Sunday, July 1, 2018

Rise of the Machine (Part Six ~ the conclusion)

"Every story has its ending.  It's up to you to determine how the next tale begins." ... Unknown

"Today, I saw the face of evil"... Thomas Michael Gunne

"I was at this place, doing this thing...." Martin Blank


March 11th, 2060

0715 hours

I was sitting in the clinic with Zero.  Trap was heavily bandaged and had IV's running to him in each limb.  His specialty had been long range support, but he had gone into the ruins with us anyway.  He was a deft hand with a rifle at any range and had proven that in the tight confines of that stone-walled hell.

I had sent Lily home with a message for Aria and Rose.  I was, for all effective purposes anyway, alone with Zero and Trap.

"Wish I had been there to help." Zero said suddenly.  I looked and him and from the guilt on his face I think he may have actually meant it.

"I'm glad you weren't.  You were right where we needed you to be when we bugged out." I replied.  "Besides, you didn't want to see all that in person. The holo leaves out the spirit manifestations and a lot of the voices."

Zero hung his head. "Yeah, I get it.  I wish we could have gotten a good signal through the rock.  A crawler drone would have given us a bit of a heads up as to what was in there."

"Can't always have what we want." I replied.

The monitors attached to Trap started beeping faster.  Zero thumbed his comm and said, "Need medic in here."  Trap twitched suddenly.

I opened my astral sight and saw something happening.  Trap's aura was normally completely mundane.  It had dimmed to almost nothing after he had been speared by the tentacle creature.  Now I saw dark wisps moving around the tattered remains of his soul.  They tore and darkened what was left of him before my eyes.

"Something's wrong!" I exclaimed.

A doctor and a trio of nurses came bursting in.  "What happened?" the doctor asked.

"Something is eroding his soul." I replied.  The four medics ignored me and started manning their machines.

"Machine?" Zero asked.

"Get Samantha in here.  She needs to see this." I told him.  He busied himself with his comm.

"What the hell?" I heard a doctor exclaim.  "We're losing him, get the adrenaline and prep the cart."

I saw the wisps pluck pieces of Trap away and realized, a bit too late, that he was under attack.  I raised my hands and hardened my will. "Avante!  Avante demon!  You have no power here!  I banish thee from this place never to return!"  I hit the wispy tentacles with the full measure of my might, and it felt like I hit a mountain.  I was lifted bodily from the floor and thrown to the wall, leaving a Tommy-shaped dent in the panel.  My skull rung from the impact and I slid down to the floor.  I watched as the wisps continued to tear at Trap while I tried to gather my senses.

"Rose, Lily, I need you girls." I called my allies to me even though I knew, deep down, it was too late.

I gained my feet as Samantha Goode ran in with Zero right behind her.  "Clear the room!" she ordered.  The medics hurried out.

"You too Machine. Out, now!" She ordered as she raised her own hands toward Trap.  "Espiritue desdu machi deux nein vach su!" Her words echoed through the room, laced with magic and dripping with power I could only dream of back then.  Her magic slammed into the wisps tearing at Trap, and then her head was rocked back.  Blood erupted from her nose, and her eyes became bloodshot.  She dropped to one knee, shaking her head as if to clear the impact.

Rose and Lily appeared beside me in astral space. "You cannot stay here!" Rose proclaimed. "It will kill you!"

"We shall fight for you!" Lily declared.

"No." I told them. "Lend me your power.  I'm putting this thing down."  I felt their strength reinforce my own magic.

"Okay hell-spawn, try this on for size."  I gritted my teeth and cast my hands forward.  My voice was thrice blessed of magic as I hardened my will into a weapon and made a last ditch effort to save what was left of Trap. "AVANTE DEMON!  BEGONE FROM THIS PLACE!  I BANISH YOU, NEVER TO RETURN!"  I felt my banishment hit that seemingly limitless well of strength that was devouring Trap's soul, and it gave ground.  I kept up the litany and pushed with everything I had.  I saw wisps of darkness slip from Trap, grabbing small bits of his soul as they did before slipping away.

Trap's eyes opened wide.  I made every effort I could, but Trap was too far gone.  He died screaming as Samantha, the medics and I tried to save him.  As his bio-signs went flat I heard his soul continue to scream for several seconds.

Beside me Samantha Goode shuddered.

March 11th, 2060

1300 Hours, Seattle Metroplex local time

I hadn't thought to tell my allies to keep quiet about the day's events. I had sent them home ahead of me and, of course, Aria asked them what happened.  We don't keep secrets among the family, it's one of the rules.  So they told her the whole, horrible truth of that day.

