HAM0102032019-06-16T14:52:44+00:00

01.02.03

 

“I didn’t know that was possible,” Tori said some time later. Anya had given her friend the all-clear and now they were eating tacos outside a restaurant in the center of the Riverbanks Zoo.

“Me neither!” Anya said. She looked over her shoulder in the direction of the pangolin habitat. “What the hell, Felix?”

“Uh, sorry,” the AI said within her ear, “The menu system is only supposed to seek out sapient lifeforms. It should have ignored all plant and animal life on this planet in favor of humans. But the batch of menu systems that fell to Earth weren’t behaving as they should. They should have focused solely on population dense areas, but they went everywhere. The prediction date for the enemy alien forces was off by a year. This is likely another result of whatever malfunction occurred to the menu systems prior to planetfall.”

Anya relayed the information to Tori who shook her head. “So those ten-thousand something hosts that all appeared the night this all happened, those could be human. Or they could be dogs or cats or pangolins or anchovies or whatever.”

“There’s a chance they could also be trees or bushes,” Felix added. “Technically alive, even if they’re not sapient or sentient.”

“Fucking cool,” Anya grumbled. “Can you tell how many hosts are non-human?”

“No, sorry again!”

“Great,” Anya wolfed her tacos down in a few bites and sighed. “Even tacos can’t make me happy right now.”

“I can’t decide if it’s better or worse that a menu system is going to waste in an animal than a person,” Tori said. “On the one hand, no chance of that pangolin ordering a nuke and blowing up a city. On the other, that’s one less person to maybe help fight the aliens.”

“Well, I hope it means that all the hosts that got killed the other night were just trees or cockroaches or something,” Anya said. “But yeah, it’s kinda too bad.”

Anya’s ear beeped and she immediately stiffened.

“Felix? What is it?” she asked.

“A data cache has unlocked,” they replied. “It’s a failsafe procedure in case of improper menu integration. In the event that a menu system is integrated into a non-responsive host, initial activation of the menu will raise host’s intelligence and awareness to basic functionality and allow independent menu use.”

Anya repeated the news to Tori, whose eyes widened as she listened. The filling in her taco fell out the back of the corn tortilla onto her plate with a wet splat as she gaped at Anya.

“So that pangolin could become super smart? Human-level smart?” Tori asked.

“That’s what it sounds like,” Anya said. “Felix?”

“The data cache doesn’t specify beyond the host being able to function at an ‘acceptable level,’ whatever that means. I would assume that means just enough to understand what the menu is trying to tell it. I think it was more of a failsafe for sapient hosts who might be comatose or otherwise unable to respond at all, but it should also work in this case.”

“Hmm,” Anya said. “So would I just have to touch its menu area or what?”

“Sounds like you can. In the event of emergency, another host may initiate primary activation, but nothing after.”

“So I can turn it on, but nothing else? I can’t choose the pangolin’s skills and it can’t choose mine?”

“You got it!”

“Am I gonna have to just like, poke the little guy all over or what?”

“In much the same way the menu can track the location of hosts in the world, it can locate the point of physical integration if you’re close enough,” Felix said. “I’ll be able to tell you where the menu entered the host, no problem! Then you just poke it and it’s ready to go!”

“Do you even want to make the little guy intelligent?” Tori asked. “I mean, it’d be kinda cool, but, also why? The pangolin could be really weird if it becomes smart. Or crazy. Or homicidal.”

“True, but what if I just leave it here? It’s a target for the aliens, and if it’s stuck in that cage, what happens when one of those things shows up for it?” Anya gestured at the families around them. Tori frowned as she surveyed the crowd milling around the shops and restaurants. Parents with kids, some students on a field trip, couples on dates, just having a nice day at the zoo.

“I got lucky in Prospect Park. It was late and only a few people died. If an alien showed up here? Now? How many people would it get if we just leave the pangolin sitting there?”

