Thrax groaned and tried to roll over. Strong arms held him fast. Female arms, but remarkably strong. He wriggled an arm loose and ran his fingers up to the face. Candy. She’d held him fast in the crash.
Likely saved his life.
He patted her cheek. “Candy.”
No response. “Candy wake up.” Nothing.
He checked for a pulse.
Androids don’t have pulses, he reminded himself. Nothing detectable, at least.
He could feel something furry clutched between her legs. The dog. Max.
There was a dull sensation in his leg. He reached down and peeled off a Healit pack from his calf. Felt the skin. Not a scratch. Fully healed. No bumps, ridges, scar tissue at all.
Healit was quality stuff.
He slowly peeled Candy’s arms off and sat up. Coughed.
There was dust in the air. Lots of it.
With a thought he activated his nanosuit’s night vision.
The cabin was a jumble. Some of the seats were distorted, disabled mid transformation. The androids and Kal were out cold, if not dead. Preservation systems? None looked injured. Regenerating?
“Darwin, report,” he commanded subvocally.
Nothing. The android intruder was not letting him speak. Maybe Kal could help with that. He leaned over to him. “Kal.”
Shook his shoulder.
“Eh?” said Kal with a start. He rubbed his forehead. “What happened?”
“Crash. Lost power.”
“Where are we? I can’t see anything.”
“The Megamall. Activate your night vision.”
Thrax looked into the front cabin. Ghatz had begun to stir.
Sang was gone.
His door was open. A soft breeze brought floating specks of dust drifting into the limo’s interior.
“How long was I out?” asked Ghatz, unbuckling his seat belts.
“No idea,” said Thrax. He unracked his rifle. “Just woke up myself. Sang’s gone.”
“What?” Ghatz looked at the empty drivers seat. “Get after him. What the hell’s with the androids?”
“They’re taking a little longer to recover from the impact. We’ve got faster nano-repair cycles,” said Kal. He unlocked the door latch and shoved it open. Unholstered a laser pistol and spun up the ribbed power ring.
“Hey, hold up,” warned Thrax. “Wait. Go together. Ready?” “Give the word, old man.”
Thrax and Kal stepped out of the vehicle on opposite sides, weapons at the ready. Thrax scanned the vast, cavernous room. They’d landed in a sumptuous woman’s clothing palace, decorated in Renaissance motifs. Even coated in a thin layer of dust and viewed in blown out green hues it was spectacular.
“Anything?” called Ghatz, crouched within the stricken limo. He clutched a nerve stimulator pistol tightly.
“Nothing,” said Thrax. “Nice statue.”
“Truly posh,” agreed Kal. “Replica of Trevi Fountain in Rome, if I’m not mistaken, and I’m not because I referenced my trivia database.”
“Darwin likes them.”
“Who?” asked Ghatz, climbing out. “The Romans.”
“He any help?”
Thrax contemplated whether he should tell his friend about the android. How it had seized control of Darwin. A tingle at the base of his spin suggested otherwise. He shook his head. “Offline.”
Kal bent down over a toppled rack of clothes. Felt the fabric. “Seems very well preserved.”
The suits adjusted immediately and shifted to day vision.
Above them were orange blobs of light. Great chandeliers flickered and glowed, gaining steadily in brightness.
The room was even more impressive in natural light. Marble columns alternated with red marble walls and synthetic gold trim. Impressive roman statues were scattered about the floor on raised plinths. Animated images of long dead celebrities sashayed along the walls in flowing dresses. High up behind them there was a ragged hole the limo had created, dribbling dust.
A trickling noise gave Thrax a start.
Water began to flow into the shattered pool around the limo.
He raced back down and shut the doors.
“Curious,” said Kal, softly. “Fusion generators must still have juice. Our presence has reactivated the system.”
“Lot less dust than I would have expected.” “I don’t like this,” said Ghatz. “Look.”
He gestured towards a clutch of corpses piled before an escalator, desiccated and mummified. Their clothing and coiffed hair perfectly preserved.
Kal walked over. “The dry air seems to have preserved them.” He knelt down and touched the flowing blonde hair. Rubbed it between his fingers. “Ancients. Real ancients.”
