Resting nearly a hundred meters above the forest floor, Neza tracked the heat signatures of five human soldiers and a heavy artillery unit. He navigated the various visualizations of his BIOS with impressive skill after only a month of training. His mind was at peace and his adrenaline flowed in anticipation of six fresh kills.
The weapon that Saf had fashioned for him rested in his right hand. It was a heavy, two meter long staff with a spearhead and blades at the end that resembled a halberd. Neza had been training to use the power and shock absorption of his mechanical legs to reach incredible speeds and heights, so Saf built this for him to use that momentum for maximum destructive force. Neza’s arms ached from carrying the heavy thing around, but he loved how balanced and powerful it was.
When the heat signatures neared the base of the tall tree he was sitting in, he opened his eyes and switched his display to combat targeting. The processor in his brain quickly marked his targets by illuminating their figures. He manually set the priority of each kill. He took a deep breath and started his stopwatch program as his weight shifted and he dropped from the treetop head first.
His fur whipped quietly in the friction of his descent. After falling for several seconds, he tightened his grip on his Halberd and shifted his body to prepare to land on his feet. The sharp end of his blade pierced through the top of the armored Heavy Artillery Unit and cracked the entire robotic suit in half. The pilot’s blood spurted onto the ground through the large crack as Neza crashed to the ground behind it.
The plant life around him immediately retreated as he pulled his weapon from the devastated metal body and swung it in a backhand motion into one of the foot soldiers. The heavy blade smashed bones as much as it tore flesh, and the woman was killed before she could even see her killer.
Neza leaped into the air as the remaining soldiers turned to see what he had done. They gathered into two pairs and searched for the attacker. He landed on top of one them and smashed his skull while simultaneously stabbing his comrade through the back. The was no sound but the breaking of their bones.
The last two soldiers fired at him, but he twisted his body and pivoted behind the still standing mass of blood and wrecked metal that was once their backup. A few shots rang as they hit the metal. Others were muffled by the dead human flesh of the pilot. The soldiers spoke to each other for a moment before splitting up and attempting to surround Neza. When they both strafed around the trashed heavy armor, Neza was gone. One of the soldiers looked up at the other only to see his friend’s neck get twisted and broken by an invisible force.
The last soldier screamed in horror and backed away for a moment before his vision went completely black. His gun dropped to the ground and his hands flew up to feel for whatever covered his eyes. Finding nothing there, he realized that his eyes were hacked. After a few panicked breaths, he knelt down to accept his fate. Neza’s blade crashed down on the back of his neck, granting him an instant and nearly painless death.
The digital display at the bottom of Neza’s sight read 00:12:33 and he cursed quietly to himself. He climbed too high into the trees, overestimating how strong the Heavy Armor was going to be. He could have broken the ten second mark if the fall hadn’t taken so long. He sat back against a nearby tree that bent slightly despite being about three meters in diameter.
Neza reviewed a visual recording of the attack at double speed, making mental notes of his technique.
Neza was enjoying his ability to think critically and clearly again without the splitting headaches of Leash disabling him. Regan hadn’t removed the entire program, but he knew how to shut off specific receptors for the pain. He could also relieve individual Tugs that the program did on occasion. Regan had taught him many things in the month they had been training together and the day that they would strike Arc directly was nearing.
After cleaning his blade, Neza stood and pulled his empty backpack out of the bushes nearby. He filled it with ammunition, medical kits, food, and other supplies. He filled the remaining space in his bag with some treats for his comrades before zipping it up and hoisting it over his left shoulder. He pulled a signal flare from one of the soldiers’ packs and cracked it, pouring orange smoke into the air. After placing the flare in the open mouth of one of the corpses, Neza bolted back into the trees and began a convoluted path back to camp.
Neza’s eyes closed in pleasure as Colissa scratched his head. This was the only reason Neza bothered to rinse the blood off after a battle. The Major told him about her cat that she used to have back at home and how she always scratched him the same way. As much as he hated the idea of domestication, he couldn’t help but envy anyone who got this kind of treatment on a daily basis.
