Black Dragons

dragons of jupiter dragon sniper-small

PROLOGUE to The Dragons of Jupiter

Of the seven thousand coalition soldiers attacking Bunker Zero, only two penetrated the upper defenses. Kaneda and Ryu Kusanagi sprinted down the narrow steel corridor. Sonic cancellers in their boots turned booming metallic footfalls into whispers. Form-fitting smartskin shrouded their bodies in active camouflage. Not even shadows marked their passing.

Kaneda glanced at the utility trench underneath the grated floor. He followed three thick liquid nitrogen lines and a cluster of purple ultrahigh voltage cables. Whatever they fed took a lot of juice and needed constant cooling. It had to be their target.

“There’s a four way junction ahead!” Ryu said over his comm-collar. Low-power laser receptors and emitters lined both their necks, allowing secure tight-beam communication as long as they shared line-of-sight contact.

“The lines go to the right,” Kaneda said.

“They’re gaining on us!”

“I know. Stay focused.”

Kaneda planted his feet in the junction and turned sharply. His suit’s smartskin struggled to keep up, revealing him with a brief, slender outline. He dashed down the right hand corridor.

Ryu crouched as soon as he rounded the corner. He pulled a grenade out of his bandolier, armed its micromind for proximity detonation, and forced it through the floor’s grating. It landed on top of the liquid nitrogen lines. The grenade’s smartskin activated, obscuring it from view. Ryu stood and ran after Kaneda.

“Security door,” Kaneda said, stopping a hundred meters after the junction. He placed his hand on the door. Passive contact scanners in his glove evaluated the obstacle. “Reinforced diamoplast half a meter thick.”

Ryu stopped next to him. “There’s the security terminal. I’ve got this one!”

“Covering.” Kaneda turned, snapped up his JD-50 assault rifle and dropped to a crouch. He mentally keyed the rifle to full auto.

Ryu placed his hand on the security terminal. Microscopic filaments extruded from his hacking glove and penetrated the terminal’s casing. The filaments uncoiled into the terminal, expanding and exploring at Ryu’s command, looking for ways to bypass its protocols through direct intervention.

A distant clicking noise echoed down the corridor, exactly the kind of sound a hundred narrow metal legs would make.

Kaneda placed a hand against the cold steel wall. He felt the subsonic vibrations of explosive ordnance, maybe fifty levels above them. Help isn’t close, he thought. We’re all alone down here.

The rapid clicking grew louder.

“They’re close,” Kaneda said, gripping his rifle with both hands.

“Just a few more seconds!”

The rapid clicking thundered in his ears.

“Almost there!” Ryu said.

“We don’t have much time,” Kaneda said, speaking softly despite the on-edge pounding in his chest. A quick glance at his biometrics showed a heart rate of 312 pulses per minute, and that was without a fresh shot of adrenalmax.

The proximity grenade at the junction detonated in a flash of light and shrapnel. Two nitrogen lines ruptured, spewing jets of cryogenic fluid into the corridor. The liquid nitrogen expanded into gas with explosive force.

A concussion wave shot down the corridor. The wave threw Kaneda and Ryu into the security door. Kaneda slammed his head against the door, but the thin layer of impact gel in his helmet absorbed most of the shock.

“Damn it!” Ryu shouted.

Stars danced across Kaneda’s vision. He shook his head and brought his rifle back up.

“You okay?” Ryu asked.

“Just get the door open.”

“Right. Almost there.”

Kaneda toggled through his visor’s tracking modes, overlaying thermal atop the visual spectrum. The corridor was a black, billowing cloud.

“Almost!” Ryu said.

Two six-legged outlines came into view, one on the wall, the other on the ceiling. They stood half as tall as a man with internal power plants glowing rusty red despite the rapid cooling.

Gun-spiders.

Kaneda fired. Forty diamond-tipped shatterbacks spewed out of his rifle in two seconds. The synthetic, shatterproof diamonds tore through gun-spider armor like paper. Once inside, the explosive shatterbacks blew them apart. Shots that missed tore chunks out of the walls and ceiling. Lights in the corridor flickered and died. Detonations ripped steel panels off. A secondary blast boomed from an unseen enemy in the junction, splattering the walls and floor with what his visor identified as napalm. The thick gel burned and fought the leaking jets of nitrogen in a swirling thermal dance.

