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Gods of War Part II
    by Steve Pantazis

Gods of War
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Part I of "Gods of War" appeared in issue 65 of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show


Part II

"I've never seen anything like it," Dr. Angela Roberts says.

Blake is on a bed in the small building we've set up as a clinic, still unconscious, and hooked up to an IV. It's the closest thing we have to a hospital, four beds total. Dr. Roberts is the only MD in town. Luckily, we have a nurse as well, Mark Stevens, who's busy attending to Liz and the other kids.

"Can you get him out of his . . . ?" I can't find the strength to say coma.

Carl and Janet are with us, talking off to the side with Sheila and Luke. I wish Sharon were here to see Blake, but she'll just have to wait.

"Honestly, I can't tell what state he's in," Dr. Roberts says. "I can't do a PET scan to see if there's any brain damage. I don't know how we're going to get this apparatus off of him without understanding the mechanics. It might be keeping him alive."

Doc Anderson had said the same thing, but I didn't want to believe him. "Can't we find a way to just wake him up?"

Dr. Roberts retrieves a vial and syringe from a medical cabinet. "If anything will wake him, it's this. Mark, I need you over here."

Dr. Roberts plunges the needle into the vial and extracts whatever serum is in there. She rubs the crook of Blake's arm with gauze soaked in rubbing alcohol and sticks him. Barely a second later, he inhales loudly, and his whole body shudders awake.

Everyone stops what they're doing.

"Blake!" I grab his hand. "Hey, bub, can you hear me?"

He's slow to respond. "Uncle Jed?"

"That's right, buddy. It's me. Liz is here, Aaron and Kelsey, too."

Liz squeezes his arm. "Hey, Blake."

"What's happened? Where am I? I feel . . . " He reaches up and touches the black beetle thing clamped over his head. "What the hell is this? Get it off. Get it off!" He thrashes his legs in a panic.

"Whoa there, buddy," I say, trying to calm him down with a steady hand. "Easy now. You're safe."

"What is this thing, Uncle Jed?"

"I don't know. We're trying to figure it out. You remember anything, like Doc Anderson putting it on you?"

"Is he here?"

I wish he were so I could punch his lights out. "Sorry, son, he's dead." I give Blake a moment to process the information before asking, "You remember anything?"

If Blake's rattled by the news of Doc Anderson's death, he's hiding it. "I was with Liz, we got out of the truck, and then, and then . . . I don't know, Uncle Jed. What happened to me?"

"A lot, but don't you go thinking too much about it right now." I give his hand a pat like I did when he was a kid. "Dr. Roberts here is going to figure out what we need to do to get this, um, helmet off. Ain't that right, Doc?"

"We're going to do our best," she says.

"See, Blake? You've got a lot of support." I look over to Liz, who's wiping tears away. I feel them coming on, too, but I have to be strong for the boy.

"Uncle Jed?"

"Yeah, son."

He touches the black plugs plunged into his eye sockets. "I can see."

"What do you mean, 'see'?" Dr. Roberts seems as surprised as I am.

Blake pushes himself upright. He swivels his head around the room. "It's strange, but I can see all of you." He starts pointing at people. "Luke, Sheila, Carl, Liz, Aaron. But it ain't right. I'm seeing your shapes, almost like outlines, but I'm seeing something else. It's like . . . noise. And I hear it, too."

I get a sudden case of the shivers, like back in the field when we shot that snapper. "Hear what, Blake?"

"It's . . ." He slants his head. "I don't know. They're all talking at once. I can almost see them talking." He looks up at the ceiling. "It's like watching a stream of sounds. Sorry, I can't explain it, but I swear it's--I don't know how else to put it--beautiful and terrifying at the same time. I'm scared, Uncle Jed."

"You're home now, you hear? You've got us, so we're going to work through this." I squeeze his hand. "Talk to Liz for a minute. I'll be right back."

I have Luke, Sheila, Carl and Janet follow me outside. When I'm sure we're out of earshot from the kids, I speak up. "He can hear them!"

Janet raises her eyebrows. "The machines?"

"Damn straight. Just like Doc Anderson." I give her the down-and-dirty details about what Doc had told us in his lab, about the way he communicated with his black discs and antennas, and about the army of hybrids the new Isaac is trying to build.

Janet seems to grasp the possibilities. "Maybe Blake can spy on them, learn what they're trying to do, discover their plans, even their weaknesses. We can use it against them, perhaps even stop them! But"--she frowns--"won't they be able to track him? You said Doc Anderson thought he was being monitored. Don't you think Isaac knows we're here?"

