He stepped into the darkness of the prison cell, Proprananik guarding the door. Adjusting his collar, he strode to the bulletproof door, where a woman in orange clothing was waiting for him, some measure of curiosity upon her face, and some measure of annoyance too at being roused.
His voice barely rose above a whisper. “I have news for you, Hasky.”
“Oh yeah? Why should I care?”
“I will give you your freedom if you do what I ask of you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can set you free this very moment if you agree to help me.” He held up the key. “Yes or no? You have fifteen seconds to answer.”
His left hand went to his belt, where his pistol was holstered. His fingers brushed against the grip. She swallowed.
“Looks like I’ve got no choice. Whatever. I’ll do it.”
“If you agree to the terms of this contract, you cannot speak of the business it entails to anyone. If you do, you may suffer an unfortunate accident, Miss Hasky. I hope you understand. This is no small matter.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about, man. I’m no rat.”
“So, what do you need me to do?”
He took a moment to collect his thoughts. The prisoner was glaring at him. He had to be perfect if he was to gain her respect. Criminals like her were usually tougher to impress.
“Eight days ago, on the twenty-fourth of November, the remnants of the Red Ribbon Army revealed themselves in South City, accompanied by android-like beings. They caused great havoc. One android carried out a damaging, albeit unsuccessful bank heist, while the other scoured the southern islands, wiping out every town, army, and gang they came into contact with.”
“Where do I come into the picture, old man?”
“Their entire force was routed, or so the records state. Only one prisoner was recovered: General Copper, a senior Red Ribbon officer. In addition, the androids were deactivated with EMP blasts and were stored inside two capsules. Your mission is as follows: find and steal those capsules, and recover Copper from the South City police. Bring the capsules and the general to Bonetown. I will meet you there. You do remember that place?”
That caught her by surprise. Indeed, he had never revealed his appearance to her before this moment. “Oh, so you’re the one who paid me to get that infinite energy device from Colonel Violet? She was a member of the Red Ribbon Army, too, if I recall. You must have a beef with them.”
“You would be wise to not ask too many questions, Hasky.”
“What ever happened with the infinite device? What did you use it for?”
“That is also something I am not prepared to reveal to a common thief. Bringing me Copper and the androids should be your only concern.”
She folded her arms. “Common thief, eh? Maybe I don’t help you. How would you like that?”
“How about your sentence gets bumped up to a first degree felony for reckless endangerment of the public, and King Furry decrees you to be executed at the month’s end?”
“You couldn’t do that.”
“Maybe, maybe not. That’s a gamble you will have to make if you choose to stay here.”
“I’m no common thief, let’s get that straight. You know that, man. Everybody does. Don’t slander my reputation.”
“Don’t get hung up on trivial matters, Hasky. Do you want an incentive? Here it is: I’ll pay you Ƶ12,000,000 to get this job done. How does that sound?”
She retreated to the shadows. He deemed that a sharp move which prevented him from analyzing how she would react. Truthfully, he could have offered her less, but he wanted her to understand precisely how serious this mission was. If the woman did not agree to his terms, Proprananik would deal with her, and he would hire the world’s second or third most notorious thief to get this job done. When she returned to the window, Hasky was smirking. He could tell that for her, the promise of zeni assuaged all fears.
“If I’m going to do this, I will need many supplies. A prison break is no joke.”
“You won’t be breaking Copper out of prison, Hasky. He will be in the South City hospital by the time you make your move. Regardless, my associate Proprananik will assist you with anything you need. Our pockets run deep.”
“In that case, what are we waiting for?”
He took the key from his breast pocket and unlocked the door.
“Follow us to the helicopter, and don’t say a word. Oh, and you’ll need to wear these,” he said, placing a pair of handcuffs on her.
The woman, while appearing somewhat surprised, did not hesitate to follow them out. Cardinal was satisfied with how this had gone down. He knew he couldn’t trust her, but she was still the most qualified person for the job. No one would see them on their way out–Proprananik had changed the guard’s patrol routes and times, which had left their path clear, and he had taken out every camera from the cell to the roof. Soon, the last unaccounted for Red Ribbon Army officer would be found. Cardinal knew exactly how he would deal with the man if he had said anything to the police.
The androids would be a much-needed boost to the New Red Ribbon Army. Android 8 had been unnaturally strong, although his intelligence and loyalty had been critical defects. If those errors had been rectified with the newer models, it would be worth it for him to use them to his advantage. Even then, the mere existence of these androids brought up another question. Only two scientists, Doctor Gero and Doctor Flappe, had worked in the Red Ribbon’s android division. He was unsure of if Gero had survived the fall. Once Copper was delivered to him, he would send Proprananik and Hasky to search Flappe’s house for any signs of his involvement in these androids’ development. And if it turned out Gero was alive, he would send his son to deal with that crazed old bastard.
The coming days would be extraordinarily busy. He would have plenty of time to make the appropriate preparations for any unsavory circumstances that arose by the time Copper returned.
The trip down to the southern island took a few hours. Proprananik did his best to bring her up to speed on the way. Hasky was finding it hard to retain everything being thrown at her. To his credit, the man was patient in his explanations. She had expected less of him.
“This will need to happen quickly,” he warned her. “As soon as we acquire the androids, I’ll fly you to the hospital–that’s six minutes in the air. They shouldn’t realize by then, but we won’t know for certain until after it’s done. You’ll have to clean up on the flight back. Is that okay?”
“It’s no problem.”
“Here.” He handed her about a dozen capsules. “One of each color in circulation. Make sure you replace them with the appropriate color.”
Her mission was getting more technical than she had expected. She would have to concentrate. With how much money she was making from this, she could not afford to screw up. The thief pocketed the capsules, keeping her eyes trained on the floor. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’m good at what I do.”
“That is why Mr. Cardinal hired you, apparently.” He looked bemused.
“I got him that infinite energy cube, or whatever it’s called. You ever seen that thing?”
She thought Proprananik looked not unlike a hairless rodent dipped in oil. “The story has come up before. We know how good you are. I expect you to show us that today. This will be exceedingly difficult. Even with the most meticulous preparations, there will be a large degree of luck involved in what we are going to do. If we fail to retrieve Copper or the androids, we must at least destroy them.”
“Kill him? I thought we were trying to save him?”
“Do not question your orders, merc.”
“Whatever you say, man.”
“We’re three minutes out. Go over your objectives again.”
“We land outside the base, I sneak inside and change my clothes. I knock on Colonel Gechiren’s door, seduce him, and locate the androids. Once I have them, I will message you over the bluetooth and you’ll pick me up.”
“Simple. You have a lot of work ahead of you.”
“It may take longer than you expect. If I haven’t said anything for half an hour, don’t worry.”
The man wrinkled his nose. “Don’t make me wait here an hour. We have to get Copper, as well, before the sun rises.”
“I know. I’ll slip in and out, like a ghost.”
Proprananik nodded in approval, as he was wont to do. “Take this,” he said, handing her a bag containing her outfit, with her tool set (retrieved from the West City prison) set neatly on top. Next to her things lay a tiny black pistol with a wooden grip. She stared at it for too long. “That’s a tranquilizer. It contains a modified sodium thiopental mixture. Lethal on someone your size. Should do the trick against the colonel. He’ll be knocked out cold within thirty seconds. Use it only if you have to. You have just the one dart. Stick him in a vein; don’t shoot haphazardly. Getting him in the neck would be preferred.”
“Why not give me more?”
“If you need to take more than one shot, you should already be running.”
Hasky never felt pressure in moments like this. That was what made her the best. Confidence swelled in her throat. This would be simple. She had nothing to worry about. If the colonel denied her what she wanted, she would make him talk one way or another.
“Didn’t you say earlier that Gechiren has a reputation for taking ladies of the evening?”
“So, wouldn’t he be expecting his favorite girl tonight?”
The man never gave the slightest hint of emotion. “She’s sick, or make something else up. I’ve sent the whore to a different location tonight. She thinks she’s meeting with Gechiren in the city. She won’t know for another hour. That’s our window.”
In the dead of night, the Capsule Corp. model jet landed on the outskirts of what appeared to be a sprawling makeshift military base. Proprananik left her there, turning the jet into a capsule and slinking off into the darkness before anyone spotted them. Hasky’s target was ahead, just a few rows down. Gechiren’s tent was not as modest as his soldiers’, making it easy to pick out from the crowd.
