Over at terribleminds, Chuck Wendig presents a weekly flash fiction challenge. In this case, “Roll for Title!” I found myself assigned with “The Cerulean Champion.”
Please to enjoy.
The Cerulean Champion
Mikala Kala pushed aside the toppled dining room table that barred her path.
It was a wonder the thing was still intact. The table had been pushed back into the hallway and wedged between two doors.
“Sorry, Kal,” said Vincent, his voice tinny through the headset in her headpiece. “It’s the most direct route the computers could suss out.”
Through a house? The computer had led Mikala through the back wall, a soft spot where the supporting frame left an opening of mostly drywall that she hacked through with a crowbar.
Mikala tried very hard to not notice the shadows of the house’s former residents against the walls of the living room.
The couch sat, more or less incinerated, off to one side, giving Mikala an open field of broken glass to cross.
“The computers couldn’t even see the bomb headed straight for one of their processors,” Mikala muttered. “Why should we expect them to do anything right?”
“That’s not fair, Kal,” said Vincent. “They didn’t calculate the possibility, but who could have?”
Dust floated, suspended in the air by drafts that cut through the house. It tried to cling to Mikala’s visor but the electrostatic dampeners reduced the cling.
“I shouldn’t be out here,” Mikala said for the tenth time.
“I’m sorry,” Vincent replied, also for the tenth time. “I wish it was me.”
“Then you’d have me jabbering into your ear all the time.”
Vincent laughed. “I guess I get that either way.” His tone sobered and Mikala pictured him wiping sweat away from his face — the static rumbling on her suit’s internal speaker indicated she had called that correctly. “What is the situation?”
Mikala stepped across the glass field, boots crunching, and touched the front door.
Amazingly, it had remained on its hinges, but her soft nudge set it to a loose wobbling openward.
Outside the house, the street looked almost normal.
Recently paved and painted, it could have been in any modern suburb.
If not for the grass that sat in patches, some burned away, some still on fire.
If not for the ash that swirled in the air and attached to any surface it could find, and infinite eddying cycle that always found more ash to add to the mass.
If not for the dark streaks, all that remained of the town’s residents other than a femur here, part of a skull there, all burned to the black and looking like they might collapse at the first sign of a breeze.
“Remarkably precise,” Mikala reported to her counterpart back at the alpha base. “It’s like night and day.” A few dozen yards back, everything had seemed relatively normal, save for the smoke staining the sky and the tick-tick-tickedy of her Geiger counter, which now seemed a constant sound with only occasional breaks to let her know that one particular spot was just a little less irradiated than the rest.
“Good, Kal,” Vincent said. “The computer indicates your target can be found half a click down North Street.”
“Half a click?” Mikala sighed. “I haven’t been through op training like you, Vincent. Nor have I read your expansive Tom Clancy collection.”
Vincent coughed. “Er, sorry, Mikala. Maybe half a mile? I’m just reading what the computer sends.”
Mikala moved down the street, taking a wide path to avoid the school bus that had been pulled up to the curb, its little stop sign still extended and door open.
She shuddered at that.
Anything else, Mikala reminded herself. Think about anything else, and you’ll be fine.
“Has the computer indicated any difference in its operation since the attack?”
Mikala heard Vincent draw in a breath, another tic of his; this one gave away his hesitation. “ARNOLD has said nothing about it, but…”
“But you should see the way he’s acting. If they had designed the thing with fingernails on its hands, I think ARNOLD would have chewed them all off.”
“Tell him I’ll do my best,” Mikala said, trying to ignore the strangeness of comforting a computer.
She could, in theory, offer it a shoulder to cry on, assuming they upgraded the machine to feature tear ducts, but ARNOLD was less obviously sensitive in that way.
Her target, KRISTA, was more so.
Mikala hated that the enemy had targeted KRISTA instead of ARNOLD.
She hated that she was out here at all.
“I think I should save some of this cerulean,” Mikala said, glancing down at the Geiger counter. “I’m not sure my suit can stand up to radiation this intense.”
NEGATIVE, came a direct message from ARNOLD, his voice synthesized into Mikala’s headset.
Again, the hesitation came across the static filled comms. “We’ll see.” said Vincent finally.
Mikala knew that Vincent would not have sent her out like this if he had any choice. The circumstances had dictated the outcome, and sheer bad luck had contributed.
Finally, Mikala stood before the stout red brick house. The bomb had struck nearby, and blown off plenty of the outer facade, but enough of the bricks remained to help her recognize it.
Beneath the bricks was a solid metal shell, and within that, several layers of protective materials, filters, a Faraday cage, all intended to keep the occupant safe.
The house was smaller inside than it looked, due to walls several feet thick.
“I have arrived,” Mikala reported.
“Get in there,” Vincent commanded. “I’ll walk you through the use of the cerulean.”
“It’s like the Prussian blue,” Mikala stated as she stepped up onto the porch. “Inject and wait.”