Kaneda ejected the spent clip and slapped in a fresh one.

“Got it!” Ryu said.

The security door slid open. Ryu rushed through and placed his hacking glove against the terminal on the far side.

Kaneda backpedaled through the door in a low crouch. He mentally keyed two grenades in his JD-50’s underslung launcher for timed detonations and fired both into the corridor. The security door slid shut after he cleared it. Two more explosions echoed through the bunker.

“Now,” Kaneda said, standing and turning. “Where are we?”

The wide room stood two stories tall. Harsh overhead lighting washed out most color. The white tiled walls and floors added a sense of sterility. Pods filled the room in neat rows like an artificial forest, each with a man or woman lying inside.

“This doesn’t look like it,” Ryu said.

“The lines lead here,” Kaneda said. “How long will the door hold?”

“Ten to fifteen minutes. More if we’re lucky. I fried the controls pretty good. They’ll have to burn their way through.”

Kaneda walked to the closest pod and looked at the woman inside.

“Careful,” Ryu said. “These people could be implanted with chest-devils.”

“Nothing is showing up on my tracker,” Kaneda said.

He looked inside the pod. The woman’s head was recently shaven, leaving a brunette fringe. Kaneda could make out tight circular scars along her scalp. Her chest rose and fell with slow breaths. Bones stood out at her neck and joints, and her cheeks were horribly sunken.

A tremor ran through her body. She opened her eyes and looked around the room with a vacuous gaze. Her mouth opened, but no sound came out. Saliva trickled from the edge.

“What is Caesar doing with these people?” Ryu asked. “Is this where he makes his thralls?”

“We should keep moving,” Kaneda said. “This isn’t it.”

“All right, but where do we go from here?”

Kaneda looked around. “The power lines are probably routed deeper. There, to the left. That looks like a power distribution panel. Most of the cables coming out of it go down.”

“Okay. So?”

“We’ll head down. There’s a flight of stairs on the far side.”

Kaneda detected a heat spike from a holographic emitter on the ceiling. A pillar of light coalesced into a tall, fit man with a buzz of white hair. He straightened his crisp black suit and adjusted a blood red tie before walking towards them. The man stood a head shorter than Ryu and Kaneda, the simulation of his former body compressed by Earth’s heavy gravity.

“Caesar,” Kaneda breathed.

“Well, isn’t this the absolute opposite of a surprise,” Caesar said. “Kaneda and Ryu Kusanagi. It would have to be you two freaks that breached my defenses. I certainly never expected the regular Federacy fodder to make it this far.”

“He can’t see us, can he?” Ryu asked. “I mean, he’s walking right towards us.”

“Keep moving,” Kaneda said. “He’s trying to distract us. Head for the next level.”

Caesar walked past them and stopped at the security door. “Now I know you gentlemen just arrived, but I have to break some bad news to you. My quantum core is not here. You took a wrong turn. The power lines you were following are for a little experiment I’ve been playing with. So sorry, but it just has to be said.”

“Kaneda?”

“Don’t let him get to you.”

“But—”

“Don’t listen to him,” Kaneda said. “We have a job to do.”

“In fact, it’s even worse than that,” Caesar said. “There’s only one way out of these sublevels. Back the way you came. You both expended a lot of ammo getting here. Right now, I have over fifty robots amassing on the other side. I’ve even arranged for a few prototypes to join them. It’ll be fun to see how long you last.”

Kaneda and Ryu reached the stairs. Caesar’s hologram flashed into existence on the landing halfway down the steps. He didn’t make eye contact.

“I know this may sound a little odd given our current situation,” Caesar said. “But when my robots reach you, I would appreciate it if you kept the collateral damage to a minimum. Some of these fine Federacy citizens were very hard to obtain, and I have not finished even a quarter of their neural extractions and persona-intrusions.”

Kaneda stepped off the stairs into a room identical to the one above and found the power distribution panel for the second level. Most of the cables disappeared through the floor.

“Keep heading down,” Kaneda said.

“I don’t think it’s here.”