The thief took a moment to compose herself. Her eyes found South City in the distance, its skyscrapers blinking and robust, the endless monotony of screeching hovercars almost echoing in her ear. The sky was much more luminous in the wild than in the city. Goosebumps prickled down her arms. Overhead, legions of stars were spilling out from the black. Crickets chirped sporadically; otherwise, it was deathly quiet. Soothed by the calmness and grounded by her relative insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things, Hasky’s confidence grew. Compared to the vastness of space laid out above her, she was small. Her worries, fears, and stress were even smaller. She could do this. She felt unburdened by her task.
Keeping to the shadows, she changed into the lingerie Proprananik had given her. She wondered if he had picked out these clothes based on his own tastes or Gechiren’s. Were the colonel’s proclivities public knowledge, though? She didn’t think so.
Luckily, there weren’t any guards patrolling nearby. Nobody saw her enter the encampment. Taking a deep breath, she knocked on Gechiren’s tent flap. What she would have to do would get her out of prison, as degrading as it was going to be. Her paycheck wouldn’t be half-bad either. She could swallow her pride for a night.
He was unshaven, his look severe, an impatience thrumming in his fingertips, rippling up through his pursed lips. “Who are you ? Where’s Melisha?”
“Hey there, baby. I’m Shami. Sorry that Melisha couldn’t warn you ahead of time, but she has the flu. She hopes she can make it up to you. In the meantime, how about we spend the night together and have some fun?”
He took a swig, looking her up and down. It required most of Hasky’s willpower to bury her disgust. Now that she was flirting with the man, she was finding it harder to stay in character. “You’ll do. In.”
She didn’t need to be asked twice. Inside, a lantern bathed the room in amber light. Maps and papers were strewn across his desk, an un-made bed took up the corner, and several dishes were stacked near the door. An odor of cigar smoke pervaded the air. She did not stare too long, lest he grow suspicious. In some ways it chipped at her self-confidence to be used like this, but there was some small part of her that found excitement in trying something new. She smiled at him, brushing her hair out of her eyes.
He didn’t give her a second look as he moved to the desk. He grabbed a carved blue bottle and pulled two cups out from a drawer. Gruffly, his back turned to her, the colonel asked, “Any gin for you?”
“Mmm, sweetie, that would be lovely.”
He poured them each a generous portion. Handing her a cup, the man looked her up and down again. “I don’t remember you.”
“I’m rather new. I’ve only been working at the agency for three weeks.”
“Oh?” He sat on the edge of his bed, taking a long drink from his glass. “What inspired you to join?”
“I needed some adventure in my life.” Hasky winked at him, smiling coyly. She sipped the gin, coughing slightly as it burned down her throat. She couldn’t go too crazy, lest she lose her head. “Well, what do you think? Like what you see, colonel?”
Her cup went on the table, almost untouched. He drank from his again. She thrust her arms out, swinging her hips back and forth, approaching the man.
“Come here.” He took her roughly, moving her to the bed as he felt up her stomach, underneath the lingerie.
“Ooh, you’re feisty. Must be pent up after that big battle I heard about, eh?”
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said dismissively. “We finished off the Red Ribbon Army without much of a problem.”
His hand slid further up her stomach, reaching her bra. Hasky did her best not to flinch. “I heard there were a pair of androids fighting too. They must have been so difficult to take out.”
“Not really. They went down without much fuss, once we EMP’d them. Heh. What a massive weakness.”
“You did so good, baby,” she murmured, leaning in, rubbing her stomach against him as he squeezed her breast. “You deserve a reward.”
“Mmmm.” He pressed his lips against her neck. The reek of alcohol was on his breath.
She held steady. Her arms wrapped around his torso, and she didn’t exactly know what to do next. Was she to be intimate? Or was she to be a slut? It was impossible to tell, at this point, which he preferred. Regardless, the thief had a job to do. Others were counting on her. The clock was ticking.
“What happened to them? Did they blow up?” At first, he didn’t respond, for he was busy kissing down her neck. Rigidly she lay there, caressing his back with her left hand. “Or did you give them to the king’s scientists to analyze their technology? They sound quite advanced.”
“I don’t know. General Kiwadate has them. It’s his call. I think he’s going to ship them out to the king, but he hasn’t told me yet. Why? Did you used to be an engineer?”
“No, I’m just a curious girl. I would have never guessed that androids could be real. I’ve only ever read about them in sci-fi novels. It’s impressive that you were able to defeat them.” She smiled seductively, jumping up and pushing him onto the bed as she straddled him. She had to get out of here. Gechiren was useless to her. The intel had been poor, and now she would have to make up lost time. But how to get rid of him?
“Feisty, I like it.”
He reached up, squeezing her tit again. This time, his lust was stronger.
She kissed him and ground against him, caressing his chest. Her eyes drifted to his cup, which was on the edge of the table. That gave her an idea.
Pulling back, Hasky grasped her cup and held it to her lips. “Before we go any further, how about you and I play a game?”
“Hmm? What do you have in mind?”
She drank her cup dry in one breath. Swallowing again to prevent herself from immediately throwing it back up, Hasky whispered, “You think you can drink more than me, baby? I don’t think you can.”
He grinned, sitting up. “Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be? Well, I’m warning you, Shami. I’m no lightweight.”
“Show me.” He did. Gechiren didn’t look like he was drinking alcohol with how easily it went down his throat. She leaned in and gave him a kiss. “Pour us another. I want this to feel like bliss.”
Her second cup was more difficult to drink than the first; the colonel had no trouble with his. She was growing worried. Maybe this wasn’t the best idea. However, she couldn’t waste her dart on him. She had to try. Her cheeks began to flush. She rubbed her hand against his bulge as he poured the third round. Hasky was comfortable with alcohol, yet drinking so much in quick succession was not something she had done since her early twenties. The room was already spinning a little.
She finished her third drink and promised herself she would have no more. When he refilled them, she flipped over and started grinding up against the man’s crotch. She felt the heat of his member through his pants. He leaned back, moaning softly, setting his empty glass on the table. That was her chance. She looked over her shoulder, making sure his eyes were closed, before she poured her gin into his cup.
“You’re a real man, baby,” she said, handing him the gin. He drank from it, finishing it in three swigs before giving it back to her. “Now show me what you’re made of.”
To keep up the charade, she went on for longer than she had to. Truth be told, rubbing up against a hard cock wasn’t the worst feeling in the world. He groaned in pleasure. She pulled away, teasing him, and then went more forcefully against him. She pulled away again and poured a sixth glass. Handing it to him, the woman ran a finger down his chest, smiling sheepishly.
There was nothing for Gechiren to do but take it and drink. Once he had finished, he struggled to pull off his shirt and pants. The man was extremely drunk. She poured him another. “One more and you win, baby.”
“I told you… I’m no lightweight…” he slurred, gulping down the gin. “Heheh. Now I’m going to fuck you.”
His underwear dropped to his ankles, and it was laid out for her, plain to see. Hasky, for all her thievery, was no whore. Her heart beat in her ears. The rhythmic pulse kept her in line. She felt warm.
“Get over here.”
Obeying his order, she lowered herself onto his naked lap. He tugged at her panties. She couldn’t refuse him. Off they came. Hasky wanted to go no further than this, so she stalled as best she could. “Your men must look up to you for leading them to victory against a rebel army. You must have earned a medal for that.”
His eyes had glazed over; he sat up nonetheless, pressing his nose against her chest and feeling her over. For some reason, this did not embarrass her. He wouldn’t remember this part in the morning. “ Furry’s… gonna give me… a Distinguished Service Cross. You know how rare those are… baby?” He kissed her, lightly biting her lower lip like a playful nursing rat.
Her forehead locked against his; they exchanged intimate heat. She lightly rubbed up against him, and he held her, and she held him, and their breaths quickened. Not a moment later, he fell on his back, his grip loosening, his heat retreating. Gechiren began to snore.
Boldly, she remained in place, covering her breasts with her bra. As she pulled away from his erection, she was surprised to find that she was wet. Maybe that was the alcohol. He wasn’t the ugliest man she had ever been with, although she didn’t think that she felt anything for him, either. She briefly considered pouring herself one more shot of gin, but thought better of it when she remembered that she still had to free Copper after this was finished. Hasky wiped herself off, put her panties back on, and left the tent. The only trace of her that remained was that which dripped down his shaft and that which lingered in the air.
Once outside, she activated her bluetooth.
“The androids are with General Kiwadate. Where’s his tent?”
Proprananik sighed. “You sure?”
