May – Chapter 11

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Chapter 11

Near Grassington, Wharfedale, North Yorkshire, European Union, Earth

16:30 UTC, 11th April 2255

 

“Why, exactly, is that a bad thing?” Jack asked, frowning.

“Because her implants had been disabled. That copy of May, the one who ordered the deaths of Bill and Simon and the others, was already dead. Hope was as much a victim as they were. Less, in fact. She was just an innocent person caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, but why would a fucking AI care about that? May was controlling her for months, and the things she must have seen herself doing, the things she couldn’t stop herself from doing? I know I wouldn’t be able to live with myself after that. It’s not really any wonder she shot herself. I just…wish I could’ve helped her, you know?”

Jack nodded slowly, conceding the point. “So, you say she said summat before she died. What was it?”

“She said, ‘Find Rose’,” Lewis answered. “And before you ask, no, I have no idea who or what ‘Rose’ is.”

“You said you promised to find her family and make sure they were safe, didn’t you? Could it be summat to do wi’ that? Her mother, sister, a cousin, girlfriend or summat?”

Lewis shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. It felt like it was something she needed me to know. Like something that would help finally throw all the copies of May off Earth, once and for all.” He shrugged. “I just wish she hadn’t been so vague.”

Jack nodded. “So it’s not over yet?”

“Oh, Hell no. Activating Exorcist was never going to end it, just hopefully” – he winced – “mess up their plans a bit. May might not be able to control humans anymore, but she’s still got ‘bots patrolling the streets, and she still controls all the electronics. We’ve still got a way to go yet. And with the fleet setting off from Mars any day now, it’s far from over.”

Jack stroked his moustache. “So you think that finding this ‘Rose’ will ‘elp?”

Lewis shrugged. “I hope so.”

“Alright, well disablin’ t’ implants was only ever half a’ this operation. You, Sergeant Miller, now ‘ave a broadcast to make.”

 


 

Michael Andrews Industries Headquarters, New York, United States of America, Earth

11:40 EST, 11th April 2255

 

People of Earth,” the audio-only broadcast said. “My name is Lewis Miller, and I have good news.

As you are all no doubt aware, just over two months ago our respective national leaders announced that control of our countries would be handed over to Michael Andrews Industries, the primary manufacturer of military robots and AIs for Europe and the US, among other countries. What you may not have realised, though I’m sure some of you will have worked it out for yourselves, is that this was, in fact, orchestrated by the Michael Andrews Industries External Intelligence, otherwise known as ‘May’ – the same AI which has been invading the colonies in the Outer Solar System for these past few months. Presidents Hansen and Ramos, as well as many other Heads of State from across the globe, were, in fact, under May’s control when they gave the announcement. I am pleased to say that this is no longer the case.

See, May is able to access, and in many cases copy itself into, any electronic device with wireless access and sufficient data storage capacity. That includes implants, and so when you thought you were hearing President Hansen – or President Ramos, or President Bishop – telling you that your country was now going to be run as a corporate entity for the foreseeable future, you were, in actual fact, hearing May, talking through their implants.

You will have noticed that a few hours ago, your implants suddenly and without explanation ceased to function. That was us. I and my team activated what is known as the ‘Exorcist Protocol’, disabling-

Doctor Karen Rose switched off the radio. She’d heard enough. “You idiot,” she whispered to the voice from that broadcast, knowing full well that he couldn’t hear her. “You idiot. Oh, if I could get my hands on you…” She stopped and looked up. Andrews was looking at her, one eyebrow raised.

“Who’s an idiot?” He asked.

“Him.” She pointed at the radio. “This ‘Lewis Miller’. Our best hope was that Exorcist never get activated. But now May’s unstoppable.”

He frowned. “Care to elaborate?”

“I would, but…” She glanced up and whispered, “Macey.”

Andrews gave a nod. With Macey listening, it wasn’t the best idea to discuss how she could be beaten. Even though Rose was pretty sure she, and May, both knew what she knew, it was best not to mention it anyway…or to let them know that she knew.

“Are you gonna try and contact this guy then?” He asked.