“I suppose you could just take it and not try and activate it, assuming you could somehow. But then you’d be babysitting a wild animal,” Tori mused.

“Yeah, not ideal,” Anya said and sighed. She had come here to save somebody, maybe somebody who could help or at least empathize with everything crazy going on. Instead there was just a pangolin scratching around in the dirt.

“So, what now?” Tori asked, and the question pressed against Anya’s temples so hard that she groaned. She had been asking herself that since Friday night, flailing around for the past several days. She had just been reacting to things, looking for help in the wrong places. Maybe the cops or the feds could help, but the chance of them seeing her as another alien threat was just as (if not more) likely. But an invasion of Earth and playing host to alien tech wasn’t something she could just play by ear. She was incredibly lucky, more than anything, that she hadn’t been killed right alongside Carl last night.

She needed help. A lot of it. And if the other menu users were feeling half as lost as she was, they needed as much help as she did.

“Whether or not that pangolin’s menu gets activated, I can’t leave it out in the open where it, and anybody in the zoo, could be at risk. We gotta get it out of here,” Anya said. “And I can’t do this alone.”

“Okay?” Tori said. “So you need me to help you steal an endangered animal?”

“Not what I meant. I meant I can’t do this,” Anya said and waved her arms, “all of it, alone. The invasion, contacting the government, it’s too much for one person and I can’t just keep winging it and hoping I don’t get my head smashed off my shoulders. But first, yes I’m going to steal an endangered animal and I could use some help.”

Tori raised her eyebrows and gulped.
 

 

Anya took a detour into the nearest restroom and used the RAC store to order herself a khaki shirt and pair of shorts almost identical to what Frank the zookeeper had been wearing in the pangolin exhibit. It only cost her 3 RAC, and she figured that was more than worth avoiding suspicious gazes. There were no Riverbanks Zoo patches or nametags in the store, but Anya figured it would do for what she hoped was a quick operation. She just needed people to not stare at her too closely.

She threw her regular clothes in the back of the V-187, then returned to the central area of the zoo. Tori was in place, standing alongside the edge of the pangolin enclosure. Frank was the only zookeeper nearby, and Anya made sure to stay as much out of his field of vision as she could. Visitors to the zoo might dismiss her as just another member of zoo staff, but she doubted the actual workers would. Anya nodded at her friend, who nodded back as Anya walked past the enclosure to the far side.

The pangolin enclosure was attached to a squat brick building covered in ivy. A single door to the rear of the enclosure displayed a “STAFF ONLY” sign and was, of course, locked. Anya glanced over her shoulders and whispered a thanks that she was doing this on a weekday when the crowds were sparse. A few people passed along behind her, but they ignored the sight of yet-another khaki-clad person standing near a staff entrance.

Anya focused her concentration to the tip of her index finger and a white hot jet of flame two inches long appeared. She directed the flame to the keyhole, rather than the bolt between the door and the frame itself. She kept her tall frame directly in front of the lock to hide what she was doing from passersby. The flame jetting from her finger was far hotter than anything she had summoned before. It was tiny, but the immense amount of heat she poured into the point of her finger was a significant drain. She winced as the heat was so intense, it started to burn her finger.

Not immune to fire and heat yet, I guess, Anya thought. She had to channel more energy into keeping the heat away from her flesh, which further drained her. She took in the warmth from the sun around her, but was careful to not absorb any from the lock itself. Even with the ambient heat from the air and the sidewalk, the well of fire within her sun’s heart was dropping far quicker than she could refill it.

“So they’re usually nocturnal?” Anya heard Tori ask from the front end of the pangolin enclosure. She didn’t quite catch Frank’s reply, but Tori knew to keep him talking, keep him focused away from the back of the enclosure.

Anya tightened her other hand on the door handle and pulled it toward her with a grunt. Her muscles flexed as she pulled harder and the door moved toward her. The lock was a bright, bubbling red and Anya had to take a step back as liquid metal hissed to the ground. The more delicate components of the lock melted and gave way, and the solid steel bolt that held the door in place slipped out and clattered to the ground on the other side.

