A large, triangular, civilian spaceplane soared into orbit around Earth, its ion engines gently glowing blue and green. Inside, the vehicle was set up like a luxury airliner, with large bucket seats into which passengers were carefully strapped for orbital insertion maneuvers. Sitting in a window seat was a very young Alex watching the dark blue sky turn black as the curvature of the Earth came into view.
His face bore only the identification marking on his left cheek, which immediately created an invisible barrier between him and every other passenger. A cyborg child traveling alone meant only one thing. He was cast out and being sent back to his last station for another attempt at finding a guardian. Given his jet black coloration, he would inevitably end up assigned to an expeditionary fleet. It was just a matter of when and in what capacity.
He ignored everyone in the almost completely full plane around him. It’s not as if anyone would start a conversation since humans, in general, were not big fans of children like himself. Certainly, they talked a good game about acceptance, tolerance, and giving others a chance, but no parent seemed interested in having their kids share a class with a boy who could jump over a house and brench press a car. The venomous fangs were also not exactly a popular feature.
As the spaceplane gained altitude, back on Earth, an Official in a formal dark suit stood next to two adult cyborgs in a vast terminal with towering ceilings. The cyborgs wore civilian clothing, but their jet black coloration with red pupils and face markings designated them as military variants.
“I know it’s still early, but how do you feel about a drink?” asked the Official somberly.
“Yeah. All right. Might not be a bad idea,” shrugged one of the cyborgs.
“You know, they keep telling me this job will get easier but it never does,” said the Official. “I’m thinking about quitting.”
“He’ll be ok,” said the other cyborg. “They’ll take care of him until it’s time.”
“Unfortunately, this is nothing new for them,” agreed the first cyborg. “It happens every day.”
“Still sucks, doesn’t it?” asked the Official.
The cyborgs nodded, one of them grimacing. They understood full well that what happened next to the child they just sent away was now in no small part up to chance.
Meanwhile, Alex looked out at the Earth, transfixed by the apparent peace and calm of the planet below. The spaceplane aligned itself to dock with a large space station equipped with vast solar sails. On the side of the platform was a simplified logo featuring an image of Mars and two words in red, vowel-less Pigpen glyphs. In a much smaller font under the glyph, the translation read “MARS EXPRESS.”
Two Proctors looked at a young Alex quickly but methodically building with blocks from a model set through a window of a large, light, sparsely decorated room. They checked in with their tablets.
“Rejected from Earth, huh?” asked one.
“Yeah,” nodded the other and sighed. “Poor kid. We’ll need to find new guardians. I’ll start a search for a suitable pair.”
“Martian, of course, right?”
“Yes. Earth won’t take him again. That’s the new rule. But maybe it’s for the best. He is from the Cydonia Hatchery after all. This is home for him.”
“Hmm...” the Proctor crinkled her nose. “Before you do that, did you see his aptitude scores?”
“What about them?” asked the other with slight annoyance.
“Well, they went up. Nothing off the charts, but it’s statistically significant.”
“He just came from a new place,” came a groan. “They all see their aptitude scores go up when they travel. It’s the brain’s normal response to novelty and his brain works like any other child’s. They see and experience new things, the score bumps up, then goes down in a few months.”
“True, but his hold steady.”
There was a pause as the proctor let the information sink in. This wasn’t unprecedented, of course, but it did trigger a whole new set of procedures according to the training manual to which they had to strictly adhere.
“Really?” he finally asked.
“Yeah. His bumps in score after travel are permanent.”
The second proctor showed the chart prominently displayed in Alex’s file to her colleague.
“Oh... Now that is interesting. Does that mean...?”
“Yeah. He’s a prime candidate for the Explorer Program.”
“So, canel the search?”
“That’s right. He doesn’t go to a family, he’s going on the next flight to ProxCen for further assessment.”
“Understood. Say, what is he building in there?”
“Looks like a spaceship to me. I think he’s putting up some solar sails on it. He does that a lot according to his file. He sees a thing that catches his attention, then tries to build something like it in multiple iterations.”
“Interesting. I can see why you examined his aptitude scores again. He’ll be on next week’s flight.”
In his room, Alex continued to put the finishing touches on his build. As the Proctors started walking away, he followed them with his alert eyes. His eye sockets flashed as he requested information about Proxima Centauri and the Explorer Program. The first result returned by the computers was a rather sparse document labeled “Initial Selection Process and Criteria for EXP Candidates,” which he began to read with great interest.
