Refuge from the Thunder
By: Josh Poole and Travis Wellman

Jake stood at the mouth of the cave, staring at the flashes of explosions in the distance as a curtain of rain fell. A fresh wound seeped blood from his temple, sending a ribbon down to his chin before it dropped to the cave floor in warm beads. A Gauss rifle hung loosely over his shoulder, a heavy weapon built to take out small mechs and even puncture the cockpits of an HK Attack Ship if you were lucky enough to hit the same spot a few times. On his hip was a pistol with a full 15-round magazine left in it, not that it'd do him any good against most anything he'd come across.

Jake spun around and walked back further into the cave, taking off a battered breast plate that clung loosely to his torso. It fell to the rocky cave floor with a heavy clang, and left Jake wearing only his combat pants, mud-laden boots, and a gray tank top saturated with blood, sweat, and grease. He ran a calloused hand through his short hair as he approached a vaguely humanoid robot at the back of the cave.

F.UAnD1 wished he had been outfitted with a more relevant loadout. His creators had more focused on giving him a gender and a personality that would entertain a certain type of person rather than do anything useful. So instead of assisting Jake, like any other automaton would, he was cowering in the back of the cave, his algorithms and circuits firing all over the place in confusion. The only remotely useful tool he had was a sensor that could gauge stress levels in humans that could, in theory, detect nearby enemies should they not be wearing stealth gear.

"Jake, it isn't healthy to be this stressed out. You should really try to relax." His silky, programmed voice flowed across the cave as his sensors showed Jake's stress level pinging.

"Thanks. I'll get right to it. Just after I win this war single-handedly and become emperor of the universe," Jake retorted in a tone that F.UAnD1 recognized from his years of servitude as sarcasm.

"Your inconsistent tone is making a proper communication channel difficult," the robot spoke softly, "should I dress that wound?" Dust rained from the ceiling of the cave in the aftershocks of another massive, but distant explosion.

Jake slumped down against the opposite wall, allowing his head to clack against the stone as he stared indifferently at the robot, "you come near me with a needle, and I'll show you what a Gauss round can do to a civi model." Part of him wondered if the last explosion had been one of the HK Attack Ships meeting a fiery doom, or if it had been one of the K-Tave Mobile Pursuit Mechs reaching an equal conflagration and having its nuclear core break down.

F.UAnD1 tilted his cylindrical head, "we both know the concussion would kill you as well, you are out of options." The machine shrugged.

Jake pulled the pistol from his holster and slowly pointed it at F.UAnD1, "am I?"

"You are making it difficult to establish a dialogue."

"You're a sex robot. I'm a soldier. We don't have a lot in common."

"You would be surprised at the number of things that overlap between the two. However, if you want, you could always take me back to the city where you found me," F.UAnD1 spoke like a military psychiatrist.

"There's nothing left of Lanteen," Jake replied, "besides, I need a spotter."

Lanteen had been a neutral city, a place untouched by the war for several years until, Jake supposed, the armies ran out of places to kill each other. It was a trade city, one that specialized in semi-precious metals, the usual economy for an outer world with no irrigable land. Jake still had most of his platoon when they found F.UAnD1 dragging around the body of a client slain by stray rounds, their wrists handcuffed together. The squad gunner, Tapper, sent a volley into the corpse's wrist, severing it from the robot who, without any potential clients remaining in a war-torn city, began following them as a sentinel.

"I know that. I was there after all… Maybe just a neck massage to release some of that tension then?"

"Keep those metal mitts to yourself!"

"Oh, right," F.UAnD1 looked down at the remains of his hands. Where there had once been layers of synthetic flesh indistinguishable from human tissue, there were now slender metal fingers attached to a skeletal wrist filled with wires and ball-bearings.

Only Jake and the squad leader, an old man named Kristof, were left when F.UAnD1 lost his silicone-based exo layer. They were planting charges on a fueling HK transport when the ship suddenly took off, roasting F.UAnD1 beneath a stabilizing thruster and transmogrifying it from a young human male analog to a collection of cylindrical limbs and a faceless head. A week later, Kristof was killed by a mine, one that could've been placed by either side or even a civilian with no discernible goals but to get back at something, anything that had caused them so much pain.

The slightest movements at the mouth of the cave snapped Jake from his reverie, with the familiar form of someone with a shouldered rifle stumbling over the rocks just outside.

"Friendly?" Jake quietly said as he squinted.

"Four HK soldiers comprised of one shock troop, three riflemen," F.UAnD1 relayed.

"Shit," Jake groaned, staggering to his feet to maneuver deeper into the cave.

"They'll find us if they come in," the robot's silky-smooth voice crooned from behind.

"I'll have a present for them," Jake replied, tucking himself behind a large rock and shouldering the gauss rifle.

F.UAnD1 didn't reply, but instead slinked down next to the soldier and peered over the rock as the group of hostiles slowly entered the cave. It was dark in the rear of the cave, dark enough to keep them from being detected so long as the other soldiers didn't have thermal optics.

