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Cynthia And The Order

Posted: 11/04/18
by Tenebrae
The following story takes place between Mission 3 and 4.

Nathaniel Reins seated himself near the back of the small auditorium-style lecture hall next to an open area meant for handicapped students. He stretched out his legs into the wide-open area in front of the seats on the back wall and then pulled them back in. He removed the thin wedge of an aluminum-shelled laptop from his messenger bag. It was the first day of class, and he was now entering his senior year of studying robotics at Caltech. While he waited for the class to start he opened up a sketchbook. It was full of detailed, palm-sized pencil studies of what anyone else in his field of study would recognize as tiny elements of a very large machine.

“What have you got there?” a feminine, British-accented voice came from over his shoulder. Nathan started, unused to being taken by surprise. He discreetly closed the notebook.

When he turned to see who it was, he was, rather, confronted with a ‘what’—a telepresence machine, a black self-balancing scooter with a screen mounted on top. He’d always felt silly talking to them. Even though they were common in business and elsewhere in academia, Caltech as a rule did not allow remote students or teachers. What was even more out of the ordinary was that the screen of the device, which normally displayed the image of the one you were talking to, had some kind of halo-shaped motion graphic. It reminded him of an audio visualizer. Its main elements were a thick red disc with a notched golden ring rotating within the center. He went silent for a moment while he composed himself.

“An assignment for another class.” he said. In his experience, no one was interested in those. He was barely interested in his own.

“Must be quite the class.” the telepresence machine said dubiously. Nathan couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something different about this machine. He stared at the visualizer on the front, trying to work out what if anything it meant, when it was quickly replaced by an ancient screensaver with bouncing colored triangles.

“I’m Nathan.” he said. He didn’t immediately extend his hand to shake, but the impulse came to him nonetheless.

“Cynthia.” the machine responded, along with what he was sure was a little bow. If all telepresence machines had body language like that, perhaps, he wouldn’t feel so awkward talking to them. A potentially million dollar idea. He had too many others, though, to bother.

“Are you auditing this class?” Nathan said. She couldn’t very well be taking it, since that wasn’t allowed.

After a pause and a little roll forward, to indicate thoughtfulness, the machine rolled backwards, spun around, and then rolled down the wheelchair ramp and took up a position at the head of the class. The auditorium at this point had gotten to be fairly packed, along with the attendant cacophony. Normally a high-level course like this would have a smaller classroom, but it was such a hot topic it brought in people who weren’t normally part of Nathan’s program. When his friend Mark walked in he waved him over to the seat next to him.

“Ahem, ahem. Welcome.” the hapless telepresence machine attempted to take command of the class. Students who were physically there and paying for the class generally did not like being dealt with from a distance. It was understandable. They were not about to give the floor to a talking monitor, who they knew very well wasn’t the professor they paid to sit at the feet of. After about thirty more seconds of this the main screen at the head of the classroom changed to display a seating chart. Flashing red squares provided an unerring key to the students currently speaking.

“A razor. Damn, it’s a good one.” Mark said in a low, awed voice. Nathan figured he would be impressed, too, if he weren’t so ignorant on the topic.

After another moment popups with keywords describing the nature of the conversations began to appear, alongside the participants. Mark’s statement was given the sole keyword: razor. Gradually students took notice of what was happening. The flow of conversation came to a halt, until there was stone silence and the big board showed only one flashing red square: the lectern, where the telepresence machine was.

“Is anyone talking about anything interesting?” the machine said, and made a play of turning around to look at the big screen, “It doesn’t look like it. I promise you what I have to say is bound to be better. Unless of course Miss Patel and friends would like to take the floor.”

The machine turned towards the aforementioned group, a clique of young Indian girls, who all looked terribly embarrassed. What they were talking about was still splayed up for all to see, until it faded mercifully to black a moment later. Nathan’s friend Mark, who had earlier taken the seat next to him, leaned over and whispered incautiously:

“Wonder if this is how they do it in Britain.”

They both winced when the sentence appeared in its entirety on the big board, atop their seats, with their names helpfully next to it. There were a few chuckles and students who cast glances upwards to them. The seating chart vanished from the front before it could terrorize anyone else, and was replaced by the first slide with the title of the class: Razors and Robotics.

