Project: Killing Machine
When Lieutenant Isaacs saw the streak of light across the sky, his first thought was of attack. He staggered up from the tree he'd been lying against and started shaking his comrades. They looked up from letters and weapons with all manner of annoyance and fleeting derision. He pointed up at the white slash against the darkness. They snickered.
"It's just a shooting star," one of them said, waving Isaacs off.
"Shooting stars come and go. This-well, look!" He was right; the light continued traveling earthward, still in plain view. "I'm telling you, it's Guardia."
Another solider spoke up. "They still don't have powder, for one thing. Besides, even if they did, that whatever-it-is is going to miss us wide. Nevermind they don't know we're here."
The thing was now larger, closer, but still indistinguishable save as a glowing blur. It crashed down a mile, perhaps more, outside camp.
"Go check it out, Isaacs. Give you something to do instead of bugging us." The soldier turned over on his side and shortly went back to sleep.
"Fine. I will." Isaacs buckled on his holster, checked his gun's chamber, then took up his sword. He considered taking a torch, but only for a moment. They were already risking enough with the few small fire-pits they'd dug out; another light-source was just asking to be spotted.
Weapon held out in front like a ward, Isaacs set off into the foliage, seeking the object from the sky.
Slats of moonlight filtered through the trees, making Isaacs's progress easier than it otherwise would have been. Still, it was hard going-he wished for the torch now-and he scrambled over roots and knotted branches, swearing each time he fell to the dirt.
Not long after he'd set out, he came upon the object. It was long, ovular, immaculately white. Along the top ran a pane of smoked glass; affixed to the object was a rudder and an array of concave metal shapes. From these issued wisps of smoke up into the air.
Isaacs felt a wave of heat from the ship-for it was almost certainly a vessel-as he neared it. He took a few steps more when a sound from the craft stopped him. The pane of glass opened with a soft hiss then rose slowly. A figure from within stood. Isaacs, remembering his sword, gripped the hilt tighter.
The stranger was tall, svelte. Looking harder, Isaacs realized he was missing an arm. The stranger glanced at the empty socket without concern.
"Damage sustained in landing. Running diagnostics on all systems." Isaacs tried to place the accent, found he could not. Each word sounded flat and toneless. "Cursory analysis: all functions normal."
The man leaped from the hatch with a lithe grace. In the moonlight, Isaacs could better see him. The man's skin was an ashen gray. Half his face was obscured by a bandana; standing out against the darkness were his red eyes and hair shaped like fire, and of the same color. Isaacs' mouth went dry; even in the archipelago this man would have been seen as alien.
"What year and what land is this?" The voice rang out from behind the cloth, echoing and clear. The question took Isaacs aback and he stammered before managing to speak.
"This is 1009, Porre. I am Lieutenant Isaacs." He gave a stiff nod, his eyes and sword focused on the stranger.
"The war is still being fought, then?"
There was a twitch of movement on the man's face, but the bandana kept it from sight. He sank to one knee and bowed. "I am at your service. Please, I would like to speak to your commanding officer."
As if Isaacs hadn't had enough strangeness for one night. This visitor, who looked as no other, now genuflecting and pledging loyalty. He gestured with his weapon for the man to precede him back to camp; he hoped the general would know what to do with the man from the sky.
They marched through the underbrush, the stranger in front, Isaacs behind, sword and firearm both poised to fend off any attack, or curb any escape attempt. He gripped the trigger just enough to avoid firing; he had the sense that, if the man were to start running, he'd get two shots off, at best.
"You have a name?" Isaacs asked.
The man peeled back his glove, glanced at his arm as if reading something there, and went into a spasm. Isaacs leaped back, gun raised, lining up his shot while the man thrashed. "Language filter error. Error. Error." Then he paused and slumped over his knees. A moment later, as though nothing had happened, he straightened up.
"Strange name." They continued on; Isaacs stroked the trigger in anticipation of another seizure.
The red and orange light of low-burning fires appeared at the brush's edge and soldiers roused one another, launching into a salvo of taunts.
"Go make a wish on your shooting star, Isaacs?"
"Guardia's attacking, isn't it? Run for the hills, fellas."
Their laughter was cut short as Grobyc stepped out of the shadows into the clearing. They all seemed to gasp and retreat at once, scrambling backwards in the dirt like crabs. Grobyc swept his eyes over them in calm evaluation; by his behavior, he hardly seemed a captive.
"Get the general," Isaacs said. A shuffle of feet-several men were glad of a reason to leave.