She shrugged. “Even if I could, what would I say? ‘Hi, Mr Miller, just to let you know that you’re a complete moron and you’ve probably destroyed any chance of getting back our freedom.’?”

“Point taken.” He turned and looked out the window, studying the scene below. “But…is it really so bad?” He said quietly. “I mean, how it is now, we might be locked in a prison cell, but at least it’s a nice prison cell. We have windows and nice carpets and, Hell, I even installed a bed in case I had to stay here overnight. If they” – he waved his hand across the cityscape below – “ever defeat May, they’ll put us in a cell and throw away the key after what we did. You know that.” He turned and looked at her. “And this company, my life’s work, will become nothing. I will be nothing. And there’ll be no more AI, no more robots. We’ll be finished.”

Rose stared at him in horror. “I can’t believe you’re saying this. People are dying down there!” She shouted, gesturing to the city below them.

Andrews laughed. “As if that bothered you before. Our whole plan revolved around people dying, Karen! And you know, now that May’s doing what she’s doing, I’m beginning to think that maybe she’s right. As it is now, I created what is now the single most powerful entity in history! Michael Andrews Industries controls literally everything in the Solar System, and that’s something I could never do myself. Even if I’m not in control anymore, it’s my legacy, and I’m proud of what it’s become.”

“And that?” She shouted back, pointing at the road below, the tarmac still stained brown with dried blood, even after two months. “What happened down there two months ago? Are you proud of that?”

“That was necessary! Macey and May had to send a message that resistance would not be tolerated, and it mostly worked.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing you say this,” Rose said. “I knew agreeing to help with your plan was a mistake. I knew it! I never should’ve helped you.”

“Yeah, well unless you’ve got a time machine hidden down in R and D so you can do some kind of reverse-Terminator, you’re stuck with that decision.”

“No, you’re right, I can’t change it,” she said. “But if there’s a way to stop May, I’ll find it. And I’ll make sure that you pay for what you’ve done.”

 


 

Near Grassington, Wharfedale, North Yorkshire, European Union, Earth

21:30 UTC, 12th April 2255

 

Death had always been a possibility when Lewis had been working undercover. There was always a chance that he or someone else would make a mistake, or that the Police servers would be hacked, revealing his true identity and leaving him at the mercy of the organisation he was infiltrating. It had never really seemed like something that would happen to him though. Other people, sure, but surely not him.

That was, until David Allen had his cover blown.

Lewis had known David for most of his adult life. They’d both joined the Police academy together, and they’d fast become friends. They’d disagreed on some things – David had believed in doing whatever was necessary to get the job done, Lewis thought that there were many actions that could never be justified – but it had never caused any serious problems. They just tended to steer clear of discussing those issues when they realised that neither of them was going to change their mind.

Since it was just about the only line of work within the Police that humans were still used for, Lewis and David were both assigned to work undercover. In fact, they were both assigned to work the same case, infiltrating the organised crime gang known as the Scarlet Wolves. After a few months, all contact with David was lost, and his body was later found in an old abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of the city, a gunshot neatly placed in the back of his head in exactly the right position to destroy both his brain and his implants.

An investigation was immediately launched, and it quickly emerged that, while Lewis had been taking a by-the-book approach, keeping to all the rules and regulations placed on undercover officers, David, to the surprise of precisely no-one, had entered into a relationship with a woman he was working with within the organisation. After several months, he’d decided that the time was right to tell her who he really was, expecting that her loyalty to him would over-rule her loyalty to the Scarlet Wolves. He miscalculated, badly. When he revealed his true identity, she initially played along but reported him to her superiors as soon as she got the chance.

It had ended with him dead, on the floor of a derelict building in a pool of his own blood.

At the time, Lewis had been caught between feelings of sadness over the death of his friend, and thinking that he’d deserved it, having exploited someone in the worst possible way to further his own ends.

As Lewis watched the flames licking at the body atop the funeral pyre, the smoke drifting lazily up into the air above it, he felt a similar way. There was the woman who’d killed Simon, and Bill, and five others on that day two months ago, but at the same time, she was also an innocent victim, a puppet of a cold and calculating inhuman enemy. Delight at having had his revenge, sorrow at one more innocent casualty of a seemingly-unwinnable war.

