Chapter 2: The Arkology (II)
I could feel the pressure from the barrel of the handgun against the soft, fleshy part of my jaw, feeling weirdly cold instead of searing hot like I otherwise would've expected. My fight-or-flight instincts seemed to be busy elsewhere as I opted instead for freezing up, wide-eyed like a little pussy. As the redhead stared at me with that cold, impassive look, I was waiting for that flash underneath my chain that would launch a bullet into my head and blow my brains into tomato juice, ready to put an end to my story.
Except there was a sudden crackle - the kind you'd associate with electricity - and suddenly the redhead was yelping and falling off of me to my right, just enough for me to suddenly reestablish my brain's connections to the rest of my body and roll away to the left in something that resembled blind panic.
As I did so, I realized that I rolled and bumped into something hard but not particularly tall. And when I finally scrambled back onto my knees, I realized what I had hit was, in fact, the little space Roomba with an appendage sticking out from its shell, looking like a robotic arm at a factory, except the very end was sparkling with electricity.
So it had shocked the redhead girl off me. That was nice. We're not even yet, but the space Roomba is steadily working off the emotional debt for all the grief it had caused me. And physical debt too, but that wasn't as important right now.
Still, I found myself locking glares with the redhead in front of me, who had similarly tumbled across the floor but had achieved a three-point landing, with her remaining hand holding the gun that was pointed at me. Or not at me, but the space Roomba, which happened to be in roughly the same direction anyways. There wasn't really anger in her eyes, just a kind of emptiness that people might've associated with the mugshot of a serial killer or a school shooter, focusing on me like I was some kind of pest to be eliminated. So I did the natural thing people do when faced with a complete stranger with a gun.
That is to say, I begged for my life.
Well, no, not really begged for my life. I wasn't that miserable. I just...asked a question as I waved my hands in front of me. Desperately. Specifically: "Wait, wait, why are you trying to kill me!?"
The redhead blinked in confusion, and when she blinked a second time, it seemed as if some kind of realization suddenly overcame her, and just like that, her eyes were no longer cold and clouded and empty, but danced with the kind of life that I saw in (and had been jealous of) frat boys and sorority girls when they were partying. Like someone who was human, with emotions.
"I didn't see you on the ship," she observed, her voice still bland but not quite as cold as before. I realized for the first time - despite this being the second time I heard her speak, but she had a gun under my chin then and that's my justification - that she had an accent I couldn't quite place. It definitely wasn't American, at least. European, perhaps? She did have pale skin. For however much that mattered. Not that I could recognize European accents.
Of course, that didn't really help explain anything at all, so I asked the obvious after a moment of complete blankness: "What ship?"
Again, the redhead blinked, tilting her head slightly to the side this time in clear confusion. "Are you trying to kill me?" she asked.
"What?" It was my turn to blink. "No! I'm not trying to kill you." I blinked again before realizing that maybe this statement of hers was something to panic over. "Wait, are people trying to kill you?" I looked over the redhead's shoulder and past the open doors where she had come from, taking note of the fact that there are three people still on the ground where I last saw them, except they weren't moving and what was unmistakably blood was beginning to pool on the floor. "Wait, did you kill them?"
The redhead, however, didn't seem super interested in answer my question right now as she looked at the space Roomba between us, still poised to strike with that robotic arm sparkling with electricity, almost resembling a scorpion in a weird way. The look of confusion turned into something deeper. Astonishment, perhaps, not quite believing what she was seeing in front of her. "Is that servitor protecting you?"
"You mean this Roomba?"
"No, that's a servi..." the redhead trailed off, frowned, then asked me, "...what's a 'Roomba'?"
So she came from a place that didn't have Roombas, I guessed. Which made me wonder if Europe had Roombas, but I suppose that really didn't matter all that much in the end. "Never mind. It was...trying to lead me somewhere."
The redhead's expression looked skeptical at this instead of just confused, but she nodded slowly, as if accepting this...for now, for the lack of a better alternative explanation. "Right," she nodded; there was a lilt to her voice that wasn't there before, something that seemed to give me the impression that she was, in general, a fairly cheery person. Also that she didn't really believe me right at the moment. "Were you a stowaway?"
Well, the redhead was talking about a ship earlier. Not that I knew anything about that. "I don't know?" I admittedly lamely. "I'm...not from here. I just woke up here a few weeks ago."