He sighed in annoyance. “Wait a moment.” After talking with Cardinal in person, she would have thought his men would be more professional than this. Proprananik had little respect for her. She would have to be careful around him. Should she lose patience or slip up in any way, he could get her fired. “He’s due east from Gechiren. Ten tents down. You won’t miss it. It’s the biggest one.”
“Understood, on my way.”
She didn’t need to be told twice.
It was approaching four in the morning. The thief kept her head down and moved hastily, trying her best not to catch the attention of any patrolling guards, counting the tents until she found Kiwadate’s room. Her heart was beating faster now than it had when Gechiren had kissed her.
She knocked loudly, hoping he was awake. Evidently, by how long it took for the general to respond, he had not been.
There was weariness in his eyes and irritation in his voice. “What the hell do you want? Don’t you know how late it is?”
“My apologies, sir, but I was sent here by Colonel Gechiren. He said I could make your night.”
Scratching his beard, the man pulled away and swore under his breath. “Gechiren? Really? Of all people, he should know better than that.” He eyed her, yet his gaze was not nearly as piercing as the colonel’s had been. If anything, his look-over was a lazy, uninterested attempt. “Tell him I don’t find this funny.”
He turned to leave. “Wait!” she cried out, rushing into the open door. “I don’t think you understand. I’m a gift from the colonel.”
She pulled down the frilly black lingerie, the moonlight on her pale breast. His expression did not change. “Gechiren is playing you for a fool as much as me. Get out.”
Taken aback, Hasky held her ground. She needed those capsules. She felt the cool metal against her other breast and wondered whether it was time. “Sir, I’m just here to ease your night. You won’t have to pay.”
“You’re a woman. Gechiren knows what he’s doing. Get out.”
A cold sweat shivered its way down the woman’s spine. It was now or never. He was close enough to make the shot a near certainty. Before Kiwadate could speak another word, she pointed the tranquilizer at him and fired. It hit him in the neck, right above the clavicle. His eyes went wide with shock. Then came his swinging fist. She had not been prepared for that. Hasky dropped, the weight behind that punch nearly rendering her unconscious. The world wobbled and swam before her eyes. She tasted iron. Desperately, the thief rolled away from the general as he came at her again.
“You cunt. The hell was that?”
He kicked her away. The sodium thiopental was taking longer to kick in than she had expected. He ripped the dart out and a trickle of blood leaked down his neck. The man yelped, calling for soldiers to assist him. That couldn’t happen. Despite the pain and sluggishness in her consciousness, Hasky sat up and lunged at Kiwadate, punching him hard in the groin. He fell back, exhaling forcefully, his voice cracking. Wiping her lip, Hasky got to her feet.
“You’re a real tough guy, General.”
She threw the empty tranquilizer at him, hitting him in the head. Snarling, the officer got to his feet, and reached for something–anything–on his desk to throw at her. What he found was an uncut lime. It bounced off her jaw, hurting more than she had expected.
Wavering, the woman was unsure if she could go against him once more. He huffed, massaging his groin gingerly, and took a step towards her. His eyes were rapidly losing focus, and his posture was slumping; his arms swung back and forth, and he nearly teetered over at one point before catching himself a little later than Hasky had thought was reasonable. “You picked the wrong…”
General Kiwadate fell face-first onto the ground and did not get up. She sighed in relief, massaging her jaw where he had gotten her good. Spitting out blood, Hasky entered the man’s tent. The capsules were stashed away inside a metal lockbox on his dining table. It did not take her long to pick the lock; it was standard stuff. A sticky note labeled each capsule: male android; female android; radar-like device, broken.
She was seeing spots, and her ears were thrumming with her heart beat. Hasky felt more tired than she ever had before. She replaced the capsules and stumbled out of the tent, zipping it up behind her. No guards were around. The king’s military left much to be desired in her opinion. She spit on the sleeping officer before leaving.
“I have them. Pick me up,” she told Proprananik, trying her best to hide her drunkenness.
His response was delayed and snappy. “Wait a couple minutes. There are guards where I dropped you off.”
“I can’t wait.”
“I can’t… He hit me. I’m going to pass out if I don’t lay down…”
“If two men go missing, they’ll know something’s wrong. Wait a few more minutes. Remember, Copper is part of this mission. We won’t be able to retrieve him if the army’s on alert.”
“Sir, please… is there anything you can do? I can’t wait.” Silence met her for a long time. It was becoming difficult to ground herself, to remain in the moment. “Hello?”
A cold wind blew through the camp. She shivered. She must have looked ridiculous, dressed up to seduce, her lip split, dried blood crusted around her mouth. If anyone were to run into her, they would ask questions. She couldn’t fight another man.
“Get over here now!” His voice was urgent, and he was breathing hard. “I’ve disappeared them. We must go.”
She ran into the darkness, her vision throbbing in line with the blinking stars overhead, the promise of respite close at hand. She had done good. Mr. Cardinal would be impressed, despite the little mishap she had had with the general. Come morning, it wouldn’t matter.
“One hour ago, an inmate injected General Copper with something that made it appear as if he suffered a heart attack. He did not, but in any case, the prison guards were forced by law to rush him to the South City hospital. Five minutes from now, I’m going to rip out his room’s window. We only have one shot at this. Screw up, and you don’t get paid.”
Her head was killing her. She felt out of it. There was no time to complain. “What do I tell them? Won’t they know I’m not one of them?”
“You’re not there to make conversation. Just do your job.”
“Four minutes is asking a lot.”
“Mr. Cardinal is paying you well.”
She pressed a palm to her head. It did little to abate the throbbing. Her vision was fuzzy. “Once I’m inside, how many will there be?”
“Three or four.”
“I need an exact count, man. This is serious.”
“More likely three. There’s a ten to fifteen percent chance a fourth one is there for extra security. It’s not usually the case, but you never know with these things. Be prepared for the possibility.”
“I’ll have no trouble, either way.”
“Don’t draw attention to yourself, and don’t go out of your way to raise suspicions, either.” Proprananik landed the helicopter on the roof of the South City hospital. He reached behind his seat and found a pistol, which he handed to Hasky. That was a risky proposition, to be sure. “You know how to use one of these?”
She chuckled, despite the pain. “Are you serious? Of course I do. I’m a master thief. How do you think I evaded the police for so long?”
“I was just making sure. I didn’t mean to insult you, Hasky.” Proprananik’s cheeks ran red with embarrassment for making himself look like a fool. She thought that was cute. Maybe he wasn’t so bad.
“Don’t worry about it.”
A red-haired man in a blue overcoat was lounging in the back of the helicopter. They had picked him up on the flight over, on the outskirts of town. He was sitting up against the wall, his eyes closed, chewing on an apple. She had no idea who he was. That didn’t matter. She was hired help. She wasn’t here to investigate Cardinal’s team.
“No indecisiveness. They are well-trained.”
“Remember, it’s room 1228. Get going.”
He wasn’t one for small talk. Awkwardly, the man left her, and their trap was sprung. Events had been set in motion that she could not stop. Hasky’s head was killing her. She had taken aspirin on the ride over. That hadn’t seemed to help. It felt as if she were moving through reality in slow motion, but everything was sped up nonetheless. She could hardly keep up. Being drunk didn’t help either.
It was almost five in the morning. The sun was not yet beginning to rise. Her eyes ached. Below, the city hummed with life even at such a late hour. She changed into the nurse’s outfit, and used her lockpick on the door. Taking a deep breath, she lit the fuse inside her bag and entered the building. There were four flights of stairs between her and her target. She wouldn’t miss the deadline. Hasky wasn’t going back to prison; she would not shed a tear for the police.
Reaching the twelfth floor, Hasky flashed her badge at the woman behind the desk and was allowed entry. The floor was rectangular, with rooms lining the outside wall. It was not a problem for her to find room 1228, for there was a SERT officer sitting outside it, one hand on his holstered pistol. The only problem now was that she couldn’t afford to be seen by the patients, nurses, and doctors wading through the hallway when she made her move.
Retreating back around the corner, she set her briefcase down, making sure nobody saw her do so, and then walked around the corner again, moving beyond the sitting guard. It was now or never. Her heart was throbbing in her ears, making her headache more unbearable. It was all she could do not to wince. She made her way to the door to room 1227, scribbling on a clipboard.
She waited, and waited, and for a moment, a spike of panic pulsed through her. At long last, the briefcase exploded. People screamed. Smoke billowed around the corner. The SERT officer looked over, rising to his feet. She pressed the silenced pistol to the back of his skull and squeezed the trigger. He fell without a sound. Some of his blood splattered on her. That was a good touch.