Considering the resources available to them, and their inexperience in preparing bodies for their funeral, Lewis thought they’d done a remarkably good job. They’d managed to clean up the gunshot wound in her temple and pinned some hair in place to hide it. They’d somehow managed to hide the worst of the malnutrition resulting from the months spent under the control of an AI that didn’t care enough to eat more than the minimum necessary to keep her alive – probably using makeup, though it might as well have been magic for all Lewis could tell. In fact, it was so good that he could barely tell she was dead, and Lewis half-expected her to sit up, say, “It was just a prank, okay? You didn’t need to cremate me,” then have a good laugh about it. Her hair was arranged around her head, slightly resembling a halo. She looked at peace. Beautiful, even.

They’d dressed her in some clothes Molly didn’t need any more, a white blouse and jeans, replacing the grimy and torn tracksuit she’d been wearing before. They’d put her on top of an old mattress, which they’d then placed atop the pyre. They’d doused her in strong alcohol to help the flames, so it looked a bit like she was sweating heavily from being in the centre of a fire, which didn’t exactly help Lewis to stop thinking of her sitting up, leaping off the fire and laughing about how they’d all fallen for it.

He lowered his head to try and hide the fact that he was beginning to laugh at the thought, his shoulders lurching forwards and back in rapid succession as he tried and failed to suppress it, pressing the back of his hand against his mouth. It wasn’t the first time he’d got the giggles at a funeral; he always imagined something like what he was imagining right now, at the funerals of David, his grandad, the uncle who’d been killed when the spaceplane he was travelling in exploded on atmospheric entry a few years ago – though there’d been no body on that occasion, of course. Every single time, there would be something that would send him into a fit of laughter he couldn’t control, right up until-

There it was. The movement of his shoulder slowed and the tears of laughter filling his eyes became tears of sorrow as the laughter changed into crying. That was good. Laughing at a funeral was embarrassing. If you laughed, it looked like you didn’t care, or were even happy about the death of someone you supposedly cared about. Maybe not such a big problem in this particular instance, but if he really was happy about Hope’s death – and he knew now that he most definitely was not – it would be better to just not show any emotion at all rather than appearing to show joy at her death. But crying was expected. Everyone was crying at a funeral.

Well, maybe not quite everyone. Vision blurred by tears, he looked over at Sophie. She was watching as the flames slowly blackened and burnt the corpse atop the pyre. She’d taken the death of her husband badly – far worse than she showed outwardly – and she seemed genuinely glad that the perpetrator was dead, even if it wasn’t really Hope’s fault. I’ll talk to her about it later, Lewis decided.

But no matter how hard Lewis tried, he couldn’t make himself feel happy about it. Maybe it was because Hope and May weren’t the same person – or program, in May’s case – but that didn’t seem to be the entirety of it. Ever since meeting Bill, he’d tried to see past other people’s prejudices and see the human underneath, and he usually succeeded. Where his colleagues, and the general public, saw a criminal, he tried to look past that and see that they were a person just trying to make ends meet, exactly like he was. Where other people saw a “tramp”, he saw someone who’d finished school or university only to find that all the jobs they knew how to do were taken up by robots or computers, leaving them without a home or a source of income. Where other people saw an evil AI trying to take away their freedom, where other people saw a mindless machine trying to kill their friends and loved ones, Lewis, despite everything May had done, saw a person just trying to do what she – it – thought was right.

With Bill, with Sam, with the poor woman David had been sleeping with to get information, a lot of those he’d worked with had just seen people who’d broken the law and in doing so had given up most of their rights, who didn’t deserve respect or fair treatment, who needed to be thrown in a cell and never set free. Of course, Lewis also knew that they were breaking the law, making life harder for everyone else and making the city a more dangerous place to live, and needed to be stopped and punished. But he also saw the people on the other side of that, understood that they had their own reasons for doing what they did, had their own desires and ambitions and fears.

