Hunts End: A Borderlands Tale Part 4

Chapter 20

Burgloth

Artemis

The lines stretched up, forming a maze of twisting paths that crossed the room, made worse by the machinery that surrounded her and stuck out of the wall in towering juts, making just getting to the lines a challenge. Thankfully she didn’t see any bots in the room, they probably either weren’t finished enough to be activated, or they weren’t powered up yet, but either way, it was a blessing for her and she’d take whatever ones she could get.

Still, she’d have to climb, there was no other way up, so she looked around, trying to find some way over to where the lines began or barring that, to one of the machines that stretched out to them.

She knew that she couldn’t go all the way to the floor, if she did that, she’d probably never be able to climb back up, there was a lack of climbable machinery there, that much she remembered from her first trip through the room.

She couldn’t get to the line she’d walked on when she’d arrived, that one was a ways away and she’d had to drop off of it onto a machine to get down and over to the door anyway, so she needed another one and had to hope that it would lead to a good endpoint.

Shrugging and deciding that one route would be as good as any, she jumped out and landed on the machine below her. Rolling up she sprinted as hard as she could to the edge and leaped into space, aiming for the control panel sticking out of the side of one of the machines.

Her fingers dug in and swung her into the side of the machine. Ignoring the stinging coming from her chest, she drug herself upwards, moving sideways when she needed, till she was on the flat top of the machinery and looked around. There were two lines she could get to from where she was, one coming out of the machine she was on and the other running past the far edge. Neither one had anything on them beyond a small frame that must have been the core of the bot, and they both twisted out of sight above her, but something told her not to take the nearest one. She wondered if it was some kind of masochistic thing, that she wanted to take the hardest path, but she dismissed that, in a situation like this, it was survivability that was paramount, and her survival instinct was telling her to go past the first one, so that’s what she did.

Once she’d jumped onto the line, she started climbing, which wasn’t all that hard at the moment, the links in the chain that hauled the bots around proved good hand and foot holds. The main difficulty was when the line started to meander. Up and down, left and right, those were doable, but when it started to go out, then she had difficulty. Not only did she lose her feet being able to help, but she had to climb, hand over hand, upward, angling towards the back wall.

The next issue she ran into was the machinery itself, which the line ran into so that the bots could be built. The first one was fine, there was enough space for her to climb though, but the next one had stopped with the machinery in the process of working, meaning there wasn’t any room for her, so she would’ve been forced to climb up and over it, except there weren’t any handholds.

Looking around, she eventually found a way, though it required her to throw herself at the next machine over and catch the handholds of the ladder that had been welded into the side. From there she saw a much easier path, the maintenance cage. Sure, she’d have to work around the machines, but if she climbed down a ways, she could get inside above the mess the tools had made and climb up the inside and then back out at the top, which would bypass almost the entire room.

So that’s what she did and when she got to the top, she sat on the side of the machine to rest for a moment. Wedging herself into a small gap, she dug out a canteen and took a swig. Just as she was putting it back, she started hearing gunfire from above.

‘Gaige must be waiting for me.’ She cursed in her mind the fact that she was taking so long. She started to pull herself out of her brake nook, when the building dropped another couple of feet.

Clinging to the machinery for dear life, she didn’t get thrown this time, but it was still terrifying, and not just because the ground dropped, nor that if she’d been at the wrong point, say in the middle of a jump, she’d have fallen. No, what worried her the most was that it seemed that the building wasn’t stable in its new position and would probably continue to tip until it fell all the way into whatever was below it, which meant she didn’t have time to be sitting around.

Climbing out, she scuttled across the top of the machine until she got to the nearest line and started climbing again, heading for the next room.

It didn’t take her all that long to get to the opening, though by this point the bots swinging next to her were getting worryingly close to completion, enough so that she wondered if they were going to start activating at any moment. Still, until they did, there was nothing she could do about it, or rather, that she should do about it, since attacking them might set them off and any gunfire would draw unwanted attention, so she kept climbing.

She paused as she entered the second assembling room, checking to make sure there weren’t any bots floating around, but it seemed that if there had been any there, they’d been drawn by the gunfire coming from above.

Tilting her head, Artemis could tell that Deathtrap must have met up with Gaige, since she could hear the familiar sound of his laser firing amongst all the other noises, which helped put her at ease, if Gaige wasn’t alone, then she’d probably be alright until Artemis could get there. It wasn’t like she didn’t trust her, it was just that there was only so much that one person could do alone and considering the number of bots that she was anticipating, it would be a challenge, to say the least, to face them alone.

Still, that didn’t give her any reason to not hurry to join them, so she jumped off the line and onto the floor, moving around to try and spot a good line that would take her where she wanted to go with the least amount of trouble. Unfortunately for her, the lines crossed over each other making it hard to follow, not to mention that they went through different machines, sometimes multiple lines entered the same machine making it all but impossible to tell which line went where, so rather than wasting any more time, she chose the best looking one for as far as she could see, jumped over to it and started climbing.

She was making good progress when the bot next to her lit up. Swearing, she knew that she’d been spotted so she scampered up the line as fast as she could as the bot started thrashing, attempting to free itself from the line that was still hooked into its back.

Before long the entire line was shaking as more and more bots woke, till the entire line was swaying dangerously. Then they started busting loose.

The first one snapped free from the line, which sent it careening into the next line over, smashing something vital and causing the entire line to start collapsing. Realizing the danger she was in, Artemis scrambled up the line with renewed effort as the rest of the bots started breaking free.

This time they didn’t all bust into things, though a fair number still did. The ones that survived breaking free, flew out a ways and then started targeting her, each one following the same pattern of flying out about ten feet as they broke loose, hovering for a second, turning to spot her and then flinging themselves at her.

It seemed there was no communication between them, because a number of them collided in midair, but the rest started throwing themselves at her, causing her to throw herself off the line and onto the nearest machine as they smashed the line.

She dashed across the top of the machine as the remaining bots slammed into it behind her and took a flying leap to catch the next line over.

Just like the last line, the bots on this one started coming alive almost as soon as she touched it.

She climbed as fast as she could, making her way past the activating bots, which seemed to power up the instant she was near them. She knew it was an illusion, but it seemed that her presence was waking them up, like some kind of nightmarish children’s story.

Not slowing down, she glanced upward and saw that she was more than half way up the room. Through the openings above her, she could see the room being illuminated with blasts of green light as well as the randomly flying caustic shots, telling her the fight was still well underway.

Continuing to climb even as the entire line shook from the bots trying to free themselves, she watched in horror as a number of the ones above spotted her and broke off their attacks on the other two and started diving at her. She really didn’t think that they had the level of programming needed to think, but it certainly felt like they were both going for the easier prey and trying to free their comrades to help.

Looking around for somewhere to fight, or at the very least, dodge, she realized that she was running out of lines to climb. Thankfully there were only a couple of bots flying towards her so she might be able to deal with them, when they suddenly exploded.

“Move your ass!” Gaige shouted down through one of the openings before turning her gun back on the swirling hoard above her and moved out of sight.

Artemis’s sense of relief was cut short when the entire line she was climbing started to tilt. Looking up, she quickly spotted what was wrong, between the thrashing bots attached to the line and the explosions, the line had broken off near the ceiling and was slowly peeling backwards.

Swearing she felt her legs leaving the line and gave up on keeping them secure as she started to swing with all the force she could muster. Letting go at the last second, she threw herself at one of the last remaining lines, but she was too far away.

Her hands slid past the central bar, flailing at the air only to latch onto the bot hanging below. Fingers digging into the joints she managed to stop herself from falling, but found herself face to face with the bot as its core powered up.

Driving her Digi-blade into its head, the lights went out and she used it to provide leverage to climb up to the line, even as the rest of the bots started to activate.

Gaige and Deathtrap

Never having been one for stealth, Gaige was unsure of how to go about a fight against such overwhelming odds. It wasn’t that she was any form of coward, but even she knew that she couldn’t handle such a fleet alone, not to mention that she was in a bit of a precarious spot, sitting in the doorway halfway up the room, so she decided to take it with a bit more caution than she liked.

She supposed that the best move would be to wait until either of the others showed up, but while she could wait for Deathtrap, Artemis would be entering the room from below, directly under where the hoard was floating and there was no way they’d miss her arriving, so she needed some kind of cover.

Gaige thought about it, maybe she could wait and when they started to move, she could open fire, but quickly dismissed that idea, if she waited that long, most of them would probably stay on Artemis, who would be in a much more precarious position as she climbed.

So, without any better ideas, she started to look for a way down, if she could at least get to the ground level before being spotted, she could engage them in a running fight, she’d just have to be careful of all the junk strewn about, not to mention the openings in the floor where the assembly lines ended.

Unfortunately, unlike the receiving room, there weren’t shelves directly below her, instead there had been crates, which had been smashed by the falling junk that had been on the shelves that were still attached to the wall above her. Again, she wished she’d followed Artemis’s example and started carrying a cable, but since she hadn’t, she looked around, wondering if there was something she could use to help get her down.

She couldn’t see anything, not even with her ability to jury-rig things. She supposed she might be able to go back and dig through the piles of trash in the previous room, see if there was something, like a spool of heavy wire, but the chances of that were slim, so she kept looking around the room. She wondered if enough of the bots charged her if she could either catch one and steer it, or move down them using their bodies as makeshift stairs, like she’d see in a movie, but really only entertained the thought to cheer herself up for a second.

Getting back to the problem at hand, she was startled to the point of losing her balance when a sudden “Ugur” whispered next to her.

Her arms pinwheeled in the air as she fought in vain to keep her balance and just as she started to fall, she felt a familiar hand grip her leg. She floated down to the ground and was gently set down in the receiving room.

“Babe?” She whispered, looking around with a hand on her chest, trying to keep her heart from attempting to exit it.

“Urgurr” Came the reply from seeming empty space.

“Damn it, I’ve been telling Artemis to stop doing that and now you’re joining it?” She snapped, a little harder than she’d meant.

“Ugrrg” Came the confused reply.

“What do ya mean, I was ignoring you? How was I supposed to tell you were there? You’re still invisible, you big dummy.”

She heard the sound of a hand smacking the other and could envision him hitting his fist onto his palm as he realized that and a second later he shimmered back into sight, looking a bit contrite as he made an apologetic “Uurrr”

“It’s OK babe, it just scared the bejeezus outta me is all.”

“Uggurr”

“Yeah, you’re right, that’s probably why the bots weren’t attacking you, I knew I was forgettin something. So, once my heart-rate’s back to normal, you wanna carry me over there and we can get started on clearing out the shipping room while we wait for our slow-ass friend to join us, I mean, she’s got to be getting close by this point.”

“Urru”

“Great, but can you turn invisible again after you’ve picked me up, it’s a little weird otherwise?”

He nodded to her and scooped her up before flickering out of sight again. Despite what she’d said, it was still awfully weird to be floating like this, she could feel his solid frame and arms, but to her eyes it was like she was floating by herself, or maybe a ghost was carrying her.

As they flew up, she was suddenly struck by the weirdest sensation that the room around them dropped suddenly, like they’d suddenly shot up a foot. Looking around, she spotted the junk on the floor shifting around and turned back to Deathtrap.

“Did the building just shift again?” She asked, realizing she was talking to empty space, which made her feel ridiculous.

“Urru” He responded, agreeing that the room had indeed dropped a foot or so.

Turning away so she wouldn’t be weirded out by her friend, she prepped her SMG and nodded for him to start. He might have nodded back, but since she couldn’t see it, she flinched a little when he took off, flying them up and through the open door leading back to the shipping department.

This time the bots noticed her flying through the air at them and started swarming upwards, only to be met by the combination of her SMG fire and Deathtrap’s caustic laser.

He made short work of them as he set her down gently on the floor before taking off again, firing scything attacks through their ranks. With the density of the bots, his attacks were devastating, downing handfuls with each attack.

For her part, Gaige ran, firing away at them, easily downing them with her shots. She still didn’t have enough Anarchy to make much of a difference, but she could feel it bubbling up inside her as a pleasantly warped sensation, a gleeful rejection of reality and a way to shut off her brain. The more Anarchy she had, the more things made a demented kind of sense, she didn’t need to think about the world, her want of a drink, her questions about herself, where her and Artemis were going, all that mattered was the moment, the universe could suck it, so she let herself go, willing to get drunk on something other than alcohol.

“Suck it Holloway bots, stealing my design just to make such an inferior knockoff.” She grumbled “Me and my robot are gonna bitch slap you back into the scrap pile, cause we’re awesomer.”

She danced around them as they tried to dive-bomb her, while she didn’t have Deathtrap’s maneuverability, nor Artemis’s ridiculous agility, she wasn’t bad herself. Each one that smashed into the ground was another one she didn’t have to deal with, her only regret was that she wasn’t getting any stacks for them, but that didn’t matter at the moment, all that did was clearing out the room and waiting for the slow-poke to get here.

“Where is that girl anyway?” She grumbled, trying to look down one of the openings as she fought. Even though her ears weren’t up to Artemis’s level, she swore she could hear sounds of fighting coming from below, but she couldn’t see anything.

Just as she thought that, she suddenly saw one of the lines break and fall across the room, bots flailing as they were drug down by the attachments in their backs.

“What the hey is goin on down there?” She nearly stopped to try and see and was only saved by a caustic laser frying the two bots that were diving at her.

“Urgurr” Came a rather curt chastisement from somewhere above.

“Sorry.” She called back, firing the rest of her clip into the swirling hoard.

Slapping a new clip in, she was grateful that the bots weren’t all attacking at once, if the entire room of them had dove at her, she wouldn’t have been able to deal with it. She supposed her only choice would’ve been to dive through one of the holes in the floor and pray. But so far, she hadn’t needed to since they were diving from the outside of the swarm, while the rest of them kept circling. She wondered if it was that some of them couldn’t see her or if there was something in their programming that prevented them from charging all at once, maybe something to try and reserve some for other attackers or to prevent them from colliding in air. Or if it was that they were just badly programmed, which wouldn’t surprise her, after all, these were Holloway Robotics products.

She watched as the bots melted, reloading as necessary and continuing to wonder where the heck Artemis was, she should’ve been there by then. As if in response to her thought, a couple of bots suddenly dove through one of the holes in the floor.

Cursing, she dashed over to make sure that Artemis was alright. It wasn’t that she didn’t have faith in the other girl, but if she was climbing, that might make it hard to defend herself. Spotting the bots diving she opened fire, watching them explode and crash into the machinery.

Spotting Artemis curled against the assembly line, Gaige felt annoyed that she was still a ways away, so she shouted down at her “Move your ass!”

Turning away before the other girl could respond, Gaige went back to firing at the thinning mass of bots above her, a number of which had taken her lack of attention as an invite to attack, forcing her to roll to the side as they slammed into the ground.

A second after they destroyed themselves, she heard the sound of metal tearing loose and falling from somewhere below her. Hoping that Artemis was alright since she wasn’t able to go investigate with the bots seeming to be getting more and more worked up, Gaige was having to spend more of her time dodging around the impacting bots then she was firing. That’s not to say she wasn’t shooting back, she could do both at the same time thanks to her bouncing Anarchy ladened bullets, but she still preferred to aim at least a little bit, to try and get the most power out of the shots that she could and only have them bounce once they were charged up a bit more.

Still, she had no other option but to continue firing as she waited on Artemis to climb her way up. She was getting ready to just yell at Deathtrap to go grab her and get them outta there, when the floor fell out from under her.

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Chapter 21

Burgloth

Artemis was climbing as fast as she could, stabbing the bots as they activated next to her, when the building fell again, dropping a good number of feet, but this time, she felt her hand pop off of the line. Flailing futilely as she tried to grab anything, she realized in horror that the line was angling away from her, meaning there wouldn’t be anything for her to grab, not for a long way even as she tipped backwards and fell.

She shut her eyes in anticipation for the end, but instead of feeling her head crumple, she felt her ankle wrench in pain.

Cracking one eye open, she found herself floating, suspended by thin air. Her mind whirled as she tried to figure out what the heck was happening, it wasn’t like she’d suddenly developed super powers, nor were there any bizarre fields of energy in the factory, so she couldn’t figure out what was going on. And then she started to rise at a rapid rate.

Hearing the soft sounds of robotics, combined with the smell of oil, machinery and something unique to him, she figured out what was going on and to confirm it she asked “Buddy? That you?”

“Urru” Came out of the space above her, followed by a slightly disappointed sounding “Urugur”

“Sorry, but you’re still invisible, so it took me a moment. Thanks. For the save and all, whoops, hold that thought” She stopped smiling up at the invisible death-machine as they passed through the opening in the ceiling and the bots flying around started throwing themselves at her. This time, she brought her own SMG up and opened fire, tracing the caustic shots through the mass.

Gaige watched as her friend floated upward, one leg straight up, her other curled against it as she opened fire on the bots that were starting to attack. For a split-second she couldn’t figure out what was happening, but she realized that Deathtrap was hard at work again.

“Well, you certainly took your sweet time.” She called out, a little bitterness detectable underneath her tone, which she winced internally about.

“Next time, you climb up the machinery while the bots are activating and attacking and see how well you do.” Came the snippish reply.

“Oh, so you were down there playing around like a Jabber while we were up here takin care of business?”

“Whatever, we can discuss all the ways I’m a disappointment later, for now, can we get going, I’ve made you two wait long enough.”

Gaige winced at that, she hadn’t meant it to sound like an attack, she’d hoped to lighten the mood and not show that she’d been concerned about the other girl, instead, she’d only given her more reason to retreat into her insecurity.

“That’s not what I…forget it, you’re right, we will discuss this later, right now, we’ve got to deal with this problem.” She said, firing into the shrinking mass of bots, missing the other girl’s face slack in dejection as she thought that Gaige was agreeing with her and that they were going to address all the ways she was a screw up, something that only Deathtrap caught.

He was getting tired of this cycle, Gaige would always say something that was fairly innocent or she would get a little cranky and snap, only for Artemis to take it seriously and wallow in her lack of self-esteem until Gaige actually did get mad and snap at her, usually with a threat of violence if she didn’t snap out of her stupidity, only to then have to spend way more energy trying to convince Artemis that she was fine and that there was nothing wrong with her, which just wore Gaige out and made her want a drink, which she’d deny herself, but it would make her cranky again, so she’d snap and say something stupid to start the whole cycle over again.

He knew that he needed to do something to break the chain, but he couldn’t figure out what. If he could, he would’ve done it a long time ago, but it didn’t seem to sink into either of them that Artemis always took things wrong and Gaige didn’t say what she meant. He knew they were both trying to get over it, but neither one really seemed to believe they could, so they didn’t really try as hard as they needed to, while he was stuck watching them go around and around, wondering if one of them was going to get sick of it and shut the other one out.

He hoped not, for all of his grievances with them, he did like them both and thought they were good together. But he also knew that until things were figured out, they wouldn’t be good for each other, and once they’d gotten to that point, he wondered where things would go.

But that was neither here nor there, so he put that off and continued firing at the bots that were attempting to swarm over them, when he heard a voice from below him.

“Uh, as much fun as this is, maybe we should be getting outta here.” Artemis said, still hanging by her ankle “I mean, I don’t think this place is gonna hold much longer.”

Deathtrap realized what she was meaning, the room had shaken a bit and was now at a noticeable angle, with most of the trash having slid to one side of the room.

“You know, you might be right.” Gaige said. She was still able to stand, but it was getting a little more challenging. “Babe, I think we’re gonna need an extraction.”

Deathtrap sighed again, he knew it was coming, but he still didn’t like having to save everyone. It had nothing to do with his dignity, he had no problem carrying the girls and it certainly had nothing to do with their weight, even with all their gear, they weren’t heavy. It had to do with the lack of planning that it seemed to entail, not that this time wasn’t a special occasion, after all, who could’ve predicted that the entire building would be falling over? But it was a form of a bad habit that he wished they would break.

Still, this wasn’t the time to worry about that, so he dove down, almost braining Artemis on the floor as he did, having forgotten that she was hanging upside down. Burbling an apology to her, he set her down and waited for her to right herself, before making sure the girls were ready and then scooping them up, one in each arm.

Once they were settled and firing away at the remaining bots, he took off, focusing on clearing the doors and leaving the defenses to them.

He half expected the entire place to finish falling into the abyss as they were making their escape, but real life wasn’t like a movie, so nothing happened except the bots milling about outside started charging the girls as soon as they could be seen.

He flew them over to the village, and after making sure that the ground was stable, or at least not cracked, set them down and turned his attention to the bots that were giving chase.

It didn’t take long between the three of them to clear them out.

In the shelter of one of the buildings, they took a moment to restock and go over what had happened, as well as what they’d learned.

“So that’s what happened.” Gaige said as Artemis finished her stilted and slightly off kilter storytelling of what she’d been though “Sorry that I wasn’t more sympathetic back there, I should’ve realized that you were coming as fast as you could.”

Artemis just shrugged as if to say ‘You had no way of knowing’, which bothered Gaige for some reason, but she clamped down on it and let it slide.

“So now what?” Artemis finally asked, before taking a bite out of a sandwich she’d dug out of her bag.

“What do you mean?”

“I mmn whu ohh wa ooh neft?” She said around a mouthful of food.

“What?”

Artemis swallowed and tried again “I said, what do we do next? I mean, after we get off the planet.”

“Oh, well, we did find a new destination, didn’t we?”

“You mean Apate 3?”

“Yeah, that’s what it was, where Holloway sent the bots to be worked on.”

“But considering that this was a trap, wouldn’t that one be as well?”

“Maybe, or they could’ve left thinking we’d be killed.”

“In that pathetic of an attack?”

“Hey, first off, you nearly died, didn’t you? And second, if Deathtrap hadn’t been outside and taken out some of the bots and the supports, neither of us might’ve survived, so it wasn’t all that pathetic, now was it?”

“Its effectiveness isn’t a measure of if it was pathetic or not. I mean, if you die of, oh I donno, a blood-clot created in a freak accident when you stub your toe or if you step on a scrap of metal and get a lethal infection or you choke on your burger, those would all be embarrassing ways to go, but you’d still be dead wouldn’t you?”

“Well, yeah.”

“My point is, does a trap like this really feel like Holloway was expecting it to kill us? Or was this some kind of, uh, ruse to get us to keep following his trail of traps until one of them succeeds?”

“Alright, point, but do you have a different plan? Cause I’d love to hear it.”

“Well, no. Not right now.”

“Right, so we don’t have any other choice but to keep following the trail of traps. And for the record, I think you’re right, this didn’t feel like it was supposed to get us, more like, if it did, that would be great, but if not, it would send us to the next point.”

“That’s what I said.”

“And I was agreeing with you.”

“Oh, OK.”

“Yeesh. Learn how to take a compliment, would you.”

“Oh, sorry. I suppose now would be as good a time as any, not that I wanna, but I wanna get it outta the way, so say it.”

“Say what?”

“What you were going to say before, about how much of a disappointment I am.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Back in the, um, shipping area, you said we’d talk about it later and, well, I’d rather just get it over with.”

“No, seriously, what are you talking about? I never said I wanted to talk about you being a disappointment. I never even thought it, so where’s this coming from?”

“Urrugr”

“Oh that? I was gonna tell her off for going into that self-destructive crap again, that’s all. Wait, you actually thought I was gonna have a list of ways you’re a disappointment? Well, I’ve only got one, and here it is, it’s that you’re still spouting that crap. I mean seriously, you know that I like you, that I think highly of you, so why do you still act like I’m just playing with you?”

“Cause I know that I’m not, well, I don’t deserve your kindness.”

SMACK. Artemis staggered as Gaige slapped her. “Enough of that! Get. It. Through. Your. Head. You. Are. Not. Worthless. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be showered with kindness. What’s it going to take to get that through your thick skull? I mean, at this rate, no matter what I choose down the road when I finally figure out what I really want, you’re going to not believe me and undoubtedly take it the wrong way, or twist it into something that it’s not. Do you have any idea of how frustrating that is?”

“Sorry.”

“Stop being sorry! Start trying to accept it. I know it’s not easy. I really, really do. Do you think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think about some of the things I’ve said to you? That I don’t feel worthless for them? Or the way I’ve been? The, well I guess I need to keep saying it, the addiction I have for booze? You think that I don’t feel like crap knowing the hold that has over me? The way I let an inanimate object control my life and not just that, but nearly destroy it? So, I understand the disbelief that you have that anyone would see you as anything other than a tainted monster, but you’re not, and if you can be something else, then maybe there’s hope for me. And if there’s hope for me, then there’s hope for you, so get it through your head, I’m not disappointed in you, I don’t dislike you, quite the opposite actually. Remember that. Think about how what you’re saying makes me feel and I’ll try and do the same. Oh, and don’t just smoosh the feelings down and let them fester deep down either, when I say to get over them, I mean it. Got it?”

Artemis nodded, holding her cheek. But something made Gaige suspect that she hadn’t gotten through. Turning to Deathtrap she got a look from him that said she’d done the right thing and that he’d help, but that he didn’t think it had sunk in yet either.

“Anyway, let’s finish up here and get going.”

They finished their meal in silence and after checking to make sure the coast was clear, started out. They’d made it to the edge of town when a titanic crashing came from behind them and the ground bucked wildly underneath them, knocking them both to the ground.

Spinning around they were hit by a wave of ice particles thrown at them in a stinging white cloud. Both of them would’ve been blinded if not for the goggles they were still wearing, but the small shards stung and bit at any bit of flesh they could get at and both girls felt small cuts stinging across their skin.

As the cloud was dissipating, they continued to hear deep cracking noises that sent Artemis’s skin crawling. She knew those sounds, she’d heard them before, they were the sounds of the ice giving way.

Soon enough the cloud cleared enough for them to make out what had happened, the factory was gone, it had finished falling into the abyss, taking a good chunk of the area around it with it, including the edge of the village.

“See, this is what happens when you talk about my…issues.” Artemis grumbled, watching as one of the buildings tipped and vanished into the pit.

“Seriously?” Gaige asked, turning to her. She’d been hoping that the girl was joking, but the look on her face told her what she’d been afraid of, that she was being serious. “I thought you understood that that was just a superstition and nothing more.”

“You have your beliefs and I have mine.”

Gaige wanted to tear her hair out, after all the work she’d done, trying to convince her friend that these things weren’t her fault, not to mention all the thought she’d put into figuring herself out, it all seemed to be for nothing if Artemis couldn’t get it through her head that she was fine the way she was.

“So, let me get this straight.” Gaige snapped at her “Your being gay and liking girls somehow caused that building to wait until we were out of it and then to collapse?”

“Don’t say that, it’ll just make things worse.”

“Rrrggg.” Gaige said, giving in and tugging her hair “You like girls. You’re a lesbian.” She paused and looked around. “And nothing happened because of it, other than you making yourself live a painfully lonely life.”

Artemis had gone pale, nearly quaking in her boots as she looked around as if she was waiting for disaster to fall from the heavens and smite everyone around her, which Gaige realized was pretty much what she was doing.

“Nothing. Why? Because you don’t have that kind of power, that’s why. What do you think you are? Some kind of masochistic super hero?”

“Oh, but if I say it’s too quiet, then I do have that power?”

“No, but I will concede that whenever someone says that it does seem to proceed a negative occurrence, but like you’ve pointed out, that’s probably because I’m looking for it.”

“And what? You’re suggesting that all my misfortune is just a coincidence? That my condition has nothing to do with it?”

“Damn right that’s what I’m sayin, after all, how many times have I mentioned it in passing, that I’m considering it, that I’ve mentioned something about it to you and nothing happened? You only think you’re suffering from misfortune because you think there’s a connection to you liking girls.”

“Stop saying that!”

“No, not until you realize it’s not a negative.”

“Well it’s never been a positive.”

“That’s cause it’s not good or bad, it’s just part of who you are. Maybe where you’re from it’s not considered a positive, but you left there, didn’t you? And have you ever been back?”

“No.”

“And after seeing the rest of the galaxies, do you think they were right? I mean, really think that? Or are you holding onto something because it hurts and that at least lets you know you’re alive?”

“What the heck does that even mean?”

“It means that you think you have to suffer to feel alive, that you think that’s all life is, that you think that pain is normal and that denying yourself makes you feel alive because if you can feel sorrow and pain, it means that you can still feel something, anything at all.”

“And you really think that of me? That I’m that pathetic?”

“Sometimes.”

“And why the heck would you think that?”

“Because you’ve never once complained about how bad I treat you.”

“I have too.”

“Only when I really hurt you emotionally.”

“So I have too complained.”

“But never about the pain, the broken bones and bruises, the cuts and crap I’ve put you through, I mean, how many times have you been on death’s door thanks to me? How many times have I made you do something horrid and how many times have you complained about it? I’ve lost count of the times you’ve been hurt because of me, and now it’s happening again. I mean, you nearly died back there.”

Artemis’s retort died in her throat as she realized what this was all about, or rather what it had shifted into. It was about Gaige feeling guilty. Feeling that it was all her fault for decisions that weren’t hers to make. It was about her blaming herself for everything that happened around her.

Artemis didn’t know how to say it, to tell her that things weren’t her fault, that she was doing what she thought was right and that her being injured because of it was her choice, that it wasn’t Gaige’s fault, that this was alright, even if she was becoming as broken on the outside as she was within, it was her choice and she was happy to make it.

“Is that what you think?” She snapped out, knowing the instant she started two things were going to happen, one, she’d never word it right and two, she wasn’t going to be able to stop once she’d gotten started “That I can’t make my own choice? That I can’t be responsible for what I do? Do you really think that I’m so pathetic that I can’t even make up my own mind? And who cares if I get a few bumps and bruises? They heal. If it allows me to do something for you, I’m happy to do it. And if I become too ugly to stand, then you don’t need to feel indebted to me because of it, I’m just gonna be reflecting what I really am on the outside.”

Gaige held up her hand to slap her, a look of anger and supreme sadness etched into her face. Artemis was surprised to see tears in the other girls’ eyes and the choking emotion in her voice as she managed to get out “Don’t ever say that. That’s not who you are inside. You might be a little broken and a little messed up, but I’ve never met anyone that isn’t. We’re all a bit damaged in this universe, you no more than me, but when I look at you, I don’t see a scarred-up mess. I don’t see this pathetic monster you pretend to be, I just see a beautiful girl who’s lost.”

Artemis looked at her, like she was talking to a crazy person. So Gaige continued “And you’ve suffered more than a few bumps and bruises traveling with me, I mean, you lost how many ribs? Not to mention getting skewered on an Outrunner part, shot, strangled, had your arm almost cut off, nearly got ate by an Orochi, plus who knows how many more things like that. So don’t give me this ‘It’s all fine’ crap, it’s not fine, it’s awful.”

“And it’s my choice. I don’t care about any of that…”

“But I do, jeez, how do you think it makes me feel, seeing you get beaten up over and over? How do you think it makes me feel to have you say that it doesn’t matter? I’ll give you a clue, it makes me feel awful, like I’m the monster for making you do these things and letting you think that it’s alright.”

“It is alright, and you’re not the monster here, I am.”

“No, you’re not. You’re just confused.”

“Why is it that when you say crap like that, I’m supposed to agree, but you get to argue with me when I say it?”

“Because I’m right.”

“No, you’re not, you just think you are.”

Gaige paused, she knew in this case she was right, but how to prove it? And was Artemis right? Did she just think she was right because she thought so? No, in this case, Artemis was wrong, there really wasn’t any other way to look at it, but she was also right, it wasn’t fair for Gaige to force her views onto her, but she still knew that she needed to change the other girls’ mindset.

“You’re right, it is because I think I’m right. That doesn’t mean that I’m wrong though, you aren’t a monster any more than I am, no matter how we feel sometimes. But you need to learn to accept the fact that I like you as you are and if you think of yourself as a monster, then what’s that say about me?”

“If you liked me as I am, you wouldn’t be trying to convince me that I’m not a monster.”

Gaige nearly screamed again, but suddenly she had a thought “It’s alright to like someone the way they are and try and change them in certain cases, after all, you tried to change me, didn’t you?”

“Wha?”

“When we met, you tried to help me out and change me, you remember, you tried to get me to remember who I was, to stop denying myself, to stop drinking. You tried to change me and succeeded, so now it’s my turn to try and return the favor.”

“I wasn’t trying to change you, I was trying to help you realize where you’d went wrong.”

“And that’s all I’m trying to do with you, to make you realize that you’re not happy, that until you accept yourself, and I mean really accept yourself, you will never be truly happy.”

“But this is good enough.”

“No, it’s not, cause I can’t be truly happy until you are.”

“That’s low.”

“But true. So you need to figure out what you want, to keep languishing in your self-pity, or to try and make yourself truly happy.”

“Urgurr”

They both looked over at him for a second before Gaige nodded and added “He’s right, you can figure that out later, when we’re not freezing our butts off.”

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Chapter 22

Burgloth

They trudged through the snow, Artemis in front again, but this time she was glad of it. Glad that she didn’t have to deal with Gaige right then and all the junk she’d spouted at her. ‘Where does she get the nerve to say that to me?’ She wondered ‘It’s not like I want to hate myself, it’s just that I don’t deserve to be happy, a monster never can change what it is. Still, I wish she’d stop laying things like that on me, I mean, of course I want her to be happy, but to tie that to me is unforgivable, she could have just about anybody in the Galaxy and I can’t even tell someone I like them for fear of rejection.’ She paused, that wasn’t right, she wasn’t afraid of rejection, she was afraid of bringing ruin on them, so why wasn’t that the first thing that she thought of? Was Gaige getting under her skin to the point that she was losing herself? No, that wasn’t it. Was it that she was starting to worry more about getting hurt again if she opened herself up then about bringing destruction down upon them? That seemed ridiculous, but it struck a chord in her, like that was right. And that made her sad. How could she be that greedy? People like her didn’t end up happy, they weren’t even people, they were just monsters in a human skin, pretending to fit in with those around them.

It wasn’t that she was forgetting couples like Sir Hammerlock and Wainwright Jakobs, but they were different from her, though she couldn’t have explained why, it was just that they were and that’s why they weren’t afflicted by the same curse that she was.

She wished she could articulate it, find some way of letting Gaige know that no matter what she said, it wasn’t going to change anything, no matter how much Artemis wanted it to. She wanted nothing more than to be able to express herself, her real self, to be able to say all the things that were deep down inside her, but she knew she couldn’t. This time it wasn’t just the fear of bringing ruin down, this time it was a much simpler thing, she didn’t want to lose what she had.

That was it, just the basic desire for things to stay the same, because if things stayed the same, she wouldn’t have to lose anything else. She wouldn’t have to be alone again.

She’d never admit it, not even to herself, but now that she’d traveled with someone, had someone to call a friend, felt their warmth near her as she fell asleep and had someone to watch her back when she went out, she couldn’t imagine being alone again. The thought terrified her so much, that she couldn’t even think about it, let alone talk about it.

So whenever Gaige got onto her like this, she withdrew. The fear of losing what she had swelled up as an unknown emotion in her, choking her and making her hate herself even more.

She knew that the day was coming when it would happen, she’d pretended that she was alright with it over the trip, but the more times it had happened, the more times she’d tried to convince herself that she was alright with it, the harder it became.

If she’d been conscious of the feelings, she might have been able to articulate them, to at least talk to Deathtrap about it, but since she was only aware of the vague unease, there was nothing she could do except what she’d always done, retreat into herself.

So she trudged through the snow, wordlessly. Lost in thought.

Behind her Gaige was similarly lost in thought, but in her case, it was for different reasons. She was kicking herself, she knew how fragile Artemis’s mental state was, how sensitive about her sexuality and how afraid of it she was, so why had Gaige taken the bait when she’d mentioned it? Why hadn’t she just let it go?

The reason was simple, because she herself was struggling with her feelings for the other girl. She liked her, but did she like her in that way? And if she did, what should she do about it?

With all the struggling she was going through, she didn’t want it to be in vain if she did come to the conclusion that she really did want that kind of a relationship with the other girl. After all, it would be terrible if she finally decided that she liked her, only for Artemis to reject having any form of relationship with her. And besides that, even if Gaige decided against it, she still wanted Artemis to find someone to make her happy.

As she walked, that last part stuck with her. Did she really want that? Of course she did, she told herself repeatedly. So why was it that when she thought of Artemis with another girl, either someone like A.I.ngel or some faceless girl, some part of her twisted? Was it that she didn’t want anyone else getting close to her? Or was it that she didn’t want the way things were to be disrupted? She wanted to believe it was the latter, but for some reason, she just couldn’t fully convince herself of that any more than she could accept that she wanted a relationship with another girl. It was possible, but just didn’t feel right to her, though she supposed it was just something that she didn’t want to. But she knew that she’d have to figure herself out at some point in the near future and trudging through this snowfield seemed as good a place as any to try and work things out.

As for Deathtrap, he was so tired of all this that he couldn’t work up the ability to care anymore, this was something they needed to work out for themselves. Did he want them to figure it out? Of course he did, at least that’s what he told himself, though some part of him was worried that they would come to a decision and that it wouldn’t work out and another part of him was worried that they never would and that things would continue like this forever. Neither one was appealing, but he was already sticking his crystal in as often as he could, any more than that and he might as well just tell them how to act, and that was something that even he didn’t know. So rather than beat his head against the wall, he just resolved to support them from a distance and stay out of the way unless things got really out of hand. So, he trailed along after them, enjoying the peace and quiet.

They’d trudged a fair ways from the factory when the wind started to rise, picking up small shards of snow and ice and whipping it at them, forcing the girls to bend into it as they tried to continue forward.

Despite the heavy jacket with its hood up and the scarf and goggles over her face, Gaige was freezing. Each bit of exposed skin was being pelted with ice and despite that, she could feel her shirt clinging to her with sweat, which would instantly freeze each time a gust of wind hit her wrong, blasting through some small opening and swirling around her, stealing her heat.

‘This can’t continue.’ She thought, looking around. Off to one side she spotted a dark splotch in the snow, a cave opening and though she was aware that it might be occupied, she decided that she’d rather take that fight then freeze to death out here, so she pushed her way forward to catch up to Artemis.

“We’ve gotta stop.” She yelled over the wind “Why don’t we take shelter in that cave for a bit?”

Artemis didn’t even look the direction she was pointing, instead she flatly rejected Gaige with a simple “No.”

“Why not? I’m freezing my butt off out here and I can’t feel my toes. We need to find shelter to warm up.”

Artemis shook her head, continuing to march forward “We need to keep going.”

“I can’t.” Gaige knew she was whining, but didn’t care, there was shelter from the wind right over there, it wasn’t that far away. She stopped and looked at the cave, the swirling snow playing tricks on her eyes, making the cave appear closer than before. “I need to rest, let’s head for the cave.”

“No.”

“Why not.” She snapped.

“Cause there’s no caves around here.”

“What’re you talkin about, there’s one right there.”

“That’s not a cave.”

Gaige stopped and looked at it again. The snow continued to play tricks on her as the cave seemed larger than before, the black hole easy to spot against the bright white background.

“Uh, if that’s not a cave, then what is it?”

“It’s a Barghast. I told you about them earlier, remember?”

“Um…” Gaige thought back, trying to dredge up the memory. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but she was too cold to think much.