By the time the general strode out into the huddle of troops, every available pistol was trained on the man in the center, on Grobyc. Neither his face nor his body registered the slightest hint of fear. The general rested a hand on his sword's pommel; beyond that, his stance was as ever-confident, serene, regal.
"General Banks, sir." Grobyc saluted.
"You have my name, man. I would have yours in good faith."
Banks scratched his beard, slid his finger along the leather hilt. "And what, Grobyc, are you doing skulking around a Porre camp?"
"I was not, as you say, sir, skulking. I landed here."
"Yes, sir." Isaacs moved to the front of the crowd. "From a ship, sir, out of the sky."
Sniggers from the gathered men; the general held up a hand and they ceased. Isaacs looked as though he barely believed his own word.
"You'll forgive me if I send recon to corroborate your story, lieutenant. It wouldn't be the first time your imagination has got the better of you."
"Sir, of course, sir."
Banks nodded to a man, who set to running back the way Isaacs and his prisoner had come. "If you're a spy," Banks said, rounding on Grobyc, "I should kill you now. You realize that, I'm sure." With a speed incredible for a man half his age, Banks drew his sword and slashed, bringing it within a hair's breadth of Grobyc's neck. The stranger remained as impassive as ever; he hadn't even blinked in all that time.
"It is a possibility, sir, though I am not. I only wish to serve Porre, for its greater glory. Further, you could not kill me."
"Truly?" Banks scowled. "Do you know how many men have fallen to this blade?"
"No, sir, I do not. That fact, however, is irrelevant. You could not kill me."
"Of all the arrogant " Banks's face reddened and veins stood out upon his forehead. He slashed, a blur of motion, and the sword connected; it may have well have been hitting stone for all the damage it did. Every man looked on with shock.
"As I said, sir, you could not kill me."
The men, astonished, whispered their disbelief to each other. Banks pulled his sword free of Grobyc's flesh-if flesh it was-and addressed his troops without diverting his gaze. "I want a watch on him-"
With preternatural speed, Grobyc ran and sprang back into the forest he'd emerged from. Shots rang out, a few finding their mark; not so much as a trickle of blood. The general signaled to his army.
"Hold your fire, hold your fire! If Guardia is nearby, they know full well where we are now. Don't just stand there; after him." Three of the swiftest headed toward the trees. They slowed as they heard faint sounds from within. A rustle of leaves. A whisper of air. Then a scream that could only be someone's last.
Grobyc came back, a body over his shoulder. He set it down and the men encircled the victim: a Guardian scout, a fist-sized hole through the chest, leaving tatters of the royal emblem. Isaacs saw Grobyc's wounds more closely; from the places he'd been shot, no blood spilled. Even where his arm should have been was dark, like his body was hollow.
"Sir!" came a voice from the darkness. The scout, winded. "Never saw a thing like it before. But it's no lie, sir, or else a damn good one at that. What should we do, sir?"
The general stared at Grobyc, boring into him with his gaze. "We don't need to be carrying anything more than we are. Tell me, Grobyc. It's your ship; should we leave it be?"
"The on-board defense systems will keep it safe, sir. No one shall find it cloaked."
Grobyc said nothing to this. Isaacs expected Banks to strike out at him for failing to answer. Instead, the general smiled.
"You've given me an idea of just how dangerous you are. That works in my favor just as well as yours. He'll be watched at all times," he said to the men. "For now, we need a new site." He glared around at the anxious troops who fired. "Break camp."
Fires were stamped out, tents were collapsed, and men gathered up supplies. Isaacs stole a glance at the man with red eyes and hand bloodied up to the elbow. Whatever fear he'd had earlier was small against what now overwhelmed him.
Their march had taken them long through the night, up to the very break of dawn; every last man fell into a sound sleep when finally they received the order to pitch camp. Scouts hurried off to survey the land, to get its lay and to keep sharp of Guardia's comings and goings. The general had Grobyc bound; he'd made no strains against his ropes, nor did he fatigue in the least. Isaacs hadn't seen him ask for so much as a drink or morsel of food yet.
He tore off a heel of bread. "Want some?"
Grobyc shook his head. "I do not require food."
Isaacs grimaced. "It's not poisoned if that's what you're thinking." Grobyc made no response; Isaacs shrugged and finished eating. "How do you feel? You got shot besides besides, uh, losing an arm."
"I have sustained minimal damage. I can construct a prosthetic appendage, should I be later freed."
