Rain’s comin’, boss.
Miguel bristled at the sudden interruption. He’d been hunched over the chassis of an MX soldado for almost an hour, trying like hell to remove its biochip without discharging any of the small but powerful capacitors. Hearing Frankie’s voice in the back of his skull wasn’t anything new, but the image he sent of dark clouds rolling in from Port Bagdad blotted out Miguel’s hands. For a moment, the biochip and the small tweezers holding it disappeared from view.
Welcome to Flashes from the Verse, a sampling of unedited, unrevised, and often out-of-context scratch writing that takes place in the Vinestead Universe. Somewhere in these interconnected ramblings is the next Vinestead novel, so keep your eyes peeled and enjoy!
“Trying to work,” he muttered, sending the message over the MESH at the same time.
The clouds faded, and Miguel continued the extraction. Once the biochip was clear of the soldado chassis, he dropped it into a small plastic container on the floor. The evercrete foundation was dusty and littered with debris. Nearby bullet casings caught the last rays of the sun as thick clouds swallowed up the light. Miguel used a bottle of distilled water to wash away some of the grit and synthetic blood from the chip. When it was pristine, he transferred it to a small baggie and shoved it into his breast pocket.
He stood, felt his knees resist as he stumbled to a nearby window.
Frankie was right; there was a storm coming.
From the third floor of the apartment building, Miguel could see the distant clouds loping like black monsters toward shore. Already, the amount of moisture in the air had grown to uncomfortable levels, especially with a temperature that had held steady over 110 degrees since mid-morning. It was always hotter in the MX than back home, regardless of season or weather. It was as if crossing the Rio Grande had transported Miguel to a literal hell-on-earth where the baked soil could barely contain the demons writhing beneath the surface.
Matamoros sat on the south side of the Rio Grande, a large, sprawling city that had once held more than a million souls. It had history spanning three centuries; skeletons of buildings held stories of generations of MX people, including Miguel’s own family, descendants of native tribes and Spanish conquerers alike. Decades ago, it had been far from anyone’s concept of hell.
But then the soldados had come, bringing their war from the west coast to the east, and now the city was nothing more than a husk, as dead as its sister city of Brownsville across the border. The human population had long since scattered in the wind, replaced by ghosts and machines. The only real difference now was whose machines walked the streets.
North of the border, synthetic humans built by Vinestead International patrolled the hundred-mile exclusion zone and acted as a buffer against any threat of invasion.
On the opposite side, MX soldados moved seemingly at random between the cities, traveling in small groups or as huge battalions. Sometimes they would drift too close to the border, and a Vinestead synthetic would put a bullet in its brain. More often than not, they fell to infighting, leaving behind valuable corpses in dead cities. The technology contained in their chassis exceeded anything Vinestead had ever produced, and no one had a clue where it had come from.
“Free and clear,” said Miguel, dumping an image of hands under running water onto the MESH.
“We’re done here too.”
An image of Terri flashed in his head, as if he could see her lips moving as she spoke.
“How much time do we have, Frankie?”
His answer crackled distantly, which meant he was moving out of range, most likely in the direction of Olmec Terminus.
“We should be okay if we move now. As long as we’re in the tunnel before the storm hits, we should be out of it before it begins to flood.”
“You should really do something about that,” said Terri.
“Sure,” said Frankie. “I’ll just head over to Home Depot and pick up some gas-operated pumps.”
Miguel turned their conversation down and sought out Jorge’s presence in the MESH. There was only darkness where the man should have been, but after a little prodding, his bearded face came into view.
An annoyed scoff echoed. “Pinche report,” said Jorge.
“Seriously, man. What’re you up to?”
“Just watching the birds, ese.”
A hazy skyline bloomed in Miguel’s head. He saw the ruined remains of Matamoros stretch out around him. Then all at once, the picture contracted, zoomed into the eyepiece of a sniper rifle. He saw a half-demolished apartment building, saw himself standing half-obscured in the window.
Miguel smirked. “Good to know you’ve got my back. You got eyes on Terri and Frankie?”
“They’re coming. You’re the only one taking a break.”
“I just performed a field extraction of a soldado biochip. You know what would have happened if those capacitors blow.”
“Si,” said Jorge. “I was waiting for the pop.”
“Maybe next time.”
Miguel picked up his AR-15 from beside the window and fed the strap over his head.
“Keep an eye on me. I’m rolling to you.”
“Pinche rolling, Barney Fife.”
Boots crunched on loose evercrete as Miguel made his way down to the stairs to the first floor. Jade tiles littered the floor, pushed aside by recent traffic. They’d tracked the soldado to the apartment building in the early morning, and Jorge had sent a bullet through the same window Miguel had just been standing at to take the soldado down. Even half a mile away at Olmec Terminus, Jorge had been able to score a direct hit on the soldado’s CPU, a small cube no bigger than a watch face.
Now they had the soldado’s biochip—a piece of tech that would fetch a high price on the black market. But first, Miguel had to get it there, which meant traversing a half-mile of open street where any given pile of rubble could be a soldado lying in wait. Even with MESH awareness and augmented reaction time, Miguel would be hard-pressed to fend off a soldado one-on-one. As he stepped out into the failing light, he raised a hand to the distant tower at the terminus.
