“You and your inventions!” Talia shouted at Thomas, as she blasted away a few more of the large, crab-like, training room drones with her pulse rifle. “And now of all times!”
“Those were the last ones, I think, for now,” Thomas reported from his crouched position next to Talia. When the first wave of drones emerged from the fog at the far side of the training room, the pair had taken cover behind the burnt-out hull of a semi-solid, holographic vehicle that had exploded long ago.
With his tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, Thomas alternated between fiddling with the strange, pulse-enabled gloves he had spent weeks designing, and keeping lookout for more drones on the simulated, hazy horizon.
“Wrong!” Talia said, as two more drones, one behind another, came clicking out from behind the image of a broken foundation wall.
With her glowing-red rangefinding targeting reticle solidly trained on both of them, she sidestepped to the right, out from behind cover, and pulled the trigger. She had lined the shot up as best she could, and with a bit of luck, was able to take them both out with the last pulse round of her first clip.
But perhaps not? Talia heard scrape of metal-on-metal and the whirr of gear movement from underneath the prone carcass of the front drone. She approached her handiwork and found that the shot had taken out the three spider-legs on the left side of the drone in the back, but it was still functioning. She watched the drone spin in a crude circle on the ground as it struggled to stand upright with only half its legs intact. Talia flipped her rifle around and, drunk with irritation, buttstroked the glowing green eye on the drone’s cylindrical head until the light went out and its legs stood still.
The training room simulated a scene of urban decay under the sheet of a grey sky. Talia and Thomas had proceeded cautiously down a street of broken concrete littered with the remnants of destroyed civilian transport and war machinery when the first wave of drones appeared. Buildings had been stripped and blasted down to their bottom floors, with steel girders, gnarled and rusted, jutting up from the broken concrete and glass dust like the desperate fingers of the frozen dead.
Talia backtracked to Thomas, who sat with his back against the burnt-out vehicle. He appeared to have gotten one of his gloves to work: the blue-green pathways meshed into the glove glowed with active pulse power.
She released her spent magazine, replaced it with her second—and final—clip, crouched down, and got right in Thomas’ face.
“Listen, you stupid nerd,” Talia began. “Whatever you have planned with those toys of yours better work, especially since you didn’t bother to load out with a pulse rifle on an ammo-restriction exercise.” She slathered his surprised face with her grit-teeth indignation. “If you screw this up, those gloves are getting air locked, with you still attached to them. Understand, nerd?”
They heard the skittering of drones in the distance. Thomas scrambled to his feet. Talia trained her rifle down the road.
“The second wave?” Thomas asked.
“But so soon?”
Clusters of drones, absent of any attack formation of pattern of movement, spat out of the fog down near the far end of the training room, some crawling onto the road itself, some on the roadside, while a few drones threaded an erratic path among the ruins of the cityscape. The chorus of low, monotonous beeps—an indication of their attack mode—swelled in volume as they sped closer.
“Fall back and try to draw their fire!” Talia shouted as she shuffled backwards. “Try to group them together! And get those damn gloves of yours to do something!”
Sweat collected on Thomas’ brow as he plucked and twisted on the glove of his right hand. He followed Talia’s lead, also walking back and away from the closing wave of beeping drones.
“Get down!” Talia shouted from behind him. As though in reaction, his heel caught on a steel girder intruding into the road, and he stumbled onto his backside. The glow of blue-green pulse rounds flew directly over his head and into the advancing bodies of a group of drones.
Now fully on his back, Thomas wrangled with his inactive glove and felt his wrist starting to sprain. Talia fired off a few more controlled bursts, while more than a few low-energy pulse rounds were fired off by the drones in their general direction.
“Thomas!” she shouted. The ammunition counter on her reticle was rapidly diminishing. “Now or never! Almost at zero!”
Desperate, Thomas punched the glove right in the palm. It sputtered and sprang to life with pulse energy flowing freely through its embedded conduits.
“Got it!” Thomas said. He sprang to his feet, hands aloft. “Talia, your turn to duck!”
