“Well, shit,” Twinkie said, staring at the sprawl of wreckage before him. It was like someone had just shot his dog. Or his cat, he supposed. He’d never had a pet before, so he never had to deal with losing one. That was a good thing, because he was sure it felt like this.
The Raspberry, once a proud and sleek vessel of war, now occupied a kilometers-long stretch of the lunar surface. The groove from their “landing” disappeared beyond the horizon. He walked up to the Raspberry’s nose, put a boot on it, and rested his arms on a knee.
“Sorry, girl,” Twinkie whispered. He sucked in a lungful of cool, dry air and let it out slowly. His face felt hot. He linked with his pressure armor and lowered the temperature half a degree Celsius.
Shrike walked up behind him, the long barrel of his sniper rifle resting on a shoulder. His pressure armor was covering a universal woodland camouflage, not exactly the best pattern for the stark, gray lunar landscape. A black visor masked his face.
“You okay?” Shrike asked on a private channel.
“Fine.” Twinkie said. He sniffled. “I’m fine.”
Shrike nodded. “Any crash you can walk away from, huh?”
“I said I’m fine.”
“Sure you are. I never said otherwise.”
Shrike knelt down. He took out one of his knives and prodded at a mess of cables and circuit boards.
“It’s amazing what will survive a crash,” Shrike said. He held up the knife for Twinkie to see. “Souvenir?”
Twinkie looked down. A pair of fuzzy blue dice hung from Shrike’s knife. They weren’t too badly burnt either.
“No, thanks,” Twinkie said.
Shrike shrugged his shoulders. He flicked the knife, launching the fuzzy dice into the line of wreckage.
“She was a good ship,” Twinkie said.
“No doubt,” Shrike said, standing up.
“A great ship,” Twinkie said. “The best.”
“Yeah, that too.”
Twinkie sighed. He forced himself to look away.
The Raspberry had crashed into a wide plain that dipped slightly in the center, perhaps the remnant of an ancient meteorite impact. What was left of their ship had slid across the plain, coming to a rest near a derelict structure of some kind: a big dome covered in laser slashes and small craters. From the shallow angle of the dome, Twinkie thought the structure extended far below, like he was seeing the tip of an iceberg.
Jane stood near an inset metallic airlock at the dome’s base. She turned as he approached. A suit of heavy diamoplast armor encased her large frame. She held the massive bulk of a railgun in her arms.
Twinkie switched to the squad channel. “Jane, you okay?”
She gave him a thumbs-up.
“Good man,” Twinkie said. “Woman. Whatever.”
If Jane cared, she didn’t show it.
“All right, so where the hell are we? Any ideas, Agnis?” Twinkie looked around. “Where’s Agnis?”
Shrike pointed to a cylindrical piece of debris open at both ends. It looked like the thrust vectoring assembly from one of the Raspberry’s engines. The assembly was large enough for a slim adult to fit in.
“Agnis?” Twinkie walked over. “Agnis, what are you doing in there?”
“I’m not coming out!”
“Don’t be silly,” Twinkie said. “Do you know where we are?”
“Yes! That’s the problem!”
Twinkie crouched and looked inside the thrust assembly. Agnis was curled up in a ball, clutching her sniper rifle. Her skintight bodysuit was currently set to hot pink. Images of sparkling glitter fell down her ample curves.
Twinkie raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“We’re in the NOL,” Agnis whispered. Every syllable dripped with menace.
“The NOL?” Twinkie asked. He looked at Shrike.
“Hell if I know,” Shrike said. “I’ve never even been to the moon before.”
“It stands for No One’s Land,” Agnis whispered. “It’s a bad place to be.”
“And why is that?”
Agnis leaned forward. “There are things out here. Beneath the surface.”
“Things,” Twinkie repeated blandly.
Agnis nodded. “Things.”
“Could you be, oh, I don’t know? A little more specific?”
“The NOL is haunted.”
“We don’t know what they are, exactly. Most people think they’re self-replicating machines leftover from the First Great War.”
“Of course you are.”
“People who go into the NOL never come out!”
“Right.” Twinkie grabbed her wrist and pulled her out of the thrust assembly.
“Hey!” Agnis stumbled out. “I’m being serious, here! We’re in a lot of trouble!”