That skepticism on the redhead's face looked much more pronounced now, but she nodded again like someone that was eager to get to something else that was more important. "Right. Well, do you want out?"
Oh, boy, do I ever. "Yes!"
"Then you'd better follow me," the redhead announced, sliding something into her handgun in a way that kind of reminded me of movies where soldiers would reload. And in a way, the redhead - in terms of attire and demeanor - reminded me of a soldier. Or maybe a soldier of fortune, a mercenary, one of those combatants from private military companies that I used to hear on the news and see in movies as villains.
Not that I had any real idea of what she was, exactly, save for the fact that I saw her first when she was surrounded by three dead bodies now bleeding on the ground. "Um," I started, raising a hand awkwardly to shoulder-level, reminded of this little detail about the three dead bodies past the open door and suddenly not feeling all that hot about walking beside someone with a gun. "So...why did you kill them?"
The redhead was already beginning to move back in the direction of the room she came from, marching up to the bodies before picking up one of the guns on the ground. "Because they were trying to kill me."
...Yeah, it was a bit hard to argue with that, I supposed. Not that I knew whether or not she was telling the truth, but the fact that there were guns beside the dead bodies seemed to support that claim. Either way, the redhead slung the gun she picked up by the strap around her shoulder - some kind of rifle or submachine gun, I didn't know, not actually being any kind of gun person - and began moving on once again.
Not knowing what else to do, I followed sheepishly behind, not even having the presence of mind to pick up one of the other two guns on the floor. Not that I even knew how to use them anyways, and they likely would've been greater harm to myself than anyone else, but that's really just an excuse to say I wasn't in a frame of mind where I knew what the hell I was doing. And, behind me, the space Roomba followed, albeit flashing its light ever harder - I was surprised that was even possible - as if nagging at me to follow it instead of this mysterious and probably dangerous redhead with a gun who had killed three people and just tried to kill me.
Well, "tried" is past tense, after all. And she had stopped when she realized I hadn't been trying to kill her. That's...nice, I suppose? That I wasn't in immediate danger? Maybe that made her a considerate person? This place was doing something bad to my basic standard.
"We need to get back onto the Fortune's Wings," the redhead announced as she moved past another set of sliding doors, unphased by the fact that a complete stranger was following her; if anything else, she was giving the space Roomba following us a much more wary glance. And there was just something about the way she said "fortune's wings" that made me think the words needed to be capitalized. Like a name or something. "If we can't sneak back on, we're stuck here forever."
"Oh," I mouthed blankly. That was probably a bad thing. I mean, I had company now, but two weeks were enough to drive me near-crazy. I wanted off.
The redhead definitely knew the place better than I did, navigating its twists and turns deftly, moving through each door cautiously, as if expecting a threat behind every one. I wasn't sure if that meant she was an inhabitant here or if she just had a much better sense of direction than someone who needed Google Maps on her phone.
The silence was awkward. Here was finally someone who was willing to talk to me - even if she had two guns now - and we were just walking around in silence. Struggling to find something to talk about, I reached back into my memory for something that seemed at least relevant to our situation, asking, "So...is that a ship? Um, what you said, I mean. Fortune's Wings or something?"
"Yes," the redhead replied, moving towards the next set of doors, but approaching it from the side. The angle reminded me of how kids would try to get close to the automatic sliding doors of a supermarket without triggering the sensors that opened them.
"So...are we on an island?"
"No," the redhead answered, pressing herself against the walls of sliding doors that were still close, her gun - the longer one, not her handgun - now gripped in both hands, "we're on an arkology."
I copied her movements and pressed myself against the wall behind her. "What's an arkology?"
"Can I answer those questions later?" For what it was worth, the redhead did not actually sound impatient or frustrated; there was, in fact, a level of something that sounded suspiciously like earnestness in her rather matter-of-fact statement as she pointed calmly towards the doors. "The hangar is beyond these doors and I want to try to get in it before they set up any mounted guns."
"Oh, okay, sorry." I said that politely and with an appropriate amount of contriteness despite the back of my head telling me there was something wrong with her statement. Which I thought was nice because people usually complained I was too sharp and sarcastic and insincere. Which of course had nothing to do with the fact that the redhead in question had a gun in her hands, and was strangely generous enough to help me get out despite her being stuck in a situation that I didn't fully comprehend but which apparently necessitated a gun.
The redhead nodded, taking a breath as if to steel herself. "Ready?" she asked. The question was rhetorical; she was already moving towards the front of the doors, the two metallic panels sliding open soundlessly, and I was already beginning to take that first step, shifting my momentum forwards.
