After roughly four minutes and forty seconds, the cab pulled to the side of the road several blocks from the bridge.
”I can’t take you over,” said the driver in a thick Midwestern accent. “They’ll let you walk or drive across for good, but I can’t drive the cab back and forth and I ain’t movin’ to Canada.”
Ahead, a motorcycle came toward them from the bridge and pulled over. For a moment Marty was convinced its driver had spotted him and was about to run, but it eventually started moving again. Something exploded from the left side of the road, paused, and continued along its path, and the motorcycle followed it.
”It’s okay,” replied Marty. “Follow that guy.”
”What, that motorcycle?” asked the cab driver in disbelief. He considered the idea for a moment. “It’ll be an extra five hundred.”
”Yeah sure fine whatever. Go. Before you lose him.”
Lurching the cab back onto the road and speeding ahead, the driver shouted back at him, “stick the money in the tray between the seats and slide it up or I’m takin’ us back in the opposite direction. That’s eight hundred and sixty four so far.”
Marty sighed, dropped a packet of ten hundred-dollar bills into the metal tray and slid it up to the driver, suddenly finding a new appreciation for the AutoCabs back home.
They followed the exploding and collapsing buildings along a road that ran parallel to the freeway, then south toward the water. Eventually the path of destruction abruptly stopped.
”Must’ve gotten caught up or something,” said the cab driver, creeping slowly along the street, waiting for an indication of which direction to go next.
After about a minute of waiting, Marty slid another thousand dollars up to the driver through the tray. “Tell no one about any of this. Not even your wife. I will find out if you do. Pop the trunk.”
He retrieved the long, slim package from the back of the vehicle, and the instant he closed the trunk, the driver squealed the fastest u-turn he could force the cab to make, sped up the street, and disappeared promptly around a corner.
Anna burst through a wall into an extremely large metal building — some kind of abandoned storage facility — and stopped, idling silently in the middle of the largely empty concrete floor.
Ben and Denise, tightly following the trail of dust but not closely enough to actually be inhaling any of it, arrived shortly thereafter.
”Take this,” said Ben, handing Denise one of his two pistols as he got off the motorcycle.
”This.” Denise took the gun, her expression the epitome of apprehension. “Against that.”
He looked thoughtfully at his own gun for a moment. “Yeah, pretty ridiculous isn’t it?”
They crept cautiously toward the building, slowly circling around to find an entrance other than the one Anna had made for herself.
Within minutes a handful of border patrols from both the United States and the New Canadian Republic had begun arriving, alarmed by the trail of explosions creeping through the city. Among them was the NCR border guard they’d dealt with at the Ambassador Bridge.
Shouting as soon as he disembarked from one of the armored vehicles, inappropriately camouflaged for their urban surroundings, the highest-ranking of the New Liberty Army troops confronted his NCR analogs. “What in fuck are you canuck pricks trying to accomplish here?”
”We came out for a late evening picnic,” shouted one of the Canadians in response, matching intensity. “What the hell do you think we’re doing out here?”
”Blowing up half the goddamned city from the looks of it.”
”We sure as hell aren’t responsible. We thought maybe you guys might have something to do with it.”
”Now why the fuck would we attack one of our own cities?”
”Ah, right, ’cause that‘s never happened before.”
”What’re you implying?”
”Actually,” said Ben, stepping out from between the building and a stack of rusted shipping containers, intervening before anyone started drawing weapons, “this is technically our fault.” Denise stayed behind.
”Oh now who the hell is this assho–” barked the NLA soldier, cutting himself off abruptly when he recognized the various insignias on Ben’s uniform. “Sorry, Sergeant. What’s the situation, sir?”
”One of our tanks malfunctioned,” he replied, making his way between the two groups of soldiers. Unable to tell the complete truth due to the confidentiality of his tests with Anna, he quickly fabricated a cover explanation. “Running around on autopilot, randomly destroying everything in its path. I followed it here after it turned its guns on me.”
”This your fault, then?” whispered the NCR guard from the bridge, standing a couple feet away.
Nodding, Ben made note this time of the surname stitched onto the guard’s front pocket: Foley. “Not a planned assault or anything, though. Promise.”
”Glad I didn’t let you across earlier,” mumbled Foley, loud enough for Ben to hear but not the NLA troops.
”She runs out of ammo eventually,” whispered Ben.
”How far you been following it, sir?” asked the obnoxious NLA soldier, PFC Brightman.
”Uh, Cincinnati,” Ben lied.
”Ohio?” asked one of the other NLA soldiers, too far away for Ben to get a good look at his name.
”No, Cincinnati, Alaska, moron,” replied Ben. “You can all keep asking me useless questions or we could actually maybe do something productive.”
Brightman nodded. “I’ll lead a team ’round back to secure the tank’s entrance point, make sure it don’t leave again.”
”Which would be a great idea if the tank couldn’t just create any exit it wanted, or if it had any intention of not running you over. We’re not dealing with any kind of rational enemy, here, that you can force to take its own self-preservation into consideration.”
In actuality, Anna’s priorities seemed to follow a loose approximation of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, but considering her behavior since the previous morning, he felt he could confidently operate under the assumption that those constraints were no longer functional. Even if they were, nobody in the group seemed to be wielding any weapons that would’ve been in any way effective against her, so she’d have easily seen the hollowness of any threats made against her. Conventional military strategy was about as useful in this situation as a nest of angry hornets in an operating room.
”So what do we do?” asked Brightman, restrainedly irritated. “Just rush in through the front door and have the fuckin’ thing cut us all down?”