During the first week Neza joined their camp, tensions were high. He slept in the trees, away from them, so they couldn’t try anything in his sleep. He kept his distance from all of them when they spoke and trained together. In particular, he feared Colissa most because of how brutally she went about subduing him. It took him some time before he trusted her enough to sit next to her like this. He had come to terms with how fierce she could be in battle and how gentle she was at camp. Perhaps that was something to two of them had in common.
Looking around the camp now, Neza felt like part of a family again. He and Saf joked around like he used to with his siblings. Colissa was affectionate and overly cautious with him like a mother. Regan gave him direction and taught him how to use his full potential, like a father. Part of him always wanted to pull away from these people, but the comfort and safety of the group warmed a part of his heart that he hadn’t felt since he woke up in the lab. After he made the first effort to get closer to them weeks before, it was easy for him to accept their affection.
“I saw your recording. You handled them even better than I would. I think you’ve managed to surpass me already, Neza.” Regan said with a smile. His flushed face was clearly visible even covered by his stubble. He always appreciated it when Neza brought back booze.
“(grunt)” Neza grinned in pride. He knew the praise was sincere and was glad to have it. Each day he and Regan trained together made him trust Regan more. When working with software that alters one’s own mind, allowing another person to access those areas creates an odd intimacy. Regan had earned the trust Neza placed in him each time he taught a new technique.
It had been an excellent day. Saf sat quietly across from him and Colissa, sharpening the Halberd with a contented smile. Saf found a Ranico deposit today for the first time while he was out training. Regan had no idea how he was going to get it back to Earth now that he was "dead" to Arc, but he accepted Saf’s gift graciously. They were all celebrating his victory with a hearty meal of fresh Arc soldier rations.
Saf’s combat training was non-existent. His size and strength made it so that practicing his destructive abilities often took as much of a toll on the environment as a real war zone. In order to remain undetected, Saf had to focus his training on controlling his full body Nanomachine system. Saf’s enormous heart had been modified to produce and maintain microscopic machines that flowed freely through his body, repairing injuries and assisting his organ systems.
Saf had learned that with meditation and study he could learn to use his BIOS to control his Nanomachines for other purposes. In recent days he was beginning to notice that he was able to produce newer, more sophisticated machines that could even function outside of his body briefly. He was working on using them to push a small twig across a patch of dirt, but they had only managed to make it twitch slightly so far. It was a remarkable feat, but Saf always had a way of setting his goals unreasonably high and being hard on himself if he didn’t reach them.
Regan had told them never to move in a straight line when heading back to camp so they wouldn’t be easy to track. Neza could leap into the trees or take extremely long strides, so his return to camp was never too time-consuming, but Saf had short strides and a huge frame that left much more obvious traces behind. It sometimes took him hours to travel back and forth, but he considered it part of his quiet time to reflect on his training that day. Nothing in the woods would ever attack anyone as big as he and all plant life fled from him for a three meter radius. The perilous environment was quite peaceful for Saf.
On today’s trip back, his gloomy mood was replaced by joy when he caught a familiar scent. He traced it a few dozen meters away to a large root of Ranico that was buried low under ferns that parted as he approached. He had been training himself to improve his sense of smell for this exact reason and he had finally attained success.
“That blade can certainly handle a ton of abuse, Saf.” Neza said, breaking Saf out of his revelry. Colissa had stopped scratching him, so he could apparently use complete sentences again. His eyes were still closed and his contented grin remained as he spoke, “I don’t think you need to sharpen it so much.”
Saf smiled back at him, “You’re finally used to its weight? You whined about it for awhile.”
Neza leaned back against the crate where Colissa formerly sat. He was in too good a mood to let Saf’s teasing bother him.
“I’m glad you like it. You should take better care of it though. The high frequency vibrations won’t cut through a piece of fruit if the blade rusts off.”