Myr foot had not yet even landed on the floor to complete that step when I realized exactly why I was having an uncomfortable thought at the back of my head. And now that my consciousness finally registered it, "uncomfortable" turned to "alarm". "Wait," I said blankly, "you said 'mounted gun'?"
My answer came as I found myself looking through the open door and towards what laid beyond it. It was the largest room I had come across in this facility thus far - no, easily the largest room I had ever seen, ever, looking like it was the size of a dozen football stadiums, if not more - stretching to the reaches of my vision. It formed a bit of an arc, and so I couldn't see the "end" of it before it turned away beyond my line of sight, as if I was moving out of a giant circular stadium, but even then it felt like I could stare down its end for miles. On the far side of this giant room hundreds of yards away, opposite of the door I was already stepping through, should've been a wall, except there wasn't. In fact, I found myself looking at what looked like a blue glowing window - the kind you'd maybe see at a rave club as decoration - and on the other side of it was...
...The starry night sky.
It's unmistakable: Clusters of stars against the black sky. Faint clouds of light that are supposed to be nebulae. A path away from the suffocation of an endless stretch of silent halls and lonely chambers. Freedom.
I might've appreciated the moment more, the realization that I was suddenly this close to getting out of there. I'm not a particularly emotional person, but it felt like an emotional moment.
Sadly, I had other things to worry about. Like the fact that the redhead beside me wasn't charging forward, and was in fact staying behind one of the two sliding doors. The fact that in front of me this time wasn't the smooth metallic floor that stretched on to the walls, but relatively narrower walkways - wide enough for at least two vans to easily pass each other side-by-side - that reminded me of a pier or factory walkway, suspended over what I assumed to be the sea or at least a distant floor, making me think I was actually stuck in a secret supervillain base under a mountain island or something. The fact that there was something at the end of one of these walkways a hundred yards in front of me: A strange-looking ship-like vessel about the size of a very large luxury yacht - the kind some rich asshole would throw big parties on - with an aged, brown hull that looked like it had spent years in Afghanistan, something that seemed so weirdly out of place in this pristinely white-and-gold facility. The fact that there were people in front of that ship - women, in fact, a bit more than half a dozen of them, clad in that hodgepodge of what Hollywood has convinced me is special forces attire, hardly dissimilar to those of the redhead I've been following - who were now pointing at me and the redhead and shouting something in a tone that made it clear they weren't trying to be friends. The fact that they were holding things in their hands that very suspiciously looked like guns that were now being raised and pointed in our direction.
Oh, and there was the fact that amongst them, there was something fixed onto a tripod. I've never fired a gun, nor was I a nerd, but that "something" looked very, very much like a machine gun. Something I sadly did not fully register until I had stepped past the doors and walls that would serve as a shield between me and any bullets fired in my direction.
I did the smart thing. I tripped and stumbled and scampered back to the door like the frightened little rat I was, making incoherent yelping noises, waiting for that inevitable moment when the machine gun would start spewing hot lead at us. The redhead, meanwhile, stood her ground, leaning out just slightly from the door, enough for her to admit her handgun, firing at the women fifty yards away in a stance that struck me as terrifyingly professional, the kind that one would imagine belonged to some kind of superspy or something. One of those quick shots actually managed to hit someone with a bullet that trailed blue as it tore through the air, the victim of her shot screaming as she slumped to the floor.
Then the machine gun started firing, and that's when I realized it wasn't a machine gun.
I was fifty yards away, around the corner of the door, and not even within the line of sight, and yet what the redhead had called a "mounted gun" fired in my general vicinity. What struck me as surprising at first - insomuch as I could be surprised in the middle of my panties-wetting terror - was the sound of the mounted gun rather than the sight of gunfire streaming through the open door I was hiding beside. It was clearly not the ear-shattering mini-explosions of firecrackers that Chinatown let off during Chinese New Year, if those firecrackers were actually on steroids. Rather, it sounded like a combination of a high-pitched mechanical whine and electricity, a combination of crackling and rumbling that a giant Tesla coil would make. Tragically, it was no easier on the ear, abruptly swallowing me into a world of an unholy cacophony, blasting my eardrums and my head with what my brain was deathly certain was all the explosions in the world, despite the fact that the gun wasn't even firing at me, but through the door of which I was beside, a detail that I was slower to notice in part because I was cowering behind the wall and curling into a ball and covering my ears and closing my eyes and screaming like a little girl.