Down the opposite way that the smoke was coming from, an elderly patient with a walker and a nurse who was assisting him had seen her do it. The man roared in disbelief. She coldly shot them and screamed.
The door swung open, and out came two guards, their pistols drawn. Hasky pointed to the dead officer, then to the dead patient. “That way! He ran that way!” she told them breathlessly.
“Damn it! Damn it all!” one of them muttered as they ran off, leaving the door ajar.
She slipped inside, finding the fourth guard. There was no time for her to lament her luck.
“What are you doing? This is a secure room. Only authorized medical staff are allowed in here.”
“Please, sir, there’s been an attack. There’s a shooter on the loose… I need somewhere to hide.”
He grimaced, drawing his pistol and moving to the door. As the SERT officer peeked out the opening, she blew his brains out.
Hasky placed the chair the man had been sitting on up against the door, underneath the knob. She waited, wiping blood from her cheek, her pistol clutched tightly in her left hand.
Copper was ghost-white. His vital signs confirmed that he was alive, though he was not conscious. His nose was aquiline, and his hair had been cut short. His heart rate appeared to be normal. Thick-chested as he was, she wouldn’t be able to carry him. She braced herself for the inevitable banging on the door.
The window was ripped from the wall in a swirling puff of smoke. She could hear the helicopter just outside.
“Hasky?!” somebody yelled out. That was not Proprananik. For a moment, she faltered, but then upon seeing it was the red-haired man, she relaxed again.
The helicopter got as close to the opening as it could. “Bring him over!”
“Should I unhook him from the machines?”
“Yeah, and hurry!”
She did so with little care before wheeling the bed to the opening. The red-haired man reached out, took ahold of the metal frame, and dragged it out of the hole. He reached over it, pulling Copper by the shoulder with his free hand, bringing him into the belly of the floating machine in one swift movement. The empty bed fell harmlessly to the ground.
Behind Hasky, she could hear people shouting and trying to break in. The chair shook and splintered, but it held. “They’re coming!”
The red-haired man returned to the helicopter’s open door. “Jump! I’ll catch you!”
He held out a hand; she didn’t have time to think about it. Blinking rapidly, steadying herself, she backed up, then ran, jumping out of the hole and reaching out as far as she could.
The sound of the helicopter’s blades was mind-numbing. She thought of nothing, the fear caught in her throat, until she felt his hand grip her forearm. His hold was strong and firm, and with a single pull, he had brought her into the ship.
“They’re at the door.”
“Hang on.” The red-haired man took a syringe out of his pocket, using his teeth to unsheathe it, and stuck it in Copper’s neck, emptying the entirety of the red fluid into his bloodstream.
“Silver, we have to go! There’s a chopper coming!” Proprananik yelled from the cockpit.
“Give me one second.” He patted Copper on the chest several times.
Like magic, the man sat up, coughing. “Wh-where am I?” he asked in a weak voice.
“We’ve got you, sir. Sit back and take it easy. You’re in good hands.”
His voice rasped as if he hadn’t had anything to drink in several days. “Si… Silver, is that you?”
“Good to see you again, General.”
Silver, who was not looking at the older man, reached for a green Panzerschreck. Aiming it at the open hole, he smirked and pulled the trigger. The door went up in a white-hot flash of fire, the globby explosion imprinting on Hasky’s retinas. She felt the helicopter lurch away from the building, and they were off, the wind whistling through the open door.
“Coming in hot at four o’clock. I’ll spin us around.”
He was calm even in his hurried state, she noticed. Silver loaded another rocket into the Panzerschreck while Proprananik’s voice grew shriller. The helicopter twisted in midair, coming around to face a police chopper, which was blaring red and blue lights. A man on a microphone was commanding them to land at once.
Silver simply aimed his rocket launcher at the vehicle and pulled the trigger. This time, she didn’t look, and the pounding in her skull wasn’t so desperate anymore.
Dust drifted idly through the air. It was surprisingly warm in Bonetown, given it was December. Mr. Cardinal stood at the far end of the room, his arms folded. He was dressed in a slick black suit and a crimson tie. Flanking him were two men–Proprananik and Silver. General Copper stood opposite of them. Hasky sat up against a wall, letting the Red Ribbon Army officers reunite without getting in the way.
“Copper. You are lucky to have made it out of that prison alive. We asked you to join us years ago,” Cardinal said.
“I thank you for rescuing me, but one thing has little to do with the other. You left the Red Ribbon Army, Staff Officer Crimson. After that kid with the tail tore through our defenses and decimated the army, it was Dr. Gero who contacted me, not you, to regroup and rebuild. My legion went to him because he was loyal to the Red Ribbon cause. Your request came too late, I’m afraid.
“If you think I would sit back and allow my son to be executed without trying to save him, you are a fool.”
Copper was unintimidated by Cardinal. “I expected no less of you. Resigning afterwards was correct. Red was hot-headed. Even so, you should understand why my loyalties went to Gero and not you. There should be no hard feelings between us. For what it’s worth, I was strictly against Red’s decision to execute Silver.”
“How is the doctor?”
“He is working tirelessly to perfect his android warriors. We will use them to kill that kid for what he’s done to us.”
Hasky looked up. “Are you referring to these androids?” She threw the capsules onto the sand-splattered floor.
She beheld them for the first time, as did Cardinal, Silver, and Proprananik. They looked human and appeared to be sleeping. The male was youthful, tall, with blond hair. The female was shorter, with a cuttingly pretty face. Her hair was brown. Copper was surprised to see them, betraying for once some semblance of humanity.
“11 and 12… how did you acquire them?”
“I’m a thief; I keep what I steal.”
“Hasky is the best in the world at what she does,” said Cardinal. “Now, tell me Copper, what did you say to the military when they interrogated you?”
He scoffed. “Nothing.”
“Nothing at all?” asked the red-haired man.
“Silver, I would expect you to know how loyal I was to our cause. I said nothing.”
“Did you name any names?”
“Were you the only officer taken alive?”
“Funny you mention that,” said the general. He began to pace, which caused Proprananik to tense up. “I thought I was the only survivor. I would’ve died fighting. They chose to capture me. I did not go willingly. I fought till the end, Crimson. I never gave up. They could have put a bullet through my head. I wouldn’t have known. Instead, they tased me and took me to that prison. I think it was on the… third, or fourth day of interrogation? Somewhere around there. They told me that Lieutenant Colonel Teal was in the next room over, spilling his guts. I don’t know if there’s any truth to that claim. It didn’t make me break. I told them nothing. I don’t remember Teal falling in battle, nor do I remember seeing him being captured. They could have been lying. But I don’t think his name was common knowledge.”
Cardinal’s fingers were fidgeting. In Hasky’s estimation, the old man hadn’t expected that. He hadn’t been prepared for it. Survival was based upon adaptation, upon decisive reactions in the moment. She observed him with curiosity, trying to learn from the shrewd politician how to handle an unexpected obstacle.
“There were no mentions of Teal on the reports.”
“I don’t know if he’s alive or not. I never saw him. You’ll have to investigate that yourself.”
Cardinal leaned over to Silver and whispered something in his ear before clearing his throat. “We’ll look into that. While we do, you will set up a meeting between us and Dr. Gero.The Red Ribbon Army must be reformed.”
The man slacked his jaw. “I’m working for you now, eh?”
“We are still members of the Red Ribbon Army. Red was a poor leader. Now that he is gone, we can once more work towards taking over the world. I will do everything in my power to help Gero track down and kill that kid. My wealth will fund his research. We will collect the Dragon Balls and use them to achieve total world domination.”
Copper raised an eyebrow. “So you’re back in the game?”
“We are, all of us, the Red Ribbon Army–you, me, Gero, Silver. We must pool our resources and talents together if we hope to achieve our goals. I will command the Red Ribbon Army from now on. Gero will lead the android division, and Supreme General Silver will lead the military. Our forces are not many at this time. We will start to build them up in the coming months.”
“Supreme General?” Copper gave them a wry smile. “You failed to get that ball in the jungle, and even so, you receive a promotion? Things seem to have gone completely your way.”
“There was nothing I could do,” responded Silver. “Sir, you know I did what I could. That kid wasn’t normal. He didn’t just beat me, he destroyed White’s legion, Blue’s legion, and successfully assaulted the compound single-handedly.”