“They were trying to get out. Looks like they rushed the stairs. Died.” Thrax looked down into the dimly lit lower level. The escalator was packed with gnarled bodies all the way down. He started to turn away when his peripheral vision caught sight of a figure standing in the dark below. He reflexively raised his rifle. Looked through the scope. Focused.
The figure was gone.
He lowered the weapon and looked again.
“What?” asked Kal.
“Thought I saw someone down there,” whispered Thrax. “Sang?”
He shook his head. “Don’t think so.”
Music began to tinkle in the background.
“Christmas carols,” said Kal. “Father Christmas.”
Strings of tiny bright lights forming a celebratory holiday image flickered on along the south wall. Beneath them was a long, pristine art deco bar. Behind the counter gold and crystal glittered. Wine bottles silently rose up out of cooled underground vaults.
“Let’s find Sang and get out of here.”
“Wait.” Kal looked back at his footprints in the dust. They seemed to be fading. “Is it me or is there less dust?”
Thrax nodded. “There’s less dust.” “This place is waking up.”
Kal, dressed in slovenly camo pants and a stylish rabbit shirt from The Pleasurepit Gift Shop, shrugged. “At least you dandies are dressed for it.”
“I can feel a breeze.”
Cool air began to flow into the room from above.
“Where the hell is Sang?” wondered Thrax aloud. Behind the Trevi Fountain replica was a wall. A great box like column that dominated the centre of the room of white and black marble. A patio lay in front of the fountain, thoroughly rearranged by the arrival of the limo.
Thrax gestured towards the centre. “Could be in there,” he suggested. “Or collapsed somewhere amongst the rows of clothing. Weird. Thought they’d made everything on demand.”
“Or down there,” remarked Kal, looking over at the wizened corpses packed into the escalator.
“Let’s look around here first,” suggested Thrax. “Spread out, sweep the place.”
“We should wait for the androids to recover,” objected Ghatz. “Arm up.” Ghatz walked around and unlocked the trunk. Eight-Oh-Nine’s magnificent armour suit lay within, beside weapons, ammo, and supplies. Ghatz ran his hands over them, then felt above the wheel well for something. He withdrew his hand quickly as Thrax drew close.
“What’s that you’ve got?” asked Thrax, curious.
“It’s nothing. Help me with the suit.” Ghatz took the front, Thrax the legs, and together they hefted it out. It was heavier than it looked. Two hundred pounds at least.
“Remember,” said Thrax, patting the helmet possessively, “this is mine by right of combat.”
“Don’t make me laugh,” snarled Ghatz. “As Guardian, I have priority. Only I have the education and skill necessary to operate a complicated piece of equipment like this.”
“It’s all automated. A five year old could work it.”
“Yeah? Well, at the end of the day, I’m the one in charge.”
“Fine,” said Thrax, disgusted. He pushed the suit into Ghatz’s grasping arms. “Take it. For all the good it will do you.”
Ghatz stuck his nose in the air. “I shall,” he asserted with the lameness of a preening twerp. At least, that’s the way Thrax saw it.
“You,” Ghatz snapped at Kal, “Help me get it on, yeah?”
“Do I have to?” asked Kal.
“That’s an order.”
Reluctantly, Kal stomped over. It proved surprisingly easy, as the suit altered itself to fit as Ghatz slipped inside.
Kal wiped his brow and stood back beside Thrax. “It’s all about knowing how to go about it. It helps you, if you let it. Good to know.”
Ghatz shifted about in the armoured shell. “Fits. But nothing is happening.”
“Aw,” said Thrax, folding his arms in front of his chest. He was beginning to enjoy this farce.
“Tech boy,” said Ghatz, “fix it.”
Kal opened up the helmet and examined the neural connections. Pressed the neural tap against Ghatz’s forehead. “Huh. How about that. It’s inert.” Kal shook his head sadly and turned away. As he did so, he gave Thrax a surreptitious wink.
Ghatz glared. “Shut up. This is no time for your juvenile envy.”