"Prosthetic." Isaacs tried the word on his tongue, and it sounded foreign-appropriate, given its source. He didn't bother asking what it meant. Grobyc unnerved him and yet, he didn't have the suspicion he was a spy. Isaacs regarded Grobyc while the latter focused on nothing at all.
The morning hadn't quite given way to noon as the scouts came pelting back toward camp; they arrived panting and gasping.
"Over the ridge," one said at attention before General Banks between gulps of air. "Two miles, that way." He pointed in the direction of the rising hills.
"It's a small group, sir. Maybe a hundred."
"Why wouldn't they take the high ground?" Banks asked himself. "I don't like it at all. But we won't sit idle. I want archers readied immediately. And a hundred men; I won't risk more than that."
"And the rest, sir?"
"Will stay behind. If this is a trap, we'll cut losses as much as we can. Besides, someone has to watch out for our guest." He gave Grobyc a piercing stare. "Now move!"
There was a muted din as men gathered up arms and donned equipment.
Isaacs watched with no envy; he'd defend himself and his country when in danger. Unprovoked attack-it wasn't an idea he could support in good conscience, but still, compassion didn't win war. His fellow guards assigned to Grobyc didn't share his sentiments. They threw down their swords in frustration.
"I wouldn't worry," Isaacs said. "The war's a long way from over." Sadness crept into his voice then, as if speaking it brought the realization home.
"Isaacs, I wonder why you ever even joined up."
"I was drafted." Then they were all quiet. Final preparations continued around them. Quietly, the ambush squad set off in tight file, to kill or to die.
The guards occupied themselves by telling raunchy jokes to each other, playing dice, or checking on their gear for the umpteenth time. Isaacs wanted to know more about Grobyc, but he would not say much; every answer from him was clipped. Isaacs simply wandered about the campsite, thinking about the surreal quality of the past few hours.
After a time, Grobyc broke his silence, speaking in his customary monotone. "They're here."
Before Isaacs could ask who, an arrow came out of the trees and made a beeline for his chest. Grobyc spun and-impossibly-kicked the arrow from its course.
They darted back toward camp. On all sides Guardian soldiers were creeping out of the forest. Metal arrowheads glinted. They held their position just outside pistol range.
No speeches. No brandishing of weapons. Suddenly, everything was in motion. Guns, arrows, swords. Bodies. Blood. Men from Porre and Guardia fell, stabbed or shot. Steel clashed with steel and funneled explosions thundered in the clearing.
Isaacs joined the fray. His fellows were in danger. He had no idea who struck first and didn't much care.
Grobyc stood watching, calculating. If not for his entry, they would not be in this place, at this moment. He broke free and plunged into the tumult.
His movements were fast, faster than any one person's had a hope to be. He ran as little more than a blur of gray, black, and polished silver-a sword he's acquired. He criss-crossed the field in untraceable patterns, fending off blows, severing heads from torsos, a thick red trail in his wake. Screams of the dying swallowed up the clamor of fighting.
As the battle stretched on, Guardia's troops saw their numbers dwindle until only a few dozen remained. Soldiers fled in their turn as each realized the hopeless odds, especially in light of Grobyc's savagery. Porre's arrows chased down the last before they got too far.
Quiet settled over the field once more. Wind rustled leaves and branches, birds warbled out notes in the stillness. Grobyc came back from chasing the last of the enemy, dusty and blood-smeared. He was unharmed, save a few tears to his clothing.
"Why?" Isaacs said. He had other questions to ask, but only managed the one.
"I came to serve. To serve means to fight alongside you. You will consider me a spy no longer?"
Isaacs took in the expressions on his squad's faces. They muttered amongst themselves that they'd never have believed it if they'd not seen it, that no one could kill so many men, that he was the most convincing spy there ever was. No one believed he was, though. Not anymore.
"If he makes it back, that's the general's decision." Isaacs held out a hand. "But until then "
Grobyc took the hand and shook it; his grip was as yielding as tempered iron. "I thank you, lieutenant." And even with Isaacs' show of faith, no one slept easy that night.
Words traveled faster than any platoon. By the time Porre and Guardia had their next encounter, Grobyc's abilities were known and much talked about; still, Guardia regarded it as hearsay, a fantastic lie made to bolster Porre's morale and cow their rivals. The men who died in those first campaigns went to their graves drawing courage from that conviction. Soon enough, they were losing too many men to the rumor; its truth could only be disputed for so long.