Artemis sighed “Figures you weren’t listening to me, wouldn’t be the first time, not that I blame you, I know I’m not pleasant to talk to.” She muttered before speaking up “The Barghast is the local version of the Wolven. It secretes a substance that absorbs the light. And that one’s trying to decide if it should attack us, get the rest of its pack or leave us be.”

Gaige looked back at the creature. It still looked like a shadow to her, but as she watched, she thought she saw it move, though that might have been the wind throwing the snow around. She glanced back at Deathtrap for confirmation and he nodded, telling her that it was in fact a creature, not that she’d doubted Artemis, it was just a bit weird was all.

“So how do we make it not want to attack?” She yelled back up.

“Well, if it wasn’t so damn windy, we could just shoot it, other than that, the usual things apply, acting big and intimidating or smelling like a predator. I was hoping that they wouldn’t come near us since we shouldn’t smell too familiar to it, but it looks like they’re probably used to people from the towns.”

“So what? We should have Deathtrap charge it?”

“That might work, but I was going to let it get in close before doing anything, so try not to spread us out too much.”

“Good plan.”

Artemis didn’t respond, she couldn’t tell if Gaige was being serious or sarcastic. While she was thinking about it, she noticed the wind dying down, as if they’d entered the lee of something. Looking around, she spotted what was giving them the windbreak and paled.

Gaige was sighing, the snow that was pelting her had died down, which was a good thing. Right as she thought that, Artemis tensely stated “Not good.”

“Oh, now what.” She snapped without thinking about it.

“We got too close. I wasn’t able to see them with all the wind.”

Artemis was sounding a bit panicked, which confused Gaige. Looking around she spotted the large icicles jutting out of the ground looming near them. For a second she couldn’t figure out why Artemis was acting up, but then she remembered their conversation on the way in, something about at least one of them being alive or something.

It was clear from the way she was acting that Artemis was worried, turning them sharply away from the icicles and doubling her speed till she was almost running, which in turn made Gaige feel a cold disconcerting sensation run down her spine, a sense of impending doom that she remembered clearly from her Vault hunting days, so she joined with hustling along.

They’d made it a short ways away, keeping an eye on both the icicles and the Barghast, when a flat cracking noise echoed out. As Gaige turned to look, she heard Artemis start muttering “Oh crap, oh crapohcrapohcrap”.

Scanning the area, Gaige didn’t initially see what had made the noise, but she quickly found the icicle that was moving. Some part of her mind wondered at it, how much strength would be required to lift something like that, how much of it was ice, what had made the other icicles?

All of that flew out of her head as the Crystal Strider stood up. Its body was encased in a massive block of ice that rose to a point dozens of feet above them. On one side, a chunk seemed to have broken off, but she quickly realized that it was the creature’s head. It stuck out under a small lip of ice and turned to scan the area. She could see its multiple eyes arranged around it, hard dark things that reminded her of blackened ice, or dark gems, set into almond shaped pits that appeared to have been chipped out of its head. At first she didn’t see its mouth, but then the bottom part of its head split open and it flexed its mandibles. The ice sheaths that covered its actual mouth trailed icicles beneath it as they hinged open, revealing the writhing tentacle like mandibles, each one covered in a hard looking chitin-like substance as they twitched and curled, flexing like they were tasting the air. Watching them, Gaige thought of worms, hard shelled worms, quite unlike the mouths of the Varkids she’d hunted on Pandora.

Then the creature stood up, its long thin legs unfolding from beneath it, nearly doubling its height.

Gaige felt the panic slip in and out of her, her first thought was one of horror, but then the old Vault Hunter part of her kicked the fear out and calmed her down, if it attacked her, she’d just have to kill it, that’s all there was to it. It wasn’t the biggest thing she’d ever fought and she was sure it wasn’t the strongest, so she’d kill it if she had to.

As she tensed up to go for her gun, Artemis hissed out “Don’t move.”

Gaige froze, turning only her eyes to see that the other girl was in the snow. It seemed that she’d dropped down as soon as she’d sensed it standing up, covering herself in snow as some form of camouflage. Gaige looked at all the snow she’d piled on and felt cold for her.

The Crystal Strider turned slowly, scanning the area. The Barghast had turned and fled as soon as the Crystal Strider had emerged and had gotten a fair ways away, but that didn’t matter to the Crystal Strider, it just took a few steps, each one seemed painfully slow to Gaige’s eyes, but before she knew it the creature had caught up to the fleeing Barghast and sank low, undulating it’s mandibles. Gaige couldn’t see what happened next, but the sound the Barghast made froze her worse than the temperature had.

Seeming to be satisfied with its meal, the Crystal Strider took one last look around, trying to see if it had missed any prey and once it was satisfied that it hadn’t, curled it’s legs under it and sat down in the snow, burying itself and resuming its icicle camouflage.

“Can we get outta here?” Gaige hissed.

“Yep.” Artemis answered, her head popping out of the snow and after making sure the icicle was done, pulled herself out of the snow and shook it off as best she could.

They headed out as fast as they could, keeping quiet until they were a ways away, but eventually Gaige had to ask something that had been running through the back of her mind.

“So, uh, that thing back there.”

“The Crystal Strider?”

“Yeah, that thing.”

“What about it?”

“Could you have killed it?”

“Of course, they’re not that hard to kill with the proper weapons and set up.”

“Then why were you acting all scared of it? I mean, I didn’t attack it cause you made it seem like some kind of unstoppable monstrosity.”

Deathtrap wished he had eyes so that he could roll them. He knew she’d been scared, even he’d been worried about facing the thing, so he was relieved when Artemis answered.

“You should’ve been scared of it, they kill their prey in a truly horrific way, I mean, first they”

“Don’t need to hear it!” Gaige quickly cut her off, nearly slapping her hands over her ears “I’m sorry, I was scared of it, alright, you don’t need to tell me more about how awful it is.”

“Oh, I just thought it was an interesting fact, but if you don’t want to know, that’s fine.”

“Yeah, I’m good. Maybe some other time, when we don’t have any chance of running into one, alright?”

“OK.” She shifted uncomfortably and eventually asked “Do you still want to know how to kill one?”

“Yes. I mean, we might still run into one so it would be beneficial to know that, right?”

“It would. Anyway, fire weapons work best, as do explosives, though those will likely damage the crystals that make it worth hunting. The best way to kill one would be to cut its legs off and then destroy its head. Now, normally you’d think that destroying the head would be the fastest way, but the problem is that they don’t really have a brain in there, in fact, the only reason that removing the head kills them is that they starve to death, and that takes months, if not years.”

“Wait, what?”

“They’re not the only thing like that, I mean, there’s plenty of others, mostly insects.”

“Ew, no wonder you didn’t want to fight it.”

“Huh? Oh, that part wasn’t it. The reason I didn’t want to fight it is that it can easily kill you if it gets in close, I mean, you saw the size of its legs, imagine one of them stepping on you. Besides, we had no reason to fight it if we didn’t have to, it would’ve been a waste of ammo, not to mention the wind would’ve made shooting it hard. Plus, we would’ve been starting way too close.”

“That…actually makes a lot of sense. Huh, the wind’s died down a bit.” She looked around, the snow was settling back down, with only a few eddies and whorls left. Looking at Artemis’s back, she saw the snow still clinging to it and asked “Aren’t you cold? I mean, I’m still freezing and I didn’t dive into a snowbank.”

“Yes, I am, but you continuing to bring it up isn’t helping matters.”

Gaige thought about it for a minute and suddenly remembered something “Hold up a minute.”

“Now what?”

Gaige didn’t answer, she already had her pack off and was rooting through it “Ah, here it is. You’re not the only one that can pack.”

She smiled in triumph, though she realized belatedly that no one could see it behind her scarf as she held up a thermos.

“Coffee.” She declared, opening it up and letting it steam up the air as she poured a cup and after a split-second internal conflict, handed it to Artemis.

“Thanks.” She said, pulling her icy scarf down and taking a sip.

She quickly finished the cup and handed it back, knowing that Gaige was being patient while waiting her turn. As soon as she had the cup back, Gaige had it full again and a second later, empty.

Sighing as the warmth spread, her reprieve was cut short by Artemis saying “We should get moving again.”

“Aw, one more cup.”

“Alright, but after that, we’ve gotta go.”

“What’s your rush?”

“Other than freezing? I just don’t like being out here after dark.”

“Oh, good point.”

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Chapter 23

Hunter’s Moon

After making it back, the girls spent a good amount of time thawing out before changing their cybernetics back to normal.

Once they were comfortable, they sat down to get something to eat and do some research on their next destination, but when they opened up the ECHOnet, they found two messages waiting for them. The first was for Gaige, from her dad and the second was from A.I.ngel.

After checking local times, they decided to let Gaige contact her dad first, so she went off to the bedroom to do that. She checked to make sure she was alone for some reason, she told the voice in her head that questioned why, that it was just a force of habit, but she knew that the truth was that she might be able to ask him about some of the things that had been bothering her and didn’t want Artemis overhearing them.

Sitting down, she punched in the familiar number and after a few rings, her dad picked up.

“Hi honey, how’s it going?”

“Hi dad. Things are…well…they’re fine, I guess. I mean, nothing too exciting or anything, just the usual.”

“Still having issues with Artemis?”

“Um, kinda sorta, look, we can talk about that later, but first, you called about something? Everything OK there, nothing weird, like bots around town or anything?” Gaige couldn’t conceal her worry as well as she wanted, after all, if there was nothing, she didn’t want to alarm her dad, but if there wasn’t anything, then why was he contacting her right then?

“No, why? Something up?”

“No, nah, why would you say that? Hee hee.” She ended with a nervous laugh that spoke volumes to her dad, but he knew better than to press, at least right then, so he let it go, though he wore an expression that told her he knew she was hiding something.

“Well, the reason I called was to let you know that I think I’ve got it.”

“Got what? A promotion? A work around to the Erithiburg principle? A new kid on the way?”

“Wait, what? No, why would you even think that?”

“Oh, are you and mom…you know what, I really don’t want to know. Ew, aw man, now I’ve got that in my head, gross. Why?”

“It’s your own fault and it’s not that bad, your mother is an attractive woman in the prime of her beauty.”

“DAD!”

“Are you still too young for that?”

“Try putting yourself in my shoes.”

“Alright.” He paused for a moment, tilting his head to the side before nodding “OK, that is unpleasant, but that’s because your grandparents aren’t around anymore, so the thought of two skeletons doing that is kinda weird.”

“Daaaaad!”

He laughed at her misfortune for a second before getting more serious. “Putting that aside, what I wanted to talk to you about was that I think I’ve got you another refund from your fines.”

“Really? That’s great.”

“I know right, but don’t get too excited, it hasn’t gone through yet, so don’t spend it yet. Also, this will be the last bit I can get back from them, they are kinda reluctant to part with it.”

“Anything would be great. Thanks dad, you’re the best.”

“I know, and since you’re not asking, but I can see it written all over your face, it’s about a quarter of what you gave them.”

“Really? That’s great.” Gaige smiled, but then her face soured and she gave him a hard look “But this is really a refund, right? This isn’t you and mom tapping into your retirement funds or anything like that? Cause if it is, forget it. I don’t want it and if I find out that’s what it is, I’m gonna be pissed.”

Her dad looked a bit crestfallen “If it was, why would that be so bad? It’s our money, so if we wanted to give it to you, shouldn’t that be our prerogative? Besides, you’ve still got that college fund that we set up, you could at least take that.”

“DAD! No!” Gaige snapped “I want you guys to enjoy your lives, just like you want me to. This is my mess and you’ve helped me enough, so if it’s not an actual refund, then forget it.”

“It is, but it’s not as much as I said then.”

“Like I said, anything would be great.”

“Then let us give you some money.”

“No. My mess, my debt. You know that I’m gonna be giving it to Artemis, right? So, I don’t want to give her your money, that would just be transferring the debt from one person to another, so forget it.”

“Alright, alright, I get it, though I still don’t get why you’re so adamant about it.”

“Because I don’t want you to feel that I’m that helpless.”

“I don’t think that.” Her dad said, but thought about it for a moment and sighed “But if you really feel that way, then I guess I have no choice. Besides, it’s not like you’re in debt anymore, not to anyone that really feels that way at least, you know, someone that would charge interest, that stuff will kill you.”

“I know, remember?”

“Yes, I do, that’s why I’m reminding you. Well, that was my good news, what did you want to talk about? You had something else, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s just, well, hard to talk about.”

“Artemis again?”

“Isn’t it always?”

“You and her need to have a long talk.”

“I’ve tried. Trust me, I’ve tried, but getting through to her is like beating my head against a wall. “

“Reminds me of you when you were younger.”

“Dad! Seriously?”

“Yeah, the number of times I tried to warn you against doing something, only for you to do it anyway was astounding, but it all worked out in the end.”

“Uh, sorry. But this is completely different. I’m tired of her saying things like ‘I’m a monster’ or ‘We can’t talk about that because it’ll bring about disaster’, I mean, how’m I supposed to figure out what kind of future we have together if I can’t even talk to her about her?”

“And what kind of future do you want with her?”

“I don’t know, if I knew that, it would be so much easier.”

“Would it?”

“For me it would, cause then I’d at least know what I want her to accept.”

“That sounds a bit self-centered.”

Gaige bit back her reply, she knew he was right, but it didn’t make it any easier to hear, nor did it change how she felt, so she had to at least acknowledge that he was right “Yeah, it is. But I just want her to be happy and how can I do that if she won’t let herself?”

“You’ve already figured out what’s causing the problem, the hard part is always getting the other person to see it, isn’t that what your meetings say? Think back to all the people, yourself included, that had a problem, let’s just use your Uncle Marlon as an example. We both know he can’t cook and that whenever he tries, everyone else just suffers, but until he accepts that, telling him just pisses him off, he thinks that you’re mocking him, or you’re jealous of his skill, or that no one appreciates him, that he slaves over that grill for hours and this is the thanks he gets? Until he realizes that he has a problem, he’s never going to stop cooking. And Artemis is the same way. You can tell her that she’s alright, you can tell her that you like the way she is, but until she accepts that there’s nothing wrong with her, she can’t accept that she can change.”

“So how do I get her to accept that?”

“By showing her that you accept her, warts and all.”

“She doesn’t have warts.”

“It’s a dad-ism. You know what I meant. You just have to be patient with her, the way she was with you. The way Deathtrap has been for all these years. Where is he by the way? Wanted to say hi as long as we were on.”

“He’s out keeping Artemis entertained. I could go get them if you wanted.”

“It’s alright, just tell them I said hi and to continue watching over you.”

“Daaad.”

“What? I keep telling you, no matter how old you get, you’ll always be my little girl.”

“And when you start getting this sappy, it’s time to end the call.”

“Wait!” He all but shouted, holding his hand up to stop her. She smiled and leaned back away from the keyboard, indicating she wasn’t going to disconnect him so he continued “I don’t want to end this on a sour note, I never know when I’m going to get to see you again, so please don’t end the call when we are in a disagreement.”

Gaige realized how worried he was, how it must feel to have her out in the universe somewhere, doing who knows what, never knowing if she was alright and resolved to call him more often. “Aw come on dad, you know I’d never be mad at you. Frustrated, sure, but never mad.”

He smiled at that, but something about his eyes told her he had another question for her and it was one that he was a bit reluctant to broach, so she sighed and asked him “What? You’ve got that look, like you wanna talk about something but don’t know how to ask, like that time mom made you give me the birds and the bees talk.”

“Oh god, don’t remind me of that, I don’t think I’ve ever been that embarrassed in my life.”

“You? Think about how it felt for me.”

“Why she thought I should be the one to talk to our daughter about that, I’ll never know.”

“Yeah, but I can’t think of her givin that speech either. But I don’t want that thought in my head, so what was it you were wanting to ask?”

“It was, well, I was just wondering how your, um…”

“My what? My mulling on what kind of relationship I wanted with Artemis was going?”

“What? No. I mean, since you brought it up…”

“It hasn’t, and I really don’t wanna discuss that with you right now.”

“Oh, um, well, if you ever need someone to listen, I’ll be here. But that wasn’t what I wanted to ask you about, what I was trying to say was, how is your, um, alcohol issue going?”

“Oh that.” Gaige sighed “About as well as my mulling to be honest.”

“The meeting helping?”

“Yeah, I mean, as much as they can, it’s just so hard, you know, being thirsty all the time. And knowing that it’s gonna be this way for a while, if not the rest of my life.”

“Sounds rough.”

“It is, but nowhere near as bad as the alternative.”

She looked down, causing her dad to ask “What happened? You can talk to me about it if you want, I won’t judge.”

“I know, neither does Artemis and that might be the problem, sometimes I just wish she would yell at me, call me out and all that, instead I just feel like I’m disappointing her. Like this one time, about a week ago, little less actually, more like what? Geez, was that only four days ago? Anyway, I screw up, we’re lookin though this place and I find this ancient bottle, well it wasn’t really that old, nine, ten years, but it’s kinda nasty lookin, but I stuff it into my pack cause I’m thirsty and I want it. Thankfully she caught me, but I failed her, I failed you, and I failed me.”

“You made a mistake and thankfully you didn’t go too far, so it’s alright. Those meetings tell you that you’re going to slip, that it won’t be easy, but that you have to keep trying. It also sounds like she stopped you, but did she judge you?”

“Yes. No. I don’t really know how to describe it, it was like she gave up on me, made me fight to get her to accept me back, which might have been the best thing for me in that moment, though I don’t think she did it on purpose.”

“Sometimes, people just know what to do.”

“Yeah, I guess everyone’s got their moments.” Gaige trailed off and looked around “Well, unless you’ve got anything else, I should get going.”

“Oh, um, when do you think you’ll be around next? Your mother’s worried about you.”

“Just her?”

“I know you can handle yourself, but of course I’m worried, it’s a father thing.”

“I know. And I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“You know, makin you two worry and all that.”

“I’d be worried if you were staying home and doing nothing.”

“Oh god, that sounds awful.” Gaige gagged at the thought, but turned serious “But I know my lifestyle leads you to worry about me.”

“It does, but if you gave it up, you wouldn’t be my daughter anymore.”

“Then who’d I be?”

“Well, you’d still be my daughter, but you wouldn’t be you.”

Gaige gave a snort of laughter as her father fumbled to try and explain himself out of the hole he’d dug. “Well, I should get going soon. I’ll be back to see you guys as soon as I can, I’ll at least try to be there for Mercenary Day. Say hi to mom for me.”

“I will. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

She cut the connection and sat back. Every time she talked to him, she wondered why she didn’t do it more often. For the longest time, she hadn’t contacted him due to the pain it caused her, knowing that she wouldn’t ever be able to see him in person again. She realized later that she’d been punishing not only herself, but him as well, something that she still felt bad about.

Lately though, she hadn’t been talking to him mostly due to circumstances, either she wasn’t able to talk to him, like in the Garden of Minos, or she didn’t want to worry him with what she was doing, like right then. She suddenly realized that she’d successfully managed to end the call without telling him what was going on, which she knew would only worry him more. Sure, he might be able to do something to help, but she couldn’t think of what, so this was better.

She promised herself that she’d tell him everything once it was over.

Standing up, she made her way out to find Artemis losing spectacularly at chess.

“You’re still playing that?”

“I’m not sure you could call it playing, more like getting demolished.” Came the reply “How was your dad? Everything good? What’d he want?”

“One thing at a time.” She replied with an over-the-top eye-roll, but sat down next to the other girl and answered her anyway “He’s fine, he hasn’t seen any weird bots or anything suspicious, at least not that he realized, or told me about. He wanted to let me know that he’s almost got some more money back from the fines we paid, so you might be paid back in full before long.”

“I’ve told you I don’t”

“And I’ve told you that I need to do this. End of discussion. Look, it’s for the best if we both get to the point where we don’t feel we owe each other anything, we talked about that, remember? Once we’re there, we can figure out where we want to go moving forward.”

“You’ve said that before, but”

“No buts. Just accept it. Please.”

Artemis shrugged like she didn’t believe it, but was willing to play along for the peace of the ship, which Gaige supposed was as good as she’d get.

“So anyway, guess it’s time to find out what A.I.ngel wanted.” Gaige said, feeling the uncomfortable grating sensation in her chest. “I can handle it if you wanna finish your game.”

“Nah, he’s totally got this. Besides, I wanna say hi too.” She stood up and followed Gaige over to the terminal. She pulled up a seat and keyed in the number.

After a few rings, it was picked up, but to their surprise, it was Timothy staring back at them.

He looked about as surprised as they felt, but he quickly recovered and smiled falsely at them “Hey there punkin, to what do I owe this honor?”

‘Uggh’ Gaige thought, even though she knew that he couldn’t always help it, she hated it when Timothy sounded that much like Handsome Jack. She grit her teeth and smiled “We were trying to reach A.I.ngel, is she there?”

“Nope, sorry, she can’t come to talk right now, but if you want to leave a message, I’ll be sure to ignore it. Sorry, stupid Jack DNA. I meant I’ll be sure to pass it along.” He actually looked a bit contrite as he finished, making Gaige suspect that it had in fact been an accidental slip and not him being a dick.

“We were just trying to call her back, she’d left a message while we were out.”

“Sorry, don’t know anything about that, but I’ll be sure to”

“Who is that?” A voice called from behind him. A brief flicker of disappointment crossed his face and before he could turn and shout back, A.I.ngel walked into the room, face brightening to near blinding levels when she spotted who was on the screen.

For a second, Gaige felt pissed at Timothy for lying to them, but she spotted the girl wiping her hands on a dirty rag, not to mention a few smudges on her face and clothes, indicating that she had, in fact been working on something and judging by the tools she had on her belt, it was probably something in the computer core.

“You two! You are alright? I was worried about you. You did not call me for days and when I tried to call you, I got no answer.”

“Sorry 'bout that, we were kinda in the middle of something.” Gaige said, feeling a bit bad for making the girl worry.

“What were you doing, if I might ask?”

“Well, we were following up on some leads. I don’t wanna say too much in case we’re being listened to.”

“Is there much chance of that?”

“Well, probably not, but you never know.”

“I agree that the chance is low. Still, I understand why you are reluctant to speak too freely. I have learned much about how simple things can be turned into complex ones.”

Seeing the looks the girls were giving, Timothy chimed in “She talked to Moxxi, I tried to stop them, but, well, it’s Moxxi.”

Gaige nodded sympathetically, she got it, once Moxxi set her mind to something, it was hard for most people to stand against her. Still, she had to wonder what had happened.

“Well, that makes sense, I think.” Artemis said, given her limited interaction with Moxxi, she wasn’t entirely sure what might have happened, but she’d encountered enough people who made it seem like the older woman was dangerous to believe it.

“So, what did you wanna talk about?” Gaige asked, trying to steer the conversation back to something productive. “Was it just that we hadn’t talked to you in a few days or was there something else.”

Artemis nudged her from the side, making Gaige realize how nasty what she’d said could sound and how easily it would be to interpret it that way, especially if Artemis had picked up on it, so she quickly added “I said that wrong, sorry. There’s nothing wrong with being worried about us, or feeling a bit frustrated that you’re left behind, I get that, I’m just a bit tired is all.”

“It is fine. But you just addressed it a bit, I am feeling frustrated that I cannot help, so I wanted to know if there was something that I could do to assist.”

Gaige nodded, but couldn’t think of anything. To her surprise it was Artemis who spoke up.

“How good are you at computers and things?”

“I am fair.”

“She’s being modest.” Timothy cut in “My baby’s a bona fide genius. Sorry, Jack again, I meant that she’s a genius, how many people could rewrite an entire mainframe their first time seeing it?”

“No idea.” Artemis honestly answered “Well, you’re at least better than me, that’s for sure. So, I was wondering if you could look into Holloway Robotics for us. Something about all this hasn’t been sitting right with me since the beginning, but I can’t put my finger on it. But my instincts are saying we’re missing something, so if you wanna help, see what you can dig up.”

To her surprise, Timothy nodded “Trust your instincts, it can save your life.”

“Never expected you to say that.”

He looked a bit offended “Hey, if you’ve got instincts worth listening to, then listen. Plus I think you’re right, from what I’ve gleaned from talking to A.I.ngel and you, something about this doesn’t sound right, that might just be the Jack in me speaking, he was paranoid if nothing else, but sometimes it pays to look at things from all angles before jumping in, especially with people like this Holloway character.”

The girls nodded to this, both of them understood it well, they were just surprised that it was coming from Timothy of all people, though considering what he’d been through, it might not have been all that surprising.

“Was there anything else we can do to help?” A.I.ngle piped in.

“If you could do that, it would be more than enough, might even save our lives.” Artemis said, electing a determined look from the girl on the screen.

Gaige felt a little off-put by everything, so she decided to spin the conversation and asked “Speaking of saving your life, how’s your target practice going?”

Her face brightened again “I am still mastering the technique that I was shown on Jaka 4, but I am now able to hit the target more than ninety percent of the time and hit the center over twenty percent. I know I still have a long way to go, but I have been improving.”

Gaige tried to hide how impressed she was, when they’d started, she couldn’t hit the target once out of ten times, more like one in fifteen, so to improve that much in a short time was telling of either her skill, or the amount of effort she was putting in.

“That’s really good, but make sure you’re not skipping sleep.” Artemis chided her. It looked like she’d hit her secret, judging by the way she grimaced slightly. “Once you’re feeling comfortable shooting, I guess the next thing would be to take you back out, let you experience some live combat again.”

“Now hold on one minute.” Timothy butted in “I wasn’t happy with you taking her hunting, but it sounds like you want to put her into an actual fight.”

“How else is she gonna learn?” Artemis sounded genuinely confused “What happens if she actually does get attacked someday? If she’s never experienced a real fight, she might freeze up, she might forget something. No, the only way to know how to react in a fight, is to experience one.”

“Well, I’m against it. She should start out simple, or better yet, never get exposed to that kind of danger.”

“Careful.” Gaige warned “Don’t forget her past, or Jacks.”

Timothy paled slightly “I didn’t mean…I just want her to be safe.”

“We all do, which is why she needs to see the rest of what’s out there, the good and the bad for herself, then she’ll get to decide what she wants to do from the perspective of someone who actually knows what they’re deciding.”

“I know. I just don’t like it.”

A.I.ngel patted the moping Timothy on the back, clearly trying to comfort him.

“Well, I suppose we should be going.” Gaige awkwardly said, and after everyone said their goodbyes, they cut the connection.

“Well, that’s it for me, I need sleep.” Gaige said around a yawn so wide that Artemis heard her jaw pop. “You coming?”

“Not yet, I still need to look up anything I can on, what was it? Apate 3?”

“Yeah, sounds right. Why not just lay in a course and look it up in the morning?”

“Cause if it turns out that we need something for the trip, we might need to go a different direction.”

“I really hate it when you make sense, especially when it’s somethin I shoulda thought of.”

“Well, you are tired.”

“And you aren’t? Come on, let’s get this over with, then bed.”

“Nah.”

“No to bed?”

“No. Yes to bed, but hot cocoa first.”

“If you’re makin, I’ll stay up and help.” Gaige said, perking up noticeably.

So, they got to work and after a minute they had up all the information they could find on Apate 3, which wasn’t much.

It was the third moon around Pseudea and the only one with an atmosphere, though it was too thin to sustain human life. It had low gravity and no natural resources that were worth the effort of mining.

“So, I guess we’ll need to get some Oz kits.” Gaige sighed, rubbing her face.

“Nah, I’ve got some in the back.”

“What? Why?”

“In case I need to do some emergency external repairs. Or if I go hunting on a low breathability planet, though they aren’t really all that useful in that case, they never hold enough oxygen, I mean, why can’t they make a proper breathing apparatus, one that can scrub the air and let you breathe longer.”

“They’ve got those.” Gaige countered “The only problem is that by the time you get it all together, you need a power source for it and then you need something to carry that and by the time you’re finished, you’re in a mech-suit, like one of the Bears or an Arbalist, something like that.”

“Ah, well, one of them would be nice too.”

“Yeah, but if you were in one of them, you couldn’t really get around inside a building, could you?”

“No.” She let out a sigh “It’s always something isn’t it.”

“Yep, and right now, that something is a warm mug of cocoa and a bed.”

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Chapter 24

Apate 3

“Why is it that Oz kits always smell funny? It’s like…I donno, you mixed an abandoned locker room and a robot’s burp.” Gaige said, wrinkling her nose.

They were making their way across the surface of Apate 3, which contrary to expectation, did in fact have some vegetation, tall stringy things that looked like seaweed made out of coral. Well, at least they thought it was vegetation, they weren’t going to stop and investigate.

The plant-like things waved when touched, the segments sliding around each other making them wonder if there was something inside or if it was just built with a strange ball-joint-like structure.

They were making good time, despite being loaded down with extra oxygen tanks, since all Oz kits seemed to leak or something, because they used up their air rather quickly. They just hoped that once they reached the factory that it would have atmosphere.

Cautiously picking their way across the rocky landscape, Gaige noted that most of the rocks they were walking on were actually the coral-like remnants of the plants, their light bluish coloring had faded to almost pure grey, making her mistake it for regular space rocks. She worried about how much it crunched underfoot, despite the lowered gravity, but without anyone around to hear it, she wasn’t all that worried.

It didn’t take long for the factory to come into sight through the waving plant-like stalks. It was quite a bit different from the last one. It was considerably bigger, though the main building itself was about the same height, but with a large number of additional buildings connected to it by sealed walkways, which when Gaige thought about it made sense, since the workers needed somewhere to live, but it seemed to be enormous.

It wasn’t just the size that was different, the buildings had a slightly rounded look to them, like they were almost domes on the top floor, but not. There were thick vents and pipes running around the outside of them, giving it the look of an abstract technological stump covered in vines.

“What do you think they did here?” Artemis said, crouching down and observing the place.

“Worked on the bots.” Came the exasperated reply.

“Yeah, I get that, but what did they do to them? I mean, why would you build in a lowered gravity? Was there some reason, or was it just that no one would look here?”

“Hmm, good question. I know they do things in lower grav to facilitate the transportation of heavier parts, not to mention some research is done that way cause it can affect the outcome, but as for these bots, I’ve got no idea.”

“You think it’s got anything to do with the EMP tech? Is that why they sent the bots here?”

“Most likely, I mean, why else would they?”

“Maybe it was one of the more off the books places and they figured the authorities hadn’t found it yet.”

“That also makes sense.”

“Speaking of authorities, do you think there’s any chance that they might catch us breaking into one of these places?”

“I wouldn’t put it past Holloway to try that, but no, I think he wants to take us out himself, so he wouldn’t resort to using anyone else this time.”

“Oh, good.”

“Why? You see something?”

“No, I just didn’t wanna get arrested. Nor did I wanna fight the authorities and become wanted.”

“Yeah, it sucks. Well, our Oxygen isn’t gonna last forever, so we need to get going. On that note, see anything?”

“No, not even a bot.”

“That’s a bit unsettling, but let’s go.”

With a bit of reluctance, they set off, heading for the side gate, Deathtrap once again floating invisibly behind them. He was also unsettled at the seeming lack of life around here. It shouldn’t have been that long since the bots were worked on, but it seemed like everyone finished up and left immediately, which made him wonder if anything they found would be useful. He already assumed the entire place would be a trap, his only question was what kind.

Trying to make as little noise as they could, they dashed out of cover and over to the door. Fully aware that they would be on camera, they had their hoods up and were wearing different outfits than normal in an attempt to ensure that any footage of them couldn’t just be handed over to the authorities.

Gaige crouched down and got to work on opening the door, feeling the strange outfit tug on her in an unfamiliar way. It wasn’t an ugly outfit, but the full pants weren’t something she was used to. On the other hand, she found Artemis’s new look to be quite amusing, though she’d restrained herself from laughing at her expense. She was wearing a pair of shorts much like what Gaige usually wore, over a pair of leggings that did a bit to hide her cybernetic leg. On top she was wearing a hooded long sleeve shirt over her usual chest-guard and shirt. Something about it made her look like a brooding teen. She’d even switched out her usual gear for an assault rifle and shotgun on her back, which she’d grumbled about no end before they’d left. In fact, about the only thing she had that was normal was the equine hanging from her belt, though she’d replaced her usual Shadowstar with Nix, pony of the night.

The door beeped and slid open, telling them that the place wasn’t locked down too tight and that it still had power.

Stepping in, they felt the Oz bubble pop and the tanks begin to automatically refill, which was a relief.

“Right, I know it’s, um, futile, but I’m gonna ask anyway.” Artemis whispered, looking around “But which way?”

“You’re right, it is futile.” Gaige grumbled from behind the mask she was wearing, which was similar to the one that Artemis had worn into the sewers on the Project Odysseus station. “But since neither of us knows, let’s head inward, see if we can find anything that might give us a sense of where things are.”

They proceeded forward, finding the place felt completely different from the last factory, if anything, it felt more like the inside of a ship crossed with an office building. Sleek halls, unadorned by anything but the necessary signs that mostly consisted of numbers and arrows, reminding them both of the Project Odysseus base in their lack of usefulness. Periodically there were sliding doors set into the wall, but opening them only led to things like a med-bay or a break-room.

They had yet to find anything remotely useful, but they were only in the first hall, not far from the door and they knew that the building they were in was a ways away from the factory itself. Still, they hadn’t seen nor heard anything yet, which was a bit unnervingly.

They continued down the hall till they came to an intersection with three nearly identical paths leading out. They knew that the way they’d just come from wasn’t the way to go, and they felt that continuing along the outer wall wasn’t going to lead them anywhere, so they headed inward, figuring that if there was anything to be found, it would be in the interior of the place.

Still, the rooms on the sides didn’t yield anything of use. The rooms quickly turned into a few offices and workrooms, with drafting tables and computers. Gaige was tempted to search around, but they both knew that the computers wouldn’t be connected to the system that would have any data that would be useful to them, for that they’d probably need to find the boss’s office.

After the third such room, they were getting a bit frustrated with the sameness of everything, so Artemis offered an idea.

“Maybe there’s a map or something on one of the systems?”

“More likely there’s a trap on it. It’s probably set up so that if we boot up any computer, all the bots here will activate.”

“But I haven’t seen any bots yet.” Artemis countered, looking around nervously.

“Yeah, but they’re out there, I’m sure of it. Besides, we’ve only looked in a few rooms, let’s keep moving.”

“Rare for you to be optimistic.”

“I’m always optimistic, especially when I’m covering how nervous I am.” She said with a tense smile, trying to put the other girl at ease. She wasn’t sure if it worked, but she did nod and smile a little, though neither of them could really see the other’s face behind their masks.

“Alright, we’ll keep going.” Artemis said, looking down the hall “But it would be nice if we knew if we were even in the right building.”

Gaige sighed, the thought had already occurred to her, they had no way of knowing where they were supposed to be looking and barely any idea of what they were looking for, so this could take days if they weren’t lucky. Still, there was nothing to do but press on and hope they didn’t wake anything up.

Eventually they made it to the end of the corridors, straight ahead of them was a walkway that led to the central building of the compound, a massive blob that squatted in the middle of the area. It looked like two or three other buildings had melted together and had all been designed by someone with a crustacean fascination. It lacked the towers of the one on Burgloth, not to mention the squareness, which led them to wonder if each site had been designed by a different person or if they’d been build the way they were for some specific reason, either way, the lack of corporate unity was a bit off-putting after their dealings with Hyperion.

They looked at each other and wished the walkway was positioned better, because they couldn’t get a good look at the back of the compound and neither of them thought that the information they were after would be found in the factory.

Still, they had to make a choice between going forward, or continuing to search the building they were in. While the building they were in felt like it was more for engineering, they didn’t think that it felt like the kind of place the boss would be, so they sighed and pressed forward, determined not to touch anything in the factory.

The walkway system was larger than they’d thought, with a blast door on either end of each section, which worried them, not just cause they couldn’t figure out what had been happening at the place to need something like that, but the thought of it dropping and trapping them was very real. They were all sure that if the alarm got raised, the doors sealing would be the first thing to happen, and since they lacked any real means of cutting though, they wanted to avoid that possibility if they could.

Eying the door as they went past, they found themselves in the factory proper, though it was a far cry from the lines at the previous one. The main factory itself seemed to be dedicated to manufacturing a specific model, though they couldn’t figure out which one it was since it seemed that unlike the other factory, this one had taken the time to clean up after themselves, although they figured it could’ve also been the group that came later to work on the attack bots.

Padding through the room, they kept expecting to see bots popping around the corner, or dropping from the ceiling, but nothing happened. Lights on the machines stayed dark, steam didn’t vent suddenly, nothing. In fact, the place seemed as dead as it initially looked, which bothered them. If this was a trap, then where was the trap? If it wasn’t, then was this really a dead-end?

Not wanting to climb up unless they had to, they made their way around the factory floor, occasionally spotting something left behind, a fork truck parked in its space, a stack of unused pallets near one end of the machinery, sweepings piled up in the corners, but nothing that would be useful.

Neither one of them wanted to speak, it felt like any noise would break some kind of spell and set something awful into motion, though they were all tempted to do that, just because it would at least give them something to do, something they knew they could work on.

But they also knew that it would likely end up in disaster, not just because they didn’t have any idea about what kind of bots were here, but if something went wrong, say there were EMP equipped bots, then they might fry the very thing they were there looking for.

Plus wasting their time in a fight where they might get hurt was just plain stupid. So, they moved on silently.

As they went around the room, they found things that they marked on their ECHOs, ladders and stairs leading up, shuttered doors in the walls, but nothing that was screamed that it was what they were looking for, so when they finally found another door leading out, they collectively suppressed their sighs and all but dashed through it.

The walkway ended in a small room with more hallways leading out, but something about it screamed ‘residential’ to them. Looking around to try and make sure there weren’t any cameras in the area, Artemis was about to speak when Gaige held up a hand and led them a little ways down one of the halls, seemingly chosen at random.

Once they’d gone a little ways she opened a door and after giving the interior a quick once over led them in. Inside they found a bed against one wall, a dresser and a desk.

Only after they were secured inside the small room did Gaige speak up.

“Alright, we should be good here.”

“What was that all about?”

“Can’t be too careful about being watched.”

“That’s why we’re in disguise, remember?”

“Yeah, but they might be able to plan something if they’re observing us.”

“Who’s this ‘they’? And why’re you being so paranoid?”

“I’m not being paranoid, I’m being prudent, which is what you usually advocate for, isn’t it? And second, this place is givin me a serious case of the cobbly-wobbles, so you’ll have to excuse me if I don’t wanna be observed.”

“Oh, I totally get that part, so what’s up?”

“What’s…You were the one about to say something out there.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, I was just gonna say how glad I was to get outta the factory is all.”

“Seriously? That’s it?” Gaige slumped slightly “Well, it’s not like I can blame you, that place was givin off major strangeness.”

“Yeah, it was like I kept expecting something to happen, but it never did.”

“Almost makes you long for a good old bandit camp, at least there you know who and where the enemy is, plus there’s something to shoot.”

“You know that makes you sound a bit psycho, right?”

“Considering some of the stuff I’ve caught you doing, I don’t think you’ve got any right to talk. But, yeah, I get it, it does sound a bit bad to say I wish I was killing people, but I just hate this stress without any means of release, alright? Makes me want a drink or something to take my mind off of it.”