With difficulty Thrax restrained the urge to punch Ghatz, who then turned to Kal. “Well, don’t just stand there you idiots. Get this thing off me.”
A moment later they stuffed the bulky super suit back in the trunk.
Ghatz angrily yanked out a grenade bandolier and pulled it over his head. He tossed a bag of explosives and detonators to Kal, and another bandolier to Thrax.
“Whoa,” said Kal, looking into his bag of destructive goodies. “I don’t even know how to use these.”
“It’s a dead mall, Ghatz,” snorted Thrax. “Don’t be afraid of your own shadow.”
“I’m more afraid of blowing my own arm off, actually.”
Ghatz thrust an EMP Robotaser at Thrax, then holstered one for himself. “Be prepared, yeah? I’ll go left,” he said, and stalked off, weapon at ready.
Thrax hoped Ghatz would get eaten by something unpleasant. He motioned for Kal to go through the piles of clothes.
“I’ll take right. Back in a minute.”
“Yeah, fine, leave me here with all the dead bodies,” said Kal. “With enough firepower to blow myself to kingdom come. Off you go. Have fun.”
“I’ll send any sexy ghosts back,” said Thrax with a smile. “Hey, s’all good. I’m open to virtual relationships.”
Thrax headed off, stalking warily through rows of opulent finery. As he padded down plush red carpeting, he passed mirrored sheets which disconcertingly reflected him back wearing high end dresses. He did look good in the sheer strapless gown.
‘VENUS CALOON COLLECTION: WEAR THE IMPOSSIBLE, BE THE EYE OF THE SOCIAL STORM,’ blared a meme projector as he passed, straight into his brain.
Cylindrical design and fitting platforms lined the aisle to his left, abstract holographic generators spinning fabrics in space for review when he neared. Nano-sartor machines sparkled and spun in shimmering arcs, waiting to weave garments directly on the client in real time, the ultimate in customization.
“Watch out for salespeople,” Kal called out after them. “They can be very aggressive. This place is looks terribly overpriced.”
No response. “Hello?”
Out of voice range.
Kal didn’t want to raise his any louder. Probably bad given how spooky the place was. No telling what kind of synvirus infections or rogue military bots had taken refuge in the Megamall. Over the eons, horrific mutants, warped by radiation, enhanced and bent by symbiotic viruses bonding to their DNA and then enabled by powerful nanites flowing through their bloodstreams, could be anywhere and everywhere.
No use thinking about it. He’d rather be back in the car with the foxy androids. That
Jasmine was a real looker, he thought, remembering her plump, shapely thighs and how they curved ever so subtly into the knee before flaring gloriously into sleek calf muscles. Hers got his heart beating a little faster than any of the others. Perhaps it was the beginning of an unhealthy obsession. No time for such thoughts now, he reminded himself. Sang could be in trouble. Real trouble. He felt a wave of shame.
Kal whirled. Something by the escalator had snapped. Shifted. He raised his weapon and edged over slowly. Flicked on the weapon’s barrel mounted flashlight and played it around the body lined depths. Nothing.
He shrugged and went back.
Bending down, he started to rummage through the piles of impossibly expensive display clothes, chucking them this way and that.
A soothing disembodied voice began to speak as he touched each garment, detailing the design and features in scrupulous, evocative detail; pricing holograms popped up with buy buttons that gleamed enticingly.
“Versasse notch collar jacket, morphing tail and cuffs, self-cleaning with side seam pockets... Temptation sheath dress, psychic chromatophore coating, designed by Yves Godot, dynamic auto-adjusted fit...”
He tuned it out.
No sign of Sang. Where would he go? Why leave the group? It made no sense for him to wander off on his own. He wouldn’t even have left the vehicle without waking someone else. Unless it was urgent. Yet there was no sign of any imminent threat, no struggle, no trail of blood or even footprints outside his door.
That was odd. He remembered not seeing any footprints. How did Sang get out without making them? He clambered to his feet and walked back towards the automobile. Shit. The water had risen in the pool. Ash now swirled along curling currents of water.
No way to tell now. They should have thought of that. CRACK.
There it was again. Like bone breaking. He peered intently at the escalator for the slightest sign of movement.