Neza gestured rudely, dismissing Saf’s lecture. The two of them had a simple relationship. Saf acted like his older brother, always teasing him gently and nagging him to be more responsible. Neza always responded with dismissive remarks and exaggerated bravado. It felt strange to him to have this kind of relationship with a Rhin, but it came naturally to him once he let go of his initial reservations about Regan. It seemed that spending nearly every moment of your time with other people can make a month feel much longer and a friendship feel much closer.
Regan walked over and lightly tapped Neza’s leg with his boot, interrupting his relaxation. “Hey, come talk with me privately for a few.”
The two of them walked away from the camp while Colette smoked one of the cigars Neza brought back from his assault and Saf laid back to relax. Regan spoke with Neza privately all the time, mostly for training and BIOS updates, but it had been weeks since Neza started training solo and modifying his own system. Neza could still smell the alcohol on Regan, so he considered the possibility of mischief instead. The stern look Regan wore when he turned around to face Neza painted a different image of the conversation to come.
“We’re going to start attacking officers and supervisors at New Plymouth in a couple days.” Regan stated plainly. The humans had changed the previously unnamed Felni village New Plymouth after one of the historical pioneer cities on Earth. Neza never thought the place needed a name, but didn’t care that it was given one. His attachment to that town was a very thin thread now anyway, since his family was torn apart.
“What? You mean at the Security Team’s bunker?”
“No. At the refinery. We’re going to cut off their power supply. Make their employees afraid to come to work. Their operation will be completely shut down if they have to send all their ships and equipment back into orbit for recharging.”
Neza was hoping their strikes would begin at the lab ships. “You want to kill Felni and Rhin instead of humans?”
Regan seemed prepared for the question “Once we take out a couple of them, they will have no choice but to send down more human security and higher level Arc managers to hire replacements. You’ll get to kill your share of humans in time.”
“It’s not like that. I just thought we’d be doing something that affected the labs more. I didn’t join you guys so I could kill my own people.” A dull pain began pulsing in his head.
“What’s better for shutting down the labs than cutting off their power, management, and funding?”
“Attacking lab ships directly and setting their prisoners free! That’s MUCH better!”
Regan shook his head, “That might shut them down one at a time, but all Arc would do is build new labs and kidnap new subjects.”
Neza’s instincts fought him, but what Regan was saying made some sense. The Felni that worked in that refinery may have decided to work with the humans instead of against them, but they were also only doing it to take care of their families. They were normal people that just saw the humans as a means to an end. His headache grew more painful and he couldn’t help but wonder why Regan hadn’t cleared it yet.
“If you’re worried about innocent lives, don’t be. Saf’s father was killed in an accident at that refinery and the Felni supervisors covered it up and tried to force him to take his father’s place. They are no more innocent than the people that kidnap cubs.” Regan seemed to know exactly what to say to placate Neza’s doubts.
“Just because a few Felni make bad decisions doesn’t mean it’s right for us to kill any of them we please just to slow down the humans.” Neza’s voice was beginning to waver. This whole conversation was not what he expected at the end of a relaxing evening.
“What if I promise you that we’ll go while two of the labs are docked there for recharging? We could compromise that way and hit both.”
Neza sighed deeply and put his hand on his head trying to relieve the pressure he felt. He wasn’t used to Regan asking for his help so forcefully. Though he had some reservations, he could see where these violent actions could lead. If he thought of this as an unpleasant first step towards a noble goal, maybe he could do it. “I-I’m not sure.”
“I need you, buddy. I promise we’ll go directly at those Lab Ships once we disrupt the refinery enough.”
Neza spoke in a dejected whisper, “Alright. I’m in.” As soon as he said it, he felt the pain dissipate.
“Excellent. I knew you’d come around. Saf and Colissa already know what’s up. We’ll go over strategy tomorrow morning.” Regan slapped Neza on the back before strolling cheerfully back toward the camp.
Neza felt like half of what he was only ten minutes before. His contentment was replaced by an unmistakable dread. As much as he enjoyed having these people as his friends, he wasn’t sure he should make a sacrifice like this just to stay a part of them. He stood in the woods for several minutes without moving or making a sound.
He wouldn’t sleep well that night.