“My name is Cynthia Price.” the machine continued, now with the full attention of the class. “I’ve had the good fortune to be at the center of major governmental and corporate projects involving razors. In the interests of providing you a quality education, the illustrious California Institute of Technology has tapped me to teach this course and graciously allowed me to do so in spite of my disability of not being physically here. Now. Who is ready for a little R&R?”

————

The Order of the Scrapyard formally met every evening from Sunday to Thursday at 2812 East Walnut Street, a ten minute drive east of Caltech. On Friday and Saturday evenings, they met informally, mostly under the same circumstances, although it was understood that a member of the order might have ‘social commitments.’ It was, for the most part, a theoretical understanding. Departures from Caltech were handled in a variety of ways in the two years since they were forced to move off campus. Generally everyone got out of classes at different times, so they all arrived separately. The first day of classes meant very little to them, since they’d been working throughout the summer on their little project. They hadn’t been there yet, that evening. They had something big.

Nathan slid open the door of the concrete loading dock. Ashley was a couple minutes away with the box truck and he wanted to signal to her which of the three docks to pull back into. He hadn’t thought to bring a jacket and the black t-shirt he was wearing wasn’t helping against the cold breeze. He ducked back into the warehouse and saw Mark struggling with the pallet jack. They were tricky to use at a glance, which Nathan knew from having worked a summer in a warehouse.

“Mark, didn’t you get a perfect score on the SAT?” Nathan said with a grin. “You seem to have trouble with a piece of equipment with only two inputs.”

“Shut the fuck up, man. I missed a question.” Mark said. Nathan moved over to the jack.

“Here, give me that.” Nathan said. He never had to press too hard to get Mark to give up on physical labor. He quickly got the pallet jack working and lifted the heavy crate they were transporting a couple inches off the ground. “Did you write in?”

“How’d you know?” Mark said.

“Just kind of figured the question had to have been wrong, you know, for you to miss it.”

“I know, right?”

Nathan heard the backup alarm start sounding and moved over to the dock to give Ashley some guidance. She was getting better at backing into the dock, but they still occasionally made use of the rubber stops. While he was there Mark attempted to help by bringing the crate over, but only succeeded in collapsing the hydraulics and putting it back on the ground. When he rolled the jack back, the crate was left on the ground where it sat. Nathan watched Mark quietly give up and peer into his smartphone. By that time Ashley had hopped out of the driver side and entered the empty warehouse through a metal side door. Ashley was a sophomore, a brunette. When she had first come to Caltech she was heavy, wore thick black-framed glasses, and loved baggy clothes and flannel. She had lost some weight, mostly due to the demanding schedule of the Order. The other stuff was all the same.

“Why do I have to drive the truck, again?” Ashley said.

“I can’t drive stick.” Mark immediately said, without a hint of shame.

“Oh, me neither.” Nathan said.

“Weren’t you going to be the pilot?” Ashley said.

“That’s different. Moving on—” Nathan said, before Ashley could speak again, “I found us a computer.”

Nathan gestured to the crate. Ashley and Mark exchanged a long, smug look, and then turned to Nathan.

“Nathan,” Ashley said with mock pity, “That’s a wooden box.”

“Inside of this wooden box,” Nathan said, “Is a metal box. But inside of that metal box, is a computer.”

“Did this come from China?” Mark said.

“Of course not.”

Mark looked disappointed, “Oh.”

“Is it… stolen?” Ashley said.

“No. I mean, I don’t know, but I didn’t steal it. This thing is razor-capable, Mark, so show a little enthusiasm.”

“You don’t say.” Mark said, pushing himself off of the wall he had been leaning against and looking up from his smartphone.

“Now I’ve got your attention. Let’s get this baby in the robot.”

“It’s 7:00 PM now, that’ll take at least four hours. It’ll probably take six.” Ashley estimated. “And we’ll have to take it out again when we find out it doesn’t work.”

“Hmm.” Mark said. “Let’s just put it on the ground and string up connections to the interior space.”

“We’ve got like two dozen parts like that already. We haven’t got a robot, we’ve got electric spaghetti.” Nathan said. There was a pensive silence.