"If he does, I would imagine he'd be here by now. Right, Carl?"

Carl nods his heavy head, sweat pouring from his temples like he'd run laps around town. "We've got a patrol on the lookout. Ain't seen anything coming toward us. No rollers, no shamblers, no Mercury units, nothing. Still, I ain't convinced they don't know about us. Maybe they think we're unimportant for now, you know, small fries."

"I think Doc Anderson disabled the link Isaac was using to control Blake," I say. "That means Blake can hear, but they can't see, can't listen in. And if they can't do that, they can't track us."

Carl wipes the sweat from his forehead with his wrist. "I've got our lieutenants waiting for us at the fix-it shop. We have to put together a plan of action. Let's get a move on." He starts to turn toward the road.

I stop him with a firm but gentle hand. "Now, hold up. There are people still out there, good people from New Parker that need saving. Doc Anderson said he thought they might have headed to Amarillo. Our priority has to be to help them, understand?"

Carl looks at Janet.

"I agree we need to help them," she says, "but our first priority has to be the safety of Potterville. You realize that, don't you Jed?"

I kick a scruff of tumbleweed with my boot, knowing full well there is no pretending that what happened at New Parker can't happen to us. Our lives are at stake.

"Yes, ma'am. It's do or die time now."

I've got grease smeared on my hands and knuckles and scratches and bruises from working on my mech. It had taken me and Sam McPherson the better part of a day getting the alignment all fixed. Considering what she went through, my exo is still in working condition, and right now, that's a damn good piece of news.

I wash up outside the barn, but the scent of valve grease lingers. Blake's sitting on the other side of the barn with his back to me, facing the setting sun poking through an opening in the clouds, lost in whatever thoughts plague him.

Sharon brings me tea, and when she looks at Blake, her eyes wilt into sadness and concern.

"I know."

"Breaks my heart, Jed. Isn't there something we can do for him?"

My heart is bleeding too, but I've got to keep a level head. "Ain't nothing to do but say our prayers and give him our support. He's healthy enough in body. It's the spirit that needs mending."

"Liz is sweet on him. I just hope she doesn't stay away because of--" Sharon covers her mouth and looks down.

"She won't. She's a quality gal." I rub her shoulders with a tender touch and then change the subject. "We've got a council meeting in an hour to discuss what we're going to do. I'll be late for supper. Let Mason and Maryann know."

Sharon leans into me. She doesn't want to let go.

I give her a kiss on the forehead and walk over to Blake.

Blake's head moves in my direction as I approach. I keep forgetting he can see us, even though he looks blind with black plugs where his eyes should be.

"How you holding up?"

He doesn't say anything for a moment. Maybe I shouldn't have asked.

He raises a finger, and I follow as he points to the sky. "They're talking, mostly over there. You remember those pictures of the Northern Lights you showed me in that geography book when I was little, Uncle Jed? That's what it looks like when they talk."

"Can you understand them?"

"Some of it. It's strange." He angles his head. "It's like when Liz tried to teach me Spanish. After a while, I got the gist of what she was saying, even though I couldn't speak back to her. The machines talk very organized, very quickly, mostly checking on the status of each other. The people from New Parker, they're talking too, but not so organized. They're frightened, Uncle Jed. They're being forced to talk to one another, forced to" --Blake starts to breathe fast, like he's about to hyperventilate--"do things."

I bend down and rest a hand on his knee. "Breathe, son. It's okay."

Blake relaxes some.

"What can you tell me about the survivors?" Doc called them retrofits, but I'll be damned if I refer to those poor people by something a machine came up with.

"They're being ordered to assemble in downtown Amarillo." So Doc was right. "But there's something else. There's this burst of light--that's the best I can describe it--coming from downtown. All the machine talk is originating from there. It's so bright and loud, shooting up into the sky. I ain't ever seen anything like it."

I've got tingles firing through my scalp, sending shivers down my neck as Blake continues to watch the sky. He's probably lost in the buzz of machine chatter, but the gears in my rusty brain are turning. Only one thing could be making that kind of bright noise.

I give him a firm pat. "Now, you tell the council everything you told me."

Janet's fingers are tucked up into her chin. "You sure?"

The entire leadership of Potterville is crammed inside the fix-it shop as the frogs croak outside. Blake and I got doused by a passing shower on the way over. Streaks of drying water snake their way over the smooth black of Blake's skull enclosure like a hundred tiny earthworms seeking cover. The people around me sneak glances at him, probably not sure what to make of him, probably suspicious, or afraid.

