Chapter 11: Life XOR Liberty

Dark clouds had descended over Silver Vale and a light snow began to fall.

Kara and Matt huddled against the side of a convenience store in an alley, shivering from the cold while keeping watch for Moderators, Crawlers, or anything else made from black metal. They were practically around every corner; the city had been invaded and was now firmly under Charlie's control. The initial pandemonium had been severe with fires, riots, and looters popping up all over the city. The Moderators quickly brought the rampaging citizens under control through brute force until all protestors had been repressed or slain. Now, the population had been herded indoors in various locations.

Matt was still shaken from the whole ordeal, especially from the battle with the Mods that invaded his apartment. He clumsily pulled out his cell phone, nearly dropping it in the process, and sent a text to Dan, finding this extremely difficult to do with his fingers numbed by the cold. "Are you okay?" he asked.

After a few moments, his phone buzzed in reply. "I'm fine, just doing what these crazy robots say for now. How about you?"

Matt was in the midst of typing a reply when Kara grabbed the phone from his hand and angrily smashed it into the ground. "What the hell is wrong with you?" she asked in a screamed whisper. "Why don't you just go out into the street and wave your arms at the Mods?"

"I'm sor—"

"Shut up! I don't want to hear it! I'm sick of you, and I'm sick of your apologies. To think I had any hope for you. I should have just let you die when that Crawler attacked you. Then I could have taken H4x0r and I would have been ready for this surprise attack. Hell, I coulda just let those Mods kill you. But no, I had to be all soft and save your sorry ass." Kara glared at Matt, her eyes aglow with yellow.

Matt tried to think of some response, but fell short. He opened and closed his mouth several times, but no words came.

His inability to reply enraged Kara all the more. "You're useless. I hate you!" Kara continued, placing a particularly strong emphasis on the "hate."

Matt hung his head in shame. Looking back on their encounter with the Moderators, he really couldn't argue with Kara. He had been no help at all; it was Kara who got them out of there alive. She had been perfectly prepared for the fight, was on her feet and ready to go the instant the first two Mods broke into the room. Matt, on the other hand, had frozen from shock, seemingly glued to the couch.

The two Moderators separated, with one going after Kara and the other heading for Matt. Noticing that Matt had not made a single move since the Mods broke in, Kara removed H4x0r from its place on the wall and whacked Matt on the top of the head with the sword, snapping him out of his paralyzed state. "What the hell is wrong with you? Fight!" she commanded.

"Right, sorry," Matt responded, quickly unsheathing and activating the katana. He ran towards the Moderator that was approaching him and swung the now glowing sword at the robot, catching it in the right side of its torso. The blade sunk into the Moderator's noctite armor a few millimeters and stuck. Surprised, Matt yanked the blade free and dodged to the right as the Moderator made a grab for his neck. He attacked again, this time striking the Moderator on the left shoulder with a powerful overhead swing. Once again, the blade only embedded itself a few millimeters into the Moderator before coming to a rest.

"Why can't I cut these things?" he asked as he pulled H4x0r free once more and dodged a roundhouse punch from the Moderator.

"Their armor is made from super-condensed noctite," Kara said as she assumed her battle pose: left hand on the Backdoor, right hand on left shoulder, left side turned slightly towards her enemy. "It's thicker and stronger than regular noctite. H4x0r's blade is made of the same stuff, but the armor on the Mods is stronger; Charlie must have refined the condensing process since H4x0r was created. That's why we needed you to activate the second form. But that's clearly not an option now, so you have to go for its eye; that's the weakest point on the Mod."

As if in demonstration, Kara launched the Backdoor at her Moderator, striking it squarely in the dime-sized camera lens on its face. The Moderator stumbled backwards a few steps and Kara rushed to meet it, diving head first under its legs once she drew near. She recovered with a somersault and was on her feet again, running around the Moderator twice and returning to her position behind its back with lightning speed. Kara planted her feet firmly on the floor, wrapped the Backdoor's cable around her left hand a few times, and pulled with all her might, removing the slack from the line. She began to growl from deep within her throat, the muscles on her arms and neck bulging, as the adrenaline coursed through her body and she strained to topple the robot. Finally, the Moderator attempted to turn towards its attacker and tripped as it tried to lift its legs, falling flat on its face in the process.

