The Metal of a Man
Something sifted through the old man's blanket of cardboard sheets and plastic wrap. He had heard someone enter the alley, could hear the scrounger's heartbeat. His senses were like that. Made it hard to sleep.
Then something hard and pointy poked deeper into his shelter, into his torso. The intruder grunted with recognition.
The old man grabbed the tire iron, wrenched it away, and rose from the detritus.
The intruder gasped and stepped back.
Threat assessments blinked into the old man's vision. The intruder was just a punk kid, threadbare identity scavenged together with expensive shoes and cracked HUDshades, smelling of old sweat and hunger, T-shirt hanging on his frame like a Big Top with nothing inside.
"Go away, kid. You're in the wrong alley."
The boy flinched back, the data feed flickering behind the HUDshades, cheap Pakistani knockoffs, the kind that cause retinal damage, probably running on a pirated jack-in.
"Ay dios mio!" the kid said. "You're Thundertron!"
The old man's bandanna had fallen around his neck. He pulled it back up over his mouth and nose. "I said, you're in the wrong alley." His voice sounded like he gargled with asphalt and broken glass.
The kid raised his hands. "Just scavenging, you know? Lo siento!"
"I ain't gonna hurt you, kid. And I ain't Thundertron." The denial was pointless, but reflexive. The tremor in his knees and ankles reminded him yet again he needed to get his hands on some lithium nanogrease before the joints froze, in which case he might as well cut his legs off.
"No, man, you're Thundertron, no mistake." A quivering finger tapped the shades. "Holy snot, you got old!"
This kid wasn't even a glimmer in his daddy's eye when Thundertron was in his prime. The old man twisted the tire iron into a pretzel. "Beat it!"
The kid beat it.
The old man reached into the papers for his cowboy hat, brushed it off and settled it upon his head, catching the whiff of felt and leather steeped in his own sweat. Two hundred years ago, people would have taken him for a stage robber. He had to vamoose. First, however, he had to let the General Electric kidneys do their work. He pissed deep-orange urine onto the alley wall behind a dumpster.
How long had it been since he pissed in his own toilet? Was that sleaze-ball Johnny Steam, even now, sleeping next to Camille? Well, screw them both. They could have each other.
The bio-muscles of his torso ached at having slept on the ground. His vertebrae had been reinforced, but the muscles were his, and they weren't as forgiving as they used to be.
In an hour, the sun would be scalding, and the denizens of Albuquerque would filter from climate-controlled homes into climate-controlled subways and then into climate-controlled high-rises. The brave ones would venture outside, swathed in self-cooling suits and slathered in sunscreen. Fortunately, the synth-skin on his arms and face didn't sunburn.
With the satchel filled with his worldly possessions slung over his shoulder, he readjusted his bandanna over his face and shambled into the morning sunlight of downtown Albuquerque. He pointed his feet toward the shelter, where he hoped a little breakfast could be found. If not, he'd spend the rest of his morning dumpster-diving.
His eyes caught a reflection in a storefront window, instantly flagging a drone hovering forty feet above him, about the size of a trash can lid. His TART had no record of the drone type, so it wasn't civilian law. Letting his AI access the grid was as dangerous as walking around with his face exposed; activating his transceiver would turn him into a homing beacon. He passed hundreds of cameras a day, any one of which could register his facial features. The drone's reflection had been too fleeting to discern if it was weaponized.
He kept his head down, hands in the pockets of his jeans. Would it follow him? He turned into another alley and kept walking.
The whir of propellers followed him.
He sighed and dropped his pack. His heart immediately leaped to the optimal rhythm for combat, the TART's neurotronic feelers reaching deep into his sympathetic nervous system, releasing the proper hormones, sharpening his senses, optimizing blood flow and heart rate without loss of motor dexterity.
He spun on his boot heel and leaped toward the drone. The cyber-muscles of his legs groaned. The precise, programmed execution of one of his signature moves, "Death from Above," as the rag-mags had christened it, would turn this thing into so much graphite and lubricant.
But either he had misjudged the leap or his legs were on the verge of malfunction. He was going to fall short.
If that drone got away . . .
Something struck him in the chest with a quiet hiss. Two little titanium darts.
