October 10th, 2016
There were five of them; former trainees of the Dagger branch of the Despoticanian military. They had failed at a critical point in their training, and now they had been brought to her. She would be their one and only chance of resuming their training.
Colonel Rachel R. Nemes observed the five soldiers with detached interest as they were escorted to the arena. They still had all their gear, from their powered armor and weapons to their combat implants. They towered head and shoulders above the baseline security guards - Why do we still have those? Nemes wondered - and didn't speak a word as the metal gates closed behind them.
"You will either die here or get another chance. Your only hope lies in enduring my attacks for one minute." Nemes had spoken the same words many times. The failed super soldiers were not expected to defeat her, of course; they'd only have to survive. So far none of the failures brought to her had made it, but Nemes knew that in the last two months, some of her siblings had failed to kill all the soldiers before the time limit was up. Progress. "Do you understand?"
"We do. Do what you must." The one who had spoken was the largest of the five, a female. Her face was hidden behind her skull-like helmet, and her voice didn't betray any emotion. That was good. The annihilation of the self was always the first thing the Dagger branch soldiers went through. It was a brutal process, perhaps more so than any of the gruesome physical exercises and modifications that followed. That one is the leader. Kill her first.
"It is on."
Nemes stepped forward and phase shifted. It took less than a microsecond for the shift to be completed. Then she was moving in fast time and the five soldiers were moving as in slow motion. Four of them tried to scatter and take cover among the boulders and sandbags of the arena, but the leader was raising her weapon (a multipurpose assault rifle, presently configured for flechette burst fire) and aiming it at Nemes. Bold. Nemes turned her left arm into a monomolecular blade and, in one swift motion, cleaved the woman in half. The upper half didn't die. It lunged at her, clawing at her with its own arm blades, trying to buy its comrades a few more milliseconds. Nemes simply batted it aside and went in for the next kill. Six seconds had passed.
Her next target was a young male. It still had some of its own personality left. Nemes could see that in the way it flailed its head and limbs. Sloppy. She roared. It was a supersonic pulse meant to stun rather than kill. It hit the man in the chest and sent him stumbling backwards. She'd finish him off in close combat, just to be sure. Ten seconds.
She had barely managed to move two steps before she was hit by concentrated slug fire by two other soldiers who had managed to reach the nominal safety of some nearby steel walls. Her phase field held. She ducked and picked up a stone from the ground. Without aiming, she hurled the stone at one of the soldiers, causing it to break sound barrier three times over. The stone hit the soldier right between the eyes. Its helmet cracked and it fell over. Injured but not dead. Fourteen seconds. Nemes leaped, closing the fifteen-meter distance between herself and the fallen soldier in less than half a second. She landed on its chest with the force of a freight train, shattering armor and bone with a satisfying crunch.
Without pausing, Nemes morphed her right arm into a short-barreled cannon and fired three bursts of half-molten tungsten-uranium shrapnel at the male soldier who was still recovering from the sonic attack. His right shoulder and arm were ripped to shreds but he didn't die. In fact, he had recovered from the sonic pulse and was retrieving a large handgun from his belt. Upgrades? Nemes sent the soldier’s head flying with a single swing of her left arm, now a large club instead of blade.
Three down, two more to go. Twenty-one seconds had passed.
Nemes could easily pinpoint the remaining two soldiers. One of them was directly behind her now, and the other was three and a half meters to her right. She chose the latter as her primary target, punching her way through a steel wall and grapping the surprised soldier by the neck. She sent it flying through the gap in the wall, severing both arms and one leg in the process. The neck was also broken. That soldier would no longer bother her. Twenty-nine seconds.
The final soldier was a tricky one. It had deployed six AI drones between itself and Nemes. She’d have to kill them first. This isn’t actually the final soldier, Nemes realized but she was too busy to devote any more processing power to the realization. She leapt backwards, deflecting the drones’ slug attacks with her arm blades. Her internal mana generator came online, sending magical energies coursing through her carbon nanotube reinforced alicorn bones and manifesting them as a fast moving wall of force between herself and the drones. The wall hit the drones and crushed them almost instantly, turning them into impromptu projectiles that forced the remaining soldier to dodge to the left.
Nemes followed it, intent on finishing the fight quickly. Thirty-seven seconds. The soldier raised its weapon and fired a high-energy particle beam at her from close range. It penetrated her phase field, losing most of its energy in the process, melted the outer layers of her artificial skin and failed to penetrate her reinforced rib cage. She didn’t even bother to leap aside. The soldier would not have enough time to do any real damage, after all.
Nemes squished the soldier’s head between her hands, cracking open the helmet and the skull beneath. Random nerve impulses caused the body to spasm and twitch a few times before it went limp. Nemes tossed the corpse aside and turned just in time to take a burst of flechette fire right in the face. Her skin was ripped to shreds, exposing the machinery beneath. None of the damage was truly serious, but Nemes was slightly surprised: this was the second time one of the failures had managed to hurt her.