“He’s lying. He’s trying to trick us.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Caesar’s hologram appeared in the center of the room. Kaneda and Ryu ran past it.

A deep subsonic boom reverberated through the bunker.

Caesar looked up. “My, they are getting rowdy up there. It’s amazing this coalition has lasted this long. Soldiers from Earth and Luna and Mars and Jupiter all walking to their deaths in lockstep. Very stirring. I suppose they hate me more than each other. By the way, how is your ice ball of a home? After this is over, I’m going to send a fleet to Jupiter and rain about a thousand nukes down on that frozen moon. It’ll be like the fireworks on Federacy Day, only hotter. What do you think of that?”

Kaneda entered the third identical level. Rows of interrogation pods stretched out before him.

“How many people are in here?” Ryu asked.

“About two hundred so far,” Kaneda said, running for the next set of stairs.

Caesar materialized ahead of them. “You know, while you’ve been meandering about, I’ve subverted the weapon systems of a Martian cruiser in geosynchronous orbit. Firewalls, ha! It was like punching through wet paper.” He smiled and looked up. “Three … two … one …”

A massive shockwave rocked the bunker. The lights flickered. Kaneda lowered his stance and put a hand against an interrogation pod to steady himself.

Caesar clasped his hands together. “Well, that is that. The surface has been reduced to a glowing sheet of glass along with all the Federacy troops still up there. Shame about New Shanghai. I was rather fond of the city.”

“Damn it!” Ryu said. “What now?”

“There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Kaneda, we’re going to die down here if we don’t find it soon!”

“I know. Keep moving.”

Caesar materialized by the stairs to the fourth level. He picked at some imaginary lint on his sleeve.

“Now that I have you thoroughly trapped, I’d like to note something,” Caesar said. “As one of only two quantum minds in existence, I’m a little offended Matriarch sent you to kill me. I’m sure the irony of this situation is not lost on you. Two people, designed and created, manufactured if you will by one quantum mind, sent to kill the other quantum mind. It really is quite offensive. And I promise you, I will punish her for this insult.”

They entered the fourth interrogation level. Caesar was already standing at the foot of the stairs to greet them. Kaneda ran past him, but stopped halfway to the next set of stairs.

“What is it?” Ryu asked.

“Something’s not right with this level.”

Ryu looked around. “It is? It’s the same as the … wait, what the hell? That wall is closer than on the other levels.”

“Exactly. This level has smaller dimensions. Shouldn’t it be the same?”

Kaneda and Ryu ran to the wall and stopped in front of it.

“It looks … new,” Ryu said.

“And rushed. The welds where the wall meets the floor and ceiling are sloppy.”

“Back up,” Ryu said. He raised his rifle. “Let’s see what’s on the other side.”

Kaneda backed out of the blast radius.

Ryu fired a grenade from his rifle’s launcher. The explosion cracked the air and sent twisted, glowing-edged metal flying into the obscured room. Dust exhaled from the opening and spread into a low-hanging cloud at their ankles.

“That was my last grenade,” Ryu said. “You?”

“Only two left,” Kaneda said.

“We’ll have to make them count.”

Ryu put one leg through the glowing oval, swept his aim over the interior, and stepped in.

“There’s some kind of machinery in here. Take a look.”

Kaneda overlaid his visor’s visuals with Ryu’s viewpoint. A bank of electrical panels radiated intense heat on the far wall. Thick cables ran between the machines and a cluster of twelve interrogation pods in the center of the room. The pods sat in supportive cradles and looked removable.

“Is this it?” Ryu asked.

“No. Matriarch was very specific about what the quantum core looks like.”

“Hold on. There’s a concealed hatch behind the pods.”

Kaneda turned around. Nothing moved amongst the forest of interrogation pods. Smoke from the explosion settled into a thin cloud at his feet.

“What is it?” Ryu asked.

“I’m picking up some weird subsonics above and below us,” Kaneda said. “I’m not sure what they are. Also, Caesar is gone.”

“Good riddance,” Ryu said. He slung his rifle and crouched down. “I think we might be on to something. The hatch is shielded. Dual diamoplast layers with thermal and radar masking sandwiched in between. I can’t see what’s on the other side.”