I came home to a very worried Aria. I went down to the basement and locked a small box in a warded safe I kept in the lab, then came up to smooth things over.  It didn't go as well as I had hoped. She was very pregnant and didn't need to be stressed.  I did all I could to assure her, even going so far as to point to Rose and Lily and say, "Girls, didn't we have it all under control?"

I should have known better. "No." both allies said in unison.  I put my face in my palm.

"Don't lie to me Tommy.  Please don't ever lie to me." Aria looked at me with worry and fear in her eyes.

"I can't tell you everything. It's not good for you and the babies." I explained.  "I fought monsters and some of the team died.  I'm home and I'm safe and I'll take extra precautions next time."

I was in trouble with Aria for several days.  She was worried and moody, and scared that one day I was going to go on a job and not come home.  She was being sensible.  I confess I was worried about the thing I had seen.

Saturday March 13th, 2060

I met Roy at 0200.  We talked at length about the weapon I wanted, the ammo I needed, and the price he would do the work for.  He told me what it would cost and I agreed. (Note: Do NOT argue with Roy.  It isn't healthy.) He told me he would have it done in three weeks. I paid the man and we scheduled the pick-up.

I met with Shade at 0400 at an all-night coffee chain downtown.  Shade looked rather dapper, as if he had just come from a night on the town of high society functions.  There was a stunning redhead on his arm.  She was a spirit and, I assumed, Shade's ally.  I talked to him about a formula I wanted designed, he balked at first but I made him an offer that included a lot of money.  He relented and told me he could have it for me by the end of May.  It was longer than I wanted to wait, but I was in no position to protest.  I gave him an ebony credstick which he slipped into a pocket.

"Heard anything about Creep?" he asked.

"No, why?" I replied.

"Seems he walked away from a job.  Claimed he 'didn't do wet work'."  Shade sipped his latte.

"Maybe he's grown a soul." I said.  I winced internally at my own callousness.

"Doubt it." Shade replied. "I hear you retired."

"You heard wrong." I told him.  I looked around to see if anything or anyone else was looking. "I'm just busy lately."

"I've got something brewing I could use an extra spell slinger on." Shade started.

I held up my hand. "I can't right now chummer.  Sorry but I can't go into why.  Just know that I'm sorry I can't help right now.  I'll make it up to you one day though."

Shade nodded. "You don't owe me anything, but thanks. Maybe Adam can be of help."

I nodded at that.  We sat and chatted about a number of odd things that were going around the rumor mill at the time.  Things like the dead getting up and walking around, vampires forming covens in Atlanta, and sightings of mysterious lights in the astral plane around the Aztechnology pyramid.  In the end we exchanged new numbers, I said goodbye to Shade and the 'lady' on his arm, and watched them go with a little bit of envy.  Working for a corp chaffed, but I had put the noose around my own neck for a full year.  I couldn't jump without it killing me.

March passed with a handful of debriefings, and a lot of dead time in the office I filled by reading.  I was careful to bring books I had bought, to stay off the company wireless network, and basically to take every precaution I could against using any company resources.  I didn't want anything out there hanging over my head when my contract ran out.  Of course that assumed I lived long enough for my contract to run out.  My first two missions made that seem highly unlikely.

April came and brought with it more misery for Aria as the twins had a growth spurt. We finally made an appointment to have the ultrasound that would reveal if we were having boys, girls or both.  Sheila X came with us to the appointment and we were informed that we were having two very healthy seeming girls.  Aria was radiant, and I found myself contemplating the fact that I had no idea of what it was going to be like to have little girls in the house.  I promised myself that I would read up on parenting once I finished the current thesis I was reading concerning the enchantment and binding of foci.  We talked about names for several days.

"Jasmine and Violet!" Aria pronounced one morning.  "Think about it Tommy.  That way their names fit with the names of their sisters."  I agreed and we had the names for the girls.  I had their names embroidered on the bedding for their cribs.

May 1st, 2060

Aria was thirty-three weeks pregnant and started experiencing contractions.  I took her to the hospital with Rose and Lily in tow.  Twelve hours and several thousand nuyen in medical expenses later we were informed that they were Braxton Hicks contractions and she wasn't actually in labor.  We came home with instructions from the doctors for Aria to get some rest, continue drinking plenty of water, and take it easier on your yoga routine.

The doctors pegged Aria's due date as June 17th.  She had a bit of nesting panic and decided she wanted to reorganize the whole house.  I had to intervene, reminding her we had already laid everything out in as safe a manner as possible for the children, with the best feng shui possible, and with the safest materials we could find.  She got frustrated and became irritated so I retreated to the kitchen and came back with a bowl of strawberry ice cream.