“That he did. Gero has it right: we must use the androids to kill that freak. There is no other way. He’s not human. He can’t be. Anyway, if you are on board with our goals, I don’t see why our groups can’t come together as one.”
“You will be given a new legion in time, Copper. As I said, we don’t have even a hundred soldiers yet. Those numbers will rise when the new headquarters is established.”
“Hmm. Alright,” he said, pressing his fingers to the bridge of his nose. “It sounds like you have thought this through, Crimson. I think this partnership will work.”
“It will be an honor working with you again, sir,” said Silver.
The man nodded once.
“Do you know where Gero’s laboratory is located?” asked Cardinal.
“Then you will go there tomorrow and entreat him.”
“Or what, you’ll kill me? I’m sure there’s plenty of others you could ask to run your errands.”
“There aren’t, actually,” said Silver. “We are the only surviving officers aside from Teal and Gero. Everyone else is dead.”
“Everyone? Really? I find that hard to believe. Where’s Violet?”
The red-haired man shifted on his feet. He looked down, his hands in his pockets. Hasky could tell that he felt more than uncomfortable about this subject. “She refused to remain loyal.”
Copper stared them down, defiantly calm. “I’m not surprised, given that she fled the compound when the boy attacked. A heavy blow, nonetheless. She was a capable officer. If everyone else is dead, then we must search for replacements. That will take a long time.” Nobody spoke for a while. The officer chewed on his lip, and after some time, his attention shifted to Hasky. “Tell me, thief, did you recover the radar?”
“It’s right here,” she replied, throwing the third and final stolen capsule. Out from the puff of smoke, a small, round, green-and-white device landed on the ground. A bullet hole had torn through its screen.
“That is a Dragon Ball radar. Blue stole it off of the kid after you quit. Commander Red gave it to me and ordered me to find the last unclaimed ball. The kid had four of them; we had two. I wasn’t able to complete my mission before Red and the rest of the army were wiped out. The device was damaged in the chaos. That bullet hole is a more recent wound.”
Silver inspected the device. “Gero wasn’t able to fix it for you?”
“Any piece of technology can be repaired. He was working on it for years. He thought he had fixed it before our final mission. That’s why I had it. We need those Dragon Balls. You see, the radar went blank shortly after I was given it all those years ago. I assume the kid managed to collect all seven and make his wish. My soldiers didn’t find any balls in the ruins of our base. But that’s not the end of it. They recharge after a year. Unless he’s been using them every year, we will have our chance to collect them. We can take over the world, Crimson.”
Cardinal was less animated than she had expected. She didn’t want to get involved; it wasn't her place to butt in, but biting her tongue was most uncomfortable. The memory of that kid, Goku, was still raw. She had stolen two Dragon Balls from him only for the boy to recover them and prevent her from destroying the Dream Land amusement park at the last second. To this day, that remained her greatest failure. At least nobody alive, sans the kid and his friends, knew about it.
“My men will attempt to repair it until we know where Gero stands. Concurrently, we must establish a line of connection with the doctor. Where is his laboratory?”
“The mountains outside North City. If you insist, I can take you there. Gero doesn’t have many soldiers guarding him. He may have an android or two. You must be careful not to provoke him. From what I’ve heard these past years, he is in no mood to cede power to someone else–least of all a man who quit the army years ago.”
“I will deal with him myself, but you must open the line of contact. Silver will accompany you.”
“Heh, just like old times.”
“Proprananik, take Hasky to Jingle Village. Dr. Flappe lives there. Investigate him. Find out if he has remained in contact with Gero since the fall of Muscle Tower. If he possesses any documents related to our army, destroy them. If he’s compromised, take him out.” The weasel-faced man nodded in obedience. “Copper, what do you know of Flappe?”
“As far as I’m aware, Gero has not been in contact with him, but the doctor never let us get involved in the android-creation process. He could have been on the phone with Flappe for all I know.”
“Very well. Flappe must be dealt with. Proprananik, Hasky, you will leave at once.”
“Yeah?” she said, her voice rising haughtily. “And how much’ll you pay me for it?”
“Ƶ4,000,000,” he said. His voice shook with authority. It was as if he were commanding her to accept it, not bargaining.
She thought it was an excellent number, regardless. “Deal.”
He ushered them out before returning to his conversation with Copper. Cardinal seemed immensely concerned about the surviving members of the Red Ribbon Army revealing classified information. Although she supposed it put his position in the government at risk, maybe he was being a little too compulsive, a little too paranoid about everything. As far as she could tell, nobody was giving up any information. Maybe that Teal guy was, but there was no evidence he had been captured.
She supposed it didn’t matter. Hasky had no tie to the Red Ribbon Army except for their money, and she didn’t plan on getting more deeply involved. As long as the cash continued to flow in, she’d help them cover up whatever dirty deeds they needed her to. She didn’t care how heinous their crimes were. Money talked.
They flew up to Jingle Village in a two-seater jet. The cold was shaking through her body before they touched down. Proprananik had been kind enough to bring parkas. Dr. Flappe lived alone in a log cabin on the outskirts of town, making their job far easier. If everything went according to plan, no one would ever know they had been here. They touched down on a mountain pass overlooking the doctor’s house and waited amongst the snow and pine trees for their opening. The ship’s infrared radar kept them up-to-date on the doctor’s movements. As soon as he left on his snowmobile (likely going into town for supplies or dinner), their orders were to spring into action.
Hasky was to take the lead role. She had been tasked with stealing Flappe’s notes, blueprints, and evidence of his involvement in the Red Ribbon Army. She did not need to replace the stolen documents with copies. The doctor would find out eventually, though his reaction would be none of their concern.
Proprananik turned the heat up near to maximum. The windows were fogging over. Still, she shivered.
“Why would anyone live up here? It’s a frozen wasteland.”
“Not so easy to move from where you’re born.”
“I’m from West City, but I don’t spend much time there.”
“You’re a thief. That’s different.”
“The best in the world.”
“Well, yes. That’s why Mr. Cardinal has placed so much trust in you.” He leaned back in his chair, drinking from his thermos. “You have served him well.”
“Stealing the infinite energy device wasn’t that big of a deal. First the deputy mayor of South City had it. I convinced her I would transport it for her to Orange Star City. She wanted to detonate it there.”
“Seriously? Was she mentally ill?”
“Had to be. Didn’t matter, though. I’m paid to do a job, not question the morality of the one who hires me. Anyways, before I could take it there, one of your own stole it back in the Diablo Desert.”
His neck stiffened. “One of our own?”
“Violet. I think that was her name. She stole it from me, but I got it back. She was a short-sighted woman, in my opinion. She was binging on cocaine in Bonetown. It was a simple operation. She didn’t have any security.”
“We tried to reunite with her after the Red Ribbon Army fell.”
“Oh yeah? How’d that go?”
“Well, it’s not something I like to think about. Not one of our finest hours. She was stubborn. I wish she hadn’t been. I ended up getting promoted from it.”
They didn’t talk for some time. She supposed it was awkward, but the peace and quiet was nice, too. She ran through her mission a hundred times in her head. She ran through it so much that she became bored with succeeding. It was all she could do to remain in the moment and not drift off into some more interesting fantasy.
“How long are you in this for?”
“As long as the pay’s good. Why?”
“No reason.” His head cocked to the side. “It’s just, working with us is not a casual investment.”
“Never said it was.”
“I wasn’t implying that. You’re good at your job. It’s just…” His window was fogging up. “What we’re doing… the pressure is immense.”
He took a gulp from his thermos and silence overtook the cockpit for an uncomfortable moment. She understood where he was going with his thoughts. It was not an issue she wanted to delve into.
“I thought you’ve worked for Cardinal for a while?”
“Since before the fall of the Red Ribbon Army. I was only an errand boy back then, but new opportunities became available to me in recent years. I think he’s been satisfied with my work. At least, that’s what I hope.”
“He pays well. Has to be rich as hell.”
“Indeed. We’re playing the long game for now. One of these days, Mr. Cardinal will overthrow King Furry and take over the world. The Red Ribbon Army will rise again.”
“Heh, that’s ambitious. But I don’t doubt you’ll be able to do it with a mastermind like Cardinal running things. When you do, remember everything I’ve done for the Red Ribbon Army.”
It snowed off and on for a few hours. Flappe was an asocial man. As the sun began to set, however, he finally made his move. Hasky was snoozing when Proprananik whistled for her attention. It was time. There was no telling when the good doctor would be back, so they had to move with urgency. The thief used her lockpick to get them in. Then, she performed her scouting technique on the entry room. Finding nothing suspicious or hidden therein, she ventured deeper inside.
