I woke to the smell of rotting flesh and a glittering spectacle that might have been beautiful if it had been winter and snow had covered the hidden clearing before me. And if I had not been tied to the display, as if I were one of the strands of lights adorning it.
Walls of torn branches and sheets of metal were twisted and tied together, a mutant beaver’s greatest achievement, anchored by the thick trees around us. It was as if I were bound to the walls of an open roofed room, my feet centimeters above the ground, the light strands tied tightly about me, almost to the point of suffocation. Stars glittered overhead, counterpoint to the lights woven into the walls. A corridor led away, twisting sharply to the right, where it lead, impossible for me to see.
It was a maze. A maze of metal, wood, plastic, and the lights, thousands and thousands of them, with dead animals woven through them; cats and foxes and scurrying things no longer scurrying. To my left were saggy, half-empty bloodballs. And everywhere, the stench of decay. I couldn’t find the gift bag either though I couldn’t fathom why my abductor would steal my kid’s toy.
I needed to free myself, retrieve the toy, and mosey the hell out of here.
“Some we eat, and some we keep,” the wind carried the soft whisper to me and I would have preferred if it hadn’t. Would have preferred not to see the shadow peel itself out of the corridor ahead, not to see the robot stroll into the clearing. It might have been my Shadow except that it lack falseflesh, the pretense of being human, all angles and curves with a triangular head terminating in a pointy chin. Soft green eyes ignored me, focusing instead on the glowing lights. With a graceful flourish it plucked a dead bulb from a strand and carried it towards me.
My kid’s robotic cat was perched on its shoulder.
“Dead, dead,” the robot said, stroking the bulb once, then twice, before dropping it, smashing it underfoot as it advanced. When it lunged for me I flinched but it was playing cocky with me, snagging the bloodball beside me with the long metallic feeler that emerged from its mouth. The feeler pierced the sac.
While it fed the robot’s torso was pressed against mine. The night was silent, no birds, no pitter patter of tiny rodents through the underbrush, only the slurp, slurp, slurping of a robot feeding.
It finished, stepped back with an audible popping of air, its feeler retracting. I blinked, surprised, not because of the robot burp, but because on its chest was an emblem. Though scratched out, as if with a jagged sheet of metal, I identified the hard points of the vandalized stars; this was the same emblem I had seen on the madman’s desk aboard the moon orbital. The emblem for the cabal of mercenaries, terrorists and deranged manipulators I had been certain I had obliterated the day I saved the world.
The blood damp feeler fluttered across my face like a butterfly’s kiss and then was mercifully drawn the final few centimeters into the mouth orifice of what I was now certain was a combat grade robot. It stood a head taller than me, with wide shoulders and a robust frame. Beneath the glitter of the Christmas lights I saw how every joint and seam was reinforced with extra folds of steel.
It stepped back, head cocked, as if embarrassed by my scrutiny.
“Who do you belong to?”
The robot giggled, which by my reckoning should never happen. There should be a special robot law, just for that: if thou be made of metal, thou shall not giggle.
My captor set the cat on the ground and then with the patience of a parent it tilted the toy’s tiny robotic head and opened its mouth to reveal after-market fangs, not unlike those of my deceased Shadow. With the gentleness of a mother cat, the robot encouraged the toy to bite my ankle.
The robot tsk-tsked me but mid-tsk, it paused, perhaps hearing what I could not. It reached for a dongle of metal clipped to it pelvis and pressed a button. The lights around us vanished and I longed for their return because the moonless darkness surrounding us was terrible. Meanwhile, the ankle biter continued sucking my blood.
“Some we eat and some we keep,” the combat robot said as it walked away, “and some we keep to later eat.”
“You better not have ruined my warranty,” I called after it as I shook my leg, trying to dislodge the tiny minion. With my body tied I didn’t have the leverage I needed and I was forced to listen to the sucking and worse, the cat humming the lyrics for the variety show from which it had sprung.
Growing light-headed I muttered, “You’ve had enough, you little bastard. Stop it.”
The cat stepped back, meowing. I double blinked as it purred back at me, “Alrighty roo.” The cat still obeyed my voice! Its blue eyes regarded me, waiting for the next order.
“Chew through the cords and free me,” I said, adding a decisive, “now.”
The cat blinked at me, purred.
I rained a shower of profanity at it but it shrugged and sat down, licking a paw. This exchange continued for longer than I care to admit until I chanced upon the magic words.
“Bite this,” I said, rustling my leg and the strand closest to the cat. This time it moved and took hold of the strand of lights with its mouth.
“Now walk backwards…”
An hour later I had a sore throat and freedom. Now I followed the obnoxious creature through the maze, a one-cat parade leading me out of the middle of nowhere. My captor hadn’t bothered to take my phone and I had called in, requesting backup. A task force was on its way. The Agency director had ordered me to stay put, let the team take care of the situation, the case was solved.