Grobyc had become an uneasy ally within the ranks. With tools brought from the ship and a large supply of iron, he forged himself a new arm to replace the one he'd lost. Instead of humanizing him, it made him all the stranger, a grotesquerie among men who bled, wept, and fell. Grobyc did none of those things.
No matter how often he came to their aid in battle, the men never made him one of their own. Even Isaacs kept a guarded distance. To all appearances, Grobyc didn't mind; his expression never changed and he spoke out of utility as much as anything else.
After every battle, he stood apart from them, in their mourning or carousing. His gaze lingered on nothing in particular, fixed on something no one else guessed at. They did not know he was evaluating his performance, processing the wealth of figures and statistics his monitoring systems fed him with each struck blow, each dodge.
They wouldn't have understood if he'd told them and so he kept his silence. He did not forget those numbers and, more importantly, what they signified.
He swept his gaze over the men in the distance, numbering them, conducting brief combat analyses on each. One thousand three hundred and sixty-four to their eight hundred and ninety-one. Even so, Guardia wasn't certain of the odds; they whispered to each other and Grobyc read every word on their lips.
"See him, with the weird hair? The Steel Demon."
"Doesn't look like much."
"Nobody's lived to tell about how he fights. That says it all, doesn't it?"
Porre's men tightened up their formation; the general shouted out a speech to rouse them. As if they needed it. The war had shifted and Porre had been pushing Guardia further and further back. The country had almost run out of space to flee.
Grobyc's auditory sensors picked up General Banks' motivational words-like "pivotal" and "imminent" and "glory"-but paid them no heed. He focused on the performance statistics of the last few battles. He ran over the data again and again, the results ever the same. He sustained more damage in the crash than he previously assessed, that was all; he was sure of it, sure as a machine could be.
The peace broke. Thousands of men stampeded into two surging crowds. They raised their weapons and swore oaths to family and gods. Then they met, and death began claiming.
With his enhanced visual input relay, Grobyc was beyond surprise. He warded off slashes that would have ended any other, he supported his comrades when they were overwhelmed, he cut through every man who crossed him, wave after wave of them. Those who cowered at the first sight of him before fought now with every ounce of strength, faced with the choice of kill or be killed. He struck them down all the same.
A blade sliced through the polymer of his arm. The soldier pressed his attack, frenzied. Grobyc parried each swipe. The man's vitals were abnormal, and even physically, his appearance was unusual. Grobyc studied it, the bloodlust, fascinated.
His methods had been so swift, so effective, he'd never noticed such a reaction. Yet his performance readout did not change. He countered, once, twice, and the man's head fell, followed by his body.
The fight dragged on long through the afternoon; the sky was orange-rose with a setting sun when they last man had been slain. Porre cheered; the war was, so far as they knew, theirs. It was only a matter of time. Sobriety settled over the group as they took to rounding up the dead.
Apart, Grobyc looked into the sun. Isaacs, blood seeping through the bandages on his shoulder and leg, limped up to him.
"We've nearly won, and you won't even smile?"
"It would serve no purpose. I am beyond emotion."
"Of course you are." Dark fell and brought with it the first few intrepid stars. "What are you thinking about?"
Grobyc shifted his posture. "It is too easy."
Grobyc turned. "I was made for this, and it is too easy. I expected challenge, a test of my limits. In this, I was mistaken."
"Easy? Tell that to the dead, Grobyc. I'm sure they'd disagree."
"Inaccuracy. The dead cannot speak."
Isaacs sighed. "Come on back. My leg hurts and I want to lie down."
"Go." He spun and walked away from the camp's light.
"What are you doing? Grobyc, come back. That's an order!"
"Unable to comply. "Farewell, lieutenant."
"Wait! Stop!" Grobyc paused in mid-stride, as if the command was enough to change his mind. He turned. Isaacs drew his gun and aimed, as best he could in spite of his trembling hands, between Grobyc's eyes.
"I have a new priority." He stared at the pistol. "You know that won't stop me."
"Just the same." Isaacs thumbed back the hammer, gulped down the lump in his throat. "We can't have you falling in to Guardia's hands. You're too valuable-you know that."
"Events are already in motion; I am no longer needed."
Sweat broke out on Isaacs's brow. He nudged the trigger, expecting Grobyc to be the faster. Even healthy, he was no match for the man who cut through enemy lines with such ease, such apathy. Would he really show mercy because they were on the same side?