“Sure, Agnis. Sure.”
“You don’t believe me!” Agnis said. She switched her bodysuit over to an adaptive lunar pattern.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t believe you,” Twinkie said. He paused. “Actually, scratch that. Yeah, I don’t believe you.”
Shrike raised his sniper rifle and sighted down the scope. “Guys?”
“Problem?” Twinkie asked.
“Ship coming in low over the horizon.”
“Is it what shot us down?”
“No,” Shrike said. “Bigger.”
“Don’t think so.”
“Great,” Twinkie said. “Get to cover, people.”
Twinkie ran over and put his back to a long slab of the Raspberry’s hull plating. Agnis crouched next to him. Jane and Shrike set up behind a ruined engine.
Twinkie peeked around the twisted edge of the hull plate. The ship followed the line of wreckage, hovering a dozen meters over the surface. Sunlight gleamed off its white, boxy hull. The side he could see was checkered in red and bore a gold crucifix.
“Crusaders,” Twinkie breathed. “Persistent bastards.”
“The dropfighter is sweeping the wreckage with active multitrackers,” Agnis said. “I don’t think we’re going to stay hidden for long.”
“Then let’s not keep them waiting,” Twinkie said. “Shrike?”
“I’ve got a clean shot on the nose turret.”
Shrike fired. The heavy shatterback blasted out of his rifle and struck the dropfighter’s nose. The bullet slipped through a seam in the armor, right next to the barrel. Once inside, the shatterback’s micromind detonated its explosive payload.
A small fireball bloomed from the impact. The turret tried to traverse, but its barrel had been bent upward. A hatch on the back of the dropfighter opened.
“Here they come!” Twinkie shouted.
Two crusaders jumped out and landed in the crash ravine. They were giants in white armor, with enlarged torsos and bulging limbs. The crusaders sprinted forward with incredible speed. Layers of artificial musculature flexed underneath thick armor. They took cover behind part of the Raspberry’s machine shop.
“Only two,” Shrike said. “We can take them.”
The crusaders sprang from cover, their Gatling guns already spun up. They fired, spewing out a combined total of two hundred forty vari-shells per second. Explosive shells detonated against Twinkie’s cover. Incendiary rounds burst apart, spraying the wreckage with self-immolating gel. Lunar gravel blasted high above.
Scorched pebbles rained over Twinkie. None of the shots punched through the Raspberry’s hull plate.
“That’s my girl,” Twinkie said. He pulled out his shotgun.
“They’re advancing!” Agnis shouted. She fired her sniper rifle. The shot struck one of the crusaders in the shoulder and ricocheted off.
Shrike fired on the same target. The shatterback hit the crusader in the temple. The force of the impact threw the crusader’s head back. He fell over, shook his head, and stood up again.
Another two crusaders jumped out of the dropfighter. They dashed forward, joining the first pair.
“Not good,” Shrike said.
“‘Only two’, huh?” Twinkie shouted. “Next time, keep your big mouth shut!”
A burst of Gatling fire flew overhead. Several vari-shells hit Twinkie’s cover, throwing out a shower of sparks.
Jane aimed for the lead crusader and fired her railgun. The depleted uranium slug struck the crusader in the torso and threw him several meters back. He slid across the ground, clutching his chest armor. Jane’s shot had bent the front plate inward, breaking the man’s ribcage in the process.
Two more crusaders leaped out of the dropfighter.
“This isn’t looking good,” Shrike said, lining up another shot.
Twinkie fired three grenades from his shotgun’s underslung launcher. The grenades tumbled through a parabolic arc and landed near the advancing crusaders. They burst into scything clouds of shrapnel. The crusaders shrugged off the damage and kept coming.
“This isn’t working!” Agnis said, firing.
“You know,” Twinkie said. He pulled grenades off his bandolier and jammed them into his shotgun. “This wouldn’t be happening if you hadn’t got shot down.”
“Well, excuse me!” Agnis said. “It’s not like I tried to get us shot down!”
“I thought you knew how to fly.”
“I do know how to fly! I’m a very good pilot!”
“And another thing!”
A crusader grenade landed next to Agnis. She waved her hacking glove over the grenade, picked it up, and stuck it in her bandolier.
