The one they called The Lance was there for business

Posted by Rich Magahiz Wed, 27 Feb 2013 00:57:00 GMT

The Lance raised his cutting laser over his head for emphasis. “Open this gate before you make me cut it open!” The weapon was heavy, however, so he ended up resting its butt back on the asphalt while he awaited an answer to his ultimatum.

The answer came in the form of a swarm of chrome beetles which dove at Lance from all directions. He lifted his laser and flipped up the safety, then keyed the switch. A thin red line came out of the front of the device, but this was merely the targetting laser. Then the main banks came on and the invisible cutting beam started the work of slicing the doors off of their hinges. All the while, the chrome beetles dove at his eyes and exposed skin, causing a great deal of discomfort, though nothing fatal.

The Lance kicked the heavy gates, which twisted a few inches. He knew better than to batter them with his shoulder, which he instinctively protected after having had to go to physical therapy to treat for several months last year. There was a gap up at the top of the left hand jamb wide enough for him to stick one of the power packs off of his belt into. He flattened himself against the concrete to one side, waving at the beetles buzzing around him for one, two, three long seconds. Then with a loud fizz the pack split with concussive impact, cleaving the gate completely free on that side and knocking about a dozen of the mechanized bugs to the ground from the shock. The Lance strode forward and through the gap and the rest of them did not follow.

What he saw didn’t measure up to the tales he had heard of the legendary Titanium Order and their secret city, for the view cut off only another dozen feet forward in a featureless wall. The Lance said a bad word and stomped his heavy boot. “Aw, man, am I going to have to cut through this entire mountain? This is so incredibly frustrating I can’t even express my dissatisfaction!”

At this, the stony appearance of the wall started to shift to a milky opalescence with a glow of its own. A glowing vertical line taller than he was ran down from the ceiling, though whether it was being projected onto the wall or was coming through the wall was not entirely obvious to Lance.

“Hello? Is there someone in charge of letting heroes through here?” he bellowed. He was inclined to think that the line would be useful to him mainly as an indication of where to cut, but he thought he’d try sparing his cutter if he could, hoping he could logic his way in. Nothing happened.

He put his cutter down and laid his hands on either side of the glowing stripe to try to feel whether it was about to swing open. A dense forest of symbols in half a dozen colors crowded the space around each of his hands, all different sizes and shapes, some of them blinking and others rotating. A message, obviously, left here by the Titanium Order, but how was he to decipher it?

Lance flexed his fingers against the warm surface, hoping that the two sides would simply slide apart with a little coaxing. The symbols on either side shifted along with his hand, in a manner similar to the way the chrome beetles had swarmed around his head when he moved, but the wall itself was fixed. The shapes were like nothing he had ever seen before and the sheer profusion of them made his head swim. There was some kind of pattern here that responded to his touch, but how did it work?

He lifted his fingers away from the wall but the colored shapes remained. Lance fumed, thinking of the time he’d already wasted on the road here and how long it would be to make his way back. These stupid intelligence tests were just the kind of thing that sent his blood pressure through the roof, and wouldn’t it just be the typical kind of thing a lost civilization of mechanical geniuses was going to throw up in his way. That was the main thing he hated about this line of work, having to deal with conceited little nerds who hold all the keys and dole out little scraps here and there to lunkheads like him.

Just then he noticed a pattern in the dancing symbols. Here, a rotating red squarish blob, there a stationary yellow squarish blob. On the left, a circle with a splotch, and on the right a slightly squashed roundish thing with its own splotch. This was all too familiar, from web portals and banking sites and comments on blogs: the Titanium Order was putting up a CAPTCHA to weed out the less intelligent from entering their domain!

“Well, screw that,” Lance growled, as he grabbed up his cutting laser and thumbed it back to life. He hated CAPTCHAs with an undying hatred. Soon, the red beam and the murderously powerful invisible one were trained dead center on the dancing display.

Out went the lights, with the first pulse of energy, and something popped overhead. The Lance instinctively dodged to one side, losing his grip on the cutter and straining one of his bad knees. He looked up and saw a hatch in the ceiling deposit a grapefruit-sized rubbery green object where he had been standing. Its surface was alive with bumps and tendrils and what looked like tiny pincers, and as it sprouted a set of stubby legs, the adventurer backed away from it.

“Whoa, stay right there,” he stammered. “Whether you’re a bomb or parasite, I’m prepared to drill you where you stand unless I get some damn answers.”

“Your device is discharged,” the green ball said in excellent English. And so it was, completely dead with all the happy lights out.

Lance said something in non-standard English, then “Did you do that? Because if you broke it, by God, I will sue somebody!”

The green ball propelled itself right between his feet, much closer than Lance preferred, then said, “It is what happens to those who try to break in to this city.”

“Wait a minute, are you from the Titanium Order? Because I have some business to take up with you guys, if so.”

“The Titanium Order is long gone. I represent the guardian of this city of theirs and can discuss the terms of your business.”

“Yes, my business,” said Lance, “This will only take a minute.”

“It will,” said the ball, “if you’ve properly registered on the Titanium Order website.”

The Lance made a face as if he’d been insulted. “Of course I registered, long before I headed out this way in the first place.”

“In that case, you should have known how to make your way past the portal without resorting to violence.”

Lance frowned. “Are you telling me that there were some instructions I was supposed to see?”

“There were. At the end of the user agreement.”

“On the user agreement? Nobody reads those.”

“The stupid ones don’t. That is when I have to get involved in the process.”

“I did bring my confirmation number,” said Lance, as he pulled out a piece of paper. He didn’t know exactly how to hand this to the rubbery ball-shaped guardian, so he just dropped it on the floor between them.

“One moment, please. You’re here for a so-called Molsovan Muttonhead Amulet, number 3734929?”

“That’s right, an amulet, it’s for…”

The wall he’d shot with his laser split vertically, revealing a small grey box on the ground. Through the gap, Lance could see a vast dome enclosing slender towers with filamentary bridges draped between them, bathed in a pastel light. His mouth fell open. He bent to pick up the box, then took a step towards the delicate vision.

“Sorry,” said the ball, “we can’t allow customers in back. It’s the rules.”

“Don’t you need to verify who I am? Why I need the thing? Run a credit check?”

“No, it says in our records that everything was filled out on the web form. Plus we’re post-scarcity here and have no use of your funds.”

“Sorry about messing up your gate, though.”

“My advice is: next time, read the user agreement.”

Lance opened up the little box and checked that the amulet was the way his employers had described it to him. There was a little paper label tuck in back of the bauble, which reassured any doubts he might have had. He had no way to check whether the thing would defeat the plague of black centipedes that was overrunning the autonomous collective, but, then again, that wasn’t his problem.

He picked up his cutting laser. “Say, do you guys have a place where I can plug this in before I go?”

For Chuck Wendig’s March 1 flash fiction challenge.
  • Superhero
  • The capital city of a lost civilization
  • Artificial Intelligence

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