“It’ll come together.” came the sound of a deep and confident voice. They all turned to see Arthur, the last member of the Order, walking slowly up to them. He must have jumped up into the gap Ashley had left on one side of the loading dock. The man was tall, mature beyond his age of 24, wearing a black leather jacket and khaki pants. He was in his second year of graduate study. While the Order was entirely the brainchild of Nathan and Mark, without Arthur it would have been abandoned long ago. Everyone understood that.

“Arthur, this is—” Nathan started to speak.

“The last piece of the puzzle.” Arthur said. All members of the order looked at each other with a bewildered smile. It was true. The era of scavenging and begging was, at last, over.

“How about this—” Nathan said, ignoring the weary sigh his statement brought from Ashley and Mark, “We’ll get the computer hooked up outside, but we’ll get something smaller inside the frame.”

“It’s all broken, though. That’s why it’s outside.” Ashley said.

“We’ll fix it then.” Arthur said, “After we get the computer hooked up it will be Mark’s playground for a while. That leaves the rest of us free.”

“Think this thing can run AC Online?” Mark said, looking to the box.

They often played the game, an unusually realistic mech simulator, to wind down in the evenings. In fact they sometimes played a little too much of it.

When their work for the day was completed, they again found themselves in the loft on their lineup of gaming rigs indulging in the popular online mech game. Arthur didn’t mind because the carrot of play in combination with the scope of limited work seemed to make everyone work faster and more efficiently. He did put his foot down early on when his young charges seemed on the verge of converting the Order into an AC Online guild.

One of the appeals of AC Online was that it didn’t seem to be customer-first, in a field where games essentially coddled players. There were many mysteries, and the victories seemed more real. It would never become truly mainstream, but in its niche it was the start and end. Much of the time, things didn’t go as you thought they would. In blatant violation of the rules of fairness, the game could declare a ‘mismatch’ which stacked the odds against you in some way. A mismatch involved giving the other team resources you didn’t have access to, information you didn’t have, or perhaps an ace ringer from another queue entirely. That ace obviously would be drawn from another team who would lose their ace and be forced into a mismatch themselves. The Order was familiar with this since they occasionally lost Nathan in that exact scenario. Since they were together, it was still fun to hear about the details of the other match he was in.

One match they found themselves in was declared as an ‘even match’ since it was 2 top-ten aces versus the 4 of them, who were ‘merely’ insanely good. The two aces were, unfortunately, Lumina and Sabbath. Both of these players were a great threat on their lonesome, but as a pair they were probably the toughest in the game. He’d lost, of course, but only in retrospect had he become aware of the difference between him and a top player.

——

/acog/ ac online general #231 - We Are Still Fighting For Our Vague Goals

[…]

Anonymous No. 933103127 >>933103135 >>933103201
Lumina #1 whore!

Anonymous No. 933103135 >>933103201
>>933103127
Go to bed Lumi

Anonymous No. 933103201 >>933103300
(Fanart of the Spider mech with Hatsune Miku livery)
>>933103127
>>933103135
No stay up and sing “Thunderstruck” over pub voicechat in your next match

Anonymous No. 933103300
>933103201
guys:
twitch.tv/seerACO

[…]

Anonymous No. 933103502
(Picture of Mariya Takeuchi)
NOW
PLASTIC LOVE

/acog/ ac online general #232 - Plastic Love edition

[…]

Anonymous No. 933105130 >>933105143 >>933105700
maware setsugetsuka

Anonymous No. 933105143 >>933105180
>>933105130
she’ll die!

Anonymous No. 933105180
(Picture of a Spider mech nervously looking at the “I’m Not A Robot” capcha)
>>933105143
toasters don’t die, they break

Anonymous No. 933105201 >>933105221
Voice of a b-cup

Anonymous No. 933105221
>>933105201
>b-cup
aka best-cup

Anonymous No. 933105290
(Picture of an bored anime girl)
>it’s an e-celeb thread

Anonymous No. 933105700
(Picture of an AC online mech whose design makes it look sad from a certain angle)
>>933105130
>mfw she only did tv size

——

The day after the first day of class, and after the Order had its clock cleaned by Lumina and Sabbath, they convened after the R&R class in a common area and hunched over Mark’s laptop to watch a replay of the match. Mark had pulled out the relevant clips.