Quickly releasing her grip on the cable, Kara formed a "V" in front of her body with her hands, activating the Eva Marie. She typed furiously and lines upon lines of code filled the holographic screen in front of her eyes as the Moderator struggled to regain its feet. It had reached a kneeling position when Kara finished typing in her program. She brought her finger down upon the enter key of her holographic keyboard and the Moderator suddenly arched backwards while its arms flexed into an awkward position. The robot then fell forward, convulsed a few times on the floor, and then moved no more. Winded, Kara yanked on the cable to free it from the Mod's legs and then pressed the button on the face of the Backdoor. The connecter popped free of the Moderator's eye and, aided by the tiny motor within the body of the device, rewound to Kara's hip. At the same time, the Eva Marie returned to standby mode and the holographic projections disappeared. Kara took a moment to tie her hair back into a ponytail and then turned to see how Matt was faring with his robot.

He was faring rather poorly, as it turned out.

After Kara had revealed the robot's weak point, Matt had indeed attempted to strike the spot. The only problem was the size of his target. The lens was just big enough for Kara to penetrate with her Backdoor, but Matt was having a much harder time hitting it with H4x0r. He jabbed repeatedly at the cyclops while dodging its counterattacks. But the tip of the blade glanced uselessly off the robot's face, missing the eye by a hair each time. Matt persisted, however, and eventually he managed to pierce the lens. His victory was short lived, though, as the blade was far too wide to travel far enough into the Moderator's head to cause any real damage. Indeed, the robot was utterly unfazed by the strike.

Matt then lost his temper and went into a frenzy, dancing around the Moderator while attacking it from every angle in a fit of frustration. In the end, he only managed to scratch the armor. His movements became sloppy in his rage and the Moderator, growing weary of the futile blows, unleashed a powerful backhand that struck Matt hard in the chest and sent him flying. He sailed by Kara and struck the opposite wall, dropping H4x0r and falling to the floor in a daze.

Kara cursed and launched her Backdoor. Due to her target practice, she was able to hit the Mod's eye once more with ease. This Moderator stumbled back a few steps as well, but then grabbed the cable with both hands and frantically attempted to dislodge the cord from its face. Kara considered these movements to be almost eeire, but quickly shoved the thought to the back of her head and began to hack. The Moderator was still attempting to remove the cable as Kara hit the enter key, causing this Moderator to arch its back as well, then fall backwards and convulse before shutting down for good. Winded, she pressed the button to retrieve the connector and then ran to Matt where he still sat propped against the wall.

His eyes were open and he was moaning, but he remained unresponsive as Kara ordered him to stand. Kara then bent forward and grabbed Matt by the shoulders, shaking him vigorously. His head limply snapped backwards and forwards as Kara shook, but still Matt did not recover from his daze. Finally, Kara raised her left hand and slapped him hard across the face. Matt yelled out in pain, rubbing his right cheek in the process. Returning to his senses, he gazed at Kara with a questioning look in his eyes.

"Come on, we need to get out of here before more Mods arrive," she ordered. Matt nodded in understanding and sheathed H4x0r. But Kara's words proved to be prophetic, as two more Moderators entered the apartment as Matt stood.

Kara cursed again and, too tired for another drawn out battle, grabbed a teardrop earring from each ear and flung them simultaneously at the new Moderators. The EMPs implanted into the Moderators' chests and released their pulse, causing the two robots to crumple to the ground where they stood. Kara then grabbed Matt's hand and yanked him out of the apartment through the newly created hole in the wall.

They emerged facing Willow Street and had to immediately jump out of the way of a car careening out of control towards the apartment. The vehicle crashed into the side of the building and came to a rest. It was only a small part of the mayhem that had taken the city within its grasp.

Kara and Matt kept to the backstreets as they tried to find a place to rest and recover. Luckily, the Moderators seemed to be too busy pulling citizens from their cars and herding them into buildings to pay much attention to the hacker and her companion. Matt and Kara watched from the alleys and side streets as looters broke into shops and made off with their treasures, only to be struck down and stripped of their goods by the Moderators. Several people tried to escape from the robots or even futilely attack them head on. Most of these people were quickly defeated and herded with the rest of the crowds. The rest were killed.

Matt and Kara travelled for a full half-hour before they finally found the relatively peaceful convenience store behind which they were currently crouched.

Thinking back on all this, Matt found he agreed with Kara. He couldn't help feeling that the current situation would be vastly improved if Kara had control of H4x0r. She was just way better at this whole circuit thing in general. All Kara had to do was look at a piece of electronic equipment for a few moments and she could tell you exactly how it was wired and what each tiny path on each circuit board did, as if she had some innate knowledge of its inner workings. Matt, on the other hand, would have to study a wiring diagram for days and even then he was unable to decipher all the buzzing emanating from anything more complex than a pocket calculator. All he was good for was activating H4x0r's first form, and even that wasn't good enough at this stage.

