Luis slumped slightly, as if his knees were going weak.
Ayesha knew that he was on the verge of breaking. Quickly, she walked up to him, grabbed his shoulder. As she moved, the machine turned its head to follow her, opening its mouth and raising its haunches. Ayesha ignored it.
‘Luis, you’re sure?’
‘Erm,’ said Luis, looking off into the middle distance, ‘Yeah, four of them. And they’re holding what looks like guns.’ He turned towards her, ‘Shit, what are we gonna do? How are we-‘
‘What type of guns?’ she said. When she saw his look of panic, she followed it up with, ‘Like, big guns? Small guns?’
‘Right, uh,’ Luis turned again to the direction he’d been looking at before, ‘Big-ish, two handed… Rifles, I guess? They’re all different shapes.’
‘What do they look like? Any other features?’ Ayesha was fighting to slow down her speech, to keep it understandable. The rushing, mobile feeling at the back of her mind was threatening to seize her thoughts.
‘I don’t know, Ayesha!’ Luis exploded in a sudden burst of anger and frustration, shattering the hush of the darkened warehouse. Realising what he had done, he slapped his hands over his mouth. ‘Shit! They heard!’ he whispered, ‘They’ve turned! They’re coming towards us! Their gonna-‘
Allowing the rushing feeling at the back of her head to overtake her mind, she darted around the edge of the lower floor. She moved fast enough that she didn’t have time to see Luis’s reaction to her sudden disappearance. She did notice that the head of the monster tilt to follow her. It was disconcerting. She was used to being all but invisible at these speeds.
Ayesha leapt lightly along the wall, finding footholds and handholds when she needed to. Reached the ground floor. Leapt to the half-destroyed metal platform. Up to the broken window she entered through.
She was aiming for quietness instead of speed, but the exhilaration of movement was still enough to wash away her irritation with Luis.
When she reached the window, she darted as quickly and quietly as she could onto the roof. She slowed when she was sure she was out of sight, kept low. She looked where Luis had indicated.
In the semi-darkness, she could barely make anything out, but if she squinted, she thought that she could see the four men. Some held objects. The rifles.
Lightly, she ran. Leapt. Landed on a closer rooftop. She rolled into a crouch, keeping low. Ayesha peered over the edge.
Luis had been right. It was hard to make out, but two seemed to be carrying rifles. The other two were also carrying something, but from Ayesha’s position, she couldn’t work out what.
There was a noise. A small, deep, thrumming tone, like the hitting of a small gong was faintly audible from the strangers. In the same instant, something began glowing from their midst.
Ayesha moved again. Lightly hopping from rooftop to rooftop, she circled the area once to make sure that there were no other figures approaching.
Then darting back to the warehouse, she quickly scanned for exits large enough for Luis and his robot. She discovered one at the back. An ancient set of wooden doors. The machine had almost certainly entered through them and could exit through it too.
She leapt to the window, and darted through. Back down the wall. She circled once. Found the inside of the doors. Descended to the basement level.
Ayesha came to a stop directly in front of Luis, the precise spot she’d left eight seconds ago.
She derived a great deal of satisfaction from the look of absolute panic on Luis’s face before he noticed her. The panic gave way to shocked confusion quickly as she slowed before him.
‘You done panicking?’ she said.
Pale-faced and wide-eyed in the dim light, Luis took a moment to process what had been said to him. ‘What?’ he said, his voice hoarse.
‘Let me rephrase that: You’re done panicking,’ said Ayesha, the last vestiges of her patience vanishing. ‘Four approaching from the South-East. They’ve got weapons. We have maybe three minutes. There’s an exit to the rear big enough for the robot. We need to get him out of here.’
‘Can’t,’ said Luis.
‘No, it can’t.’ Luis’s voice still had a hint of tremble, but there was a firmness beneath it now. ‘It’s stuck.’
It was Ayesha’s turn to be at a loss. ‘What? It’s stuck?!’
‘Why do you think I’ve kept it down here!’ said Luis in an angry whisper. ‘It fell down when I was practising my powers, and now I can’t get out! I can’t exactly use the ladder, can I?!’
Ayesha’s eyes flicked back and forth for a moment. ‘We’re trapped.’
‘I’m trapped,’ Luis was resolute now. His clenched fist trembled at his side, ‘You can get out of here.’ He began moving back and forth restlessly. ‘I can take them on. There’s another power that I think I’m getting the hang of. It’s defensive. I can take them.’
‘Maybe not,’ said Ayesha quickly, ‘They had something. Glowed with blue-green light. May be the same kind of thing as your robot. Could hurt it.’
Luis stopped moving, his head turned away in the half-light. Though she couldn’t see his face, Ayesha could make out the way his shoulders tensed and his mouth opened wordlessly. He turned quickly back to face her, ‘Just run!’
Ayesha darted to him, almost colliding with him as she pushed her face into his. ‘Don’t be an asshole!’ she whispered through clenched teeth, ‘If we’re fighting we’re doing this together!’