“Ah, well, I suppose it’s a good thing we don’t have anything besides water then.”

“Well, we do have root beer, but that would require Deathtrap to reveal himself.”

“Actually, we don’t have root beer, remember.”

“Ah, that’s right, damn.” Gaige cursed as she remembered that they’d taken the dispenser out of him to make room for other necessities, something she was regretting a bit at the moment.

They fell into silence for a second, then Artemis asked “So…now what?”

“Ugh, this again?”

“Well, you didn’t answer, so I was wondering if you had a plan.”

“My plan was to keep delaying you until I could come up with something, but that didn’t pan out, so now I guess I’ll just have to wing it.”

“So, the usual?”

“Bitch.”

Artemis shrugged and looked around the room. Like her first impression, it was sparse, but she still went over to the desk and opened the drawers up.

“What are you doing?” Gaige asked.

“Checking something.”

“Checking what?”

“Well, I just wanted to see if there was anything left, you know how the last place looked like everyone had just up and left in the middle of what they were doing? I wanted to see if this place was the same or if they’d been given time to get their things.”

“And if they hadn’t, see what they’d left behind? Not bad, so what’d you find?”

“Nothing so far, but this room might not have been in use.”

“Or the person here might have been able to pack.”

“Right, I figured this was something I could do while you thought of a better plan.”

“Makes sense, but don’t get too excited, I doubt that the top dog would’ve been in this place.”

“The compound?”

“What? No silly, this building. In fact, I bet none of the higher-ups were living here. Still, it doesn’t hurt to look.”

Artemis shrugged “So should I continue? Like check another room or something or should we move on, try and find where the boss worked or at least lived?”

“Why don’t we check a few more rooms, see what we find. We can do that while we search for another exit to this place, by which I mean building.”

Artemis nodded and they left the room. Looking around neither of them had any idea of which way to go, so they went back to the first room and headed in the direction that was away from the first building they’d been in.

Checking rooms periodically, they found that some of them had been cleaned out, but others were still almost entirely intact, speaking of the kind of person that had lived there. Some were so messy that they were reluctant to enter out of fear of what they’d step in, while others were so clean and neat that their first impression was that the room was unoccupied. Still, they checked each one as best they could, but other than a few personal effects, they found nothing, especially not anything that would help them find what they were looking for.

Eventually they did find an ECHO-log in one of the rooms. It wasn’t the first ECHO they’d found, but most of them had been movies and most of those had been of a variety that Gaige hadn’t wanted Artemis to see, though she did take one of the regular movies.

They popped the log into their player without much hope and hit play. A man’s voice came one, talking in a lowered tone.

Dracy stared at the corpse in front of him, cooling in a pool of blood.

No, wait, cooling in a pool of its own blood, yeah, that’s better.

Dracy stared at the corpse cooling in a pool of its own blood, the bullet holes still smoking in its back. He’d been too late, Yanik was dead and so was his leads.

No, wait, Yanik was dead, as dead as his career had been, and with him, so was the lead.

Dracy gingerly stepped to the window, looking out to see if the killer was still there, but only the night wind greeted him, carrying with it the smell of the ocean, rotting fish and salt, a smell he was all too familiar with. He turned back, but something caught his eye, hooked on the window frame was a single strand of hair, long and blond, floating like an angel’s kiss. He knew that hair, the last time he’d seen it, it had been attached to the head of Mrs. Rachel Bradly, the dame who’d hired him. He’d know that hair anywhere, the way it splayed out across the pillow, the way it twined around her fingers as she played with it.

Wait, switch those two, end with the pillow, yeah that’s better.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, the way it splayed across her pillow in the morning sun. No. The way the neon lit it from through the window. No, hmm.

Alert Alert All employees immediately report to the central area. Repeat, all employees immediately report to the central area. That is all.

Aw come on, I was just getting into it, damn corporation, I’ll just have to pick this up when I get back.

The ECHO clicked off, leaving the two girls looking at it.

“So, uh, what was that about?” Artemis asked.

“I think he was trying to write a book or something.”

“Oh, well, at least we know that they were called for some kind of meeting, probably when they got told they’d have to leave.”

“Maybe, I mean, this could’ve been another thing, we don’t really have a date on this, do we?”

“I suppose not, but do you really think so?”

“Nope. Just throwing it out there is all.”

“Right, so let’s get outta here, unless you wanna find the rest of the story in there.” She indicated the mess in the room.

“Nah, not really interested in a story without an end. Let’s go.”

They headed back into the hall and kept going, eventually finding another walkway that seemed to lead to yet another walkway, T-ing into a small building in the middle of the walkway. Looking both ways they found that they were entering into a maze of interconnected passages and small buildings. To their left was a small two-story building sitting a little ways off of the factory itself, to their right was another small building that seemed to be more of a hub for the walkways then anything. Past it they could see a largish building, smaller than the factory, it was long and rather short.

“Think that might be where we’re looking for?” Artemis asked softly.

“Does that look like the kind of place where the boss would make their office?” Gaige snipped back.

“No, but it does look like the kind of place that they’d modify the bots.”

“Oh, yeah, it does, doesn’t it.”

“So, do you think we should go look?”

“Yeah, but they might’ve left bots in there, so we should find the main offices first.”

“But the computer’s probably booby-trapped, just like the last one.”

“Hmm, well, let’s go try and find the main offices and then make our decision.”

Artemis shrugged and looked around through the walkway “See anything that looks promising?”

“Maybe, but I can’t get a good look at it from here. Wait, I thought you were the one who was supposed to have the good vision.”

“I do, but you know what you’re lookin for.”

“Ah, yes, it’s a burden that I have to bear.”

Artemis just shook her head.

“Fine, this way.” Gaige said in a pretend huff, turning and leading them down the hall towards the hub.

They resumed walking in silence and soon entered the small building.

The first thing Artemis noted was the colored lines running around the floor, she hadn’t noticed them in the walkway, or rather, she hadn’t paid attention to them, but now she could clearly see that they were supposed to help the employees find their way from one site to another. As they converged, there was a small angled gap, like an arrow pointing in one direction, no doubt to help lead the way. Wracking her brains, she figured out that the dark blue line was for housing and that the bright yellow one was probably for the factory.

Looking away from them, she found the rest of the room was far less interesting, the four walkways led out of evenly spaced doorways, each of which could be sealed in case of an emergency. They probably had been designed that way in case of an air leak, but they served as a means of trapping intruders as well. The light came down from strips that had been set into the ceiling as well as the edges of the floor, bathing the area in an unflattering glow. There were no decorations and the only other things of note were a vending machine in one space between the doors and directly opposite it was a bright orange box with the universal image of a communicator on it.

“This way.” Gaige whispered, turning to the left and leading them further out.

Artemis watched the colors on the floor as they left, wondering which one would actually lead them to the boss’s office, as well as noting that when they returned, they’d want the light blue line.

They went through two more nearly identical hubs before they turned down another passage and towards a three-story building. Even though it wasn’t all that tall, it still gave off the unmistakable impression of being important.

“You think they’d hide which building the boss was in.” She muttered.

“Why’s that?”

“In case someone wanted to attack the place.”

“Well, they’d have a hard time of it. I mean, if anybody tried to break the air-dome, all of the defenses would activate.” She pointed to a strange bulb on the top of the nearest building. Artemis had noticed them as they’d approached, but had just figured they were part of the air system. Now that it had been pointed out, or maybe it was the new angle, but she could see the parts that would open up, as well as the power lines that fed them.

“Ah, I suppose so, but what if they didn’t bust in that way?”

“They’d have to go in through one of the doors, right? And then they’d have to wade through all of the workers and the bots that would’ve been here. So, if they could get through all of that, then the boss might as well paint a target on themselves and get it over with.”

Artemis nodded and they turned the final corner to find something they hadn’t encountered since they’d entered the place, a locked door.

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Chapter 25

Apate 3

“Well, that’s new.” Gaige said, cocking her head at the door.

They were at the hub that would lead to what they hoped was the administrative building, but standing in their way was a metal door, closed and presumably, locked.

From where they were, they couldn’t see any control panels or means of opening it.

“So now what?” Artemis asked.

Gaige bit back her snippish response, knowing the other girl wasn’t trying to pass of the responsibility of thinking on to her, but was genuinely looking for insight from the person who knew the most about things, so she answered with “Now, now we get to look for an alternate way in.”

“I was afraid of that.” Artemis sighed “So I suppose it’s either going to be a ductwork crawl, or a control panel in another building, presumably some kind of security station.”

“Neither actually. We’re gonna have to go outside.”

“Oh, that’s not…wait what?”

“At least one of us is going to have to go outside and try and get into the building from there.”

“What’s wrong with my ideas?”

“Well, first, we have no idea if there’s any ducts going into the building, or if they have their own closed off system, which is more likely. Second, we have no idea where the security station might be and I, for one, don’t want to spend hours or even days wandering around looking for it, especially not when it might be in the building, we’re trying to get in in the first place.”

“Oh, uh, that makes sense.”

“Right, so let’s try and find a way out.”

Gaige looked both ways, trying to figure out where an access hatch might be and decided that back would probably be the best. It wasn’t like she’d seen one, but she felt that if nothing more, the building where they thought the bots were being worked on was that way and there was probably a way out from there.

As they walked, Artemis asked “So, uh, where are we going? I mean, I know we’re lookin for an external hatch, but we just came this way and I don’t recall seeing one, not that I was particularly lookin for one, but still.”

“We’re gonna look for the hatch and if we can’t find one, we’re gonna look in the building that the bots were being worked on in, alright?”

“Oh, that’s fine, but we missed the turn.”

“What turn?”

“If we wanted to go back to that building, we needed to follow the light blue line and it turned off back there a ways.” She motioned behind them.

“Wait, so you actually paid attention to that? And you remembered which line went where?”

“Well, yeah, I mean, we were intending to go back, right?”

“Now I feel foolish.” Gaige muttered, turning around and heading back.

“Besides, even if we found a hatch in this part, we couldn’t get back to the offices from here, not without climbing over the walkways at least.”

Gaige looked around and realized she was right, from where they were, there was no way back to the building, everything was cut off by the maze of walkways. She kicked herself again, she should’ve been paying more attention to that instead of just looking around.

She quickly found the light blue line and spotted the arrow that told her which way to follow it, so she set off that way. It wasn’t long before she let out a sigh and turned to the other girl.

“What?” She asked “I know that silence, you wanna ask something but don’t know how, so just spit it out already.”

“Oh, um, it wasn’t really anything important, I was just wondering about a couple of things, like why that door was sealed.”

“Cause they didn’t want anyone to get in there.”

“But who would’ve? I mean, no one’s found this base yet, right? So, who’re they worried about finding it? And for that matter, why’d they shut this place down? I mean, they could’ve still been making things, right? So, why’d they shut down?”

“Well, that one’s easy, they had no money to pay their employees. Everything got seized.”

“By whom? I mean, I’m not one to pay attention to these kinds of things, but who seized all their money?”

“Hmm, I guess it wasn’t really seized, but their assets were frozen or something, I’m actually not all that familiar with it myself, but I’d guess after the ECHO of Holloway bragging got released, the government of Eden 5 must have been forced to act, no matter how corrupt they are, that kind of inter-planetary and inter-corporate scandal can’t be swept under the rug, so they must’ve entered the main corporate offices and taken control, shutting everything down.”

“And who enforces that? I mean, this is a moon, and it’s not like any corporation’s out here? So, why not scavenge everything you can?”

“Well, there’s no doubt records of most of this stuff somewhere and someone’s sifting through it, but that’s gonna be bogged down with a mess of red-tape, I mean, any time multiple corporations are involved, things are gonna get dicey real quick. Each one’s probably torn between claiming that none of their stuff got stolen because they didn’t fall for that kind of corporate espionage and claiming that they were hit the hardest, so they should be in charge of the investigation, which would allow them to try and sneak off with some other corps tech, and since none of them want the others to think them weak, they don’t want to claim they were hit, but they don’t want anyone else to sneak off with their stuff, especially not for a second time, so they’re all trying to figure out who gets to lead, who else gets to participate and all that junk, meanwhile, nothing’s getting done, the company’s in limbo, their assets sit around losing value and the red-tape builds up.”

“Sounds like you know a lot about this kind of thing.”

“Not really, I’ve just tried to get a few patents back in the day and that’s a nightmare cause this planet only recognizes it if that corporation does and that corporation only acknowledges it if that one acknowledges that they’ve got this patent, but that planet doesn’t recognize their claim on that tech because it’s similar to the one they stole from that corporation and claimed as their own, but that corp won’t recognize it as anything but theirs so they ban all products from that planet from being sold on their planets and so on. And that’s just to try and claim ownership of one idea.”

“So how do any corporations co-exist?”

“They don’t, not really. The thing is, once you’re big enough, it takes someone of similar size to stand up to you, which is why so many planets fall under the protection of a corporation.”

“But most of them out here don’t, so what do they do?”

“Ignore what’s going on out there and keep doing what they want.”

“But why don’t the corporations just, uh, seize them?”

“Most do, but it’s not all that easy, I mean, that’s what Hyperion was trying with Pandora a number of years back, right? The problem with it is that you still need to have an army to counter any incursion attempts by a rival corporation. Think about it this way, if a nest of animals decide they, um, want to destroy their neighbors, say, a smaller nest, they could throw their entire fighting force at it and decimate it, right? But while they’re doing that, the next nest over could attack their nest, destroying their non-fighters, which means that while they win the fight, they come home to nothing.”

“Ah, that makes sense, I guess.”

“Look, this isn’t my area of expertise, in fact, most of what I just said was me spit-balling to try and figure it out by applying the most logical thing I could to it, doesn’t mean I’m right, not by a long-shot, but it seemed to make sense to me. So, I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t know. Don’t go thinking this is the one hundred percent correct answer to your question and go spreading it around, it’s just what I think might be likely. That’s all.”

“Got it. But it did make sense. But then which authorities would any footage of us here be leaked to?”

“Uh…I donno, maybe the government on Eden 5? Or maybe Holloway could leak it to one of the corporations, like Maliwan and have them come after us or maybe put a bounty on our heads.”

“Oh. But on that same note, aren’t bounties usually put up by a person?”

“Actually, that’s about half of them, the other half are either planets or corporations that want someone for a crime against them. Take my case, since…”

She cut off when she felt a soft touch on her shoulder, Deathtrap, who’d been trailing along with them invisibly the entire time, had tapped her, trying to let her know something. Stopping and thinking about it, she had been about to give away who she was underneath her disguise.

She nodded and cleared her throat “Well, not to give away personal details here, where anyone might be listening, let’s just use a, uh, hypothetical person. Say someone, uh, builds a machine and it, er…”

Artemis seemed to have caught on to her roundabout way of saying that she couldn’t talk about her specific case, so she volunteered “Stole something and, uh, killed someone in the process?”

“Sure, let’s go with that. So the inventor would be wanted for, let’s see, depending on the planet it happened on, creation of illegal tech, breaking and entering, theft and murder, probably with some kind of caveat. So, if they’re caught right away, nothing happens, but if they flee, then the government can issue a bounty for them, specifying the conditions, such as dead or alive, what kind of proof is required and all that. But, and this part depends on the planet, but it’s this way on most of them, if the government issues a bounty, the family of the dead person can’t. It’s got something to do with interference in a government operation or some such. But let’s say that the government only issues a bounty for murder and the tech thing, then the family might be able to issue one for the theft, but it would have all kinds of stipulations on it that can’t interfere or contradict the government one, like they can’t have a wanted dead on it, if the government one is for a live capture, again, depending on the planet.”

She paused a moment and continued “Still, that doesn’t preclude them from hiring their own bounty hunters and they can instruct them to capture the person alive, have them brought to them so that they can kill them and then hand over the corpse for the bounty. Granted, if they’re caught doing that, they’ll likely get charged with murder, but they’ll claim that the bounty was trying to escape, so it usually goes nowhere.”

“Ah, I think I get it now.”

“Good, but how did you not know all that before? I mean, how’ve you survived without picking any of that up?”

Artemis looked down, a bit sadly and muttered “It’s not like I’ve been anywhere that’s like that. I mean, I’ve lived my life on the fringe of civilization, half of the planets I’ve been on barely had a government, let alone anything like corporate protection.”

“Oh, yeah, guess that makes sense. Sorry for not thinkin of that.” She turned away awkwardly and tried to switch subjects “Anyway, enough killing time, we’re almost there. Wait, what’re you doing?” Gaige asked as Artemis suddenly drifted off to the wall as they entered one of the hubs.

“Something’s been bothering me for a while.” She replied, moving near the wall and examining it closely “I mean, why have these hubs if there’s not more to them than just an intersection?”

“Well, most of them have a vending machine, or a communication post.”

“Yeah, but what else?”

“Well, it’s easier to have an intersection like this than to have to perfectly seal the four walkways together, not to mention they can seal the doors in case of a breach.”

“Yeah, but shouldn’t there be a hatch to lead out? I mean, in case they need to do maintenance?”

“Hmm, you’re probably right, but there’d need to be some kind of airlock for it.”

“Only if the outside pressure was different, or there was no air out there, but if that was the case, why’d they have that dome over the entire facility?”

“To trap any air that leaks out and as a secondary safety measure?”

“Ah, that makes sense, sorry for wasting our time.”

“Nonsense, there’s undoubtedly an escape hatch in here somewhere, but the problem is that it probably would be wired to an alarm, we need an actual maintenance door. Good idea though.” Gaige said, trying to cheer the other girl up.

It didn’t work all that well, since she slumped along after Gaige, looking a bit defeated. She knew better than to try and be smart, it wasn’t what she was good at, better to leave that to the experts. But then what was she good at? That thought kept haunting her, like it had been since she’d joined with Gaige, and like all the previous times it had drifted into her head, she couldn’t think of anything, she knew if she said it out loud, Gaige would get mad at her, tell her all kinds of things that weren’t entirely true to try and cheer her up. Well, either that or she’d smack her again. So, it was better to keep quiet and trail along.

Gaige knew what was going on behind her, she could feel the depression rolling off the other girl, not to mention that she’d seen her body language when she’d had her idea shot down. It had actually been a pretty good idea, one that Gaige herself had overlooked, but that didn’t change any of the reasons she’d shot it down.

She didn’t know how to cheer the other girl up anymore, at this point she’d pointed out all the things she was good at multiple times, but it didn’t seem to sink in, so rather than getting into it again, she felt that she should let it slide this time, mostly because she didn’t want that kind of discussion to be caught on camera and she knew they were being watched, at least some of the time, though if anyone was actually watching live or if it was just being recorded, she didn’t know.

So they moved the last little ways in a heavy, oppressive silence. All three of them were grateful when they finally got to the building and even more so when Gaige spotted a door on the exterior, one that had been hidden from view from their previous angle.

Neither of them said anything as they headed down the walkway towards the large building. Each of them was trying to figure out what to do next, Artemis was trying to figure out how they were going to get from the airlock to the management office and once there, and more importantly, get in. It wasn’t like they would have a vent access on the exterior, nor were they likely to have another airlock, much as she hoped it would. Even if it did, it would no doubt be locked and trying to force it would result in an alarm being raised. Then there was what to do if they could actually get inside without activating any alarms, getting to the boss’s office, getting the information they needed and getting out without setting off any alarms seemed impossible, even for them.

Deathtrap was trying to calculate the possible escape routes, how to get back to the door they’d entered, if it was possible to do without entering the factory floor and if not, what the best way to protect Gaige would be. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t try and protect Artemis, he would, but she was still a secondary concern to Gaige, that would never change, much as it pained him to admit.

As for Gaige, she was thinking something completely different as they walked up to the building’s doors.

They passed through, finding it strange that they were standing open after the building had been used recently, but they supposed that the crew that had been working there hadn’t bothered taking the time to lock up after themselves, considering the place might be found at any point, they’d probably gotten their jobs done and gotten outta there as fast as they could.

Still, it gave them a distinct sense of unease.

They slipped past the door, scanning the area for any kind of traps, but found nothing. In fact, the entire place seemed deserted, just like the rest of the facilities, not that it did anything for their ease of mind.

The room wasn’t very deep, going in only a dozen feet or so, but was easily twice that in length. There were two doors, one straight ahead of them, the other on the side that the airlock was, so Artemis headed there first, only to stop when Gaige went for the other.

“What’re you doing?” She hissed.

“I wanna see something first.” Came the nonchalant reply.

Gaige continued over to the door and peeked into the room beyond, but her shoulders immediately slumped, causing Artemis to walk over and peek around her.

From where they were, neither of them could see much, but it was clear that the room was massive, dominating the building. Directly ahead of them was a set of stairs going down, which surprised Artemis. She couldn’t figure out why Gaige had seemed down, she could clearly see into the room and all the partially assembled bots within. There were still at least a dozen in states of disassembly on the tables lined up in the middle of the room, with boxes and cases around them.

She tapped Gaige on the shoulder and moved away from the door. As soon as the other girl joined her, she asked “What’s up?”

“I wanted to see what they’d been up to.” Came the slightly evasive reply.

“Alright, so you’ve seen it, let’s go.”

Artemis led the way to the other door, which opened into a short hall. On one side was a bathroom and a closet that held a bunch of bathroom supplies. The last door, straight ahead of them finally led to the airlock, which displayed a number of things on the panel next to the door.

“Right.” Artemis said, not even bothering to pretend she understood any of it “So, how’re we getting into the office?”

“Huh?”

“Well, they might not have any external entrances, right?”

“Oh yeah, I guess you’re right. Well, if they don’t, you might have to climb onto the roof, there should be an access point up there.”

“Maybe, but then what? Do I have to pull you up or are you gonna be waiting outside for me to let you in?”

“Yeah, about that, I’m not going with you.”

“Wait, what?”

“See, someone needs to go through the stuff here and try and figure it out and since the alarm is probably set to the office, we won’t have time to come back, right? So, since we need to get outta here as quickly as possible, we need to split up.”

“So why do I get the office? You should go, I mean, you’re the one that can handle the computers, I have no idea what I’d be doing.”

“I can walk you through that over the ECHO.”

“Why can’t you be the one that goes?”

“Cause, I’m the one that has to stay here. You might have to go through a vent or something once you get into the building, I mean, the security’s probably active over there, right? Plus, I’m the one that can understand the bots better. I mean, you don’t have any real experience with them, other than destroying them, do you? Didn’t think so, which means that I have to be the one to go through them.”

“Why do I feel like I’m getting played?”

Gaige shrugged, but behind her mask, she did look apologetic.

“Fine, but you’re going to have to carry most of my stuff.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, if I’m gonna have to go through a vent, I can’t be carrying all this stuff, so you’re going to have to take it, after all, we don’t have anyone else to carry it, do we?”

Gaige stopped, catching onto what she was meaning. Sure, Deathtrap could easily carry the pack, but it would look weird on the security footage for a pack to be floating along by itself, which meant that she’d be the one that had to deal with it.

Letting out a groan she conceded “Fine, but you’re gonna have to take as much as you can, and then help me pack.”

Artemis just shrugged in response.

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Chapter 26

Apate 3

Artemis

She wasn’t feeling too happy as the airlock cycled around her, she understood everything that Gaige had said, but she didn’t have to like it. Some part of her suspected that Gaige was simply pawning off the job that she didn’t want so that she could go play with her robots. Why couldn’t they have gone into the remodeling area together? She’d said something about not having a lot of time, but wouldn’t two of them speed it up? Sure, she didn’t know what she was doing, at least not compared to an actual expert like Gaige, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t help. Plus wasn’t it a bad idea to split up if you were expecting the alarm to go off? Shouldn’t you stick together to try and watch each other’s back?

She didn’t think that Gaige was trying to get rid of her, though the thought had crossed her mind, but even so, she couldn’t help but think this was a bad idea and that she was getting the business end of the buzz-ax again.

But she had a job to do, and she’d do it as best she could, not to try and prove her use to Gaige so that she wouldn’t leave, though that was part of it, but because she wanted to show Gaige she could do it, though that did lead her to an uncomfortable thought, if she did a good job on this, she’d get more tasks pawned off on her, forcing her to do things like this again, which she didn’t want. But if she failed or screwed up, she’d disappoint Gaige, who wouldn’t trust her as much in the future. And since neither one of the outcomes was good, she’d rather Gaige be pleased with her.

The door cycled open and her Oz bubble formed around her head, it’s readings indicated that the air outside was mostly breathable, but that the Oz kit was still required to not asphyxiate, but that the kit’s usage would be diminished since it could draw some of the oxygen from the surrounding environment.

Still, she didn’t want to waste any time, so she headed out as soon as the door was clear, bouncing lightly in the reduced gravity. She hadn’t really noticed, but the interior of the buildings and walkways had about twice as much gravity as outside. She’d still been able to move with a floaty motion, but it hadn’t been that bad, but out here she was able to bounce along with almost no effort, though it was a bit strange feeling.

She quickly orientated herself and headed towards her goal. It wasn’t hard, without the buildings and walkways in the way, she could pick out the building she needed, even from the distance. Her only real worry was that she might run out of oxygen before she got back inside. She’d need to keep an eye on her consumption on the way over to see about how much she needed to keep in reserve to make her way back if she couldn’t get in.

The ground crunched lightly as she landed, sending out small puffs of dust. She bounced high up, not quite enough to clear one of the walkways, but it was still high enough that she could see around. The outer wall was high, comprised of both energy barriers and solid walls, with a few outposts intermingled. Some of the posts had walkways leading to them, but most of them must have been accessed by either traveling like she was or else there were underground tunnels. She wondered about that, there must have been something underground, some means of getting power to the different buildings. They might have some way to generate their own oxygen, most likely for emergencies, but the power systems that would be required for a complex like this would have to be massive. Not to mention that the oxygen scrubbers and such would have to be somewhere.

She supposed that they might be in one of the buildings that she hadn’t seen yet, but she didn’t think that felt right. She should’ve asked Gaige about it earlier, but now wasn’t the time to bother her with such thoughts, after all, Artemis was only entertaining such things to distract her from the fact that she was only a twenty-year old or so Oz kit away from death, which didn’t make very good traveling company, so she continued speculating about things.

She supposed there would be some kind of underground tubing, she could see some of the pipes and such emerging from the ground around some of the buildings, but that didn’t mean they were all connected, just that it was likely. She wasn’t an expert on any of this stuff, so all she could do was guess the best she could with what limited knowledge she had.

Bouncing around one of the buildings that was between her and her goal, she looked at the exterior, trying to figure out if she could even climb one of them, but thankfully, she saw that the pipes that were crawling up its side would be climbable, provided of course that they weren’t superheated or electrified, but that wasn’t something she could do anything about, so she decided not to worry on it needlessly.

It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough stuff to worry about already. Besides such immediate concerns like running out of air and whether she could actually get in or not and even if she did, whether she could get through the computer, she had her usual long running worries, like what kind of bad luck she’d inflict on Gaige, what she was going to do with her life, what Gaige would want from her.

But for right now, she was trying to push those worries aside and focus on the task at hand, so she went back to wondering about the layout of the place, since if, or rather, when something went wrong, she’d be as prepared as she could be for it.

It wasn’t like she could formulate escape plans or anything like that, she didn’t have the knowledge of the area, nor the skill at making those kinds of plans to do something like that, but that didn’t mean she should just wing it. That had worked fine for most of her life, but she wasn’t sure that she could keep going like that for much longer. Plus, even when she was winging it, she found that the more information she had on her surroundings, the intelligence of the creature she was hunting, even something as small as somethings like the way it smelled, could have a major impact on how well she was able to come up with something on the fly. But here, in this place, she had nothing. No information on her surroundings and environment. No idea of how intelligent her opponents would be, she couldn’t use any of her previous encounters as a baseline, the bots here would’ve been reprogrammed, which meant that they might have been upgraded with a more combat intelligent A.I., so she couldn’t even calculate how they’d act.

So, she resigned herself to picking up anything she could, even if it was just speculating on the underground facilities that the place may or may not have.

As she mulled these things, the management office came into view.

The building was more imposing on this side of the glass, looming over her with a sense of weighty purpose, which she figured must have been designed into it. It wasn’t all that tall of a building, not compared to some of the ones towering off to the side, but it seemed to be better built, like most of the aesthetic care of the compound had been placed into it, though she couldn’t put her finger on why.

She supposed Gaige could’ve instantly identified what she was trying to figure out, she was good with those kinds of things. Well, she figured she shouldn’t stop there, the list of things Gaige was good at that she wasn’t was longer than she was tall, not that that was saying much.

Once again, she felt down, Gaige should’ve been the one doing this, but like she’d said, she was the only one that could handle the bots, which meant that it fell onto Artemis’s inept shoulders to see this through. She couldn’t help but feel that things would’ve been much smoother if there’d been two Gaige’s instead of having her tag along, but she knew that there was no way for that to happen, so she was the best Gaige had at the moment.

Suppressing another sigh, she continued towards the building, examining it as she went. From her side, it seemed impenetrable. The wall was smooth, with only the minimal pipes running up its side, arranged in a more geometric pattern, compared to the more organic looking ones on the rest of the buildings. Other than that, there was nothing of note. At the far end, away from the walkway, she could see what seemed like shelves sticking out ever so slightly and as she continued towards the building, trying to angle herself to go around, she realized they were windows, the first she’d seen since they’d got to the base.

It wasn’t that she didn’t think there were any others, she knew that there must be, for security reasons if for no other, but these were different, they were there for pure narcissistic reasons, a statement to all the other workers that the boss was better than you, they got to waste a bunch of resources to have a window installed in their office so they could look out over the moon.

Looking at them closer as she went past, she could see the emergency shutters that would slam into place should anything breach one of them, which made sense, but cut that approach off, not that she’d given it any serious thought. Still, it was a nice fantasy, to smash the glass all over the fancy room, but like so many other things like that, she would never really do it, so she tucked it away and kept going.

The final side of the building came into view and looked remarkably similar to the side she’d first approached, with the same pipe work crawling up the side. The main difference was the single door set into the side of the building, an emergency airlock, she guessed.

She approached it cautiously, wary of any alarms that might be attached to it. She examined the control panel for a few seconds and checked her air. She’d gone through about a third of it or more so far, meaning she’d have to head back before too long, but she had enough time to try at least a few ways in before then, so she nervously reached out and pressed the button.

An instant later the screen turned red and an error sound chimed. It seemed to be locked, but it also seemed that she hadn’t set off any alarms by touching it.

Letting out a sigh, she looked at the pipes. If she worked at it, she could climb them all the way to the roof, which she supposed she’d have to do cause it was either that or she’d have to try and bypass the door.

Hopping over to the pipe, she reached out and tapped it with her left hand, making sure that it wasn’t scorching hot, freezing, electrified or dangerous in any other way. When nothing happened, she nodded and backed away a number of paces.

Once she was in position, she dashed forward as best she could in the lowered gravity and jumped as high as she could, catching the pipes near the middle of the second floor. She was surprised with how much height she’d managed to get, but still had a ways to go, so she started pulling herself up as fast as she could.

It didn’t really take all that long to scale the outside of the building, the lowered gravity making each pull so much easier that she felt she could’ve climbed the outside of the factory without having to rest, but thankfully, she didn’t have to do that. Instead, she lightly hopped over the edge of the building and found herself standing on the roof.

After a quick once over to make sure there weren’t any armed turrets or other security measures waiting for her, she got to work searching for any way in.

Her first scan turned up nothing. There were a few machines sitting on the roof, but she could clearly see that the pipes and tubes running from them to the inside of the building were as big as her wrist, at best, so there was no way she’d fit through them.

Eventually on her second pass she found a hatch.

Crouching down next to it, she did a basic examination of it to determine the feasibility of opening it, and found to her dismay that it was even worse than the airlock door.

It didn’t have any handles on the outside to start with, which meant that it wasn’t designed to be opened from here, it was likely only accessible from the inside. That was backed up by the fact that there wasn’t any kind of control panel around it, even though she did a thorough check, even going so far as to check the machinery for a hidden panel, but she still turned up nothing.

Going back, she checked the hatch one last time and determined that if she wanted in this way, she’d either need someone on the inside to open it, or some industrial strength cutting tools and since she had neither, she gave up on it.

Checking her air, she saw that she’d need to start heading back in another minute or two, so if she was going to try anything, she’d have to be quick, so she stepped to the edge and hopped off, letting the lowered gravity do the work for her.

Landing in a puff of dust, she turned to the airlock and pulled out her ECHO. She knew that it was dangerous to contact Gaige right then, she had no way of knowing what kind of situation the other girl was in, but if she was going to do this, she’d at least need to give her a heads up, if not try and extract another option from her. Without time to spare, she keyed in the call.

“What?” Came the curt answer after a few moments of buzzing.

“You got a moment?”

“I guess.” Came the reply, sounding a bit off, but Artemis just chalked it up to Gaige being caught in the middle of working and her being leery of why Artemis had chosen to call her at all.

“Good, cause I need a bit of advice.”

“Ulp.” Came the strange sound from the other end of the line.

“Uh, see, I don’t have a lot of time here, so I’m gonna get right into it, if you don’t have any reason I shouldn’t.” She paused for a second, then continued “See, I got to the building, but the airlock is closed, no surprise there, so that means I can’t exactly get in that way without hacking it or something, so I went to the roof, but the hatch up there doesn’t have any controls, at least not external ones, so I came back down and was wondering if you had a better idea then hacking the controls to the airlock and if not to warn you that I was about to do that.”

There was silence from the other end of the line, but Artemis didn’t worry, she knew that Gaige would be thinking about what to do, so she waited.

After a bit, Gaige came back “Right, so if you don’t think you can get through the roof access, then you’re gonna have to try the airlock. Get ready, I’ll walk you through this.”

Artemis followed Gaige’s instructions and soon enough the light on the panel turned green. They both held their breath, waiting for the alarm to start blaring, but after a number of nerve-wracking moments, nothing happened except the airlock cycled open, allowing Artemis to infiltrate the office.

Gaige

She’d watched as the airlock cycled closed behind Artemis, feeling the weight of guilt on her mind, she knew that it should be her out there, that the other girl had been right, everything she’d said had been on the mark and even the stuff she’d forgotten or didn’t think of had all indicated that Gaige should be the one going outside. That was the more important mission, the one that they needed to do, but she couldn’t help it, she needed to examine the bots.

It wasn’t some kind of obsessive thing, it wasn’t that she just wanted to poke around and see what kind of changes that jerk Holloway had done to her design, she legitimately knew that she’d need to see what was inside the bots, how they were accomplishing the changes in them to be able to counteract them in the future.

But that didn’t make her feel any better about it.

If anything, it made her feel worse for some reason. It might have been that she’d wanted Artemis to argue with her, not because she wanted to fight with her, but because if she did, Gaige might be able to think of another reason for why she needed to stay, one that would convince herself that it was really the right thing to do, but instead, the other girl had asked a number of fair questions and had pointed out all the things that Gaige had already thought of and then left.

She knew that Deathtrap was hovering behind her, shaking his head in disappointment, but there was nothing she could do about it, they both knew this had to be done, even if they didn’t like it.

“It has to be this way, doesn’t it?” She muttered aloud, trying to assuage the guilt in her chest.

Predictably no answer came, so she shook her head and muttered “Well, let’s get this over with.”

She made her way back to the other door and walked though, displaying a confidence that she didn’t feel. She felt that she had to show Holloway that she wasn’t afraid of him, that she could take him on by herself, despite the fact that she really doubted it.

Descending the stairs, she found herself faced with the mess that the workers had left behind. Part of her mind idly wondered if any of the stuff left would be of any help. It had been her greatest worry when sending Artemis off, that anything Gaige would find would’ve been left there on purpose, just to throw them off.

She put nothing past Holloway. He’d do anything to get her, she knew that, but she couldn’t help but feel that this was legitimate, that the room looked right. She’d been in enough rooms like this to spot it when things looked planted, and nothing here did. That didn’t mean that they hadn’t set the room up to feel that way, it was entirely possible, but it would’ve taken a great deal of effort and time, something that it didn’t seem that they’d had. To be fair, that might have also been part of the trap, but she didn’t think so. Or rather, she hoped it wasn’t, otherwise this would all end in disaster and not just for her, but Deathtrap and Artemis as well.

She did a once over of the room, checking the boxes and leftover bots, all while trying not to think about anything else. Something about sending Artemis off alone was still weighing on her mind and it wasn’t that she owed the girl an answer, but since she didn’t want to distract herself at this important moment, she continued to shove it down and try to focus on the matter at hand.

Once she’d finished her initial search, she went back to a few points that had caught her interest. She started by reexamining the cases that were tossed against the wall. They’d emptied them all, so whatever had been in them, must have been either valuable or important, probably both. Judging by the size of the indent in the packing foam, she guessed it was the EMP device, the explosives or some kind of weapon. She considered that it might be the radio or whatever had allowed them to detonate the bots, but dismissed it, she’d already seen something else that seemed more likely to be related to that.

Deep down, she felt that it was the EMP, so much so that she wrote it on her mental blueprint of the room, but she did end up putting a question mark by it, in parentheses.

Moving on, she checked the next spot and like she’d thought, it was the method that they’d used to signal the bomb, it seemed that the EMP shielding that Holloway had developed also prevented the bots from receiving most kinds of signals from outside, which meant that they would have to get their orders from either verbal commands or from there A.I., so the same would apply to the bomb inside them, unless there was another method of giving them orders, or rather, a different way to use one of the existing methods.

She picked up one of the receivers that were in the pile and examined it, it wasn’t special, nowhere near top of the line, in fact, it was way outdated tech, the kind they only used on really backwater planets, which is what made it work.

It worked by picking up sound and converting it to signals, the same way as an audio receiver generally did, but it was able to pick up different frequencies, including ones that wouldn’t be affected by the electromagnetic pulse, the tradeoff was range. But that was fine if someone nearby had a device set to the same frequency, say a person in a tree a short ways away that was carrying a disposable communication device.

She hadn’t thought to check the frequency that the device had been set to, mostly cause it was smashed up pretty bad, but also, because she hadn’t thought about it. But now that she had an idea, she regretted it.

Her idea wasn’t a hundred percent, but it was a fairly solid working theory, enough so that she went on searching the room till she got to the last thing she wanted to examine, the thing that would take the most time, but probably yield the best information, one of the remaining bots.

She knew that it hadn’t been worked on, that they hadn’t cracked its case open, but it had been modified, so she had to hope that it had the same things done to it that the rest of the bots they would face from here on out had done to them, though if the bots on Jaka had been anything to go by, the answer would be, not much.

Still, something about it told her that this was a more advanced model then those ones had been, so it would pay to be thorough.

She got to work, dragging the bot up and laying it on the table. She wished Deathtrap could help, but with him staying invisible, he couldn’t do much. She also wished Artemis was there, not just for the extra pair of hands either.

Since she was so good with robots, dismantling the one in front of her took almost none of her attention, just enough to make sure that it wasn’t booby-trapped, which she quickly found out it wasn’t, so her mind had enough capacity to spare, allowing her thoughts to drift to a matter that had been pressing on her for some time, namely what she wanted from Artemis.