The drone zipped higher, out of reach.
He landed hard, stumbling. The darts fell out with twinges of pain, their penetration arrested by the tight-knit cerama-steel cage where his ribs used to be. Snatching a nearby cinder block, he flung it at the drone with the speed of a major league fastball. It attempted to evade, but the missile clipped one of its propeller housings, sending it spinning away, out of sight.
The old man raced back to grab his pack and then fled down the alley, his legs whining audibly with the effort. This was when the juicers would have dumped super-loads of oxygen, endorphins, and electrolytes into his bloodstream, but those reserves were long since depleted. His breath tore through his chest.
Still no sign of the drone, but he couldn't be sure he had finished it. He scratched at the puncture wounds left by the drone's darts, spots of blood spreading on his shirt. He had half expected some sort of tranquilizer, but there had been no discernible effects.
Then a car hummed down the alley and skidded to halt beside him. A young man's face leaned out and yelled. "Get in, man! You got heat coming down!"
The old man drew back, clenching his fists, prepared to turn the car's hood into a soup bowl. "Who the hell are you?"
"A friend who doesn't want to see you arrested by the mega-corps! Now get the hell in the car!"
The old man got in.
Jesus and Thor, with all that jumping around, his back was going to make him pay for a week. "So who are you?" the old man said. "Why stick out your neck?"
The young man's eyes darted between the kaleidoscopic dashboard and the rear-view mirrors, his meaty finger tapping the monitor between sky and side views. "I'm a fan, sir." The windows darkened. The interior smelled of fast food and new leather. A massive soft-drink rested in a cup holder between them. His paunch filled the space between him and the steering yoke.
"And how is it that you showed up just in time?" The old man's TART HUD scrolled estimates of force and strike points required to punch through the door of a Hudson Silverhawk in case he needed to skedaddle.
"I am a fan, like I said." Sweat sheened the young man's pudgy cheeks. Acne scars made his face look like someone had done the Charleston on it with golf cleats.
"That doesn't tell me anything, Junior. Speak now, or you're gonna need a new door."
"Just give me a sec. It's not every day I whisk a wanted man from under the noses of corp-surveillance on the way to the store. You're welcome to get out, but I hope you don't."
The young man jerked the steering yoke, and the car zipped onto a narrow street. He offered a sweaty hand. "I'm Jake, Mr. Brewer."
"You got the wrong man."
Jake awkwardly lowered his hand, licked his lips, his eyes still scanning for pursuit, and cleared his throat. "Man, I grew up watching you on the Saturday night fights, me and my dad. I can't tell you - a Death from Above, man! You and Razor Ramon in Rio? I still get chills. When you dropped off the grid - what was it, a year ago? - GE, Robotico, and the UCFF flagged you in every network on the planet."
So had the military. The legs still technically belonged to the US Government. One-of-a-kind, priceless. They were decades old now, and other advancements had been made, but these patents were still in "litigation", otherwise known as a low-level shooting war between several corps, complete with betrayals and shifting alliances. These legs practically made him a museum piece, a forgotten Maillardet automaton walking loose. Trouble was, the VA hospital didn't exactly stock lithium nanogrease in the pharmacy.
The glass and concrete of downtown turned to rows of stucco houses.
Jake said, "With all the tech you're toting, you've done a great job of staying out of sight, sir."
"You still haven't told me why I'm sitting in this car."
"Well, sir." Jake cleared his throat again. "I want to buy you out."
"Buy me out of what?"
"Your contracts. Your old life. I'm prepared to pay you for all of it. Your arms, your legs, and I would need the uber-kidneys as well."
"You ain't serious."
"I'm serious as a rogue drone, sir. With what I'm prepared to pay you, you can buy a whole new set of limbs - of course, they won't be military or gladiator-grade, just civilian replacements. You could even go all-biological again. You can have your life back. I'm sure there's tons of folks at conventions and such would pay to see Thundertron. Look, you're a legend. Seven world titles! A hundred thirty-eight victories! Fifty-two fatalities!"
The regenites hadn't been able to save eight of them. Their faces still haunted him. Just kids, some of them. Dumb, slaughtered kids with delusions of grandeur.