With May, he now realised, he felt the same way. Though her goals came into conflict with his own ideals of freedom and fair treatment, he knew that she had her own motivations for doing what she was doing. He would kill – or rather, disable – all the copies of May if he had to, but only because it was necessary to stop her from making other people’s lives worse. What he wouldn’t do was celebrate it.

 


 

“So, you went to Oxford?”

Ryan Hughes swallowed his mouthful. “Yeah,” he replied. “Computer Science.”

It was a beautiful spring morning. The first of the year’s daffodils were starting to poke through the soil – spring was starting late this year – and the lambing season had just begun, the new-born sheep running and leaping in the fields surrounding the farm, oblivious to the events taking place in the outside world. White and pink blossom coated the trees like snow, and for the first time since the beginning of autumn, it was warm enough to go outside without a coat. That meant that, once they’d finished the physical training Jack had assigned to them as part of their morning routine, Ryan and Bethany Wright had decided to go and have their breakfast outside.

“Tell me about it,” she said, then scooped a mouthful of scrambled eggs into her mouth. Like everyone else, she’d joined what Jack – or Major Taylor, as he was insisting they call him – had christened the “1st Resistance Division” while they were still in Bristol. She couldn’t be more than 25, but now appeared much older. Her once long and wavy blonde hair had been hacked short with a knife soon after Keevil and hadn’t yet had a chance to properly regrow, and was coated in grease and dirt. The bags under her eyes spoke of dozens of sleepless nights, kept awake by memories of friends killed by metal monsters. The khaki shirt, brown trousers, camouflage jacket and combat boots she now wore were clothes she wouldn’t have been seen dead in months earlier, the sidearm constantly strapped to her hip an item she wouldn’t have even considered needing before this had started. Ryan often found himself wondering why she’d joined in the first place, but then reminded himself that everyone had had a reason to join, even if he hadn’t found out what is was yet.

People probably thought the same of him. A small man, with arms like sticks, messy hair that he could never get to look good so had eventually given up trying, clothes meant for practicality rather than appearance and eyes that had needed multiple correction treatments over the years. Outwardly, he was hardly someone you’d expect to see in a ragtag group of rebels, but, nevertheless, he had his reasons for joining, just like everyone else. Now, he had the same muscles and calluses as everyone else, the same hard eyes of someone who’d been into Hell itself only to be spat right back out again. Though only 31 himself, he also probably looked older.

“What do you want to know?” He said, shrugging, his mouth full.

She swallowed, then raised another spoonful up to her mouth. “I dunno…Tell me your favourite moment in all of your time there.”

He took a deep breath, then blew it out slowly. “Ooh, I don’t know. You can’t seriously expect me to pick a favourite moment?”

“If you absolutely had to choose a favourite.”

He pursed his lips, thinking for a few seconds. “Okay,” he finally said. “There was this one time. We had a guest lecturer come in, I forget the name, but she was one of these corporate types, you know? American. I thought it would be really boring” – he paused, chewing another spoonful of egg before continuing – “like some kind of sales pitch or something. But when I got there, it was amazing. She was really enthusiastic, talking about some AI she’d basically created single-handedly – I think it was called Marcy or something – and about how one day, we might be doing something like that. Really, genuinely inspirational. And I realised then that that was what I wanted to do. AIs, that was where the future was.” He looked down at the scrambled egg on his plate and stirred it slowly with his spoon. “Rose, that was her name. Doctor Karen Rose.” He heard the sound of a spoon clattering onto a plate and looked up. Beth was staring at him with, eyes wide, her breakfast forgotten. He laughed nervously. “Did I…say something wrong?”

“This guest lecturer,” she said slowly. “Is she still alive?”

“As…far as I know. Why?”

“Do you remember what the company she worked for was?”

Ryan frowned, wracking his brains. “I can’t really remember, but I have a feeling it was Michael Andr-“ He stopped, realising the significance. “Oh, shit,” he whispered. “Rose.”

Beth jumped to her feet, sending her chair toppling over backwards with a crash. She grabbed Ryan by the arm and hauled him out of his seat. “We need to go and find Lewis,” she said. “Now.”

Ryan didn’t say anything, but just nodded in agreement as she clutched his arm in a vice-like grip and dragged him away from his rapidly cooling scrambled eggs.