When I did open my eyes a moment later, I noticed a second detail. The gunfire in our direction? The bullets that were striking the walls we' were hiding behind and through the door we tried to pass through? They weren't bullets. Rather, what streamed through the door was bright, thick, jagged line of light that looked like an unstable bolt of electricity, crackling violently as it twisted this way and that every few milliseconds. Despite lashing out like a whip, it didn't bend and twist enough to strike me from around the automatic doors, nor did it automatically swerve to strike the nearest soft and flesh target. Nor, in fact, did it simply melt the thick, pristine wall I was hiding behind, which seemed to suffer nary a scratch as it violently lashed this way and that in an attempt to kill the redhead and myself. But the twisting, crackling beam was enough to make me roll away in terror, not only because that lightning bolt was uncomfortably close to zapping me into charred jerky, but because, for all intents and purposes, the women I saw on the other side of this door had what was basically a literal lightning gun.
Hi, I have been kidnapped by secret elements of the government to a classified science fiction facility where military special forces test experimental weapons, including weapons from the future like a literal lightning gun that is spewing a steady stream of electricity or something at us. Please send help.
Amidst all of this, the redhead had similarly ducked back from where she was peeking out around the doorframe, reloading her handgun with the kind of calmness that one doesn't generally associate with "being shot at with a mounted gun". That coldness in her eyes - that deathliness in her gaze the first time we had locked stares as she shoved a gun under my chin - had returned, and I was even more certain that I had, proverbially speaking, picked the wrong horse, that this girl was crazy, and that I was going to die one way or another because of it.
"Holy shit!" I screamed in her direction, my voice shrill and lilting with clear panic. I must've looked like a massive sissy. I didn't find it in me to blame myself; I've witnessed gang violence before in the bad neighborhoods I had lived in, but never had I ever actually been shot at before, because I always maintained my distance; you learn to be sensitive about these things when you live in shitty places. Now my virgin shootout experience involved a literal lightning gun, and it was like the cherry on top of an already terrifying few weeks. "What the hell is that!?"
Despite having to raise her voice over the sound of the gunfire, the redhead sounded infuriatingly calm - making me look bad by extension - as she shouted back, "Plasma array!"
I would like to note, then, that tech from the future is officially here, and I am being murdered by it. More importantly: "Why are they shooting at you!?"
"On-site negotiations really didn't work out well!"
"What the hell in those negotiations did you do to piss them off that badly!?" I screamed. It occurred to me once again that I was stuck with a killer - a complete stranger in who had already killed, someone good at it, to my entirely uninformed observations - and that staying with her in the middle of this conflict I knew absolutely nothing about was increasingly looking like the result of an awful decision-making process. Except alternative choices - the totally nice-looking people fifty yards whose motivations are also entirely unknown to me - were currently being violently postponed by a combination of rifles and a mounted gun that was shooting not lightning, but plasma.
It didn't matter that maybe these people who were firing that plasma array maybe had perfectly legitimate reasons to try and kill this redhead, whom, for all I knew, might've been a terrorist or a serial killer or chewed with her mouth open. Under the circumstances, the redhead - the killer who nearly fired a bullet into my brain from under my jaw - suddenly seemed like an entirely reasonable person to stick with. It's funny how much fired and unfired bullets change one's perspective on how to justify horrible, horrible things.
For just a moment, the "plasma array" stopped firing - a moment in which my world isn't full of electric screeching and that crackling beam disappears - and the redhead leaned out from around the doorframe to fire several shots again. But this incurred a response of what is clearly gunfire - sounding more like actual guns this time, at least the guns that had been involved whenever there had been a shooting in the neighborhood - forcing the redhead to hide back behind the doorframe once more, followed by the return of the plasma array firing through the door in hopes of hitting anything, or at least deterring any counterattack.
This exchange of gunfire lasted for a few more moments before the redhead grimaced, pulling back behind the door and announcing to me, "This isn't working." And before I could fully process this statement, she stepped away from the door, allowing it to automatically close, and grabbed me by the wrist, shouting, " Let's go!"
