Melody and Alex
Melody sat in the bathtub. One arm was draped around her glass of white wine, the other was resting on the blue jeans which now squeezed against her thighs. The tepid water stank- the reeking, acrid ammonia had become the fog shrouding her very life, but went mostly unnoticed these days. She absentmindedly tugged at her ratty t-shirt. The logo on the black top was for a band she had never heard of: pop culture from another galaxy.
A quick lean forward, a flick of the wrist, and the tap began to spew hot water again. Melody sighed and sank further into the water, waiting for the stench to slowly disappear down the drain.
Aside from the slow, gentle gurgle of the tap, this building was quiet. “Thanks to me,” she couldn’t help but think to herself. With a sly smile, she drained the remaining half-glass of the pilfered wine and grabbed the bottle from the floor. Just as the last glug of wine emptied into the glass, an all-too-familiar muted metal-on-metal screech hit her ears. The bottle hit the floor and she practically vaulted out of the tub.
Her feet hit the floor and she shook like a dog to dry what she could. The cold wouldn’t kill her, but it would certainly ruin her focus on the task ahead of her. She silently slid her feet into dry socks she had borrowed from the bureau in the apartment’s bedroom and laced her black combat boots. She quickly squeezed her short, blonde hair to wring out the majority of the water and then tucked her first Bowie knife into the ankle holster. Second knife into the shoulder holster. She finished her battle prep by shouldering her only friend, Alexandria. She reached for the doorknob and then stopped. She took a quick step back toward the tub, reached for the glass of wine, and slowly treated herself to one more mouthful of the almost too-sweet moscato. The alcohol left a smile on her face. She picked up her bulging black slimline backpack, strapped both safety straps across her torso, and then she and Alex gracefully disappeared into the dusty hallway.
The screech had come from one of the next apartments over. She had double-checked to make certain that the apartment she had chosen to recharge was clean,so it definitely wasn’t an immediate danger to her. There was nothing in this apartment that they wanted anyway. In fact, that’s precisely why the screech she had heard was so confusing. This whole building should have been a clean zone - she was certain she’d been through every medicine cabinet on all 12 floors. Unless some idiot had been hiding something in a floor safe that she didn’t find, there was no reason that an infestation would be triggered.
Silently prowling down the hall, she stopped at each door to listen for the distinctive clicking and rattling sound of her prey. The bastards may be getting better with each cycle, but they couldn’t seem to find a way to disguise their distinctive movement sounds. 1202, 1204, 1203, 1205, 1206, 1208 … each door was verified with a practiced, professional auditory inspection. Maybe the fucker knew he had slipped up and made too much noise? Who knew what went on their brains. 1212, 1211, 1213, 1214, 1216, 12… wait. This next one down. 1218. She rested lightly on the balls of her left foot as she held her ear against the door. Her jeans dropped a growing puddle of ammonia and water by the threshold as she stood with her ear against the brown painted metal.
She didn’t actually hear anything - she really didn’t have to anymore. Humans have millions of years of practice spotting patterns that Melody’s prey simply couldn’t match. Whether she knew it consciously or not, all the signs were there. Corner apartment. High floor. Abnormally dusty hallway. High ceilings. Hadn’t been inspected for years until she had given it the once-over earlier today.
Her ear lingered on the door for about two minutes as she waited with bated breath. Her left hand lightly gripped Alex’s handle as her right cupped the door to maximize her chances of hearing any signs of movement. Inhale. Exhale. Just as she was about to relax and move to the other side of the hall, she heard it.
A scuttling sound, then the muted whir of a drill. Some light clicking, and then the drill again.
Her right hand swiftly moved to the keypad on the door as she lifted Alex off her shoulder and wrapped her left hand around the leather-wrapped handle. Melody clicked the on switch, and Alex let out a gentle hum to indicate that she was ready too. With her still-damp arm hair standing on end, Melody tapped the maintenance code into the keypad and the bolt slid back into its sheath.
The muted sound of the drill continued. Once they were engaged in their stupid little hunt, they were mostly oblivious to any other sounds, so as far as she could tell, Melody had gone unnoticed as of yet.