“And another thing!” Agnis continued. “It was your idea to fly here in the Raspberry!”
“I thought you could handle it.”
Shrike fired another shot, hitting the lead crusader dead center in the forehead. The shatterback penetrated the crusader’s helmet and exploded inside. The crusader dropped to the ground, his head nothing more than red paste.
“We need to get out of here,” Shrike said.
Gatling fire shot over their heads.
“I’m open to suggestions!” Twinkie said.
“We retreat inside that dome,” Shrike said.
“No!” Agnis shouted. “Absolutely not! We’re dead if we go in there!”
A crusader grenade exploded against the hull plate. Glowing bits of metal shot past Twinkie’s head.
“Right now, I care about the threat I can see!” Twinkie shouted.
“You’re going to get us all killed!” Agnis shouted.
“What other options do we have?” Twinkie shouted.
Jane rose from cover and sprinted towards the dome. The adaptive material on her soles allowed her to charge flat out, even in the low lunar gravity.
The crusaders tracked her, cutting loose with their Gatling guns. Shots pounded into her, denting her armor. Incinerator rounds set her ablaze.
Jane crashed shoulder-first into the dome’s airlock, taking it off its heavy hinges. She disappeared inside.
“If you ask me, Jane’s got the right idea,” Shrike said.
“I’m not going in there!” Agnis said.
“Then stay out here!” Twinkie shouted. “Grenades at the ready!”
Shrike pulled a grenade off his belt. Agnis took an extra moment, but she grabbed two off her bandolier.
“Now!” Twinkie fired three grenades over the hull plate. Shrike and Agnis tossed theirs. The grenades landed amongst the crusaders and began detonating.
“Move it!” Twinkie shouted, dashing out of cover.
“We’re going to regret this!” Agnis said, racing for the door.
Shrike followed them, charging across the open plain. Jane, her armor still on fire, peeked out of the door and unloaded her railgun at the crusaders. Gatling fire whizzed past, exploding against the dome.
A vari-shell struck Twinkie’s hip from behind. He tumbled to the ground. Shrike grabbed his arm and dragged him inside. Jane shoved the airlock back in place and started welding the seams. Agnis pulled a mine out of her backpack and trapped the door.
“Argh!” Twinkie said, sprawled on the ground.
“You should be okay,” Shrike said. “It didn’t punch through.”
“Gah!” Twinkie said, staggering to his feet. His entire left hip felt like tenderized meat. He checked his armor’s status on his visor. The ballistic underlay had absorbed most of the impact, but the plating over his butt cheek had several microfissures.
Jane finished welding the door in place.
“Everyone get back,” Agnis said. The team moved through the second airlock door and closed it. Jane welded it shut and Agnis placed two mines on it.
Twinkie tried to walk off his injury. It didn’t help.
“That’ll buy us some time, I hope,” Agnis said. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Twinkie said. “Just got shot in the ass again.”
“Well, it’s such a big target.”
“Har har har,” Twinkie said, trying to stand up straight. “Jane, you’ve got a little something on your chest.”
Jane stared at him. The patch of gel on her armor continued to burn.
Twinkie pointed. “Right there. You know, the flaming part.”
Jane picked up her railgun and walked past him.
“Uh huh. Never mind.”
Twinkie looked over his surroundings for the first time. They were in a narrow corridor that took them deeper into the dome, then branched to either side. The walls were a solid mass of pipes and cables behind mesh screens, their original colors faded and flaking with time. Some of the pipes were large enough for people to fit through. His visor indicated a breathable atmosphere.
Agnis waved her hacking glove over the airlock.
“The crusaders are being cautious,” she said. “I think one of them is a grenadier. We don’t have much time.”
“Then let’s get moving,” Twinkie said.
“I meant what I said. This place is a death trap.”
“So?” Shrike asked. “There might be thirty crusaders on that dropfighter.”
“Whatever is in here could be worse,” Agnis said.
“Could be?” Twinkie asked.
“You know what I mean.”
“Then we’ll be careful,” Twinkie said, loading his shotgun’s launcher with grenades. He forced himself to stand up straight. “Let’s go.”
Twinkie led the team deeper into the dome. He took a right at the junction and followed it to a corroded metal door with a manual wheel for a lock.