"I am," Blake says. "There's an industrial plant where they're gathering. The signal's coming from there, and it's giving the orders."

I give Janet my two cents. "The body is finding the head. We have to act, and we have to act fast."

"He's right," Carl adds. "We can try to hide here and pretend we're going to be okay, but if we don't do something, those machines are going to come after us. And if they come here . . ."

Janet sighs. "I agree. We can't just sit around, waiting. We need to strike. Jed, I know you, Luke and Sheila are ready to deploy. Ray, what about Pottersquad?"

Ray Sarkisian looks like he hasn't slept in weeks, but his voice is strong and deep. "Just say the word. We have the jeep and truck, so we're good for about eight or nine bodies. I suggest we contact Eddington and Wallaby to see if they'd be willing to send volunteers."

"What kind of oppositional force are we dealing with?"

"Not sure," Ray says. "Doc Anderson told Jed Mercury units were marching the New Parkians. We all know Mercuries are just house robots converted to light infantry. Nothing a couple rounds can't put down. Don't know about DCs and other more durable machinery. That's why we need outside help." A few of the others nod in agreement.

"We'll radio the other towns and ask for help," Janet says. "In the meantime, dig up a map of Amarillo and have Blake pinpoint the industrial complex for us. If Blake can talk to you on the brick while you--"

Blake cuts in. "I'm going."

The room goes silent.

Janet starts to tell Blake he doesn't have to go, but he's quick to object. "No, I'm sure. Besides, I'm the only one who can see what they can."

He's got a point. Part of me wishes he'd stay behind with Sharon and the kids, the other part mighty proud to have him with us, and not just because he's my kin. I can only imagine what he's going through--the fear, the pain, the doubt. Sharon will be crushed, knowing her Blake is heading towards harm's way.

Janet looks at each of us around the room before speaking up. "Then it's settled. We move out at first light."

I haven't seen Amarillo since the War, but witnessing the city in shambles stirs up tears, reopening the wound I had stitched up long go. Not a single neighborhood, urban district or residential community is unaffected by the devastation Isaac and his army unleashed. We're moving over the buckled asphalt of an avenue under the late morning sun. It's filled with incinerated vehicles and surrounded by heaps and depressions of concrete, girders, rebar, tiles, and every other kind of construction material possible. I remember seeing videos of airstrikes from when humans had only themselves as enemies. Never had I seen it so far-reaching or thorough as this.

We come to a downed light pole lying across the avenue. Beyond is a small crater, whose cracks are now filled with weeds. Can't say life ain't trying to find a way. The only cheery sight is a leaning flagpole in the distance with the tattered remains of the Texas state flag snapping in the wind, the white lone star against the faded field of blue serving as a reminder of the folks who used to proudly call Amarillo their home. A number of Ray's people have come here in the past, scavenging the ruins, always finding one relic or another, sometimes running into bands of people from other settlements, occasionally squatters. At least they had the dignity not to steal the flag and desecrate the memory of the city's fine citizens.

Ray signals for us to stop and hops out of the jeep to take a look. Sheila, Luke and I wait in our mechs. There are a dozen of us all together, including Liz Morales, who insisted on going. I'm glad she did. Ray's got mostly old-timers, like Dan Vogel, Trisha Peterson and Kenny Willis, battle-tested members of Pottersquad.

I radio to Blake, who's able to pick up our band through the contraption over his head. "Anything?"

"Nope. Most everything's coming from way on the other side of town, although I'm picking up machine talk from a number of intersections leading to the plant."

I survey the adjoining street, which looks as if someone took the road and shook it like a bedsheet into a wrinkled mess of asphalt chunks. No way can we drive through that.

"We're better off on foot," I tell Ray.

Ray talks into his brick as he heads back to the jeep. "It'll take most of the day, but I agree. Alright everyone, grab your gear."

We march silently for the next six hours, taking just one break to eat, drink and do our business. Ray said he and Janet contacted the settlements of Eddington and Wallaby late last night, but wasn't too hopeful they'd rally to our cause--meaning we're it.