Before she opened the door and uncoiled, she went over the apartment layout in her head one more time to prepare. Hinges on the left. Bathroom was the first door on the right, hinges to the left also. Lowered entryway with some cabinet space under the stairs on the left. Kitchen and living area just past the bathroom, with two windows, one facing south and the other facing east. Good - no sun in her eyes this afternoon. Stairs led up to a second floor, but no one put floor safes up that way, so there was no reason for it to be up there. OK. Enough thinking. It was go time.
The door flew inward, smashing against the floor-to-ceiling mirror behind it. As shards of glass rained into the once-luxury apartment, Melody chased them into the main living area. It was smaller than she had calculated, but the bug was right where she figured it would be. With two quick steps forward, she raised Alex high over her head and brought the modified bat down onto the silver enemy with a grunt. The ceph had certainly noticed the glass, and was already in full flight mode. The red lights along its sides were flashing with the “danger” signal, and it scuttled out of the way before Alex could make contact. The weakened floor lurched with the impact of the bat, and Melody stumbled forward a bit before catching herself.
This ceph was a newer model than most she had decommissioned recently, but it still clearly had some design flaws that their reproductive cycling process couldn’t seem to iron out. They still struggled with right-angle turns, and the drills mounted on the undersides usually had some kind of debris still stuck in them, which put their sensors out of whack. From the way this one listed to the left a tad, Melody guessed that is still had some floor chunks inside of it, so it would be safer for her to try to stay on its bloated left side.
The ceph had shot across the room and quickly tried to scale the wall. It reached the window and fell down the glass, scratching with its wriggling little metal arms. Melody could hear her guild leader’s voice in her head. “They look and move just like giant roaches. Just don’t let them get up above you and you’ll be fine.” She swung wildly as it fell from the window, but just missed, sending chunks of fake marble sill and a lot of dust up into the air. The ceph scuttled right, and Melody felt her ankle get caught in the pockmarked floor as she tried to keep a bead on it. She looked down for a moment to get a sense of the semi-collapsed floor and caught a glimpse of the corroded dial of an under-floor safe. Damn it - how did her scan miss that one?
No use crying over spilt milk though. The ceph was already at eye level, and a wild, but powerful backhand swing of Alex only served to dent the wall and sent powdered plaster flying into the rotting couch and into her eyes as well. She could feel the plaster sticking to her damp hair, so she allowed herself a quick shake of her head.
But in doing so, she had taken her eye off the ball. The ceph saw her lose focus, and she heard the dreaded whirring sound of what must have been three underside drills. An inevitable sign of impending attack. Melody raised Alex like a samurai sword, guarding her head from the little robot’s aerial attack path. Just as she raised her eyes, she saw the little shit disengage from the ceiling and twist it’s segmented body around in midair, on a collision course with her right shoulder. A cross-body attack. They were getting better at combat too. Not good.
A twitch of her wrists barely allowed Alex to graze the little fucker just before it made contact with her. A massive amount of Alex’s stored electricity was discharged into the metal body of the ceph and chunks of aluminum casing as well as dozens of little steel legs blew out in all directions.
Unfortunately for Melody, the hardened titanium drills were still in motion, and one of them continued straight on its original path into her shoulder. Her moment of hunter’s ecstasy was immediately cut short by the feeling of a ¾cm drill embedding itself squarely into the front of her unprotected shoulder.
With a yelp, she hit the floor and dropped Alex. Twitching ceph limbs littered the swiss-cheese floor, and she wasted no time in dropping her friend to the floor and unstrapping her backpack.
Blood streamed from her shoulder. The pain was bearable, but the blood loss wasn’t great. Luckily, the guild never sent anyone out unprepared, and her little medkit had exactly what she needed. She clenched her teeth hard and ripped the remains of the drill out of her shoulder. God damn it, that never got any easier to do. She dug around a bit before she found the correct black bottle in her backpack, pulled herself to the southern window, and shook a single little silver pill into a beam of sunlight. Five minutes, starting now.
Propping herself up against the wall, she winced in pain and eyed the floor. The safe that she’d missed was clearly visible now that the flooring had given way to Alex’s considerable might. Oh shit- she had almost forgotten to turn her buddy off. She roughly pulled the bat to her side with her good arm, and the electromagnetic hum in the air clicked off as she tapped the switch. Melody’s eyes followed Alex’s barrel toward the largest hole in the floor. She cleared away some scraps of treated wood and crawled forward to inspect the floor safe containing the little treasure this thing had been after.