And for a long, fleeting, surreal moment - where the world seemed to pass me by without me ever really taking full account of it - I was dragged through a dizzying chain of corridors and doors. We could've been going back the way whence we came, or we could've been going through an entirely new path. I didn't know, as much of a daze I was in. I'm sorry if you expected me to already be some kind of stone-cold killer, but I was only a bit more than two weeks into my kidnapping, and for the low, low price of having being shot at with experimental prototype military weapons from space, I was already missing my dingy apartment, my moldy mattress, my dead-end job, my sexist and racist colleagues, and my half-senile mother who was somehow not yet senile enough to ask why I wasn't making grandchildren for her.
Seconds passed. Maybe minutes. It was hard to tell, in my current state of mind. All I knew was that eventually, the redhead stopped and let go of my wrist. She looked back towards the door we stepped through, seemed to think about things, then declared a moment afterwards: "They shouldn't be able to find us. Their only other tracker is kind of a hack."
Ah. She was a tracker. I realized that I didn't understand what that meant and - right at that particular moment - didn't care. I collapsed onto the floor, sprawling across its cold metal surface, wheezing my lungs out, looking blankly upwards. I didn't care whether or not the floor was dirty or bad for my back. I was small, thin, malnourished, and horribly out-of-shape. This was the hardest I had ever ran in my life, my body starting to tremble as I started to come down from my adrenaline high, leaving me with only this cold, numb feeling - realization, really - of "holy shit, holy shit, I probably almost died five different times in the last fifteen minutes". If I had more energy, I would've curled up into a ball and stayed there for the next hour or something.
Beside me, too close for me to ignore it but far enough that I couldn't reach out and smack it, the space Roomba - or "servitor", whatever - continued to intensely flash its blinking light in my face.
This was a fact that did not escape the redhead's notice. "The servitor is still following you," she remarked, continuing to stare at the space Roomba with an expression of muted confusion and astonishment.
"Is that what you call the Roomba?" I asked between breaths.
"I don't know what's a Roomba." Because clearly, Europe is superior; why have Roombas when you have French maids? Not that I knew what a French accent sounded like. "Why is it following you?"
"Because the universe hates me," I snapped bitterly. I tried to calm myself by taking deeper breaths. It wasn't working; I was neither calmer nor taking deeper breaths. "I don't know what it's doing, honestly. I want to kick it."
"Right," the redhead remarked in a tone of voice that suggested she was dissatisfied with my answer but knew not to press. "Well, if you have your secrets, I won't pry."
"No," I was quick to say, not wanting any reason for this redhead to distrust me. "I don't have any secrets. I mean, this isn't a secret. I have no idea what is going on." I sat up, trying to take on my most beseeching look at the redhead even though all my colleagues told me I had "resting bitch face". Honestly, I was panicking a little, terrified at the idea that this girl with a gun - who nearly blew my head off at one point - didn't trust me. "I don't know why I'm here, why I'm being shot at, why I'm stuck here with you."
"Ah," the redhead allowed blankly even as I began to hyperventilate.
"Holy shit," I clawed at my throat in a panic, trying inhale and exhale air that felt like it was stuck there. "I can't breathe."
To my surprise, the redhead actually knelt down to where I was heaving on the ground, putting a hand on my back that was much gentler than I would've reasonably associated with a killer. "Calm down," she said, her voice soft and soothing. "You're going to be alright. I'm going to find a way...we are going to find a way to get off this arkology. Alright?"
"No, not alright," I said. I'd always been unnecessarily blunt. "But I'll try to breathe. I'm..." I paused, not entirely sure how to properly continue, before ultimately lamely settling on, "...I I'm sorry."
The redhead gave my shoulder a squeeze. "Don't worry about it." She waited for my breathing to slow down a bit - for me to stop hyperventilating, basically, which took a while - before asking, "I didn't catch your name."
Oh, right, it's that time of the year again. "Artemis," I said glumly.
The redhead blinked. "That's a strange name."
"Yeah," I sighed, "that's the curse of having parents who think names have to mean something."
There's something about the redhead's reaction that suggested my response didn't quite connect with her thoughts about the strangeness of my name, but she decided to let it go with a shrug. "I'm Scarlet."
I nodded. Then sighed explosively. "God, I have a million questions."
"I'll ask them later. I don't think now is a good time for question-asking."
"But can I ask one question first?" I added sheepishly. It was this thing that had bugged me terribly, nibbled at my brain ever since I first ran into the redhead. With all the guns, though, there just hadn't been any good moment to ask this question. Now was as good a time as any.
Scarlet shrugged. "Sure."
Shifting my weight awkwardly, I pointed at the top of her head, and then her backside. "Why do you have fox ears and a tail?"