I was permitted to survive.

May 8th, 2060

Shade met me at the Brick Yard.  We were sitting at Sheila's table for the exchange.  The curtains were pulled and Shade produced the formula I had asked him to design.  It was written in inks of several different colors, each corresponding to a different thaumaturgic principle.  It was the most advanced design I had ever seen up to that point.

"This is the only copy, just like you asked.  I didn't even make a digital copy of it, so if you lose it or it gets damaged that isn't my fault." Shade explained.

I looked over the formula, noting the power inherent in the document and the elegance of the design. "You do great work, Shade.  I may have more work of this sort for you in the future."  I passed an ebony credstick to Sheila.  She checked the balance indicated, ran a scan on it, pronounced it clean and handed it to Shade.  He checked the balance, nodded satisfactorily, and slipped the credstick into a pocket in his armored jacked.

"Pleasure doing biz with you.  That focus is going to be a beast to enchant. Are you sure you're up for it?" He was being politely professional.  The focus design in front of me would be damn near impossible to enchant without some kind of advantage.  I happened to have three.

"I think I can manage.  If not, I'll just have to study until I get there." I told him. "Besides, for what this will do for me, it's worth the risk."

"If you screw this up it might cook your talent." Shade warned.  With that he stood, thanked Sheila X for her hospitality and went back to the bar.

Sheila looked at me. "Cook your talent?"

My future mother-in-law and grandmother to my twin daughters had her eyebrow cocked up.  "Enchanting is dangerous.  Screw it up bad enough and yeah, it can damage or destroy your ability to use magic."

"Foolish risk." Sheila stated.

"Maybe. But I need this edge if I'm going to survive the coming months."  I placed the formula in my briefcase. "You should come by the house soon.  Aria won't be pregnant much longer.  Pretty soon the place will be littered with toys and smelling of baby poop."

"I'll come by when I can." Sheila X leaned back and asked, "How's work treating you?"

"I feel like I've placed my neck in a noose." I told her.  "I'll be glad when the contract runs and I can take some time to just be a husband and father."

"Things like that don't usually happen for people like us Tommy." Sheila said. "I had a lot of work on my hands with just one daughter, you're going to have two."

"I also have Aria.  We also have Rose and Lily to help."  I had never thought of what life must have been like for Aria and Sheila.  At that moment I felt a dangerous degree of curiosity but managed to stifle the questions that came to mind.

Sheila X nodded. "I'll call Aria before I come over."

With that I vacated the booth.  Sheila likely had more biz to do, and I had to get home.

Tuesday May 11th, 2060

0815 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time

I was sitting at my desk when the panel lit up. "Machine, need you in briefing room in fifteen minutes."  Samantha Goode's face was as lovely as ever and filled me with as much dread as I had ever known.

"Be right there." I replied.  I hoped my mannerisms concealed the feeling of dread that suddenly fell over me.  I marked my page and stuck the book in my satchel.  I grabbed my go-bag from the coat rack in the corner and marched off to whatever fate awaited me.

I saw Jazz and Zero heading the same way and fell into step with them. I read somewhere how there was strength in solidarity.  We weren't close but we faced the same dangers together and that has a way of putting people in a particular place in your life.

"Knee itching, Jazz?" I asked.

"All day." he replied.

I nodded stoically.  I could see Danny waiting at the door to the room.  We each walked in without a word and took seats at the table.  There were plenty of empty seats remaining when the Samantha walked in.

"Gentlemen." she stated.  "As you are aware, I've been recruiting replacements to fill slots on the team.  I've taken your suggestions to heart and we're adding four more weapons experts, a physical adept, a tech specialist, and we've found a magician. Unfortunately, things have happened that necessitate a rapid deployment today.  We're wheels up in ninety minutes, and we'll continue the briefing en route.  Right now I'm going to brief you on the people coming on board."

The holo lit up and Samantha introduced us to the files of our new "teammates".  That meeting only lasted a ten minutes, then we were off to gear up.  I called Aria from my office.  Told her I loved her and that I was leaving 'on biz' and would be back as soon as I could.  She nodded, looked worried and said "You come home to me, Tommy."

"Yes, ma'am." I replied.  "I love you. Sing to the babies for me while I'm gone."