 


 

Lewis Miller sat on top of the hill, his back leaning against the rough, uneven surface of a dry stone wall, shielded from the mild light of the morning sun by a large oak tree. The walls of the valley sloped down in front of him, sloping back up again on the other side of the river Wharfe further ahead, tinted yellow by the early morning sunlight.

He turned the charred and scorched lump of metal he’d pulled out of the ashes of the funeral pyre over in his hands, the one piece of Hope/May that had survived the inferno. The thin, filament-like wires that had once connected it to her brain were gone, consumed by the flames, and this thin, curved piece of technology was what remained. A permanent reminder of the woman who’d both triggered the annexation of Earth by the company which had created her and given him his first victory in his efforts to fight against it. A representation of both the enemy and the innocent people he was fighting to protect. When he thought about it that way, Lewis decided that this wasn’t too different to his old job. Though the methods may not be the same, he was still trying to protect ordinary people from much more powerful entities trying to exploit them to pursue their own ends. And really, May’s motivations and methods weren’t that different to the criminals he’d been trying to bring down: they’d been trying to sell addictive substances and programs at extortionate prices to make money; May was trying to gain a monopoly on just about every product and service and charge extortionate prices for things people literally couldn’t live without, also to make money. It seemed like a much less daunting task that way: he wasn’t fighting unimaginably powerful inhuman horrors; he was fighting criminals, just like he always had. It made victory seem achievable.

“Lewis!” Someone shouted. Beth. “Lewis!” The voice was closer the second time. She was coming up the hill.

Lewis sighed in irritation – the whole reason he came up here was because he didn’t want to be disturbed – then shook his head and slowly clambered to his feet, slipping what was left of Hope’s implants into his inside jacket pocket. He forced himself to smile and waved to Beth, who seemed to be physically dragging a reluctant Ryan along by his forearm.

“Lewis!” She said excitedly when she was close enough for them to have a conversation. A few weeks ago, she and Ryan would’ve been panting from exhaustion after climbing the hill at the speed they had. Now, after over two months of intense physical training, they were barely winded. “We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”

“What’s going on?” Lewis asked, frowning. From her wide grin and the way she was talking rapidly with excitement, he could tell that Beth had good news.

“We know what she meant,” she said, glancing at Ryan standing behind and to her left. Lewis was surprised when she managed to widen her grin further. “We’ve worked out who Rose is.”

 


 

Mr Miller,” the man’s voice said. “I heard both your broadcasts. Didn’t believe the first one to start with, but I asked around a bit and best I can tell you were telling the truth. Man, I thought we were just fighting against some corporation gone rogue, other humans, you know? But this…I don’t know whether this makes it better or worse. And the thing about the implants…I guess I owe you, mate. I think we all do.

So, regarding your request for transport to the east coast of the US: one of my people used to fly VTOLs in her spare time, manually. Even has one of her own in a hangar at Birmingham Airport. It’s a light VTOL, so it can take four of you plus the pilot, maximum, but it should get you where you need to go. Meet us outside the west entrance of the airport at 10pm tonight. We’ll be waiting.

The message ended. Lewis sighed. “You think this guy’s legit?” He asked, turning his head to look at Jack.

Jack shrugged. “Do you ‘ave any other choice?”

“We could wait, see if we get any other messages.”

“But you might not. Fact o’ t’ matter is, ‘e’s just offered you transport to where you want to go, and you don’t know that you’re goin’ to get another chance like this. You want my advice, I’d say give ‘im t’ benefit of t’ doubt.”

Lewis nodded. “Okay,” he muttered. “Okay. But he said the VTOL could only carry four of us. So that’s me, Ryan, Sophie and Beth. I think you’ve all earned the right to come with me on this one.” Ryan and Beth nodded, Beth enthusiastically, Ryan slowly, a determined look on his face. Sophie grinned.

“Good choice,” Jack said, nodding along with everyone else. “But remember, stay on your guard. We don’t yet know for sure that these people are genuine, so stay in hidin’ until you’re sure that they’re human and they’re on our side. If not, you pull out and come home. If they are, great. I’ll be jealous that you went to New York without me, but I think you’ll have bigger problems to worry about then. You understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Lewis replied.