The old man gave Jake a long, hard look. Piles of pasty flesh bespoke a life wired to game and network ports. Bad teeth, beady eyes, and body odor; the kid was a walking stereotype. "What kind of money are we talking?"
"Enough to set you up with the latest civilian replacements and start over. That was a nasty thing your wife and Johnny Steam did. What sleaze-balls. A lot of us fans thought it was all part of the storyline for a while, you know?"
The old man chewed his lip. Why should it piss him off that Jake had just called his cheating wife a sleaze-ball?
"I mean, you practically built the United Cyber-Fighting Federation. And then Steam just cut you out and started banging your wife."
The sound of crunching polymer grabbed both their attentions. A chunk torn from the dashboard lay pulverized in the old man's hand.
The boy cleared his throat awkwardly. "A buddy of mine is dying to know. We have a bet."
The old man's lips barely moved. "What is it?"
"Does she really have, you know, what the rag-mags say?"
"Does she vibrate, is that what you're asking?" If there were not an unknown number of drones patrolling the sky above, right now, he would have gotten out of the car and left it a smoking wreck in the middle of street. "None of your fucking business."
All that money he had made had to go somewhere. The upgrades to his own cybernetics, the addition of the gladiator-grade arms, the enhanced kidneys to handle the increased systemic load, cost more than the GDP of half of Africa. Add in Camille's enhancements, glamours they were called, and you could throw the rest of Africa's GDP into the hat. They were quite the pair, the ultimate gladiator and the ultimate femme fatale. Her vagina not only pulsated, but also featured self-stimulation settings. She had always been a stunner, but with the pheromone emitters, she had become the incarnate love-child of Aphrodite and Marilyn Monroe. But what happens in the mind of Aphrodite when youth fades? What if Marilyn had lived to be ninety? Now at sixty, still capable of stopping satellites in orbit, Camille was at the verge of the downhill slide.
And he, at seventy, looked like a beaten down, unshaven bum. Without a recent infusion of regenites, an old man's wattle had appeared under his chin, and hard times had left his face a patched roadmap of wrinkles, scars, and synth-skin.
And still, how many times a day did he feel her absence like a big, fat void in his belly?
Jake's voice quavered. "Sorry, sir, you're clearly still raw about-"
"So where are you getting your money? Three mega-corps and the US Government bought what I'm wearing. You got a goose that shits gold bullion?"
"How do you think I found you before they did?"
The TART AI nestled against his frontal lobe sent a crystal clear ping into his consciousness. "You're a slicer."
Jake gave a little tweak of his thick lips. "Let's just say there are a couple of ass-weasel mega-corps wondering where some spare change went. When your face appeared in certain data streams, my bots sent up the Bat Signal."
"Are you kidding? Who wouldn't want to be the next Thundertron?"
"Kid, they don't just give these toys to anybody. You gotta have the skeleton for it, the health to integrate the implants." He glanced at the young man's paunch. "Frankly, you gotta already be in some kinda shape."
"I will admit that my lifestyle up to now has not allowed me to build a commando-style physique, but there's this doctor who programs regenites to eat fat." He patted his belly with a grin. "Once I get the process started, all this stored pizza will be history. But they tell me it should all be done as a package deal, and I don't have time to space everything out over the next year and a half."
"Never mind that." A slight frown creased his sweaty brow. "We're here. You can lay low for a while till the heat dissipates."
The Silverhawk slid into a narrow driveway on a steeply inclined street. The old wooden garage door rose and then swallowed them. Fluorescent lights flickered onto cinder block walls choked with cardboard boxes, old toys and clothes bursting from their seams.
The old man said, "You live with anybody?"
"Nah, my mom died last year." Jake opened the door and got out.
Throughout the drive, the old man's mind had churned. Maybe he could make a new life. Maybe he could start over. What would it be like not to feel the heat breathing down his neck, the constant fear that some surveillance cam would pick up his face?
He stepped out of the car. "So let's say for a moment that I'm entertaining your offer. What makes you think they won't come after you?"
"Let's just say I know a guy. He can program regenites to strip the licensing signatures from the cells and endoskeleton, like filing the serial numbers off a stolen car. I already have a new identity ready."