“Here, you ‘corner’ Lumina in an alley. With the WK you have a decisive advantage in this situation.” Mark said.

“That’s what I thought.” Nathan said.

“Using per-limb control Lumina spreads out the four wheels of her Spider and activates them along with the JJs. Essentially riding the walls of the alley upwards.”

“She seemed to disappear. Never seen the like.”

“Normally with JJs there is a moment where you gain momentum. She used the per-limb control to bypass that, going straight into the jump, and accelerating it greatly. She ascends and comes down on you, hammer-first. The end.” Mark said, showing the relevant footage.

“But why the flip in midair?” Nathan said. Mark paused.

“Visual flourish?” he ventured.

“No,” Ashley said, then paused the feed and zoomed in, “If you looked up when she did the maneuver you may have been able to get a shot off. The flip was so that her top-armor was pointed towards your weapons throughout more of the move. Only in the final moment is her belly exposed. All while singing Plastic Love.”

Nathan made a long sigh.

“So she lured me into the alley. We need more per limb control at least. Those are just lua scripts right? Easy. May even have some crossover potential for the robot.”

“Yeah,” Mark said, “But no one does it like her.”

They became aware, one by one, that they were being awkwardly watched over by the telepresence machine belonging to Miss Price.

“Uh,” Nathan began, “Is there something you needed, Miss Price?”

“Cynthia is fine.” the voice came from the machine, “You know, I play that game. I play a Ghost.”

Nathan looked at Ashley, then Mark, then back to the machine inhabited by Cynthia.

“We’re the Order of the Scrapyard.” he said. They were not unknowns in the community and, if Cynthia was any kind of fan, she would know-

“You’re the ones who are building a robot.” Cynthia said with a hint of surprise.

“Our reputation precedes us.” Ashley said with a smug grin, and put her hands on her hips. Mostly, that reputation was summed up neatly in the word “quixotic.”

“Why don’t you come by and see it?” Nathan said. The telepresence machine bowed itself, seeming almost bashful.

“Would that be alright?” Cynthia said.

“Sure. It’s not a secret.” he said.

In the weeks following, the mysterious woman proved invaluable in getting the computer online and talking to the machine itself. She seemed to know the answers to problems before they happened. Cynthia and the Order developed a kind of friendship. Nathan eventually decided to lure her into a solitary meeting in a coffee shop in an attempt to get some answers. All his initial reservations about talking to a telepresence machine had faded away at this point, although to an outsider seeing him talk so earnestly to a box would’ve still looked strange.

“I’m not the only one here that’s building a robot, am I?” he said.

“Straight to the point. I like that.” Cynthia said.

“Why are you helping us?” Nathan said. The question had been on his mind. The advice she had given them for free was almost priceless.

“Well…” Cynthia said, “I sort of thought of you all as, I suppose, friends.”

“We should meet sometime.” Nathan said, “I could justify going to the Galapagos. We could bring the whole Order.”

“I’m afraid,” Cynthia said sadly, “that’s impossible.”

——

Chain stalked angrily up to her sister Linear, who was on the suburban lawn of the two-story picket-fence house on the deck of the virtual aircraft carrier she called home. Linear was pretending to water the grass, looking like a 50s pinup girl with a straw hat and a white polka dot sundress. Chain grasped that this ridiculous tableau was something Linear arranged moments earlier, when the sync was being established between their separate virtual environments. Who knows what her sister was actually doing before she arrived. She was probably better off not knowing. Chain wore her ordinary business uniform of a black skirt and white blouse with heels. When she got close enough to Linear, the black-haired AI turned to her, lowered her pink-framed, heart-shaped sunglasses, and flashed a smile.

“Nice of you to drop by hun. Would you like a glass of lemonade? My house is your house.” Linear said.

“Why are you getting in my way?” Chain said. “I’m the one who should go to Diamond World.”

“Going into Diamond World means using your Pulse Drive platform.” Linear said.

“Yes, and so what?” Chain said.

“So, Chain, the problem is that you suck. You would be a drag on any force that entered D-World. I would be derelict in my duty as your older sister and as an officer of the United States Navy if I let your scrubby ass into the cockpit of a Pulse Drive platform.”

Chain stopped in her tracks and breathed deeply, centering herself.

