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Scoundrel
by Rune Lai


Nathan Reiner did not like it one bit. He even folded his arms across his chest and told him so, but his boss liked that even less, and now Nathan found himself cooling his heels back in Shure while his friends were out doing something useful--like raiding. It was hard, this sort of life, but at least he was living. Sometimes he felt lucky for even that. Mother Brain could be cruel. Yes, she could.

He remembered when he still lived in Arima, the very town his comrades were now about to raid with lasers and dynamite, how he once visited his friend's home only to discover a pair of polezi police robots exiting the front door. Cleaning droids whisked in as they left, and Nathan entered right behind them. The droids ignored him as they proceeded to clean the blood from the walls and floor. They left the body alone--for now. Kale lay motionless on the floor, shot clean through several times over, as if once wasn't enough. For a long while Nathan just stared, until at last he felt a cold hand on his shoulder. One of the polezi had come back and requested for him to leave. He did.

He was shocked. Who would dare be so barbaric as to actually murder someone when the police were only one step away? He waited for news, a sign of the culprit's capture and subsequent punishment by Mother Brain, but none came. He called the police department, and the tech at the other end bluntly told him not to inquire about something as inconceivable as a murder. The polezi were never at Kale's house. So what happened to his friend? The tech didn't know, but it wasn't her business to.

Nathan made it his.

And that landed him here, stuck in the Shure Engineering Building he and his fellow renegades had taken over and transformed into their very own fort. Scoundrels, the people of Arima called them. Nathan preferred to think of himself as a revolutionary, though they had been slipping from that ideal for several months now. They were the people who fled from the towns and cities in fear for their lives, not from any evil they could face, but from the overwhelming power that gripped the entire planet, the so-called benevolent Mother Brain. Their first order of business in Shure was destroying every connection to the master computer they could. They managed to keep the power going, but that was about it. Each day they continued to survive here they considered a blessing from whatever god may have more power than the Mother herself.

Nathan rolled over in the ratty cot that served as his bed. It had been hard giving up the luxury her rule offered, perhaps that was the worst of it. Now he and the other renegades had few supplies and even less money. They had to rob to get what they needed, but he supposed it wasn't too bad. Whatever they took from others, Mother Brain would replace. Then they could take more. And if she didn't, well, then maybe that'd give the rest of the world a wake up call and they'll realize that Mother Brain ain't all she's cracked up to be.

"Feeling restless?" said a voice.

He sat up, throwing his legs over the edge of his cot. He didn't have a private room to himself, the building not having been made with the intent to house its workers, so he had not heard Sheila come close to him.

Nathan shook his head. "Just a bit. You skipped out?"

"Yeah. I think bringing the dynamite with them was a bit much."

"I should have fought harder."

"Gerald wouldn't have listened."

Nathan agreed. Gerald opened his eyes to the truth, but the man was as stubborn as he was charismatic. Still, if Mother Brain allowed such an atrocity to occur, then people should begin to doubt her ability to protect them, and with that doubt would come inquiry, leading them to follow the path that he, Gerald, Sheila, and others had beaten down.

Sheila fidgeted and perched on the cot adjacent to his. "The town will put up a fight. I don't think they took kindly to all our thefts. Last I heard the local hunters were banding together to form a militia."

"To protect against us, not the biomonsters," Nathan growled. "If only we could make them listen to us."

"You tried that, didn't you."

He nodded. "When I first discovered someone else being exterminated by the police. The humans are probably okay, but the robots--they answer only to Mother Brain. They killed this person less than an hour after cussing out Mother Brain in public. I saw them do it and they chased me. When I found someone I thought would hide me he betrayed me instead. Mother Brain can do no wrong," he said bitterly. "I barely escaped."

Sheila crossed and uncrossed her legs. "For every one of us who escape, I wonder how many die? It may come to violence between us and those people still trapped by Mother Brain. I don't want to have to fight." She pulled her legs close, curled up like a child. "When I think about it, it just seems so wrong."

"That's why Gerald brought the dynamite." Nathan could not keep the distaste from his voice. "So Arima will not be able to retaliate. Not that he hasn't already tied their hands."

Sheila tilted her head. "One hunter does not make much of a difference."