She screamed in animalistic anger and activated her mana generator again, creating a maelstrom of raw energy around herself, sending corpses and scattered body parts flying around the arena. Among the flying things she spotted the culprit. It was the upper half of the female soldier who had acted as the leader of the group. It was still alive despite missing both legs and half of its guts. It had crawled away, picked up its weapon and hidden behind some boulders while Nemes was busy slaughtering its companions. Amused, Nemes prepared to fry the torso, but just then something unheard of happened.
Sixty seconds had passed.
The torso still lived. It had won.
Without anger or resentment, Nemes killed the storm and gently placed the torso on the ground. “Well done, corporal. You have earned yourself another chance,” she said.
“We did it together, Operative,” the torso replied. “Before we were brought here, we made a plan. My comrades decided to sacrifice themselves so that I could get another chance. We concluded that I had the greatest potential of us five. The others gave their lives to maximize my chances of survival.”
“So your initial attack was just a diversion. You counted on your survival despite the injuries you would sustain.”
“Yes, Operative. You fell for it.”
“Indeed I did. Maybe it is time for me to be upgraded.”
The security guards entered the arena and carried the torso away. Nemes followed them. She had an appointment with The Despot.
A New Beginning
September 15th, 2016
"It's no use. The hallway's blocked here as well," Chief Scientist Andrea S. Mirpal said. And with that, she resigned to her fate.
Lights had gone out two days ago all over The Despot's fortress, plunging the extensive underground facility in near-total darkness. Only Mirpal's flashlight illuminated the scene ahead: like the ones before, the hallway was blocked by a slowly advancing wall of vines and leaves. Some of the vines were as thick as a man's arm and throbbing disgustingly. Small aubergine fruits grew on them. They looked only partially organic.
The air was hot and humind and carried a sugary whiff.
"No! There has to be a way out! Let's try the east wing. Shaytal's group went there and..." The younger scientist just didn't get it. Mirpal couldn't blame him. This had been his dream job, after all - his chance to be useful and work with the most brilliant minds in Despoticania. Now this place was going to be his grave... or worse. She wasn't sure herself.
"Face it, kid. We're going to die here. He... It doesn't need us anymore."
"He can't do something like this to us! We worked for him! We helped him!"
Before Mirpal could answer, a figure emerged from the darkness and smiled at the two. It's eyes were as dark and dead as a doll's.
"Where do you think you're going?" Nemes said. "Don't you know it's rude to leave when the party is about to start?"
The younger scientist started to cry.
March 31st, 2016
Despoticania Prime, Despoticanian East Coast
It was snowing and -15 degrees Celsius outside. The above ground streets of Despoticania Prime were almost empty. Nothing new there, especially this time of the year; it was still full winter, and a chilling north wind howled above the low buldings. Most of the city was built underground, and while over a million people still lived on the surface, there was barely any sign of them. Even most windows were dark.
A lone figure braved the miserable late winter weather and made its way through wind and snow. The figure - an old woman wrapped in several layers of warm clothing - was in no hurry. She was still a long way from home, but she had plenty of time: like most aging citizens who had opted to remain unaugmented, she had essentially been forced to an early retirement, and these long walks outside were her way of passing time.
She had been around for a while, and the times before the current regime - before The Despot - were still fresh in her mind. In recent years, she had seen many changes take place: people got outside less and less frequently, even during the short green summer. They interacted less, instead preffering to shut themselves in virtual environments for longer and longer periods of time. Even in her retirement home, some of the old woman's friends could spend weeks in elaborate total immersion simulations, living their dreams and childhood fantasies. And now the virtual "Heavens" were opening all over Despoticania, allowing people to enter permanently into vast, shared fantasy worlds while their bodies soaked in tanks of nutrient fluids, deep underground...
As technology and AIs advanced, Despoticania was becoming more and more efficient, but, at the same time, emptier.
The people who still did something had changed as well. They had to, or otherwise they'd be left hopelessly behind in the constant, nationwide quest to transcend one's limits through technology. Various biological and cybernetic augmentations entered marked constantly, and new versions and updates came out almost daily. Flesh was being replaced by metal and ceramics. "Natural" was almost a curse word these days.
The old woman saw movement ahead. She squinted her eyes and tried to see through the constant blizzard. A small group of people were coming her way. She was not alone after all!
She raised her hand to greet the newcomers, but then hesitated. There was something wrong in the figures. It took her a while to realize what bothered her: none of them appeared to have any winter clothing on.
She put her hand down and stood aside just as a group of six marched past her, seemingly without even noticing her. The group consisted of tall men and women of indeterminate age in dark clothing, three each. They could have been siblings: all had black hair and a very pale skin. And their eyes... the old woman didn't want to see their eyes again.
She turned her head away, and for the first time this night, she actually felt cold.
They were becoming more common.