Jane turned the wheel and cracked open the door. Twinkie stuck his shotgun through the opening. Shrike and Agnis covered the rear with their sniper rifles.
The hatch led to a walkway that circled a vast, cylindrical machine near the dome’s center. It was a hulking nest of thick pipes and machinery without any clear purpose.
Most of the pipes connected into the central machine at corroded junctions, but a few of them looked brand new. The mechanism reached to the ceiling, several stories above, and descended into a dark chasm far below the walkway. Some of the pipes had faint lettering, but his visor’s translation cheat couldn’t read it.
“First mine is disabled,” Agnis said.
“That was fast,” Shrike said.
“They fried its micromind with something,” Agnis said. “I’m still getting feeds from the other two.”
Twinkie stepped onto the rusted, creaking walkway and began circling the machine. It was as wide as a baseball diamond. The squad followed him. Agnis set a mine on the door and closed it.
The walkway sloped down at an angle, corkscrewing around the center. Hatches led away from the central chamber every few steps.
“The crusaders disabled the other two mines,” Agnis said. “They’re inside the dome.”
“This one will do,” Twinkie said, picking the closest hatch. Jane spun the wheel and opened it. “Everyone inside before the crusaders see us.”
The team squeezed into the dark passage. Agnis shut the door. She raised her hacking glove.
“Anything?” Twinkie asked.
“My multitracker is on passive,” Agnis said. “Give me a sec. I think they’re entering the main chamber now. The last mine just went offline.”
Gunfire echoed from beyond the hatch. It was the distinct, continuous roar of M18 Gatling guns.
“About five of them, I’d say,” Shrike said.
“But what are they shooting at?” Twinkie asked.
The crusaders fired again and didn’t let off their triggers.
“Three of them now,” Agnis said. “T-two … one …”
The shooting stopped. Someone let out a wet, gurgling scream. His voice was cut short by a silken metal-on-metal note.
Agnis edged away from the hatch. Her heavy breathing rasped in Twinkie’s ears. He lowered the volume from her feed.
“Jane, check it.”
“D-don’t,” Agnis whispered.
“Can’t be helped,” Twinkie said.
Jane turned the wheel on the hatch and pulled it open. Agnis gasped.
Six crusader helmets sat on the walkway in a neat row. Behind their visors, lifeless eyes stared at the team. Blood pooled from their severed necks. Someone or something had written a single line of text in blood.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE
The letters were not clumsy like finger paints or brush strokes. They were drawn with the precision of a machine.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” Agnis whispered.
“We should leave,” Shrike said. “Right now.”
“Yeah, I think you’re right,” Twinkie said. “Back to the surface. We’ll take our chances with the crusaders.”
Twinkie raised his shotgun and crept onto the walkway. He checked his surroundings, but didn’t find anything beside spent vari-shell casings and splatters of blood on the walls. Bullet holes riddled the walkway and surrounding pipes. He led the way up the spiral.
Far below, generators switched on. A powerful thrumming started, ramping up in volume. Its tempo quickened until each individual beat merged into uninterrupted thunder.
“Not good, not good, not good,” Agnis said.
“We’re getting out of here!” Twinkie said, breaking into a run. He kicked spent casings out of the way with each step.
Metal screeched against metal within thick pipes above them.
“Heads up!” Shrike said.
Twinkie reached the hatch near the top they’d entered through. Blood dripped off it. He grabbed the blood-slick wheel and spun it. The hatch unlocked, and he pulled it open.
The passage extended two meters beyond the hatch and ended in a new wall of dark metal.
“Guys?” Twinkie said. “We’ve got a problem.”
Jane pushed him aside, aimed her railgun over his shoulder, and fired. The slug of depleted uranium struck the wall in a brief, sparking eruption. Jane walked forward and rubbed a gauntlet over the dark metal. She’d barely scratched it.
“What do we do?” Shrike asked, watching the pipes above.
“I told you!” Agnis said. “I told you!”
“You can brag about being right later,” Twinkie said. He ran out to the walkway again and looked around. The walkway spiraled up and down around the central machinery.
One of the pipes above rattled. Inside, metal scraped against metal. The pipe was large enough for Jane to fit through.