It had been some time since she’d had anything resembling a friend, let alone anyone that she actually cared for, so she wasn’t sure anymore what she was feeling. When she thought about it, she’d never really been in love with anyone, in lust, sure, but never really in love. She loved her family, but that was different, that was platonic, she was thinking of real, romantic love, and the more she thought about it, the less sure she was.

What did she feel for Artemis? Was it just a friendship? She liked to believe so, she’d told herself that was all there was to it, that she hadn’t had a friend before, at least not since she’d been a Vault Hunter and even then, while she’d been friends with them, she was sure of that, it had been a different sort of camaraderie that had held them together, so she wasn’t sure that she could use that as her basis. Besides, what she felt now was different from how she remembered that, but she could just chalk that up to being older.

She was now twenty-six, a completely different person then she’d been eight years ago and that thought depressed her for some reason. She didn’t think she had changed that much, but thinking back on how she’d acted, she wasn’t embarrassed, but she couldn’t imagine acting like that anymore. She wondered what had changed, had she matured? Was it that she’d had all those different jobs and could now see things from angles she couldn’t have then? Or was it something simpler, that she had changed. She knew that Artemis was always telling her things like, do what you want and just be yourself, but Gaige still had trouble figuring out who that really was. Was she an Ex-Vault Hunter? A mechanical engineer? An Ex-wedding planner? A bringer of trouble? Or was she just another lost soul drifting through the universe, like so many others.

She knew that if she couldn’t even figure that out, there was almost no chance she’d be able to figure out what she wanted, not from herself and certainly not from Artemis.

She removed another part from the bot and sighed, she knew that she was avoiding the issue. The real reason that she was lost in thought. For some reason, whenever she tried to think about it, she quickly shifted away. She knew why, or at least part of the reason, she couldn’t come up with an answer. Usually that would make her dig at the problem all the harder, it was one of the things that had always defined her, her ability to stick with a problem until she’d worked out a solution, sure she’d sometimes shelve a problem for a little while to try and gain some different perspective, but this one was different, for some reason she seemed to not want to find her solution.

The reason for that was simple, once she knew what she wanted, she’d have to act on it. No matter the choice she made, things would change, regardless of what Artemis responded to her with, something fundamental would change in their relationship, and she didn’t want that. She was comfortable with how things were, so why intentionally shake things up? She had enough problems doing that by accident.

But she knew the reason she had to press on as well, things would change. No matter how much they both wanted them not to, things would change. And if they weren’t careful, they could change for the worse. It might be something simple, like one of them getting a job that took them away for a while, or it might be something more serious, like one of them deciding that they didn’t want to be around the other anymore. It could even be that one of them fell in love with someone.

For some reason, Gaige didn’t want to think about that. She could go through ways that the others might play out, things she could do to try and keep them together despite that, or ways to part with the intent of staying in contact at least. But the thought of Artemis with someone else bothered her. It didn’t even have to be a romantic situation, she’d realized that when A.I.ngel had lived on the ship briefly. She simply didn’t like it.

Anyone else would’ve easily called it for what it was, but Gaige refused to acknowledge that she was simply jealous of them, A.I.ngel and any imaginary person that she could see Artemis going with. It wasn’t that she wanted to be in their place, but that she didn’t want to lose her, at least that’s what she kept telling herself, and it certainly wasn’t that she was jealous of the imaginary girlfriend. Why would she be? It wasn’t like she thought of her that way, was it? Of course not, she just didn’t think that they were right for her.

If she were to say that to anyone else, they would easily point out the fact that if she didn’t know who they were, how could she be so sure that they weren’t good for Artemis, but since she refused to acknowledge that flaw in her plan, she kept telling herself that was all there was to it.

But each time she got that far, she asked herself why? Why was she so hung up on this? And she couldn’t find an answer. She knew that she needed to figure out what she wanted, but she kept falling into the loop of self-denial so that she didn’t need to find an answer.

During all of her jobs, one thing that she’d learned helped was to attack a difficult problem from a new angle, often that would yield surprising results, so while she continued working, she thought about the issues she had and chose one, the one that she figured would be the easiest to address from a new angle.

Whether she liked girls or not.

She separated Artemis from the problem and thought about it, tried to imagine herself on a date with a girl, sitting across the table, looking into each other’s eyes. She tried to place a woman into the scene, someone different from Artemis, as different as she could, but found that she was having trouble thinking of one. Her mind first went to Maya, but that just depressed her, losing her still hurt too much to think of her, so she moved on. Ellie wasn’t her type, even if she had been into girls, though she was about as opposite from Artemis as she could think of and Tina was just way too awkward, she kept picturing the ten-year old she’d first met, which was seriously uncomfortable. She flipped through some of the rest of the women that she’d know Athena, Lilith, Tannis, but found them to be too strange to think of that way, so she tried some of the more recent ones but Moze, while she liked her, just kept going wrong. She could see her that way, but she kept running off with her mech in Gaige’s mind. Amara wasn’t much better, Gaige had less in common with her so she didn’t really feel like she could picture her in a restaurant. She tried some of the other women she’d met, but while she could picture Alex or Caz there, they seemed to not work with Gaige as well as each other, in fact, when she tried to picture them at the table, they wound up leaving together.

Even A.I.ngel didn’t work, whenever Gaige tried to think of her across the table, she found Artemis sitting next to her, which defeated the entire exercise.

Frustrated, she glared down at the disassembled bot lying in front of her and decided to shelve the entire thing for the moment, when her ECHO alerted her of an incoming call, causing her to jump in surprise. Calming herself as best she could she wiped her hands and picked it up, nearly dropping it when she saw who was calling her.

For a second she wondered if Artemis had known what she’d been thinking, but quickly realized that the other girl must have some legit reason for calling so she hit the answer button and tried to sound as casual as she could.

“What?”

“You got a moment?” Came the reply.

‘She knows.’ Flashed through Gaige’s mind, but she squashed it down and trying to smile answered as nonchalantly as she could “I guess.”

“Good,” Came the reply, “I need a bit of advice.”

‘Oh crap, I can’t even give myself advice, what do I do, what do I do?’ She thought as she tried to respond, only succeeding in making a strange sound.

Artemis must have taken it as a sign to continue, because she said “Uh, see, I don’t have a lot of time here, so I’m gonna get right into it, if you don’t have any reason I shouldn’t.” She paused for a second, then continued “See, I got to the building, but the airlock is closed, no surprise there, so that means I can’t exactly get in that way without hacking it or something, so I went to the roof, but the hatch up there doesn’t have any controls, at least not external ones, so I came back down and was wondering if you had a better idea then hacking the controls to the airlock and if not to warn you that I was about to do that.”

‘Oh, is that all?’ Flashed through Gaige’s mind, immediately followed by a chastisement, that was a plenty big problem, big enough that Artemis had called her about it, which had been the right choice. Pushing all other thoughts out of her head, Gaige focused on the problem, if she couldn’t get in through the roof, then that meant that the airlock was the only route left, other than searching out the security office, which was an absolute last resort. Which left having her hack her way in and from the sound of it, she didn’t have much air left, so she’d have to be quick about it.

Taking a breath, Gaige nodded to herself, they could do this “Right, so if you don’t think you can get through the roof access, then you’re gonna have to try the airlock. Get ready, I’ll walk you through this.”

She spent the next little bit walking her through the procedure, while at the same time checking to make sure her own guns were ready in case something went wrong.

After a tense minute, she heard the sounds of the airlock control chime and no alarms started blaring, so it seemed like they’d passed another hurdle, which caused Gaige to let out a shaky breath she hadn’t been aware she’d been holding and leaned against the table in relief.

Still, if Artemis was inside, she’d have to pick up the pace on her end as well, since it was only a matter of time till she got to the office and sprung whatever trap was waiting, and Gaige needed to be ready to help her escape it.

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Chapter 27

Apate 3

Artemis

The airlock cycle clicked and the inner door light turned to green. She reached for the handle cautiously, still afraid of the trap that hadn’t yet been sprung, but the door hissed slightly and swung open without any difficulty.

Peering around the door, she found herself in an area that if she had to describe, would be maintenance, though it wasn’t like the rooms she was used to. There were pipes, sure and machines, but they were clean and tucked against one wall. The rest of the room was taken up by consuls that she couldn’t even guess the purpose of.

They were covered in switches and dial, the lines on the screens rose and dropped periodically to a rhythm that she couldn’t figure out. She knew that Gaige could’ve given them one glance and told her what they were for, but without an in-depth investigation, there was no way she could even begin to guess, which once again told her that she was the wrong person for this job.

Still, she was too far along to turn back now, besides, Gaige was counting on her to do this.

Taking a slow, deep breath, she calmed herself and moved forward with renewed purpose. She made her way across the room and up to the door, wishing she had some kind of ID card or at least something to open the doors other than another round of hacking, but to her surprise, the door slid open with barely a sound the instant she tapped the panel.

She found herself suddenly feeling woefully out of place. If she’d been thinking up till then that she was the wrong person for the job, now she was sure of it as her boots sunk into the plush carpet.

The walls leading each way were some kind of dark metal or plastic, but it didn’t look industrial. Completely the opposite actually, the walls screamed class. As she looked closer, she could see flecks of green and gold in them, which complimented the patterned carpet.

The hall was lit with brass trimmed fixtures set against the ceiling, as well as occasional glowing lines that ran from floor to ceiling, allowing her to see clearly.

Inlaid in the wall were doors of a polished black, with gold and hardwood inserts and periodically along the wall were small indents and alcoves where vases and pictures were placed.

The entire effect was so foreign that she wondered if she’d stepped through another portal and wound up somewhere completely different. The level of opulence was so out of place that she wondered why they’d brought all this junk to this moon in the middle of nowhere, it made no sense to her. Why waste all these supplies like this? Why not use them somewhere where people could actually see them, like your headquarters? Or better yet, why not use the money spent on this to improve other areas of the facility? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

She figured if she asked Gaige, she’d have an answer, but for right now, Artemis was forced to just shake her head in disgust and proceed on.

She guessed that the head honcho would be on the top floor, which always seemed to be the case, though she couldn’t figure out why. It seemed silly to have to take an elevator ride up each time you wanted to go to your office, not to mention it was inconvenient for everyone else. She supposed that might have something to do with it, by making it inconvenient to visit, you cut down on the number of people who’d harass you needlessly, but with all the means of communication that the business had, she couldn’t imagine it would work all that well. The only other thing she could think of was that they must have liked looking down on the little folks, which considering the way these offices looked, didn’t seem to be that much of a stretch. It was no wonder they’d locked this place up, if she’d been a worker here, she would’ve wanted to smash some of this stuff too. Not that she could ever imagine herself working in a place like this, not as an actual worker, nor as one of the office staff and certainly not as the boss, she didn’t like people enough to spend any more time with them then she had to, not to mention she didn’t have the skills. Even Gaige, who was both more skilled at this stuff and dealing with people had quit this kind of work after one day, so Artemis doubted she’d last ten minutes.

Putting such useless thoughts aside, she headed towards where the doors out had been sealed.

She was tempted to open up one of the doors she went past, if for no other reason than to see what an office was like in this place, but she didn’t want to keep Gaige waiting for longer than she had to, so she passed. It wasn’t like she’d find anything of use in there anyway, at least not to her. There was a chance she could find something, like an exotic letter opener or a solid gold paper weight, but there was also the chance that she’d set off an alarm, so she kept going.

She figured Gaige would’ve checked out at least one of the rooms, but she could’ve gotten the door open without any real difficulty, unlike Artemis who would’ve needed either a fair amount of time or to just break the thing down.

It wasn’t long before she made it to the main lobby, which reminded her more of Moxxi’s casino than anything. The receptionist’s desk was a long wood affair that looked solid enough to be used for cover in a firefight. To each side of it, long curved stairs went up to the second floor, their balustrade were ornate, with curved golden wood balusters supporting the dark banister. The rich carpet continued up the stairs, with the hard dark material that made up the walls peeking out from underneath.

The metal door that would’ve led to the walkway was covered with another set of wooden doors, hiding it from sight, which gave the entire place an even more unreal feeling. Artemis had to keep reminding herself that she was still in the factory and not sneaking through some abandoned hotel.

She glanced around, making sure that there wasn’t anything waiting for her and spotted the cameras hidden in the corners, some watching the doors, others the receptionist desk, but it was the first thing there that seemed to indicate that she was still on Apate.

Taking the moment, she walked around the desk, checking to make sure there wasn’t anything of use there, like a set of keys, but other than some gold-plated pens, she didn’t find anything.

Walking back around she made her way past the nearest elevator, with its gold trim and wood doors and up the stairs.

The feel of the carpet continued to be unreal, she wished she could find out where it had come from, she’d have loved to get some for her ship, the thought of padding around barefoot on it was extremely alluring, but she just had to file that away under wishful thinking, there wasn’t any chance of finding that out, let alone affording it, she suspected.

She made it to the top of the stairs and started down the hall when she came to a set of wooden doors and behind them, she found the first real problem since she’d entered, a massive metal door that was so out of place, it made her wonder if she was dreaming.

She stood staring at it for a few seconds, trying to process what she was seeing, but in the end, she had to concede that it was, in fact, there. To make matters worse, there was no control panel to it, nor was there anything else to indicate a way around, forcing her to go back.

She ran through her options, she could go back down to the first floor and either search for another way up, such as a back staircase, she could try the elevator and if it wasn’t working, try and climb the shaft or she could try the vents.

She decided to hold off on the last one as a last resort, after the last time she’d had to climb through vents, she didn’t want to repeat it any time soon, though she had a sinking suspicion that she’d end up having to do it anyway.

Trying to put her mind at ease, she reminded herself that she had two other options to try before she’d be forced to go with that, so she should get working on them first.

Heading back down, she eyed the elevator, trying to decide whether to go with that first or second, but decided that since she was already there, she might as well try it, so she hit the button.

She stood there for a few seconds, then hit it again, but still nothing happened. She let out a sigh as she realized that if the place was in lockdown, the elevator would’ve been shut off as well, so she reached back to her pack to grab her crowbar, only to remember it was back on the ship. In her effort to not be recognized, she’d left most of her gear behind, that included her crowbar, though now she couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t like she was the only person that carried one, was she? Especially not when she was raiding a secret base like this. It would’ve only been natural for her to have one, but here she was, without it.

She examined the door, trying to find the maintenance override. She figured it had to have something in case of a power failure, but since she didn’t know where it would be, she couldn’t tell if this one actually had one or not, so she was forced to give up.

Her next attempt was to force it open, putting all her weight against it. That worked just enough for her to see that the other side of the elevator had been sealed with another blast door, meaning that she wasn’t getting up that way.

Letting the door slide shut, she paused to catch her breath and reassess the situation. She wasn’t in a good spot. If the second floor was that sealed off, there was a good chance that even if there was a second staircase, it would be sealed as well. Not that she wasn’t going to check, but it meant that as she went, she’d definitely need to look for some kind of a maintenance access to the air system and just hope that any group that was paranoid enough to seal off the elevator, wouldn’t put similar things in the vents. If they were, she didn’t know how she’d get through.

Trying to stop that line of thought, even as she reminded herself to plan for all eventualities, she headed around to the last hallway and proceeded down.

This time she gave more attention to the doors, noting that they didn’t have any names next to them, instead they had a code inlayed into them that she realized were numbers. It was a subtle touch, one she reluctantly admitted gave the place an air of class, but one that also made it difficult for her to tell where the maintenance rooms were.

Eventually she made it to the end of the hall and saw that it turned, no doubt connecting to the first one she’d been in. But to her amazement and annoyance, there wasn’t a stairwell. She supposed that it could’ve been hidden in one of the corners, but she didn’t think so.

Groaning in frustration, she paused. She hadn’t seen anything like a maintenance room either, at least not that she’d recognized as such, which meant she had to start opening doors to try and find it, a process that could take hours. She briefly debated calling Gaige, in part to get her advice and in part to warn her, but she decided to hold off for a little while, she wanted to check something first.

She had two ideas as she headed back the way she’d come, the first was that the room behind the elevator had to be some kind of maintenance for it and the second was to try the room she’d just stopped in front of, the one directly opposite from the one that held the airlock.

She had two reasons for that, the first was that it was symmetrical and thus far, the place had been symmetrical, even the elevators had been matched across the room, even though she’d only checked one. The second reason was that the door had a slightly different spacing between it and the ones on either side of it then any others in the hall, which led her to believe that there was a reason for it.

Since that one was the closest, she started there.

It took some work, but the door opened, it hadn’t been locked all that well, apparently not many of the people who worked here wanted to go into the maintenance area, so it was closed with only a rudimentary lock.

The door slid open, revealing a rather disappointing sight. The room was packed with equipment which she figured was somehow connected to the water supply, though she couldn’t be sure. Thick pipes ran into the room, before entering one of the machines and branching out in smaller ones that left the room through the ceiling. Other than that, it didn’t appear to be much there aside from some shelves that held spare parts and some cleaning supplies.

Trying not to feel too down, she headed to her next best hope, the door nearest to the elevator, figuring that it had to have some kind of maintenance access.

This time, the lock proved to be much sturdier, nearly causing her to quit and look around the receptionist area again to try and locate any keys that she knew weren’t there, but in the end, the lock gave and the door opened.

What she found was a surprise, definitely not what she’d been expecting, but even stranger was that the room wasn’t one she’d expected to find in the building at all. The only way she could describe it was an apartment.

Straight ahead of her was a small living room, complete with an overstuffed couch and matching chairs seated around a small table. On the wall they were facing was a monitor over a number of electronic devices that included at least one movie player. Nearer to the door, was a closet set on one side and opposite it was a small kitchenette and dining area.

Moving in in a bit of a state of shock, she saw one door led to a bathroom and the other to a bedroom. She found herself looking around in confusion. She’d known that the executives must’ve lived somewhere, but she hadn’t thought it would be in the same building they worked in, unless of course this was only their residential quarters, but she didn’t feel that was right, after all, if they only lived here, why were the upper floors closed off?

She poked into the bedroom and opened the massive standing closet and to her surprise, found it filled with clothes, it seemed that not even the execs had been allowed to clear their stuff out, which might have something to do with the lockdown.

The nightstand next to the bed held products that she didn’t want to see, so she quickly closed that drawer, even as she wondered why someone would need handcuffs with pink fur on them, and vacated the rooms.

She stood in the hall, pondering what to do next, if the room behind the elevators weren’t for maintenance, then that must mean they were either on the top floor, or more likely, in some kind of basement, but she had no idea how to access it and even if she could, how she was going to open the shutters, which meant the elevator was out, so where did that leave her?

Thinking about it, she supposed she should call Gaige and get her opinion, but she didn’t want to keep pestering the other girl, not when she didn’t think she’d really given it her all yet, so she put her mind to work.

She’d tried the stairs and the elevators without luck and she hadn’t found the air system, but where would that be? She didn’t think that the pipes running up the outside of the building could carry enough air for the entire place, so that wasn’t likely it.

The basement, she realized. If the elevator equipment was down there, then it would make sense for the air machinery to be down there as well, it certainly hadn’t been on the roof and it wasn’t likely to be in one of the rooms, so that left her with only that option.

But the problem was, how to get access to it?

The more she thought about it, the more she suspected that there wasn’t any access from within the building itself, it probably required some kind of special key to get into and was no doubt locked up tighter than the building itself, which meant that it was out.

So where did that leave her?

Nowhere. She couldn’t get through to any of the machinery, nor could she go up, which left going back outside. Maybe she could force the roof access. Sure, it would set off the alarm, but what other option did she have.

Mulling it over, she looked up, as if she could see all the way to the roof and then another idea occurred to her.

She must have remembered the last time she’d found the answer on the ceiling, because there weren’t any vents around where she was to trigger the thought, just because she couldn’t get into the vents at their source, there was nothing preventing her from getting into them somewhere else.

She headed back to the room and reexamined it, this time ignoring all the furnishings and only focusing on the vents. Most of them were way too small to fit into, even for her, but two of them had some hope, the only problem was, how to get to them.

They were both on the ceiling, one in the bedroom and one in the kitchenette. Looking at them, the one in the kitchenette would be the harder one to open, since it had some kind of screen over it and she could still see the machinery behind it, no doubt to suck the cooking smoke out of the room, so she headed to the bedroom.

That vent was clean and she could feel the slight movement of air coming from it, which meant it would lead back to the source if she followed it that far, but she only wanted to go part way, until it split and headed up.

Looking around the room she realized that to get access to it would require a fair amount of work so rather than getting to it, she left the room and headed across the hall. If she was going to put that much effort into rearranging the furniture, she might as well make it as straight a shot up as she could and since the duct would likely come up from the core of the building, that was where she should try and access it, so she moved along the hall and got to work opening the room that she thought would be the best bet at getting her near the source.

It took a bit, but considerably less time than the first to pick the lock, having figured out some of the tricks to it and soon enough she found herself in a similar looking room. That’s not to say things weren’t different, the couch was a different color and was arranged against one of the walls. There was a bookcase with all kinds of technical looking books on it that Gaige would’ve loved and the bedroom was much less messy, but overall, it was the same template.

She got to work quickly, heaving the mattress out of the way, as much height as it gave her, it didn’t make a good base to work on. Once that was clear, she went out and took the books off the shelves before dragging that into the bedroom and after bracing it against the table and nightstand, carefully climbed up till she could reach the vent. If she hadn’t found the bookshelf, she would’ve just set a chair on the table and hoped she could stretch high enough, but the bookshelf worked way better than that, her only concern was that while it looked nice, she wasn’t too sure about how sturdy it was, after all, most furniture wasn’t designed to be climbed upon, not even by someone as light as her.

But it held as she unscrewed the panel and tossed it aside. Poking her head into the hole, she looked around. The duct was even smaller than the ones on the Project Odysseus station, but she could still fit. She figured it was probably about the size of the sewage pipe she’d had to slime her way through, but without the slime for lubricant, not that she was complaining about that.

Dropping back down, she rearranged her gear, making sure that she had her tools tucked into her sleeve so that she could undo the vent cover at the other end and packed everything else into her bag, tied that to her ankle and climbed back up.

With one last look around, she let out a sigh and pulled herself up and in.

She turned so that she was moving with the airflow on her face and slithered forward, once again grateful that she wasn’t claustrophobic. But that didn’t mean she liked this. In fact, she rather hated it. She didn’t like not being able to breath, to feel the wind on her skin. She didn’t like the way the metal pressed against her and made it hard to take a deep breath.

But she had to admit, things could be worse. If she’d been built like Gaige, she wouldn’t have been able to fit at all, after all, if she could barely fit, there was no way Gaige’s chest would’ve been able to compact enough to squeeze in.

Thinking of the other girl made her sad again. Not just because of the situation they were in, which was bad enough. First, she’d been chased for years, then when she finally gets free and sends the person responsible to jail, she gets hit with the fines. She managed to pay them off, but then feels like she owes someone for helping raise the money, and now, just when that was starting to look brighter, she finds out that the guy who was responsible in the first place is back. It was enough to cause anyone to want to quit. But Gaige had taken it in stride, moving forward with determination and fully intent on ending this once and for all, which Artemis approved of.

What she didn’t understand was the rest of it. Why was Gaige being so weird about her? It was like she was trying to convince herself of something and Artemis was afraid of what it was. That she’d throw away her life just to pay back some debt that she didn’t owe in the first place.

‘But what if that’s not what it is?’ She thought. That’d be worse, cause then Artemis had no way of knowing how to deal. She’d never had anyone like her before, not really, at least not that she was aware of, so she didn’t know how to react. What if Gaige stated she wanted something like that? How would she react? She didn’t know, and that scared her. She sincerely hoped that Gaige wouldn’t go that route, just as much as she hoped she would.

She shook her head, trying to clear it of such nonsense. This wasn’t the time and it certainly wasn’t the place to daydream like that, she was stuck in a narrow tube, inching forward, she needed to focus, especially since she could see a vertical shaft coming up.

Given the size of the vent she was working her way through, changing to vertical was going to present a fair amount of challenge. Once she’d made her way there, she was relieved to see that the vertical was a bit wider than the one she’d been in, and that there was a vent straight across from her. It took no small amount of maneuvering, but she managed to drag herself across and then let her feet down, dragging herself backwards as she oozed around, till she was vertical. The entire process took a number of minutes and resulted in more than a dozen scrapes and bruises, but she was able to proceed, so she felt it was worth it.

Traveling up wasn’t all that hard, just a matter of bracing herself and pushing with her legs. She traveled for some ways, though it was hard to tell how far since the inside of the vent wasn’t marked, but she was sure she should’ve come across the second floor by then, but she didn’t see any sign of the vents intersecting, so she kept climbing.

Eventually she came to the top and had to wiggle her way around again. Doing her best to orientate herself so that she’d be headed towards the back of the building, she managed to stuff herself into the vent, which she swore was smaller than the first one she’d been in. She could barely move in it, relying on her cybernetics to scooch her forward a few inches at a time.

She wondered what she’d have to do if she didn’t come to a vent that she could get out of, it wasn’t like she could turn and the prospect of trying to move backwards terrified her.

Just as the panic was starting to set in, she spotted light up ahead and redoubled her efforts.

For a while she wondered if she was actually moving forward, since the light didn’t seem to be getting any closer, but eventually she made it and was able to look down through the vent at the room below.

This room was just as opulent as the ones on the first floor, if not more so, but unlike them, it wasn’t a living area, but either a meeting room or someone had a desk the size of an Outrunner. The thing was massive, made out of some kind of wood and no doubt more expensive than her ship. But none of that mattered, all that mattered to her was that it was a way out.

Digging the tools out of her cuff, she went to work and before long the vent cover fell into the room, banging noisily against the table, no doubt leaving a ding in the finish.

It took some finagling, but she managed to ooze her way out, but wasn’t able to get any kind of hold, so she wound up falling onto the table with a solid impact, managing to roll slightly so that the bag she’d been dragging along behind her didn’t land on her.

Laying there, she slowly looked around. To her relief, it turned out to be a conference room, she couldn’t imagine what the rest of an office that had a desk that big would’ve looked like.

Around the desk, pushed back against the walls, were a number of high-backed leather chairs that for some reason looked like the kind of things an evil organization would sit around in, toasting the demise of the hero in some low-grade action movie that Gaige would’ve made her watch.

Part of her wished she could take one of them with her.

The walls of the room were hung with paintings, one of which she recognized as a family portrait of the head of the company. Which she supposed meant that the girl in it had to be Marcie and the older woman, her mother. It was the first time that Artemis had really seen what they looked like. Even taking into account the fact that the painter had no doubt touched up some stuff, she was a good-looking girl, something that Artemis didn’t want to admit. She could see the shape of her mother’s face reflected in hers, though her mom did look a bit, well, harsh? That wasn’t the right word, but she couldn’t think of it at the moment and since the entire family looked a bit evil, that wasn’t it, though that might have just been her bias talking.

Not wanting to waste any more time, she rolled off the table with a groan and got to reequipping herself after dusting herself off. Feeling much better with some firepower, she headed to the main door in the room and cautiously out into the hall.

The carpet was even thicker and plusher than the one downstairs, something she hadn’t thought was possible, but undeniably so. The doors were wood, but she could tell that it was only a vernier, underneath they were even solider than the ones below, she doubted anyone could get through them without a fair amount of explosives or some industrial grade cutting equipment, which sent a shiver of worry down her spine. She really hoped that she wasn’t about to get trapped by one of them.

Orientating herself, she headed to the back of the building, to where she figured the boss’s office had to be. It didn’t take her long to cover the distance, it seemed that whatever was at the back of the building took up almost half of its top floor, which considering the size of the place, was ridiculous.

The double doors stood closed, but opened without much effort on her part, which worried her that she was walking into a trap.

After a quick glance around the room, which was as big as one of the first-floor apartments, she checked the inside of the door jamb, making sure that there wasn’t any way for it to be remotely closed. She figured there could still be other ways, such as magnetics, but since she didn’t see any attached machinery or electronics, she thought she might be safe. Still, that didn’t prevent her from rolling a table from the side of the room over and wedging it in the doorway, just to be sure.

Surveying the room again, she thought rooms like it had some kind of name, though she couldn’t remember it at the time, something about where you kept guests waiting, but her brain was barely functioning considering the surreal nature of the place.

She hadn’t been to many fancy houses in her life, in fact other than the Jakobs estate and the old Montamore one, she hadn’t been in any at all, the best she’d been in was a few mayors’ houses, but those were on backwater planets, so they barely even counted. She’d been in a strange mansion on Feno Phena, but she wasn’t sure that really counted. So, she didn’t have much of a frame of reference, but this place put them all to shame. It even made Timothy’s office look shabby, though that might have been due to the construction and the years it had been locked off.

The room looked like it belonged in some kind of movie about a debutant, not sitting next to a factory on the edge of space. It made no sense. Part of her had been thinking that this place had to be to make the workers work harder in an effort to improve their station, but this was beyond that.

The furniture looked antique, the paintings didn’t look forged, not that she could’ve told either way, everything was tasteful and clean.

She wandered in, looking around, painfully aware of the dust she was tracking in, and stopped. Looking around she could see three doors, each with golden handles. She figured straight ahead would be the correct way for business, but she decided to go around and see what was behind the others first.

The first one led to a dining room, the table long enough that a dozen people could’ve easily eaten around it. Past that, she assumed would be the kitchen and off to one side, some kind of smoking room, she could still smell the awful stench of cigars in the air.

‘What kind of person smokes cigars around all these antiques?’ She thought ‘It would seep in and destroy their value.’

She knew the answer, someone that didn’t care about the value of the things they had, which ticked her off, so she left the room and walked back across the entrance.

The room opposite was some kind of library and work room mixed together. The outside was lined with books, which she got the feeling the owner had never even opened, they’d just bought them to show how intelligent and sophisticated they were. On the table in the middle was a series of plans with notes on them, so she went over and folded them up, shoving them in her pack so that Gaige could look at them later.

The only other door in the room led to a short hall, so she went back and tried the last door in the first room.

It turned out that she’d been right, since it led to a massive office.

The far wall was dominated by a window, which stood open to show the expanse of the planet. In front of that was a large desk of wood and metal, trimmed in gold. It looked so ostentatious that she hated it at a glance. She’d never been one for useless filigree and such, even though most of her Jakobs guns had more than their fair share, she’d never understood the point, if you were going to put that kind of effort into it, why not just improve the gun itself or baring that, just spend the time making another?

She knew that some people saw it as a sign of wealth, a way to say ‘Look how much money I have, I can waste it by making someone spend days making these silly lines all over my stuff.’ but that didn’t mean she had to approve.

The rest of the room was no better, near to the door was a smaller meeting area, with a few chairs seated around a table that was kitted out with so much tech, she wondered if it would transform and attack her. The walls had books on the sides part way around, interrupted by a fireplace, which caused her to stop and re-look out the window to remind herself that she was in space and that it had to be fake.

Over the fireplace hung another painting of Marcie Holloway, which led to a sinking suspicion about the room. Giving into it, Artemis moved closer to the desk.

The walls past the bookshelves were covered in framed documents, most of which were patents and accolades for the Holloway Robotics Corporation. Interspersed among them were photos, mostly of Mr. Holloway shaking hands with people, or sitting next to them or at parties.

Looking at the desk uneasily, Artemis made her way around it and saw the pictures sitting on top of it were all of Marcie Holloway, which meant one of two things, either the owner of the place had an unhealthy interest in her or was her father.

Probably both.

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Chapter 28

Apate 3

Gaige

The disassembled robot spread out in front of her, giving up its secrets. She’d been able to finish taking it apart after her conversation with Artemis, though she kept glancing around, wondering what was up with the other girl. She’d been out of contact for a while, something that worried Gaige, she couldn’t help but wonder if something had gone wrong.

Had she run into some kind of resistance? Was she hurt? Unconscious? If not, why wasn’t she checking in?

It occurred to Gaige that she was being paranoid. That if she was really that concerned, she could pick up her ECHO just as easily as the other girl, possibly easier depending on the situation, after all, she’d used the excuse that Artemis might need to use the vents, which hadn’t been pointless conjecture on her part, it was a very real possibility, after all, the exterior door had been sealed, so there was reason to think that the interior ones might be as well.

She remembered her own trip through the vents and rubbed her chest, wincing at the memory.

Thinking about the other girl led her back down the rabbit-hole of their relationship. She knew she needed to figure it out, but for the life of her, she couldn’t get anywhere, so she decided to move to a related topic, what her dad had advised her.

At the time, she’d been grateful to get some solid advice, but the more she thought about it, the more frustrated she was by the vague impossibility of it. How was she supposed to make Artemis feel accepted? She’d done everything she could to do that already, from watching movies that were more orientated towards her, to flat out telling her, but it didn’t seem to be getting through.

But maybe that was the problem, she just kept telling her these things, she wasn’t giving her time to think about what she wanted or accept that Gaige was there for her no matter what. Maybe she just needed to once and for all tell her what she thought and then back off, let it sink in and make up her own mind.

That would probably work, she realized, but there was just one problem, she didn’t know what she wanted from Artemis.

Which made her deflate again. She’d been so sure that she’d finally found a solution, only to be hit with cold reality again.

‘That’s not true’ She told herself ‘I’ve got a path, I just need to figure out one more thing, then it’ll work. It’s like building a robot or a cybernetic, you figure out one part, then the next, you don’t need to figure it all out at once.’

Smiling slightly, she felt a renewed sense of purpose, she was sure this would work, but to get there, she’d need to do some more self-searching, but for now, she needed to finish what was in front of her, if she failed at that, then there might not be an after.

So, she turned her full attention to the bot.

She’d managed to figure out what they were doing to them at the facility and it didn’t bode well for them if there were any bots like this one lying in wait. Other than the EMP field generators and the explosives, it seemed that these ones had been the Holloway security forces. In fact, that was what the entire plant was dedicated to, making Holloway’s private army.

She couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t sent it after her, she supposed it had to do with his ego, he’d wanted to finish her off with his own hands, he’d said as much, but it was stupid, if he killed her with his own hands or with a bot, she’d still be dead.

Besides, it wasn’t like he hadn’t sent mercenaries after her, though she supposed they might have had capture orders for her and kill orders for Deathtrap. That seemed to make sense, after all, she remembered a few of them snapping and saying they were going to kill her, which would’ve been a bit redundant if they were going to kill her anyway, though she had seen plenty of people snap and yell that they were going to kill someone halfway through a fight to the death, so she wasn’t entirely sure.

But none of that mattered at the moment, what did was the bot in front of her.

She continued dismantling the bot, examining its capabilities and came to a realization. The reason that Holloway hadn’t sent the bots after her was that she could’ve taken them out without breaking a sweat. Sure, they were good enough to use for defense against most invaders and they would’ve stopped or at least stalled even some trained soldiers, but against someone like her, they were slightly better than a test range dummy.

Artemis could’ve taken a hoard of them easily, and Gaige herself wouldn’t have lost against them without seriously overwhelming numbers, the kind of numbers that would likely start an interplanetary incident, so the only way he could’ve used them against her would’ve been to lure her to a planet that he controlled, which now that she thought about it, she was kinda surprised he hadn’t. It wasn’t like she’d been super cautious about her clients. Sure, she’d done a background check on them and had made sure they weren’t bounty hunters or anything like that, but if he’d had some of his employees go out and try, or better yet, some of their relieves, she likely wouldn’t have caught it and just walked into the trap.

She supposed she should be grateful that he either hadn’t thought of it, or had dismissed it for some reason.

Continuing her disappointing research, she realized that Holloway must have had someone on his staff that had tampered with her design further, since it was a bit better than his initial theft, but she supposed that should’ve been obvious, after all, he’d successfully sold them and the original design he’d gotten his hands on was woefully incomplete.

She stood back and looked around, she’d gleaned about all she could from the bot, the only thing she hadn’t tried cracking was the A.I., mostly because that would require her to hook the chip up to a computer and there was no way she was letting that thing anywhere near her ECHO, which was the only computer that she had with.

It seemed that they had taken most of the hardware with them, leaving only the things that were too heavy to easily carry, which was what she hoped the explanation for the bots being left behind was, otherwise they were a trap meant to give her false information about her opponent, something that while she could see Holloway doing, also seemed a bit too crafty for him.

She hated to admit it, but other than faking his death, he hadn’t really come up with anything all that original. Well, she had to admit that the surveillance capacity of his bots was actually fairly clever and must have netted him quite a bit of information, judging by the tech he’d displayed against her in their last fight.

That was what was bugging her, she realized. It wasn’t that all of this seemed low tech, the bots and their lack of capabilities, it was that they just seemed low tech in comparison to the stuff he’d wielded against her previously. Other than the EMP tech, and possibly the bombs, nothing was all that good, it was all just recycled old stuff, which meant one of two things, either he was saving that stuff for the end of all of this, after he’d led her through his series of hoops, or he wasn’t responsible after all, and this was all just the actions of some disgruntled employees.

She really didn’t think it was the latter, something about this felt too personal, too familiar to just be someone else, though she supposed it could just be her wishful thinking. After all, wasn’t it better to have some kind of nemesis than to be targeted by a bunch of people without any real skill? To have a villain to stand and curse you as they monologued, rather than just a bunch of average Joe’s that you put out of work by arresting their boss?

Besides, even if it was the latter, something didn’t make sense, this would’ve taken a lot of organization to pull off, something that a group of pissed of workers wouldn’t do, not that it was impossible, she’d known plenty of workers that were better at this kind of thing then their bosses, but without someone to lead them, it wouldn’t be possible.

On top of that, they’d already proven that Holloway had faked his death, so the only real solution was that he was planning something for the end of this, but what and why, she didn’t know.

Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate, she knew why he was after her, but the why she couldn’t figure out was, why go to all this trouble to lead her to all of these bases, and then not do anything to her when she got there?

He could’ve had an army waiting, he could’ve lured her to a base and had the planet’s authorities waiting for her, sending her to jail. She knew he wanted her to suffer, so that might be it, but she felt like she was missing some vital piece of the puzzle, something that would make everything clear and until she got it, she’d continue having to flail around in the dark.

Still, she supposed it didn’t really matter. After all, she only had one real solution, and that was to continue plowing forward until she finally found the jerk again and slugged him in the face. After that, well, she’d have to decide then, cause she really wanted to kill him this time.

She supposed she’d have to see how it all shook out.

Stepping away from the table she gathered her tools and got ready to leave, if she had no reason to stay after figuring out all she could, then she should just get ready to meet Artemis wherever she could.

Shouldering her gun, she headed for the stairs and gave one last look around the room, when she spotted something. It had been hidden during her initial sweep, only having been uncovered while she’d been shifting things around to work on the bot.

She walked over and picked the ECHO recording up and debated saving it for later, to share with Artemis, but she told herself that she didn’t want to waste her time, but mostly, she just didn’t want to wait to find out what was on it, so she started to reach for her player, and that’s when the alarms started blaring.

Deathtrap

If Deathtrap had learned one thing during his time on Apate 3, it was that he hated being invisible.

Not only couldn’t you do anything for fear of giving away that you were there, it seemed that everyone else forgot about you as well.