He was lucky to have his brother providing overwatch.
Miguel settled the AR-15 against his chest and began the slow march through the exposed street. In the back of his mind, like a daydream he kept trying to drift off into, he saw himself from a great distance, dressed head to toe in gray camo, the same kind of light limestone as the evercrete around him. The extra viewpoint allowed him a better picture of the environment. If anything moved, one of them would see it, and hopefully, take care of it before it took care of Miguel.
Jorge was a good shot, but otherwise had no desire to be a soldier. He openly mocked Miguel with the kind of insubordination that could only be tolerated from family. It didn’t help that Miguel was three years younger either, or that the others saw him as a leader whereas they saw Jorge as a leashed killer.
“Frankie, come back.”
“Walking into Olmec now,” he replied. “No movement inside.”
“Terri?” asked Miguel.
“Unlocking the door. Just waiting on you guys.”
Miguel pulled back the sleeve on his left wrist and examined his sliver. “I’m ten minutes out. As soon as I clear the plaza, Jorge will fall back and—“
Something tightened in his arm, and he realized he was feeling the flexing of Jorge’s muscles as his index finger tightened over the trigger. The bullet thudded somewhere off to the left, but by then, Miguel was already running in the opposite direction.
Jorge’s voice was tight and insistent.
The sudden tension from both Terri and Frankie bled into the MESH. Miguel wasn’t sure what they were up to, but he could feel their awarenesses turning toward him. He had to blot out the extra input and focus on the terrain in front of him. His moment of panic had led him into a small tienda with hardly any room to maneuver. He rushed past fallen displays and hopped a small counter toward the back. There, he used his shoulder to power through a door that led into a tight alley. Only after hitting the far wall did he venture a look back.
Something moved in the shadowy tienda. It was no bigger than an average man, maybe not even as big as Miguel himself, but the way it moved, so effortlessly and so purposeful, filled him with a fear he hadn’t felt since childhood. For so long, they’d picked soldados off from a distance. Up close, he’d only ever seen them on the ground or crumpled against a building.
To stand even twenty feet away was to understand the immediacy of the soldado and the implication that death was coming.
Miguel ran, keeping to the alley until he found a way to cut back to the main road. There, Jorge would be able to see him, would be able to pick off whatever was climbing up his—
He flashed on a bare back and a claw ripping at the flesh.
At the same time, he felt something tug at his shirt. Whatever it was snagged the AR-15’s strap, and Miguel went off-balance for a moment. As he tumbled, the tingle in his arm came again, and the sound of flesh swallowing up a bullet came after. Miguel spun in the air, saw the soldado behind him jerk to the right. The high-caliber round had caught it in the shoulder, and while that would redirect its momentum temporarily, it wouldn’t stop the machine.
Boots like jackhammers on the cracked asphalt. He knew without seeing that he was running toward Frankie and Terri just as they were running to him. His breath came hard and ragged, drowning out the sound of the soldado’s approach. Miguel didn’t want to look back, didn’t want to confirm the machine was still behind him. A part of him wanted to turn and empty the AR-15, but the thought must have leaked into the MESH, because it was met by a chorus of admonishment.
Miguel knew as well as they did that it wouldn’t do any good.
Put enough bullets in a machine, and it would stop working—that wasn’t the question. What mattered was how long it took to put enough bullets in a machine. There was little chance of hitting the soldado’s CPU with the AR-15’s limited penetration. He could empty the clip, but he wouldn’t get more than ten rounds in before the soldado overtook him. It wasted no effort on self-preservation.
Two full minutes went by before the MESH crackled again. The fire in his legs had spread to his abdomen, threatening to double him over.
“Alto, alto,” said Jorge.
The crosshairs flashed. Miguel straightened up.
“Y abajo, cabron!”
He dove forward, driving his elbows into the asphalt. A triplet of bullets zipped through the air; two loud thwacks answered. Something heavy fell into the street next to Miguel, forcing him to roll away and come up firing. The first half of the magazine when into the soldado’s stomach, but once it became clear the machine wasn’t moving, Miguel focused his fire on the skull.
The clip went empty, but he couldn’t release his finger from the trigger.
“We’re on you,” said Terri.
He saw them out of the corner of his eye, running on opposite sides of the street, rifles held to the shoulders.
“Calmate, hermano. Lo tengo, verdad?”
Miguel examined the soldado’s ruined face. One slug had gone through its eye. The other had torn a gash from cheek to ear. Dark, oily sludge oozed from the wound.
“Yeah, you got him, bro.”
Frankie stepped up on the other side of the fallen soldado, his gun still pointed back the way Miguel had come.
“You straight, boss? I can feel your heartbeat from here.”
He felt a hand slip under his arm. Terri helped him to his feet.
“We should go,” she said. “If any soldados heard that…”
Miguel nodded, but said, “Biochip’s probably still intact.”
“Seriously?” She pulled her mask down from her mouth. Red lines traced from her nose to her ears.
“Two’s better than one,” he replied, already reaching for the knife on his belt.
Frankie groaned, moved quickly away to the sidewalk. He looked at Terri and said through the MESH, “You should probably step back.”
Miguel knelt beside the soldado as thunder rolled into the city.