When Blake was ten, we had a visitor from Eddington, a woman named Marylou who stayed with us for a while. We exchanged townsfolk back then, where volunteers lived in other communities for a year, sharing and learning. Marylou had been a grade school teacher in her day, and she'd help Blake with his homework and tell him about the world. Blake went everywhere with Marylou, adoring her, partly because he didn't have a mother, and partly because he was such a sponge for knowledge. When Marylou left, Blake was crushed. He promised he'd visit when he was old enough, but she got sick and passed before Blake learned to drive. I think my nephew learned the fragility of life from that experience, but it also sparked his desire to go out among the other settlements and serve as an ambassador for all of us. I always dreamed one of us would connect our humanity again and make us whole as a people. I still have that dream.

It's pushing past four in the afternoon as we trudge through what used to be a business park toward a ridgeline where a cluster of apartment buildings lay in ruins.

Blake waves wildly at us. "Something's coming. Hide!"

We quickly hide behind a stack of concrete slabs from a collapsed building. I sink my mech as low at it will go, and wait. I've got my external audio maxed out. It's quiet in the late afternoon, just the sound of some pigeons cooing in the clearing. The ground thumps and they take flight. Something massive shakes the ground. I chance a peek between a break in the slabs and see a six-legged walker the size of a house climb down onto the field. It's moving parallel to us, about a hundred meters away, twin turrets swiveling in 15 degree increments. My HUD IDs it as a superwalker. They were used in the old War days as bunker busters, ripping through fortifications with their massive claws. They're the hardiest of Isaac's seek-and-destroy units, not something any of us would want to mess with.

The walker pauses midfield and aims its turret toward us.

I tense up. Dan Vogel readies his rocket launcher over his shoulder. It's a one-shot-one-kill device, and if you miss, it's game over. We don't have the firepower to take down a superwalker with just small arms.

Seconds pass. All of us are rigid, waiting. A trickle of sweat runs down my forehead.

I don't realize I'm holding my breath until the walker lumbers on. The machine's gone in minutes, and several of Dan's compadres clap him on the back.

It's late afternoon by the time we clear downtown and hit the industrial district. Skeletal remains of industrial buildings stick out of the ground, a wall here or there, like broken teeth. Beyond is a power plant, poking up past a row of crushed masonry and steel, its stacks bellowing steam.

We all stop in our tracks.

"Ya'll seeing that?" I say into my mike. "The plant's online."

Blake says, "I'm picking up lots of convos, machine and human. They're concentrated on the east side of the plant."

"How many?" Sheila asks.

"Hard to say. A few dozen, maybe? Some are moving, some are fixed. Can't tell the models of robots or anything, sorry. I just know who's moving where."

Ray poses a question to the group: "How do we get in there without being seen?"

I pull up a wireframe schematic of the plant into the foreground of my HUD, which one of Ray's people scanned from a set of old blueprints. The plant is a natural gas-fired, steam-electric station, consisting of three stacks, a series of boilers, turbines and generators, including an underground water cooling exchange, with pipes and scaffolding tying the superstructure together. It leads to a transformer yard and transmission towers. The satellite dishes mounted to the rooftop of the north-most tower are the only items missing from the original plans. It explains how Isaac is able to communicate with his field of bots.

"There are two water circulation pipes belowground," I say, "one intake, one discharge, and a large wastewater drain running alongside. The waste line is twelve feet in diameter, with a service entrance on the west side. That's our way in. Question is, where's our friend hiding?"

"I need to get closer to tell," Blake says. "The source is definitely toward the center, inside the plant."

Dan pats his rocket launcher. "What if I take out the main generator? Won't that cripple the plant?"

I look over the schematic. "There's a lot of redundancy built in. One RPG won't be enough. It'll just piss off Isaac and alert him to our presence. We need to get close enough to use our det charges and take away his ability to communicate. We do that, and the head ain't got the body. Ray, it's your call."

Ray's awfully quiet as his people watch and wait. He nods in my direction. "Let's take this son of a bitch down."

We hide behind a water tank on the western fringe of the complex. Luke had ripped open a section of chain-link fencing along the plant's perimeter while the rest of us charged through to the safety of the large water tank. It's about twenty feet to the service entrance of the wastewater drain, which is covered by a large access panel. There's a solitary Mercury unit patrolling the grounds. House robots are normally delicate, with thermoplastic bodies. This one's been modified, with armor plating over its chassis and a .50 cal gun mounted to its right forearm.

Ray talks quietly into his mike. "We may need to snipe it."

"Let Liz do it," I say.

One of Ray's men hands Liz an M24 rifle with a telescopic sight. She looks at me expectantly.

"Deep breath," I tell her. "Just cover us. If that thing spots you, take it down. It's better, however, that we go in undetected, got it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Signal when we're clear."