Luis flinched a little, making Ayesha realise that she had moved far faster than she had intended. He quickly recovered. ‘Then, why are we arguing? Let’s get a game plan!’
Ayesha blinked. ‘Good. Okay. They know we’re here. No point in hiding.’
‘Okay, erm…’ Luis thought furiously for a moment, ‘You hide somewhere up above – if they don’t see you, then, like, you have the advantage, right?’
It was what Ayesha had been thinking anyway. ‘Good thinking. I’ll go up. You stay here for now. If shit hits fan, use the defensive power, but try to talk to them.’ Though Ayesha’s expression was flat and serious, a small amount of her smile crept back onto her mouth, ‘Maybe they’re friendly?’
Luis glared at her.
‘Just keep their attention. I’ll get behind them. If it’s time to attack, I’ll shout something. She was about to turn and run, when she stopped herself. She turned back to Luis, her brows furrowing. ‘I am not abandoning you,’ she said.
Luis looked like he didn’t know what to say. Instead of speaking, he nodded.
Throughout their talk, the machine had been perched on its haunches, looking at Ayesha. Though Luis himself didn’t move after nodding, the machine stood, as if called by an invisible signal, which Ayesha supposed it had been. It spread its legs a little, and turned its head to the ledge. It took on a more threatening appearance standing like that. It was a dog about to bark.
Ayesha ran. She hopped and leapt over the wall to the ground floor, and then proceeded to leap up onto the metal walkway.
Looking down into the pit, she saw the monster once more looking up at her with blue-green eyes. She thought that some kind of understanding passed between them in that moment, but she couldn’t be sure.
She pulled herself low towards the wall, trying to remain as out of sight as possible while still having a view of the ground floor. Her view of Luis and his robot was cut off, but at least she was certain to be out of sight.
Abruptly, she noticed how much her head was hurting, and the slightly sluggish movement of her muscles. Lightly, she reached into her bag and removed her water bottle, taking one last sip before the four men came into the warehouse. Almost immediately, the headache lessened and her body felt looser.
She stowed the bottle away, and remembered to turn off her flashlight. As she did, Ayesha heard the four men. They were at the front door to the warehouse now. With her ear to the grating, she could make out their voices.
‘I was right,’ said a male voice, in an accent that Ayesha didn’t recognise, ‘The signal came from here – the exact point the contract mentioned.’
‘Shit, a locked door,’ said another. A male voice, but high-pitched. ’Well, stand back,’ it said. A note of exertion in the voice made Ayesha think that he was lifting something heavy.
‘It’s not locked, idiot!’ said the first, ‘It’s open! You were ready to blow our heads off!’
‘Look, I’m sorry!’ said the high-pitched voice, ‘I’ll be more careful.’
A third voice spoke. ‘Quiet.’ It was lower, and charged with an emotion that Ayesha couldn’t recognise. ‘Remember there may be a person in there with it. Shields up.’
There were small noises of agreement among the others which Ayesha could not discern into words.
With a deafening immediacy, the door swung open. It was a harsh, grating noise. In the same instant, Ayesha saw a faint blue-green light blossom beneath her at the doorway.
She watched the four figures step into the warehouse. They moved slowly, their weapons half-raised and heads turning frequently to scan their surroundings.
Ayesha hoped to make out some more details now that they were closer. Their own flashlights were turned outwards towards the room, but from the brief flashes that they shone at each other, she could make out further details.
The first thing she noticed were the weapons. Two of them were carrying fairly basic assault rifles. From the way they casually swung them from side to side in the darkness, and the way that their heads would turn away from where they were aiming, Ayesha was made aware that they had never been formally trained in the use of firearms.
Another of them carried no gun. He was the one surrounded by the green-blue light. Ayesha saw now that the light itself was emanating from his hands. At this distance, she couldn’t be sure what it was, but it almost seemed like he was wearing gloves or gauntlets, with similar light patterns on them to those that covered the body of Luis’s robot. He was holding them up like a martial artist suggesting that they might have been weapons.
The final figure was carrying something that Ayesha didn’t recognise at all. It was a large, tube-shaped thing, made out of silver metal and black plastic. It looked cobbled together, and more like a piece of scientific equipment than a weapon, but from the way the man swung it around, Ayesha had no doubt its purpose was to hurt whoever was at the business end of it.
They were dressed in dark clothing, Ayesha could see. On top of the dark clothing, Ayesha could make out metallic flashes that occasionally shone as a flashlight beam passed over them. As far as Ayesha could see, each had small pieces of machinery strapped to their clothing. Armor, perhaps, or something stranger.
There was something else unusual about them too. Something that Ayesha couldn’t quite define. There was just something odd to the quality of the air around them. A heat haze, maybe.
Ayesha knew they were dangerous. Probably more dangerous than she had thought when she spoke to Luis. She felt her heart racing as she watched the figures move through the shadowy warehouse. Just like her, they didn’t seem to notice the significance of the wrecked crates and scorch-marks on the walls at first. Their flashlights passed over them without pausing.