In answer, Grobyc turned and resumed walking into the forest. "For a second time, I bid you farewell, lieutenant."
It happened without Isaacs realizing. He was first aware of the bullet striking Grobyc in the shoulder; he did not so much as turn around to see from where it came. He knew and, maybe, didn't want to confirm it by seeing.
Everything flooded into his senses afterward. The shot went off, fire and powder discharging from the barrel, smoke, the faint burning smell, the thunder-crack of its report.
Training told Isaacs to reload and fire again while the target was still visible, still within range, but he had no power to so much as move. Only when they were barking in his ear did he know men had come over to see why a gun had been fired. Their questions overlapped each other and reached his ears in a jumble.
If Grobyc had been any other man, he'd have been struck down, and for what? Maybe he was tired of the war, like Isaacs. Disgusted, he dropped the gun, where it lay in the dirt, still smoking.
It was the first time Grobyc was, by the reckoning of his memory banks, without an objective; lacking one, he simply wandered. As per his instructions, he had gone back in time to help Porre triumph over Guardia. Barring any unforeseen shifts, he'd done his part short of ensuring their victory. The flow of time had been routed.
He considered returning home; his purpose, after all, had been fulfilled. Yet a pressing sense of uncertainty occupied him. For all their clarity and simplicity, his directions contained nothing about return, about what he was to do upon achieving his-their-goal.
But something else kept him from heading back to his ship, armed as it was against would-be vandals, and rushing onward into the future, his past.
As he moved across the land, he processed and reprocessed his combat read-outs. Categorized by battle, computed, noting discrepancies between one and the next. The calculations should have been higher. So he ran them again, and again, with still the same results; the diagnostics barely registered above the lowest tiers. Was victory really so easy? How could men fall like so many toy soldiers?
Dynamics. It came down to dynamics. Wars brought men out by the thousands, pitted them against one another in a show of strength and cunning as well as numbers. And death hanging over each like a guillotine, that changed every man's thought and deed. It was the most logical conclusion he could furnish.
If he was to see his potential as an engine of combat realized, he needed a match against a single challenge. Hypothetically, that would dispel the sense of failure in him.
He'd been traveling for days when a flux showed on his radar. The sort he'd never expected to encounter-a temporal flux. Grobyc ran a system check, wary of any error, yet the readings came back clean. And still it showed in the distance like an iridescent beacon, beckoning to him as it undulated.
He moved with all stealth and caution, but quickly, in case the phenomenon didn't last. It was not impossible, logically, but the very improbability of it gave him pause. If he wasn't the only time-tossed being here in this era, maybe answers and purpose were nearer than he knew. He could not ignore the idea's promise.
It was not what he expected. It was the remains of two-storey house, once ravaged by fire. Crumbling stone walls stood beside heaps of lumber, scorched black and pointing to the sky like rotted fangs. The grass hadn't grown back; within that one area, all was dead.
He detected no life inside what was left of the house, circling it in the hopes of finding information he could use. The walls glowed with temporal energy, every surface suffused with its whorl of colors. Something worthwhile had to be here. He rounded a corner and, nestled close to a stone wall, sat a ruined machine. It did not appear familiar, but the design made plain its function. A teleporter. Crude, and more than a little unstable even when new, but its components looked once functional.
The overhead conductors, which sent and received matter as particles, glinted in the moonlight. A control panel held various switches and buttons, dark in their dormancy. To find such advanced technology well before its recorded discovery it fascinated him. He reached out for the panel.
"My name is Gato, and here I'm the guard. So please, hands off, before I smack you real hard." The voice had a tinny, oddly rhythmical quality to it.
Grobyc pulled his hand away. From what looked to be a pile of junk, two yellow eyes flared. The scrap metal rose up, tottered forward, making a racket of creaks and clanks.
Standing before him was a robot, an antique one at that. It lurched forward, taller than he, its bulk wider; its feet landed heavily with each step, leaving a sizable print behind. Rust coated several of its joints and scorch marks pocked the body, silver beneath the peeling red. Two horns sprouted from its head, a caricatured devil.
"Are you threatening me with violence?"
"No harm done, but I say you should go. Unless you want to fight " Gato's posture shifted, gears squeaking as they turned on axles and held his hands-each the size of Grobyc's head-up. "Then on with the show!"
Grobyc found neither humor nor danger in the situation. It might prove a worthy opponent, though. He widened his stance, readying his fists.
"No Silver Points here, just a good ol' tussle. Let's see what you've got. Show me your muscle."