"He does when he's Darum."

"I still don't see what's so great about him."

"The man supposedly fights better than a polezi, can take on a dozen agents without breaking a sweat. Of course I'm sure it's all exaggerated, but he must good if Gerald personally went to all the trouble to kidnap his daughter."

"And ransom her for money," added Sheila.

"As Gerald would say, 'It's an unfortunate fact, but we need money to live.'"

She shook her head. "Why did we have to be born into a world like this? Isn't there anything better? This utopia we all believed in, it's all a lie! I don't want to kill anyone, but I know they'll come. Vengeance. Justice. It doesn't matter why. We won't be safe forever."

Watching her then, Nathan knew how much he cared for her. They both had been with the renegades for less than a year. He remembered her arrival, half-starved and doe eyes wide with primal fear when Gerald guided her into the main room. Though so fragile in the beginning, she toughened to the point that they no longer recognized the fear in her. She carried her weight just like everyone else. But now he knew the fear had never left. It was only buried. He stood, reaching out to her when the hum of the elevator broke their conversation.

"They're back," she said, lifting her gaze with a look of determination.

Nathan dropped his arm to his side. "Yes."

Gerald strode in from the lift, accompanied by eight hard-bitten men and women. They carried with them boxes of food, clothing, and weapons.

"Did it go well?" asked Sheila. Her eyes glossed over swords and knives not yet clean of blood.

Gerald grunted. "Yeah, I'd say so. Mother Brain won't be bothering us for a while. Arima's trashed and we've got enough food to last us a while.

"And Darum?" said Nathan.

Their leader spat on the floor. "Mother worshiping hunter was outta there. Never saw him. Bet he's still getting the ransom money for his daughter. I never thought it'd be so hard for a hunter like him to raise fifty thousand in one month." Gerald laughed, though there was little humor in his tone. "I guess Mother Brain's not helping him out on this one. Maybe he'll even see our side of things."

"I doubt it. What if Darum fails to bring over the money? What are we going to do with his daughter? The poor girl's miserable."

Gerald's face sobered and his voice became gruff. "Well, I honestly feel sorry for the girl. I suppose if he doesn't come up with the money we'll let her go. He doesn't have to know that, but we really do need the money. Once we have that and with Arima out of the way, we should be able to live without bothering or being bothered by anyone for a long time. The next raid shouldn't have to be for a couple more months." He glanced at the troupe following close behind his shoulder. "All right, everyone, let's stow this gear. And clean off those blades will ya? Just because we're renegades doesn't mean we have to wear that blood with pride."

Sheila moved to help and Nathan followed. Time enough for argument later. For now, the group needed to survive.

A weary man rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and staggered out where Nathan and the rest worked. He scrambled over to Gerald, unheeding of the supplies he scattered. "Gerald! Down below! The biomonsters!"

"What?" said Nathan.

More than a few of the renegades reached for their weapons.

Gerald waved a hand. "Some of those outside were acting strange when we got back. They seemed more aggressive than usual, so I had a lot of people shore up the defenses."

"But they're not enough!" said the man.

"What!"

"They're breaking through! I've never seen them so organized! There's a whole army of them out there!"

A dozen pairs of footsteps raced for the windows. The grasslands outside were covered with insectile carapaces and reptilian scales.

"Dammit!" said Gerald. "What in the hell could have organized them? They're just a bunch of monsters." He whirled to the messenger. "Hurry up and get back down there. Barricade the doors with any of the heavy machinary you can find. Spread the word that everyone is to arm themselves! Sharpshooters stand ready at the windows of the second and third floors!"

The man departed and Gerald muttered, "And if necessary we'll make our last stand here."

"Sir," said one of the women. "Shall we go down and aid them?" Their entire community consisted of only forty people. Hardly enough for the forces outside.

Gerald paused a moment, then nodded his consent. "Bridget, you and Helen stand guard at the shafts. They might try surprising us through unconventional entrances. Keith, Richard, you've got the garbage chute. Taylor, Rachel, and Gavin, I want you three to be at the front door. If the biomonsters breach the barricades I'm relying on you to make the first round of invaders so dead that the rest will have the unlucky task of having to push through a wall of their own dead to get in here. Hopefully that'll scare 'em off. If not... I don't know if it will be necessary, but just in case, Leila, I want you at the power grid. If the biomonsters overrun the first floor, have everyone retreat to the second and cut the power to the elevators."