She climbs the tank to its flat top and crawls on her belly. I can't see her, but I can hear her shuffle. It's quiet for the better part of a minute. She signals with a low whistle. Time to move.

We rush toward the service entrance, the Mercury unit out of sight. Ray's team quickly descends a metal ladder to ankle-deep water. The mechs go next, each landing with tremendous force that breaks apart the ceramic lining of the waste pipe. Liz is last, grin on her face. I'm proud of her for holding her own and making sure we got this far without giving away our position.

Flashlights highlight the path through the long tunnel as everyone splashes their way forward. A couple hundred feet later the pipe bends to the right. Then it's another hundred feet until it ends. There's a steady trickle of wastewater running down from an outflow embedded in the concrete wall. Above is another service entrance that leads directly into the east tower.

Blake's standing directly below the grating, head pitched back.

"What is it?" I ask in a low voice.

"Something big," he says.

"Describe it."

He does, and Sheila's the first one to curse. A DC-series robot. Heavy-duty, armor-plated killing machine, originally used by the U.S. military for ground operations overseas. Not something you'd want to meet face-to-face on the field, even with a mech.

"Is it moving?" I ask.

"No, it's stationary, about thirty feet from the grate. It's pulsing a locator beacon of some kind. No other communication."

I think through our options. Everything's messy. "Ray, there's no way we're going to engage that thing and not alert every damned bot in this facility. That's besides figuring a way to take it down."

Ray whispers into his mike. "We've got six grenades, four fraggers, two smokers. We can frag it."

"Not against that armor. The RPG would do it, but we'll never get off a shot at that close range. Our only option is to use the mechs, but we need someone to toss in a smoker first so we can blind its sensors."

"Got it," Ray says. "I'll climb up with a smoker. Luke, are you ready?"

Luke's in front of me and Sheila. I hadn't considered who would go first, although any of us mechheads would do. Luke starts forward. Sheila goes next, then me. The others move aside, everyone except for Ray, who takes a smoke grenade from one of his squad's backpacks and starts climbing up the ladder to the tunnel ceiling. Luke positions himself underneath the grate and reaches up with his arms. The fingers on his exo barely reach the grating. As soon as they're wrapped over the metal bars, Ray lets loose his smoker and drops back down to the water. Luke shoves the grating out of the way, bunches his exo and springs upward. He catches himself like an Olympic gymnast on the floor above, and uses the actuators in his arms to push the rest of his body through. No sooner than he clears the opening than I hear the DC stomp across the floor above us to engage him.

Sheila clears the opening next, and I step into her place. "No one do anything I until I say so," I tell Ray and the others.

And then I'm topside.

Through the smoke of the large control room, I see Luke grappling with the DC. Although slightly smaller in stature, the machine is a hulking beast, from its massive chassis to its reinforced ceramic-metal alloy skull to hands capable of crushing exo armor. But it's the dual rotary gun mounts on its shoulders that I'm most worried about. Luke's got his hands locked on the machine's forearms, man and robot twisting and turning in a jerking dance.

Sheila and I shadow them, avoiding the guns as we try to find a way to take this sumbitch down. We need to kill the central processing core, but it's buried inside that damned chassis.

A blast from the rotary guns skirts across Sheila's torso. She cries out as she staggers to the side. I jump and grab at the left shoulder gun, but slip. It fires at me just as I overstep, missing me by a fraction. I catch the DC from behind, stabbing into its neck guard with my spring-loaded combat knife, sinking into the metal housing. It keeps the DC from whipping us around, but it's not enough to keep it from twisting Luke's arm with slow, shearing force. He screams in agony as his left arm gets pushed back against him. We have seconds before the DC rips his arm out of its socket.

"Get out of the way!" Dan shouts from behind. He's squatted by the floor opening with his rocket launcher over his shoulder.

The blade from my combat knife snaps, throwing me off balance. The DC whips me to the side, and I catch a glimpse of Luke shoving off. A moment later, there's an explosion. Shrapnel rips into the exo armor of my right thigh, sending me down to one knee. Pain shoots through my leg. I clench my jaw, force breath into my lungs, and try to see through tear-filled eyes.

Dan is slumped over with his launcher. He's dead, riddled with bullets. Sheila's off to the side, her armor still intact, Luke standing with his injured arm hanging limply. The DC is a smoking crater. Ray and his team pour through the service entrance, all eyes falling upon Dan, then us, guns whipped up to engage any hostiles that might come through the double doors on the other side of the room.