As Ayesha, watched intently, one of the men carrying assault rifles turned to the open pit, and paused for a moment. The opening to the lower level in the centre of the room glowed faintly with the blue-green light of Luis’s machine. The man said a brief word to the others that Ayesha couldn’t catch, and they paused, then turned in unison towards the pit.
They crouched, weapons pointing towards the lip of the pit, and advanced slowly.
Ayesha’s heart was threatening to leap from her throat. She wanted nothing more than to dive from the walkway and begin attacking the men from behind, to release the white hot electricity that built like static in her bones and to just move.
She bit it back. Reminded herself to trust Luis.
As they got walked, the circles of light that flicked across the floor moved closer and closer to the edge of the pit, until Ayesha could no longer make them out.
A few moments after, the figures stopped, their flashlights pointed directly down.
Ayesha held her breath. She waited for any sign of movement, any sound, any clue as to what they were seeing.
When Luis spoke, Ayesha heard his voice break a little. He cleared his throat, and spoke again.
‘Erm, hello? Hi, I’m… kinda stuck here.’ His voice echoed shockingly loud and clear in the quiet of the warehouse. ‘Could you maybe give me a hand or something?’
Ayesha’s thoughts had been sharpened and reduced by the rushing of her blood and the knowledge that she would soon need to move. A tiny, lingering part of her conscious mind, however, found itself noting that they clearly had no sense of humour. Had she been in their shoes, she wouldn’t have been able to contain her laughter hearing that.
Instead, when they spoke it was with serious, almost angry voices.
‘Who the fuck are you?’ said one.
‘Erm… No one. Really,’ Luis responded.
The accented voice spoke softly to the other three, ‘He’s down there with the Maly. We need to get him out of there if we want to take it.’ He then raised his voice to speak to Luis. ‘Kid, get out of there. That thing is extremely dangerous.’
‘No it’s not!’ said Luis. Ayesha could not believe how conversational he sounded. ‘I mean, yeah, it’s dangerous. But it’s not gonna hurt you – trust me.’
‘Maybe he’s bonded with it?’ said the low voice to the others.
‘Oh, yeah!’ said the accented voice, in a whisper so furious, she was sure that Luis would have heard it, ‘I guess he performed the surgery on himself!’
Ayesha took note of that statement, but resolved to think on it later.
Ignoring the other voices, a fourth voice spoke up. Ayesha was surprised to hear that it was a woman’s.
‘Kid, do you control that thing?’
Luis didn’t respond for a second. When he spoke, he had an edge to his voice that Ayesha guessed was his attempt to sound threatening. ‘Yeah, I do. So don’t fucking, you know, do anything…’ he trailed off.
Even Ayesha knew that it had been the wrong thing to say.
The woman spoke to the others. ‘Kid’s bonded to it, but he doesn’t seem to have a clue what it is. He’s probably been augmented by one of the machine gangs without being told. That means surgery.’
‘Hey, what’s your name?’ said the high-pitched voice.
‘Why should I tell you?’ Luis responded.
‘Okay, asshole,’ the high-pitched voice said, more irritably than before, ‘You’ve got two choices: Either you and that machine come with us quietly, and we get those implants out of your bones, or we just take both by force.’
Ayesha quietly spun her body to a crouch, her left foot pressed into the wall behind her, her hands on the edge of the walkway. Her spine curled like a bow, ready to loose.
Luis spoke again. Ayesha was surprised. His voice was the strongest she’d ever heard it.
‘Bring it,’ he said.
‘Your funeral,’ said the high-pitched voice, lowering the tube to the hole.
Without thinking, Ayesha sprung from the walkway. Like a pouncing tiger she cleared half the distance between her and the man with the tube. As she landed, she rolled. Kept momentum. Ran. Jumped. She twisted in the air into a two-footed kick that would have landed square in the man’s back.
As she approached however, she encountered something. The heat haze that surrounded the man intensified suddenly, and there was a noise like a thousand angry bees. Ayesha’s feet encountered some form of resistance, like a wind, laden with static electricity. As if a thousand tiny springs were taking her momentum, she slowed. Just before her feet would have touched the man’s back, all the stored momentum was reflected back into Ayesha.
She was sent flying backwards at the exact speed that she had jumped with, tumbling unevenly through the air. She twisted, catlike, trying to find her feet. It meant that she didn’t smash the back of her head into the ground, but she still took it with her side, knocking the breath from her. Her world was reduced suddenly to the spinning, darkened warehouse, and the ground slapping her from all sides at once.
Finally she bounced from a wall and was still, in time to hear the high-pitched voice shout, ‘What the fuck?!’
‘He’s got a friend!’ shouted the man with the accent and the glowing gloves as Ayesha rolled on the floor, desperately trying to get her breath back. ‘You three take him out! I’ll deal with the friend!’
Everything in Ayesha’s body hurt. Every muscle ached and screamed. She rose up on her hands and knees, in time to see the man with the gloves running towards her.
Behind him, she could make out the three others at the edge of the pit. As Ayesha watched helplessly, they levelled their weapons, and opened fire.