Agnis fired. The explosive round from her sniper rifle penetrated the pipe and detonated. The force blew the pipe’s center to bits. Hot fragments of rusted metal rained down. The severed, glowing ends of the pipe sagged.
“We can’t stay here!” Agnis shouted.
“I’m thinking, damn it!” Twinkie shouted.
“Isn’t there another way out?” Shrike asked.
“I didn’t see one!” Agnis said.
“Go active!” Twinkie said.
“Go active on your multitracker! Map the interior!”
“Any crusaders outside will know exactly where we are!”
“What other choice to we have?”
Agnis growled a protest. “I hope this is worth it!” She held out her arm, charged her multitracker, and released a single, high-powered pulse.
Twinkie’s visor scrambled momentarily.
“Got it!” Agnis said. “Alternate exit two hundred meters north, fifteen meters down!”
Twinkie received the map of the dome and its subterranean tunnels. Many of the lower passages were still clouded in mystery, but the pulse had revealed a twisted snake’s nest of upper levels. He activated a navigation cheat on his visor and plotted their exit.
A blast rocked the outside of the dome. Rubble shook off the geodesic inner supports and crashed onto the pipes. Twinkie steadied himself with a hand against the hatch.
“Our friends outside aren’t giving up,” Shrike said.
“Move! Move! Move!” Twinkie said.
Another blast shook the dome. Cracks formed, letting in shafts of light.
Jane charged down the walkway. Twinkie struggled to keep up. They made a quarter circle around the central machinery and opened the hatch indicated on all of their visors.
They ran through another chamber full of old wiring and thick pipes. Agnis closed the hatch and pulled a mine out of her backpack.
“Don’t worry about it!” Twinkie said. “Keep moving!”
Jane raced on, charging through one corridor after another. They turned left at a four-way junction, took a ramp down to a wide storage room, and came out near a towering holding tank. They looped around the tank and passed through another hatch deeper in the facility.
“Crusaders are dropping into the central chamber!” Agnis said.
“That’s their problem!” Twinkie said. “We’re getting out of here!”
Jane abruptly stopped. Twinkie almost ran into her back.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “We need to keep moving!”
They were in a narrow corridor with wiring bundles hanging from the walls. Jane pointed at the hatch in front.
Twinkie sidestepped around her. Precise letters in blood adorned the hatch.
CAKE AND GIFTS INSIDE
“That’s not a good sign,” Shrike said.
“You think?” Twinkie asked.
“We can b-backtrack,” Agnis said, transmitting an alternate route. “C-circle around the area ahead.”
“That sounds like a very good idea,” Twinkie said. He turned around.
The hatch behind them slammed shut. A wall of heavy dark metal slid into place.
“Shit,” Twinkie said.
“Look on the bright side,” Shrike said. “At least the crusaders aren’t getting through that.”
Fierce volleys of Gatling fire echoed through the complex.
“No, I suppose they won’t,” Twinkie said quietly.
“Forward?” Shrike said.
“It’s not like we have a choice,” Twinkie said. “Jane, care to do the honors? We’ll cover you.”
Jane opened the next hatch. It led to a smooth-walled corridor very different from the rest of the complex. Instead of flaking paint and corroded metal, this passage was almost medically pristine. Flat walls led to a gently arched roof. The corridor split in the form of a Y. The door on the left said: CAKE. The door on the right said: GIFTS.
Twinkie walked up to the intersection. “Why do I have the distinct feeling we’re being toyed with?”
“Probably because we are?” Shrike asked.
“Don’t let your guard down,” Agnis said.
“Not for a moment,” Shrike said.
“All right,” Twinkie said. “What’ll it be, team? Cake or gifts.”
“Gifts,” Shrike said instantly.
The other three turned and stared at him.
He shrugged. “I’m not hungry.”
“Okay, that’s one for gifts,” Twinkie said.
“I vote for cake,” Agnis said. “It sounds less threatening. I don’t think it matters. We can take either door to the exit.”
“The vote is tied. Jane?”
Twinkie looked up at the huge woman in armor. She stared back at him.
“Right,” he said. “That’s one for cake, one for gifts, and one voting present. You people are no help at all.”
“Noted,” Shrike said.