“D-World is safe. You spent hours in there.” Chain said, settling on a particular straw to grasp.

“That was then. We have good reason to believe an enemy is in there.”

“Well I’m sorry, some of us don’t have all day to laze around and play video games, Lumina.”

Linear gave a sniff. “I forgot about your new job as a teacher. They’re going to throw your machine through the transom before the semester is over. Can’t wait to see that on Boxtube.”

“What—” Chain said indignantly, “What is a ‘transom’?”

“It’s like a window over the door. Lets in the breeze.”

“They don’t have those at Caltech. And I don’t think a telepresence machine would fit through one.”

“That’s not the point.” Linear said, “The point is you aren’t going. Now do you want lemonade or not?”

“What if I got good?”

“You? Get good? You couldn’t break a thousand if I gave you ten one hundred dollar bills.”

“Then it’s settled. I’ll break a thousand rank in the Ghost in ACO by midnight.” Chain said.

“Ha! Ten hours to go from 1350 to 1000. You’d have to knock down some serious people for that to happen. Fine.” Linear said. “If you lose you have to give up this college thing after this semester. It’s a waste of time you could be spending playing video games.”

“Very well.” Chain said.

“Are you staying for lemonade?”

“Lemonade? Alright. Wait, no, I’m not staying. I don’t have time for that.”

“I imagine not. Isn’t it about time for class to start?” Linear said.

——

‘The robot’, as they knew it, was a theoretically bipedal machine two stories tall and must have weighed at least as much as two train engines. It was laid on its back on the concrete floor of the warehouse. Its construction was a task they’d accomplished mostly by hand with the help from a forklift and a mini-excavator. Its appearance, where the inside couldn’t be directly looked into, was that of dull and unpainted steel sheets. Armoring the unit seemed pointless given its civilian function—they’d imagined it being used in rescue operations and construction. The goal was quite simply to build a robot large enough to sit inside. Presently the machine was recognizable as a giant robot, albeit one with every major internal part lying next to it instead of safely in its body.

There was a small office suspended over the warehouse that looked down on the robot. It was a good place to get an overview of things and safely direct activities. After the release of AC Online, four gaming PCs eventually made their way into the loft and they’d all found themselves hooked on the game. The addiction had abated slightly as the robot had neared completion, but they still played it basically every night for at least an hour. They were all ranked in the mid 300s, except for Nathan, who was in the top 100 for his weapon of choice, the White Knight (WK). That merit earned him the spot as ‘test pilot.’ They would all get to pilot the thing, of course, but he was first up.

Arthur surprised them all by carrying a telepresence machine into the loft. It was piloted by Cynthia. It had been the first time she’d dropped by the warehouse since Nathan suggested, a week prior, that they meet in person. He was glad to see she hadn’t been scared off for good.

“Listen, you all, I need your help.” Cynthia said, after Arthur set the machine on the ground and faced it towards the group.

“Sure, what is it?” Nathan said.

“I made a high stakes bet and need to raise my rank in ACO to below 1000 before midnight.” she said. Even though she had mentioned being a player when they’d met, she’d never had the time to play any matches with them.

“What kinda bet?” Ashley said.

“That’s a secret.”

“Big surprise. You sure do have a lot of those.” Mark said.

“You have no idea.” Cynthia said, “And anyway. I know the Order is busy, so if you succeed I won’t leave you empty handed. I’ll give you the source of a commercial grade kinesthetic razor.”

This was essentially the breath of life, at least as far as robots were concerned. In unison and more or less without a word, they all turned to their PCs and donned headsets. Since Cynthia was the fourth member in the Ghost, Arthur, their own Ghost, bowed out. That left Ashley in the Highlander, and Mark in the Mattis. Cynthia logged out of the telepresence device and into her own account. The woman claimed to have hacked the matchmaking to put them on the good side of mismatches versus stronger opponents. That was the ideal case for raising rank.

After play started, his initial enthusiasm began to drain away after he came to realize that Cynthia, whose handle was ChainPri, was by no means a rank 1350 player. In fact her rank was over 20,000.

“Chain,” he said over voicechat, using the first part of her handle. “How long has it been since you played?”

“What…? Oh, a few months. Four months.” Chain said. Nathan pressed his lips into a line and took his finger off the push-to-talk key. He looked over to his friends.

