Be Gone, Fox
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I hold my silence for a few seconds. Waiting, hoping for the AR System to speak up and—I don’t know—do something. But the glyphs don’t change.

“Alright. You got it. I’ll just set…this…down” I hedge, bending slowly at the waist and placing the construct on the floor. The instant I release the thing, its dainty little feet twitch to life and it scuttles across the room to cower behind Kirron’s hind legs. The hyborg’s aim is unwavering.

“Now back against the wall.”

I raise my hands up, palms facing the centaur-man, and do as I’m told. He could be calling the wardens this very moment. I have to stop that from happening. Distract him.

“Hey, you don’t happen to see, like, green statistics floating around from time-to-time, do you?”

He snorts.

“Whatever you think you know, I don’t want to hear it. Just keep your mouth shut, Nektos.”

“Neck who? Did you just call me a cat?”

“Don’t play stupid with me. Though I suppose all you deadcats are, to rise so quickly to my mistress’s bait.”

“Listen, sir. Firstly, I’m a fox-girl. Woman. So that was very rude. Secondly, I have absolutely no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. I swear on the vat they grew me in.”

“You may be stupid, but I’m not,” he quips, trotting closer. The pig construct snorts softly and clings close to his heels. “Hands out and forward, wrists together.”

“Yes sir.” Again I do what he says. I’m a good girl, Mr. Centaur. Please don’t call the wardens on me. I already killed one person today, and I really don’t need the heat.

He reaches back with his left hand as a compartment in his black metal-and-vat-leather horse body springs open.

Please don’t be hybercuffs. Please don’t be hybercuffs. Please don—

They’re hybercuffs.

He slaps them over my wrists so fast I don’t have time to even consider resisting. They lock into place, but he doesn’t activate them. Instead, he leans forward and sticks his fucking finger in my mouth, hooking it into my cheek to look inside.

“Huh,” he says. “No mark.”

“No shit,” I say around his finger as he withdraws it.

He’s about to say something else when there’s a crashing sound from upstairs.

“What the—“

I raise an eyebrow. “You need to go check on that?”

“Yes,” he says. “Which means it’s lights out for you.” Then he presses the ball of his thumb to the hybercuff’s control pad.

Nothing happens. I blink. He blinks.

Someone upstairs calls out “It’s downstairs!” Then there’s a series of muffled footsteps. Kirron and I track the sound, both turning our heads toward the lift. A few moments later it opens and a pack of roughly identical figures pour out. All are swathed in gray clothes that cover every inch of their bodies. All wear masks that resemble a stylized cat skull. Oh, and every one of them’s got big-ass stormjade shards strapped to their hands, too.

 

AR System Engaged. Potential Ally/Threat Identified. Blink-Scan initiated.

 

Relief pours through my veins at the sound of the voice, and new statistics flood my view, their information—aside from the designation numbers—unchanging with each gray intruder I focus on.

 

Designation - “Some Kind Of Cat-Girl Ninja, Maybe?” (1)

 

Statistics unavailable, scan blocked

 

Calculating optimal response

Cannot engage Shield - Sai insufficient.

 

Replenish pool or exchange Keys with ally to initiate Sai Share.

 

As I struggle to make sense of this, a vibrating hum issues from Kirron’s direction and a bubble of blue static envelopes us both just in time to deflect a crescent of green light. Then the cat-masks close in...a pride of dead, gray lions with jade for claws. My tail splits again, and the lengths of whip-like metal lash threateningly back and forth of their own accord, moving just slow enough to slip through the centaur’s shield.

There’s a flash followed by a high-pitched hiss. I glance aside to see Kirron’s gun arm shoved through the projectile shield, the glow of his shredder bolt flaring and dissipating as green light spreads from his attacker’s jade to block it. I don’t see what happens between them next, because another of the cat-skulls chooses that moment to press through the shield and take a swipe at my face. I step back in time to avoid it by a hair’s breath.

But I’m not fast enough to dodge the one that comes a fraction of a second later from the laserdagger in their left hand. It slices into my cheek and knicks the bridge of my nose, the pain of it a searing slash across my awareness as fuchsia blood patters onto my cuffed hands.

There’s a metallic blur from my right that turns out to be one of my tails, whipping itself into a coiled vice around my attacker’s neck. One of the other tails makes impact with another cat-skull behind me, and there’s a series of crashes as some piece of expensive furniture meets a messy end. Meanwhile, the tail to my right uncoils so fast it’s barely visible as it tosses my first assailant halfway through a wall.

 

Threat (2) neutralized. Potential Ally (2) lost.

Sai Gain: 15

 

A familiar ear-piercing squeal sounds from somewhere behind me and to the left.

“Hands off her!” Snarls Kirron. Someone laughs.

“Target acquired,” says the same voice. I look their way just as Kirron shoots another biobolt, but their Jade shields render it useless. The others reconvene, one of them helping to support the battered, limping form of the one I tossed through a shelf or something. The apparent leader clutches the writhing pig construct as the jade on their hands flares to sudden, glowing life. The other two of their allies convene around them, and for a moment the glow seems to swallow them entirely. When it fades, I blink. Look. Blink and look again.