“You comin’ with?”
He nodded, shaking snow from his shoulders and following her in after wiping his boots on the mat. “Unless I’m satisfied that we’ve looked over every inch of this place for information on the RRA, we’re not leaving. Mr. Cardinal’s orders.”
The guy was pretty serious about this. With how much money they were paying her, she knew she had to be at her most thorough. As cold as Hasky was, though, she didn’t want to stay for long. It took a great deal of willpower for her to not chatter her teeth in front of him.
“Any idea what we’re looking for?”
“Files, photos, anything else related to the army.”
“Paper or digital?”
“Don’t know. Maybe both, maybe neither. You can hack computers, right? I thought that was on your skills list.”
She smiled at him; the man rebuffed her coldly. “A skills list, eh? You have a whole file on me?”
“It’s standard procedure. I meant no offense by telling you that.”
“Don’t sweat it,” she said, pulling out a USB flash drive. “You’re right. There isn’t a computer in the whole world that can keep me out.”
“Good. Let’s pick up the pace. I don’t want him to catch us in here.”
That was part of the thrill of it, she thought. Missions like this one were always more exciting when there was the prospect of being caught–not that she wanted to be. She hadn’t heard of this Dr. Flappe before, yet that mattered little. She didn’t fear old men. She always got what she wanted, no matter what. That made Hasky the best thief in the world; that was why important people like Cardinal paid her so well.
Starting with the entryway, she swept every room on the first floor, checking for hidden compartments, doors in the floor, false walls, and hidden storage vents. As far as the woman could tell, the doctor led a clean, simple life. Proprananik watched her closely; there was no doubting Hasky’s conclusions. That was until she moved into his office near the back of the house, where the first instance of mild interest occurred.
There were some hidden compartments in the room, although they hid only lubricant and magazines. At the very least, the man had his secrets, and so she could not overlook anything. With that said, a second sweep through the room yielded nothing more. She plugged her USB into his work computer, booted it up, and broke in. He would never know she had taken a look inside. The thief found no files related to the Red Ribbon Army. Her companion double-checked and also came up dry.
They moved to the second story, finding a bedroom, a bathroom, and a living room. They were as clean as the other rooms. This man led quite the boring life. On his nightstand lay a prototype ‘Recaf Decaf’ thermos. When decaf coffee was put in, according to the manual, properly shaken, and a button was pressed, an appropriate amount of caffeine would be injected into the liquid.
Why anyone would buy, or use, such an invention was beyond her.
The two made their way to the last room, which was padlocked. The door itself was metal and knob-less, impervious to her lockpicks. Proprananik didn’t falter upon seeing it. “That’s his lab. He’s pretty secretive about it, I have to say. Unfortunately for him, General White had a keycard too.” He pulled out said keycard, flashing it to Hasky as if dangling meat in front of her face. “Watch this.”
“Why couldn’t he change the lock? Hasn’t it been years since Muscle Tower fell?”
“This bad boy is too expensive for Flappe to replace, or at least that’s what we must hope. I didn’t bring enough C-4 to blow through it.”
He slid the keycard into a slit that looked not unlike an ATM card reader. Something deep and metallic groaned. Her companion tried to hide his relief as the door unlatched, air popping between its joints, and slowly creaked open, ushering them inward.
Proprananik got the lights. The walls were made of the same material as the door. Many tables had been placed about the room, and on them lay bits of metal and half-crafted devices of all shapes and sizes. On the back counter, an open container of capsules lay, each one labeled as one heavy tool or another. There was a computer on the left. The first thing she did was check it. The device was clean. In the center of the room was what looked like an operating table. It had been covered in blueprints and ashtrays full of cigarette butts. There was something sad about the level of effort that had gone into this place. And what had Flappe accomplished? She found no completed inventions (though if those had been shipped off, or were being kept somewhere else, she didn’t know), nothing in the blueprints advertising any great ambition, nor any attempt to seek glory by the good doctor. He had an itch to scratch with playing with toys of his own making, but those toys were nothing special, conceptually or practically.
“Here’s one,” Proprananik called to her, raising his head from an open file cabinet. He blew dust off the folder’s face. “Android 8’s blueprints, and blueprints for Androids 1-7 as well,” he said, flicking through the pages.
“Androids? Like the ones mentioned before?”
“More primitive, and all of them failures. Classified RRA material, regardless.”
“It doesn’t seem like Flappe has looked at those documents in a long time.”
He shrugged. “It’s a possibility. Come over here. Double-check I didn’t miss anything.”
She did and he hadn’t. There wasn’t anything in the doctor’s records indicating he had worked for the Red Ribbon Army except for these blueprints and notes. He seemed obsessive in that way, she thought, looking back at the table in the center of the room. He hadn’t wanted to throw those out, even if he no longer had access to any of the models.
“With all due respect, I don’t think this guy has been involved in the Red Ribbon Army in years.”
Proprananik had slipped the folder into his jacket. He looked down, adjusting his belt. “That may be true.”
“May? You saw the dust same as I did, man. He’s definitely not involved anymore.”
“One can never be too careful. Mr. Cardinal wouldn’t want us to take a risk with this guy.”
“You think that if he died, it wouldn’t draw more suspicion to this place?”
“How would we be linked to it? I have the documents. That is, unless you think there are more hidden somewhere else.”
“There aren’t more.” She snagged an unlit cigarette from an open pack off the back counter. “He’s been out of the game for a while. It’s obvious. He won’t notice those papers are missing for years, most likely. He might not even remember they were in there. I think we’re done here. We should leave before he returns.”
“Flappe could be in contact with Gero. We would need to tap his phone lines and listen in for months, maybe a year.”
“I mean, look man. Kill him, or don’t. I can’t tell you what to do. At least be honest with yourself.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Killing an innocent man. If you’re down for that, go for it, but that was never my style–not unless the pay was really good.” She scoffed. “If you’re going to whack me too, at the end of this, now’s as good a time as any.”
“I’m not going to kill you. What are you talking about?”
“Whatever, man. I’ve seen how it is in the Red Ribbon Army. You’re all cutthroat and paranoid. That’s never a combination that leads to much longevity in my experience.”
Hasky snatched a lighter from a table and walked out, bracing herself for the shot that never came.
It had taken them a day and a half to get in contact with Gero, and another two to work out the details of the meeting. Proprananik had returned in that time with the blueprints for Android 8, and some other minorly useful documents. Silver was surprised that he hadn’t left Hasky up in the snow. Apparently his father had ordered the man to spare her. She could be useful in the future, or something like that. He didn’t entirely disagree, even if she knew a hell of a lot about the New Red Ribbon Army. If she ever talked to anyone in King Furry’s government about it, there would be a world war.
Though the ground was frozen, it was a sunny day. The grass crunched beneath their boots. Behind them, a snow-plastered mountain loomed. Ahead, a frozen field expanded for dozens of kilometers in all other directions. There wasn’t a tree in sight.
“Is this where his lab’s at?” asked Proprananik.
“No,” Copper said. “He’s brought us to a neutral location.”
Gero was waiting for them about ten meters away in the valley. They approached him only after he called them over.
“Just the three of you?”
“Did you expect more?” replied Silver.
“I did not know what to expect, Colonel. Least of all, you.” His mustache bristled. “Funny, but I seem to recall Commander Red ordering your execution after your failure to secure a Dragon Ball.”
“He could say what he wanted. Enforcing that decree was an entirely different matter. He sent Teal after me, do you know that? The man was lucky to escape with his life.”
Gero studied Silver’s face. “I remember Red complaining about your father stepping in to save you.”
“He provided me safe transportation away from the compound, nothing more.”
“And now, after openly defying Red and resigning from the army, he wants to lead us.”
Silver shrugged. There was no point defending his father’s reputation against a dead man’s ego. The others said nothing. Gero gave them a withering look, like a hawk preparing to tear another piece of meat off a dying raccoon. “Let us continue this discussion inside,” he said, throwing a capsule. In a puff of smoke, a compact building that was no bigger than a conference room appeared. “Please follow me.”
Inside was a long oaken table and sixteen chairs. Gero took the seat at the head of the table. Copper sat to his right, two chairs down; Proprananik and Silver took the left side, choosing to sit three chairs down. A bright lamp shone from the center of the table.
Gero cleared his throat. “Very well. Let us begin. To start with, I would like to hear Copper explain what happened to him after I lost contact with his legion. The last footage I saw was of your army being attacked by Earth’s Defense Force about two weeks ago. I assume that ended poorly, but what happened to Androids 11 and 12?”