Grobyc sprung first, thinking he had the edge in speed. Gato showed itself to be quicker than Grobyc estimated, nabbing the punch in its clawed grip. Grobyc was still processing the turnabout when a compartment opened on Gato's stomach and a boxing glove slammed him, sending him rolling away.
"Not bad, not bad, but I got you there. Let's go, get up. Try again if you dare."
It was wasting resources by talking; that gave Grobyc the advantage. If he stayed on the defensive, he could tire Gato out until its energy reserves were depleted. Of course, he was only conjecturing; there was no guarantee they operated on the same principles. And how long a pair of dueling machines would go unnoticed, he could not know; he had to retain his focus.
Grobyc recovered, charged again. Gato waited, prepared to counter. Grobyc was ready this time. He launched himself into the air, over the reach of Gato's arms, and landed at the larger's back. Before Gato could maneuver around, Grobyc lashed out with a roundhouse kick. One of Gato's flanks dented with the impact.
"Yee-ouch!" Gato swiped but Grobyc dodged aside and the club of an arm whooshed as it cut through emptiness. "You really are serious; I guess you're no slouch." Not even sustaining damage was enough to silence Gato.
In the lull, Grobyc checked his performance chart. Gato was proving a far greater challenge than its scrap-yard appearance let on. Its speed, while no rival to Grobyc's, far surpassed that of any man he'd met in combat. And its attacks were powerful enough to warrant care. Still, the numbers were nowhere near peak levels. Five Gatos at once might have been enough, and then only possibly.
"Are you done already, going to quit? Don't think you won, just by landing a hit." Gato lunged forward, arms outstretched. Tremors just strong enough to affect Grobyc's footing shuddered through the ground as Gato closed the distance between them. Ten seconds away. Seven. Four.
Grobyc met him head on. Gato's claws raked across his face, through skin polymer and crunching the alloy of his super-structure; he struck at the same moment. His fist punctured Gato's chest, broke through its inner workings, came out the other side, slick with oil and wrapped in a tangle of wiring.
Gato's arms went slack and the grind of machinery faded into a dim buzz, then was gone completely.
"Greco, watch out! There's a new contender for the title of World's Strongest now." The yellow eyes lost their fiery glow and went dark, two slivers of amber against the rusty metal.
Grobyc pulled his arm free and Gato fell with a crash. He shook the debris and fluid off as he studied the prone shape at his feet. What had he said? A new contender for the title of World's Strongest.
That was it. The test he needed, the way to see his potential fulfilled. Without so much as a gesture to the defeated Gato, Grobyc darted back off in the night. He had a name. It was enough; it had to be.
Greco, one of the world's strongest men and a legend of the wrestling ring, was playing catch. He launched the ball high into the air, and the boy across from him gave chase, gaze trained upward. He jumped and grabbed; he rolled in the dirt and came up with it in his hand, grinning. He hurled it back, and Greco went after it with equal commitment.
He certainly looked strong enough. Even at a glance, Grobyc knew the man to be solid, body thick with corded muscle. Gray hair streamed over his massive shoulders, as if aging him prematurely. The spring he'd just made for the catch winded him not in the least.
He noticed Grobyc then, and passed the ball between hands. "Buenos dias, señor. Would you like to join us? If Getz is okay with it."
Getz nodded. Greco threw; Grobyc's hand sprung from beneath the cloak and snapped like a python over a meal. He approached the wrestler.
"You are Greco, champion of the El Nido circuit?"
"Former champion, sí. I'm retired now-more time to spend with mi hermano."
Grobyc stopped a few feet away. He held the ball out between them and crushed it, exploding in a burst of powder. Greco waved to Getz, without turning from Grobyc.
"Ahora!" Getz obeyed, scurried off toward the house, and slammed the door shut behind him. Locks clicked into place.
"Señor, please. I don't know who you are or what you want, but you can see I don't have much to take. The money doesn't go as far as you think."
"I don't want your money." Grobyc threw off the cloak and dropped into a stance, fists clenched. "I want you to fight me."
"I told you, I'm retired. I don't fight anymore." And yet he planted his feet, shifted his weight. He was defensive, but ready. That was enough.
Grobyc lunged. Greco ducked away from the punch but Grobyc anticipated it, bringing up his knee into Greco's chest. The wrestler feinted, snatched Grobyc's leg, and swung. He went all of ten feet through the air before recovering.
"You are heavier than you look."