It had started out fine, the girls had infiltrated the facilities without any trouble, but the longer they wandered around, the more Deathtrap started to feel that they were forgetting about him. It wasn’t that he was lonely, it wasn’t that he had anything much to contribute, but he missed being asked, he missed being able to put his impute into the conversation. He understood why he had to stay hidden, if he was there, the girl’s disguises would be worthless and anyone watching the security footage would easily identify them for who they really were, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

But what he hated the most about it was how boring it was. It reminded him of the times when Gaige had an actual job and had left him behind while she’d gone to work, only this time he had to float around and wait while watching her to her job, which somehow was worse.

He’d started out by trying to keep his sensors open to try and pick up any sign of danger, but nothing had happened, at least not so far. And then the girls had done something foolish, they’d split up.

He understood why they’d done it, he’d even agreed with everything that had been said, he even understood that if they’d went together, he would’ve had to wait behind, out of fear of him screwing something up, like forcing a door to remain open too long or getting stuck waiting while they went through a vent, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.

He knew that they worked better as a team, that they each had a set of skills and that there was undoubtedly going to be a time when Gaige would be needed, but they’d split up anyway. And he’d been stuck waiting while Gaige had taken apart a bot.

He’d tried to pay attention, to see if he could glean anything from it, but he was better at dismantling them then figuring out how they’d gone together, so he’d quickly lost interest.

Trying to figure out something to do while he waited, he went through his usual repertoire.

Trying to figure out what Holloway’s trap was going to be this time.

He had no idea, but it would probably involve more bots.

Trying to figure out what Holloway’s end goal was.

That was easy, killing Gaige, him and probably Artemis as well, but what his method of trying to accomplish that was, he didn’t know.

How to help Gaige figure out what she wanted out of her relationship with Artemis.

That he had even less idea of then the other two. To begin with, he had no idea of what she wanted, so he couldn’t help there, which left trying to help her figure out what she wanted, but again, he had no idea.

He tried to counsel himself by reminding himself that he wasn’t programmed to be a therapist bot, but an anti-bullying one, though he’d turned into more of an all-around fighter and personal assistant over the years, he didn’t let that bother him, instead, he lamented the fact that despite all the things he’d learned, he couldn’t help those closest to him when they needed him the most.

So he was enormously grateful when Gaige finally stopped working on the bot and got ready to leave, but then she paused and walked over to something. When she stood up, he spotted that it was an ECHO recording, which she didn’t even hesitate to reach for her player to listen too, despite no doubt knowing that Artemis would like to listen as well, though he supposed it might actually be more prudent for her to listen to it first, in case there were those EMP fields, since he was sure they would wipe out the data on the cartridge if it got hit, but before she could play it, then the alarm went off.

Artemis

The revelation that this was in fact Holloway’s office had frozen her for a second, but the more she thought about it, the more sense it made, after all, why else would there be such needless opulence this far out in space, unless someone important, or more likely, who thought they were, was present.

The only thing she couldn’t figure out was why?

Why was his office all the way out here?

It wasn’t like it was easy to get to, nor was it convenient for setting up meetings. She’d been sure that the invite she’d got from him had been for another planet, she wanted to say it had been Eden 5, but she couldn’t remember properly, only that she’d shot him down over the call.

Which meant this probably wasn’t his main office, so what was it?

She felt like she might have a better idea if she could’ve seen what was on the rest of the floors, but since she hadn’t, she had to speculate, which she didn’t feel very confident about.

She gave up almost as soon as she started, things like that weren’t her forte, not that she couldn’t do it, but without all the information there wasn’t much point. Even if she came up with something, she couldn’t prove it right, so she started to reexamine the room, trying to find anything that might have been hidden.

She started by going to the paintings and checking behind them, but other than security sensors to prevent them from being stolen, there was nothing, so she went to the bookshelves. She didn’t think that a person like Holloway was much of an avid reader, so the number of books seemed suspicious. She got that he was trying to give the illusion that he was a sophisticated person, but it just smacked of pretentiousness.

She checked the spines, looking for the telltale signs of wear on them that would indicate that they’d been pulled out more than the others and quickly identified a few of them, so she took them out one at a time, searching through them as she went.

Most of them were worthless, cheap novels hidden behind nondescript covers. Maybe they held some kind of sentimental value to him or he just liked them, but they were of no use to her. But three of them held things of interest, the first was a stack of money, the second was a small derringer, the last though, was the most interesting, a small remote with a few buttons on it.

Not knowing what it did, she pocketed it along with the money and went back to examining the room. By the time she’d gotten back to the desk, she realized the only thing left to do, besides wasting more time, was to get to work on it.

She started by checking the drawers and found them stocked with all kinds of useful things, such as pens and memo pads, but none of it helped her at the moment, so she pulled the drawers all the way out and set them against the wall, checking each one over to make sure they didn’t have a false bottom or there wasn’t anything hidden behind them.

She wound up finding another packet of cash and two more guns, but nothing interesting until she got to the top drawer on the left side. After completely removing the drawer and checking the cavity where it had been, she found an electronic set up.

After searching around a bit, she pulled the entire thing out and set it on the desk. While she was no expert, she recognized it as a small audio recording device, which made her wonder, what had Holloway been doing? Was he recording conversations with his employees? Or was he taking other meetings there? And more importantly, where were the recordings now?

She finished checking the drawers, but found nothing, so she looked around the office again, but couldn’t figure out where he’d stashed them, so she figured that either he’d taken them with or they were hidden in another room and since neither of them was immediately helpful, she put it out of her mind and went back to work.

Before turning her attention to the computer, she pushed the chair back, marveling at how easily it rolled despite the cushiness of the carpet and checked the floor for any secret compartments.

Like she figured, she didn’t find any. She’d guessed that based on how the carpet felt, any cuts in it would be easily noticeable, not to mention that unless a large area was able to move, the chair would get caught in it every time it moved.

Still, as long as she was down there, she crawled under the desk and once she was sure that she was out of surveillance, popped her Digi-blade and cut a foot square of the carpet loose. She tucked it into her bag, promising herself that once this was all over, she’d look into finding out how to get her hands on some of it for her bedroom.

Having run out of things to delay and distract herself with, she pulled the chair forward and got to work on the computer. It didn’t take long to boot up and she found herself faced with a password prompt.

Cursing, she nearly reached for her ECHO to call Gaige, but stopped herself. Gaige was trusting her to get the job done, so she should at least try, so she flexed her fingers over the keyboard and thought for a moment. She hadn’t found any pieces of paper stuck in the desk that had the password on them, so she’d have to do this the hard way.

Her first attempt was MARCIE, but like she expected, she only got an incorrect password notification. So, she tried MARCIEWASTHEGREATEST but that was rejected as well.

Sitting back, she tried to think of what Holloway himself had said in their brief exchange, mostly it had been self-congratulatory drivel or hateful bile thrown at Gaige, so she tried one of his favorite phrases and typed CHILDKILLERGAIGEMUSTDIE but then stopped, finger hovering over the enter key. He’d never called her that, she realized. Not once did he call her by her name, so she deleted it all, instead opting for DEATHTOTHECHILDKILLER, which to her surprise worked.

The computer finished loading up as she shook her head, of all the petty, simple minded passwords he could’ve thought of, he’d went with that? She didn’t know whether to feel pity for him, or his tech people. Still, she was grateful to him, after all, it hadn’t taken her long to get in. Well, it was either that, or someone was watching and let her in, but since that worried her, she decided to go with the first.

Once the computer had finished loading, she found herself faced with a new problem, she had no idea what she was looking for or where to find it.

Deciding to try poking around, she clicked open the first thing she saw, only to find a disgusting amount of files dedicated to the short life of Marcie Holloway. There were pictures and videos, recordings of all the major events of her life, from her birth certificate to her report cards, every major event was neatly organized in the folder. There was even a large sub-folder dedicated to Gaige, simply labeled ‘The Child Murdering Bitch’.

As tempted as she was to go poking around within, she knew she had to work fast, lest she spend the rest of the day there. Still, she felt it was worth a shot so she opened the folder and scanned for the newest document, which turned out to be one a month before he’d confronted her on Feno Phena. Inside were a number of various plans and methods of attack, varying by location and troop strength, both his and hers.

Artemis was honestly impressed with the amount of work that had gone into the plan and wondered what would’ve happened to him had he directed that energy into something more productive, but she supposed that she knew the answer, after all, Holloway Robotics had taken the galaxies by storm the last few years, growing from a small local supplier to the single largest robotics manufacturer in the six galaxies in just under eight years, which was no small feat.

Still, there was nothing there that helped her, so she did a quick scroll up to make sure there weren’t any documents with names that seemed like they’d help and upon finding none, closed the folder.

She debated what to do next, she could search through the rest of the documents on the drive or she could try and find his messages. Since the last clue had been in the recent messages, she reluctantly decided to try there first. As much as she would’ve liked to see what else she could find on the hard drive, she didn’t know what she was looking at, so it wouldn’t have done her much good.

It took a bit of digging to find the messaging system, but it turned out to be one of the icons on the bottom of the screen, serving as a painful reminder of how little she used tech.

Once she was in, it didn’t take long for her to find the newest message, which was dated the same as the last one they’d found.

Clicking it open she was slightly disappointed to see the brief message it contained.

Initiate emergency override Protocol: Marcie 18.

Prepare for arrival of available units

Re-outfit to specification S23-A

Processed units proceed to Dolus

Authorization code: H37M51962

Activation condition: Read

Approval: Holloway 1

She reread the message, committing it to memory as she reached for her ECHO when everything went wrong.

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Chapter 29

Apate 3

Artemis

The alarm started blaring loud enough that it nearly caused her to scream in pain. Involuntarily, she slapped her hands over her ears and winced, but then a horrid disconcerting sensation crawled over her skin, one she’d felt before, one she recognized as an EMP field expanding over her.

Eyes snapping open, she saw the crackling blue energy pushing out from the floor, telling her that the trap was set somewhere below her, most likely in the ceiling of the floor below her.

She wished she’d called Gaige before she’d accessed the computer, she’d known she should have, even as she’d talked herself out of it. Now, because of her hubris, she couldn’t warn the other two, nor tell them what she’d found. Belatedly she realized that she’d never even told them that she’d got in alright, so they might not even know where to look for her should they want to.

Pushing herself up, she pulled the gun off her back and decided that if that was the case, she’d just have to escape on her own. She looked down at the shotgun she was holding and snarled at it slightly, she’d never been a fan of them, not even the Jakobs models, she’d preferred to be able to place the shot exactly where she’d wanted it, no matter the range. But this was what she had with, so she’d have to use it the best she could.

She strode around the desk, trying to figure out how she was supposed to get out, when the door in front of her flew open and three security bots flew in. They were different from the other bots she’d encountered, first off, they were painted and a glossy black at that, with stripes of glowing blue running down their side, though she wasn’t sure what it was for, aesthetics maybe? Or it might have had something to do with how they were still moving around in the EMP field.

They spotted her and let out an electronic noise that sounded a bit like static and then declared “ Identity unconfirmed. Intruder detected. Intruder detected. All available units to the head office. Cease resisting and accept execution quietly.”

‘To heck with that.’ Artemis thought, stepping forward and firing the shotgun into the arm joint of the first bot, blowing the limb off in a shower of sparks.

Alert. Alert. Resistance detected. Deploying countermeasures.”

The two remaining bots’ hands opened up and started firing at her, even as she dodged to the side and fired a second time, blasting a good sized hole into the second one.

Not wasting any time, she dashed forward and kicked it into the third one, sending them both tipping off to the side as she dove onto them and fired twice more, finishing them off.

Deciding to get out of there before anything else happened, like them exploding, she dashed out, not even pausing as she fired one last shot into the first one she’d downed to make sure it was done.

Slapping a new clip into the gun, she raced across the entrance area, even as two more bots emerged from each side of the room.

She grabbed a vase as she went past and sent it hurtling into the first one, trying to buy herself as much time as she could to get across the room and out the doors.

She’d made it over half way when the bots started shooting at her. Normally she wouldn’t have cared, her shield would’ve easily taken the relatively light firepower that the bots carried, but since she was in the EMP field, her shield was fried, leaving her defenseless.

Forced to take evasive action, she ducked down and rolled under most of the shots, feeling some of them strike her. She would’ve preferred to have dropped into a slide, since she could still fight while sliding, but the thick carpet would’ve prevented that.

Coming up, she shoved herself back, trying to throw the tracking off of her for a second and winced as a line of shots tore through a painting. ‘What kind of person allows their security to destroy what they’re supposed to be protecting?’ She thought bitterly as she turned and sunk a shot into the offending bot.

It wasn’t like she was some kind of art connoisseur, she knew next to nothing about it, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to destroy it, far from it in fact, she liked art, or at least the pieces that she did like, there were whole genres that she couldn’t get into, a number of which she would’ve gladly destroyed herself, mostly because they weren’t really art, like the one piece she’d seen at some fancy place she’d had to go one time, for the life of her it looked like someone had floated a cigar ashtray in a toilet and then put a flower in it. What was it supposed to mean? She couldn’t even guess, but she’d thought it was the stupidest thing she’d seen. But these paintings were nice, tasteful, even if the man that’d bought them had only done so because he’d been told they were worth money, which was painfully obvious due to the fact that the next one over clashed horribly with the newly ventilated one.

She fired again, dropping the second bot in that direction while she’d rushed towards the front door, only to find it plugged with nearly a dozen bots.

Since she still had two more in the room already to deal with, she let out a string of expletives at them and dashed for the door she’d just cleared, throwing herself through it as a hail of bullets exploded behind her, tearing chunks out of its veneer.

She rolled to the side to get out of the immediate line of fire and checked her surroundings. She’d dove into the dining room, which was now a bit of a mess, with fragments of the door strewn across the table and a few of the chairs looking considerably worse for wear.

As soon as the shooting stopped, she poked her head up and glanced around the remains of the door. Just like she’d been afraid of, the bots were swarming into the entrance area. A few of them were proceeding through to the boss’s office, no doubt to try and flank her, so she popped up and fired twice, taking a few of them out before diving back as the bots resumed trying to hit her through the wall.

She did a quick inventory of herself, most of the wounds she’d suffered were minor, though a few would start causing her problems once the adrenaline wore off, but she could see a few that needed attention, so she dug out a Insti-health vial and let it do its thing. She was grateful that the shots hadn’t pierced her cybernetics, since that would’ve completely fried them since she was still in the EMP field. Thinking about it, the field had been going for an awfully long time, well over a minute by her calculations and showed no sign of stopping, which meant Holloway had solved the duration issue.

Then it occurred to her, maybe there hadn’t been a duration issue after all, maybe this was how they’d fist constructed it and the real challenge had been miniaturizing it, which actually made a bit of sense.

Shaking that off, she scuttled over to the servant’s door near the back of the room and poked her head in. Just like she’d predicted, she found herself in a small hallway with the kitchen on one side and some doors further down. She didn’t know what was in them, or if the bots would actually be going around this way and not cutting through the smoking room, either way, she needed to do something about it and quick, so she did the only thing she could think of.

She dashed over to the table and rolled under it, getting to the other side as fast as she could. Bracing herself, she heaved with all her might, only for nothing to happen except her thinking she might have strained something.

She’d meant to flip the table against the doors, but the darned thing was way heavier than she’d thought. She hadn’t even managed to jiggle it, let alone flip it over.

She’d known that it wasn’t a good plan, after all, the doors swung the other way, but it would’ve at least blocked out part of the bots way in. Instead, she was going to have to face them from three ways now.

As she realized that, the door to the entrance hall blew open and the bots started pouring in. Gripping her gun tighter, she popped up and opened fire, killing the first ones through and managing to cause a bit of a bottleneck as the rest of them plowed into them from behind.

Still, the reprieve didn’t last long, but it was enough time to reload. Artemis wished she had a better weapon along, preferably some kind of heavy hitter, but right then she would’ve settled for one of the assault rifles she’d carried, but she’d left the only one she’d brought with with Gaige since she didn’t think it would’ve fit in the air vent with her, and in retrospect, it wouldn’t have. But that didn’t mean she didn’t want it with.

The only other weapons she had with her were a pistol and a couple of Tina’s bombs, though Gaige had strongly warned her against using them. She’d said that they should hold off on them until as late as possible, to prevent Holloway from finding out that they had a solution to his EMP field generators. While that made sense, it didn’t mean it was easier to run around with a stuffed bunny in your bag and not throw it at someone.

Emptying the shotgun at the hoard trying to push through the doorway, she dropped it and drew the pistol as the other two doors yanked open and the bots trying to flank her flew in. Her only real consolation in this entire mess was that they didn’t seem to be able to communicate with the EMP field going, so they couldn’t coordinate their attack. Still, they had sensors so they could hear the sounds of gunfire, which meant they had a fairly good idea of where she was in the room and started firing as they entered.

She returned fire with the pistol, punching holes in their joints, which to her surprise seemed to work just fine, since they freaked out and crashed to the floor, which caused her to realize that she’d been going about this all wrong, she hadn’t needed to destroy them like normal, she just had to punch a hole in and let Holloway’s own tech finish the job for her.

Opening fire, she quickly finished off the ones trying to flank her and then went back to the rest that were finally managing to get through the main door and after slapping in a new clip, finished them off as well.

Taking a moment to sigh with relief, she reloaded her guns and moved out.

The pile of bots in the doorway made attempting to get through a hazardous affair, so she decided to go the long way around, hopping over the few bots that had tried to flank her and move down the hall. She moved quickly, wanting to put as much space between her and the downed bots as she could, unsure of how long it would take for them to explode, but she made it back to the main entrance and back into the hall without them doing anything other than spark and sizzle menacingly.

Getting back into the hall, she realized that she had no idea of where to go, she supposed she could try and get back into the vents, but doubted she could do so without a considerable amount of effort, since the only place she knew of to get in was the conference room and there was no way she could reach the vent on her own. She didn’t think that if she stacked the chairs up in there she could reach and that was only if she figured out a way to prevent them from rolling, which left trying to get one of the doors open, a prospect she didn’t have much faith in even in the best of times and the EMP field certainly wasn’t what she’d consider the best of times.

Still, it wasn’t like she had many other options, so she figured she might as well try it before giving up.

Proceeding down the hallway, she quickly found what she’d been afraid of, that the stairs down were blocked by another shutter, much like the second floor. And just like the second floor, she couldn’t see any control panels around.

She looked around, unlike the lobby, this one had a number of chairs, mostly uncomfortable looking antiques, but there were a few that she assumed were for the workers since they were much cheaper and covered in a bit of grunge.

Blocking the way to the back of the building was a secretary’s desk with a small waist high door in it to let people through. The stairs were straight ahead and the elevators were on the far wall, making her realize that this floor was a bit shorter on the front side of the building, which would make sense since she hadn’t seen any steps up on the second floor. She jumped the secretary’s desk, looking for any way to open the shutter, but there was only what she assumed was a communication panel for letting Mr. Holloway know that someone was waiting, which wouldn’t have been a help even if it hadn’t been fried by the EMP.

She gave one last look around, trying to think of any other ways to get out of there, then it hit her, someone like Holloway must’ve had another way out, there was no way he would force himself to walk all the way to the front of the building just to leave, especially not if there was some kind of emergency, so he had to have an emergency exit of his own somewhere in his office. The only problem was that she had no idea of where it would be.

Standing there, she debated heading back to his office and looking, or just going with the simpler route and trying the vents again. She supposed it would be more time efficient to just go back and try getting back into the vents, especially since any secret exit would no doubt be hidden and need something to open it, which he likely would’ve kept on himself. It wasn’t like he’d just leave it lying around. Even if he had left it, he would’ve hidden it somewhere.

Then she remembered what she’d found in the book.

Digging through her pockets she quickly found the small remote and stared at it. It did look like the kind of thing that could open a secret exit, so the only question that remained was whether it had been shielded from the EMP or not.

Figuring it was worth a shot, she headed back to his office and upon entering pressed one of the buttons with no small amount of trepidation, after all, she had no way of knowing what it was really for and was only hoping it would open some hidden door and not summon another wave of bots or something worse.

To her relief, a small click echoed through the room and a section of the wall slid out to reveal an elevator door. Rushing over, she tried it, but to her dismay, found that it wasn’t in operation. She figured it had probably been fried by the EMP.

She pushed the other button on the remote and the opposite wall slid back, revealing a set of stairs. She wished the elevator had started up with the button, but she’d take what she could get, so she headed over with haste.

Slowing down once she was inside, she made her way down the narrow flight of stairs. Her first thought was to be surprised that it was so cramped, but she remembered that it had to fit inside of the wall in an inconspicuous way, so the narrowness was really to be expected. Her next thought was that she wished she had some kind of light, because it was fairly dark. Not too dark to make her way, but surprisingly dim, not that she’d expected it to be well lit, but a few more lights wouldn’t have been amiss. Still, she could see light coming up from below her, so she must be getting near an exit.

That thought stopped her, she’d only gone down a little ways, not quite a full floor, but it was starting to get lighter? That didn’t seem right at all, so she tightened her grip on her pistol and moved forward.

What she found explained a lot about the building.

The light was coming from the other side of a transparent wall, one she assumed was only transparent from her side and no doubt would’ve looked like a plain wall from the other. She figured this mostly by the fact that a couple of filing cabinets were pushed up against it, not to mention the poster and calendars still hanging on the wall, which looked quite odd seeing them from the back.

But what had gotten her attention was the rest of the room. It stood in stark contrast to the rest of the building, with an almost clinical look to it, white walls, floors and ceilings that seemed to be made out of plastic. The illumination was coming from the EMP dome projecting from the ceiling which bathed the place in a soft blue light.

The room was dominated by stacks of servers and other computer cores, while the rest of the room was filled with white desks, each of which had a monitor built into it and a stack of papers on one side. From where she was standing, it was hard to make out what was on them, but as she took a couple of steps, she was able to get a good enough angle to be able to read one of them, despite the distance.

It appeared to be some kind of transcript of a conversation, one that she wasn’t familiar with, but some of the names stood out to her, notably Zane and Tannis, which was what confirmed where she was.

This was Holloway’s information gathering department.

This was where all the data that the bots sent back was compiled and gone through, where he’d stolen all of his tech.

Knowing that, she could piece together the technical printouts on one of the desks, not to mention the conversation that had been overheard on Sanctuary 3. It also explained the secret passage she was in, Holloway wouldn’t trust his employees, so he’d want to be able to come down and make sure they were working without them knowing.

It also explained the rest of the building, why it was so much fancier than anywhere else, he’d been treating them well in an attempt to keep them satisfied and not spill the fact that they were all engaging in criminal behavior.

Still, the knowledge didn’t do anything to help her current situation, so she pressed on.

The hall ran a short ways and then went down again, exiting out into the airlock room she’d first entered the building, swinging one of the control panels out of the way so that she could get out.

She watched the panel swing closed behind her and marveled at how seamlessly it merged with the rest of the controls. She bet that it actually worked too.

Shaking her head, she turned and opened the airlock door. Stepping in, she hit the button to cycle it and got ready to make her way back to where Gaige was. She should be able to make it easily. Of course, that didn’t take into account the fact that she might run into a security patrol out there, but she should have enough time even if she did.

But when the air started getting sucked out, her Oz kit didn’t kick in, the bubble around her didn’t form and she suddenly found herself struggling to get a breath.

In a bit of a panic, she found the cancel button and slammed her hand into it as hard as she could, as fast as she could and to her great relief, the air started returning.

She slumped against the ground, sucking in deep breaths until she started to feel lightheaded from it.

Reaching up, she pulled her Oz kit off and turned it over, looking at it. Nothing seemed wrong, but it wasn’t working. It hadn’t been hit by a stray bullet, which is what she’d feared, so why wasn’t it working? Nothing had happened since she’d got here that should’ve affected it, so what was up?

Thinking back on everything she’d been through she quickly cycled through the events, entering, searching the front, searching the rooms, crawling through a vent, landing in the boardroom, entering Holloway’s office, searching it, finding his computer, setting off the EMP, fighting some bots…

Suddenly she paled. That was it, the Oz kits hadn’t been shielded from the EMP like the rest of their gear. No wonder it hadn’t worked.

But that did present a new problem, how was she going to get back without it?

She couldn’t get through the main door, it was probably still sealed. There was no way it had opened after the alarm had sounded. In fact, it would likely be harder to move around since a good number of the walkway doors would be closed. So how was she going to get back?

An idea hit her, but even she knew it was an extremely bad one, one of the worst ones she’d come up with and that was saying something. Still, it wasn’t like she had a lot of choices right then, so she’d have to give it a go, she only wished she could tell Gaige what she’d learned, just in case things went wrong, but the ECHO’s couldn’t be used in the middle of the EMP field, so she’d just have to survive to tell her in person.

With that decided, she started taking deep breaths, trying to oxygenate her blood as best she could, as if she were about to take a deep dive into the sea and once she’d got them as best she could, hit the airlock cycle button and sucked in one last deep breath.

The light seemed to take forever to turn green and allow her to swing the door open, her lungs felt like they were burning even with just those few seconds, but she knew it was an illusion. She was grateful that the planet had at least a slight atmosphere and that the factory had reinforced it a bit, so that she didn’t die from being in a vacuum, she would’ve been more grateful if they’d made the place completely atmospheric, but she’d take what she could get as she turned and bounced out, scanning the nearest buildings and walkways for what she needed.

Unfortunately, none of the buildings had what she was looking for, but she did spot something that might work on one of the walkway intersections, the only problem was it was on the far side from her.

She bounced in the direction of the walkway, calculating how much longer she could go and figured that it would be a close one at best, but she didn’t see any other way, so she sped up, heading towards the nearest corner of the building in front of her and jumped as high as she could, aiming at the wall. The instant her foot hit the building she launched herself up and out, landing on the top of the walkway. Another two hops and she was over the tube and sailing through the air.

Coming down lightly she slid up to the hatch on the side of the small building and got to work, popping it off without much difficulty. To her relief, inside was an emergency hatch, just like the red arrow on the outside had led her to believe. She grabbed the handle inside and twisted it aside, feeling the pressure inside nearly blow the door out. She managed to get out of its way and as it clanged off the side of the dome, scuttled in on her hands and knees, wedging herself into the small space and pulling with all her might till the door closed.

Ignoring the siren blaring around her, she punched the button on the inside as soon as she’d closed the hatch, relishing the air that blasted her face.

In next to no time the small area was filled with air and she was able to heave open the inner door. Spilling out in a rather undignified manner, she looked around the small domed room.

Just as she’d feared, the shutters were closed, though whether it was due to the alarm or the airlock being thrown open, she didn’t know. What she did know was it meant that she was going to have to go back outside.

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Chapter 30

Apate 3

Gaige

The siren started so suddenly that she nearly dropped the ECHO log in her hand. Instinct was the only reason she didn’t, instead she flipped it to her other hand and drew her pistol in a smooth motion.

Looking around the room, she quickly determined that the bots weren’t activating, at least not here, at least not yet. She had no idea of what kind of protocol they had here, but she felt safe assuming that it wouldn’t be good for her and that it would be even worse for Artemis, who had no doubt finally gotten to the main computer. Why she hadn’t checked in before messing with it, Gaige didn’t know, she’d have to have words about that later, but for right then, Gaige had to focus on the task at hand, namely getting out of there.

Storing the ECHO log, she switched to the assault rifle she’d brought with, an older model Jakobs that had been on the ship. It was a far cry from her usual style, but she had to remind herself again that she wasn’t supposed to be Gaige here, she was masquerading as a simple thief, though she had kinda screwed up on that by disassembling the bot with professional ease. She just had to hope that no one would see that, or if they did, that she hadn’t done anything that would prove she was Gaige. Most courts were corrupt, but few would issue an interstellar bounty on someone on just a hunch, even the seriously corrupt courts on Eden 5 demanded proof, even if it was faked.

Still, that didn’t mean she wanted to create any more risk than was necessary, so she shouldered the rifle and started forward, dashing up the stairs and out to the main door, which to her surprise was still open.

Trusting that Deathtrap would keep up with her, she started running forward, trying to remember which line led to the exit. She knew that they’d gone through the factory on the way in, but she couldn’t remember which line that was. Was it the yellow one? The orange one? The yellow one with black stripes? She honestly couldn’t remember. Nor could she remember which way they’d come from. It didn’t help that they’d made a few trips backtracking a ways as they went, so even if she did have an idea, she couldn’t be sure of where it would lead.

Her best bet was to try and spot the factory through the walkway walls and move in its direction, which turned out to be rather easy since it was the largest building there.

Once she had a relative direction, she started sprinting in it, taking a moment each time she could to try and see if there was anything she could see about the building where Artemis was. Most of the time the answer was no, but once she thought she saw a flicker of blue from that direction, a color very similar to the ones the EMP’s created, which she figured would make sense.

She hoped the other girl was doing alright, but she couldn’t really do anything for her at the moment, it wasn’t like she knew where she was.

Had she found a way out of the building? Was she stuck inside for some reason? Gaige had no way of knowing, so standing around speculating would do nothing but waste time. She’d also eliminated the idea of running over to where the building was. After all, what good would that do? Even if she did find her way there, if the door was still closed, and she had no reason to think it wouldn’t be, then she’d be forced to stand outside and wait to see if Artemis got it open, and if she didn’t and had to go a different way around, then Gaige would be simply standing around for nothing, so instead, she decided to try and meet back up at the entrance, like they had last time.

As she wove through the hubs and walkways, she started spotting activity outside, which while it didn’t surprise her, still worried her. There seemed to be an awfully large number of bots swarming upward, nothing compared to the last factory, but still a larger number then she’d thought they’d leave behind, though she supposed these could just be the standard defense forces that had been set up before the place had been converted into a rebuilding site.

Still, that didn’t make it any less worrisome, especially when they started noticing her running through the walkways. She didn’t know if they could get at her through the clear sides, nor what kind of armaments they were equipped with, what she did know was that if they did start attacking her, she might well get trapped in one of the walkways when the security doors slammed shut.

She’d been incredibly grateful that they had remained open for as long as they had and she knew that they wouldn’t stay that way forever, but she had hoped that she could make it to the factory before they closed.

She managed to get through another pair of the walkway hubs before the bots descended upon her, but to her surprise, they didn’t open fire, instead they got near the walkway and extended their EMP fields, nearly sealing the route forward off.

Gaige didn’t hesitate, instead she dashed forward even as the route was closing. Dodging to one side she dropped into a slide, ducking under the outer edge of the first bubble. Kicking off the wall, she sprang up and rolled across the walkway to the other side, dodging the second bubble, for the third she had to leap onto the wall and jump, twisting over it as the bot slid in low to try and cut her off.

Rolling into the hub, she glanced behind her, realizing that Deathtrap couldn’t have followed her.

Since he was invisible, not to mention being silent, she had no idea where he was but still gave a hand signal to let him know to find his own way around. She hoped he got it, if he was still following along that was, which she realized he might not be. He could’ve broken off at any point and she wouldn’t have known it. As useful as it was, she was starting to hate this invisibility nonsense.

Still, that didn’t change the problem at hand as she turned to the walkways to find them closing off with EMP bubbles. It seemed that the bots had called in backup, since the walkways were rapidly getting tighter. She didn’t have time to figure out the best route anymore, the only thing that mattered was not getting hit by the bubbles. Not only did she not want her Oz kit to get hit, but she was carrying the ECHO log that she hadn’t listened to yet, all of which would be wiped out by the EMP.

She’d been trying to not shoot the bots, partially due to the fact that a bullet would destroy the walkway, sealing the doors at both ends and partially because she was afraid that the bots would explode afterwards, which could be even more devastating.

Unable to stay in one place, she dashed down the walkway in the only direction she could see a path, weaving and sliding her way around the EMP fields. If she thought the bots had been programmed better, she would’ve been worried about them leading her to a trap, but she really didn’t think that was possible considering the way they were acting. It felt less like she was being herded then she was just managing to stay ahead of them, but she didn’t know how long she could last.

Eventually her luck ran out and she came to a walkway that was completely impassable. It was made all the more frustrating because she could see the entrance to the factory ahead of her, she would’ve just had to have made it through two more walkways and she would’ve been able to move easier. She had no delusions that she would’ve been free, the factory most likely would’ve devolved into a firefight, but if she’d been able to fight back, she felt that she could have a chance or at least it would be better, because she could be proactive, but now she was trapped.

She wondered how long she could last, how long before the bots started firing at her? How long until they swarmed over the place till she was forced to push her way through and let the EMP field fry her electronics.

Thinking about it, she pulled out her ECHO player. At first, she was going to play the ECHO log and just hear what was on it, but then she realized that she could just slide the log into the player and not hit play. The shielding on the player would protect the log once it was inside, so that was one less thing she’d have to worry about losing.

And it wasn’t like Deathtrap wasn’t carrying a backup Oz kit on him. She was sure that she’d heard Artemis talking to him about carrying one, just in case, so even if she fried hers, he might have a spare and if that failed, she could figure something out with Artemis, either one of them going back to the ship and getting any that were left or sharing one on the way.

But then she thought about it, she was pretty sure the last one that had been on the ship had something wrong with it and she wasn’t sure about the math in getting them back to the ship with only one Oz kit between them.

She supposed that if worse came to worse, one of them could head back to the ship and then Deathtrap could bring the Oz kit back, though that would give away that he was with them, meaning their entire disguise would be rendered pointless.

Just as she was starting to psych herself up to make a run for it, she heard a gunshot go off and one of the bots sparked and flew off, creating an ever so slight opening in the walkway, not enough to get through, but a start.

Maneuvering around the room so that she could see what had happened, she heard another string of shots go off, sending more bots spinning out of control as the bullets tore through their anti-EMP coating.

Getting around, she spotted something that didn’t make a lot of sense at first, it looked like Artemis standing on top of one of the walkways, firing her pistol at the bots. But the part that didn’t make sense was that she didn’t have a bubble around her head and her face seemed to be turning red.

In a flash of understanding, Gaige got it. The blue light on the building must have been an EMP trap in the office, one that had fried Artemis’s Oz kit and without any way to get the door open, she’d been forced outside. She’d somehow been holding her breath between buildings or something, since not even she could hold her breath long enough to have gotten that far outside.

But that still meant that she was running out of time trying to pull the bots off Gaige.

Looking at the walkway, Gaige could see that she could make it now, so she took off running as fast as she could. As she went, she eyed the side of the factory, spotting what she needed and throwing her arms around to catch Artemis’s attention. Once she had it, she made a few hand signals and once she was sure the other girl had gotten the message, rushed the last bit till she was in the factory.

She didn’t slow down even as she gave a sigh of relief, she couldn’t, there was still something she had to do, so she turned and ran along the wall, praying with all her might that what she wanted wasn’t behind some wall or piece of machinery.

Whether her prayer was answered or she was just lucky, she didn’t know but she spotted the airlock hatch and ran over to the control panel, nearly tripping as she went. Staggering into the wall, she quickly scanned the controls and punched the buttons, cycling the airlock and opening the exterior door. She hoped that Artemis could get into it and cycle the system before the bots got to the wall and fried it.

Seconds after the thought ran through her brain, the airlock control chimed and the inner door hissed open, allowing Artemis to stagger through.

She collapsed onto the floor, trying to simultaneously suck in large amounts of air and cough her lungs out.

Gaige left her to that and spun around, bringing her rifle up and starting to shoot the bots that were entering the building. She didn’t know where they were coming from, if they were already inside and were just following the directions of the ones outside or if they were finding a way in, but it didn’t matter, she was going to kill them all anyway.

“Welcome back.” She said as an aside as soon as Artemis’s coughing had slowed down “Interesting route you chose, I’m sure there’s a story there, but first, you alright?”

“No.” Came the thin reply, followed by another fit of coughing “I think I’ll live.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Sometimes.”

“Thanks, again, by the way, I was in a bit of a situation back there.”

“You and me both, I don’t think I could’ve lasted much longer so you getting the airlock ready was a help.”

“You know what else would be a help, you joining in.” Gaige said as lightly as she could as she continued firing at the bots.

“Jeez, it’s all work with you, isn’t it? Fine, give me my gear.” She said, pushing herself up.

Taking the bag that Gaige had slid off her shoulder, she got to work as soon as she’d gotten her gun out, opening fire on the bots trying to flank them.

“So, how’re things?” Gaige asked.

“Terrible.” Came the reply “But I did learn something, but before that, we should move away from the wall.”

“Why’s that?”

“Seriously? You think this wall’s gonna stop one of those fields?”

“Ah, good point.” Gaige said, observing the blue bubble around the bots.

They shuffled away from the wall, maneuvering around the machinery to try and find a spot that was easily defensible or at least as easily defensible as they could. Eventually they realized they were shuffling across the entire floor of the factory and that they weren’t going to find a perfect spot, or likely even a very good one, the factory hadn’t been designed for a firefight after all, so there were always going to be blind spots and obstructions to their lines of sight. Still, they finally managed to find a place where the bots wouldn’t be able to hit them through the ceiling above and would have to come at them with a bit of distance before they could hit them with their EMP’s.

Artemis swung out a little bit, since her gear was already fired, she figured she didn’t have to worry about getting hit by another EMP.

Gaige noticed this and called out “What’re you doing?”

“Getting to a better place to defend this side, what’s it look like?”

“Well, if you get hit with one of those bubbles, you’re gonna be in trouble.”

“Why? I’ve already lost my gear.”

“But not your assault rifle, that things got some tech in it.”

Artemis looked down at the gun in her hands and realized that Gaige was right, the thing used a fair amount of tech.

Before she could say anything else, Gaige continued “Switch with me. I mean, mine’s got like no tech in it right? So, it should be fine.”

“Right.”

They tossed each other their rifles and continued fighting. Both of them gave up on trying too hard to keep the charade of who they weren’t up, at least to some degree, Artemis switched to picking her shots better, but Gaige worked to keep her Anarchy down, lest her bouncing bullets give her away.

She figured she was the only person in the galaxy that could do that, so she shouldn’t out herself with it. Sure there were rifles that could do similar things, but she was the only person that could do it with nearly any gun, so if that was captured on film, they’d be in trouble.

The hardest part was reminding herself to reload before the clip was out, so she’d lose any stacks of Anarchy she was gaining, something she was so out of habit of that she kept forgetting. She also worried that she’d build up a new bad habit of actually reloading and then slip up in an important fight, which could have devastating results.

Time seemed to stretch out, like it always did in a prolonged fight, seconds seemed to take minutes and minutes seconds as time warped and twisted. The monotony of it combined with the thrill of putting your life on the line was such a strange sensation that it was impossible to describe to someone that hadn’t experienced it for themselves. The only thing that made this fight different to Gaige was the fact that she wasn’t fighting to her full potential, that she was stopping the power that she’d finally tapped back into from bubbling up by forcing herself to reload every so often, which kept deflating the sensation within her, making her feel a bit nauseous as she went up and down on the ride of Anarchy.

She glanced over to where Artemis was crouched, using a bit of machinery as cover, taking shots at the bots that were attempting to swarm her and wondered what she was thinking. Was she tired of this yet? The constantly putting her life on the line for someone else, the pain that she’d suffered through? Or was she still content with just being able to hang out with a friend?