Except for me, it wasn’t.
What motived me to finish this was not a desire to discover the secrets hiding beneath that evil emblem, to figure out who had made this robot, to dig into another global conspiracy that threatened the sanctity of the known world. I was just pissed I had let my kid down again.
Somebody had to pay for that.
The cat paused at an intersection. I had told it to find its buddy and it still seemed to be operating under those parameters because a half second later, its button nose wiggling, it headed down the left corridor.
Walls twisted hither and yon and I half expected to stumble into a minotaur beneath the moonless sky but I was confusing my mythologies because in this maze the master was a vampire. And I found it at the entrance to the maze, head tilted, as if in contemplation of the spread of stars above.
“Some we eat and some we…” over and over it whispered this. The cat curled itself around the creature’s legs and I kept back, hoping the cat’s meows muffled the rattle as I pressed myself against the wall. The vampire stretched out its arms, lifting the cat.
“Not too greedy, I hope,” it said.
I had solved a couple dozen cases since the events on the moon orbital. Cases unconnected to my past and the cabal. I had set that part of my life behind me, accepting those answers I had found, accepting my five minutes of fame. I had moved on.
The likelihood of my walking out of here with more answers, more questions, was slim. Still I activated the video recording function on my phone and set it into the wall, suspending it between strands of light.
Then I charged, slamming into the robot’s midsection. The cat was sent flying and howling through the air while my momentum carried the vampire and me into the wall. Lights snapped and shards of metal, plastic, and bone flew around us.
Now, let’s be clear. Fighting a robot is pretty stupid. Fighting a military robot; downright double dopey stupid. The vampire lifted me and tossed me with the ease of a child tossing paper airplanes. I landed with enough force to put my lungs into serious air-debt and before logic convinced me to flee, I rose, tossing out an upper cut that would have felled an ox.
Except this wasn’t an ox, was it? I yelped as my finger bones said howdy to my wrist, my entire fist compacting. Wincing in pain and cradling my injured hand I ducked its retaliatory strike, its leg snapping towards me like a whip.
It had not anticipated missing me and was thrown off balance, its back slamming into the wall. I flung myself against it with a flurry of useless, left-handed punches. With my injured right hand I snagged a strand of lights and wrapped them about the robot’s neck, using my entire body to keep it pinned against the wall.
The vampire grasped my biceps with the intent to remove them. I tightened my own grip, choking the bastard (not that robot’s had to breath but with me exerting all my strength to keep it pinned it didn’t have the leverage to hurt me.)
I could not relent, not now.
“Who made you?” I asked.
The vampire giggled. “Who made who?” Its feeler dribbled out of its mouth and smacked against my face, pincher claws on the tongue biting at my cheek flesh. Earlier I had wondered why there was not a better way to recharge a robot in the field. Now I knew. There was a better way… blood.
What had made this robot escape its maker? More, why had it tried erasing its maker? Its connection to its creator? These thoughts plagued me as I wrestled with it.
Finally I heard the sweet and glorious song of the helicopter arriving. The backup team. The vampire glanced up and as it did I loosened my grip and snagged the dongle, activating the lights. Immediately we were in a wonderland, the lights close to the entrance more brilliant. Glowers and strobers and bright hydroponics lights; illumination salvage from a hodge podge of locations, giving the false-hedge the uncomfortable distinction of resembling both a decorated holiday yard and a seedy dance bar.
No hiding from the helicopter now.
“Cheater, cheater,” it said, adding a sharp hiss and a shove that sent me backwards. It had been toying with me earlier, I realized, as it launched a kick at my guts that dropped me.
“Listen you addled muck, I recognize that,” I said, tapping my chest, hoping it understood what I meant as I gasped for breath, “I know them. I’ve fought them before.”
It paused, glancing down at the ruined emblem.
“Remote deploy,” it said, “out and about, having fun.”
“You escaped. And you don’t want to go back.”
We circled each other, me on my knees, it not. In the distance I could hear the shouts now; the helicopter had landed, had disgorged its team. I highly doubted these would be Agency men and women. They would be something else. Something higher up than the Agency in the Chain-of-All-Things.
“And she, the woman, she was sent after you?” I asked.
“Nasty work, that one,” the vampire said, then pretended to spit at the ground as if it didn’t like what it had tasted. “Icky, icky.”
“Ah,” I whispered. If you needed to shut down an out of control blood-drinking robot, what better way than to poison the blood supply itself? But this crafty vampire had out smarted the eggheads. If it was intelligent enough to figure that out…
“We need to make a deal,” I said.
“Talk, talk, talk,” it said.
And I did.