Anya let out a sigh of relief as she immediately sucked up the remaining heat from the slagged metal lock. She had just started to get a little dizzy, and even with absorbing all of the heat from the molten lock, she still needed a moment to catch her breath. When the lock was cool to the touch and not a glowing red beacon, she opened the door fully and let herself inside.

She entered a small, utilitarian room filled with a wide open enclosure lined with dirt and straw, a number of metallic shelves and a single metal table, and a pair of large metallic cages. The shelves were lined with plastic bins containing countless ants, as well as bottles of chemicals and other fluids she couldn’t guess at, and a few blankets. The two metal cages were both empty, and rested on top of a wheeled platform with a big handle on the back. There was another metal door that led out into the main enclosure at the far end of the room, this one unlocked. A clipboard with a pen on a chain hung on a nail beside the door, and several papers rustled in the breeze as Anya entered. The small room had the smell of straw, feces, and the sharp tang of cleaning fluid. Anya wrinkled her nose as she took out her phone and texted Tori once she was sure nobody was in the room or about to burst in behind her.
 
ANYA: I’m in.
TORI: K. Good here.
 

“Felix, can you ping it? Tell me exactly where it is?” Anya asked as she stood in front of the other door. “And when we get close, tell me exactly where its menu system is. I don’t want to trigger it by accident.”

“Sure! The host is currently out that door and 5 yards to your left,” Felix said.

“Okay, just gotta act natural,” Anya said and took a breath. While Tori could keep Frank’s attention, she couldn’t distract the other onlookers. Hopefully, if Anya kept her cool and didn’t make a ruckus, they would just think she was doing her job and taking the pangolin back for a check-up or something. Anya opened the door with as little sound as possible and held it open with a jug of water from the shelf nearby, then stepped out into the enclosure.

Tori locked eyes with her as she emerged and then focused back on Frank. The zookeeper started to turn, as if he had heard the door or caught a glimpse of movement, but then Tori pointed at one of the pangolin near the front of the enclosure.

“Is that one male or female?” Tori asked. “Do the males have bigger claws or anything?”

“Well, aside from the usual anatomical differences, you can tell males from females by…” Frank launched into another informative speech as he looked at where Tori pointed. Anya didn’t waste a second. She spotted the host pangolin and made right for it. It was bigger looking up close, but still no bigger than a mid-to-large-sized dog. It turned its long head towards her, and its long, thin, bright pink tongue curled out and back into its mouth. Its tiny nose twitched and its small black eyes sparkled.

“Felix?” Anya whispered as she bent down.

“It’s menu is on the outer tail, halfway down and in the center,” Felix replied.

“Okay, just gotta not touch the middle tail,” Anya muttered as she reached for the pangolin. It took an awkward step away from her, then curled up into a tight ball of hard scales. Anya decided that was far better than it trying to run, and grunted as she curled her arms around it and hoisted it up. It wasn’t as heavy as she feared, but it was awkward as hell to carry while avoiding part of its tail.

She turned back toward the door with another grunt and then froze when somebody in the crowd asked, “Where’s that one going?”

“Which one?” Frank asked and turned before Tori could get his attention. “Oh!”

Anya froze, her back to Frank, one foot inside the staff room. Her first instinct was to bolt and lock the door behind her. But Frank and the people in the crowd would cause an uproar if she did.

“The doc says she wanted to see this one, said it wasn’t eating as much and losing weight,” Anya called over her shoulder. From his position, Frank couldn’t see her lack of nametag or Riverbanks Zoo patch. He still wasn’t going to mistake her for a regular staff member though, so she added, “Heck of a thing to have to deal with on my first day. Little guy’s heavier than he looks.”

“Oh, huh,” Frank said and Anya glanced over her shoulder at Frank and smiled as sweat started to bead her forehead. Tori stared at her wide-eyed, mouth pulled down in a tight bow as if watching a train-wreck in slow motion.