“Don’t worry about that. Can you get it open?”

“I think so. I don’t see any terminals, but this isn’t a security door. The hatch is tough but the floor around it isn’t. We can probably rip it out.”

Ryu drew his ultrasonic knife and stabbed it into the floor panel next to the hatch. He used the knife’s handle for leverage and peeled the panel up until he got his fingers underneath the edge. With a short grunt, he ripped the panel free and flung it aside. He stabbed his knife into a second panel on the opposite side of the hatch and repeated the process.

Ryu sheathed his knife and placed his fingertips underneath the newly-exposed lip on the hatch’s sides. He planted his feet and lifted.

“Come on, Kaneda! This thing’s got to weigh half a ton in this damn gravity!”

“Right.” Kaneda slung his rifle and stepped in. He grabbed the hatch from the other side.

“And LIFT!”

Kaneda’s adrenal implant pumped hot, scalding fluid through his body. His muscles tightened and burned with exertion. His heart pounded furiously. He gritted his teeth and lifted.

“Gah! Earth’s gravity sucks!” Ryu said.

Kaneda felt the enhanced muscles in his arms strain to their breaking point, ready to tear free of his diamoplast-reinforced bones.

“Now slide it to the left!” Ryu shout. “Come on!”

Kaneda lifted and pulled until a corner of the hatch slid across the floor. He let out a long, slow sigh.

“Okay! Just hold it there!” Ryu said. He craned his neck to the side and looked past the hatch.

Twenty needle grenades underneath the hatch detonated. A solid shower of diamond splinters blossomed towards Ryu’s face. He pushed back from the hatch, blurring with speed.

Five needles struck his right hand where the ballistic armor was thinnest. Three shot through his flesh and sent small streamers of blood and gore upward. Two impacted against his bones and ricocheted off.

Confused patterns of crimson and flesh-tone danced up Ryu’s arm before his smartskin’s micromind crashed. His form-fitting suit reverted to a pattern of small, black hexagons edged in silver. He pushed away from the hatch, cradling his injured hand.

“Fuck!” Ryu shouted.

Through their shared network, Kaneda triggered a localized painkiller injection from Ryu’s smartsuit. Ryu’s blood congealed almost instantly over the wounds, so Kaneda didn’t have to activate the tourniquet at the wrist.

Caesar materialized outside the hidden room. “My my. Quite impressive. No normal human would have reacted that fast. Bravo!”

Ryu picked his rifle off the floor and fired a three-round burst through Caesar’s face. The hologram shimmered from the interruption. Explosive rounds detonated against the ceiling, sending broken tiles and light fixtures raining down on the interrogation pods.

Caesar shook his head and sighed. “So childish.”

Kaneda raised his rifle and aimed it past Caesar. With his visor, he magnified the two staircases leading out of the level.

“Ryu, get up.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Just get up. Someone’s coming.”

“Damn it!” Ryu pushed off the floor with his good hand and stood up. His smartskin tried to reboot. Patterns danced over his body, but failed to sustain the illusion.

Kaneda stepped through Caesar’s hologram and the hole in the wall. The edges had cooled to a dull orange. Ryu followed him out.

A solid mob of people shambled down the stairs from the upper level. Another group approached from the level below.

“Some of them have grenades,” Kaneda said.

“Oh, that’s just perfect!”

Every interrogation pod on the level opened with a pneumatic hiss. The occupants slowly climbed out. Kaneda stepped away from the nearest pod. He aimed his rifle at a black man in a white jumpsuit with a shaved head and a grenade in his hand.

Kaneda fired a warning shot over his head. The man looked vacantly at Ryu.

“Let me ask you something,” Caesar said. “Have you ever killed another human being? It’s not the same as gunning down machines, is it? I wonder how long it will take before you begin murdering these helpless innocents. Not that it matters. I have more thralls than you have bullets.”

“Kaneda?”

“Back away from them. Don’t let them near us.”

“Back away to where?”

“Stay in the open. Follow me!”

Kaneda dashed between an elderly woman and a teenage boy. He ran down a row of pods and stopped near the center of the level. The crowd of thralls closed in around them. Too many of them had grenades. A young woman with half a head of auburn hair jerked her arm back like a drunken baseball pitcher.