All three now hold an identical shrieking ivory pig.

I look over at Kirron, wondering why he doesn’t seem to be doing anything—only to see him crumpled on the ground, shield off, legs apparently incapacitated as viridian bolts of energy crackle around his lower body. They fizzle out as I watch, hand pressed to my wounded cheek. He struggles to his feet, but the cat-skulls are already retreating, and all of them in different directions.

Kirron hones in on the leader, the rune-code on the cuff around his left wrist glowing to life as a whip of blue light materializes in his hand. He lashes it at outward, aiming for the leader’s ankle—but it fizzles out before it can reach its target. I glance at his glyphs, confirming my suspicion. He’s run out of Sai.

The cat-skull makes for the stairs this time, bolting in a gray blur out of sight. Though Kirron gives chase, he’s got no chance. He disappears upstairs, but moments later his curses filter down to me, raw and vehement as an outbreak of untreated scrabs.

I amble up the stairs after him, pulling my hand from the wound. It’s sticky with blood, but I can already feel the subtle tingling in my flesh that tells me its healing. More blood drips down my cheek and onto the stairs, but not much.

Reaching the landing, I find another sitting room. Lacquered wood shelves line most of the walls, full of expensive-looking knick-knacks. But a wet breeze blows in from the back of the space where a ragged hole has been gouged through the building. Shredded wiring crackles along the edges, lighting it up like a holiday wreath. Kirron stands in front of it, a slumped figure outlined against the biolume glow of the city outside.

“I take it those were the people your mistress set the bait for, huh?”

There’s a long silence.

“Yes.”

“So if this was all a trap, why…uh…weren’t you. You know. Prepared for it?”

“We were.” He snaps. “It was brilliant, really. She thought of it herself. We disguised our security system as one we know they're familiar with, but really it was something new. Custom. Something no one’s ever seen. It let them through. Let them think they deactivated it. But it was supposed to switch back on and reinforce after they were in and—wait…” he trails off, eyes going wide as he turns his head to look at me.

I’d thought they were fully human, those eyes. But looking at him now, I see that his pupils are slightly oblong and outlined by a ring of brilliant amber-gold that radiates like a sun into the warm darkness of his iris.

“Why am I—how I am telling you this? I should feel—“

“A jolt of pain, right? An uncontrollable urge to shut the fuck up?”

He sets his jaw, but nods.

“What happens if you think about leaving this place without your mistress’s permission?”

His brows slam together and lips draw back from his teeth to bare formidable canines—but his expression evolves into one of shock when the jolt he must have expected doesn’t come.

I grin. There are others like me. And I’ve got one right here. I want to jump for joy. I want to hug him. But even if that weren’t a horrifically stupid idea, I kind of can’t.

“Hey, could you uncuff me please? Sir?”

Kirron looks away from me again and unleashes a sort of choked scoff that could be considered a laugh. A broken sound.

“Please. Tell me why in the realm of the Twelve Lords I would even consider doing that. I could use another laugh.”

“Well, because I’m not one of the people you were trying to trap. I helped you fight them. And besides, you’re free now, like me. Whatever your mistress’s orders were, you don’t have to worry about them anymore. There’s enough valuable stuff in here that both of us could make it off planet easily with more to spare.”

“You think it’s just software keeping me here? Programmed loyalty?”

“Um…yes? Unless…”

He turns his gaze back to mine, an eyebrow raised.

“Stockholm syndrome?”

“Idiot,” he scoffs. “She’s my mistress.”

“Sooo…Stockholm syndrome.”

He ignores me in favor of staring broodily out into the rain-drenched night, and I search his features. Try to read his silence. He looks almost entirely human—at least, his upper body does. Where is the red stag hiding, in all that rigid humanity? The hyena?

And then I understand.

His loyalty isn’t just programmed into his software. It’s in his gods-damned genetics.

Time to try a new angle.

“How is your mistress going to treat you, when she comes home and sees what’s become of her trap? When she sees that the pig is gone? It’s irreplaceable, isn’t it? How is she going to feel?”

“She…she will not be pleased.”

“Why do I have the sense that’s the understatement of the millennium?”

“At least with you here, I will not be the sole focus of her…displeasure.” He shifts on the spot, metal hooves beating out a brief and uneasy rhythm.

“Oh, so I’m your whipping girl, am I?”

“You were trying to steal from her. It’s my duty to apprehend you.”

“Fuck your duty! You’re free!”

“Yes. I am free. As free to choose loyalty and duty as you are to choose breaking and entering.”

“Hey, I didn’t break anything to get in here.”

“Be quiet, Six.”

“Oh! So the glyphs showed you my name, too. Are they right about yours? It’s Kirron, right?”

“Your name? I was referring to your Estimated Cunning.”

“Hey,” I bristle. “Mines not—“ I trail off as I realize that I actually haven’t seen any of my own statistics…aside from my Sai Pool when it was counting down. Now I’m the one staring out the hole, and I can feel centaur man’s eyes on me.

“You don’t even know your own stats, do you?”