For some reason Gaige suspected it was the latter, and she didn’t know how she felt about that. Sure, she also liked spending time with the other girl, so much so that she couldn’t think of what it would be like to be alone again. Well, not alone, she’d have Deathtrap with her, but somehow that seemed lonely now. ‘When did that happen?’ She wondered. They hadn’t really known each other that long, only a few months, but in that time they’d become rather close. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t experienced getting close to people rather rapidly before, when she’d become a Vault Hunter, she’d gotten close to almost all of them in just a day or so. Maybe it had to do with the life and death circumstances of the time they’d spent together, but for some reason she didn’t think so, after all, she’d left the other Vault Hunters. She supposed the circumstances were different, she’d stopped feeling like she wanted to travel with them. It wasn’t that she’d gotten tired of them, it was more like they’d drifted apart. She supposed that someday the same thing might happen between her and Artemis, but she didn’t think so, after all, when she’d met the Vault Hunters, she’d just become an adult, so it made sense that she’d drift a bit as she got older, but now that she was a bit more mature, or at least hoped she was, she felt that she’d already gotten the inability to sit still and not appreciate what she had out of her system.

Well, except for the sitting still thing, she still didn’t like that.

She’d tried all the things that she’d wanted to. Well, actually she hadn’t, Deathtrap had stopped her from doing a number of them, not that she held it against him. She had at the time, but the more time that had passed, the more she realized that he’d been right to stop her. Still, it wasn’t like she didn’t have things she wanted to do, but they weren’t all that high on her list anymore.

So, she found that she’d had gone through most of the things she’d wanted to when she’d quit being a Vault Hunter. Sure, she’d found that almost all of them had been a disappointment, but that was part of growing up she supposed.

But she felt that she was in a much better place now than when she’d been a Vault Hunter, much of which she attributed to Artemis’s influence. She knew that the other girl had helped her find herself in a way she hadn’t even known she was looking for, but she’d also opened up other questions that Gaige had never even thought to look at, so she wondered if it was a wash? No, she realized, no matter the other things going on, she was much happier than she’d been in a long time, not just in general either, but with herself. She still had problems, ones that she knew would haunt her for the rest of her life, but she was starting to feel that she could handle them, that she was finally starting to, if not like, then accept herself, and that was good enough for now.

Shaking her head to clear some of the thoughts away, she realized that the waves of bots were tapering off. In fact, as the last bot spun off and crashed into a corner of a machine, silence descended, interrupted only by the hum of the EMP fields and the occasional sparking of a dying bot.

Slowly sweeping the area, she watched Artemis out of the corner of her eye as the girl cocked her head and listened. After a moment, she nodded and stood up, turning to Gaige as she did.

“We good?”

Artemis nodded and made her way over before responding “Well, we’re at least out of bots for the moment, though we might not be so good if they decide to do anything else. Plus, it’s gonna be a bit of a challenge to get out.”

Gaige looked around and realized what she meant, with all the bots piled up, there was no way she was going to be able to get through them without hitting a field.

Just as she was starting to feel a bit down, Artemis shoved her gear over and said “Hold these for me, would ya, this is gonna take a minute.”

Unsure of what was about to happen, Gaige took the gear and watched as Artemis looked around for a moment, then after nodding to herself, stalked over to one of the bot piles and scrambled over it. As soon as she was on the other side, she grabbed the arm of one of the sparking bots and started to drag it away. Gaige realized what she was doing, but felt guilty about it. What if the bots started exploding, without a shield, there was little chance that Artemis would survive, which might be why she was working as fast as she could, heaving the bots along behind her, trying to ignore the awful screeching sound of them dragging along the ground.

True to her word, it did take a few minutes to do, but soon there was a path open wide enough for Gaige to get through, and as soon as it was clear, Gaige made her way forward, making sure to give the remaining fields as much of a berth as she could and once she was on the other side, dug out a canteen to hand to the panting girl. To her surprise, she just waved it away.

“I’d have…to remove…my…mask…to drink.” She panted.

“Well just slip it under the bottom of it then.” Gaige countered, lifting the bottom of her own mask as an example.

“Oh…right.”

She proceeded to follow the example and took a sip, sighing in contentment as the water hit her parched throat. Gaige didn’t know how long she’d been running without any kind of break, but she could only imagine that it had been since the alarm had sounded, if not earlier, so it was no wonder that she was feeling a bit worn down.

She would’ve liked to give her a while longer to rest, but the bots clogging up the room were like time bombs and she wouldn’t feel comfortable until they were far behind them, so she spoke up a bit reluctantly.

“We should get going.”

“Huh? First it’s wait, then it’s go, make up your mind would you.”

There wasn’t any hostility in Artemis’s voice, just tiredness mixed with a touch of humor, like she knew that what she was saying could be taken the wrong way and was trying to make sure it wasn’t, but was too tired to make it work properly.

“Yeah, well, I don’t like standing around here, place is kinda eerie, especially with the flickering blue lights, it feels like they could explode at any second.” She was trying to get the idea through to Artemis without giving away their identities, since none of the bots had yet exploded here. In fact, the only bots that had exploded thus far had been the ones on Jaka, so she wasn’t sure if these would or not, but didn’t want to wait around to find out.

Artemis seemed to pick up on it and shouldered her bag with a sigh and said “Let’s go.”

“So, uh, you remember the way?”

“Wait, are you lost?”

“No, no, it’s just that I don’t recognize these machines and you seem to have a better sense of direction is all. Not lost at all.”

“…Right. This way.” She turned and started leading them through the maze of machinery till they found a familiar door, which thankfully stood open.

As they got close, Artemis mulled something and just as Gaige was getting ready to tell her to spit it out, she spoke up. “So, think we’ll meet anyone in there?”

Gaige blinked, she felt like Artemis was trying to be subtle about something, but she couldn’t quite figure out what she was getting at, so she shrugged and said “Maybe a bot or two, nothing we can’t handle.”

“Anything else?”

Now Gaige really knew she was trying to ask her something, but had no idea of what it was, so she gave up and asked “Like what?”

“I donno, like some kind of trap? One that might kill us?”

‘A trap? What was that supposed to mean?’ Gaige wondered ‘And a deadly one at that? Wait a minute, a deadly trap, a deathtrap, oh I get it, she’s asking where Deathtrap is.’ Finally getting it, she shrugged, she’d been wondering the same thing herself. She got why the other girl had been mulling the problem though, it was hard to ask something like that without asking directly, especially for someone like her.

“We might run into one near the exit, depending on our luck.”

“Ah, I see, well, let’s go, but be sure to keep your eyes open.”

Gaige shook her head and followed along a few paces behind Artemis. It didn’t take long for them to find their way back to the room where they’d first entered the compound, though it felt like that was ages ago. Gaige looked around, but didn’t see any sign that anyone else was there, but then again, if Deathtrap was there, he’d be invisible, so it wasn’t like she’d see him.

Artemis cocked her head and drew her pistol, looking around the room. Eventually, she turned and fired, shooting out the cameras that were observing the area and once she was sure they were destroyed, let out a sigh.

“What was that about?” Gaige asked, “Lettin off a little steam?”

“No, waiting for that.” She gestured to the shimmer that appeared in the corner of the room as Deathtrap flickered into the visual spectrum.

“Babe, how’ve you been? Where’ve you been? Ow!” She yelped as Artemis punched her in the shoulder “What was that for?”

“Calling him babe.”

“You shot out the cameras, right? And he’s visible, so what difference does it make what I say?”

“Just cause I took out the cameras in this room, doesn’t mean I took out all the audio sensors, not to mention there were more cameras down the hall.”

“Oh yeah. Oops.”

“Oops indeed, way to potentially make this entire thing a bust.” Artemis groaned before turning to Deathtrap and saying “Hey there, you doin alright?”

He gave her a thumbs up and motioned at her.

“Eh, we’re still alive.” She said with a shrug, but indicated to her Oz kit and shook her head. Deathtrap seemed to get it, since he pointed to his shoulder. Artemis nodded and turned to Gaige, knowing that she preferred to be the only one to work on him.

Gaige walked over and got to work opening the compartment up, instead of the usual root beer dispensing equipment, she found an Oz kit, plus a backup shield and short-range communicator, all in there in case someone got into EMP trouble.

Patting Deathtrap on the shoulder, she tossed the Oz kit over to Artemis and said “Well, we should get outta here before too much longer, got plenty to discuss.”

Artemis nodded and attached the Oz kit to her shoulder, firing it up. Once she was sure that it worked, she grabbed the remaining oxygen tanks that they’d left there when they arrived and said “Lead on.”

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Chapter 31

Hunter’s Moon

As soon as they’d gotten back, they programmed a course to get them out of the area and back into an area of space that it wasn’t so odd for a ship to be. After that, they’d taken showers and got something to eat.

Despite how exhausted they were, not just from the firefight or the length of time they’d been on the moon, but traversing it to and from had taken it out of them as well, they sat down and went over what they’d found out.

“So that was the message on the system.” Artemis said, pausing in her story.

“I see, so we’re supposed to go to Dolus next.”

“You make it sound like it’s gonna be a trap.”

“Oh what? You think it’s not?”

“Of course it’s a trap, but I don’t see where else we can go.”

“Yeah, Holloway’s sure got us dancing to his tune. I hate that.” Gaige grumbled “Still, I can’t believe that he actually had an office there, seems like a super weird and random place for that.”

“Oh, I hadn’t gotten to that part yet, had I?”

“What part?”

“The second floor of the building. See, after I fought off a bunch of bots, wait, the EMP field fried my shield before that, that’s right, as soon as I read the message an EMP went off in the office.”

“Forget all that, you were saying something about the second floor.”

“I was getting there, so anyway, I fought a bunch of bots and was looking for a way out when I remembered that I’d found something in one of the books.”

“What books?”

“The ones in the office. Oh yeah, I looked through them before trying the computer, thought it was odd that Holloway would have a small library in his office, so I looked at the books to see which ones he’d handled the most often.”

“I still don’t know how you do that.”

“Oil marks from the fingers on the spine, anyway, I looked in a bunch of the books and found a derringer, some money and a small remote.” She said, digging them out of her pack as she spoke and setting them on the table. “So, I was looking for a way out and I remembered the remote and figuring it was to be used in his office went back and tried it. Sure enough a wall opened up and I went down the stairs inside, wait, one of the buttons opened an elevator, but it didn’t work, so then I opened the door to the stairs. Lead me to a one-way wall, you know the kind that you can see through from one side but not the other, and I see what’s on the second floor.”

“Which was?”

“Where Holloway went through all the data his bots stole. Well, not Holloway, but his goons. Employees? Whatever. Point is, it’s where his people sorted through all the important data that his bots stole, I mean, I saw a couple of blueprints and transcripts, one of which had the names Zane and Tannis on it.”

“That explains it, he wouldn’t have wanted to be far from the hub of all his monetary gains.” Gaige said, sitting back “Also explains why he’d send the bots there to be worked on, it would be one of the most hidden of his sites so the authorities wouldn’t find it easily. It would also explain why he’d make his entire security force there. That’s one of the things I found out by the way, the factory was making his security bots, probably for internal use only.”

“I was wondering why he’d have so many bots with EMP devices in them.”

“Not sure if that was something that was there earlier or a late addition to try and nail us, but yeah, I was wondering about that as well.”

“So other than that, you find anything? Or can we go to bed now?”

“Well, I did find an ECHO log, but I suppose it could wait till morning.”

“Wait, you’re putting something off? You’re not begging to listen to something immediately? Either you’ve already listened to it, or you’re tireder then you let on.”

“The second I assure you. I mean, I would’ve listened to it there, but just as I found it the alarm went off. So I was forced to carry it unlistened to.”

“Pop it in.”

“You sure? You seem pretty tired.”

“You won’t be able to rest until you’ve heard it, so it’s better this way, besides, it’s not that long, is it?”

“How would I know, I just said I haven’t heard it.”

“Yeah, I know, so hit play already.”

“I thought I was the impatient one, yeesh.” Gaige said, placing her ECHO device on the table and hitting play. A male voice spoke in the foreground and behind it they could hear another set of voices, one male one female talking. Gaige couldn’t make out the background, but the foreground one was talking.

Well, preparations are nearly complete, all we have left to do is to finish packing the units that we’re shipping and place the rest strategically. Some of the others have finished setting up the office, wish I could’ve joined them, I always wanted to see what it looked like, but apparently I’m too important to go up there.

I know that seems counter intuitive, but it seems that I’m one of the more skilled workers on fixing up the HS202’s. I don’t see why some of them think it’s so hard, I mean all you have to do is follow the instructions, but it seems that isn’t always the case.

Wish you were here, I mean, I know you would’ve been if you could’ve, but with your condition and all, we all understand why you aren’t. And we know you support us, I can feel your good vibes all the way out here.

Oh shoot, seems like they’re gonna make an announcement, better put this down for a moment and…

The male voice from the background came on, a bit distorted from the obvious distance

Attention everyone, stop what you’re doing and listen up, I have an important announcement to make.

Due to the unfortunate actions of the observation squad, the targets have become aware of our plans and while we doubt they will be able to move faster than anticipated, it still does push up our schedule to an uncomfortable degree, therefore everyone will have to stop what they’re doing and immediately go help the installation crews. We will no longer be able to work here and we are going to have to cancel plans 3 and 4, proceeding directly to plan 5.

I understand that this is no doubt disappointing to many of you and trust me, I understand your frustration, but our hand has been forced.

A different voice called out from the side

What happened to the observation squad?

The male voice replied

There’s no easy way to say this, but they confronted the targets. Apparently, they thought they saw an opening and tried to strike. I’m sorry, but there were no survivors.

A clamoring grew throughout the crowd, with some sobs for different people who must have been part of the squad and others cursing their inability to not have refrained from attacking

Look, what’s done is done. All that matters now is how we deal with the ramifications of their actions. So, let’s all do the best we can and make those three pay for all they’ve done to us.

There was a cheer from the crowd and a rushing of feet accompanying the sound of the ECHO player getting knocked around, a bust of static and then silence.

“So, what do you think?” Gaige asked, trying to broach the uncomfortable silence.

“I think we might have been the group that the observation squad was observing.”

“No, really? Wow.”

“Sarcasm still doesn’t suit you.”

“And dumb doesn’t suit you.”

“I wasn’t being dumb, I was just…” She slumped sadly.

Gaige groaned and punched her own head “Look, I’m sorry, you weren’t being dumb, I’m just a bit tired is all, so I’m being a bit petty and stuff. I get you were just trying to say what we were all thinking, I was just hoping you had something to share that I’d missed.”

“Well, uh, I wouldn’t know what you missed without talking about it.”

“Arrg, good point, fine, let’s do a quick rundown of what we learned. First, there’s little doubt that the observation squad was the ones that attacked us on Jaka, right? Good. Second, it seems like they jumped the gun by attacking us, which screwed up their plans.”

“Something about dropping two parts of it, wonder what that meant?”

“No idea, but I’m guessing that they were other planets they were going to send us to.”

“So instead they’re what? Sending us to the final planet?”

“Sounds like it.”

“So, I suppose the question is whether it’s for a final confrontation or a final trap.”

“Donno, but I suspect a trap.”

“That makes two of us.”

“Urru”

“Well, it’s a consensus, not that it helps us that much since we don’t have any other leads at the moment.”

“Well, maybe we’ll have better luck in the morning.”

“Right. Well, let’s finish this discussion up and get to bed. So, wait, where was I?”

“Uh, number two?”

“Right, but what was number three going to be?”

“No idea. Let me listen to the thing again and we’ll see what we get.”

Gaige shrugged and hit play again. As they listened to the opening Gaige reached out to fast forward, only to be stopped by Deathtrap. He indicated to Artemis, who had her eyes closed and was mouthing something. It took Gaige a moment, but she realized that she was listening to the conversation going on in the background, having seen her do something similar before, so she waited until that part was over to speak up.

“Find anything?”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t make sense.”

“Why?”

“Well, that guy, the one doing the announcement, he’s not the boss.”

“Yeah, we got that, Holloway is.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. The way he spoke to the woman, he called her boss. And it wasn’t just that she was in charge of the site either, it sounded like he really respected her. She was the one that brought the information about the observation squad, but it sounded like she’d just found out herself, but she chastised him when he cursed them, something about not being able to hold it against them or how’d it go? After what those three did, any one of us would’ve taken the first shot we could at them? Something like that.”

“Huh? So maybe she’s Holloway’s secretary or on-site manager, you know, his proxy while he hides.”

“Maybe, let’s finish this thing.” She said, indicating that Gaige should hit play, so she did.

They listened to the rest of the log, but near the end, Artemis suddenly waved her hands causing Gaige to stop the playback.

“What? What is it?”

Artemis ignored her and turned to Deathtrap “Did you hear that?”

Deathtrap responded by shrugging and making a noise indicating that he had heard something, but wasn’t sure what.

“Rewind it a little bit, just until he finishes his speech.”

“Alright, but what are we listening for?”

“Right after he finishes the speech, the guy says something to the woman.”

“What?”

“I don’t wanna taint your perceptions with what I thought I think I heard.”

Gaige looked at her, she seemed a bit rattled, so she didn’t press her on it, just hit play and tried to listen through the crowd, but all she could hear was noise. Shrugging she turned and looked at the other two, but to her shock they were exchanging a look suggesting that whatever Artemis had heard, Deathtrap had too.

“What? What’d I miss?”

“As soon as the speech ended, the guy turned to the woman and said ‘This way Mrs. Holloway.’”

“Wait, what?” Gaige felt like she’d been punched. But after a second, it started to make sense, the woman on the ECHO must have been Holloway’s ex-wife, Marcie’s mother. Sure, they’d been separated, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t also want revenge against the person that had killed her little girl, in fact, the fact that she hadn’t tried anything before now was actually a bit surprising. Maybe she’d just been leaving it to her husband, or maybe there was something else to it, but once her husband was locked up, she must have moved, rescuing him from jail and setting their revenge into motion.

“That explains a lot.” Gaige finally said, laying out what she thought, the other two seemed to be on the same page as her, since they both nodded.

“Now the only problem is finding her.” Gaige finished, sitting back, lost in thought.

“Well, maybe a fresh mind will help.” Artemis said with a barley suppressed yawn.

The Next Day

A good night’s sleep did wonders for them, though Gaige had been afraid that she was going to toss and turn for hours with everything on her mind, but it turned out that she only had to listen to the sounds of Artemis sleeping for a few minutes before she joined her.

After a leisurely breakfast, they found themselves sitting in the sitting room again, but this time they had no idea what to do.

“Well, we know the next planet’s going to be a trap.”

“Just like the last two.”

“Right, but this time I think they plan on finishing us off, for good.”

“You mean unlike the last two?”

“Yes. I think those two were more playful hopes than honest attempts. I mean, they thought that it would be great if they worked, but they were to wear us down more than to really try and kill us.”

“You mean they were to buy them more time?”

“Uh, yeah, that works too. Anyway, the way they sounded on that ECHO, I think the next one isn’t going to be playing around.”

“So, we should avoid it.”

“Yep.”

“Then where should we go?”

Gaige sat back, that was exactly what had been bothering her, they’d been following the only clues they had, so if they abandoned the trail, where did that leave them? She had no idea.

Not getting any reply, Artemis walked over to the computer and started typing at it in her slow way.

“What’cha doin?” Gaige called over, happy for a distraction.

“Was going to look up what I could on the Holloway Robotics, as well as Mrs. Holloway.”

“Well, you won’t find much about her, she was always one to avoid the spotlight, unlike the rest of her family.” Gaige spat. Thinking back, Mr. Holloway had always been at Marcie’s events, but the few times her mom had been there, she’d been overshadowed by her husband to the point that Gaige only had a vague remembrance of her.

Imperious. That was the word that sprung to mind when she thought about her. Sure, she’d been pretty, but more than anything she always seemed aloof, condescending. But that might have been that she didn’t like kids.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Artemis stating “Oh, hey, we missed like, six calls from A.I.ngel.”

“Wha? What’d she want?” Gaige asked, feeling a bit put out at the mention of the other girl, though she couldn’t tell why, maybe it was the tone Artemis always got when she talked about her?

But that didn’t matter at the moment.

“Donno, she didn’t leave a message. Probably should call her back. Let’s see, what time is it there? Oh, they should be getting up soon, so let’s try.”

She keyed in the call and let it ring. And ring.

Eventually they had to concede that they might not be up yet, so figuring they’d call back later, Artemis reached for the switch to cut off the call, when the screen sprang to life showing a slightly disheveled girl.

The instant she saw who was on the other end of the line, she quickly tried to straighten herself out, which was laughable since they’d already seen her, but neither of them commented on it, instead, they just waited for her to finish.

“Hi.” She said a bit breathlessly as she tugged at her shirt “You got my message, I was worried I had missed you.”

“We just woke up.” Artemis answered “And, well, last night we were a bit too tired to think of looking to see if we’d missed a call. Sorry about that.”

“It is all right, I understand. But it is good that you called. We found something.”

“We?”

“Timothy and me. We have found something important. He should be here for this, but I will have to walk as I tell you, since it is important.”

“Alright, what’d you find?”

“Well, I had said I wanted to help, right? So, I thought that I would try going through the Holloway Robotics books, see if I could find anything.”

“How’d you get your hands on those?” Gaige asked, knowing that the books wouldn’t be easily accessed without a number of court orders. In fact, they were probably bound up in legal limbo at the moment.

“Well, let me just say that I went through a door that they had in the back, I think that is how they say it.”

“You hacked it?” Gaige said with an impressed look.

“I would not say such a thing over a line, even one that I think is secure.” Came the reply accompanied by a sly smile.

‘When did she learn how to be so crafty?’ Gaige wondered, both about her ability to hack as well as her evasiveness about what she’d done.

“Ah, here we are.” A.I.ngel said almost as an aside, having arrived at Timothy’s office. In the background they could see him working at his desk, looking like he hadn’t had a break in a week.

“Who’s that you’re talkin to pumpkin?” He asked, a bit of Jack creeping into his voice.

“Artemis and Gaige.”

“Oh, you finally got through, that’s good. You tell them yet?”

“I was working on it. I thought since you had helped, you should be here when we tell them.”

“That’s sweet of you. How far’d you get?”

“Only that I had looked at Holloway’s books.”

“Oh, well then, carry on.”

“As I was saying, I accessed the Holloway Robotics records and was looking through them, but I could not figure out what I was looking at, so I asked Timothy for help, since he knew more about that kind of thing then I do.”

“And I found something.”

“I was just getting there.” She sounded slightly peevish, which was new, but it didn’t seem like the first time that Timothy had heard that tone, especially not directed at him, so he just shrugged. “Like he said, he found something. Something I never would have. Now you may tell them what it was.”

“Really? Oh, I suppose I could.”

“Just tell us already.” Gaige snapped.

“Patients. All good things come to those who wait.”

“Not in my experience.” Gaige muttered before speaking up “So what was it you found?”

“I found their blacksite.” He said with a triumphant smile.

“Wha? How?”

“It wasn’t easy, I mean, no company advertises that they’re siphoning money off for a blacksite budget, but my time working for Jack gave me a certain amount of knowledge about that kind of thing, so I was able to spot the pattern in the books.”

“That’s…actually pretty impressive.” Gaige conceded, a bit reluctantly.

“I know, is he not great?” A.I.ngel said smiling at him.

Timothy seemed to be unused to being complimented, especially by her so he smiled a bit goofily and tried to brush it off while obviously relishing in it. “Aw, it wasn’t that special. But that might be only the second time I’ve been grateful to Jack.”

“So, what else did you find?” Gaige asked, trying to get him back from the little world in his head he was retreating into.

“What?” He snapped back to attention “Wasn’t that enough for you? Wow, girls these days.”

All three girls shot him a dirty look causing him to rapidly backpedal “I was kidding. I mean, it was a bit of Jack talking. Of course you want to know what else I found, let’s see, what else was there?”

He trailed off, thinking about it, but shook his head after a few seconds “Unfortunately there wasn’t much, I mean, I was only able to figure this much out due to them using a few of the same techniques as Hyperion did for shifting their money around, it wasn’t like they put up the schematics for what they were working on.”

“Ah well, still better than nothing.” Gaige said.

“Actually, it’s a huge help.” Artemis added. “So where was it? The blacksite I mean.”

“Oh, yeah, guess that’s important isn’t it. Some planet called Erinyes. Never heard of it myself, but then again, if someone like Holloway wanted to use it, it’s got to be as pathetic as he was. Sorry. Jack.”

“No, in this case I can’t argue with you on that.” Gaige said with a shrug. “You two did good. Real good.” She said it as if she were swallowing a bitter mouthful of something.

“She’s right. Good job.” Artemis added.

“It was nothing.” A.I.ngel said, smiling and looking away in embarrassment.

“Nonsense, take all the praise we deserve.” Timothy crowed.

Gaige rolled her eyes and said “Well, we should get going, gotta plot us a new course and stuff.”

“Oh, right, I suppose that makes sense. Do be careful and let us know what you find out.”

“Will do.”

“See you.”

“Bye.”

They hung up and sat back. After a minute, Gaige broke the silence.

“Well, what d’ya think?”
“I think I was proven wrong, I never thought Timothy would prove useful.”

“I know, right? But other than that, about the planet, I mean.”

“Probably should change course.”

“So, you think we should go?”

“Well, considering we know that Dolus is a trap, I don’t think it would be a bad idea to hold off on it. I mean, if Erinyes doesn’t work out, we can go back to the traps.”

“Yeah, makes sense. Let’s do it.”

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Chapter 32

Erinyes

The planet of Erinyes turned out to be an uninhabited rock covered in tall, craggy mountains that jutted up in broken shards, with narrow paths of shale-like rocks that slid and twisted underfoot making climbing a treacherous ordeal.

“Just once, I’d like to go somewhere nice.” Gaige growled, catching herself as the loose footing slid out from under her, forcing her to plant her hands to stop herself from sliding “Why couldn’t they have set up their blacksite somewhere pleasant, like a beach planet? The sun, the waves, a nice breeze.”

Before she could get lost in thought, Artemis pulled her back “Because those planets would be exorb…exhorbo…”

“Exorbitantly expensive? Yeah, I know, I know, I was just havin a bit of wishful thinkin, that’s all.”

“If you really want, we can go after we finish here.” Artemis said, not sounding too thrilled about it.

“Really? Now that’s something to look forward to.”

“Why are you so excited about that thought?”

“We’ve never really relaxed together, have we? In fact, we haven’t really relaxed since we met, it would be good to take it easy for a while.”

“Didn’t we relax on Wilina?”

“That was like, one evening, I’m meaning takin a whole week off, nothing but surf and sand.”

“Ugh.”

“What’s wrong with surf and sand?”

“It’s boring.”

“Boring? That’s the point, you don’t have anything else to do, just relax and soak up the sun.”

“Said like someone that doesn’t burn easily.”

“Of course I burn easily, hello, redhead, but that’s what they invented sunscreen for. Besides, I really wanna find out if you’re a bikini type.”

“Ugh.”

They fell back into silence as they continued trudging up the mountain. They’d chose to drop a ways away from the actual site of the facility, mostly to try and avoid detection, though they all suspected that they’d been picked up the moment they entered orbit, so they weren’t too sure about that.

Still, they figured there was no reason to announce themselves if they didn’t have to, so they were hiking. To make matters worse, Artemis hadn’t been able to find out anything about what kind of life was on the planet and since neither of them thought it was barren, that meant they had no idea what might attack them.

Gaige paused to catch her breath and looked around, almost everything was grey, the rocks, the sky, even the scraggly trees down in the valley where they’d landed had seemed grey and faded, like a shirt that had been washed too many times. It gave the place a hopeless quality that seemed to sap her ambition. It made her wonder what working there would’ve been like. Had the employees felt the same, or had they not ventured out of the base? Was the inside of the facility warmly colored to try and counteract the drabness of the environment?

She’d learned a bit about colors and emotions in her time as a wedding planner. More than just the fact that some planets had different thoughts on what was an appropriate color for a wedding. She’d been surprised by that, on one planet, the bride had to wear mourning colors on her way in, which had turned out to be purple and then as the wedding ceremony proceeded, she stripped out of the purple clothes layer by layer, each one getting brighter till she was dressed in brilliant yellow.

But that wasn’t what she’d been trying to think about, rather, she’d learned that she shouldn’t use dull colors unless they were specifically needed for the planet. She also learned that some colors, like certain shades of blue were calming, where others, like yellow cheered the place up and usually led to an increase in dancing. She hadn’t really got it before, but staring at the dull vista, she felt that she finally did.

Next to her Artemis was taking a swig from her canteen. Spotting her looking, she reflexively offered it, which Gaige was grateful for. They weren’t in disguises this time, instead, they’d been kitted out for a fight. They’d figured that if this was where the Holloway’s were, then they’d need to give it their all and since trying to fight in a way that disguised who they were would only weaken them, they felt that they shouldn’t give themselves a handicap.

She handed the canteen back and as Artemis was storing it, they heard the sound of rocks sliding. Gaige casually glanced in the direction the sound had come from, but Artemis spun, bringing her gun up.

Gaige nearly scoffed at her for being paranoid, but something in the back of her mind reminded her that they were in Artemis’s territory, so she might be better served by following her example.

She unslung the shotgun off her back and looked around, but spotted nothing out of place, or at least not that she could see. Taking her eyes off the terrain, she glanced over at Artemis, trying to trace her line of sight to figure out what was going on.

Searching the area that she seemed to be watching, Gaige finally saw something move, a slight disturbance in the loose shale covering the mountain. She started to bring her shotgun up, but was stopped by a small motion from Artemis.

“What?” She hissed.

“Don’t shoot.”

“What? Why not?”

“Cause the sound will echo something terrible, alerting everyone that we’re here.”

“Then how’m I supposed to fight?”

Artemis didn’t answer, instead she slowly reached up over her shoulder and pulled out her crowbar.

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Gaige hissed at her, but drew her own hammer, still holding her shotgun in her hand. There was no way she was putting it away until she knew what was moving around, something she noted that Artemis was also doing.

Nothing happened for a number of agonizing seconds and when it finally seemed like they’d been jumping at nothing, Artemis suddenly threw herself sideways as the ground directly in front of her vanished and something burst forth.

Gaige managed to repress the scream that tore its way up her throat, choking it off to a strangled whimper as the creature emerged. It looked like some kind of insect, made up of rocks each the size of her head, strung together to form a long body that stood out of the ground half again taller than she was. Out of the gap between each rock, four limbs grew, evenly spaced around it, wriggling in the air as it crashed down onto them. Its head was about twice the size of any of the other segments of its body, but only slightly bigger around, being elongated and eyeless, with a cracked open face. The mandibles that were covering its mouth pulled aside revealing strange teeth that must have been able to chew through rock and were now looking for something softer to try out.

As it crashed back down, the back half of it emerged from the loose rocks and arched upward, hanging over the creature’s back. The tip of the tail split into two, forming giant pincers that snapped at the air.

“Nope.” Gaige said, trying to back away. She didn’t have a problem with insects until they got bigger than her finger, after that, she wanted to kill them on sight. Well, actually even before that she wanted to kill them on sight, it was just that some primal instinct was triggered once they were bigger than that.

Artemis on the other hand cocked her head and examined the creature, studying it as it scuttled forward. She casually danced back as the tail whipped forward, snapping at the air where she’d just been. She darted forward and brought her crowbar down on the creatures’ head with a resounding crack that seemed to daze the thing, but little else.

“Hmm, seems harder than I thought.” She mused as she darted back. “You wanna give it a go?”

“Nope.”

“Too bad, cause it seems to have taken an interest in you.”

It seemed that the creature had decided that the one hitting it wasn’t going to go down easy, so it went for the other one, much to Gaige’s horror.

She backed off slowly, feeling the loose ground shifting beneath her as the creature scuttled towards her with remarkable speed and just before it struck at her, its tail froze in midair.

Deathtrap had seen enough, he knew that Gaige didn’t like insects of this size, so he decided to step in and lend a hand, grabbing hold of the things tail before it could strike. He turned to Gaige and let out a “Urggr” To wake her up and it seemed to work. Shaking off the shock, she stepped forward and brought her hammer down on the creatures’ head. Whether it was because the tool was designed for hitting or that she was using it in her cybernetic hand, but the impact cracked the skull of the creature, sending chips of rock flying and nearly splitting it into three pieces.

The creature immediately went limp, flopping out in a small puff of dust as it collapsed. Gaige didn’t trust it and scuttled away from it, watching in horror as Artemis moved in to examine it.

She wanted to say something, to ask if she really needed to do that, to ask if now was really the best time, something, anything, but she knew that she wouldn’t be satisfied with the answer and that if Artemis could figure something out about it, they might be able to avoid them in the future, so she stayed silent, looking away so she didn’t have to look at the creature any more than necessary.

After a minute of having to listen to the sound of rocks grinding and the wet noise as the shell was pulled apart, she couldn’t take it anymore and asked “Are you about done? Cause I’d kinda like to move on.”

“Yeah, just about. This thing’s fascinating, wish I could take one back to get Sir Hammerlock’s opinion on it.”

“Well, I ain’t carrying it and we’re not hunting another on the way back.”

“Huh? You don’t like it then?”

“Nope. Too many legs. Blargh.”

“I kinda get that. Oh well, guess we’re gonna have to leave it.”

“You find out anything? Useful I mean. To avoiding them?”

“Maybe, well, at least enough to try anyway. So, let’s get going.”

Gaige was so grateful to hear those words that she nearly skipped up the mountain. Thankfully for her, they didn’t run into anything else on their climb and after a number of hours finally came to the crest of the correct mountain pass.

Looking down, they got their first real look at the Holloway blacksite. The compound was considerably smaller than the base on Apate, but they figured it must go back into the mountains and a ways underground to make up for it. Most of what they could see was a landing pad next to a couple of concrete buildings that looked super reinforced. Behind them was a fence, on the other side was a valley.

“Not much there.” Artemis observed “Least not that can be seen.”

“Yeah, I’m bettin most of it’s underground. But I think that valley’s probably where they do most of their testing.”

“That would explain the doors and the observation window.”

“Wait, what now?”

“There.” She pointed them out as Gaige tried to get a better look through her scope. It took a bit, but eventually she was able to spot what the other girl had been talking about.

On the side that they could see, there was a massive metal door under an overhang. It was painted the same color as the rocks and seemed to have been given a slight texture to help it blend in as protection from satellites. The observation room was much the same, being tucked away in the shadows of the cliff wall above. It had been built into and mostly under a rock jut to help camouflage it from prying eyes, though why they’d go to those lengths to hide it if they were going to have to do outside tests, she didn’t know. Probably so that they could be hidden the rest of the time, and they’d have to do some kind of sensor sweep before approving testing, she guessed.

Gaige was about to start down the slope when she spotted Artemis pulling back, unslinging her pack.

“What’re you doing?” She asked as the other girl started digging through her pack. If she’d just been reequipping, Gaige could’ve understood it, but she seemed to be pulling out a picnic.

“Getting something to eat, don’t wanna fight on an empty stomach.”

“And if you cram yourself too full, what then? Weren’t you the one that warned me about that?”

“Well, yeah, but that’s why I’m getting something light. Want half a sandwich?” She said, tearing her meal in half and holding one part out.

Gaige sighed, but plopped down near her, taking the proffered food. She understood, going into battle hungry could spell ruin, but so could cramping up from overeating, still, she didn’t know when it would be time for her last meal, so she dug in.

As she did, she started snickering, catching the glance from Artemis, she waved her hand and swallowed her food.

“Sorry, I was just remembering the time I learned not to eat too much before a battle.

“This was back when I’d just become a Vault Hunter and the lot of us were traveling across some plain or other and Sal’s in the back of the Technical eating the grossest, smelliest thing ever. I mean, I was in the front and I was still gagging at the stench. I mean this thing was so bad that Zero was trying to figure out how to get upwind of Sal, and I’m not sure he can even smell. Anyway, we get to the bandit camp where we were going and start attacking when suddenly Sal starts walkin funny, like this shuffling hop, and at first, we think he’s been hit and trying not to show it, but we quickly realize he’s got to go, like real bad, especially when he starts plowing forward doing the gotta go shuffle.

“So we push forward a bit faster than we should, searching for one of those bandit outhouses and after a minute, just when we’re worried that Sal’s gonna explode or have an accident or something, he spots one.

“He takes off in that running hop of someone trying not to let it out and blitzes past a slew of bandits as they emerge from their buildings, makin a beeline for that toilet. And he gets there and throws the door open, only for a Tink to be in it.

“Now this Tink starts like it’s gonna attack Sal, but he doesn’t care, he just slams his back into the Tink, pinning it to the back of the outhouse and the doors barely closes when the most disgusting sounds start coming out of the place and that Tinks threats and shouts change and we start hearing him beg for mercy.

“Knowing what’s coming, me and Maya back off, puttin some distance between us and the place, but Axton’s like, ‘We gotta protect him’ and ‘No man left behind’ or something like that, so he starts fighting near the place to keep the bandits off, but then the wind shifts slightly and he’s all like ‘You’re on your own pal’ and books it out of there, coughing and gagging the entire way.”

Gaige ended with a laugh at the memory and shook her head “And that’s how I learned to be careful of what you eat before a fight. Well, that and never join Sal for a meal. And also, always stand upwind of him.”

Artemis smiled and shook her head, but deep down she was jealous, but she didn’t know if it was of Gaige, for having stories like that to tell, or of the other Vault Hunters, for having an inside joke with her. She wondered if Gaige would ever be sitting with anyone else, laughing and telling them stories of their time together.

After they finished eating, they reequipped, strapping all the weapons that they thought they might need to the outside of their packs, including Tina’s bunny bombs.

“All set? Let’s go.” Gaige said, making sure everyone was on the same page before setting out. “Now, we can assume that they know we’re coming, but that doesn’t mean that we need to announce ourselves, so proceed like they haven’t and assume they have.”

“So, normal?”

“Yeah.”

They moved down the side of the slope, picking their way carefully down till they were in the same valley as the base. During the descent they’d been waiting for an alarm to be raised or bots to attack or really anything, but nothing had happened, it was like the base was deserted, which left them feeling a bit unsettled. They were both sure they were at the right place, instinct told them so and they’d both learned to listen, so the fact that there wasn’t a welcoming committee worried them and made them feel like they were walking into another trap.

Adding to that feeling was the fact that the main gate stood open as if to usher them in.

“Well, that’s not right.” Gaige muttered, some part of her expecting thunder to rumble in the distance to complete the ambiance.

“Which part of it?”

“Yeah, point. Well, let’s not keep them waiting.”

She led them in, gun up and ready but the entrance area was empty. The room was as grey as the outside, with exposed girders across the ceiling and sealed doors on the sides. They went to the doors first, choosing to ignore the open one at the other end of the room, feeling like the obvious trap could wait, but they found that the doors didn’t want to open, at least not without a good amount of persuasion from Gaige.

“So, what d’ya think?”

“Other than it’s a trap?”

“Well duh, of course that’s what I’m meanin.”

“I was just askin.”

“Sorry, place has me on edge, I keep expecting something to happen, an army of bots to pop out from behind the doors, Holloway to start talking to us over the speakers, something.”

“Yeah, after last time, that does seem like something he’d do.”

“Yep, but back to the point, what d’ya think?”

“I think we can either spend a long time trying to pry these doors open, letting our host set up a method of dissuading us or we can walk into the obvious trap now, rather than later.”