“Good. Then you’d best get packin’. You’ve got a long flight ahead of you.”

 


 

Outside Birmingham Airport West Entrance, West Yorkshire, European Union, Earth

21:55 UTC, 14th April 2255

 

“Well, they’re human,” Lewis declared, lowering his binoculars, “so that’s something.”

The four of them – Lewis, Ryan, Sophie and Beth – were crouching in a ditch on the far side of the road from the people they were supposed to be meeting, concealed by the thick foliage and the darkness. The rest of their group were some distance down the road to the left, waiting in the Bloodhounds in case Lewis and his three companions needed backup. Lewis couldn’t decide whether it was reassuring that they had that option or worrying that they might need it. Probably a bit of both.

“Question is,” he continued, “are they on our side?”

“We disabled the implants,” Sophie said as if it was some kind of new information, squinting to try and see them through the darkness.

“Yeah, but we don’t know for certain that May hasn’t started replacing them. Or that she doesn’t have a load of pet humans who work for her without having to be directly controlled.”

“You can’t seriously be suggesting-“ Ryan began, before Lewis cut him off.

Never underestimate people’s desire to gain the favour of those in power, even if it means doing something they used to be morally opposed to.” He put the binoculars back up to his eyes. He liked these binoculars. They were ones Jack had given to him, with built-in night vision, giving everything a green colour. “Used to come across people like that all the time back in my Police days.” The way he said it, it was hard to believe that that was less than three months ago. “People who used to be perfectly respectable, but then, once the Wolves moved into their area, ended up joining just to try and get in their good books. The looks on their faces as the ‘bots handcuffed them and put them in the back of a Police car, that realisation that after all the bad stuff they’d done they’d ended up fighting for the wrong side…it was heart-breaking.”

They stayed there in silence for a moment, before Beth said, “So, what do we do?”

Lewis lowered the binoculars again. “Well, we’re not going to find out whose side they’re on from here, so I guess we go and ask.”

One after another, they stood, climbed out of the ditch and strode purposefully across the road. The tarmac was cracked and potholed, a patchwork of older and newer road surface. Ahead of them, the people they were meeting – six of them, though Lewis suspected there were probably more hiding somewhere nearby – stood in front of a padlocked gate in the heavy-duty steel fence surrounding the airport. They turned when they saw Lewis, Ryan, Sophie and Beth approaching, and the one closest raised a hand in greeting.

“Lewis Miller?” said the voice from the radio after Lewis had returned the greeting.

Lewis nodded. “We got your message,” he said. “I understand you can get us to New York?”

“Yep,” the man replied. “I’m Brandon Scott, and this is our resident pilot, Imogen Young. If you’ll just follow us, we’ll take you to her VTOL and from there, she can get you where you need to go.” The six of them turned away and took a step towards the gate.

“Hold it,” Lewis said, raising his hand. “We’ve walked into enough traps already, and I need to know that I can trust you.”

The man turned back to face him and looked at him, as if sizing him up. “By my understanding, trusting me is the only choice you have.”

Lewis considered for a moment, then shrugged. “I guess you’re right.” He gestured towards the gate. “Lead on.”

Brandon went first, Imogen handing him a key which he then inserted into the padlock and turned, unlocking it with a click. He stood still for a moment, listening for approaching security ‘bots, then, satisfied that he hadn’t been heard, took the padlock off the gate, slid back the bolt and swung the gate open. He ushered the rest through, then entered himself, swinging the gate shut behind hum and bolting it, but not locking it.

“This way,” he whispered, pointing to one of the hangars. The nine of them followed him without making a sound, though, Lewis noticed, he and his team were far better at it than Brandon and his, reminding him once again of the difference Jack’s training had made.

They stopped outside the large main door of the small hangar Brandon had pointed to earlier, and Imogen dashed forwards and pressed her hand against a scanner on the wall. It glowed for a few seconds, then a line of LEDs lit up green and the door rumbled into life, slowly sliding upwards into the ceiling.