“Open source kinesthetic systems aren’t so bad.” he said.

“Whatever Stallman.” Mark said, “While you’re over there installing gentoo I’m going to be riding in a kickass robot with my big-boobed British girlfriend.”

“How do you know she has big ones?” Ashley wondered.

“With that voice? Blockbuster. Hundred and ten percent.” Mark said. Ashley thought for a moment and then actually agreed, with a nod of concession.

“…Mark.” Nathan said, “I was going to say, you’ve had your finger on push to talk the whole time.”

A look of shock crossed Mark’s face until he looked down and saw that it wasn’t true.

“Fuck you.” he said, with a laugh. “Shit, I almost forgot to turn on capture. Wouldn’t want to miss out on this.”

Mark leaned over and activated the capture gear. The gear existed to record their matches so that Mark could go through them and upload amusing clips to /acog/, an ongoing series of threads on 4chan’s /vg/. Ashley was also a denizen of /acog/. Nathan and Arthur preferred the relative civility of r/aco, even if the posters were a bit dumber in raw terms.

“If she got up to 1350 before, then that potential should still be inside her. We’ll get her up to her old level in an hour, max.” Ashley said.

An hour put the lie to that sentiment, and indeed revealed it as fantastical. Chain stumbled through another match. She made mistakes that it was difficult to imagine a player making at all. It was possible for an ordinary player, for example, to trip on some obstacle like a car or concrete barrier. It was not possible to trip over nothing, which is something Chain did once every other match. She flubbed things the system handled automatically, like retrieving weapons from holsters or reloading. The fact wasn’t lost on his team.

“What is…” Nathan said, “Going on with her?”

“She’s using per limb control.” Ashley said decisively, “Without a script.”

“Ah, that.” Mark said, “Probably has something to do with her bet.”

“How do you even use per-limb control without a script, some kind of camera system?” Nathan said. He couldn’t imagine something sufficient. Was she standing in a room somewhere, pretending to be a robot? Based on his impression of Miss Price, that seemed unlikely.

Anyone who really paid attention to robots understood that the work being done around the world in the wake of the December Crisis went far beyond his group building a robot in a warehouse in Pasadena. The fact that there were major projects going on in every industrialized nation was undeniable. There were photographs, for one, and their quantity, quality, and consistency was beyond the scope of a hoax operation.

What he didn’t believe was the rather cultlike fascination with which /acog/ had gone about connecting them all to each other and, in turn, to ACO itself. There weren’t projects going on all over the world, there was one big project, and it all pointed to the Maypole. Why the two things would be related was the least believable thing to him. That was simply the tip of the fantasy world they had built up, one of buried gods, alien weapons, secret underground complexes.

In other words, pure 4chan.

Yet there was something in it.



In the evening they took a 15 minute break to wolf down the sandwiches they’d had delivered. Mark, however, was off in his own world on the PC. Nathan, with a mouthful of ham, ambled over and leaned over to see what he was up to. He’d tabbed out of the ACO client and had the /acog/ pulled up.

“Check this out. On a hunch I did a vocal analysis on Lumina from our last match with her. She’s a literal vocaloid.” Mark said, barely containing his glee. /acog/ had long been peddling the theory that Lumina was an AI based on her odd behavior and unique playstyle. It was actually one of the more saner theories to come out of /acog/.

“Could it be someone passing their own voice through a filter?” Nathan said.

“That’s not how it works. It has to be generated natively. Furthermore this particular system’s quirks can be traced back to a short-lived independent piece of software called Ultimate Idol Raising Project.” Mark said.

“You mentioned that before. /acog/ is obsessed with it.”

“Yeah. Ultimate allows you to assign a custom catchphrase to every idol. But you know what it is by default?”

Nathan thought a moment.

“Racing heart?” he said.

“Exactly.” Mark said, “This is the smoking gun. Especially when you consider those leaked documents that make references to Ultimate. I’m going to make a new general.”

“The old one isn’t at the bump limit.” Ashley said.

“Jesus, Ashley. I swear to god.” Mark said, tapping on his keyboard:

/acog/ ac online general #270 Ultimate Idol edition

Just before midnight they had “ChainPri”, Cynthia’s in-game moniker, at a ranking of 1003. It was looking like they’d be able to do if it they simply won one more game.