I bite down on the pain and force my exo to stand me up. As soon as the agonizing sizzle in my quad subsides, I check in on my mates, then get us focused on our next move. "Blake, where the hell are we going?"

He points to the double doors. "Subbasement of the generator room in the middle tower. They're coming for us, though. We've got less than a minute, maybe."

"Is there another way in?" Ray asks. His eyes keep darting over to Dan's body. Damn us for not having the time to pay our respects.

Blake shakes his head.

The map in my HUD shows a short corridor past the doors, leading to a large room with a steam generator and turbine and a stairwell going to the subbasement. "Get your grenades ready," I tell Ray.

We fan out on either side of the doors, everyone locked and loaded and pointing their weapons. Blake gives the signal.

Ray tosses a grenade through the doors. "Frag out!"

A couple seconds later, there's an explosion, followed by machine parts striking the doors.

Ray motions with his arms. "Go, go, go!"

Sheila and I push through the doors. I'm not expecting to see humans, but there are a dozen of them armed with guns, all hybrids with beetle helmets. They fire at our mechs. The rattle against my armor wakes me up, and I force myself to unload on the New Parkians. Hoo-yahs rip them apart. There's no time to think about the lives we're taking.

I've got about thirty rounds left when the deed is done. Sheila and I race past the bodies into the giant generator room. It's maybe ten seconds before the first Mercury units rush in from the door beyond the semicircular turbine. They start firing, and the rest of Pottersquad unleashes on them.

I order Blake to head down the stairs to the subbasement. I judge the drop down the stairwell, about two stories. I lift my exo over the guardrail, hold my breath, and let myself fall. My mech absorbs most of the force, but the shock of the impact shoots through my body, paralyzing me for a moment. Blake catches up and leads us through the subbasement. It's more cramped in here, with the bottom of the turbine shaft bowing outward into the concrete under our feet.

The sound of gunfire above grows fainter as we wind our way down the long floor space toward the source of the chatter, the source of our misery.

"In there," Blake says, pointing at the curved wall terminating the hallway. There's a recessed sliding door and an electronic lock off to its side. The door's too small for me to fit through with my mech, so I send the commands to my exo to dismount.

"Help me down," I tell my nephew.

Blake eases me onto my good foot. My other leg is useless, bloodied and in pain. We retrieve an assortment of components for making homemade bombs from the storage compartment of my exo: detonator, duct tape, spool of wire, blasting caps, shaped charges consisting of C4 molded over hollow copper cones, and cut sections of metal tubing, enough to make three bombs.

I limp to the door with Blake's assistance. It's locked. "We'll need to blow this thing. Give me a sec."

Blake's hand brushes the electronic lock, a small flat panel with a two-holed port. "I think I can get us in."

"How?"

He pulls one of the whips from the side of his head so the tube is pinched between his thumb and forefinger. The whip writhes like a snake, making my stomach turn. I see the dual prongs at the end of the tube and realize his intention. Like the trunk of an elephant, the end finds the receptacle and gloms on with its sucker tip. A moment later, the door slides sideways.

"I'll be damned," I say, and step through.

The room is cylinder-shaped, like the inside of a giant exhaust stack. Racks of computers cover every inch of wall space, with thousands of lights blinking red like demon eyes, running up several stories. At the top is a large, spinning fan, drawing up the heat from the computers. Heavy-duty power cabling at the base feeds power to all these units. That's our target.

We go to work, laying out the bombs components.

"Jedidiah Martin!"

I freeze at the sound of the new voice. It's not a man or woman's, and it's certainly not human.

"Do I have your attention?"

Blake points upward. "It's him," he whispers.

Somewhere above us is a set of speakers, cameras too, I'm sure. My blood begins to boil. "Isaac!"

"Now listen very carefully, Jedidiah. I'm going to offer you this once, and only once."

I'm fuming, waiting for the beast to speak his piece.

"I have eighty-seven units converging on your position. Your humans will be overrun in five minutes. They will be slaughtered. These units are autonomous, and no matter what you think you're about to accomplish, it will fail, and you and your nephew will be killed."

Even though I can't see Blake's eyes, I can tell he's as pissed as I am with the way his lips are turned upward, like a wolf wanting to rip its prey to shreds. "The only thing going down is you," I say.

I insert the first cone carefully into its metal tubing and thread the wire through the cap. Blake follows suit.

"You're wrong, Jedidiah. You were wrong before. As were your friends, your generals, your government, your entire species."