Grobyc said nothing as he renewed his attack, fist poised to sever Greco's head from his neck. Greco dodged; using Grobyc's momentum, he threw him again. He landed on his hands, whirled onto his feet, and faced his opponent once more, unfazed. Greco could not keep the surprise from his expression.
Grobyc studied his performance charts even as they fought. Had he been armed, this bout would have ended already; hand-to-hand, he was challenged for the first time. It was a welcome development. Greco's strategy was clever, if futile. He wanted Grobyc to tire out from being on the offensive and did his best to avoid every attack; he was smart enough to know when he was physically outclassed. The fact Greco did not give up in light of such circumstances was a credit to his own ability and spoke of a strength Grobyc did not know humans to possess.
He expected more from his statistical read-outs. They'd risen higher than ever, but they still leveled off at the peak of the lowest tiers. He ran an internal check; as before, it confirmed there were no errors in his operating systems. Beating this man shouldn't have been so easy.
Sweat coated Greco's face. His breathing was heavy, and his movements were considerably slower; still, he showed no sign of admitting defeat. Grobyc moved and struck, breaking through Grobyc's block. He rained down punches and kicks, arms and legs churning like pistons, and Greco fended off what he could. Even that meager defense yielded beneath Grobyc's barrage.
"Fight back," Grobyc commanded. If there was an edge to the voice, Greco was too far lapsed into unconsciousness to notice.
Grobyc held the prone man up by his tunic. Swollen, bruised, and bloodied-this was one of their strongest? Grobyc released him, and Greco collapsed in the dirt. Alive, and not beyond recovery; he needed time to heal, that was all.
The boy, Getz, sped from the house and knelt at his brother's side. His face was streaked with tears; he took Greco's hands, twice the size of his own, and clutched as if that staved off the trembling.
"Go away!" he screamed. "Just go away!"
"You are unafraid?"
Getz wiped the blood from Greco's lips, his eyes. "Be strong, hermano. You'll be okay." He turned, raging. "Why don't you leave?" He got up and pummeled Grobyc with his fists. "You you " Sobs overtook him, but he beat at Grobyc's chest without relenting.
Grobyc walked away. A rock struck him in the back. Another sailed past to the left. "Go! Come back again, and Greco and me we'll both take you."
Grobyc ignored the fading curses. Only the numbers concerned him, and the way they, hovering steady until just now, fell.
On his way back from the archipelago to the ship, he still took every precaution against being seen, but his route was hardly the most direct. He was postponing his return; even in the face of low probability, he hoped-what amounted to it, given his nature-that a final challenge would present itself. He was willing to provide as much time for it to arrive as he could. When he was a mile away from his ship, he made for it with a soldier's unquestioning obligation, resigned to failure.
Radar displayed a heat signature ahead. Grobyc paused. The size and distribution-human, clearly. Yet whoever it was hadn't drawn close enough to trigger the defense systems. A trap? Scanning the surrounding area, Grobyc determined the figure was alone. If anyone intended to ambush and capture him, one individual was pitiful strategy.
He closed in, moving with the agility of a predatory animal. The figure resolved, came into focus. He no sooner viewed the face than he recognized it. Lieutenant Isaacs.
Isaacs sat in the crook of a tree, a knot of branches affording him cover. He had a bow ready in his hands, a pistol at his side, at his back a sword. Guarding from the shadows.
Grobyc could have caught him unawares, disarmed him, but decided against it. The man was no threat, even if they were enemies-and Grobyc believed they weren't. He strode into the small clearing where his ship, a shimmering haze, lay. It hummed with power as he approached.
"Halt!" Grobyc obeyed the command, by choice now. Isaacs dropped from his perch and landed; he tugged back the arrow between his fingers. His expression betrayed doubt in his weapon's effectiveness, but no surprise at seeing Grobyc.
"Lieutenant Isaacs." Grobyc gave a formal salute.
"I thought you'd come back. They knew I never had my heart in the war. They never went looking for me, like they did for you."
"Will you let me retrieve my ship?"
Isaacs shook his head.
"I do not wish to use force."
At that, the muscles in Isaacs's body tensed, but otherwise he was neutral. "Why'd you leave? You said you came to help Porre."
"I had a new prior-"
"Damn it, I know. A new priority. Always a mystery with you; you could never just say what you meant."
"Lieutenant, I did help Porre."
"And then deserted us!" His voice, along with color in his face, rose. "Do you know what they said about you, what they were planning to do? They thought you were using some dark magic-why you didn't eat, why you never bled. They-"
"You'd do well to calm yourself, lieutenant," said a third voice. "Your shouting does no one any good."