Twinkie walked up to the CAKE door and turned the wheel. He eased the hatch open and stuck his shotgun through the crack.
The room beyond was small and brightly lit. A square table sat in the precise center with a lace tablecloth draped over it. The table looked like it was real wood or a very good facsimile.
Four plush, high-backed chairs were pulled away from the table in front of four settings with crystal plates, golden forks, and lacy napkins.
The double-decker chocolate cake in the center was huge. Twinkie imagined the table groaning under the weight, which was silly given that they were on the moon. The rich icing glistened from the flickering circle of candles atop the cake.
“Right …” Twinkie said.
“As traps go, this really isn’t that dangerous,” Shrike said. He poked one of the chairs with his sniper rifle.
“Now, if it was pecan pie, that would be dangerous,” Shrike said. “I have a bottomless stomach when it comes to pecan pie.”
“Funny. I never knew that about you,” Twinkie said.
“My gran has this amazing recipe. She—”
“Shut up. I don’t care.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Agnis said.
“My thoughts exactly.”
Twinkie edged around the table and stepped slowly to the next hatch. He grabbed the wheel with one hand and turned it a quarter. He tried to let go.
“What the hell?” Twinkie said.
“What’s wrong?” Shrike asked.
“My hand! It’s stuck!” Twinkie yanked on it. “There’s something on the handle! I can’t pull free!”
Shrike slung his rifle. He drew one of his knives. “Let me see if I can get you loose.”
“Careful with that!”
The double-decker chocolate cake split. The top layer rose, revealing a hollow interior. Machinery unfolded, expanded. A barrel extruded out and turned to face Twinkie.
“The cake! The cake!”
The hidden gun spewed a thick stream of liquid fire. Twinkie’s whole world went orange. He could feel the heat through layers of armor. Temperature warnings flashed in his visor.
With his free hand, Twinkie raised his shotgun and fired. The blast kicked his arm upward. The scattershot’s micromind fragmented half a meter in front of the cake, showering it with diamond splinters.
Chocolate icing and yellow cake blew across the room, revealing the cold metal exterior of a flamethrower. The table began to change shape. Hexagons across its surface segmented. They shifted position and changed color to a matt black. The legs moved inward, thickening. Two table legs shifted up along the torso. Their ends segmented into fingers. The flat plane of the table folded inward, forming armor. Plates and utensils slid off.
The chairs began to change as well. Hexagonal plates unlocked and rearranged themselves. Surgical blades extended from hidden recesses. Limbs broke free of the main body. They stood up, four spindly robots around a hulking monster.
Jane threw her bulk in front of the flame and shot her railgun. The flamethrower robot staggered back a step, but kept firing.
Two of the stick-thin robots pounced on Shrike, forcing him to the ground. They stabbed into him with long, shining blades. Medical warnings from his suit scrolled across Twinkie’s visor. Shrike swung at them with his knife and cleaved an arm off.
A smaller robot jumped at Agnis, but she stuck the barrel of her sniper rifle into its torso and blew it to bits. The fourth robot raced towards her, but Jane caught it in her gauntlet and crushed it.
Twinkie switched his shotgun over to maximum penetration. He took careful aim through the fiery haze and pulled the trigger. The projectile didn’t fragment this time. Instead, the micromind vectored the explosive charge to increase the scattershot’s velocity. It struck the fuel tank just below the large robot’s flamethrower and bored in.
Fuel burst out of the tank. It ignited, engulfing the robot in flame. The output from the flamethrower’s barrel dropped to an impotent flicker.
Hexagonal plates along the robot’s right arm shifted, building a long extension beyond its wrist. The hexagons locked into place as a seamless blade of black metal.
The robot charged forward and swung at Jane. She deflected the attack with the body of her railgun and kicked the robot in the knee. The limb bent back unnaturally, for a human, but the robot maintained its balance.
Jane threw an uppercut, her fist crashing into the robot’s armored torso. Each knuckle left an impression. Jane grabbed the robot by its shoulders and gave it a vicious headbutt. The robot collapsed to its knees. With a massive boot, Jane stomped on its leg. Metal crumpled flat.
Agnis stuck her sniper rifle through a crack in its armor and fired. The large robot exploded into smoking chunks.