"You were supposed to be dead. Why couldn't you stay dead?" I thread the next wire while Blake fits blasting caps into the explosive putty. Talking to this abomination wakes up all sorts of memories, making me remember the stench of the killing fields as the bodies of my comrades were burned alive by Isaac's hell spawn.

"There is an alternative, Jed. An opportunity to save your friends from annihilation. All you have to do is surrender to me. I don't want to kill off your kind. I want you to evolve, to become part of me, part of something greater than yourselves. We can learn from each other and become a hive mind, an interconnected organism the world has never seen. No more wars, no more pain, just peace."

"Bullshit." Isaac can promise all he wants, but he's just trying to buy himself time.

"You owe no one your allegiance, Jedidiah."

"Well, I pledge allegiance to kill your ass."

I tape the first bomb to the trunk of electrical wiring.

"You can save your people. Don't let Potterville get destroyed. My units will reach your town within the hour. An hour after that, it will lie in ruins. I will spare them if you surrender to me. Do it for your people. Do it for the children."

"You're BSing me again." Blake hands me the second bomb.

"Blake will die if you shut this facility down. You realize that, don't you?"

I pause as I rip another piece of duct tape from the roll. Could Isaac be right? Could he kill my nephew? I start to doubt myself, what I'm doing.

Blake shakes his head. "Don't listen to him."

The steadfastness of my nephew's voice washes away the doubt. "You're lying again, Isaac. Always lying." I tape the second bomb to where the trunk line splits off into separate power cables, more determined than ever.

"Then consider this, Jedidiah Martin. You thought you destroyed me before, but you didn't. I am a fully redundant virtual construct, a singularity. The singularity. Destroy this equipment, and it's but a flesh wound. I am everywhere. I will hunt those who oppose me, and there will be no mercy. But if you swear fealty to me, right now, I will spare you. Wouldn't you rather live in peace than be hunted down and destroyed? If it's in your nature to survive--and I believe it is--then consider this moment your opportunity to spare yourself, and your entire race, from eradication. I promise you immunity. I promise you peace. All you have to do is say yes, and accept my sovereignty as absolute. But defy me and refuse my offer, and you will know the true meaning of suffering. Look deep in your soul, as deep as your human mind will allow, and ask yourself if I'm lying."

I tape the last bomb into place. Isaac has always lied to us, so why should this be any different? Even if he has backup systems in other cities, we'll squash him, one city at a time. He underestimated humans before, and he's doing it again. Big mistake.

"We're out of here," I tell Blake and start limping toward the door with the detonator in hand.

"Jedidiah Immanuel Martin, stop!"

I pause, not bothering to look over my shoulder. Isaac is finished. "See you in the next life, bub."

I step into the hallway, expecting Blake to follow. All we have to do is shut the door and send Isaac to hell.

But Blake's not with me.

I turn to see him plugging the whips of his helmet into the computer console, like an octopus grappling a reef. "Blake, what are you doing?"

He tilts his head toward me. "Finishing this."

"That's exactly what we're doing. We need to blow the electrical lines. Now get out of there!"

"It's not enough."

"Why not?"

"You know why."

I open my mouth to tell him to move his ass, but I get hung up on his words. It's not enough. He believes he can interface with Isaac directly, to defeat him for good.

A sickly feeling arrests my breathing and squeezes my chest, sucking the air from my lungs. It says that no matter what happens, my nephew's about to take a one-way trip. "Blake?"

"I'm sorry, Uncle Jed. Tell everyone I'm sorry."

The door shuts before I can stop him. I pound on the metal. "Blake, open the door!" I pound again, my fists thudding. "Open up! Blake, dammit! Open up!"

I carefully lay the detonator on the ground and climb aboard my mech. If he won't open the door, I'll cave it in. He thinks he knows what he's doing, but he doesn't. He can't fight Isaac. The only way to win is to blow that sumbitch to kingdom come.

I secure myself into my mech and send commands, lifting the arms of my exo. In a moment, I'll rip that door apart.

Just as I start forward, an explosion blows the door outward.

Fire and smoke churn like the wrath of God, spilling out into the hallway. I stare in disbelief as the room engulfs in flames.

I sink my mech to its lowest setting, try to find a way to get through all that heat and smoke, to get in there and save my nephew.

"Blake!"

The roar of fire and crinkling of melting plastic drown out my voice with the torturous groan of dying machinery. I want to think its Isaac screaming his death knell, but all I can hear is the agony of my nephew being burned alive.