The old man's eyes scanned the interior of the garage. The TART hot-marked three hidden cameras, infra-red sensors, microphones, and motion detectors.
"Nice security," the old man said.
"I like my privacy." Jake pulled his sweat pants up a little higher and motioned through a door deeper into the house. The door swung awfully heavy for something that appeared to be wood. "I have better counter-measures than Europe. The whole house is a Faraday cage. There isn't a signal gets in or out without my say-so. As far as drones are concerned this house is a vacant lot."
Something glitched in the old man's HUD, a strange interference. He blinked and rubbed his eye.
Indirect illumination burgeoned to greet them, revealing a cool, dry space stacked floor to ceiling with long, narrow cardboard boxes. "You a comics fan?" Jake said.
"When I was a boy, sure."
"I got fifty-thousand comics in here, going back a hundred and twenty years."
A keypad glowed green beside a stout-looking door on one side of the room. "That's my sanctum sanctorum, where I do all my good work. You'll understand why I can't let you see it."
The old man's ears caught the hum of cooling fans and electronics. "Of course." The same reason he couldn't let the drone see his face. Images had a way of getting into the wrong hands.
"You want something to eat? Drink? I mean your limbs run mostly on regular food, right?"
"They function." But the right cocktail of nutritional supplements kicked them into high gear. His legs juddered again. It couldn't be much longer before one or both of them seized up and left him a cripple.
Jake went through another door, where a light revealed an old kitchenette, refrigerator, and a stack of pizza boxes. His face gleamed with moisture in the pale light.
The old man's mind churned deeper. What does a man do when everything he's done, every decision he's made, has turned him into something that he thought he wanted at twenty-five? What is such a man to do at seventy, and all he has is too many miles on the odometer? He had molded himself into a superhero - a superhero that was paid to do nothing more than fight and kill for the entertainment of the masses. No noble causes. No grand purpose. No supervillains. Just slugging it out with other poor sods to slake the public's thirst for spectacle - spectacle to distract them from how much was wrong with the world.
There was so little remaining of the body he had been born with.
Eyes, lost to a grenade in Israel.
Eardrums, blown out by the same blast, replaced by vastly more sensitive microphones. When he concentrated, he could hear a gnat fart.
Legs blown away by a rocket in Kashmir. The same blast had taken any chance of having kids, too. The equipment still worked, but fired only blanks.
Arms, replaced after his first few pit victories, as the gladiators themselves evolved into a new sort of arms race. GE had been more than happy to "donate" their most advanced new models, with repossession clauses in microscopic print.
It all came with a Threat Assessment and Reaction Trigger AI, or TART in mil-speak, the sharpest of cutting edge at the time. The TART controlled his sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, harnessed and enhanced his natural human reactions to danger, to combat, to the parasympathetic backlash that caused soldiers to crash after battle. Heart rate, vasoconstriction, and sensory perceptions were all tightly controlled, squelching fear, turning him into a certified combat machine. When he was supercharged with regenites, the TART could even send them to injuries and jumpstart healing.
Regenites and cybernetics went hand in glove. Regenites could repair all the tiny tissue ruptures and skeletal fractures caused by super-human cybernetic appendages. Just because an arm was strong enough to flip a car didn't mean the shoulder and spine could withstand those stresses.
If he agreed to Jake's offer, would he just be plain ol' Bob Allen Brewer again?
On the other hand, how often did he dream of getting back in the coliseum, of feeling in his very bones the pulsing thunder of a hundred thousand fans screaming his name? Most often, on those days when he felt lower than a snake's ass in a wagon rut. Razor Ramon was a grandfather now, but maybe he still had the retractable blades embedded in his forearms. They could make a little money.
Then he snorted. How the hell could he fight Razor Ramon again like this? Warriors were never meant to get old. They were supposed to die in their prime, in great blazes of bloody glory.
On the other hand, how often during his months on the street had he dreamed of starting over? A slicer could erase his identity and build him a new one.
Jake trundled back out of the kitchenette and gave the old man a half-gallon plastic cup of some red sports drink and a plate with three slices of cold pizza. "Sorry, the water is on rationing, and you wouldn't want to drink it anyway."