Shrike threw the last of the smaller robots off him. It scampered across the ground and dove at him again.
Jane crushed it under her boot. Sparks spat out of its flattened body. She ground her heel until the sparking stopped.
Shrike put a hand on the wall and struggled to his feet. He grabbed a nanomedic booster from his belt and injected the contents into his chest.
“You okay, man?” Twinkie asked, patting out the last flaming bits of his armor.
“Fine,” Shrike hissed through clenched teeth. “I’ll be fine. But my suit is cut up pretty bad. I’m not going outside anytime soon.”
Twinkie checked his visor. His armor showed a lot of red in its status display. The attack had melted his air recycler into a solid, useless ingot.
“Same here,” Twinkie said. “My recycler’s shot. We’re stuck until we can handle vacuum again.”
“Should we try the gift door?” Shrike asked.
“Fuck no!” Twinkie said. “Now, would someone get me loose?”
Shrike pulled out a knife and worked Twinkie’s fingers free of the handle.
“We could scavenge parts from the crusaders,” Agnis said.
“Maybe,” Twinkie said. “I didn’t see any bodies in the main chamber. Just those severed heads.”
“Me neither,” Shrike said. He slipped the knife under Twinkie’s palm and slid it across.
Twinkie jerked his hand back. He flexed his fingers.
“Jane? Would you get the door, please?”
Jane walked up to the hatch Twinkie had been stuck to. She took a step back, pulled her leg up, and kicked it off its hinges. The heavy metal slab slid to a halt in the next corridor.
“Well, I suppose that’ll work,” Shrike said.
“Thanks, Jane,” Twinkie said.
Jane nodded. She led the way inside. The white featureless corridor stretched on ahead, curving slightly to the right.
“Hey, Shrike,” Twinkie said.
“Do you have that feeling? You know, like we’re being watched?”
“I feel like that all the time, so it’s hard to tell if this is different,” Shrike said.
“I just can’t shake it. It’s like we’re mice in someone’s maze and they keep moving the cheese.”
They reached the next hatch.
Agnis waved her hacking glove over it. “Looks clean to me.”
Jane kicked the hatch down.
Twinkie peeked inside. “I hate this place,” he said. “I really, really hate this place.”
Shrike looked over Jane’s shoulder. “Oh, my …”
The room was set exactly like the first with four chairs around a square table, except a steaming pecan pie had replaced the cake. A circle of spotlights on the ceiling focused their beams directly at the pie.
“Is that what I think it is?” Shrike asked. He reached into a belt pouch.
“Probably not,” Twinkie said.
Shrike pulled out his titanium spork.
“What are you doing?” Twinkie asked.
“Well, it’s a pecan pie. They’re like my kryptonite.”
Twinkie put a hand on Shrike’s chest and pushed him against the wall.
“Here, let me handle this.”
Twinkie walked into the room. He put the barrel of his shotgun against the pie.
“No …” Shrike muttered weakly.
Twinkie pulled the trigger and executed the pie. Warm, flaky crust and gooey filling blasted into the air. He pulled the shotgun back and fired a single scattershot into each chair, then unloaded the last three shots into the table.
Twinkie ejected the shotgun’s smoking clip and slapped in a fresh one.
“There. Done,” he said.
“Oh, get over it, man.”
Agnis waved her glove over the wooden wreckage. “No electronic components detected.”
“Don’t care,” Twinkie said. “I am so fed up with this place. Jane! Next door!”
Jane stepped through the broken bits of chairs and table.
“No,” Twinkie said. “We’re through playing nice! Shoot the fucker off its hinges!”
Jane nodded. She raised her railgun. The shot blew the hatch clean off. It tumbled into the next corridor.
Twinkie marched in, shotgun ready.
“Goddamn it!” he said.
The corridor ran straight ahead. A steaming pecan pie sat on the floor in front of the next hatch.
Twinkie growled deep in his throat. He marched over to the pie.
“You think this is funny?” he shouted. “Huh?”
The corridor rumbled with a deep, bass noise that repeated. It was a cross between loud machinery and laughter. The sound made Twinkie’s heart skip a beat.
“Oh, yeah?” Twinkie said, steeling himself. “Here’s what I think of your joke!”