I told Rose to protect Aria and our home and called Lily to my side.  I stripped down to my form fitting armor, and pulled on my black armored fatigues.  From my go-bag I grabbed the box Roy had provided to me.  I opened it, and belted on the gun belt folded up within.  It was real leather and had a pleasant smell of leather and gun oil.  I took the old Smith and Wesson 500 Magnum from its cradle in the bottom of the box, checked the cylinders and found my custom loads there. The custom made cherry grips were real wood.  I holstered the big gun, clipped the Colt to my tactical vest, and holstered my old Viper sliver gun.

"That's me." I said to my empty office. "Ready for work."  Lily manifested and looked around.

"Who are you speaking to?" she asked.

"Just thinking out loud, Lily.  We're certain to have a fierce fight where ever we're going.  Stay close to me and keep your eyes open for potential threats."  I told her.

She bowed deeply and vanished back into the astral plane.


Wednesday May 12th, 2060

2245 hours local time

It was dark.  The stars were hidden by storm clouds and the osprey was running without lights.  The terrain below me was alive.  The auras of the jungle passing by in a dizzying display of color below me.  I fought my astral sight closed and turned to the men in the belly of the flying beast with me.

Jazz was asleep, his AK-97 clutched in his hands.  The four new "weapon experts" were hard men.  They made me think of Gitti, with their gear precisely arrayed on tactical vests and their weapons meticulously maintained.  They were all human, all heavily cybered up, and each of them carried a promise of death to whatever lay ahead.  The physical adept they found was Adam.  His call sign had been assigned as "Abel". I think the reference was lost on him and I prayed he didn't meet the same end as his namesake.  The new magician was a lunatic I knew only too well.  Creep looked perfectly comfortable in the armored fatigues and camo paint.  His custom assault rifle and perverse wand were just the same as I remembered.  He and Adam had both been total professionals, referring to me as "Machine" and made no indication they recognized me.  Creep didn't get a new call sign, his regular working name fit him too well to change it.

The jungle was passing away below us as Zero took the osprey in just over the top canopy.  I felt something impact the deck below me and wondered if we hadn't killed some poor jungle bird.

"Machine, we're five minutes out.  No contacts. Satellite images are clean and local chatter is non-existent."  Zero's voice sounded in my ear, calm and professional.

"FLIR is showing wild life in abundance.  Several animal forms we cannot identify, but that is to be expected in this part of the world."  The FNG* 'tech specialist' was a pretty elf girl with a knack for machines.  She was tasked with running extra sensor systems and monitoring the communication network to free up zero for other mission critical duties.  Control assigned her the call sign, 'Hammer'.

As we came up on the drop zone I waved Creep over and opened the bay door.  We were twenty meters above the jungle floor when Creep and I jumped out and levitated down.  We both checked the area from the astral and found nothing more than frightened wild life.  "We are go." I said into my comm.  Ropes fell from the hovering osprey and the team came down in rapid succession.

Jazz chambered a round in his AK and the rest of the team followed suit." Zero, we're down.  Get to point bravo." He nodded to me as the osprey pulled away into the darkness.  "You ready for this?"

"As always." I replied.  I turned to Adam, "Abel, you stay close and keep anything from getting hand to hand with the fire team.  No one touches anything until I have a chance to check it."  Heads nodded in response and we began trudging through the ashen remains of a jungle fire.  The area for a kilometer around the old ruin was seared, the trees felled and charred.  "Weapons free folks."

We advanced to the ruin without incident.  The area was eerily quiet.  The only noise being the crunch of boots on bits of charred vegetation.

"The higher up I can get the better the signal back to Zero." Hammer said.

"We're not splitting the team.  You'll set up the repeater when we crest that first landing." I told her.

She shrugged and fell in behind Jazz.

The ruin before us was exposed from a landslide.  What had been thought to be a mountain was actually a structure of some kind.  Satellite imagery had spotted it and someone had decided to come take a look.  We got there first because the architecture had a striking similarity to another ruin I had visited recently.  The area around it had spontaneously exploded after the landslide.  I'm sure it wasn't a coincidence.

I raised my hand, fist closed, as we came to the base of the structure.  "Jazz, fan them out, eyes up."

Jazz made a few quick hand signs and the fire team spread out. He walked up to me and covered the mic on his headset with his hand.  "This looks damnably familiar."

I nodded. "That's what I'm afraid of.  If it goes down the same, we're using spirits, magic and grenades.  We penetrate the structure and if we see that fragger that did Flick and Trap we carve their names in it."

"I may start to like you, Machine.  Don't get me killed."  Jazz backed away, his eyes everywhere.