Kaneda snapped his rifle up and fired a single shot at her wrist. The shatterback was designed to penetrate the tough armor of Caesar’s robots and deliver an anti-tank payload inside. Human flesh proved no obstacle.

The shatterback struck her wrist and exploded. Her arm and part of her shoulder ceased to exist. The impact threw her to the ground, breaking bones and traumatizing organs.

The smoking, cylindrical grenade tumbled through the air before landing in a crowd of five thralls. It bloomed into a shower of diamond needles that speared through flesh and bone, sometimes ripping whole limbs off. What was left of the five thralls dropped wetly to the ground.

Kaneda couldn’t believe the carnage in front of him. He’d never seen so much blood.

“Oh ho! Very spectacular!” Caesar said, clapping.

Ryu moved in behind Kaneda, back to back.

“You’re not going to like this,” Ryu said. “But I’m the only one they can see. I can draw them away, give you a chance to … I don’t know. Do something.”

“Don’t you dare!”

“But—”

“You shut up right now and follow me!”

“To where?”

“The only place left! Down!”

Thralls formed a solid line at the stairs leading down. Their vacuous eyes looked past Kaneda to Ryu.

Kaneda put his shoulder down and tackled a tall, skeletal man with a medical patch over one eye. The tackle broke three of the man’s ribs, fractured his sternum, and threw him aside like a rag doll. Kaneda kept running through the crowd, pushing aside anyone in his path.

An incendiary grenade dropped to the ground and ignited behind Kaneda, turning the stairs into a funeral pyre. A dozen burning thralls opened their mouths in silent screams. The green chemical flames spread, consuming flesh and steel with indiscriminate ease.

Ryu held an arm over his face and charged through the fire. He emerged singed but unharmed.

Kaneda reached the fifth interrogation level. A girl rushed forward, arms held straight out with a grenade clutched in her tiny hands. The oily smoke choking the staircase had outlined Kaneda before his smartskin could compensate. She ran straight for him. He dove to the left.

The grenade exploded. Gore and shrapnel scythed through the air. A crimson band splattered against Kaneda’s side. The shock wave sent him flying. He tumbled across the floor, threw out his arms to stop the roll, and pushed off the ground.

“Kaneda!”

His smartsuit reported minor damage to its ballistic and impact gel layers. Crimson patterns swam over his body before the smartskin’s micromind crashed.

Every nearby thrall turned and looked straight at him.

“I’m okay,” Kaneda said.

“There’s nowhere else to go! This is the bottom level!”

Kaneda raised his rifle.

“What do we do now?” Ryu shouted.

“I need to think.”

“We don’t have time to think!”

“Then I’ll stall him.”

“You’ll what?”

“Just watch.” Kaneda deactivated his sonic cancellers. “Hey, Caesar!”

The thralls stopped advancing. Caesar’s hologram materialized in front of him.

“Oh? What do we have here? Have you decided to beg for your lives? That’s rather cliché, don’t you think? I am known for many things, but mercy is sadly not one of them.”

“I was just thinking about where your quantum core is.”

“Yes, I imagine you would be,” Caesar said. “It’s quite safe. You never stood a chance, but congratulations on making it this far. I will have to commend Matriarch on her handiwork. Before I burn Europa from orbit, that is.”

“You’re that confident we can’t find it.”

“Oh, undoubtedly,” Caesar said. “If I may be so bold, a bullet through the head is, I imagine, far less painful than evisceration by massed needle grenades. Perhaps an honorable suicide would suit the two of you? I wouldn’t mind waiting. After all, your bodies hold valuable wetware technology. I’d relish the chance to reverse engineer Matriarch’s inventions.”

“He’s like a cat playing with a mouse,” Ryu said privately over their comm-collars.

Kaneda scanned the room. The only thing different was the lack of stairs down to the next level … the lack of stairs … lack of stairs … the only thing different …

“I was just thinking,” Kaneda said.

“Please don’t strain yourself,” Caesar said. “Thinking should be left to the professionals.”

“Have you ever heard the saying ‘hunting for diamonds in the ice’?”