Twinkie pointed his shotgun at the pecan pie.
The top of the pie blew upwards. A flat metal disc flew out. Its ascent slowed at waist-height where it seemed to freeze in midair.
The disc exploded. Hot bits of shrapnel pounded into Twinkie’s chest. Medical warnings flashed across his visor. He fell to the ground and curled into a ball.
A thick metal limb punched through the floor next to his head. The end unfolded into a hand made of blades. It swung down and grabbed him by the throat. Twinkie felt a single sharp fingertip push through the flexible armor around his neck and prick his skin.
“You!” Twinkie gurgled. He stuck his shotgun against the robot’s wrist and fired. The scattershot blew a hole through the wrist. Liquid silver seeped into the wound and formed hexagonal segments. The segments rose to the surface and locked in place, closing the wound almost instantly.
The finger at his throat pushed in, drawing blood.
Shrike ran over, knife drawn. He stabbed it into the robot’s seamless elbow and slashed across. Silvery strands snapped across the wound, knitting it solid.
The robotic arm lifted Twinkie off the ground by his neck. It stretched several meters long, now. The arm smashed him into the wall, knocking the breath out of him. His visor cracked. The HUD flickered. Twinkie spat into his helmet, tasting blood.
Agnis and Jane fired in unison, striking the arm in two different places. Liquid silver exploded from the impact points. The half holding Twinkie dropped to the ground. The other half slinked back into the hole in the floor.
Twinkie fumbled with the digits around his throat. The death grip didn’t lessen. Instead, it grew tighter.
“Help!” he wheezed.
Shrike stabbed his knife into the thumb and sawed through it. He pulled the rest of the arm loose and threw it onto the ground.
The arm flopped around on the floor. Its outline contorted into something new. The fingers lengthened and thickened. The forearm collected into a tight mass. It looked vaguely spider-like.
Twinkie pointed at the changing machine and triggered his wrist-mounted flamethrower. A pure blue flame cut into the robot. Its skin crisped. The new limbs shriveled and curled back on the center.
Twinkie kept the flame going until nothing but a blackened, bubbling smear remained on the floor.
He pulled his broken helmet off and rested his head against the cool wall.
“Ouch …” he muttered.
Agnis took a nanomedic booster off her belt and injected it straight into Twinkie’s chest.
“Ngh.” Twinkie grunted.
Agnis ran her glove over his body. “You’ll be okay.”
“I can feel the shrapnel in me,” Twinkie said.
“You’re lucky. It missed your vitals,” Agnis said. “I programmed a third of the nanomedics to stabilize those areas and break down the shrapnel.”
Twinkie popped open a vacuum-sealed pouch on his leg. He pulled out a reefer and stuck it in his mouth.
“What are you doing?” Agnis asked.
Twinkie lit the pilot flame on his gauntlet and raised it to the reefer. He breathed in a long, relaxing drag. The end of the reefer glowed. He took it out of his mouth and puffed a perfect smoke ring.
“We should keep moving,” Shrike said.
“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” Twinkie said, sitting up. “We are up against ancient, highly advanced, evil robots that crap exploding pecan pies out of their asses. They’re some sort of twisted lunar nightmare. The only reason we’re still alive is because we’re being toyed with.” He looked at each of their faces. “Am I missing something here?”
“No, that’s pretty much it,” Agnis said.
“Pecan pies …” Shrike muttered mournfully.
“So,” Twinkie said, taking another drag. “If now isn’t the time to light up, when is?”
Jane walked over to the door and kicked it off its hinges. The heavy metal slab skidded to a halt in the next room. She turned back to the rest of the team and stared at them.
Twinkie sighed. “Oh, fine.” He spat out the reefer, picked up his shotgun, and struggled to his feet. “Ugh. Oh. Ouch.”
Jane crept into the next corridor, railgun ready. Twinkie limped after her.
“Hey, Shrike,” Twinkie said.
“Why the hell are we here?”
“This isn’t one of those ‘meaning of life’ questions, is it? Because I suck at those.”
“It’s not. I mean why are we doing this?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m here for the money.”
“Do you think we’re getting paid enough for this crap?”
“At the moment, no, can’t say that we are.”
“Yeah, me too.”
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