”If it was going to kill us, it would’ve charged out here and crushed us all as soon as we started talking.” So why didn’t she? he realized. “Doesn’t really even matter how we enter the building, since it can acquire dozens of simultaneous targets. Anyone have a fiber optic scope or something?”
Nobody replied. A few shrugged.
”How about C4?”
Within seconds, someone had shoved a small brick into his hand, followed by a radio frequency trigger for the detonator. Though the sun was beginning to disappear over the horizon and the streetlights had yet to turn on, he was able to make out the safety markings on its label.
”What’s your plan?” asked Foley, following Ben to the side of the building.
”It’d be pointless to describe it to you, because it’s not going to work.” Also rendering description pointless was the fact that Anna could clearly perceive every word of their conversation. Which was why as he spoke, he held the C4 under his arm, fished out a pen and a small notepad from one of his pockets, and began writing. “If I can somehow flip her, it might buy me enough time to, I dunno, try to find some kind of emergency access panel or something.”
He showed Foley the note he’d been writing — fake plan – she can hear us, play along — and flipped the page, writing some more. Even if Anna may have been capable of somehow picking up the sounds of the pen scratching against the paper, which was unlikely given that he was grinding his boot into the gravel to interfere with her audio sensors, there was no way for her to tell what.
”You think that small a brick of C4′s gonna flip that thing?”
”No. But we can’t go inside, so this is our only option.” The next note he showed Foley read, close expl. will disrupt sensors. He wrote something more on the pad, underlined it several times, and showed Foley again. Temporarily.
Foley gestured, indicating he wanted to write something. “How you gonna get it under it?” His note read, how long?
”No idea.” Pointing to the pad and shrugging, Ben indicated that his response answered both questions.
”Shit,” said Foley. It wasn’t necessary for him to make any indication he was replying to both written and verbal conversations.
Something stirred for a moment within the building and everyone tensed. A few drew their sidearms.
”So’s she a pretty special girl, then?” Foley asked, whispering.
”Huh?” He glanced at Denise, then back at Foley.
”You keep calling it ‘she’. What the fuck?”
”Oh. It’s like what sailors call their ships I guess. My, uh, my dad was in the Navy when I was a kid. Anyway, better apprise everyone of the plan.” Gesturing significantly with the items to emphasize their importance, he handed Foley the pen and paper, then jogged toward the building’s nearest entrance.
Surprisingly, the electricity was still functional in the building, though nearly all the lights were either burned out or broken. Given her myriad sensors it was silly to try to sneak in on her, and without night vision goggles of some sort, illumination would be more beneficial to him than to her.
Discerning her location via glances through the office window, he then searched for somewhere to take cover within the warehouse. A pile of metal debris about twenty feet from the door was the best he could find.
Using a small credit-card-sized mirror from his pocket, he looked around the corner to assess Anna’s line of potential fire, waited a moment, then dove out the doorway and rolled behind the heap of junk.
Anna refrained from even attempting to fire at him while he was exposed. After a moment, she spoke, using one of the external speakers hidden somewhere within her various hull folds. “Why Ben, are those plastic explosives I smell? You know I much prefer flowers. There’s rosemary — that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember. And there is pansies — that’s for thoughts.”
Unable to remember the next line, he instead replied, still shouting over the wall of junk he was using as a shield, the first line that came to mind. “Though this be madness, yet there is a method in’t.”
She made a loud disappointed sighing noise. “That’s two acts ago, Ben.”
”Sorry; your metal brain is obviously superior to my meat one.” Arming the detonator, Ben nervously caressed the triggering device with his other hand. “Anna, I really don’t want to have to do this. We can still talk about it. I’d prefer to.”
”Words, words, words. I pray you, pass with your best violence; I am afeared you make a wanton of me.” She sprayed a few shots in his general direction.
”Goddammit, would you stop with the fucking Hamlet already?” he muttered after her burst of gunfire, peeking extremely briefly over the random metal detritus that separated him from Anna. After estimating the throw’s trajectory, he wound up and launched the C4 across the warehouse at her.
As the explosive sailed through the air, Anna repeated at increasing volume, “except my life, except my life, except my life, except my life, except my–”
At the sound of impact, Ben thumbed the detonator and threw himself into an overturned metal crate nearby to shield himself from any unlikely shrapnel or debris. Some empty cardboard boxes rained down from somewhere, likely blown off the tops of nearby shelves by the shock wave.
Spinning around frantically, clanging clumsily into her surroundings, Anna panicked over her sudden lack of sensation. She knocked a shelf of something onto herself, remaining unaware of its presence even after it scattered across and tumbled from her hull as she shook.
The handful of soldiers waiting outside poured in through the door, firing uselessly on the bewildered tank. Denise cautiously followed, immediately taking cover near the office doorway and hooking her wrist around to fire sporadically through the adjacent wall.
Lacking enough momentum to exit through the wall, Anna instead simply dented it outward, still unaware she’d even impacted with anything, and reversed direction, tumbling into a stairway and climbing back out again. Incoherent shouting blurted from her loudspeakers.
Having no idea what the next part of his plan would entail, Ben rolled out of the metal crate and jogged toward her. As the others took up various positions throughout this side of the building, firing several ineffective rounds before moving into a better position, he waited for a safe moment to approach.
During a lull in gunfire he charged at Anna, hoping to find some hidden vulnerability that might allow him access to her interior. He stopped abruptly after a few steps, the soles of his boots skidding in a crunchy stutter across the concrete floor, when Anna suddenly regained her composure and turned to face him.