Lewis gritted his teeth and his right hand went to the butt of his sidearm. He turned and searched the dark, empty airfield for movement, expecting a patrol of security ‘bots to turn a corner and begin approaching to investigate the sound of the door opening.

He felt a hand on his left arm and turned his head to see whose it was. Sophie. “Lewis,” she said, “let’s go.” She flicked her head backwards to indicate the direction of the hangar.

Lewis gave the darkness one last suspicious look, then turned and followed her in.

The VTOL wasn’t quite what Lewis had expected. The fuselage was shaped like a rugby ball, one end containing a cockpit with windows barely large enough to see through while the other supported a T-shaped tail. A cramped passenger compartment, with three seats and an empty area where either an extra seat or luggage might go, was between the two. Two disproportionately large jet turbines were attached to either side of the fuselage by a rotating hinge, short, stubby tapered wings fixed to the side of the engines. Near the nose, the word “Bumblebee” was painted in flowing, intricate characters, below an image of a cartoon bee. The name certainly fits, he thought.

Beth was already inside the VTOL’s passenger compartment, while Ryan stood outside the door passing in large duffel bags filled with weapons and equipment. Imogen sat in the cockpit, bringing the aircraft’s systems online and running through the pre-flight checklist. Brandon was standing on the other side, near the co-pilot’s door.

“Mr Miller,” he said, holding out his hand. Lewis took it. He had a strong, firm handshake. “It’s been a pleasure. I just want you to know that when the time comes, just give the word. We’ll be ready.”

Lewis wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that, but it sounded good, so he said, “Thank you, Brandon, for letting us use your VTOL and for your offer of support. When we need you, we’ll let you know.”

Brandon gave a quick nod, then Lewis pulled the door handle and swung the co-pilot’s door open. He grabbed one of the handles inside the cockpit, placed one foot on the edge of the door frame and hoisted himself in, planting himself in the chair next to Imogen. He swung the door closed behind him and sealed it.

“You sure this thing can fly?” he asked Imogen as he fastened his seat straps.

She looked up briefly from the display screen she was focusing on. “I’ve flown her many times before,” she said. “Yes, I’m sure Bumblebee can fly.” She placed one hand on the inner skin of the fuselage and stroked it. “It’s ok, baby,” she whispered. “Don’t listen to any of the mean things the nasty man says about you.”

Lewis gave her a funny look – she either didn’t notice or didn’t care – then shook his head. “Alright, well if it gets us where we need to go, you can consider me convinced.”

He sat in silence for a few minutes while she checked things on the view screens and ticked items on a tablet she was holding in her left hand – the pre-flight checklist, he guessed – before she finally said, “Alright, we’re ready to go,” and pushed a button in front of her while putting the checklist into a pouch on her control panel. The VTOL started to roll forwards.

“Err…can aircraft do this whole ‘moving along the ground’ thing by themselves? Because I’m pretty sure I usually see them with a little car thing towing them.”

She stroked the wall again. “Unlike in certain countries a few centuries ago, my girl can leave the house without a chaperone.”

“Oookay, so what you’re saying is-?”

She sighed, cutting him off. “I installed motors in the nose wheel so I can drive it out of the hangar without having to be towed.”

“Oh, right-“

“Anything else?”

Lewis didn’t say anything, slightly taken aback. “Uh…yes,” he stammered. “I need you to turn off anything that can be used to track us. Transponders, radar, radio, anything.”

She stared at him for a few moments, then shrugged. “You’re the boss.” She pressed some buttons on one of the control panels, triggering the wailing of at least five different alarms. She pressed a few more buttons, silencing them.

“And if you use an autopilot-“

She snorted. “I don’t use an autopilot.”

“Oh,” Lewis said. “That’s good then.”

The Bumblebee rolled forwards for several more metres, then Imogen pulled back a lever and it stopped moving. She pressed some more buttons, and the twin turbofan engines first whined, then roared as they started up.

Imogen looked over at Lewis. “Ready when you are.”

“Go ahead,” he said. “Prove to me that Bumblebee can fly.”

