Corazon swiftly leads our way down the hill, fungicide gun on full blast in air-blower mode. I run after her, staying as close as I can to benefit from the clearer air. She skids to a halt before we reach the shack, and I stop abruptly behind her. The second robot just happens to be right in front of the door! Since Corazon is thinning out the miasma, we can see that the robot is plugged into a dimly pulsing charging station. A bright light flashes on. “Warning! This is—”
There’s a strange electronic noise and then silence. When our eyes adjust to the sudden return of darkness, we see the robot frozen in place, a victim of an EMP grenade. Either Cleve had a couple, or he decided this robot was the more important target since he already has the other one distracted.
The security bot is shorter than we are but blocky, which makes it enough of an obstacle that I want it out of the way before we deal with the door. If something goes wrong inside the hut, I don’t want us having to clamber back over this thing just to flee. “C’mon, Cor, help me flip it,” I tell Corazon.
While she squats down to get a handhold on the treads, I squeeze myself between the robot and the front wall of the shack. With my back against the bot, I push off the wall. It’s effective, but maybe not my best idea ever, since when the robot tumbles over, so do I. It is not a soft landing pad; I clock my head against it hard. It’s dark out, but there’s enough moonlight for me to experience a moment of double vision as Corazon looks down at me. Her voice eventually resolves into the question, “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. The door,” I tell her, waving her off as I pick myself up and step over to examine the lock. Cor glances off into the mists, not at all in the direction Cleve went, and seems to be looking at something. But then she gives her head a shake and turns her attention back to me. I don’t have any good news to report. Morgan captured Arx; even if they didn’t spill any details about what Data Haven was up to, that was evidence enough to know that somebody tried to do something to the node. In the intervening weeks, Morgan’s people have upgraded the lock here. I don’t have the sophisticated picks you’d need to get through this. And even if I did, it would take too much time. I’m not terribly practiced at this. When I was a teenager, my role was usually sweet-talking a mark, distracting an attendant, or just being the lookout.
I take a step backwards, steadying myself with my cane, and glance up at the roof. It’s the stormy season, and this structure is made of local wood-like materials, not metal siding. Some of the roof tiles look worse for the wear. I hook my cane over my elbow and form my hands into a stirrup for Cor. “Up you go,” I tell her.
She holsters the nozzle of the fungicide gear to free up her hands, and I boost her within reach of the roof. She scrambles over the edge and then turns around, stretching a hand down to me. Climbing up there myself doesn’t seem wise to me right now. Rather than give her my hand, I hold up the data stick Dr. Citali gave me. “Plug this in, too, Hypercor,” I say, hoping she’ll just do as I ask. I haven’t told her anything about this little side job, but we’re friendly enough. If she asked me to do something reasonable, I wouldn’t interrogate her.
Corazon yanks her hand back very suddenly, her crouch on the roof now taking on a defensive air. “Saba, this isn’t about you!” she hisses. That’s not a name I’ve heard before. Is this who she killed? Or who Morgan hired to kill her parents? Or just an ex? That doesn’t matter right now, of course. What’s important now is that Corazon is hallucinating. Her hand goes for her spray gun, and when she brings it to bear on me, it’s no longer in air-blowing mode.
I realize what’s happening fast enough to duck down to the left over my cane, closing my eyes and throwing my right arm up to block my face. I feel the burning before the fungicide hits me. The chemicals eat their way through the miasma between us and then splash upon me. My sleeve and mask take the brunt of the hit, but some catches me on the right side of my neck and that hand. It burns, but that is not the strangest sensation going on right now. I feel… I don’t know… like something is stirring within me.
The spray stops and I look up. “Corazon, Corazon Santiago!” I shout at Cor, trying to snap her back to reality. Then it occurs to me that whoever this Saba person is, they do not know her by the new hacker handle she just adopted. “Hypercor!” I try. “It’s Mariah, not Saba. We’re here to do a job. You’ve got to focus. This is a hallucination you’re seeing.” I’ve only known Corazon for a short while, but that’s been enough to get some insight into her, to know what strings to pull. And the biggest string for her is Morgan. “We have to do the job,” I reiterate. “You want to hurt Morgan? This is the way to do it. It’s the first step toward taking Morgan out and avenging your parents’ deaths.” I normally wouldn’t rub her face in her past trauma this way, but I need to get through to her. The techniques I learned for my marketing AAS are useful for more than just making sales.
In the dim light, Corazon’s eyes meet mine. “Ahhh! Sorry, Mariah. You looked like… someone we don’t have to talk about.” This time she takes the data stick when I hold it out to her. Then she pulls up the roof tile and disappears down inside the shack. Light streams up through the hole in the roof; the power inside the node is still on, thank goodness.