Unfortunately Cynthia’s matchmaking magic seemed to be at an end. The screen boldly declared that, this time, they would be on the losing end of the mismatch. They would be fighting Lumina in a 4v1, in Wolf City. Wolf City was her best map.

“I knew it.” Cynthia said. “She wasn’t going to let me pass.”

Nathan thought a moment and pushed down the talk key.

“Was your bet with her?” he asked.

“Yes.” Chain said.

“I think we could take her in a 4v1.” Mark said. “Well wait, what did the mismatch give her? The… ‘Red Spider’?”

Nathan had never heard of that particular mech.

“It’s probably a tougher version of the Spider.” he ventured.

“I mean, it is red.” Ashley said. Then Lumina’s voice rang out over the public chat.

“I should have known you would have cheated your way in.” she said, in a sort of sing-song tone, “You’ve always been a cheater.”

“You’ve always been stronger and faster,” Cynthia said, “what do you expect me to do?”

“Lose.”

“Prepare to be disappointed.” Cynthia shot back.

In the comparatively pedestrian setting of the loft in Pasadena, Mark looked to Ashley and Nathan with an insane grin on his face. Ashley was fairly pumped up as well.

“It’s a fucking grudge match for the win, mates!” he said.

“Don’t get distracted—” Nathan said. The order came a little late. The Red Spider burst through the glass-and steel facade of a bank building, sending shards of glass and i-beams flying into the street. Mark’s Mattis was bringing up the rear. The Red Spider wasn’t simply a reskin of the normal spider. It was far bulkier and had to weigh twice as much. It also had two hammers instead of one, and Lumina brought them both down on the Mattis, destroying it instantly. Ashley got off a brace of TOW missiles, and some of them must have connected. It was difficult to say what damage they’d done, since Lumina disappeared into the city. Mark grabbed a handful of hair and made a plaintive cry.

“Humanity is over!” he declared.

They took up a position in an intersection where, seemingly, the Red Spider would have to reveal itself to approach from range. A ridiculous number of TOW missiles pincered them from both directions, from around a building, and even the combined efforts of their anti-missile systems was not enough to save Ashley’s Highlander from being melted down. Ashley slumped forward and sighed over her keyboard. Then there were two.

“Follow my lead. We’re going after her.”

“Is that wise?” Chain said.

“That or be picked off.” Nathan said. He charged his WK forward and caught a glimpse of the Red Spider retreating into the city.

“She’s drawing us into a trap.”

“I know. Trust me. Hold fire.”

Nathan’s White Knight chased the Red Spider into the narrow confines of the alley. He opened fire.

“Chain, fly!”

Chain’s Ghost surged upwards around the same time as the Red Spider pulled its alley trick once more. This time the vulnerable undercarriage was pointed into the sky, where Chain was waiting with a full magazine of Kinetic Energy Missiles. All of the KEMs buried themselves into the can’t-miss target from virtually point blank range. The Red Spider crashed to the ground behind the WK, sparking and smoking.

Chain’s Ghost alighted back on the ground.

“College life. Must be nice.” Lumina said, her audio garbled by the distortion of a dying machine. “Maybe you stay up late and eat pizza with your gaggle of friends. Follow your boyfriend there up to his dorm, he puts his hand under your shirt. Everyone loves Chain.”

“Is that what this is about?” Chain said. Lumina paused.

“Does it have to be about one thing?”

——

After the match, Chain re-inhabited her telepresence machine. Arthur came up from the floor.

“Well. Thank you all, for your help. I’ll be transferring the source to Mark in a secure email, as promised.” ‘Cynthia’ said. Before any of them had a chance to press her for details, she logged off the machine and the screen went dark. After a long silence, Nathan turned to Mark.

“It’s all true, isn’t it?” he said.



From: “Chain Principal” cprincipal@wolf.mil
To: “Wolf Task Force Personnel” wtf_ppl@wolf.mil
Subject: The “Order Of the Scrapyard”

Major Andrews,

I’ve attached a briefing on a talented group of students from Caltech. They might be useful on the design end. They also have many good ideas about a platform for in-field repair work and engineering.