“Hmrph,” Caesar snorted. “Of course I have. A somewhat common figure of speech among Europans. Similar to the archaic ‘needle in a haystack’ on Earth. I imagine the saying is foremost on your mind right now.”

“It is.”

“Well, if you were looking for advice, I’d suggest burning down the haystack. Or thawing the ice. Whichever is your preferred metaphor. Of course, that doesn’t really apply to my bunker.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Kaneda said.

Some of the playfulness drained out of Caesar’s face. “What do you mean?”

“Caesar, as much as you might be a machine now, you were once human. You’re just smarter. That doesn’t make you perfect. You’re not a glorified number cruncher. You feel as much as you think, and you can be wrong. You never thought anyone would make it this far, and your every action has been a desperate attempt to delay us. Why? Because the diamond isn’t in the ice. It’s buried in the rock underneath the ice.”

Caesar frowned. The thralls started advancing again.

Kaneda activated his sonic cancellers. “Get ready to run for it!”

“Run where?”

Kaneda aimed his rifle at the section of wall where the stairs should have been and fired a grenade. Unlike the obvious false wall on level four, this one on level five was perfectly camouflaged, but that wasn’t enough to fool high explosives.

The grenade detonated with a flash. The wall caved in. Hot-edged ceramic tiles, concrete and steel rebar blew into the staircase beyond. Every thrall in the room threw their grenade. Kaneda and Ryu jumped through the glowing rent in the wall and tumbled down the stairs.

Dozens of staccato explosions erupted behind them, demolishing the wall and part of the floor. Concrete debris rained over Kaneda and Ryu. They rolled to a landing halfway down the stairs where it doubled back, picked themselves up and ran down to the sixth level.

“That’s got to be it!” Ryu shouted.

A black monolith sat in the center of the sterile white level. Four utility trenches converged on Caesar’s quantum core. Kaneda could see purple ultrahigh voltage cables and thick liquid nitrogen lines. The core glowed in brilliant infrared. Dry heat radiated off it.

Twenty thralls stood between him and Caesar’s core in two neat rows. Kaneda loaded a program into his last grenade’s micromind and fired over their heads. The grenade arced through the air. Its micromind engaged small cold-gas jets to align itself with the core’s monolith.

Caesar materialized in front of them. Every thrall raised their arms, ready to throw.

“You—!” he began to say.

The grenade’s high explosive yield detonated in a shaped cone. The impact tore through the monolith and gutted its sensitive systems. Sparks showered out until emergency breakers interrupted power. A single nitrogen leak spewed vaporous clouds out the back. Caesar’s hologram froze in mid-sentence. The thralls dropped to the ground like puppets with their strings cut.

Kaneda and Ryu crouched at the base of the stairs, rifles ready.

Nothing happened. No pursuit or sounds came from the level above.

Ryu stood up and walked to Caesar’s hologram. He passed his gun barrel through it a few times. Caesar’s image remained static.

“I can’t believe we did it,” Ryu said. “We did do it, right? This isn’t some trick, is it?”

Kaneda walked to the monolith and inspected the wreckage. He pulled a twisted panel off and tossed it aside. “It certainly looks that way. See, this stack of torus accelerators feeding what’s left of the column in the center? That’s an exact match for what Matriarch told us to look for.”

“And this thing isn’t very mobile either.” Ryu kicked the side of the monolith.

“No, it isn’t.”

“So we actually did it?” Ryu said. “We killed Caesar. I can’t believe it.”

“We should probably have the wreckage inspected just to be sure,” Kaneda said. He put a hand on Ryu’s shoulder. “But yeah, we did it.”

“Those thralls surprised me,” Ryu said. “I was expecting more robots this close.”

“Like I said, he never expected anyone to make it this far. After we breached that last security door, everything was just smoke and mirrors to delay us. I don’t think we would have survived if Caesar had fortified these levels.”

“Yeah. Lucky us.”

Kaneda heard quiet sobbing behind him. He slung his rifle and walked to the rows of collapsed thralls.

“Careful,” Ryu said. “Those grenades can still go off.”

Kaneda dismissed his brother with a wave and crouched next to a young woman about his age. Tears streaked down her pale face. Unlike most of the captives, she had a full head of lush ginger hair. Perhaps she was a recent addition to Caesar’s collection.