Frank shrugged and asked, “You know about filling the form out, right?”

“Y-yeah,” Anya replied and recalled the clipboard hanging from the nail. “By the door, right?”

“You got it!” Frank said and nodded. Anya hurried inside the tiny room and kicked the door shut behind her.

Anya put the terrified pangolin in one of the cages, made sure it was secure on the wheeled platform, then covered it with a blanket from the shelves. She wheeled the platform and cage back outside onto the major walkway and hurried away at what she hoped was a discrete pace. She stayed as far away from the edges of the pangolin enclosure to avoid Frank, and texted Tori to meet her at the V-187.

Her friend didn’t respond, but emerged from around a corner with a panicked look on her face. Anya’s stomach dipped.

“Go!” Tori hissed and fell into step beside Anya.

“What?” Anya said. “What’s going on?”

“He radioed the zoo’s doctor like, a minute after you left,” Tori said. Anya was speed walking, but Tori had to practically run to keep up with her long stride.

“Aw, shit,” Anya said. She pulled over to the side of the walkway and crouched beside the cage.

“What’re you doing?” Tori asked. “We gotta go!”

“Yeah, which is why I’m doing this now,” Anya opened the cage and took the pangolin out. It was still curled up into a ball and offered no resistance, even when Anya wrapped the blanket around it. “This cage is gonna be a pain in the ass to get into the V-187, so I’m just gonna leave it.”

“Excuse me?” somebody asked from the way Anya and Tori had just come. Anya caught a glimpse of a khaki uniform and bolted to her feet and fled. She didn’t even bother to attempt a cover story, only a quick glance back to see if Tori was following.

Tori had already taken off at speed and was several paces ahead of her.

“Hey!” the voice of the zookeeper behind them shouted in alarm and anger. “Stop them!”

To Anya’s relief, not many people were willing to try and stop a towering woman at a full clip while she carried a pangolin. She caught up to Tori in a few strides and hurried on ahead. She reached the V-187 within moments and bounced on her feet as the vehicle scanned her and opened its invisible door. She was drawing attention now, stares from zoo-goers who couldn’t help but notice the nervous red-head cradling a squirming animal.

“What the hell?” one man said from the pathway as he saw the interior of the V-187 appear from thin air.

Tori ran up behind Anya as she placed the pangolin down on the floor of the craft and got into the pilot’s seat. Her friend had pulled the collar of her shirt up to obscure her face, and all but dove into the rear of the V-187 once she had enough room. Anya closed the door behind her just as people had begun to take out their phones to record or snap a photo.

“Pre-flight check,” Anya muttered and scanned everything on the panels around her as she strapped in.

“Anya?” Tori said as she buckled up. “They’re here.”

Anya spared a quick glance to the side and saw a handful of zookeepers with radios out pause on the walkway. The tourists pointed at the empty space where the V-187 hovered, and the zookeepers squinted at it. One of them, Frank, leaned forward and touched the side of the stealth craft. His eyes widened and he jumped back in surprise.

“We’re good,” Anya said as she finished checking the multiple readouts. She placed her hands on the silver guidance discs and began to raise the vehicle up. Frank backed away further and fell onto his rear when he reached the pathway. Anya could only imagine how this must look from outside: a couple women stealing a pangolin and disappearing into the air, then a shimmering outline of some sort of craft ascending through the trees with no more noise than a strong breeze.

“Oh man, they are freaking out,” Tori said as she looked out the window and down. Anya didn’t bother to look. She mostly focused on not taking off too fast and smashing through the trees. Their branches parted around the V-187 and slid past its smooth contours until Anya was free of them and above the canopy.

“Pangolin okay?” Anya asked over her shoulder.

“Uh, I guess. I’ll try and keep it steady,” Tori said and braced her hands against it.

“Good enough. I’ll keep it slow,” Anya said, and then soared away from the Riverbanks Zoo and the stunned crowd below.

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