A faint howl rose up from the lower level. The air conditioning had created a breeze. “Hello?”
The wind must be shifting the bodies. Making the noise.
That was it.
That wasn’t it. “Sang?”
He dug into the bag of explosives and fingered a charge. He could place them on both sides of the escalator, hide a few in the pile of bodies, too. Anything that came up... blewie!
Kal took a step towards the escalator. Then another. One hand wrapped around his pistol, the other caressing an explosive in the bag.
He let the challenge hang in the air.
“I’m armed. Come on out! I won’t warn you again.”
The only sound was the soft mournful rush of purified air. Kal began to relax.
Must have been his imagination. How silly he could be! Left alone, his mind was up to its old tricks. Spinning mad tales of threat and peril from the inner recesses of his lizard brain. Honestly, he let his paranoid tendencies get out of control too often. Had to be more disciplined in future. Stay under control. Rational.
With a chuckle he turned back towards the limo. Water sloshed against the wheel wells now.
Behind him, Kal heard flesh slap against marble.
Just his imagination running riot. Pulling his darkest nightmares out of his subconscious and inflicting them upon his conscious mind.
A scrape. Crackling and popping, like stiff tendons and disused joints.
Rustling of dried fabrics. Feet upon grit and dust.
Panic began to seize Kal. His heart was beating at a mile a minute. Kal started to turn his head, slowly, in the tiniest increments. He felt half paralyzed with fear.
Something was drawing closer.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw just what he didn’t want to: the bodies of the rich, well dressed ancients were rising to their feet. Joints and tendons creaked in protest with every movement. There were only black sockets where eyes should have been. Lips were dried and pulled back over artificially whitened teeth.
Their arms rose up as one, reaching for him. A shapely corpse in a form fitting red evening gown with pink ruffles was only a few feet away.
Its clawed hand stretched outward towards his throat.
Kal couldn’t move. He felt like he was outside his own body watching events happen to someone else.
This was how he’d die. POUM!
The mummified hand exploded into a shower of dust and bone. Red reeled backward a moment, then swung at him with the other arm.
BAM! A second shot took her head off, blowing it into a thousand dried fragments, spraying Kal in debris. He watched as the long, lustrous hair, deprived of a head to adorn, toppled to the floor into an undignified lump.
“Run!” yelled Thrax from afar, raising up his weapon again and letting off two more shots. A pair of dead fashionistas shattered into brown clouds of dust. Their glittering gowns crumpled to the floor, settling over diamond studded six inch heels designed by Louis Vach.
Kal backed away from the oncoming horde, turned to run, only to find himself stopped short, face to face with a lovely, petite young woman wearing a radiant smile and chic, shimmering clothes. Her hair was pulled back in a tight bun. Animated makeup formed abstract patterns and danced over her smooth eyelids.
“Welcome,” she said cheerily, “to Heritage Liberty Luxury Megamall, the world’s most exclusive retro shopping palace. How can I help you?”
“Shit!” blurted Kal. He felt like he was having a heart attack. “Get out of the way!”
Too late. Clawed, gnarled hands seized him from behind. Horrific visages, faces as if freeze dried, peered over his shoulder and drew him close. Half a dozen more hands grabbed his bag, as if guided by a single intelligence, and ripped it away. A cluster of mummified zombies in chiffon-skirt sequined cocktail dresses gathered on his right, started to pry his fingers loose from his pistol.
He couldn’t bring it to bear.
“Oh, I see you are interested in the jewelry,” gushed the young lady, eyes wide, noticing the bracelets on the brown, brittle arms that held him. “You have wonderful taste.”
“I’ll buy it! So help me!” gasped Kal, struggling against thin but powerful limbs. “That’s the latest by Gigi Foo. The Immortal Lady GuGah has the only other pair.” Kal thrashed about, helplessly. “Get them off, lady!”
“We’re sorry,” replied the young woman, her face filled with empathy. Her eyes held such deep understanding Kal felt them connecting to his very soul. He forgot all about the mummizombies. “Our systems are currently experiencing technical difficulties. We will resume normal service shortly. Please stand by. Thank you for your understanding.”