“They were captured,” Copper replied, “as was I. As far as I know, there were no other survivors.” He glanced at Silver. The man made no attempt to back Copper up. They had agreed to not say anything about Teal. Nothing concerning him was yet confirmed. Besides, it wasn’t like the lieutenant colonel’s survival would change much for Gero.
“That’s unexpected. I activated the androids’ self-destruct sequences once I saw them being overrun.”
“They were hit by an EMP blast of some sort. It knocked them out of commission. I don’t think the command was ever received.”
The doctor grunted, running a finger rhythmically through his mustache. “That will be corrected in the next model.”
“In any case,” Silver interjected, “we’ve paid Hasky, the world’s greatest thief, to recover the androids. She is doing so now. We should have them back in our possession in two or three days.”
“You will return them to me as soon as you receive them, Silver.”
“About that… we would prefer it if we could keep one of them with us for security purposes.”
“Oh? And why should I grant you that request?”
Now it was Proprananik’s turn to butt in. “We’ve gone through a lot of trouble recovering Copper and the androids. Those missions were not cheap. You should take our actions as a gesture of good will, doctor.”
“And this, too, is a gesture from us to you made in good faith,” Silver added, placing the infinite energy device on the table. “Take it, Gero. I’m sure you could use it. I believe you sold this android-powering device several years ago to the deputy mayor of South City.”
The blue light coiled and danced inside the cube, reflecting off Gero’s eyes. He took a moment to consider his reply. Copper leaned back in his chair, his arms folded, betraying no emotion. Silver tried to play it cool as well, but he did not want to look too haughty in front of the doctor, lest he offend the man.
“Ah, so you recovered it. I didn’t expect to ever see that one again. It is an older model. It is not much use to me anymore, except for its parts.”
He wanted to slap the ungrateful bastard. “My father will finance your android projects from this point forward. You will never need to go hunting for supplies again. Copper told me that’s why his legion was on the southern island to begin with.”
“I see. In return, you want one operational android for your own reasons?”
“We want to reform the Red Ribbon Army. You will lead the androids division, while my father will take the leadership role. I will command the armies along with Copper.”
“Ah yes, Crimson wants to be in charge. I can’t say I’m surprised. You went along with this, Copper?” the doctor asked.
“For the good of the Red Ribbon Army, it would be best if we came together. I don’t see why we should be enemies, or unaffiliated. All of us want to kill Goku, collect the Dragon Balls, and take over the world. As allies, we are stronger.”
Silver jumped in. “That’s true, Gero. You are focused on the androids. Leave the administrative tasks to someone else so that you can devote your time to creating the perfect warriors. While you do, we will gather the Dragon Balls to fast-track our plans of world domination.”
“No,” he replied simply. “Goku and his friends have a radar that can track the Dragon Balls with extreme precision. They will know if you are trying to collect them again, and they will stop you. We will kill them first.”
He exchanged a look with Proprananik. With his eyes, the man urged him to compromise, so he did. “That is acceptable.”
“Once they are dead, I will fix the radar Copper had and we will find the Dragon Balls in no time. As to the matter concerning the androids… I will not give you either 11 or 12. They were not fully completed when they were captured by Furry’s men. I am not comfortable putting one of them in your control. It is highly probable that they will rebel against you and attempt to kill you. For that reason, I will create a new android for your team–Android 14. I assume Crimson wants to use this android to take out some of Furry’s top men.”
“That’s one reason. General security is another.”
“So that matter is settled. Moving on,” Gero continued, “I would prefer this to be a partnership, not a dictatorship. Commander Red used my early prototypes against my will to disastrous effects. That will not happen again. Crimson and I will co-lead the Red Ribbon Army. Neither of us will be able to overrule the other. We must work by consensus or compromise.”
His ears reddening, Proprananik frowned. “He would never take any androids against your will, doctor. That accusation is baseless.”
“Even if you’re being honest, I cannot know for certain how things will play out. I believe a fifty-fifty partnership is more than reasonable.”
“If he is to finance your projects, I don’t think this relationship is equal,” Silver countered.
Gero rolled his eyes. “An android is worth more than all the wealth in the world. I could loose 11 and 12 upon humankind and no one would be able to stop them, not even Goku.”
“Have you located him yet?” Copper asked.
“Yes, although the androids are not ready. If they could be taken out by much weaker opposition in the Earth’s Defense Force, I have no doubt Goku would find a way to exploit their weaknesses. I must perform additional tests before releasing them.”
“Before, you mentioned Android 14,” Proprananik said. “Does this mean that Android 13 has been completed?”
“Correct. He is running an errand for me at this very moment, as a matter of fact.”
“Is he strong enough to kill Goku?”
“I do not know for certain. I will test him against 11 and 12 after they are returned to me.”
Silver leaned back in his chair, thinking. His father would not like this. The doctor was adamant, however. How would he convince the man to change his mind? “What about a fifty-one forty-nine split? Would that be acceptable?”
“Under no circumstances will I yield authority. We will become partners or I will walk away.”
Copper was squinting at him, like he had back in the old days when he had wanted Silver to perform a task. If this deal did not get done, they would lose not just Gero, but Copper too. He was certain of that. Copper liked him. Nevertheless, their friendship was not more important than the Red Ribbon Army itself. He thought that way as well.
“Fine. We’ll do it. Fifty percent of the RRA will be controlled by my father and fifty percent will be controlled by Gero.”
The doctor smiled coolly. Silver grit his teeth. It felt like he had done all the compromising in this negotiation. Gero had basically given up nothing. Nevertheless, for his father’s sake, he held his tongue.
“There is one more thing, Silver. A short while ago, Android 13 captured a pair of brats outside of North City. Those two, Lapis and Lazuli, will become my first bio-androids. I will experiment on them to refine my technique of merging android technology with human biology. In time, I will use the knowledge I have gained to turn every member of the Red Ribbon Army into androids. And once we have taken over the world, we will turn every last human into an android.”
Copper leaned over to the man, frowning, and said in a low voice, “Gero, we did not discuss this.”
“This matter is not up for discussion, Copper. I will do this–it’s my ultimate goal. Killing Goku is revenge, not the reason why I create androids. I will become an android in due time, as will the three of you. Only then will we become an immortal species.”
They exchanged looks. Silver felt somewhat comforted by the fact that Proprananik and Copper were just as perplexed as him. The old fool was half-mad already. This idea was crazier than anything he had ever heard about him doing in the past. It was pure insanity, the kind that was most cleanly resolved by lodging a bullet through the offender’s brain.
“I… I don’t know what to say, Gero. I won’t do it. I won’t be a part of this. Torturing children is one thing, but I will not become an android.”
“You will, or you will die,” the man replied.
“Hey now, don’t talk like that. That’s a completely unproductive way of going about this,” Proprananik said with a grimace.
“The android-ization of the entire world is one of the core tenets of the Red Ribbon Army,” Gero said, rising to his feet. “It always has been. Red was aware of it, and he approved it.”
“Bullshit,” Silver said. “He never mentioned it.”
“Because it could not be actualized through our technological capabilities at the time. In any case, this issue is not up for debate. It will happen, whether you like it or not.”
Tension was thick in the air. “I’m not becoming an android. Damn it, Gero! How could you betray us like this? I trusted you. I sent my legion to you. I helped you develop your androids. And all of it was for this? You’re mad.”
“I won’t become an android, either.”
“Not going to happen,” Silver said.
Gero’s face had filled with blood. He was breathing quickly. Sweat was forming on his forehead. “I am not mad. The whole world is. If you’re not with me, you don’t believe in progress. The android-ization of our species will induce our next necessary evolution. Humankind is rotten, broken, full of petty, narcissistic, small-brained, weak individuals. The Red Ribbon Army never planned to merely take over the world and rule as an empire. We are going to fundamentally change human nature in the process. We are going to change the world for the better.”
The supreme general had had enough. “Shut up. That’s never going to happen.”
“Whether or not you join me is irrelevant. Nevertheless, because it’s clear that you are sick, deluded, and hopelessly uninformed, I have no choice other than to end this meeting. I rule the Red Ribbon Army, and I decree that the three of you have failed in your positions and must be summarily punished for it.”
Proprananik jumped to his feet; Silver was not far behind. Gero reached for something underneath the table before fleeing out the door and slamming it behind him. They were drawing their pistols when turrets popped out of the walls and began to spray bullets down upon them.