I wrinkle my nose. "And what do you know, huh? Do you know what the AR system is or how we got it? Do you know what's causing our software malfunctions?"

He's silent. I sigh.

“Uncuff me, then you and I can get out of here together. I could help you get the pig back. Maybe even get some new intel on these enemies of yours. Then your mistress wouldn’t be as angry with you.”

At that he unleashes a mad, all-out cackle that actually sends a chill down my spine. There’s that hyena again. It goes on for so long that I begin to slowly back away.

“You know what, I think I will uncuff you, but only in thanks for making me laugh so hard. Then you can leave immediately as I’m sure you plan to do, and I will go and try to retrieve Peichiko. I might as well. If I stay here, my mistress will have her revenge, then kill me and save my hardware for the next iteration. At least this way, I have a chance of being useful to her one last time as myself.”

“Oh, alright then. That sounds…healthy.” I check behind me—don’t want to look too threatening, after all—but my extra tails have already tucked themselves back into hiding. Then I take a step toward him with my arms outstretched. He reaches forward, deactivates the cuffs and drops them back into their compartment, all with the total detachment of the damned.

I rub my wrists and look around, hesitating.

“Take what you’re going to take and go. Nothing else here matters. You don’t have to wait for me to leave first.”

“We should both leave, and quickly. There are probably wardens on their way here right now.”

“Heh,” I look over at Kirron as his lips curl into something that might be a smile.

“What’s so funny about that? You wanna get dropped into hybermode and never come back? You want to be spare parts?”

“Shouldn’t you be stealing something?”

“No, we’re stealing things, together. You can blame it on the dead-cat-whatevers later if you need to. Then we’re getting the hells out of here. I told you, I’m helping you get the pig back.”

“The cuffs are off,” Kirron points out. “You can drop that now.”

Gods damnit. “Look, Eeyore. You’re the first other hybrid like me I’ve met that I know of.” I say, stalking over to the low couch and snatching up a silk throw blanket. “I told you I’m helping you.” I walk over to one of the shelves, throw the blanket over a bunch of stuff and bundle it all together as I slide it into my arms. “So I’m going to help you whether you gods damned fucking like it or not.” I sling the bundle over my shoulder.

“Now come on, let’s GTFO.”

“GTFO? Eeyore? What century are you from?”

“Anachronism is cool. What century are you from? Now come on.” I grab his hand, and for the first time since I realized I had hidden powers, I try to use one of them on purpose. I’ve got more Sai now. I should be able to generate Stealth Mode. And if I can share it with him through contact, we can make it out totally unseen.

I concentrate my focus, thinking of Stealth Mode. Remembering what it felt like.

Nothing happens.

“Stealth Mode On,” I venture. Still nothing. “Stealth Mode Engage?”

Kirron blinks down at our clasped hands.

“Are you having some kind of stroke?”

“Stealth Mode…Activate?”

Nothing. I snatch my hand back.

“Forget it.”

We leave through the back bottom floor exit into another flora-choked alleyway.

As I hang right, Kirron turns left.

“This way,” I say.

“I told you to drop the act. Be gone, fox.”

“Do you want to get your damned pig back or not?”

His scoff is almost drowned out by the sound of rain overflowing the gutters. “As if you have any way of actually helping me. You don’t know any more than I do.”

“So you do need more information about the cat-skulls, then?”

He doesn’t move or say anything, but the fact that he isn’t walking away tells me everything I need to know.

I’d open a private channel between us and drop into mindspeak…if I could only be sure the conversation wouldn’t be cached and accessible to my owner. Instead, I drop my voice to a whisper that, if we weren’t both what we are, neither would be able to hear.

“You’re on the run now. You can’t use any official channels. I doubt you have any resources or connections independent of your mistress. But you need information. Well, I need to get the fuck off this rock…and there’s a one-stop shop for both our needs.”

He groans. “You’re not talking about—“

I smile. “Giddyup, Kirron. We’ve got a long way to go.”

The centaur man’s nostrils flare as he stares down at me.

“If you ever say that word to me again, I’ll murder you.”

“Which word? Gid—“

There’s a faint whirring sound from his Bonaparte, and I put up my hands in surrender.

“Alright, alright.” I turn from him and start down the alley, glad he can’t see my expression as he begins—slowly, probably reluctantly—to clop after me.

I’ve got loot, I’ve got someone to watch my back…at least temporarily. Now I just need to get my fugitive ass on the fastest ship I can possibly find. And sure, I know Kirron could betray me later on. But as long as he doesn’t know which ship I get on or where I go, it should be alright.

Or at least, that’s how I rationalize the alliance to myself. But the truth is, I had no idea how terrifyingly alone I’d felt until I found someone who made me feel…well, less that way. And I’m going to cling to that feeling as long as I can. Until the time comes for me to yeet myself into space.

Making a mental note to use that word in conversation with Kirron at some point just to see how hard he can cringe, I slow until we’re walking side-by-side. Maybe best not to keep my back to him, just in case.

He gives me an annoyed, suspicious look.

“You’re not going to try to hold my hand again, are you?”

I can’t help but grin.

“Shut up, asshole.”

 

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