Isaacs threw down his bow and unsheathed his sword. He turned, eyeing every direction for a surprise attack. "Who's there?"
"No one," Grobyc said. Even utilizing all the scans he was equipped with, Grobyc found no other higher life-forms. Yet he had invariably heard a voice; the probability of suffering an error at the same time Isaacs imagined it was so low as to be negligible.
An immediate registry cut short his speculations. Where a moment ago nothing had been, a figure stood, bipedal, humanoid. Isaacs' sword clanged as it fell. Grobyc was convinced his system was corrupted; he'd need a full diagnostic once he'd returned.
The creature had an arm locked across Isaacs's chest and in a furry paw held a dagger to his throat. The face was feline, sporting a coat of russet-colored fur and baring teeth that would easily have pierced flesh.
Isaacs struggled but the man-cat's grip was strong. It snarled. "I wouldn't, lieutenant. You don't want my hand to slip." A thread of blood showed against pale skin as the blade dug in.
Grobyc assumed his fighting stance, calculating possibilities as he did so. How fast he had to move, the best angle to attack, his opponent's reaction time. But if his systems were malfunctioning or-worse-this stranger was capable of such feats as instantaneous manifestation, he could not help Isaacs. The thought did not process.
"What do you want?" Grobyc asked.
The man-cat grinned, an expression little removed from the angry leer. "I'm sure we can be civil about this. Talk reason. Will you hear me out?"
"No harm will come to him?" He pointed at Isaacs, who'd gone rigid; only his darting eyes and shallow breathing gave the impression of life.
The man-cat nodded. Grobyc's posture relaxed, more as an affectation; he was still coiled to strike at a moment's notice, if need be.
"My name is Lynx." The voice was now a sibilant purr. "I know about you, Grobyc. I think it's very few that don't know of you and your talents. Your strength, speed, endurance-all remarkable. It's no wonder Porre hoped to bring you back in.
"Yes, I know about your desertion. More importantly, I know why. You wanted a challenge worthy of your abilities. An opponent to test your limits against. Am I correct?"
"Yes. How could you know that?" The blood had dribbled onto the metal and ran down its surface, pooling at the hand-guard. Lynx did not notice; his attention was fixed on Grobyc.
"We are alike in that way. We are both more than what we seem. We are both unique. I think it's only natural our paths should cross and, if you'll agree, join."
"What would you have me agree to?" Grobyc thought back to his fight with Gato. Like the cumbersome robot, Lynx had a penchant for talking. He considered letting the man-cat go on, relying on the possibility of becoming lulled by his own voice. A distraction that could give Grobyc an opportunity.
"I have a task that suits your purpose and mine. There is a boy who can alter space and time. I ask you, is there anything stronger than that?" Lynx continued without waiting for a reply. "I want you to-"
Lynx roared and staggered; Isaacs broke free of the hold and spun away, grabbing for his gun. Grobyc made for Lynx, now wounded, but already the man-cat was translucent, then disappeared. He reappeared behind Isaacs and jabbed the dagger into his back.
"Fools, both of you! Your impatience will cost you. Decide now, Grobyc. You'll do whatever I ask of you, or he dies."
Isaacs choked, made a gurgling sound. He could not move for the weapon thrust into him. To Grobyc, he was still a comrade. And Lynx may well be speaking the truth in promising a challenge; at any rate, Grobyc thought he was invulnerable to any betrayal.
Lynx withdrew the dagger and Isaacs fell. He coughed up blood and saliva. Reaching into the folds of his clothing, Lynx produced a flask of dark blue liquid; he tossed it to the soldier at his feet. "Drink that." His narrow eyes flashed on Grobyc. "Now, this boy. I want you to kill him. I'm sure you'll find him to be just the challenge you seek."
A boy-this was the great challenge? Nevertheless, he had agreed. He knelt by Isaacs side. "Are you recovering, lieutenant?"
Isaacs nodded, still doubled over. "Better."
"Who is this boy and why do you want him dead?"
"Answers all in their time, Grobyc. Time," Lynx said, as if to himself. He retrieved another item from within his garb, a frayed piece of paper, and handed it to Grobyc. On it someone had penciled a rather ordinary-looking young man. "His name," Lynx said, the snarl present again in his voice, "is Serge."
All That Glitters Is Cold 4 Fanfic Competition
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