Kaneda deactivated his sonic cancellers.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

The woman turned her head with visible effort. Her neck muscles twitched and cramped up. She parted her lips but said nothing for almost a minute.

“Is … it over?” she finally asked.

“Yes,” Kaneda said. He placed a gentle hand under her and helped her sit up. “Caesar is dead.”

Fresh tears ran down her soft cheeks. Her eyes darted about, finally resting on his concealed face.

“Who … who are you?”

“Kaneda.” He unlatched the seals around his neck and took his helmet off to reveal a young face with dark eyes and short black hair. He had a stern line for a mouth, and pale skin that had never known the sun.

Kaneda took a deep breath. The room smelled of ozone and human sweat.

“Kaneda Kusanagi,” he said. “And this is my brother, Ryu.”

“Hello,” Ryu said, giving the woman a short wave with his injured hand.

“What’s your name?” Kaneda asked.

“Chri … isten …”

“Christen,” Kaneda said. He brushed a few tangled locks out of her face. “That’s a beautiful name.”

Despite her obvious trauma, Christen smiled. It was one of the loveliest sights Kaneda had ever seen.

“You k-killed Caesar?”

“Yes.”

“But … you’re so young.”

“We’re not that young,” Kaneda said. “I’m already sixteen. My brother will be fifteen in a few weeks.”

“Two young knights in not-very-shiny armor,” Christen said.

Kaneda looked at his blood-splattered chest. It was true enough.

“I didn’t know the F-Federacy had troops that young.”

“We’re not with the Earth Federacy. We’re from Europa.”

Christen’s smile melted into a frown. She looked away. “Another d-damn quantum mind.”

“Hey!” Ryu said. “Matriarch is a great leader. She’s nothing like Caesar.”

“Ryu, would you shut up, please?”

“What? It’s true.”

“Christen and all the others have been through enough. Just let it rest.”

“I … all right. I didn’t mean anything by it. I just … shit, did you hear that?”

Kaneda listened. “Yeah. Those robots finally breached the security door. They’re heading this way.”

“But Caesar’s dead!”

“They must be carrying out their final instructions,” Kaneda said.

“Find and kill us, you mean!”

“We need to get ready.”

Ryu stepped through the captives, grabbing grenades and stuffing them into his bandolier. Kaneda secured his helmet, picked Christen up, and carried her over to the wall so she was no longer between the stairs and the broken quantum core.

“What are you doing?” Ryu asked.

“Getting these people out of the line of fire.”

Kaneda ran over and picked up a man so bony he might not have been fed in weeks.

“We don’t have time, Kaneda! Those robots are on their way!”

“You can either stand around and talk, or you can help me move them,” Kaneda said. “Now which is it going to be?”

“Ah, damn it!”

Kaneda picked up a grizzled man with more shrapnel scars on his arms than interrogation scars on his scalp. Ryu muttered something impolite under his breath, bent down, and grabbed his own captive. The sound of approaching robots grew louder.

It took two minutes to finish moving all the captives.

“All right! That’s it!” Ryu said. “We need to get into cover!”

“Right.”

Kaneda ran to the utility trench next to the monolith. He lifted the grating, tossed it aside and jumped down. Ryu jumped into the trench on the opposite side of the monolith. The two trenches met behind the monolith, giving them direct line of sight to each other.

“Kaneda! Here!” Ryu tossed him three grenades, one at a time.

Kaneda caught and stuffed each grenade into his bandolier. He trained his rifle at the stairwell. The robots were so close even a natural human could hear them.

“Sounds like a lot,” Ryu said.

“Yeah. I don’t think Caesar was bluffing about his backup.”

“This is going to get messy.”

“We’ll make it. I know we will.”

“I wish I had your confidence,” Ryu said. “Here they come!”

Three gun-spiders skittered across the stairwell walls on six spindly legs each. M15 heavy railguns or M7 thermal lances swiveled atop their flat bodies. Slender, cylindrical heads twitched back and forth, seeking targets. Another two gun-spiders skittered down the steps with more on the way.

Kaneda and Ryu opened fire.

THE STORY IS JUST BEGINNING …

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