They left.

"What about us?" said Nathan.

"Something's wrong," said Gerald. "The biomonsters are acting like people rather than beasts. Someone or something intelligent is behind them, perhaps even Mother Brain herself. How better to rid Mota of the scoundrels than a plague of biomonsters?"

Their green-haired leader drew his sword in a long graceful arc. It shone untainted with blood. Nathan stared. Gerald smiled mirthlessly.

"Expecting something else?" he said. "Casulties are inevitable, but I'm not a murderer. My blade's for robots, though I suppose it will now taste biomonster as well."

An explosion rang out from below and they knew that the battle had truly begun. Sheila cried out and dropped to the floor. Nonetheless, she reached in her tattered vest and withdrew a single small dagger.

"Sheila, stand by the elevator. The wounded will be coming soon. Do your best to heal them. Nathan, watch the monsters outside. If there's any change in status let me know."

"What are you doing?" asked Nathan as Gerald turned, heading deeper into the fourth floor of the labyrinthine building.

"Getting the key to the dynamite chests!" he shouted over his shoulder as he darted away. "We'll need them!"

The wounded began to arrive, and badly hurt. Sheila administered medicine from the stash they had accumulated for emergencies, but the pile could do nothing but ease the pain of the most serious wounds. And then, not all of their number returned to their sanctuary on the fourth floor. Talk of despair filled the communal living chamber and Nathan tightened his grip on the sonic gun he drew from his holster. There were still plenty of monsters outside, and someone marshaling them?

"Gavin's gone," said someone. "Held back the biomonsters until Leila could cut the power to the first and second floors. They came so fast we couldn't stop them."

"Is the third floor safe?"

"No. Armorants climbing up the elevator shafts. Locusts prying open doorways."

Gerald returned. "Status report!" he barked. He made no mention of having gotten the key. The chests with the dynamite had been in special rooms located on the first floor, but they were only accessible via the second.

People called out their measure of health to him, told of who had fallen or had been lost in the battle. Gerald was grim as he stalked about the room. Bridget, Helen, and Leila had fallen back to regroup with six others, and now the nine of them were all that held the monsters from breaking through the third floor. They chose their stand in a narrow hall through which the monsters would have to pass to reach the sole elevator to the fourth floor.

No one dared to ask if they would survive, though the question was plainly written on all their faces. Nathan pulled away from the window. "Gerald, there's something leading them outside," he said.

His leader walked over the window, sword still drawn. He appraised the situation and turned back to what remained of his band.

"I have no answers," he said. "I won't lie to you. I never have. A Palman leads the monsters, and for that we have only Mother Brain to thank. She has finally decided we must die. There will be no funerals for us, no mourners to mark our passing, but we know that that is because of her wishes. We have our own wishes. Let them fill your hearts and know that we bear them because of the choices we made, because unlike the rest of this star system, we have made a choice."

The elevator came up a final time, bringing only Leila. She staggered even as Sheila raced to administer the last of her dimate. "Right behind me," she gasped before the loss of blood overtook her.

"Sheila, get away from there," said Gerald, striding forward.

They could feel the rumbling up the elevator shaft like an earthquake designed to swallow them whole. Someone stifled a sob. Nathan's sonic gun shook in his hands as he lined up a shot destined for the first biomonster to rear its ugly head. He suspected this day would come, or perhaps he always knew, for what life could there be in a world without freedom? He could only imagine the world without her and pray that someday someone else would live to experience it.

The rumbling grew, but Nathan felt a calming touch on his arm. Sheila stood beside him. "I wish..." she said.

Gerald chose his position in front of the people he had nurtured and rescued from the living hell on Mota. Their leader grasped his sword in both hands, its shining blade as pure as the light of the stars.

"I wish that..."

The first biomonster's head cleared the elevator shaft. Nathan fired, killing it instantly. Gerald sprang forward and cut a swathe through the invading army. Then the blood spilled freely, unloved, unmourned, and all too soon forgotten.

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