The safe was a Samsung CX160, probably from the early ‘10s. They were pretty reliable, but they weren’t designed with cephs in mind, so the outer casing wasn’t reinforced enough to prevent intrusion from the bugs. This ceph had made some progress, but it was trying to get in through the corner, so it would have taken a few hours of attempts to breach the box.
Melody rummaged in her backpack with her left hand and found her black Moleskine notebook with safe codes. Flipping to the S section, she looked at her entry for the CX160. This model locked after 10 attempts, so she didn’t want to chance it with the usual brute-force guesses. Safe owners always thought they were being clever by mixing digits of their apartment numbers or something else that was painfully obvious. Idiots.
Her book gave three potential override codes, so she punched in the first one and the safe immediately clicked open with a pleasant ding. No one ever thought to disable those when they installed the floor safes. She dug past some rotting currency and a few useless documents before she found what the little shit was after. Jackpot. An orange-brown bottle with a white top was hidden at the back of the safe. It had a clear label and the government seal was readable and unbroken. It was a standard 10-pill size, and the intact seal meant that it was certainly the good shit. An absolute fucking fortune worth of Penicillin-W. She grabbed her slimline backpack and placed the pills deep inside the inner lead-lined pocket. Just as she jammed the contraband into her backpack with her good arm, another ding from the windowsill indicated that her medicine was ready to go.
She moved back to the windowsill to find her little silver pill waiting for her. The pill had uncoiled as its photo-voltaic cells charged up and it resembled a tiny little worm lying on the sill. A small green light indicated it was fully charged, and it made small undulations as its micro-joints prepared for the task ahead. It may have writhed like a maggot, but that wasn’t enough to make the little solar-powered bot any less of a lifesaver. She grabbed it gently and held in the air just over her shoulder wound. Once its little camera had clicked a few times, the medbot gave another gentle ding to indicate that it had loaded the correct procedure. She placed it on her skin and laid back into the dusty sunbeam as it burrowed into her wound to do its magic.
A few shots of anesthetic and a lot of tendon- and muscle-pulling later, the medbot gave its final ding, letting her know she was all fixed up. The little silver worm was now splotched with red, and she pulled it off her shoulder and moved it back to the windowsill. Placing her right palm on the floor, Melody gingerly put a bit of weight on her arm. No pain. Incredible. She pulled herself to a standing position and immediately staggered due to light-headedness. “Oh right,” she thought. “Blood loss.” She leaned on the rotten couch and took a few deep breaths until she was able to level out again.
Now that the apartment block was almost certainly decontaminated, it was time for her to head back to guild headquarters to collect her allowance as well as the hefty bonus for the 10 pills she had found.
Melody launched into her well-practiced clean-up routine. First, the ceph. She found the main body of the critter, kicked it onto its back, and quickly located the jet-black power supply box. She expertly disconnected the PSB from the rest of the body and double-checked the underside to make sure this cycle of bugs hadn’t developed a backup PSB like some of others her guildmates had found. Just one this time. Whew. She pried open the PSB to see if there was any residual penicillin-W that this guy was running on. Didn’t look like it. Just the usual biological gunk that created energy from their preferred fuel source. A few times she had been really lucky, and found a completely undigested cap of penicillin-W inside the little box. Today though, she had already made her fortune.
She pulled one of the many 10ml glass vials of NH3 from her pack, uncapped the lid, and dropped the PSB inside. It fizzed like mad as the biologics inside the PSB were neutralized, and the entire unit was rendered useless. She capped the vial containing the tiny black box, labelled it, and chucked it into her backpack.
She then grabbed the tiny medbot worm and, with an almost apologetic frown, crushed it under her heel, then picked up the remains and dropped it into an empty glass vial too. If she ever forgot one of these on a round, she would certainly be kicked out of the guild. A shudder of horror crossed her mind as she imagined a ceph strain that had somehow integrated photovoltaics into the new units that they were constantly self-assembling in their underground nests. Not worth even thinking about. She grabbed a pen and labelled the medbot bottle with a serial number and usage date before adding it to her pack.
Making one final scan of the now-trashed apartment, she grabbed Alex, confirmed that she had the bottle of P-W in the lead-lined pocket of her slimline, brushed some bits of debris from her damp hair, and walked with purpose out of room 1218, leaving nothing but some swirling plaster dust in a sunbeam behind her.