"Do you see this?" Creep asked.  There was a sense of awe to his voice that set my skin crawling. I looked and saw him staring at the structure.  "It's full of energy, but like nothing I've seen before."

I opened myself to the astral and saw what Creep was talking about.  There were strands, or threads, of magical energy woven into each and every stone.  The weave formed patterns of animals, stars, planets, symbols I didn't recognize, and mind stabbing constructs of multi-dimensional prisms.  You could get lost in the pattern if you weren't careful.  I looked and saw Creep staring slack-jawed at the pretty lights. My hand went to the heavy handgun on my hip as a murderous thought crossed my mind.  "What the hell?" I thought to myself.  I shook my head and regained my thoughts.

"Creep.  Stop staring, close your sight." I told him.  He kept staring.  "CREEP!" I said urgently and reached over and shook him.

He stared at me a long moment then smiled. "It's pretty, isn't it?"

Oh drek. "Yeah, Creep, it's pretty and its fraggin' with your mind."  I told him. "Get a grip."

"I'm chill omae." Creep replied. "It just has that feeling about it, you know.  That feeling like you need to kill something to let the bad feelings out.  I'm cool, I know how to handle that."

Mental note:  kill Creep one day when he isn't mission essential personnel.

"Get your head in this, Creep. Now." I ordered.

So the walls make you want to kill the people with you.  Great.  Just great.

I put my boot on the first of the cracked stone steps leading up to the exposed entrance and didn't die. Creep and I took point and the rest of the team followed up behind.  Twenty meters later we reached the balcony or landing in front of the entrance.  The area was suspiciously clear, no dirt, debris, or loose stone to be seen.

"If this was exposed by a landslide, where the frag is all the soil and rock?" Hammer asked.

"Don't know.  Assume we're wrong about the landslide for now.  Get communication up." Jazz replied.  "Ace, Dex, Sling you cover the tech-head.  Bull, you cover the spell slingers."

The fire team reacted with cool professionalism.  I watched as Hammer set up the repeater. It took her less than five minutes but it was a long, tense time.

"Anyone else hear that?" Adam asked.

"Nothing. Yeah, I noticed that too.  No jungle noises." Jazz responded.

I looked back toward the jungle behind us and felt a strange foreboding.  "Jazz did you bring those claymores I asked about?" I said.

He nodded in response. "I made sure to get the good ones too, just like you asked.  Have to admit, I didn't expect you to know the difference between German, Israeli, and Aztlan gear."

"I had some chummers once who taught me a thing or two." I replied. "Give me a kill zone at the base of the steps. Concentric blasts and triggers, in case our old friends show up."

"You think they're in the trees?" Jazz asked.  He was already unpacking the weaponry from his rucksack.

"I'm not fond of taking chances that they aren't." I replied.

Jazz took Dex with him.  They worked for ten minutes setting up the motion triggers and mines.  When they came back up Hammer had a micro drone powering up in the palm of her hand.

"First comm relay is ready." she said.  "We can go when you're ready."

"Creep, call your girls up." I said as I sent out the mental call to Lily and kept the elementals I had bound standing by.  Six demonic looking fire elementals were joined by an angelic looking Lily.  "Okay, if we see dead people coming after us keep your cool and control your lanes of fire.  Shoot straight and conserve ammo. Whatever you do, DON'T let anything that looks dead touch you."  I drew out my heavy revolver. "Let's get this over with."

Nine of us went in.

It was a fight from the moment we crossed the threshold.  Ancient cadavers, dry with age and dressed in regalia I couldn't identify, came at us in a wave of death.  The stones of the ruin became horribly hot as Lily and the demoness spirits flooded that first chamber with flame.  The corpses screamed in pain. The stench of burning flesh was terrible.  In the light of that hellfire I thought I saw the carvings in the stone walls shift and move, as if writhing in pain.

"Jazz give me some suppression fire." I said.

Jazz didn't say a word. He shouldered his AK-97 and spent the magazine in a continuous burst of fire.  The weapon's report echoed painfully against the stones.

Lily stopped throwing fire a moment before the demoness fire elementals did.  Lily was reserved, quiet, but in my mind I heard her tell me. "We are all in grave danger. This place wants to eat us."

"Stay close baby-girl," I told her.  Our mental communication clear above the girlish laughter of Creep's demons.

"Reloading." Jazz called out.

"Comm drone is up."  Hammer reported.

"Send a micro drone ahead a bit to give us a peek." I told her.

"Copy that, floating bumblebee." She opened a small plastic case and pulled a little winged drone, a little less than two centimeters long, from the padding.  Its wings lifted it from her hand and it flitted down the hall.  "Pull up your AR if you want to see."