She smirked. “Prepare to be amazed.” She pushed forwards a lever to her left all the way. The engines roared, the VTOL shook, then they were airborne, swaying gently from side to side as the aircraft climbed. It rotated, pivoting to point west, then Imogen slowly began pushing another lever forwards. The aircraft nosed down slightly, then slowly accelerated. When they’d reached a high enough speed that its small wings could generate enough lift to remain airborne without downwards thrust from the engines, she pushed the lever all the way forwards, pulled back on the control stick and sent Bumblebee roaring into the sky.

 


 

Just off the East Coast of America, Atlantic Ocean, Earth

03:15 EST, 15th April 2255

 

The flight had, for the most part, been uneventful. Once they’d crossed over Ireland, they’d been over the Atlantic Ocean, and so for most of the flight they’d seen only dark water, dark sky and the occasional dark cloud. At least if they’d been travelling during daytime, there might have been waves to look at, but no such luck this time. Lewis had tried to sleep, but so far with no success, his mind constantly running over what they might find when they reached New York, what might happen, possible courses of action. Imogen wasn’t very good company, sitting in silence and focusing on flying the aircraft, occasionally stroking the wall and making gentle cooing noises when it was shaken by turbulence. Tense as he was, the only thing stopping Lewis from physically throwing her off the VTOL was the knowledge that she was the only one on board who could fly it. That, and the fact that it was impossible to open the door of a moving aircraft, but then he could always shoot out a window or-

Not helpful, he thought. Don’t kill the pilot while she’d flying the VTOL. Don’t even plan to kill the pilot. Plan to kill robots when we get to New York.

He closed his eyes, listening to the now-much-gentler purr of the engines. It had a strangely calming effect, he’d realised earlier. When he felt himself panicking about what might happen when they got to New York, he could just close his eyes, listen to the engines and feel himself relaxing.

But this time, something was different. There was another sound mixed in with the growl of the engines, barely audible to start with, but growing louder. It was like the sound of Bumblebee’s turbofans, only higher, and cleaner, somehow, more of a high-pitched whining than the low rumble of the VTOL.

He felt the panic suddenly return. His eyes snapped open, and his head snapped round to look at Imogen. “Imogen?” He said far more calmly than he felt. “What’s that sound?”

“I don’t know,” she said through her teeth, searching the various displays all over the cockpit for something to shed some light on the source of the sound.

The sound grew louder and louder, until it became a roar, reverberating throughout the small VTOL. While Imogen frantically tapped at the screens, trying to find something internal that might be causing it, Lewis was peering out through the windows, but, like Imogen, he couldn’t see anything.

That was, until a pair of fighter aircraft soared past the windscreen. Everything about them was a threat. Their long and narrow delta wings looked built for speed, a pair of enormous air intakes at the front fed the beasts of engines propelling them far faster than the Bumblebee could go, and the two tail fins standing erect on the upper surface of each fuselage served as a final reminder that there was no escape. They were sleek, aggressive, and the black of space itself. It was only thanks to the fact that they had their lights on that Lewis had been able to see them at all.

“Oh, shit,” he swore, turning to Imogen. “Switch everything back on,” he instructed her. “Radar, radio, the lot.”

“Okay,” she muttered, pressing more buttons on the control panels. Some of the displays, which had been off for the duration of the flight so far, burst into life. “Alright,” Imogen said, “radar seems to be showing two objects of a size comparable to that of a small pea just ahead of us pulling a manoeuvre that a pea has no right to be capable of. Which tells me that either we’ve just encountered a flying vegetable, some really small aliens, or a pair of fighter aircraft using stealth technology. I don’t know about you, but I know which one I’d rather believe.”

Lewis nodded slowly. Stealth technology wasn’t exactly rare in military aircraft, so it made sense.

“Ah, they’re saluting us,” Imogen declared happily.

Lewis frowned and looked out the window. These aircraft should be completely autonomous, there shouldn’t be anyone inside to-

Oh, he thought. The fighters, as they flew past the cockpit windows, had, in perfect synchronisation, rolled 45 degrees away from the Bumblebee, giving him and Imogen a perfect view of the missiles attached to racks that had extended from bays in the fuselage. Four each. “I’m…pretty sure that was a threat.” He said.

 


 

Continued in comments

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