In the gloom, Doctor David Milburn poured himself two fingers of scotch in a glass. He was a man with an average build, one signaling that he was quite healthy but would certainly allow himself the occasional indulgence. His short white beard was immaculately trimmed, his bald head was perfectly smooth with no hint of shine or wrinkles, his glasses stylish and fitting his face perfectly.
He sat in a comfortable chair and placed the glass on a table, next to a large wireless keyboard. His fingers glided across the keys, and on a large screen, a password dialog filled in with masked characters. An animation showed that the password was accepted and the window was filled with a live feed of the city on Sigma Draconis 691 D from the heavy dropship’s point of view.
Milburn leaned forward, resting his chin on his right hand as his left hand played with the glass. Several screens around him showed additional feeds from different sources, the bright reflections in his glasses obscuring his eyes as a contented smile crossed his lips. He’s finally get to see exactly what his wayward charge was now capable of, and he was confident that he selected the perfect method of pushing his buttons.
The forward bay door of the hovering spaceplane opened with a flash of light. An instant later, a dozen Octobots and two Berserkers grabbed onto the ledge of the roof of the Sigma Draconis 691 D city gate and held their positions on both sides of a female Prototype, who was now crouching on the ledge, one of her claws driven deep into the material.
“Guess who?” she cackled and launched herself toward Alex.
He dodged the attack but she pivoted and tried to sweep him off his feet. He jumped back just in time to block a punch to his midsection. He delivered a hammer fist downward but it was blocked by her elbow. The cyborgs swiftly pushed off each other, covering a very significant distance with their jumps.
The same mantras raced around and around in their minds. Fights are messy, they’re dynamic, they take up a lot of space, their attacks must be swift and to the point. Style doesn’t matter, only force and technique. Do not clinch, do not wrestle, do not get tied up. When in doubt, reset and use the cushion of time and space to spot the opportunity for your next attack.
The Prototype accelerated from an absolute standstill and warped out as the robots and cyborgs tried to aim at her in confusion. She warped back into focus with a powerful kick right above Alex’s head. He blocked the attack by letting her shin slam into his forearm, his hood absorbing the blow from the tip of her foot.
Using the energy of the impact, the Prototype spun herself around and threw an elbow aimed for Alex’s chest. She missed, but in the same motion threw a hammer fist deflected by Alex’s palm as he pivoted to avoid another attack and pushed off her once again, only for her to warp out to the frustration of all the cyborgs and robots trying to keep their aim on her.
She came down with a devastating high kick Alex had to block with both his hands, which bounced back from the flexible armor of his hood. The roof underneath him cracked even further. The Prototype somersaulted back into her original position on the ledge and completely re-set her stance in a low, loose, and fluid crouch.
“Not bad,” she purred. “You’re faster than I remember. We’re gonna have so much fun...”
Under her hood, she licked her lips with anticipation.
“Wait, I recognize that voice...” said Jack, his jaw going slack from shock.
The Prototype retracted her armored hood, revealing her face and a malevolent smile as the glow of her eyes and markings returned to normal. The cyborgs around her gasped and groaned.
“Holy shit, she’s here...”
“What’s the plan now?”
The Prototype demonstratively held her ear listening to the panicked interjections. Her smile faded into an even more sinister smirk.
“All right Mai,” said Alex. “Let’s play.”
He held up his broken left hand and squeezed it into a fist with a sickening crack. The hand reassumed its original form, and in the same fluid motion, he powered up, his eyes and markings igniting as his tentacles deployed and locked into attack position. A shockwave of energy and electric bolts erupted from him as he warped out.
Mai, tentacles already deployed was caught off guard as one of Alex’s limbs whipped an Octobot on her right, easily tearing through it and sending the broken machine flying off the ledge. Another tentacle wrapped around hers, yanking her off the ledge as the remaining machines attacked the team on the roof.
She slammed into the ground below, bounced, and immediately rolled to recover with the help of her tentacles. As soon as she was on her feet again, she blocked another powerful whip from Alex, who immediately sent out a bolt of lightning, pushing her further back. His foot stomped into the ground as he surged forward, tentacles intertwined with hers to force an opening.