The old man took the cup and poured half of it down his gullet in a few seconds, feeling the absorpters in his stomach come online for the electrolyte molecules. The pizza looked like wrinkled leather, but he could eat leather at this point. He took the plate. "Thanks."
Jake's gaze jumped around the room as if unsure where to settle. Edging away, he finally settled himself in a ratty easy chair, drumming his fingers, the silence hanging heavy between them while the old man devoured the pizza, heedless that this was not his limbs' optimal sustenance. The human side of him was just hungry.
Hanging from a pegboard were a number of weapons: nunchaku, a katana, several throwing stars and knives, even what looked like an old cavalry saber.
"You like my collection?" Jake got up and crossed over to the pegboard, took down the nunchaku and made a few flourishing twirls, until he clipped himself across the chin. He rubbed it self-consciously. "Looks like I need more practice."
An absurd image burst into the old man's mind of this kid facing a fighting machine like Razor Ramon.
"Why do you want to do this, kid? You ever been in a fight? Even once?"
Jake's face reddened. "I've been in lots of fights. Just haven't won any."
"You're a master of what you do, if you're telling me true. 'Becoming Thundertron' like you say, it ain't like applying for a job. Just having cyber-parts don't mean you know how to use them."
"You learned how, didn't you? I spent five years learning how to slice code like a sushi chef, from the time I got my first neural-jack in junior high. Let's just say I've done enough work for enough black agencies that I won't have to worry about them coming after me. I've done some things I'm pretty proud of. And some things I'm not."
"Welcome to the club. If you can pay me as much as you claim, why not buy your own upgrades?"
"Too many regulations nowadays for civilians to access even gladiator-level upgrades. And with the corp-war still going, no one else can make legs like yours." Jake paced the room, pulled something small out of his pocket and palmed it. "Let's just say, I had a light turn on, you know?" He walked over to the wall of comic boxes, laid his hand upon it reverently. "You ever have something show you your life in perfect clarity, just for a moment?"
"Give you a glimpse of the path you didn't take?"
Jake's face hardened. "When I was in high school, jocks like you - no offense-"
"-were playing football and pumping iron, and I was reading Shakespeare, Tolkien, and the jocks' messages to their girlfriends...."
Insight struck the old man like a slap. "Holy shit, kid. Could you be more of a stereotype? You want to do all this to get a girl?"
Jake's turned deeper scarlet. "We've been friends online for over a year, and we have this great connection. A real relationship. She even lives here in town, and she's so gorgeous and smart and funny. And she's a geek like me. I just-"
The old man knew what was coming.
Jake swallowed hard and sighed, stroking the small plastic oblong in his hand. "She's been telling me for weeks that she wants to meet me in person, but I keep putting her off. Her last two boyfriends have been total jocks."
"So you've been stalking her."
"I have to do something soon. Her last boyfriend was an abusive shit, and he's been stalking her. To protect her, I need what you've got-"
The old man snorted and jumped to his feet. "Kid, you don't want what I got!" But even as he spoke, the words rang false. Being Thundertron had given him thirty-five years with Camille, Aphrodite incarnate, complete with celestial pleasures and goddess-like caprice. Would he have done anything differently just because Camille was gone now?
"Sir, I sure as hell do."
"Kid. Jake. Do you really think that's how women work?"
Jake's eyes flicked back and forth, accessing memories and coming up empty.
"This life ain't no costume, and I ain't wearing tights. You gotta be that guy she wants, in your bones, in your heart." At least until she doesn't want you anymore.
"Nobody ever showed me how to do that. It was just me and my dad. And he was stuck with mom." Jake's shoulders slumped for a moment, then straightened up. "But I've always admired you, sir. A role model."
"Thundertron was a killer."
"No, sir, you were one of the good guys! You spared a bunch of guys when the crowd was screaming for blood and guts."
"That don't matter. You're talking about winning one specific woman. You have to be the guy she wants." And it never works that way.
"I intend to be. So what do you say, Mr. Brewer?" Jake's eyes bored into him with an earnestness the old man had seen a thousand times, perhaps even on his own face when he was young.