“True, about the only benefit for puttin it off would be to build up some Anarchy.”

“I’m game if you are.”

“Yeah, let’s not, I get the feeling we’re gonna need all the ammo we can for what’s ahead.”

“In that case, wouldn’t we need the damage boost?”

“Maybe, but we’re also as fresh as we’re gonna be. Plus I somehow feel like they’re gonna avoid us if we go into the base, like they don’t want me to get any Anarchy if they can help it.”

“Makes sense, but you just wanna see what they’ve got waiting for us, don’t you?”

“No, of course not, but if they went to all this trouble, we shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

“Fine, whatever. Let’s go.”

Gaige nodded and looked around the room, from near her a soft “Urru” came, letting her know that Deathtrap was onboard as well. Without any more hesitation, she strode off across the room and through the open door on the other side, which led to a hallway painted in a soft beige color that while a nice change of pace from the monotonous grey, did nothing for her nerves.

Every door on the sides of the hall was locked, tempting them to try and force them, but they were worried that if they stopped, they wouldn’t get started again so they pressed on.

Eventually they came to another room that seemed to be some kind of observation area, with seats around the windows that covered the wall straight ahead of them. Through them, they could see the testing area, a wide-open area cleared of all debris, as if someone had wanted to eliminate any chance of someone fighting there from having any cover.

The girls looked at it and a certainty rose in them that that was where they were being led, which meant that they needed to find something to take with them. After their fight at the core of the Garden of Minos, they’d learned that they needed to have cover whenever they could and if they were going into a fight where there might not be any, they’d need to find some before they went, so they started looking around, but it seemed that their host had the same idea and had stripped their path of anything that might be used.

“We could always take part of the floor.” Artemis said, looking down.

“I guess, I mean, that would definitely say screw you to them, especially if we took it from right in front of the observation windows.”

So, they had Deathtrap cut up a few chunks and started lugging them with.

Despite the fact that they weighed almost as much as the girls, they didn’t struggle too much, mostly because Deathtrap was actually lifting them slightly.

Moving through the only open door, they found an elevator filling one side of the room.

“Welp, guess we’re goin down.” Gaige said, trying to put as much faux cheer as she could into her voice.

They loaded onto the lift and punched the button, idly wondering if the bottom was about to fall out to drop them to their deaths, but the elevator worked fine, if a bit slowly, grinding slightly as it took them back outside and all the way down.

Stepping off of it, they walked forward, guard up against the inevitable trap.

They made it to the center of the testing area when the trap was sprung. A voice echoed across the area, amplified and distorted slightly by the speakers.

“How nice of you to invite yourselves in, though I must say, the impertinence of trespassing suits you well.”

They turned at the sound of the rather haughty woman’s voice, looking up at the control booth they’d seen from the mountain pass. Behind the glass they could make out a woman staring down at them with a hawkish expression on her imperious face.

“Mrs. Holloway.” Artemis muttered.

“Aw great.” Gaige grumbled “Well, at least we know we’re in the right spot.”

She looked up and yelled back “We aren’t trespassing any more than you are. Besides, didn’t you invite us?”

“This place belongs to the Holloway Robotics Corporation, therefore I am not trespassing.”

“But all of its assets were seized, so, yeah, you are. But enough pleasantries, why don’t you just get on with it. Where’s that jackass of a husband of yours? Call him out and let’s get this over with.”

“My ex-husband is dead, as you well know. He was killed by you and his own arrogance, with a bit of help from one of the corporations.”

“Wait, he’s dead?” Gaige said, feeling a bit gut-punched. “But what about the coroner?”

“What about him?”

“He died right after he finished the autopsy.”

“Did you meet him? He was as ancient as he was unpleasant, if he passed away, then I’d have to say that he was much past his time.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Artemis muttered “He was old enough to retire and I guess we never found out how old that was there.”

“But what about the body? It was picked up way too quick.”

“We had been on our way to bail him out, for his own safety mind, when he passed.”

“So…all this time…it wasn’t…then who was it?”

“It was her.”

“But why?” Gaige finally got it and looked up at the woman looking down on her, both literally and figuratively and finally got it, Marcie did have two parents after all and just because her father was more vocal about it, didn’t mean that her mother hadn’t suffered as well.

“So that’s what this is all about.” She yelled back up “Marcie? I mean seriously? Haven’t you learned anything? I’m sorry she died, alright, I am, but all this chasing me around, hounding me to the corners of the galaxy and for what? A dead girl who had to cheat to win? Who you spoiled rotten? I know I shouldn’t be antagonizing you about this, but I don’t care. I’m just so tired of it. It was years ago, it consumed your husband and now you too. I get that you might not have anything else to live for beyond revenge, but this has gone on long enough, it’s time to let go. Or do I have to put you in the ground as well?”

Gaige stood glaring upward, taking in deep heaving breaths, finally getting that off her chest. But to her surprise, the woman didn’t seem upset, in fact she was just slowly shaking her head.

“Is that what you think this is about? Something as minor as my daughter. Yes, I was heartbroken when she died, but it is like you said, she was spoiled, but not by us, by her father. He lost some part of him that day, seeing her die and he never recovered. He became obsessed with you, with making you pay. I warned him about it, but the fool didn’t listen, so I left him.

“But then that damned fool lost his cool, he didn’t let you go when that stupid law had to go through, he panicked and chased after you like the single-minded idiot he was. The imbecile doesn’t even wait until the proper tools were ready, even if he had to wait past his legal window. He always could have chalked it up to an accident or just paid off the locals to let him kill you, he could have even followed my advice and had you go to one of our planets to officiate the wedding between two of our workers and kill you then, but instead he had to panic and go after you with prototype tech. And if that wasn’t bad enough, not only did he fail, but he spilled corporate secrets to you and let you record them. Of all the imbecilic things he could have done, that was beyond my wildest imaginations. So of course someone would take him out.

“But that isn’t what this is about. Yes, it hurts in a way you cannot imagine to see your baby die, to stand in front of her coffin knowing that it doesn’t contain a body, to see her put into the ground. It hurts in a way that cannot be described. So yes, I did want revenge. But then I got over it. I moved on. I knew that I couldn’t touch you, so why waste resources trying. I tried to get him to realize that as well, but he couldn’t, that was what eventually drove us apart. But I had my work, so I didn’t care. But then you go and release that ECHO. I don’t blame you, not really, I mean, it was my idiot ex who told you that stuff, but as a result I lost everything. All of my stocks, worthless in an instant.”

“Wait” Gaige said, genuinely confused “That’s what this is about? Some money?”

“Some money? Some money?!” She nearly shrieked “Do you have any idea how much I lost? I had one third of the shares of Holloway Robotics. One third! Do you have any idea of how much money you cost me? Hundreds of trillions of dollars of money, gone in an instant. All because of a few words. Why couldn’t you have just killed him and left us alone?”

The girls froze. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand what was being said, nor the anger behind it, but all of this for some, all right, a lot of money, just seemed pathetic. Not that they didn’t understand the pain of losing a pile of money for no fault of their own, but still.

“As if that wasn’t enough” She continued “We all lost our jobs, and who’s going to hire someone that worked for a thief? Even if we could get a job, which we can’t due to the ongoing legal mess, we can’t even do anything till they figure out who gets to do what. Can we be sued? Can we be held responsible for the actions of the CEO? Can we even have a job in the field again? It’s all tied up in a legal limbo until they sort this out, so I did what I had to, I rounded up all of the employees that I could, the ones that wanted to make you suffer for this indignity and we got to work, but then the observation team screwed up. They thought they had a shot at you, so they took it and let you know that someone was after you, so of course you started chasing that thread.

“That’s not to say you weren’t supposed to, that was more or less the plan all along, only the team wasn’t supposed to be put in danger. So, we had to make do. We had to move up the plans. But you managed to survive the first factory, and then you didn’t show up at the second or at least you didn’t have your robot with you, so we couldn’t leak the footage to the authorities. But the really galling thing was that instead of going to Dolus, you show up here of all places.”

“What was supposed to happen at Dolus?” Artemis yelled up.

“Well, since you’re already here, I suppose I could tell you, the authorities were going to find that place as soon as you’d made it inside, through an anonymous tip, and once they’d caught you trespassing, well, you’d go to jail. If that was the end of it, so be it, we might have even been able to spin something to help our legal team, if not, well, accidents happen all the time in jail, don’t they?

“I must ask, how did you find out about this place?”

“Get used to disappointment.” Gaige shouted back “And don’t you think you’ve stalled long enough?”

“My, how perceptive of you, very well.” She pressed a button and the door underneath her window started to grind open, revealing a massive mech inside, but before they could get a good look at it, she continued “Unlike my late husband, ex-husband I mean.”

“Wouldn’t that be ex-ex-husband?”

“Quite, unlike him, I don’t believe in half measures.” She said and behind them they heard the door there start opening, revealing another two mechs within.

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Chapter 33

Erinyes

“Well, it seems we were able to just finish the third while we were talking. So, since I don’t believe in holding back, especially against trespassers, we will be sending our full strength against you, I hope you don’t mind. Oh, and do try and put up a good resistance, so that we can use it in the promotional materials.”

Gaige resisted the urge to flip her off and instead focused her attention to the war machines that were slowly stomping their way out. They towering over them like mobile buildings on four thick legs which moved one at a time, raising and stomping down before the next one moved. They all jutted out evenly around the waist, which was one of the narrowest parts of the machine, but was still the size of a Technical and seemed to be set up so the upper torso could swivel around it, but the actual mechanism was hidden underneath a collar of metal plates, shielding it from sight, as well as bullets. Its upper torso looked like someone had uprooted a house and dropped it onto the legs, like someone’s demented version of a fairy tale. It was massive and squarish, looking nothing like the other bots they’d seen from Holloway Robotics, in some strange way it made Gaige think of a strongman, flexing his chest. There weren’t arms sticking out, but strange pods affixed to the sides and on its back was a large sphere covered in small indents that glittered in the thin light. Situated at the front of the torso, near the top, was what she supposed could be called a head, a long strip of lenses on either side of a box.

“Well,” Gaige muttered to the other two “It unfortunately seems like they stole from a fairly decent design. Not much in the way of weak points that’ll be easy to get to.”

Artemis just shrugged, eying the machines up. Gaige wondered what her eyes could see that even Gaige’s trained ones missed? Could she spot weak points? Could she tell where to shoot just by instinct alone? It was something that Gaige had often wondered about the other girl, but this didn’t seem to be the time to bring it up.

Instead, her musings were interrupted by Artemis asking “So, how you wanna do this?”

“Well, why don’t I take the one faking a limp and you take the one that’s actually a bit incomplete.”

“You spotted that too?”

Gaige had, one of the machines had been lifting one of its legs a bit less than the others, as if there was something wrong with it, but she could tell at a glance that it was just someone trying to be tricky and distract from the fact that the one across from it was in fact, the one that had just been finished.

“Kinda obvious really.” She said, scanning the area, looking for a good place to fight, but there wasn’t one. It seemed that Mrs. Holloway and the remainder of the employees had cleared the area well. Still, it wasn’t like they hadn’t planned for this, so she unslung the slab of metal off her and slammed it into the ground. With a bit of help from Deathtrap, the plate stuck straight up and while not great, would provide at least a bit of cover. Behind her she heard Artemis do the same, though it was a bit closer sounding then she’d expected.

Turning she saw that it was too close, so she had to ask “What’re you doing?”

“I’m not gonna need that.” Artemis replied, twisting her neck to the side.

Even as Gaige puzzled over what she’d said, she couldn’t help but think that it all would’ve been more dramatic if she’d been able to get a crack out of her neck. But that wasn’t what was important at the moment, so she asked “What do you mean, you won’t need it?”

“I’m gonna have to move for this one, so I figured it would be best to cover your rear.”

Gaige didn’t know how to respond to that, she wasn’t one to usually stay still during a fight, so it felt a bit like they were switching roles, which she found a bit disconcerting. She nearly made a comment about her implying that her rear was too large to be covered in a different way, but decided that this wasn’t the time for it, so instead she just nodded.

“Be careful out there.”

“You too. And I’ll try and finish early enough to come help you.”

“That’s what I was gonna try.”

They looked at each other for a moment and though both of them wanted to say more, they just nodded and turned away from each other, unsure if it would be the last time. They’d never faced anything like these mechs before, not even the massive guardian at the core of the Garden, so they were worried, but Gaige reminded herself that the Orochi had been worse. Granted, there’d only been one of it, but she’d felt a lot more unease going into that fight then she did right then, so she’d just have to do her best, get through to the other side and make sure that the Holloway’s were off her back for good, after that, well, she’d see. She had some idea of what she needed to do next, but to be honest, she decided that she’d rather fight the mech then deal with that, which might be why she didn’t feel too worried about it. That, and it had been made by Holloway Robotics, and she would never be scared of their tech, no matter how much of it had been stolen from actual competent companies.

She turned her back on the other fight and focused on the mech in front of her, trusting her companions to deal with the others. She’d kind of expected it to be accompanied by a swarm of the remaining Holloway bots, but it seemed that they didn’t want her to have any easy way to build up her Anarchy. She was empty, but that didn’t bother her. She was going to win and put all of this behind her once and for all.

The mech moved first, continuing to stomp its way forward it fired a large missile from one of the pods on its side. Gaige watched in horror as the thing streaked towards her, but suddenly realized that it wasn’t going to hit her, not even close, still, she opened fire on it, trying to take it out, but while she managed to knock it off course, the projectile still slammed into the ground a ways away from her and immediately popped open, spitting out a giant blue dome that swept past her causing all the hairs on her body to stand up, confirming that it was just an EMP field, not that that was good since it made her cut off her shield, but not as bad as it could’ve been.

As she thought that, the ball on the mech’s back spun and suddenly a wave of projectiles were flying her way, slamming into the ground around her and banging into the shield with enough force that she was worried that it would tip over. She braced her shoulder against it and waited. The attack could only go on for so long, but her real worry was that the mech was continuing to get closer the whole while, meaning her window to stop it was closing. She knew that once it was too close, she’d have to abandon her shelter and then it would be a lot harder for her to fight.

Getting tired of waiting, she popped out and opened fire with the assault rifle she held, popping the bi-pod as she did. Without any Anarchy in her, her shots slammed into the spot she’d been aiming at, slamming into the sensors across it’s top. Her hope was to blind it as best she could, but she knew that even if she succeeded, the operators would be able to control it from their observation booth, unless the thing actually was controlled by A.I., in which case, this would be effective.

The mech’s attack soon ended as she popped a new clip into her rifle and resumed firing. Part of her wondered if she wouldn’t be better served using a pistol like she had when she’d fought Holloway, but something about this made her think that she needed to do the most damage she could while she could still aim. That wasn’t to say that she should give up on her Anarchy, she was sure she’d need that before the fight was over, but she should still hit the thing where it hurt as soon as possible, so she kept driving her shots into the sensors.

As she shot the thing, she observed the way it moved, looking for weak points, but she had to admit, much as she hated it, the techs had eliminated most of them. It wasn’t like there weren’t any, there was no way to block all of them, as long as the thing could see, move or attack, there was a place to strike back, but most of the easy ones, like the joints, were covered in extra armor, making attacking those points a challenge.

Still, she was doing her best to spot the ones she could.

She really wished she’d thought to bring along a heavy weapon, even though the ship didn’t have any. She lacked heavy firepower, something to punch a hole in the armor, something like Deathtrap’s deathlaser or the Iron Hammer they’d given back to Wainwright. She wondered if they shouldn’t have stopped by and seen if they could borrow it, but she supposed that even if they had been able to, she wouldn’t have wanted to fire the thing, she remembered how much it had hurt Artemis each time she’d fired it, but she could still daydream.

Snapping another clip into her gun, she started to worry, so far she hadn’t been able to inflict any real, noticeable damage to the mech and it had continued to stomp it’s way closer. As she was beginning to wonder if she should change her tactics, the side of the mech opened up and started charging up a massive energy pulse. Recognizing it from Feno Phena, Gaige screamed behind her “Duck!” and hunkered down behind her thin barricade.

No sooner did she tuck into a ball than the blast let loose, slamming into the chunk of metal with a great booming noise, as if a giant gong had been struck next to her. Despite having her goggles pulled down, she winced her eyes closed as a wave of dust flew past, scouring her with tiny shards of sand till she wondered if the finish on her cybernetics was still going to be there afterwards.

Cracking one eye open, she realized that all she could hear was a dim ringing and that her goggles were covered in a fine layer of dust. Wiping them with her thumb, she glanced around, making sure everything was alright and immediately spotted that the top of her barricade had been bent over from the force of the impact. Letting out a soft curse, she glanced around, but didn’t see either of the other two, not that that was all that surprising since she hadn’t been looking at them earlier, so she didn’t know how their fights had been going.

A dull thump that reverberated in her chest brought her back to the mech slowly closing in on her and to her surprise, it didn’t seem all that much closer. She guessed that it couldn’t speed up all that fast, so it shouldn’t have come as that big a shock, but she somehow thought more time had passed while she’d been curled up, not that she was complaining, her main problem was trying to figure out how she was going to stop it.

Above her Deathtrap had watched the dust fly, spinning around him and making him briefly visible as a Deathtrap shaped hole in the cloud. His fight was going slightly better than Gaige’s, but still not all that well. He’d started out by surprise attacking the third mech with a deathlaser to the face, blowing a sizable hole in its sensor array, which had been well and good, but he hadn’t been able to do much after that. He’d watched the EMP fields expand below him, a ways away from the mechs themselves as he darted around, firing both caustic and electric beams into the sparking hole, but neither of them seemed to have much effect, the last ‘eye’ on that side simply refused to go dark, despite his best efforts.

To make matters worse, since he was still invisible, the mech had tried to target Gaige, meaning Deathtrap had to flicker into the visible spectrum occasionally just to draw the machine’s attention.

He supposed he was lucky. Thus far, the mech hadn’t used any of its big weapons, probably because it couldn’t lock onto him long enough to get off a clean attack. He wasn’t fond of the hit and run tactic he was being forced to use, he would’ve much rather fought the thing head on, but he was fonder of not being smashed into a robot pancake, so he did what he had to.

Unable to get any real damage, he considered firing off another deathlaser, even though he worried about overuse, if he drained his power too much, he wouldn’t be able to provide back up when the girls needed it, but if he didn’t use it, he wasn’t going to be taking the mech out in time to be able to help.

While he was debating the pros and cons of his attacks, the mech seemed to get tired of him and chose to ignore him, instead focusing on Gaige, who was the easiest target. One of the smaller ports of the mech opened up and he saw fire start up, as if it was about to launch a huge gout at her exposed side.

Without hesitation, he threw himself at its face and drove his Digi-claws into its last lens, attempting to blind it. The gambit seemed to work, as the mech twisted to the side, to try and regain its lost target, causing the jet of fire to go wide.

Disappointed in himself for not trying that earlier, Deathtrap went to town on the mech’s face, smashing his claws into the rest of the eyes, but to his disappointment, they didn’t seem to break. He supposed that all of his work earlier had in fact weakened them enough for him to destroy them in one hit.

Still, he had a new strategy, one that didn’t rely on him expending all of his energy, so he got to work, dousing the remaining lens’s in caustic laser.

Artemis had given Gaige one last look before darting off to face her own mech. She’d known that she was getting the easiest one, so it would be up to her to take care of hers fast and get back to help the other two, not that she thought that would be easy, the mech, even as unfinished as it was, was still a massive towering machine that wouldn’t go down easily.

She’d already marked out the weak points on it, the joints, the sensors and most importantly, a panel of armor on the side of the torso that hadn’t been bolted down tight.

She imagined that it had been one of the last panels that they’d had open when they’d arrived, causing the workers to scramble to get the thing finished and they must have just finished by the time the doors had opened. In fact, she’d spotted a few of the workers scrambling onto the repair rigs as the mechs had started forward, so it didn’t surprise her that a few plates hadn’t been tightened properly, a fact she fully intended to take advantage of.

Even as she ran, she took shots at the mech, aiming for the plate in an attempt to knock it loose before she got too close. She didn’t know what kind of armament the thing had and she wasn’t looking forward to finding out, but she did have an idea of how to fight it, but that would depend entirely on whether or not it had good close combat capabilities.

The mech responded to her shooting a missile out of the pod on its side. Swearing, she spun and opened fire at it, driving shots into the tip of the projectile and just like what was happening behind her, she managed to knock it off course, causing it to slam into the ground a ways away from her where it popped it’s EMP field.

Artemis cursed at it, managing to get her shield snapped shut before it was destroyed by the field. She debated whether to go blow the thing up or keep moving forward and as if in response to her thoughts, the mech attacked by spinning up the ball on its back and launching a wave of small dart-like shots at her, though she supposed small was a bit relative as the foot-long blasts started slamming into the ground around her.

She dodged and wove around the attacks, jinking as much as she could while keeping an eye on the incoming shots. A detached part of her mind wondered if the mech could only fire one weapon at a time and if so, that seemed like a fairly big oversight. Still, she wouldn’t be complaining if it couldn’t.

As she wove through the shots, she held off on returning fire, since she’d have to pause to do so and pausing, no matter how briefly could prove fatal in these circumstances. So, she closed a fair amount of ground as she dodged the attacks.

Now that she was closer, she could see plenty of things that she couldn’t have from a distance, from the way the joints were covered in sliding plates to keep dust and bullets out, to the fact that there wasn’t an exposed line anywhere. She noted the way the gun ports were sealed up on the torso to prevent any stray shots from getting in and the way one of them was opening up right then, looking menacingly at her, so she decided to sink a shot or two into the opening, as long as it was going to open up for her.

There was a spray of sparks as something inside didn’t take kindly to having bullets added to it and the port snapped shut, which was good, because she had to snap the cylinder of her rifle open and start to reload, even as she ran forward.

As soon as she’d finished, she snapped it back closed and fired twice more, hitting the wobbling plate and knocking it loose. She watched as the plate flapped and twisted on the little bit that was holding it in place and switched gears, aiming lower she slid to a stop and took a deep breath.

She didn’t notice as everything seemed to slow down around her, her focus was entirely on the mech in front of her. Had there been anyone else around, she would’ve been an easy target for a sniper, but since they didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire, there wasn’t anyone to take that shot. Instead, the only one that was shooting was her.

Her bullets flew straight at one of the legs, the leg that was being pulled back as the mech lumbered forward and struck it at an angle, ricocheting off and flying at an angle upward, underneath the armor plates that covered its waist.

There was a sudden sparking accompanied by a hideous grinding noise as she emptied the cylinder in seconds. The bullets had found their mark as the entire upper half of the mech jittered and came to a stop, unable to turn.

She’d managed to reflect her shots up, under the armor and slam them into the ring, knocking it out of alignment just enough that it caught and seized up. It wouldn’t stop the mech from moving and it could still aim at her if it turned its entire body, but it was something, and something that she planned on taking advantage of.

She slipped the rounds into her rifle fast enough that her fingers blurred as she started running again and just as she was slinging the rifle onto her back, she heard a shouted “Duck!” from behind her.

Without turning, she dropped into a slide, taking a second to glance behind herself as she did just in time to see the mech Gaige was fighting let loose with a massive pulse from one of its arms, after that, everything vanished in a cloud of dust.

Hopping back up, despite not being able to see, she continued running forward, attempting to use the dust as cover. The mech in front of her paused, but she wasn’t sure if her plan was working or not since she couldn’t see it beyond the leg that was barely discernible through the haze.

Soon enough the dust started to settle and the mech’s face opened up, revealing a massive lens. Acting entirely on instinct Artemis threw herself to the side just as a bright white light fired out of the mech, slicing into the ground where she’d been.

Artemis knew instantly that even if she’d had her shield up, that beam would slice clean through it.

She bolted to the side, trying to keep ahead of the beam as the mech tried to chase after her, but the damage done to its waist ring was preventing it from following her when she reached the edge of its normal range, so the mech kept trying to turn until something inside snapped and the ring let go, spinning the torso past her and sending bits of metal falling from underneath it.

The sudden release caused the laser to miss her, spinning an arc just past her, so she ran straight at the base of the machine, figuring that the weapons beneath it would be easier to take then the high-powered laser that was currently chasing her.

As she went, she pulled one of the bunnies off her pack and started winding the pocket watch it was holding.

Dashing under the mech at top speed, she suddenly jinked as ports opened up on its bottom and started firing at her. Twisting and dancing she continued a few steps and threw the rabbit up as hard as she could, wedging it in between the armor plates and the ring before running away as fast as she was able.

As she ran, she counted down in the back of her mind and when she reached the nearest leg, she spun around it and grabbed on. The instant she was against it she began shimmying up it, trying to get higher, but before she got very far, she felt a sudden tingle run up her and shoved off with her right side an instant before the electrical surge ran through the machine in an attempt to knock off whatever was climbing it.

Letting go completely, Artemis flew out and landed hard on the ground, rolling up as best she could and her eyes locked with the machine just as the timer in the back of her head hit zero, accompanying an explosion.

Jets of fire and metal went flying as the bunny detonated, blasting apart the ring and causing the entire mech to stagger, slumping oddly as chunks of the ring fell out and crashed to the ground.

Artemis marveled at the destructive power that the bomb held and simultaneously thought that she’d have to thank Tina and worry that not only had she been carrying that casually on her pack, but she had a number of others dangling there as well.

Taking advantage of the fact that the mech’s torso was unstably wobbling, Artemis charged back at it, leaping onto its leg and scrambling up as fast as she could, counting on it being distracted by its sudden destabilization.

It seemed to work since she was able to scurry up onto the flat of its leg and run towards it. When the leg dipped back down to connect to the base, she jumped, leaping towards the torso.

Catching onto the side, she felt her chest slam into it as her hands scrambled against it trying to find anything to grab onto, eventually finding a narrow handhold as she caught her toes on the top edge of the waist armor.

Looking around, she spotted the panel that she’d knocked loose a small ways away from her. Sighing, she quickly started shuffling her way around the mech towards it, even as the torso wobbled dangerously as the mech tried to move.

Despite the wobbling of the mech, she was able to get over to the plate and grab onto it, pulling it up so that she could see in. What she found was an access hatch that led to a number of computer ports that would’ve been helpful to someone like Gaige, but meant nothing to her. Instead, what she found that was interesting was what was past them, a narrow maintenance crawlspace.

Letting out a groan, she shucked her pack, hooking it around her ankles and dove in as the mech took an unsteady step forward. It seemed that the machine had decided that since it couldn’t find her, it would try to attack Gaige, meaning Artemis had to move quickly in order to stop it.

Looking at it she realized that the only reason the crawlspace was even there was that things hadn’t been tightened down fully, they must have left the space inside till they’d fired it up and then tightened it down, pulling the parts together. Deciding to take advantage of the little luck she’d found, she slithered in.

The crawlspace was at least as narrow as the vents she’d been in, but more uncomfortable since they went through the machine as it was operating, meaning not only was it slamming her up and down with each step, but all the heat that was being generated was cooking her as she moved and before she got even a few feet in, she could feel the sweat pouring down her face making her glad that she had her goggles on. Her clothes stuck to her in an uncomfortable way as every pore seemed to open up and let out as much sweat as it could, making her worry about passing out from dehydration and heat stroke before she got where she needed to get to.

Trying to ignore all the discomforts, she pulled herself through as fast as she could, twisting and following the cables up the center of the mech till she found something that looked important. Wriggling around as best she could, she snagged a bunny off her pack and stuffed it into the gap between the wires, twisting the stem on the watch to set the bomb for as much time as she felt she could and started back down when things went wrong.

The mech lurched and she heard something ping dangerously as the entire thing shook and spun. The only thing she could think of was that the ring had snapped, causing the entire torso to break loose more than it already had, but then the narrow space below her vanished as a piece of the mech came loose and slammed into the gap, wedging in place.

Cursing as she realized that she wasn’t going down, she scrambled back up, ripping the bunny loose from where it was wedged and giving it a quick once over. Realizing that there was no way to shut it off, she dropped back down as far as she could, landing painfully on the chunk that was wedged into place and chucking the bunny through the narrow gap on one side before flying back up as fast as she could in the narrow space.

Ignoring the cuts and bruises she was suffering as she banged off of various bits that jutted out, she tried to put as much distance between herself and the bomb as she could, but since the mech wasn’t all that big, there was only so far she could go.

She grabbed onto a loose looking chunk of the mech and yanked it out before climbing over it and kicking it down, wedging herself into the space where it had been and curled up as best she could as the bomb went off, blasting the mech apart from the inside.

Deathtrap had been continuing to work on his mech, splashing its lenses with caustic beams and then slamming his Digi-claws into them in an attempt to break them. So far it had been moderately successful, he’d managed to take out over half the remaining lenses when he heard the first bomb go off.

Spinning in mid-air he took in the wobbling torso of the mech that Artemis had been facing and watched as she climbed the outside of its leg, throwing herself at it and climbing inside. It wasn’t a move he would’ve thought of, but he supposed it would work for her, but as the seconds passed, he realized that she hadn’t done what he’d expected and just tossed another bomb inside, so he figured that she must be looking for a better place to plant it.

Then a second bomb exploded behind him and this time he spotted Gaige rushing away from the remains of one of the EMP missiles, swearing up a storm before resuming her attack on the mech she was dealing with.

He turned away from it and smashed another lens in the mech he was fighting, figuring that the girls had their fights, if not in hand, at least under control enough that he could focus on his own, when another explosion thumped off to the side.

Glancing over, he froze up, watching the black smoke billowing out from the mech that Artemis had been fighting. As he watched, the machine slowly wobbled around before collapsing inward on itself, dropping into a pile of scrap.

He moved towards it slightly, worrying about whether Artemis was alright or not, but the mech behind him rumbled ominously so he reluctantly pulled his attention away, hoping that she was alright.

Gaige on the other hand, nearly bolted for it. She’d been forced out of her cover so she’d decided to use one of her bunnies to take out the EMP generator, after all, that’s what she’d gone to all the trouble of getting them for in the first place, when an explosion had echoed from the other direction. She’d taken a second to glance over and spotted Artemis climbing up the leg of her opponent while bits and parts fell from beneath the armor guarding its waist, letting Gaige know instantly what she’d done. It wasn’t a bad play, but without the panel that Gaige could see flapping on the mech’s side, it might not be worth trying, still, destroying an opponent’s maneuverability was a major help, so she filed it away to use when she got the chance.

But more importantly, she’d needed to take out the EMP generator so that she could get her shield back up since she didn’t have any other defenses at the moment. So, she’d chucked a bunny at the missile that was generating the field and ran away from it, having noted how big the explosion had seemed when Artemis had used it.

True to her expectation, the blast left a crater making her wonder what Tina had done to the explosives to get that kind of result. Deciding not to overthink things, she flipped open her shield and ran, trying to put some distance between herself and the mech she was facing while spraying it with bullets.

The mech’s torso spun tracking her, which wasn’t really all that much of a surprise considering how it was built, but it was still annoying. In fact, the only thing that all of her running around it did was make it pause ever so slightly as it had to switch which leg to move next to continue chasing after it and give her a good workout.

She was starting to get frustrated, she was supposed to be the robotics expert here, yet she was the furthest behind on stopping hers. It wasn’t that she was taking her time with it, nor was the mech too well built for her, it just had ridiculously thick armor. She supposed that she should be using her caustic SMG for it and switched over, but a glance around told her that it wouldn’t do much, after all Deathtrap had been using his beams on his for a while and while he’d already nearly blinded his, she could tell that it had been more due to his other attacks then the caustic.

As she thought that, she heard a dull thump of an explosion going off and noticed the black smoke starting to pour out of Artemis’s mech, which worried her. She’d seen that the girl was going to try and get inside hers, or at least get the panel off its side and get access to its internals, but that explosion had sounded fairly deep within the mech and from where she was she couldn’t see Artemis anywhere which made Gaige worry that she hadn’t gotten out in time.

Her worry was compounded when the mech started to collapse, its legs freezing up as it’s torso crumpled as if the supports had been cut inside it, causing the sides to bulge out and twist, tearing apart and throwing bits everywhere before the entire thing collapsed into a pile of oil and smoke.

She nearly started running towards the downed mech, when she heard the sound of the ball on the back of the one she was fighting spin up again, forcing her to redirect her attention to it.

Getting sick of the mech, Gaige dodged around the shots that rained down around her and charged towards the machine, pulling another bunny off her pack. She dashed around the legs of the mech, twisting the stem on the watch to set the timer and chucked it into the nearest leg joint.

As she continued past the mech, she saw that it had twisted around, following her as it’s face opened, revealing a large lens that filled her with worry.

Her worry turned out to be justified as the lens fired a searing laser at her, chasing along after her and nearly catching up when the bomb went off, blowing the leg clean off and sending the mech tumbling over, causing the laser to fly up and around, cutting into the mech that Deathtrap was fighting and up through the mountain above them before cutting off.

Gaige quickly glanced over, trying to make sure that Deathtrap was alright, her stomach frozen in fear that she might’ve just killed her bestie, but he flickered into the visible spectrum long enough to wave, letting her know that he was alright.

The wave of relief that swept through her nearly took her legs out from under her, but she managed to keep them, knowing that she had to deal with the mech still, no matter how damaged it was, until it was destroyed, it would continue to be a threat.

Deathtrap watched her go, flicking the invisibility device back on so that he vanished from sight. He hadn’t let her know that it had been a close call, if his sensors hadn’t picked up the bomb and the laser the mech was using, he wouldn’t have been able to realize what was about to happen and dash behind the mech he was fighting, using it as cover as the laser sliced through the area he’d been fighting in.

He probably wouldn’t tell her, even after the fight was over, there was no need to worry her about it or to make her feel worse than she already did, just thinking she might’ve hit him.

While he was distracted, he missed the mech he’d been fighting, taking advantage of his absence and aiming an attack at Gaige’s open back, opening its own face up and aiming the laser at her.

A sharp crack spun him back around as he saw the lens tilt to the side. He didn’t pause and fired off as quick of a shot from his deathlaser as he could, blasting the lens and causing it to crack before he spun his sensors around to find out what had happened, quickly spotting the barrel of Artemis’s rifle poking out of the debris of her mech.

Chastising himself for letting his guard down, he dove in and tore the remains of the lens out to vent his anger before dropping down and blasting into the opening the laser Gaige’s mech had caused.

Every part of Artemis hurt, she’d made it through the explosion alive, but the detonation in the enclosed space had temporarily deafened her, not to mention sliced her up pretty well. She could feel the sweat stinging the ridiculous number of cuts that covered her body, but at least that kept her conscious. The real problems were that the collapsed mech around her seemed to be heating up, making her wonder if she’d ruptured something in it when she’d taken it down. The heat was getting stiflingly, slowly steaming her in her own sweat and worrying her about dehydration, but to make things worse, she couldn’t move. Each time she tried, a blinding pain lanced up her legs, stopping her. She couldn’t even pull forward, not just because of the pain, but it felt like she was pinned in place by something, meaning she couldn’t even shift off the metal plate that was under her.

She supposed she’d been lucky, the explosion hadn’t killed her and it hadn’t set off the other bombs she was carrying, but the tradeoff had been that she couldn’t get out to help with the rest of the fight. It was only dumb luck that had allowed her a narrow vent out that she could see what was going on through and the fact that she’d been able to hold onto her rifle, which she was currently holding like a lifeline. She could hardly move, but she was able to shift the rifle a little bit to the side and aim before firing another shot.

Gaige heard the familiar crack of a rifle and felt a wave of relief sweep through her, it meant that Artemis was alive. She didn’t know what she was firing at, but the simple fact that she was back in the fight meant a lot to her.

With that off her mind, she turned back to the fallen mech in front of her and quickly pondered what to do about it. She knew that the explosives would work, but she’d need to get them into some space for them to really do anything, just throwing them onto its body more than likely wouldn’t even crack the armor. Explosives did more damage the tighter the space they were in, the fewer ways the energy had of escaping the more it had to create its own, so she knew that she needed to optimize its impact, but other than the joints, she didn’t see anywhere that looked viable.

To make things worse, the mech was still thrashing around, trying to get to her. She supposed she’d been lucky, not only had the mech not fallen on her, but it didn’t seem to have a method to get itself back up, which was a major design oversight.

Still, unless she could capitalize on it, it didn’t matter.

As she was pondering, she saw that a number of ports popped open on its side, but before she could do anything, they started firing.

Gouts of flame shot at her alongside giant balls of ice. Intermingled were blasts of caustic energy and sharp looking javelins that when they hit the ground started arcing lightning between them, turning the battlefield into chaos.

Prioritizing the most dangerous attacks, she fired at the caustic launchers. She was immune to electrical attacks, the fire was a short range so she could avoid it for the present and the ice was slow enough moving that she could get out of its way, so she took aim at the remaining ports, spraying them with bullets.

It seemed that the ports were a weak point on the mech, since it couldn’t protect the vital machinery that powered the weapons despite the sloped plating around the barrels. It took a bit, but she eventually cut through the first couple of the caustic weapons.

Realizing she’d just made an opening, she switched targets to the flamethrowers, trusting that even with her slight reduction in accuracy, that she’d still hit. In seconds she’d cleared a small space in the attacks and capitalizing on it, pulled a bunny off her pack and dashed forward, ignoring the searing heat that washed over her as she ran.

Twisting the timer, she jumped and chucked it into the newly cleared flamethrower port. Hitting the ground, she rolled up and sprinted under the mech as it continued to thrash, ignoring the bullets she felt slamming into her shield. She knew that she couldn’t take much of that kind of damage, but she was through it in seconds and as long as she didn’t get hit by one of the ice balls, she figured she’d be fine.

As if in response to her thought, she felt an impact on her side and everything froze. She staggered and felt another dozen shots hit into her as she suddenly found it hard to move one foot in front of the other, slipping on the remains of the ice-ball around her.

In desperation, she threw herself sideways, rolling under a jet of fire in an attempt to thaw herself out before the bullets tore the last tatters of her shield away.

It seemed to work, at least a bit, since she felt the cold retreat from her limbs enough that she could keep going.

Staggering to her feet, she tried running again, only to have her path cut off as an electric javelin slammed into the ground in front of her, forcing her to dodge to the side. Belatedly she realized that she’d just fallen into a trap, since another ice-ball was rolling straight at her. Shoving off as hard as she could, she pushed herself out of its way, feeling the tips of her hair freeze as the ball rolled past.

Coming to her feet, she felt the wave of heat rushing towards her as the flamethrower scorched a path towards her, only for the bomb to go off, rocking the entire mech.

Minor explosions erupted across its surface as the bomb tore through its insides, causing mini-explosions as vital systems went.

Still, the mech seemed to want to continue fighting, launching an all-out attack on her, firing everything it had. Jets of flame thrashed everywhere. Ice balls rolled and collided with each other. Javelins flew, striking anything they could, including the ice balls. Bullets traced the ground. The ball on its back fired bolts even though most of them just dug into the ground underneath it. EMP missiles arced through the sky. It’s laser thrashed at the clouds above.

Gaige paused, unsure of how to proceed. She’d been lucky not to get hit by the waves of chaotic attacks, but she knew she needed to do something quick, so she ran at it.