I pulled my goggles up and tapped the feed into the overview.  The little drone had a brief heat warning as it passed over the scalding kill zone but cooled quickly as it flew down the corridor.  Its low-light optics were good and I saw dozens of walking corpses coming our way.

"What the drek have you fraggers gotten me into?" Ace muttered.

"Stow that!" Jazz commanded. "Pull the bumblebee back, Hammer."

The little drone was landing in her hand a moment later.  The walking corpses were coming into view and hurrying toward us.

"Bouncing the frag," Jazz said as he tossed a grenade over the heads of the corpses to bounce off the far wall and around the corner of the hallway.  Creep's demoness spirits once again flooded the area with flames.  I heard the grenade detonate over the screams of the damned and the girlish laughter of the flame spirits.

I saw a red dot flash in the corner of my AR view.  "Jazz was that what I think it was?"

"If you think it was the signal from the motion sensor outside, then yes." He replied.

"Creep you hold here with the fire team.  Hammer you, Abel, and Jazz are with me."  I turned and walked out into the night as the first claymore mine detonated.  I pulled my AR goggles down and my eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness.  Below me hundreds of figures moved in the inky night. They advanced in spite of the first explosion, their decaying bodies showing no fear of death.

"Machine, that is a lot of bodies." Jazz said.

"Hammer, get Zero on the line.  We need a fire mission now." I said.  When she didn't respond I turned and saw her standing there, her face frozen in fear.  "Damnit Hammer!"

I keyed my comm. "Zero we have hostiles at our location.  Fire mission on Alpha site, I say again fire mission on Alpha. I'm calling Ragnarok." To Jazz I said, "Find a target and paint it. We're frying these bastards."

The battle had just begun.

Zero sent the first missile right down on Jazz's laser less than two minutes later.  We called in four more over the next ten minutes, expending all we had on hand.  In the ruin behind us Creep laughed maniacally as his spirits incinerated walking dead men.  The temperature in that first room was scalding hot and the fire team fell back to the entrance to keep from passing out from the heat.  Creep didn't seem to care.  His hair singed, and he showed first degree burns on his face and hands but he kept at it.  Flames scoured the ancient stone and reduced corpses to piles of ash, charred and splintered bone.  The slimy little fragger laughed and danced on stone floors hot enough that the soles of his boots began to stick to the floor as they neared melting point.

Hammer snapped out of it and was feeding images to Zero.  The rigger passed the feed onto control where Samantha Goode was, no doubt, watching with calculating eyes.  At the ruin, Jazz deployed the fire team along the edge of the landing, leaving Bull at the entrance to watch Creep.  Below us, corpses crawled, lurched and climbed over the blasted landscape toward us.

"Hold your fire until I say." Jazz called out.

"Lily, once they reach the steps rain down fire upon them." I said.

"I will do all I can." she replied.  Her angelic wings opened behind her and she stretched out her right hand toward the obscene things below us.  As the first of the corpses reached the steps, fire exploded among them.

I looked to Jazz, "Open fire on any that get past that.  I'm going to check on Creep before the slimy little fragger cooks his own brain."  Jazz nodded and I went back to the ruin's entrance.  Bull was soaked in sweat, the room beyond felt like an oven.  I could hear Creep laughing.

"He's not right." Bull said.

I nodded and stepped onto stone that was hot even through my boots. "Creep get out here." I ordered.

A tick later he came out, his hair smoking, eyebrows singed off, and looking like he had a horrible sunburn.  "Yeah?  What's up?" he asked.

"You okay? It's like an oven in there." I saw madness behind his eyes. I suspected it had been there all along, but for that moment he let it shine.

"Oh I'm peachy chummer. Just need to heal up the burns and I'm good for round two. Going to have to watch it with the girls though, I'm using up their favors pretty quickly.  Can't have them running off with another wizard am I right?"  He was smiling like a kid in an ice cream parlor.  I felt a chill in my gut.

"Pull your 'ladies' out. I'm going to chill that stone down so we can operate in there." I whispered into the astral plane and one of the water elementals I had bound manifested next to me.

"Oh right!" Creep clapped his hands gleefully.  "One minute then. Ladies!!! Let's get out of there please."

The water elemental cooled the stone with a geyser of water.  Stone fractured and steam bellowed out of the entrance.  The spirit kept at it for several minutes until the stone was once again cool to the touch.  At the top steps, Lily rained down fire upon hordes of the dead.  I heard a few shots ring out as Jazz and the fire team guys put rounds on the few that managed to make it onto the steps.

