The no-mans land outside New Haven is a charred and desolate buffer between the lockdown and the neutral zone, where lockdown and Garden residents can mingle. Theoretically, at least – in practice it means we can work for them if we pass enough tests. There is only one way in or out of lockdown. The heavily guarded Militarised Zone.
A phalanx of four Antibodies stands sentry, on alert for anyone brave or stupid enough to break lockdown. Most people trying to break through don’t have an Antibody of their own, however.
I peek around the corner of a building, trying in vain to be stealthy in a three storey tall war machine. The sentry machines are present, standing beside the heavily armed concrete bunker which serves as a transit post, fringed with turrets. They appear idle. Perhaps their pilots are getting breakfast in the transit post, as the sun rises behind me. I approach warily, watching for any sign of movement.
My radio crackles with incoming comms, “You’ve got some talent, kid. That was a real fancy move you made, back there in the rail yard.” I turn and see the Loyal Subject, damaged but standing. The armour has been stripped from its head and the top of its arms, leaving the cockpit exposed but intact. I finger the zoom control and see a stern old man grinning at me, scars cutting across his face below a shock of white hair. “We could use a pilot like you. Nobody else has to die today.”
I radio back, “What about Tasha?”
There is a brief silence, which feels like days.
“You ever seen a Garden girl? An hour with one of them, and you’ll forget all about the little tart.”
I charge the XAEA-12 straight toward him and spool up the cannons.
The rounds slam into the Loyal Subject, clattering off the armour. A round pierces the hydraulic piston on its right arm, bursting a geyser of liquid into the air as the arm goes limp. Then my adversary bursts sideways with a thump of jump jets and fires off a rocket at close range.
It slams into the side of the XAEA-12, knocking me off balance. He follows up with a brutal kick from the leg of his machine, which tears through my right side and knocks me to the ground.
The radio crackles, “Damn lockdown punks. Don’t know how to take an order. What a waste.”
Through my cockpit glass I can see the Loyal Subject raise its leg for a stomp.
I reply, “Corp lackeys. You just can’t think outside the box.” I override the gyros on the XAEA-12’s legs, and spin them sideways, completely out of the normal plane of motion. They slam into the Loyal Subject, bringing it clattering to the ground, where it lands on its limp arm with a crash.
I track my cannons down, aiming directly at the exposed cockpit.
We’re so close together that with his open cockpit, we don’t even need radio comms. I shout to him, “Do you even have a name, Corp stooge? A widow who will be expecting flowers? Or are you just an identification number?”
“I am Isaiah Hawkins, head of the Euphrates Brotherhood of Service. And you, my friend, are outnumbered.”
I glance away from Isaiah’s ruined Antibody and see the four sentries, all stampeding toward me, weapons at the ready.
“The offer still stands. Join us, or die.”
“I’ll take you with me.” I reply, as I check my Antibody’s status. Legs out of service. Armour heavily damaged. Ammunition low. Jump jets dead. Stuck prone, like a sitting duck.
“I’m sure you will. But then my backup will strip you from your machine, and the only thing you’ll see for the rest of your miserable existence is the inside of a jail cell. Vaccine testing, if you’re lucky. The electric chair, if you’re not. You’re better than that. You could have a future with Euphrates.”
“At least this way I’ll get some justice for what you did to Tasha.” I reply.
“I did not pull the trigger.” he says. My brain is working overtime, trying to find a way out of this. To surrender, after getting so close would be a travesty. To let Tasha have died for nothing. “Indeed, your tart is altogether fine and healthy. We are always looking for individuals with high potential to join our ranks. She’s a little insolent, but the boys will straighten her out.”
Is Tasha working with these Corp bastards? Was she offered a deal with the devil like me, and chose to side with the devil? I glance away from the Loyal Subject, to see four Antibodies with their weapons pointed at my cockpit. It seems there is only one way I’m leaving this place alive. Only one way where there is even a chance of seeing Tasha again. By giving up whatever freedom I have for Corp bondage.
I slide down the ladder, out of the XAEA-12. The armaments bristle, tracking my every move, as I limp over to Isaiah, to look him in the eye. I raise my hands in surrender.