Slipping around the attacks, she closed the distance. This chaos was nothing for her, she’d harnessed the power of Anarchy, or at least that’s what she told herself. In truth, she was pouring sweat down her back as the attacks scorched the air around her, then froze it, but she didn’t slow down, running right up to the downed mech and sliding under it.

She felt one of the blasts from the ball hit her, tearing through her shield, but she didn’t care, she was almost there.

Deathtrap watched as Gaige dashed under her opponent and realized that he was about to be the last one fighting, so he decided that he’d had enough of this and dropped down

As soon as he’d stopped attacking the mech behind him, it had gone all out, lashing out in a half blind rage, firing everything it had as if mimicking the downed one Gaige was fighting. He didn’t care though, it didn’t matter if it expended all of its energy trying to get him or anyone, he had a plan and the fact that it was firing blindly actually helped him.

As the mech unleashed a energy pulse, blasting up dust, he flipped the invisibility system closed to protect it from the EMP fields that were raining down around the area. Choosing one at random, he ripped it out of the ground and flew back up, blasting out of the cloud directly in front of his opponent and chucked the missile with all of his considerable might.

The missile might have lacked some aerodynamics from the way he tossed it, but his aim was true, smashing it into the breach in the mech’s armor and driving the EMP field into its unprotected core. The machine twitched for a few seconds and went limp, crashing down as all control left it.

Hopping to her feet, Gaige spun around and jumped, catching onto one of the jagged twists of metal that stuck out from where the bomb had gone off and pulled herself up, dropping into the crater in the side of the mech.

She knew she’d be safe there, it didn’t seem to have any attacks that could reach her inside it, so she got to work, scanning the remains till she found what she needed and got to work.

Heaving, she pulled the twisted piece of metal up, bending it out of her way so that she could get access to the core within. Pulling the face open, she tilted it down and got to work, typing away at the small computer. It was usually used for maintenance and diagnostics, but in her hands, she soon had access to the central A.I. of the mech and after poking around for a second, made a flourish and shut the mech down.

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Chapter 34

Erinyes

Gaige looked around, noting that the other two machines were either down, or in the process of collapsing and turned to the observation window and spread her arms.

“Really? That’s it?” She called up, feeling a bit disappointed. Not only had they taken down all of the machines, but they’d basically done it solo.

She could see a small twitch in Mrs. Holloway’s face, but her voice was level as she responded “Yes, well, it does seem that we have a few things to work out before going to market. Oh well, we’ll just have to try harder next time.”

“Next…” Gaige blinked a few times before slowly raising her rifle “What makes you think there’s gonna be a next time?”

“My dear girl, if you pull that trigger, you’ll be committing murder.”

“After what you’ve done to us? I think not.”

“And what have I done to you? Hm? Nothing. I have merely observed as our automated defenses attempted to do their job defending a facility that you and your compatriots have trespassed upon. So, you see, from the legal point of view, until I actually attack you, you cannot touch me.”

Gaige ground her teeth. The old woman was right, if she did shoot her right there, she’d get charged with murder, again and with the pull that the remnants of the Holloway corporation had, she’d probably wind up with another bounty on her head and be forced back on the run. But if she didn’t do something, she’d always have to look over her shoulder waiting for her to strike.

She’d had enough, she couldn’t take any more of this. She was finally happy, but things kept interfering with her life and making her lose what she’d worked so hard to gain.

“Why can’t you just leave me alone.” She yelled at the smug woman.

“You still think you can ask that after what you did? After what you took from me, from us?”

“Oh, blow it out your ass you old cow. What I did? What’d I do? Huh? Expose your crimes? That’s not something you should be mad about, you’re the one that was dumb. I mean, you had to know what was going on, but did you try and stop it? No, you chose greed over what you knew was right, so you don’t get to stand there and pretend you’ve been wronged.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong.” Came the shouted reply.

“Oh, bull. You knew full well where the money was coming from, what your husband or ex or whatever was doing to get it and you did nothing. Nothing. You reveled in your wealth. I mean, you pricks have always been wealthy, but this was on a whole other level and you couldn’t get enough, so you turned a blind eye to where it was coming from and just reveled in it, so you don’t get to bitch about it when it catches up to you.”

“Like you never did anything illegal for money. Get over yourself. You’re the same as me.”

“No, I’m not. Sure, I’ve done some sketchy things in my time, but you know what? No matter how low I got, how poor, there were designs that I never sold. Things that I couldn’t let out onto the market no matter how much money they would’ve made me, so no, I’m not like you.”

“Well, continue to delude yourself if you want. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can’t lay a finger on me, so until next time.” She nodded to Gaige, but Gaige could see that her face was drawn and ridged with fury as she turned and started walking away.

Gaige’s fingers tightened around the gun, she knew that she couldn’t let the woman walk away, but she also couldn’t act, so she stood there, torn about what to do when a crack rang out.

At first she thought Artemis must have shot Mrs. Holloway, but she didn’t see any bullet hole. It took her a second to realize that it hadn’t been a gunshot she’d heard, but an ominous cracking that continued to be heard as bits of the valley’s walls gave way and came skittering down, causing both Gaige and Mrs. Holloway to look up.

What Gaige saw made her jaw drop as the cracking grew louder. It seemed that when the mech’s laser had flown around the wall, it had blasted through a good amount of the cliff face, weakening it considerably so that it was only a matter of time before it broke loose and now it was about to let go.

With a deafening crack, the entire chunk broke loose, tumbling and crashing down till it collided with the observation room, obliterating it and anyone inside.

Turning away from the wave of dust that flew over her, she looked around and spotting Deathtrap floating towards her, called out “You alright?”

“Urru” Came the reply, so she gave his proffered hand a good slap before hopping down from the corpse of the mech.

“Urggruu”

“Yeah, I know. Kinda disappointing wasn’t it.” She said, shaking her head “But it’s over now.”

She looked at the mechs and wondered if they had a self-destruct system like some of the others had and then she remembered Artemis was still inside hers. When she’d first shot out of the rubble, Gaige had wondered if she was using it for cover, but now she was worried that the other girl might be trapped, so she took off running in its direction.

It took her a minute to cover the ground and by the time she got there Deathtrap was already floating up near where the shot had come from, calling in to try and find Artemis.

“A little *** cough *** help.” Came weakly from inside, spurring Gaige to attempt to scramble up the mountain of metal.

Despite slipping and sliding a bit, she soon found herself face to barrel with Artemis’s rifle. Unconsciously jerking to the side, she nearly lost her footing, but managed to recover before Deathtrap could intervene. Peering in, she spotted a bloody mess that it took her a minute to recognize. It didn’t help that Artemis had been covered in sweat, doused with dust and blood and wedged into a space that no human should fit in, but behind her dusty goggles, Gaige could see her eyes, letting her know that she was still alive.

“Come on, let’s get this junk off of her.” She called to Deathtrap, while attempting to toss some of the bits out of the way. “Hold on, we’ll get you outta there in no time.”

“Don’t worry about me. cough I’m not goin anywhere.”

Gaige smiled thinly at the attempt at humor. She was still worried about the entire thing exploding, which wasn’t helped by the fact that it felt like an oven was underneath the pile. She couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be inside there, but she knew that they needed to not only hurry, in case the reactor inside was overheating, but also, they had to be careful, a pile this unstable might collapse as they tried to move things, crushing the vary person they were trying to save.

After they cleared the front enough that Gaige could pull the rifle out of the way, Deathtrap grabbed onto the top plate and started to lift just enough that Gaige could grab hold of Artemis’s wrists and pull, but immediately stopped when the other girl let out a strange whimper that was close to a silent scream. She watched the color slowly return to her face beneath the layer of dust and once her breathing resumed asked “What’s wrong?”

“It felt like something was tearing.” Came the thin reply.

“Babe, I’m gonna need you to lift it as far as you can, I’m gonna need to get in there and see what’s up.”

Deathtrap nodded and slowly started lifting the mass of metal, feeling the strain on his joints, but he didn’t say anything, getting Artemis out was too important to hesitate now, so he lifted with all of his might till Gaige yelled for him to stop.

He’d seen it too, as he’d got higher, the junk on top had started to shift, threatening to topple over onto the piece he was holding and if that much weight hit it, he wouldn’t be able to keep it up. He just hoped it was high enough to get Artemis out.

Gaige shot him a quizzical look and when he nodded that he had it, she crawled in, shimmying up to the other girl.

“Leave me.” She hissed, obviously getting weak from the heat.

“Oh, shut up.” Gaige snapped as she wriggled past. She wished their situations had been reversed since the thinner girl would’ve been able to operate better in the small space, but she was still glad to be able to help her friend, though she wished it wasn’t in these circumstances.

Soon enough she got to the other girls’ legs and saw the problem, one leg had a spear of metal through it, but the other one was in really bad shape.

“I can cut one of your legs loose.” She said, wincing slightly at the news she was being forced to deliver “But I’m afraid you’re going to lose the other one.”

Hunter’s Moon

A Few Hours Later

“This sucks.” Artemis moaned, leaning back in the chair.

“Look on the bright side, it could’ve been worse.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it could’ve been switched.” Gaige replied, motioning towards her legs and the backup cybernetic that she’d had to break out again. To get her free, they’d had to cut her cybernetic off and have Deathtrap carry her back, much to their embarrassment. Still, like she’d pointed out, if the legs had been switched, she would be needing a new cybernetic, not that she didn’t need one anyway. “Or if the thing had entirely collapsed, you would’ve been squashed. I mean, I know you said that you need to fight like you don’t care if you live, but that was just plain stupid. What were you thinking?” Gaige couldn’t keep the lightness in her voice as she started imagining what might have happened.

“It wasn’t a well thought out plan. In retrospect, I guess I should’ve just shot up the inside or something.”

“Or you could’ve just tossed the bomb in and ran away.”

“Yeah, that might’ve worked as well, I just wanted to make sure it was placed properly, I wasn’t expecting my path out to clog up like that.”

Gaige heard the regret in her voice and didn’t press. She knew they all made mistakes in the moment, so she couldn’t really get too mad if she was truly sorry.

“But this makes, what? The fifth time I need to replace this thing. This is starting to get ridiculous. And to make it worse, not only do I have to build it from scratch, but I’m all outta the good colors to coat it with. This sucks.”

Now it was Gaige’s turn to feel bad, she knew the other girl had gone through a lot since they’d met, including her having to take her cybernetic apart rather frequently. On top of that, due to the frequency of the repairs, she’d had to make her limbs over and over resulting in her using up most of the Honeystuck Wibbler wings she’d collected.

“Tell you what, once this is over and everything’s straightened out, we’ll go back and I’ll help you scour the planet until we find another set of wings in the right colors, alright?”

“Wait, what else do we have left to finish up?”

“We’ve gotta let everyone know that we’re fine and that this is over. I mean, sure, there’s probably a number of the Holloway Robotics employees left out there that wanna do us harm, but the main threat’s over, so we need to tell, A.I.ngel and Timothy about it and I need to tell my dad.” She paused and her eyes widened a bit “Oh crap, I need to tell my dad everything. Not lookin forward to that one.”

She seemed to deflate at the prospect of having to tell her father everything that had happened recently, especially since she’d hidden it from him earlier, so that wasn’t something that she was particularly looking forward to. She figured he’d understand why she’d done it, but the thought of losing his trust weighed on her.

Shaking her head, she continued “And after we finish those calls, which I suppose we could do on the way, I’ve got a couple of stops I wanna make, though I suppose one of them should wait till after you’re back on your feet, so to speak.”

“Why, where are they?”

“Your feet? Or where I wanna go?”

Artemis fixed her with a flat stare, letting her know that now wasn’t’ the time for humor, so Gaige relented a bit.

“Fine, the second place I wanted to go was one of those beach planets. We kinda talked about it back there and I figured, what the heck, why not. So, I thought we could go, unless you’re really opposed or something.”

Artemis shrugged, it didn’t matter to her, as long as they packed a bunch of sunscreen and it was fairly privet, she wasn’t comfortable showing her skin on the beach, which even she realized was a bit ironic considering how she normally dressed, but everybody had their idiosyncrasies.

“And the other place?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“I’m not overly fond of surprises, especially when I can’t run away from them.”

“Trust me, this one isn’t gonna be that bad.”

“Oh, so it’s gonna be partially bad? Is that it?”

“No. It’s just gonna be something I need to do, that’s all.” She knew that she could say more or that she didn’t have to go there to do what she needed to, but she wanted to, that was all, she just felt like it was the right place to have that particular discussion. “Well, I’m gonna punch in the course and then I guess I gotta call my dad.”

“If you don’t want to talk to him, then don’t.”

“I do, it’s just, well, I gotta come clean about this entire thing, that’s all.”

“Oh, alright. In that case shouldn’t we talk to A.I.ngel first? I mean, she’s probably waiting up to see if we’re alright and she already knows everything.”

“Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I just didn’t wanna procrastinate too long on mine, but you make a lot of sense.”

“Speaking of which, are we really not going to talk about this?”

“Talk about what?”

“What happened down there. The entire thing with the Holloway’s and all that.”

“What’s there to talk about? It’s over.”

“You did kinda wipe out an entire family, you know.”

“What? No I didn’t, I only killed one of them, and it was an accident.” But even as she said it, she realized the other girl was right. Inadvertent as it might have been, she’d just killed the last member of Marcie’s immediate family. When she thought about it, Gaige was surprised to find that she really didn’t feel much beyond a dim sense of sadness. It wasn’t that she didn’t sympathize with them, but each of the Holloway’s had brought it upon themselves, so there wasn’t anything she could’ve done about it, besides letting them kill her that is, and since she wasn’t about to do that, she didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. Not that she hadn’t felt a bit bad even when she’d been entirely right before, but she didn’t think she was going to lose any sleep over this one. She wondered if that made her a bad person and then realized that was exactly the kind of thinking that she’d often chastised Artemis about.

She shrugged “Maybe you’re right, but I tried, didn’t I? I always tried to let them walk away.”

“Doesn’t make it easier.”

“Since when did you become a psychoanalytical type?”

“I’m not, I just know that sometimes we feel bad even when we haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Yeah, I get that, but truly, I’m good. In fact, I’m kinda relieved that I don’t have to be lookin over my shoulder anymore.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself, I mean, we both have plenty of people who’re after us.”

“Maybe, but I’m not going to let them dominate my thoughts anymore.”

Gaige turned and walked away with a smile, leaving Artemis to turn to Deathtrap and say “So what do you think?”

“Urgurrru”

“Yeah, she does seem fine.”

Galia

A Few Days Later

They’d taken care of their calls before calling it a night. A.I.ngel had been visibly relieved that they were alright and happy that they were finally clear from the mess. She’d also been ecstatic that she’d been helpful, practically jumping up and down when she’d found out that she’d saved them and had figured out where Holloway was before they could get too many of the mechs up and running.

Both her and Timothy had been shocked to hear that it had been Mrs. Holloway and not her husband that had been after them, but as soon as the shock cleared, they both acknowledged that it did make sense, the plan had a bit more finesse to it than anything that Mr. Holloway had come up with.

They’d also eventually given in to the girl’s incessant pestering and agreed to pick her up before they went back to Jaka, so that they could finish the hunting trip that had been interrupted at the start of the adventure and bid them good night.

Gaige wasn’t the happiest with the way things had turned out on the call, but she couldn’t complain either, after all, if it hadn’t been for those two, there was a good chance she’d be in jail at that moment and if not, she’d be headed to face Mrs. Holloway after giving her enough time to finish all of the mechs they’d seen in the base.

While Deathtrap had been picking Artemis up and making sure she was healing properly, Gaige had poked her head into the hangers where the mechs had been and had found at least four more in stages of partial construction. She’d wanted to destroy them all, but they didn’t have enough bombs with, so she’d rigged up their power cores to detonate after a bit of time and they’d left, enjoying the sounds of the explosions echoing through the mountains as they left.

After she finished talking to A.I.ngel, Gaige knew she couldn’t put off her next call any longer, or rather, she shouldn’t. Sure, she could’ve waited until the next morning, taken a shower first and had a long breakfast, but that wouldn’t make it any easier. Besides, if she didn’t get this off her chest now, she didn’t think she’d sleep all that well, no matter how comfortable the bed was, so she’d keyed in her dad’s number and waited.

It didn’t take long for his familiar face to pop up on screen and with a great amount of trepidation, she interrupted him declaring he had good news by telling him she had something important to tell him. Once she had his attention, she told him the entire story, from the attack on Jaka up to the death of Mrs. Holloway. It wasn’t easy, but she got through it without any real issues. She’d even managed to weave into it why she hadn’t told him, that she hadn’t wanted him to have to sit there and worry, that she didn’t want anyone observing him to think he could be used against her, that she didn’t know how to tell him that Holloway was back and after her again, not after everything they’d been through.

For his part, her dad nodded, he wasn’t happy about being kept out of the loop, but he understood, it was his daughter’s way of trying to protect him, but he reminded her that it wasn’t her job, that was his. Still, he’d been surprised to find out what they’d been up to, not to mention the fact that Holloway Robotics had a blacksite out there. He’d assumed that they’d had one, but hadn’t really given it much thought after the company’s assets had been seized.

In the end, he expressed a bit of remorse at the death of Marcie’s mom, it wasn’t that he condoned what she’d done and he understood her less than her husband, but he sympathized with her losing everything, not just once, but twice over.

Eventually he got to his good news, figuring it would be a good thing to end the conversation with, he’d finally gotten the money out of the government, so it should’ve been transferred into her account by then. He made it sound like he’d had his own epic confrontation, complete with treachery and backstabbing, narrow misses and lots of paperwork, but in the end, he’d triumphed.

He also asked when she was coming to visit, now that things had slowed down, but Gaige explained what she had to do yet, so she didn’t know, but she’d let him know as soon as she did.

So, the next few days had passed in peace, Gaige had gotten to attend another of her meetings, had helped Artemis try and fix her cybernetic as best they could, getting it tuned enough that she could walk normally on it and just generally had a relaxing time.

Then they got to Galia.

They’d entered orbit and traveled down to the surface, walking the hedge lined streets until suddenly Gaige stopped and looked around.

“Do you recognize this spot?” She asked.

“Uh, isn’t this where we first met?”

“You remembered.”

“How could I forget?” Came the soft reply. “But why’re we here?”

“I figured this was the most appropriate spot to have this conversation, being that it was where everything started.” Noticing the look of fear creeping into the other girls’ features, Gaige quickly held up a hand “It’s nothing like that, it’s just that, well, we need to talk, and it’s important so, um…”

Artemis was looking more depressed with each word and the fact that Gaige was faltering wasn’t helping any.

“Why is this so hard?” Gaige muttered “I’ve gone over this in my head a million times, I know what I want to say, but it’s like it’s getting stuck in my chest. It’s nothing bad, it’s just, um, well, we need to talk about something, something that I’ve been thinking about for a while now.”

Gaige took a deep breath and whispered “You can do this.” Before looking up “Back when, um, after I’d made a, well, fool’s too light a word. Why can’t I say this?”

She glanced over at Deathtrap, but he just shot her a thumbs up, which didn’t help her at all.

“Alright, I just need to say this,” She took a deep breath, remembering what she’d once been told about just starting somewhere and letting the conversation wind past what she wanted to say. “So, back in the Garden, I, uh, I told you that I’d think about us, about what I wanted. Between us, I mean. So, I gave it a lot of thought, I mean a lot. That’s what I’ve been mulling over for the last month or so, I mean, what did I want? I had no idea. It’s not easy figuring that out, I mean, I knew some of the things I didn’t want, I didn’t want to lose you for instance, no matter what I chose, but that wasn’t what I was meaning. I mean, now that we’re square and our debts are settled, don’t say it, I know you think you still owe me, trust me, I know, I feel the same way about you, so we both need to understand that the other feels indebted and try and move forward, which is what I’m trying to do.

“Anyway, I thought about it, I mean, what did I want? Did I want to be with a girl? I mean, I’ve never really thought about it, I mean, I don’t find the idea appalling, but I’d never really give it any thought at all, not really, not until our, well, um, until I screwed up.

“Back then, I decided that I’d figure it out, what I wanted, not just from you, but from myself, for myself. And I owe you an answer to what I’ve decided.” She held up her hand to forestall the inevitable argument “I know you don’t want to talk about it, I get it, but like I said, this is as much for my sake as yours, I needed to figure out what I wanted moving forward and how you fit into it.

“After much thought I’ve come to realize that your friendship is the most important thing to me, well, maybe aside from Deathtrap. And my family. Wait, that makes you sound like a distant third and that’s not it.

“Gah, I’m really makin a mess of this. Alright, here goes. I value your friendship. You make me a better person. Without you, I’m just a mess and I know that’s something that you didn’t want dropped on you, that you have your own issues to deal with, but if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here today. And even if I was, I wouldn’t be as good a person, so I owe you.

“Having said that, I don’t want to do anything that would seem like I’m just trying to pay you back, so I kept running in circles in my head. But that’s neither here nor there. What I’m trying to say is I like you, you’re the first real friend I’ve had in a long time and I don’t want to screw that up, so there’s that.

“But that’s not what I was trying to figure out, I mean, of course you were my friend. You stuck with me when you didn’t have to, even though it caused you a lot of pain.

“But enough dancing around it, here goes” She took a deep breath and continued “What I was trying to figure out was, do I like girls. Do I want to try and be with one, romantically. I mean, I always thought I liked boys, well, men, but someone recently pointed out I was just trying to fill a hole in my life and once I figured that out, things started shifting, I no longer felt the same attraction I once did. But did that mean I was willing to try something else? I didn’t know. I mean, I never really thought about it before. So, I gave it a lot of thought and I concluded that I don’t really want to date girls.” She paused and took a deep breath, watching Artemis for any kind of reaction and not finding one, so she continued “But I do want to try dating one of them.”

Still nothing from the other girl.

Gaige nervously continued “What I’m tryin to say is, well, I’d like to try dating you, if that’s alright. I mean, I don’t want to jeopardize our friendship so I wanna take it slow. As slow as we need to. I don’t wanna do anything we’re gonna regret so we can take things as slow as you’re comfortable with and when you’re ready, we can move forward as much as you want.”

She stopped, nervously shifting from one foot to the other and when she got no response she asked “So, uh, what do ya think?”

“Why do you keep pushing this, why won’t you just drop it?”

“Cause I like you. I mean, I really like you. I don’t want to be apart from you. I don’t want to imagine you with someone else, whenever I tried, it made my insides fell tight, like something was clenching my chest and I hated it, even if it was just my imagination, I hated it.”

“That’s just how you think you feel.”

“Can you honestly tell me that if I told you that I was gonna go sleep with some man, that you wouldn’t care?”

“It’s your life.”

“Do you care?”

“Of course I care!” Artemis snapped, “I’d feel awful, but I’d support you if that’s what you wanted.”

“So, when I say I want you, why do you pull back?”

“Cause you can do better than me. You deserve better.”

“Maybe, probably not, but even if that was the case, I don’t want better.”

“But you shouldn’t want to be with a monster.”

“You’re not a monster!” Gaige shouted. Taking a deep breath to try and calm herself she continued “And even if you were, it doesn’t matter to me. You don’t think I’ve done some pretty rotten stuff in my life? I have. You know it. So, if you wanna insist you’re a monster, I guess we’ll just have to be monsters together.”

“You shouldn’t live like that.”

“Neither should you. Don’t you get it, I wanna be with you.”

“Why? I’ve got nothing to offer you.”

“You’ve got everything I want.” Gaige reached out and pulled up the other girls’ face, staring her in the eyes. “I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out what I wanted out of it and for the first time, I’ve found it.”

“Why.” It was almost too soft for Gaige to hear “Why me?”

“Beats me. All I know is that I don’t wanna lose you. That when I’m with you I feel alive. It’s not that I wanna fix you, it’s just that we fit together perfectly, that we hold each other’s damaged and broken pieces together. That when I’m with you I like myself a little more. That I wanna see you smile, to experience real happiness, not just some fragment that you cling to, but a complete happiness, one that fills you. I just wanted you to be happy being you, to smile each day, to enjoy your time. I want to be the one to give it to you and I know that that might sound greedy but I don’t care. I told you before, I wanna be with you till the stars fall out of the sky and I mean that more now than when I first told it to you. I’m in love with you and I’m sorry that it took me this long to figure it out.”

They both froze at the admission, one Gaige hadn’t even admitted to herself. Artemis felt warmth spreading through her chest accompanied by a strange tightness and as Gaige watched in increasing panic, tears started running down her cheeks.

“Uh, oh man, was it really that traumatic?” She asked, only to be punched, not very hard, by Artemis.

Gaige glanced over at Deathtrap only to find that he wasn’t there, he’d given them a bit of privacy, though he was watching over them, wishing them the best.

“I…I don’t know what this means.” Gaige eventually said as lightly as she could.

“It…It…” Artemis couldn’t get the words out. She knew that she should reject Gaige, that she shouldn’t invite this kind of disaster upon them, but she couldn’t get the words out. She wanted to say no, to say yes, to shove her away, to hug her so she found herself frozen, afraid to reach out for what she wanted.

Eventually Deathtrap had enough of it and flew back in to shove Gaige in the back, pushing her into Artemis.

She automatically wrapped her arms around the smaller girl and felt her melt into her, as a feeling of contentment spread through her, she couldn’t help but shoot Deathtrap a look and mutter “Meddlesome bot.” Before turning to the girl in her arms and for the first time, felt content. The same kind of contentment that she’d felt as a child and she realized that she was home. After all those years on the road, she’d finally found where she belonged. And she didn’t plan on letting go.

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Okay so, almost a year late, but here we are, Hunts End.

I’m sorry for taking such a long time to comment about it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it.

As with my Hunter’s Will post, this one will include spoilers. If someone’s read and liked the previous three stories, they should obviously try this one as well (though, as per usual, I do think one could opt out at the end of basically any of these novels and still get a completely satisfying ending).

  • (The bullet points are really arbitrary this time around, I guess they’re just a convenient way for me to organize a disconnected paragraph) beginning with something beyond marginal, I was a little puzzled at a few of these instances:

I thought that maybe some auto-correct could have mistaken “shake” for “$h1t” and caused the forums to automatically censor it, but I checked on Fanfiction.net and the original word, as you know, was actually c0ck, so I get it now.

  • As far as locations/“set pieces” go, they were all pretty interesting in my opinion. It was definitely a good call to revisit Feno Phena, a really interesting and a bit under-utilized planet from Folly. The Pandoran Highlands, though not brand new, were also a pleasing comeback, especially since we didn’t see them at all in Borderlands 3 (their section also included one of my absolute favorite elements in Hunts End, but I’ll get to it later). Burgloth, while not to dissimilar from Xylourgos per se, was still quite intriguing with its wildlife and anthropic environments. The sideways factory was an intriguing setting to imagine, and I suppose it must’ve been fairly difficult to conceptualize. I’m glad you decided to get inventive and experiment with it! The description of Apate 3 was brief but evocative, with the revolving coral-like plants refusing to leave my mind. It really shows how much freedom this franchise could’ve in terms of location variety, if it got a hold of its potential. Erinyes was basically the Feno Phena of this story, but the rocky landscape and centipede creature still gave it a peculiar taste.

  • My favorite element overall must’ve been the inclusion of the “rogue loaders”, that’s something I wish had been in Borderlands 3. I get that they wanted to go back to the roots of what made the original Borderlands’ locations iconic, and the environment art is probably one of the best aspects of BL3. But we’ve already seen the aftermath of Dahl (BL1-2) and Atlas (TftBL, mostly), why not cover what happened to the previously Hyperion occupied areas? The closest we got to that was probably the Washburne Refinery in BL2, but the rogue loaders (while still being somewhat subject to human control in the end) were likely the most intriguing idea presented here.

  • As for the “flying stalker” I wonder if it’s meant to be taken as one of Zed’s chimeric experiments, given what Gaige mentions before encountering it(?).

  • I wasn’t really sure of what to make of the antagonist until the final chapters. By then I’d figured that it probably wouldn’t actually be THE Holloway (which I’m glad for), otherwise all the mystery around its persona would’ve been in vain (and it could’ve also nullified the impact of his suicide in Hunter’s Quarry). Overall I’d say that it’s a satisfying reveal and a good payoff to the teasing vision at the end of Hunter’s Will.

  • Still on a peripheral note, I must confess I caught a bit of a weird vibe from the mentions of Kinzy Kincade and Volupta. While the latter has some pretty well defined thematic relevance, I’m unsure wether I might be missing some reference point/easter egg about these two characters?

  • So, I’d say we can talk about the big one now. Gaige and Artemis end up together in the end! I’m definitely not the world’s most open person about “shipping” or “OCs having relationships with canon characters”, but damn, what can I say? It comes off as really natural and, most of all, EARNED. It took four books for these two believable characters to meet, know eachother through and through, live a lot of emotional and dangerous experiences together, and to reach this arrival point seems only fair. I don’t doubt they’ll still have kinks to figure out in the future, but overall, an extremely solid development, I tip my hat!

I still think Hunter’s Will might be my favorite installment of the saga, but I’m looking forward to reading Hunts Epilogue as well!

I’d be happy to know more about your process behind the creation of this tale and other possible curiosities or facts about it (I’m sure I’ve missed a lot) as always, but of course only if you feel like it, no pressure from me of course.

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Like you said, it’s been about a year since this story came out, and as such, some of my recollections are a bit fuzzy on it, but I’m glad you finally got your thoughts on it up, I was a bit worried that it might’ve pushed the wrong buttons in readers (more on that later), but as they say, better late then never.

I suppose I should also include a warning for SPOILERS!, since I’ll be talking about a number of things and the thought process behind some of the things that happen in the story, so if you haven’t read it yet, you have been warned.

For the first point, I never remember to scan my posts to see what got censored, so whenever it gets pointed out, I’m always like, ‘Oh yeah, they don’t allow certain things here’ as well as ‘That’s what they chose to censor?’

Locations: Since this was intended to be the final chapter in the girls’ saga, I wanted to revisit a number of the locations from the first book, in a way, to bring things full circle, it just happened that it fit with the narrative of the story, so it worked out nicely. Having said that, I didn’t want them to just go back to the same places that they’d been before, that wouldn’t be interesting, not for the reader, nor for me, so I wanted to expand upon what had been introduced earlier.

With the direction the story goes in, returning to Feno Phena was natural, but it presented a new challenge, what to do to make it different from the first time? Especially since they were going to go to the same city. Sure, I could’ve had it take place during the day, but the idea for a celebration came to mind and since it was a water planet, tidal forces seemed like a good choice. It expands on the world, gives a glimpse into what life on the planet would be like, which is always something I want to do.

Similarly, I knew they would have to go back to Pandora, but I wanted them to go somewhere they hadn’t gone before, but still within traveling distance so that Tina could give them the mission. Thinking about it, and about what creatures I had used in the Folly, I realized that Stalkers hadn’t shown up in BL3, nor had their environment, which was a bit of a shame, since they were quite different from most of the other wildlife on the planet, plus they were in the same area as some of Hyperion’s bases, which worked for some of the other ideas I had.

I could’ve used Bullymong, but they were in the frozen wastes and since I already had an idea for Burgloth, that would’ve been a bit redundant. Speaking of Burgloth, yes, it is a bit similar to Xylourgos, minus the elder god. The wildlife was fun to come up with and I’d been wanting to do something in a sideways environment for a while, so this seemed like the perfect time. In truth, it wasn’t all that hard to do, I have a strange thing where I look at buildings and try and figure out how one would have to get around if it suddenly tipped on its side or over. The actual hard part was figuring out the stairs, I actually had to go to a stairwell and look at it, envisioning what it would look like tilted each way.

Apate 3 wasn’t in my original concept, but as I was writing, I realized I needed another step before they headed to the final showdown, that there were things missing and that I needed to have a bit more there, so I tried to come up with a new environment, something that I hadn’t used before and the Oz kits came to mind, so I wrote it up, trying to come up with something new so that it wasn’t just the Maliwan takedown revisited.

Originally, there was going to be more on Erinyes, they were going to go through the base and find more out, such as the project’s name (Apex) and fight a number of worker and bots, but by the time I got there, I felt that it would just bog the ending down and go over stuff that I could in another way, so I cut that bit down. Still, I enjoyed the centipede (hate those things) and the discussion on the ridge. Again, I also tried to give it a different feel then any of the other locations, hence the shale like mountains.

The rogue loaders came from something that I mentioned in one of my previous notes, that I enjoy extrapolating, thinking about what would happen after the events of the games, or to the sides of them in Quarry’s case. For the loaders, the question was, ‘what would happen to all the stuff that Hyperion had when Jack died?’ The entire company would be falling apart, he’d been the thing that kept it going. That’s not to say that the company was his alone, but in the panic that would ensue, things would get shuffled, things would be forgotten about or left behind, including a number of resource, particularly those on Pandora.

I’d touched on this a tiny bit in Folly with Grady Petterson (the leader of the gang on Jaka), but this was a bit of an expansion of that. Plus I liked the idea of all the Jack ‘bonuses’ that he’d issue being used in the bomb.

I think the closest that the games got to something like this was actually in Trashlantis, in the Handsome Jackpot. There were a number of half wrecked loaders that when combined with some of the looks that Claptrap has sported (Mohawk) gave me the inspiration for the loaders looks, plus I wanted to use an engineer, which had vanished a bit from BL3, but were memorable from 2 and his ‘friend’ Connie, the constructor to explain how and why they were there.

Speaking of them and the area, this is a good time to talk about their rival gang, lead by Volupta and her pet artist.

Starting with Pollux Warhull, the two inspirations for his name should be a bit obvious, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Though I don’t remember clearly, I do think that his original name was just War Hull, or something like that, but as I was skimming though the previous stories to check for consistency as I was finishing up Will, I found that I had Castor in Folly and was lamenting the fact that I’d never given him a brother (Castor and Pollux were Roman mythology/history) when it hit me, Pollox and Pollock, it would be perfect to combine them, plus it gave me the perfect wacko dialogue for my ‘artist’. (Plus I got to throw in a small reference to Shooty McFace, which is always fun.)

Volupta didn’t have any real inspiration, I just wanted a character that would make Gaige feel under-attractive in comparison, so that her feelings for Artemis would be challenged a bit. There were a few references around her though, such as the tub in her bedchamber and her glowing healthy skin were references to Elizabeth Barthony, (the blood countess, who supposedly bathed in the blood of virgin girls to keep her beauty)

Finally for the gang, like the Stalkers, BL3 was missing the Buzzards, which also gave me a good way to have an escape, plus who doesn’t like throwing bandits out of their vehicles and taking them for a joyride? It also got to show that it isn’t just wheeled vehicles that Artemis can’t drive.

Speaking of Stalkers, yes, Gaige does reference Zed’s chimerical experiments, but the invisible one was more of taking the standard badass one and making it a boss level one, which I’ve noticed are often bigger, nastier, slightly mutated versions of normal badasses.

For the villain, it helps to start with where the entire idea of the story came from. I was running through Lectra City, (trying to farm a crossbow for no real reason other then I didn’t have one and wanted to play around with it) when I spotted what I thought was an ammo chest, but as I got closer, I realized it was a couple of half-buried bots, which got me thinking, after the fall of Holloway Robotics, what would happen to all of the bots they’d built? No one would want to buy them, after all, they were revealed to be spying on their owners, so there’d be piles of them around. My first thought was that someone would buy up a lot of them, since they were cheep and be using them to go after the girls, but I quickly realized that I’d set up a villain in Folly, albeit accidentally when I put the throwaway line about his family. Plus, I’d already written the scene in Will where Artemis runs into some former employees, so I’d already set things up without realizing it.

All that remained was figuring out what they were up to and I had a villain. For motive, I didn’t want another you killed my so and so, prepare to die villain, I wanted the audience to question who it was and once they’d just figured it out, pull the rug out from under them with a different reason.

Some of the things around them were designed to seem like wild coincidences that would point one way, but when looked at logically, were just coincidences, such as the coroner. If you take into account that he was probably bribed to make sure that the incident was ruled a suicide, it would make sense that he’d retire shortly afterwards, and if he was close to retirement age, then him passing away shortly after that wouldn’t be that unusual, it just lines up that the girls were looking for him after and it seemed like a conspiracy.

Also, I’m glad that you caught the reference in Will. That was an intentional easter egg for what was to come.

As far as Kinzy Kincade, I don’t think that there was a reference being made, or if there was, I’m not remembering it. I think she was just supposed to be a local celebrity trying to make it big and a nod to the fact that there’s a bigger world out there, and that each planet would have it’s own celebrities.

The ending. That was the part that worried me the most, throughout writing, I wasn’t sure which way I was going to go, part of me wanted to not screw-up what they had, that what Gaige needed was a friend, but the rest of me kept reminding me that this was my story, and that this was the ending that I’d intended from the beginning and if it pissed readers off, then at least I’d been true to what I’d wanted and been setting up all along.

Truthfully, I agree, I’m not a fan of having OC’s end up with characters, it always feels self-indulgent, which was part of why I tried to make sure that it felt natural, that it was set up, at least in part, in previous books.

I also worried that since Gaige is not canonically gay, (or at least, hasn’t been shown to be and I technically made her bi) that it would come off as ‘woke’. This is something else I hate, and I hate both sides of it. On one hand, you have writers that just make a character gay (or otherwise suddenly attracted to someone that is outside their established attraction), either to prove a point or because they just want them to be, which is wrong, it isn’t the character and it isn’t earned and it justifiably pisses fans off (and when the fans complain, they usually double down and scream that the fans are being phobic). On the other hand, there are the fans that freak out every time a character is gay (or whatever they thought they should be), screaming that they’re being ‘woke’ and this shouldn’t be in here. (The worst example of that I’ve seen were some of the Guns, love and tentacles reviews that were upset that they’d ruined Hammerlock and made him gay). Both are wrong and as should be avoided if possible. So I had to work hard to try and make it make sense that she would, if not go for girls, go for this one, so I’m glad you liked it.

I know that I’m forgetting a number of things and behind the scenes stories, inspirations and easter eggs, but I’ll recount what I can remember.

One of the biggest challenges with this story was the politics of the galaxies, how do laws work from planet to planet, how are bounties dealt with, ect, ect. As far as I’m aware, this isn’t touched upon anywhere, so I had to do my best to make things up and try and fit them into the framework of what exists already. That, and skate around it as much as possible.

As I said previously, Apate 3 wasn’t planned from the beginning, which meant that most of what happened there was made up on the spot as I was writing it. The clearest example of this was Artemis stumbling on the posh living area. I was just writing along and the next thing I knew she was standing in a hall of plush carpets and fancy aesthetics, which I had no idea of why. Thankfully, I had to stop writing for the day about there and had a bit of time to figure it out, which led to Holloway having his office there and then in an attempt to figure that out, placed his information gathering base in the building, none of which was planned when I had them land there.

I was never really satisfied with the ending of this book. Not the way that it ends, but with the final confrontation, I just feel it was my weakest, like the fact that I was making things up as I went along was on full display in this one, but I couldn’t think of another way to go with the scene, which might have contributed to my desire to have another story after this one.

This was intended to be the final part (hence the name End), but as I was proofing it, a few ideas kept bouncing around in my head, so I set out to write one last chapter in the girls’ story, though I’ll write about that there.