He thought about all the women who'd crossed his sheets until he met Camille, how natural and easy it had been for him to have whoever he wanted when he was a star, but there was one, back when he was still in high school. The way his heart had ached for her, to want someone so bad, she was all he could think about as he lay in bed at night, about all the ways she set him afire. Endless swirls of fantasy, months of it, until he finally got the courage to make his move - and she spurned him. In a way, that rejection had been the key to the direction his adult life had taken. He joined the military to get the hell away from her, out of Harper's Creek, Nebraska. What would his life be if she had loved him back? His entire existence, a do-over.
"What?" Jake's eyes flared with desperation.
"I said no."
"You're just going to walk out there into the arms of the folks that want to repo your arms and legs?"
"It ain't that simple, kid."
"Did you know there's a drone circling the neighborhood, a big one? They must have tracked us somehow. Something planted on you maybe? A micro-tracker?"
The old man rubbed the dart wounds. "Shit."
"Well, they've lost you for now or that drone would be hovering out front ready to level this place."
"You have your own implants."
"Like I said, no signal gets in or out of here without my say-so. Everything outgoing is routed to different transceivers across town. Untraceable."
"So you think you're going to keep me prisoner, hiding from the drone until I say yes?" He clenched his fists.
"The thought has crossed my mind." Jake held up a tiny remote control. "I suppose I should confess, I've already sliced your TART. I'm a fan, like I said. Maybe your biggest fan. You've been mostly off the grid, but blips here and there said you were in Albuquerque."
A shiver raced up the old man's spine. The TART focused on Jake's hand. A remote control with one red button. With no useful missiles in reach, even his cybernetics could not move faster than Jake could thumb the button. He didn't want to find out what would happen then.
"What would it take to convince you, Mr. Brewer? You want me to empty Johnny Steam's bank accounts? Give it all to you? Just tell me."
"You ain't getting nothing from me willingly, not this way. You already got the power and know how to use it. What you going to do with it? You think that girl would want a supervillain?" He brushed off his hat. "You might as well use that button."
Jake sighed. "I've been working for the wrong people for a long time. Maybe I want to switch teams."
"Then do it. What do you need me for?"
"Some things you can't do from inside a Faraday cage." Jake's eyes turned mournful. "Like punching the bad guys in the mouth."
Or getting the girl. "Sorry, Jake. You got no idea what it's like being me. If I killed you right now, I doubt I'd feel bad about it for long. Doing what I've done leaves a mark on your soul, boy. You don't want that."
"Don't tell me what I want!" Then he sighed again and shuffled his feet. "Sorry, sir. It's just, my whole life, Ma told me what I wanted. The trouble was, she was never right, but I thought she was for a long time. Then I met..."
"Thanks for the pizza, Jake. And for giving me a second to let the heat off." His TART kept a constant gauge of the distance between him, Jake, and the door. The remote was still in Jake's hand.
"I understand. Um, before you go, do me a favor?" Jake sifted through a stack of old magazines, pulled one out. "Your autograph?" He offered held it out to the old man, along with a black marker, the hope in his eyes dimming. The magazine was the UCFF Program for Coliseum XXV, Trouble in Tokyo, with a moving holographic cover of Thundertron in mid-strike against The Kaiju. A close shave, that fight, with The Kaiju's tremendous tusks almost spilling Thundertron's soft entrails in long ribbons. The scar remained.
His throat tightened. "This ain't me anymore, kid."
He sighed, took the pen and magazine, and paused. Memories boiled out of a part of his brain he hadn't used in a long time. His back straightened, his shoulders squared, and he scrawled Thundertron on the cover.
"Thank you, sir." Jake took the magazine back with great reverence.
"You're a good kid, Jake." At least, he hoped so. "Good luck to you." The old man opened the door to the garage. The garage door was already sliding open. He stepped out into the hot New Mexico morning. His next stop, the rail yard. The sky was clear.
What was the range of Jake's slicing signal? What would happen if he executed it? Paralysis? Shutting down his heart and breathing? It was easy to strip tech off a fresh corpse.
He walked quickly, gritting his teeth at the shuddering in his legs. Wouldn't be long now.
One block, two. Sky still clear.
Then the sledgehammer hit him in the chest. His vision exploded with white static. His heart stopped. He couldn't breathe.
A blast of hot grit and jet exhaust washed over him. A booming voice rolled up and down the street. "DO NOT RESIST. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST."