"Shouldn't have taken off that breast plate," the robot mused in a tone that was frustratingly sensual.

"Mention that again and I'll use you as bait," Jake replied, peering at the soldiers through his scope and knowing that a single shot would disintegrate every target at the price of likely dying in the muzzle concussion.

"That's our best option actually," F.UAnD1 said, as he scanned the soldiers from his concealed position. "They all display stress levels far more elevated than your own. If I were to act as bait, they should be easy targets for you. Most likely, they were recently in active combat."

"I can't fire this Gauss rifle in the cave, we'd get our insides scrambled," Jake shrugged off the proposal. He watched as the men took up defensive positions at the mouth, although one kept his gun pointed down the cave in guard of their rear.

"I was referring to the pistol, you have 15 rounds, and your average accuracy since I've met you is roughly 12% with it, but much higher if you factor in an ambush scenario." F.UAnD1 stood up, "follow my lead."

"No, no, no, no!" Jake hissed, but the robot was already shuffling out from their hiding spot and towards the soldiers. The robots' metallic hands were held above its head, glistening even in the low-light of the cave.

The men trained their weapons on the loud figure approaching them.

"Don't shoot!" F.UAnD1 called out, coming to a stop halfway to the soldiers, "I'm a luxury escort robot!"

"Don't look like one!" a man replied but didn't fire his weapon.

"I was damaged in a structure fire before fleeing the city! I still have significant market value!" F.UAnD1 took another timid step forward, and still none of the soldiers fired.

"We don't care about market value," one of the soldiers replied, before pausing and turning towards one of his compatriots. "We might be able to strip him for parts though. There could be enough usable components in him to get one of the hovers running again."

"I am not programmed for combat, you can do what you wish," F.UAnD1 shrugged.

Another soldier retorted, "Didn't you hear him you dumb tin can? We're going to use you for parts to fix our hover."

"I'm only programmed to please clients, not to engage." F.UAnD1 began walking towards the group, his arms still extended into the air.

Several lights began flashing from the soldier's helmets, illuminating the robot like it was in broad daylight while Jake remained mostly undetectable far behind.

"Of all the ways to get myself killed," Jake said through clenched teeth, setting down his Gauss rifle and pulling his pistol out from its holster before taking aim.

"Well, what are you waiting for?" one of the soldiers barked at another, "let's take it apart."

Without another word, the soldiers descended upon F.UAnD1, analyzing his structures and conjecturing on the best way to disassemble him without damaging any parts. Jake, meanwhile, was still staring with his sights oscillating between the best targets as the soldiers moved around no more than ten yards away with their weapons shouldered. With four combatants, and the range involved, there was no way he could take them all out without hitting F.UAnD1 as well, assuming the soldiers weren't covered in armor that would deflect the pistol rounds in the first place.

"You should all put your armor back on," F.UAnD1 instructed, as if he somehow knew what Jake was thinking of, "your chances of survival are higher with the standard issue breast and shoulder plates."

Jake took a deep breath, shrugging as both blood and sweat streamed down his face, and began firing away. The soldiers yelled and screamed, their lights flashing all over the inside of the cave as Jake emptied the magazine with careful, rapid shots. The figures dropped to the floor, falling one after the other into crumpled messes around F.UAnD1. The robot, however, stood entirely unfazed by the ordeal.

"You okay?" Jake yelled out as he holstered the empty handgun and began a timid approach.

"I have been struck fifteen times. Oh, wait, hold on, I have fifteen holes, but it looks like only eight of them are entry holes," the robot stuck its mechanical fingers into one of the holes in its torso.

"What about them?" Jake said with a handwave at the bodies lying on the ground.

"Their stress levels have all been reduced to zero. So, they are either dead or very relaxed, the latter of which I find highly unlikely." F.UAnD1 waved a hand at the bodies around him.

"At least their guns are still loaded," Jake said with a shrug, as he bent over to pick up a rifle next to a body.

"Do you think that improves our chances of survival?" The robot's silky voice a bizarre aberration for the present situation.

"Not really," Jake replied as he gathered ammunition from the fresh corpses.

"But it makes you feel better, right?" F.UAnD1 nudged one of the bodies with his foot.

"It makes me feel a hell of a lot better." Jake wandered back and grabbed his Gauss rifle, tossing it to the robot.

"I'm not programmed to inflict pain, unless it's consensual."

"You programmed to carry stuff?" Jake laughed as he walked to the cave mouth.

"Affirmative," F.UAnD1 replied in a mock-robotic voice.

Jake took a step outside of the cave, staring up at the night sky and at the flashes of explosions still rumbling in the distance. F.UAnD1 emerged a few seconds later carrying the Gauss rifle awkwardly.

"What's the plan?" the robot asked.

"Same as always. Kill the enemy, take their stuff, use that stuff to kill more of them. Eventually it'll be over, yeah?" Jake checked the internals on his new rifle before slamming the bolt shut.

"Sounds like a plan," F.UAnD1 replied as another impact shook the entire mountain.



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