Copper was hit first, a bullet taking him in the forehead. His body shot back in the chair, his head rising to the ceiling, blood flowing out of the wound and his mouth in a gushing torrent. The turrets pummeled his body, ripping it to shreds.
As the air popped and wood fractured to pieces, Proprananik dived at Silver, shielding him as they fell to the ground. The table splintered and split. Smoke was rising, filling the air.
“S-sir, are you okay…? Go… the door… save yourself…”
Blood leaked from his mouth; his teeth were stained crimson. Before Silver could respond, the man slumped over, his eyes eternally fixated upon the floor.
With a cry, he rolled out from under the dead man and kicked the table over. Furious as he was, he would not let Gero get away with this. The turrets focused on him as soon as he got to his feet. He was already running, having used a chair as cover as he made for the nearest wall. Silver was no ordinary man. He was no common soldier. He was one of the most powerful warriors in the Red Ribbon Army. Perhaps only General Blue had been stronger than him.
He refused to die. He felt nothing but fury, but the blood rushing to his face, but the desire to kill, to murder, to maim Gero for his betrayal, for Copper, for Proprananik. He kicked his way through the wall and felt the frigid air upon his bloody cheeks.
Stumbling on the icy grass, Silver came to a stop. The treacherous doctor was nowhere to be found, nowhere to be seen. Then, the waves of pain hit him and he realized he was dripping blood. The pistol fell from his hand. He was on his knees. His breaths came shallow and fast. His heart was beating like a frenzied caged animal.
He looked around. There were no signs of life, save for the conference room. He could still hear the turrets shooting nonstop. A slow, inconsistent wind blew through the valley; the air was frosty, the sun a burning yellow dot in a cloudless, grey sky. There wasn’t a bird in sight. He looked around at the rugged beauty of this place, thinking of how long ago those mountains had sprung up from the ground, what power that had taken. He shivered, feeling numb. This place was utterly remote. Gero had planned everything out.
Even in his fury, Silver could appreciate the beauty of it. He reached for his phone, autodialing his father, and before it stopped ringing, the man’s vision had gone black and he remembered no more.
He had just gotten off the phone with Mr. Eigan, the leader of the Morizakura-gumi. Eigan’s men would be handling the reactivation of Androids 11 and 12 with close supervision from several of Cardinal’s associates. He had also given them the Dragon Radar, but had not told them its true purpose. If they could fix it, he promised them Ƶ100,000,000,000, which he assumed would be sufficient motivation.
Another phone rang in his desk drawer. Opening it and revealing a collection of some three dozen phones, Cardinal plucked up the one that was vibrating and answered.
“He’s awake, sir,” said Quarlic. “He wants to see you.”
“I will be there momentarily. Is his condition stable?”
“Yes, sir. He should be alright. The doctors want him to get a lot of rest. He’s no longer in serious danger, but it’ll take him months to recover.”
He closed the phone, threw it in the drawer, adjusted his tie, and walked out. He had to remain patient in times like these, for to give into emotion was to make oneself vulnerable. He would not be vulnerable. Gero would pay for his treachery one day. If the Morizakura-gumi’s scientists were any good, that day would come sooner than later.
When he arrived at his son’s bed, he was glad to see that the feeding tube had been removed. Silver was wrapped up in bandages like a mummy; he could not move. The doctors had told him that his son’s paralysis would slowly dissipate with time if the proper treatment was followed. He dismissed Quarlic, who was guarding his son, and the doctor, who had barely introduced himself before Cardinal ordered him to leave. They did so without question. He paid them well enough to afford himself some measure of courtesy in times like these.
“Father…” Silver whispered hoarsely after they had left.
“You’re awake. That’s good to see.”
“It was Gero… He betrayed us…”
“That much I am aware of. I saw what he did to Proprananik and Copper. Disgusting man. What set him off?”
“He wanted… to turn the whole… whole world into androids… even us… He’s experimenting on kids…”
“And when you refused to join him and become androids, he shot you?”
His son nodded weakly. “Kill him…”
“In due time, Silver. First, you will recover. I want you to put every bit of effort you can into your recovery. It will be arduous and painful, yet if you don’t do it, you will never walk again. You were shot thirty-five times, my son. It’s a wonder none of the bullets pierced your heart.”
“Proprananik saved me…”
“He was a good man.”
“We must… kill Gero…”
“We will, Silver. I promise you, we will. He has androids at his disposal, and we do not. Only after we are able to activate Androids 11 and 12 can we move against him. Until then, there is nothing more to be done. He will never squeal to Furry. We have nothing to fear.”
“Nuke… North City…”
A smile crept up the corners of his lips. His son made him proud sometimes. He knew he would be thinking the same thing were he the one in the bed and Silver the one standing over him. Cardinal had to be the rational one now. It was the only way for the New Red Ribbon Army to survive. “Not unless he escalates things, my boy. We will get him back, but not like that, unless we have to.”
Silver wheezed out something that he didn’t understand. He didn’t want to press his son. He was so weak right now. He would probably fall asleep any second.
“In other news, I may have located Teal. The government has been extremely secretive about him–there has been no mention of him at all. However, there is a suspicious man with a code name–Haruspex–who was transferred from the South City prison to witness protection on the far south island of Hosomaki two days ago. I will be sending Quarlic there to investigate. When you’re better, you will join him, if the matter is not resolved before then. What happened to Copper was a sad thing. You had formed a bond with him that I can never fully understand. At least his story has come to a close. We no longer have to worry about him. Teal is the last officer of the Red Ribbon Army unaccounted for, if he’s actually alive. If not, we are already safe. Otherwise, this is the final loose end we must resolve to assure the rise of the New Red Ribbon Army.” He placed a hand on Silver’s cheek. The man was tired and was not looking at him, though he remained conscious. “Fret not, my boy. We are almost out of the woods. Things can only get better from here. We will rule the world soon, you and I, and there won’t be anyone left to stop us, once we’ve activated those androids.”
Silver had fallen asleep. He withdrew his hand and swiftly left the room. The doctor and Quarlic were waiting outside, in the makeshift lobby they had constructed in an old hotel in Bonetown. They were talking baseball, which annoyed him. Trivial matters deserved trivial engagement. “Keep him alive at all costs,” he told the doctor.
“I will, sir. Don’t worry, Silver is in good hands.”
“If you wish to keep those hands, you will vigilantly watch over him.” He dismissed the bald, portly man, turning his attention to Quarlic. “We’ve found Teal, I think. At least, this is the only lead that makes sense. He’s going by the name Haruspex if the report is to be believed.”
“Oh yeah?” replied his associate, who was chewing on the end of a cigarette. “Where’s he at, boss?”
“Hosomaki. It’s an island in the far south, near Akki. You will leave tonight.”
“Alright, sir, as you say. By the way… since that island is near Akki, do you think it’s possible that any of those aliens are living there?”
“I suppose you will find that out for me, Quarlic.”
The man bowed, walking a dangerous line between serenity and sycophancy in his mannerisms. “Yes, sir, Mr. Cardinal, sir. I will not disappoint you.”
“You are dismissed.”
Afterwards, he decided to take a walk through Bonetown to clear his mind. The heat comforted him, but the dust was a severe annoyance. The ruined buildings had a sort of grotesque beauty to them. He much preferred Bonetown as it was now to when Violet had run the place. It was so much more peaceful nowadays. A man could think out here. Diablo Desert’s only town was better off a ghost town than a bustling trade port. It fit the theme of the land. He had compromised and mandated that no more than one hundred Morizakura-gumi members could stay here at any given time. It was an important trading post–perhaps the most important in the world, for from here, he could ship cocaine to South City, West City, and East City by train. This had to be the most valuable location in the desert. Violet had been correct in her assessment. Shame she had had to die.
He came to a stop at the cantina, admiring the bullet holes on its door. He wondered, truly, what the chances were that they would be able to reactivate the androids. If not, all options were on the table: bombs, poison, mercenaries, chemical warfare. Gero would pay for what he had done. Humankind would never be transformed into androids–not so long as he drew breath.
Cardinal leaned against the cantina’s north-facing wall, shade falling across his face as he admired the purpling of the evening sky. In the distance, he heard a rumbling, followed by a cloud of sand, and soon, he recognized the Morizakura-gumi tractor-trailer truck approaching from West City. The New Red Ribbon Army was flourishing. It would be but a few years before they had acquired enough money to do whatever they wanted. He felt, above all else, a sense of exhilaration at what the future held.