He didn't need eyes to sense the large drone hovering above him, settling lower. The whine and clatter of servos and extensors came nearer, things reaching for him.
His mind scrambled for purchase. The TART, his constant subliminal companion for decades, was silent. His lungs started to work, and he caught the scent of singed flesh. Another pulse of electricity punched him in the chest. Gravel gouged his back. He tasted smoke and ozone.
Tires squealed up to him. A car door hissed.
"Hey! Leave him alone!" Jake's voice.
The old man tried to warn him back, but he couldn't muster the breath. He rolled onto one elbow, heart still dead silent.
"Robert Allen Brewer, please be aware, deadly force is authorized for retrieval." The tinny voice raked his ears with screeching static as the microphones malfunctioned.
"Stop!" Jake cried.
The sharp ting of metal against fuselage. A ringing clink as something fell to the pavement, then another something, another.
The old man rolled onto all fours. His heart shuddered. His hand fell across a steel star. A throwing star.
"Fuck off, you fascist pigs!" Jake screamed, running nearer.
The distinctive whoosh of a blade cutting air.
"You are in violation of corporate rights, citizen! Stand down! This is your only warning!"
Another slash, this time striking metal. Some metal apparatus fell to the concrete. The machine whined and floated higher.
The whining burst of a caseless minigun.
Jake screamed and fell.
Rage exploded in Thundertron's breast. His heart thundered. Sparks of pearl and blood plastered his vision. He gathered his legs under him, fists clenched together, and blasted upward like a piston.
Spasms of compressive agony seared down his spine as his fists smashed and tore through the underbelly of the drone, into the wires and workings. Sparks and smoke exploded around him. Metal and carbon composite squealed and tore under his grip. Synth-skin shredded away like soft rubber from metallic and polymer cyber-muscles and cerama-steel bones. Real blood flowed.
The drone began to list. With one hand, Thundertron tore into the drone's electronic entrails. The minigun whirred again. The heat and pressure ripple of the muzzle blasts scorched his back, but before it could track on him, something snapped inside the machine, and the turbines seized.
Instantly his vision cleared. He could see the ravaged underbelly of the drone, the ground rushing up, Jake struggling to crawl clear, katana gripped in one hand. His vision danced with dire TART assessments.
The drone was a miniature VTOL jet with autonomous AI, weaponized with mini-gun for crowd-control and defibrillation stunner for perpetrator apprehension, weighing perhaps a ton. All this information came to him in a microsecond.
But it couldn't tell him how to stop the drone from falling on Jake.
The paramedics loaded Jake into the ambulance. "If those bastards touch my comics, I'll burn them to the ground!"
"Don't worry!" the old man called after him. "I'll keep them safe."
Jake had managed to gasp bursts of words as Thundertron extracted him from the wreckage and tied tourniquets around his torn, shattered thighs. "They're gonna raid my house. Won't be nothing left. You gotta stay there and protect . . ."
"What's he talking about?" the police officer asked the old man, glancing at the shredded synth-skin of his forearms.
"Corporate dispute," the old man said. His body was tensed to run at the first indication he was under arrest by the Albuquerque PD.
"Is that whose this mess is?" The officer thumbed over his shoulder at the wreckage choking the street.
The officer spat, and his jaw chewed on something bitter. "Fucking mega-corps can clean up their own mess. Say, don't I know you from somewhere?"
"I doubt it."
Thundertron held up a shredded wrist with the metal and polymer glistening. "Does this look like I have a chip?"
The officer tapped the transceiver on his temple. "Must be some sort of interference around here. I guess we'll have to do this the old-fashioned way." He pulled out a notebook and pen. "Name and address."
Thundertron answered the officer's questions to the vaguest of his ability.
The officer closed his notebook with a snap. "If you hadn't just cost the mega-corps one very pricey toy, I might be inclined to drag you in for questioning. Fucking drones will never replace real cops. Watch your back now."
The old man tipped his hat and limped to Jake's car. He hoped his legs would last a few more days, while he laid low. But he couldn't go far. With a bit of Jake's money, Thundertron's legs would be as powerful as the day they were installed. Jake would need new legs soon. Maybe the world needed a new hero.