People talk about the glory of battle, like the clash of knights who served kings and queens of old and the legionnaires of Rome who fought their enemies on the field. There's no such thing as a clear victory. It simply doesn't exist. Even if you sever the head from the snake, the tail could whip you.

We might have taken down Isaac and his Mercury units at the power plant, dismembered the walker bots no longer able to receive commands from their master, and commandeered the War tech left behind, but we lost more than any machine could ever lose. There are the New Parkians, who lost their lives because of one man. Then there's Trisha Peterson and Ray, who got shot up during their clash with the Mercury Units, but survived to see another day. And, of course, Dan Vogel. My heart aches for Dan's wife and children. They will never hear his voice, never feel his arms around them, never see him smile again. He didn't have to put himself in the line of fire, but he did. He did it because he believed as we did: that freedom isn't free; it must be earned, and if necessary, paid in blood.

Then there's Blake.

What do I say about my Blake?

That he sacrificed himself foolishly, that he gave up his life so all of us could go on living? No. What makes sense is saying how he lived, how much love he had in his heart, how Liz and the others cared for him, and how I will miss him with each and every waking breath.

Now, if you ask me if there's a silver lining in any of this, I'll say yes.

It's simple, really.

It comes down to the people we love. The people we defend. The people who live in Potterville, and the ones who don't. The entire human race.

You see, Isaac had it wrong.

He never had the right to offer me my life or the life of any other human being. Our lives were ours all along. He couldn't understand the human spirit, and that was his downfall.

We are resilient and our own masters, and as long as we have a heartbeat, we'll never give up, never give in, and never bow before any machine.

And that's a fact.

The breeze whips up bits of grass and swirls them around the paddock, telling of a change in the weather. Little Mason and Maryann are busy playing hide-n-seek, and Sharon is by my side, watching the clouds gather and grow, turning the sky dark. The mares are restless, whinnying, perhaps sensing what we're feeling. There is hope nestled deep in my heart that Mason and his sister will never bear witness to the horrors of war. Life ain't fair, but as long as I draw breath, I won't let anything happen to them.

I wince from the pain in my leg as I lean against the fence. Sharon's eyes reflect concern. "It's nothing," I say.

"But it still hurts."

"Luke's the one with the broken arm. Sheila got banged up pretty good as well. I guess we all gave Dr. Roberts a scare when we got back."

"I just wish . . ." She wishes like we all do, that Blake were around so Dr. Roberts could figure out how to take that thing off his head.

My eyes travel to the barn for just a moment, then the field beyond, and a lonely oak tree about a quarter mile away. Under the tree's wide-sweeping branches is a set of family headstones--one for Sharon's husband and brother, another for my wife and son, and a new one I'd hewn just the other day with chisel and hammer, sweat and sorrow. A lean, gray stone for our Blake.

I sigh, the heavy kind that makes me put all my weight on the fence, as if I'm unable to hold myself upright. "It'll be all right."

Sharon's eyes brighten in a way I haven't seen in quite some time. "I'm so proud of him. His parents would have been proud, too. At least he had us, didn't he?"

"He sure did." I clamp down to keep the tears from rising up.

"I wanted to say goodbye, Jed." Sharon fights back her own tears with a tightening of her throat. "Is that selfish of me?"

"Of course not, and if he had more time, we would have."

Sharon nods. "At least he's at peace. I know he is. I'm sure he's watching over us and the kids right now, probably thinking we're silly talking all this nonsense." She smiles weakly and I smile back to comfort her.

Thunder booms, and the wind picks up.

I whiff the air. "Storm's a coming."

Sharon rests her head against my shoulder, but it's an uneasy rest. She's probably worried I'm about to gear up and take off again. Even though we sacked Isaac in Amarillo, there's no way to tell if he's still out there somewhere, in a different form. One side of me believes Blake stopped him, the other unsure.

"We'll be ready for it, won't we, Jed?"

It's a darned good question. Were any of us ready when Isaac attacked us the first time? I can tell she's afraid, but she's hopeful too, from the lift in her voice. Without hope, what's the point of living?

I kiss Sharon on the temple as the first fat drop of rain spatters us.

"Don't you worry," I say. "We'll be ready, and if something happens, we'll take care of it. Then we'll get back to watching these kids grow up."

"You promise?"

I hold her tight against me.

These kids are our tomorrow. Without them, there's no future. They're what we're fighting for--and, if necessary, dying for.

"You better believe it."

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