For the moment we were holding our position nicely.

"Hammer, get the drone back in there.  I want to see what we're facing. Bull, Creep, cover her." The three of them hurried to comply.

I strode over to Lily and beheld her handiwork.  Below me a pile of charred corpses was growing larger by the moment.  She hurled fire with an ease I had only ever seen matched by Rose and the fury of the firestorm below was terrible to behold. "They will not relent. This place means to devour us all." Lily spoke with a calm I envied.

"Whatever is here will choke before I let it have us. We're taking out whatever is doing this." I told her.

"We will not succeed in killing it, though we may delay it." she said.  I didn't know what she was talking about or where she would be getting such insights.  I had grown to trust Rose when she spoke like that and I found myself trusting Lily as well.

"We will see Lily.  Destroy them all. We'll banish what remains shortly." I told her.

"Video is online.  I've floated three drones in total down there plus another repeater drone." Hammer reported.  "You can see for yourself"

I pulled up my AR goggles and witnessed just how deep in the drek we were.

We lost Bull at 0137 hours.  A large spider the size of a horse descended out of a shaft we passed under and bit him in half.  Creep lashed out with bolts of flame while the fire team trained their assault rifles against it.  Nothing seemed to work.  Creep's demonesses along with Lily grabbed the thing and the struggle was on. It bit down on one of the demonic fire spirits and tore it asunder.  I leveled my heavy pistol and prayed for a miracle.

The S&W500(tm) Magnum roared in my hand.  The heavy fifty caliber silver round blew a hole the size of a troll's fist through the monster. It screamed as the cylinder cycled the next round up and I fired again.  I put all five rounds into that beast, the last round into its head as it lay chittering and oozing gore onto the stone floor.  "Reloading." I called out.  The team looked at me in stunned silence for a moment.

"Reloading." Jazz called out as he dropped the magazine from his AK-97 and slapped a fresh one home.  We scavenged Bull's ammo and left him where he fell, planning to recover his body on the way out.

"Let's get this done." I said.

We advanced into the ruin, the drones probing ahead for us.  When we spotted a room of corpses we would pitch grenades in then follow up with spells and spirits to mop up.  Room by room, one corridor at a time, we made our way through the ruin.

Ace died at 0212 he stepped on a stone and triggered a trap.  A large stone, massing at least a hundred kilograms, fell from the ceiling and shattered his skull.  We grabbed his ammo as we had done with Bull and pressed forward.

At 0252 we encountered two of the spider things.  Adam disobeyed his orders by breaking away from covering Hammer to engage them with his spear. He plunged his weapon deep into the first creature and it returned the favor by biting his head off.  The spirits grappled the second creature while I blew a hole through the first spider's head.  I emptied the heavy pistol into the second creature, killing it before it could cause any more harm.  I closed Adam's dead eyes and felt a tear come to my eye.  I brushed it away and reloaded.

Zero hit his scheduled refueling at 0300.  We had a lot of static in the transmission but we made it out.  He reported he would be back on station shortly and we cleared the line.  We advanced up to the second level and encountered more resistance as scores of dead bodies came after us.

None of the corpses were possessed by the same dark spirits I had seen before.  There was something else there, like a tortured soul, or trapped spirit.  It was driven on in agonizing madness.  I kept my astral sight closed after that, and we put them down with judicious use of magic and firepower.

At 0410 we entered a vast cavern.  A large structure resembling an Aztech temple was the only structure within.  Boulevards of fitted stone lead to it in three directions as well as the path we were following.  More dead came rushing toward us, magic flashed in the darkness, grenades detonated with ringing echoes, and muzzle flashes shattered the darkness.  We advanced stone by stone, fighting for every meter of ground we gained.

We reached the structure at 0503 hours.  We were tired and reeked of cordite, death and sweat.  We trod over broken bodies and began to climb the broad steps of the structure.  High above us a strange figure appeared.  My ability to see in the dark cursed me with the sight of the thing.  It was roughly humanoid, clad in fragments of armor that glinted in the darkness. Its body seemed to be formed from masses of worms that wiggled and squirmed.  I hardened my magical defenses by reflex, Lily screamed in what I took to be terror, Creep froze in fear, and Jazz shouldered his AK-97 and fired on the monster above us.

Dex and Sling joined Jazz in firing up at the thing.  It spat out words I'm certain I was never meant to hear or understand.  Sling collapsed into a puddle of gelatinous goop, his gear clattering to the floor.  Dex freaked and ran.  I never saw him again.  Jazz kept firing, and Hammer screamed in unashamed horror.  The thing looked down and waved at her.  Her skin tore free of her body and sailed into its outstretched 'hand'.  She collapsed, twitching on the cold stone, her jaw working soundlessly.