“Yes, but you need precision when injecting KRISTA–”
Mikala yelped, cutting Vincent off, as her foot sank into a crack in the porch. It was apparently not reinforced like the rest of the abode.
PROCEED, commanded ARNOLD.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Vincent.”
She pulled herself up onto the porch again, waved a hand at the door knocker.
It still had some emergency power and the door slid open bit by bit, creaking.
Mikala stepped through the front door.
KRISTA lay in the far corner, her body displaying scorch marks where her clothes had caught fire. The synthetic hair had charred and mostly burned away, giving the mobile computer a frightening visage.
“Can you hear me?” Mikala asked.
PROCEED, commanded ARNOLD.
“Vincent, can you–?”
“On it,” said Vincent. Mikala heard keyboard keys clack and the tone of the static on the comms shifted, cutting ARNOLD out of their conversation.
“Okay, start with her left arm,” Vincent said.
Mikala coughed, her head swimming. “You know, if you had lost some weight, it probably would be you out here.”
“I would have to cut off my legs at the knees, too,” Vincent retorted. “You’re just the lucky winner of the shortest crew member competition.”
“Next time, we keep radiation suits from the big and tall department at the alpha site.”
“Promise,” said Vincent.
Mikala took out the syringe, filled with the bright blue liquid, from the pouch at her waist. “Is it any good to use this here? Won’t she just be, I don’t know, re-irradiated?”
“Unless you think you can carry her, I don’t know what else to do. We need KRISTA.”
Mikala lifted KRISTA’s arm, several pounds heavier than she might have expected if she did not know the heavy metal alloys that composed her skeleton.
The skin was relatively clean, and Mikala did not need to worry much about infection. At this point, that was the least of KRISTA’s worries.
The needle entered as it should, into the crook in the elbow, and Mikala depressed the plunger.
Her eyes shut.
“–with me!” shouted Vincent. “Mikala, tell me–”
“Yeah,” Mikala said, shaking her head. “No need to shout.”
“You have two syringes left to inject.”
The other arm was next. Mikala left the first syringe in place. KRISTA could take it out at her leisure.
Mikala tried several times to get the needle to connect where it ought, but her shaking hands made it difficult. She even pushed the plunger down, thinking it had connected with KRISTA’s robotic vein, but the cerulean dribbled out of the puncture and she stopped.
“Just focus on the task,” Vincent advised.
Mikala’s breath seemed to fog up her visor. She held it and gave another try, finally connecting the needle to its target.
The held breath released with a fit of coughing, accompanied by a coppery taste in her mouth.
“One more to go, Kal.”
“I’m sorry,” Vincent said for the eleventh time. “We need KRISTA. There’s no way we can survive without her.”
The cerulean began to dribble out of KRISTA’s mouth and nostrils, and the machine began to move, rocking back and forth in its corner.
“She might be able to make it on this much,” Mikala said, holding the last syringe up. “If I–”
IT CANNOT BE RISKED.
Apparently, ARNOLD had forced its way into their comms feed again.
“The computers are no good without each other,” Vincent said, his tone flat but tinged with a razor-fine dedication that Mikala had always loved in him. “Parallel processors. You helped design them, Kal.”
POTENTIAL FOR SECONDARY STRIKE, said ARNOLD. ESTIMATED TIME: TWO HOURS. FOUR HOURS. THREE MINUTES.
“If KRISTA doesn’t get out of there, we’re screwed,” said Vincent.
“I wouldn’t ask you to–”
The cerulean could leech the radiation from Mikala’s body, same as the organic computer laying on the floor beneath her. It might be enough to get her out of there.
“You know,” Mikala said to no one in particular, though she knew Vincent listened to every word intently. “By proxy, I came up with this stuff. The cerulean.”
In truth, it had been ARNOLD and KRISTA working together that had improved the original Prussian blue, a life saving concoction, and it would be more so if it was not in such limited supply.
“We need her,” Vincent stated. “I need you, but we need her.”
Another fit of coughs deposited blood on Mikala’s visor.
“She will be moving shortly.”
Mikala jabbed the needle into KRISTA’s neck.
It was her responsibility to save her creation. Mikala was the only one who could, now.
Mikala depressed the plunger.
She could save KRISTA, protect the rest of her friends, protect Vincent, with one small choice.
Mikala watched the cerulean slide into KRISTA’s veins, watched the cerulean dribble out of her orifices stained with black.
After injecting her, Mikala sat down in the corner, needing a break before heading back.
Winded. Crossing the destroyed neighborhood, especially in the tiny radiation suit, perfectly sized for her but still clumsy, had drained her.
Mikala just needed a break.
KRISTA stood above her, Mikala realized. The robot had torn away the charred remains of her clothes and stood. Other than the charred scalp, she looked almost the same as Mikala had brought her into the world a year before.
THANK YOU, said KRISTA, her voice taking a slightly more feminine tone in the emulator on her headset.
“No problem,” Mikala murmured. “Tell Vincent…” She trailed off.
As KRISTA stepped toward the door, Mikala sighed.
Just a little break.
Mikala shut her weary eyes.