for
herself, when other people deserved the tears more.
"You okay?" Ben asked, shouting against the wind. "You're green."
He looked like he had just woken up. Looking around, seeing her, Jurg. Seeing
where they were. Suki shook her head, and winced at another large bump. Jurg rolled
onto his back, sat up. He looked at her, then scooted over and made room for Suki
between himself and Ben, leaning against the cab. She shook her head again.
"It hurts worse if I lean against something." But she scooted closer, stretching
her sore right leg out. They sat in the loud silence of the whipping wind, watching
trees fly by the side of the road. A flock of small birds.
"That was insane, what we just did," Jurg yelled. "Why did we trust them?"
"They talked to us," Suki said.
"Are they really gone? You think?" Ben asked. "It feels like we've been used
Jurg nodded wryly. Suki pulled out her crumpled mental picture puzzle. Pieces
missing everywhere. Things disconnected. She looked at it, then let it go. They
probably wouldn't ever know more than they did now.
The truck bounced, and she grabbed Ben to keep from falling over. His hand
hadn't been there two seconds before.
"Is it over?" she yelled. Ben shrugged, slowly let go.
"We should keep a watch just in case," Jurg said. "After we recover a little.
Make sure all the aliases are gone."
Suki and Ben looked at each other, then at their blond friend.
"What?" he asked, "Who else is going to?"
Ben sighed, and leaned his head back against the cab.
Coos Bay, Oregon. Nearest hospital, please, sir. They threaded through the
streets, stopping at stoplights. It thundered again.
Red lights out in front of the emergency room door, the same shade as a glowing
alias, Suki thought. Jurg maneuvered out over the side of the truck, landing on his good
leg. Suki let Ben lift her down, putting her arm around his shoulders like a child,
shifting it to his waist when he set her on her feet. They stood there a moment, looking
at each other. Then Jurg put his arm around Ben's shoulder.
"Car accident," Jurg whispered. Suki nodded. It started to rain, as they limped
in. It was a good a story as any.