Thomas swung his arms back, settled into a solid stance and tensed his open hands like claws, as though he was preparing to sprint into an immense wind. Pulse energy began to swirl in a circle on the ground around him. Many drones simply stopped advancing and instead focused on pure attacks. A few pulse rounds nearly hit Thomas, and one grazed the corner of his lab coat. Talia sought cover behind a brick wall.
“The Hands of War and Constant Killing!…” Thomas incanted grandly.
“T.H.W.A.C.K.”? Talia thought. What is going on here?
With curiosity, Talia stepped out from behind the brick wall and just behind Thomas to provide covering fire for him. A curved slab of metal—the torso of a defeated drone from the first wave— flew right past her to hover right in front of Thomas, held up by undulating, crackling strands of pulse energy. The drone’s pulse rounds bounced harmlessly off the shield with light pings. Thomas’s held his arms straight out in front of him, palms forward, puppeteering the shield in the air.
“T.H.O.W.A.C.K!” Thomas shouted.
“Er, I don’t think you include the ‘of’ when—”
“Activate: Pulse-Ionic Spinning Slaughter!”
“You know what that spells out, right?”
Thomas bent his arms and shoved his gloved hands out, and the slab of metal, guided once again by the blue-green pulse waves, shot out and slammed into two drones rushing towards them. With a simple clockwise rotation of his outstretched arms, the metal piece spun like an untethered blender blade, sending drone shards skidding past their feet and arcing over their heads.
Thomas shifted to direct his improvised weapon to other advancing drones, scattering them into trash in short order. It became such a distracting lethality that the drones began firing at it instead of Thomas or Talia.
With the second wave of drones completely destroyed, Thomas let his arms rest at his side. The spinning slab of metal fell to the ground some distance away, atop a pile of drone garbage.
“How many rounds do you have left?” Thomas asked in an unnecessarily quiet voice.
“How many rounds do you have left?”
“Two,” she guessed. Did it matter at this point? She exulted silently during his theatrical interim; she didn’t want to let on that the training’s outcome appeared to be more positive than she expected. It wasn’t over yet.
“Drop your rifle,” Thomas said. “You won’t need it now.”
“I don’t think so.”
“T.H.O.W.A.C.K!” Thomas yelled, raising his hands high in the air again.
“Activate: Automatic Systemic Self-replication!”
Talia snorted. “You really need to work on these names.”
The pulse energy swirled all around Thomas and enveloped him in a spiral of seafoam light. The pulse energy then radiated out from his upraised gloves in all directions. Talia waited. It all seemed to dissipate. Thomas did nothing.
Clanging, crunching, falling metal reverberated through the training room. Was it the next wave of drones? The sound was a little too disorganized. Talia turned around and saw bits and plates of metal and pulse electronics raising up out of the urban rubble to coalesce in separate groups, about as large as an adult male, in mid-air. Metal chunks, jagged gears, and strings of sparking wires all arose and configured themselves to form a cadre of about a dozen metallic hands, perfect enlarged replicas of Thomas’ own wondrous gloves.
Talia turned back to Thomas. “Impressive, but what are a bunch of huge hands going to do against drones?—which, by the way, have already deployed.”
She pointed off to the distance in front of them, but he merely grinned and raised a hand. “Have a seat and enjoy the show.”
“Again, I don’t think so.”
Something forcefully bumped against Talia, from behind, and lifted her up off the ground by the arms. She looked back; one of the enlarged gloved had caught her up in its grasp.
Another one of the glove clones hovered past the both of them. With his one glove still raised to control Talia’s new improvised chair, Thomas pointed his other glove toward the oncoming advance of drones, and the enlarged gloved mirrored the gesture. Thomas uttered another ridiculously overwrought command that Talia couldn’t quite make out. A holographic reticle flashed right in front of his index finger with the word “LOCK” in its upper quadrant. Behind her, she could hear the telltale whiny pitch of pulse energy, probably propelling the rest of the enlarged gloves forward to meet their enemies.
Talia struggled to slip off of her forced perch between the glove’s fingers, but soon stopped. She bristled at having to finally cede credit to his persistence through comical engineering failure after engineering failure, but for all of his pomposity and melodrama, she had to admit Thomas’ new weapon wasn’t so bad after all.