“You can do this, Hypercor!” I call after her. Then I’m on my own for a moment, with nothing urgent to do. I’ve heard a few gunshots and some more announcements from the bot that Cleve is distracting, but given the low visibility, I risk getting shot if I head that way to lend him a hand. So with nothing else to do right now, I take a moment to assess myself and whatever it is that’s going on with me. I look myself up and down and realize that the miasma is actually pulling towards me. It’s thicker around my right leg than it was before. And somehow, even through denim, it feels cool and soothing. That relief is spreading throughout me. I can feel that in my burnt hand.
Could I do something with this for my aching head? Funnel the pain-numbing properties to the bruise I got from crashing against the robot? There’s no easy way to describe what I do next. The closest I can come is saying that I just will for more miasma to flow towards my head. I don’t want to breathe it in—I can’t afford another one of those incapacitating coughing fits—but if it can somehow soothe my head injury, it might be worth the risk.
The plan backfires. I do nothing for my headache, and in fact, the fungicide burns on my neck start to feel even worse. Maybe the chemicals now on my skin are reacting with the miasma, creating fresh burns.
Corazon’s voice comes to me, muffled by the building and my own distraction. “I’m in! Breaking the ice!”
She in, she’s fine, but I’m somehow making my own injuries worse. I try to reverse whatever it was I did. For a brief moment, something clicks. I feel like this really could work, but whatever I’m… manipulating is too delicate for this hack job I’m attempting. We’re in a high intensity situation, my head is pounding, my leg is aching, I owe my friends my attention. I need some quiet time to work through all these sensations, and this is not it. This definitely could work, I’m sure of it. I might need a bunch of practice to steer this, but something is really happening. It’s related to the miasma somehow, but it’s also internal to me.
As I think about this, I realize these sensations aren’t entirely new. When I was interacting with that wolf beetle last night, something like this was going on. Whatever I’m doing sloppily now, I was doing more effectively then. I think, too, of the way the xenofungus leaps out at me when I take in the view from a high point. It’s like it’s calling my attention to it. There is some kind of connection, some real kind of connection.
A flicker of light down near the ground catches my eye in the darkness. The security bot is coming back on line. I quickly crouch down and flip a panel open on the back of the head area. I don’t know enough about electronics to go for anything specific; I just want to stop it. I grab what looks like a drive of some sort and yank it out. Sparks fly from the attached wires, irritating the chemical burns on my hand, but once they’re disconnected, the lights die out again. Hopefully this is something useful. Maybe it stores information from what happened last time, and we can get a lead on Arx’s fate once Data Haven has a go at it.
Through the opening in the roof, I hear Corazon shout, “Got it!” There’s a few rattles and slams, and then she adds, “And… leave my mark. Perfect!”
I groan internally. For the new tap to be of any use at all, it needs to go undiscovered. Corazon throws open the hut door, which apparently was not locked from the inside. Light spills out onto me and the robot. “Did you seriously leave a calling card?!” I demand, pushing myself back to standing with my cane.
“Yeah, I’m Hypercor!”
“Then they’ll know we were here!”
Cor looks pointedly at the piece of robot in my hand. “Are you going to put that back?” she demands in turn.
“This is outside!” I snap.
“They’re going to know someone was here and messed with their robots!” Cor shouts back at me. “What, they’re going to think we just did that for jollies?!”
“It’s one thing to know that someone messed with the exterior. It’s another to know that someone did something to the interior!” I reply with equal heat.
We argue, a needless spat. I think we’re both kind of strung out at this point. Hypercor is riding the high of a successful hack, but she’s also shaking and rubbing her eyes. Dr. Citali warned that in addition to hallucinations, the miasma blocker might also cause drowsiness. I certainly can’t carry her out of here; my leg is aching and my head is swimming from just standing up quickly. From the sounds of the other robot, Cleve has aggravated it enough that it is demanding surrender with increasing threats.
“The calling card is a little hack that’s going to be annoying, not super obvious—until they get good enough to spot it,” Cor tells me.
“Okay, okay. A delayed response thing is totally fine,” I allow, seeing her point.
“If you do not surrender willingly, note that forced surrender incurs a higher cost,” sounds an artificial voice through the mist. We can see light in that direction, but no details on Cleve’s state.
“We gotta get that other robot though,” Cor says eagerly, flexing her fingers.
I stuff my robot drive into my satchel and pull out a small case. “Fine, go for it,” I say, but I offer her a thin strip from the case before she steps away.
“Oh, what’s this?” she asks curiously, taking it.
“It’s another experimental drug, but you look like you’re about to pass out,” I tell her, hoping Rhum will help keep her up, rather than negatively interact with what else is in her system. “Just slip it under your tongue, and it’ll dissolve.”
Cor does so with no compunctions. Then she vanishes into the mist to go help Cleve. I snap the case closed, resisting taking any Rhum myself. It would help with the growing pain in my leg, but it always makes me a little dizzy, and I don’t need that on top of this headache. I step inside the shed. Steadying myself against the wall, I reach up with my cane and yank the roof tile back into place to conceal Corazon’s entry. I wipe down all the surfaces with my handkerchief and make sure we haven’t made a mess of the floor, either. The crime scene now clean, I step back outside, pulling the door shut behind me.