"Machine! Get in this!" Jazz screamed.

I had been saving my strength, suspecting I would need it later.  I raised my hands and reached out to the fire elemental I had tagging along in astral space, "IGNIS MAGICAE!" I screamed out my incantation and a white-hot lance of flame shot out and burned across the thing.  Its scream tore at my sanity.

Creep collapsed on the steps giggling like a child.

I took another step, madness threatening to overtake me. I took Lily's hand as she screamed into the darkness.  "IGNIS MAGICAE!!!" My second spell seared the thing's right arm off.  It hurled a spell at me that shattered against my defenses.

I lost my mind.

"You gonna sling that drek at ME!?!?" I remember screaming up at the thing.  "DIE FRAGGER! DIE!" I hurled fire, light, and lightning up at the thing.  I burned away at the wiggling mass of its body and sent bolts of mana searing into its being. "WE DID NOT COME HERE TO PLAY!  DIE YOU BASTARD! DIE!"  I cast a handful of shimmering powder from the pouch at my belt, drew power from Lily and the fire elemental to back up my wrath, and unleashed a powerball that blew the top of the structure into rubble.  I stalked up the steps, ignoring the fact that I couldn't hear gunfire anymore. "YOU KILLED MY PEOPLE!" Fireball. "YOU KILLED MY FRIEND!" A mana storm called down from my fury.  "REARED YOUR UGLY FACE AND GOT ME DRAGGED DOWN INTO THIS HELL HOLE TO KILL YOUR PUNK ASS!" I called down a stormy ball of lightning that raged along the smoldering wreckage. "AND YOU HAVE THE BALLS TO SLING THAT DREK AT ME!?!?!" My fire elemental manifested in a flaming tower of rage-fueled fury, engulfing the area above me. "FRAG YOU!" I spat.

I watched the spirit rage and burn, caught my breath, and pulled my heavy pistol.  With a wave of my left hand the spirit vanished.  I found what was left of the worm ridden armor.  The mouth began to move again so I leveled my gun and put a round through the shiny helmet.  There was a spark of mana and the helmet spun away, the worm ridden skull beneath it splattered on the stone.

"Frag you!" I repeated.

Creep came to his senses a few minutes later.  I emptied the revolver into the pieces of the thing's body I found lying around.  Then I reloaded and went looking for more.  Jazz came up behind me, "Machine.  It's dead. Let's bug out."

I looked to Lily who shook her head slowly.  She had shame in her eyes.

"It's not dead Jazz. We just slowed it down." I holstered my weapon.

We never found Dex.  We recovered a pile of items that seemed to be made of orichalcum, including the armor the thing wore.  Creep and I grabbed several things that seemed to bear some weird enchantments.  We gathered up our dead and made for the exit.

Nothing got in our way on the way out.

Friday, May 14th 2060

1900 hours, Seattle Metroplex local time

Lily rode with me in the car.  She hadn't spoken much and I didn't know what to say to her to make her feel better.  She was dragged into Hell itself by me. I had promised to care for her and I had put her through that.  I looked at her and found my voice, "It's going to be okay.  I'm sorry I took you to that place.  I'll take Rose next time and you can stay behind to protect the family."

Lily cast her gaze to the flooring of the EuroWestwind. "I'm sorry.  I found fear and it overwhelmed me. I will not fail you again."

"You didn't fail me baby-girl.  On a good day I fight monsters.  They always seem to hurt or kill someone important to me.  I guess that is what makes them 'monsters'." I thought about Adam and my gut hurt. "I should have given you more time to prepare."

"It will be back.  In the fullness of time, they always come back." she whispered.

"Not if I kill it first." I said.

We pulled into the driveway at home at 1953 hours.  I kissed Aria, and excused myself for a minute to run down to the lab. I took a hat box with me.  I locked the door to the lab behind me, crossed the room and opened my warded safe.  I opened the hat box and took out the orichalcum helmet and set it on a bare shelf within.  It lay under a similar shelf which held a lone scale from the creature that killed Trap and Flick.

"I imagine you things can hear me." I whispered to the wretched objects. "I'm coming for you."



Thank you for reading my fan fiction.  I hope you have enjoyed 'Rise of the Machine'.  This story arc marked a change in Tommy's life as he began to focus his professional attention on threats from the metaplanes.

I hope you'll look forward to the tales of what happens next.

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