She broke contact to rush Alex and wrapped her arms around his midsection. Her hood raised itself just in time to absorb an elbow from above. Her hands slipped to the underside of his knees as her tentacles pushed off the ground to give her leverage. Alex grabbed her hood, tearing it off, but was unable to stop her. He landed flat on his back, his tentacles pushed aside by Mai’s as she confidently straddled him, her crotch pressing down on his.
“Now this reminds me of the good old days when I was pretty used to this position,” she chuckled.
Alex’s feet moved closer to his body and each other.
“Well, if we’re being nostalgic...” he replied.
Using his legs, he bucked his hips, sending Mai flying off him hard enough to make her tumble. As she was in mid-air, the spiral on his hand began to glow.
With a flash, a small cloud of positrons detonated between his palm and her chest, sending her flying backward as Alex used his tentacles and the recoil to roll back up. Mai tumbled, hitting her head on the ground before rolling to recover and spreading her tentacles out to stop and stabilize.
A pair of Alex’s extra limbs shot through the dust, navigating through Mai’s, and surrounding the cyborg. A bolt of lightning shot between them, propelling her slightly forward by the force of the blast. Alex’s hands locked into a hold behind her neck, his knee plowed into her stomach, and his tentacles launched both of them into the air with enough velocity to warp out.
Mai warped back in as she caught herself with her tentacles. Alex warped in to make a three-point landing and turned towards her with his extra limbs’ help, arming two of them for another attack. His hood was missing.
In his command ship, Jason turned away from the feed of Mai and Alex’s fight on the planet below with a scowl.
“Let’s see how far we can push them,” he said. “Deploy the first wave.”
A small cloud of cyborg dropships immediately headed towards the planet on his command. As they dropped low enough, missiles started to pick them off, three being immediately destroyed by the impacts. Another missile landed a glancing blow on one of the dropships, which forced it off course, veering into another dropship, quickly destroying it.
In response, the dropships picked up the pace and began to turn and twist independently to make them harder to hit. Fire from their destroyers of origin annihilated some of the missiles on intercept trajectories, but as one dropship descended through the atmosphere and began to feel air compression, a blast from a destroyer’s main cannon obliterated it.
Several dropships from the 10th Fleet finally managed to make it through the atmosphere and screamed overhead, unlocking in mid-air to deploy Octobots to the ground below. Two of the dropships landed and unlocked as a small wave of Octobots and Berserkers backed by several Walkers opened fire on them, lighting up their red electromagnetic shields.
A round from a Walker pierced through one of the dropships as its complement of war machines rolled out. The robots unlocked and began to return fire, but didn’t get off more than a few shots before the explosion of the machine that carried them reduced them to scrap. Several more dropships landed behind the blast, absorbing fire from fast-approaching rovers whose thick spherical wheels bounced along the rocky terrain, allowing the rovers to fire from bizarre, hard to anticipate angles.
On the roof of the city gate, in the chaos of a skirmish, a badly damaged Octobot menaced Christine, who jumped back from it. She grabbed a gun from her waist and pointed it at the robot’s glowing eye. The gun whined for just a moment before she squeezed the trigger.
The round went right through the Octobot but it refused to go down. She fired three more times after which the robot finally twitched and collapsed. She quickly used it as a makeshift shield from stray rounds.
Jake dove down next to her with a spare railgun and handed it over with a nod. Inspecting the rifle for just a moment, she took a deep breath, then with a practiced move peeked over the fried robot, squeezed off a few rounds, and dove back down. Jake gave her a thumbs up before jumping up and firing off a few shots himself as others joined in while lasers from Berserkers flashed in and out of existence overhead.
The human knew how to “talk” when pinned down, he observed with relief as the groups randomly selected firing order, short, precise bursts to avoid over-stressing their weapons and drift for repeated recoil, pelting their attackers with swift, hard to predict attacks that disrupted their formations and drove them back in search of cover.
Mai stood up and very casually dusted herself off. Aside from a few scuff marks on her uniform, the fight didn’t seem to affect her at all so far.
“Ok, that trick with the plasma bolt was pretty clever,” she said, holding up an armored hood and throwing it away. “But you got a little sloppy at the end and used the wrong hold. Did you forget who you’re fighting for a moment?”
“You’re right. Maybe I did,” Alex chuckled. “Ready for round two?”
“Of course. And this time, my dear, let’s do this with a little more feeling. The doctor is watching.”
Exploding with electricity, the cyborgs both warped out.