His thoughts turned back to that fragmented memory of the bridge. He watched the engagement ring leave his hand as it hurtled through the air to the water below. Once again, he wondered why he hadn't followed it into the sea. It would have been so simple: just a few steps and he would have been on his way and the world would have been a lot better off.

Matt felt a tear fall down his cheek. He hadn't realized he had been crying. "Kara, I don't know how to apologize," he began as he snuffled and wiped the tears away. "You're right, though. You should have just—"

"Hey, don't worry 'bout it!" she cut him off cheerfully, the smile returned to her face. "I didn't mean that stuff anyways, it was just misdirected hatred for Charlie."

Matt sniffed and blinked at Kara. For some reason, he didn't believe her apology.

"So, are you going to be okay now? The fact of the matter is that you are the only one who can use H4x0r now, so you need to give it your all," Kara said.

And there it was, Matt thought, the hidden message between the lines of her apology: I'm stuck with you and don't have any other choice but to keep using you. After everything they had been through, all the training, all the time spent together, he was just a tool to Kara after all. But maybe it was his own fault for ever thinking he could be anything more to her.

The worst part was that he still loved her, even though he knew within his heart that she would never love him back. But in the end, his emotions really did not matter; he had made a promise that he would help Kara no matter what, and he wasn't about to back down. No, there was more at stake here than unrequited feelings; Matt's actions from here on out would decide the fate of Silver Vale and the rest of the world. He had no other option than to soldier on and do his best.

"So what do we do now?" Matt asked, having come to this conclusion.

"We fight. As long as we can still draw breath, we will fight!" Kara responded, her eyes ablaze with yellow.

"So, what, do we take out all the Mods and destroy the factories that produce them?"

"No, that would be a waste of time. Charlie's in control; we take the fight to him. Then, we can shut down Project Moderator at its source."

Matt nodded in agreement. "That means our next stop is Diamond Tower, right?"

"Right," Kara nodded. "But first, we need to do some 'shopping.' We need some better clothes, among other things."

Suddenly, Matt was acutely aware of just how cold he felt. He was dressed in a light, long-sleeved shirt and jeans with a pair of sneakers. Kara was far worse off. She had only her torn jeans and a t-shirt, this one white with a picture of a shattered, black diamond that bore a suspicious similarity to a particularly well known corporate logo. Looking more closely, Matt could see that Kara was shivering, though she was doing everything within her power to hide it.

"And where are we supposed to do this 'shopping?'" Matt asked.

"At the Silver Vale Mall, of course. We have to be careful though. Our goal is to avoid confrontation, so only activate the sword if you really need to. Got it?"

Matt nodded his confirmation.

"Good. Let's move. And you might as well take those weights off. Training is officially over."

They travelled for another half hour until they reached the mall. A large hotel had been built nearby; Kara and Matt climbed the fire escape to the roof for a better vantage point from which to survey the mall. Once a simple single level building, the mall expanded to four floors as Silver Vale's popularity rose in accordance with the success of Diamond Corp. It now contained every kind of store imaginable with plans for further expansion. A water fountain sat outside the entrance to the building with a statue of the globe and a replica of Diamond Tower rising from the location of Silver Vale. The water normally shot out of the tip of the tower, but the fountain had been broken, the globe now lay on its side on the ground, and a stream of water sprayed out and into the vast parking lot.

Kara activated the Eva Marie and began to type while Matt peaked over her shoulder, watching as the holographic screen filled with lines of code he had no hope of understanding. Suddenly, the lines of code disappeared and a 3D representation of the mall took its place. The image slowly rotated in space as a new screen appeared and rapidly filled with text. Matt was amazed as always at the way Kara's fingers gracefully flew across a keyboard. Eventually, the new lines were replaced by a 3x3 grid of black and white videos.

On closer inspection, Matt realized that the videos showed different views of Silver Vale Mall; Kara had apparently tapped into the security feed. As the views changed, Matt got a clear image of what was happening inside the mall. The shops were in varying states of disarray but all were devoid of customers. The only sign of activity came from the food court on the first level, where a large group of shoppers had been corralled. Twenty Moderators guarded the group and several others roamed the halls on each level.

Kara's typing had slowed while the images displayed, but she picked up again once they had cycled through the entire mall. The 3D image snapped to a view of the side of the mall and zoomed in on the first level. "This is the sporting goods store, Active Essentials," Kara explained. As she spoke, the image of the store separated from the rest of the mall and centered itself in front of Kara as the video feed and the rest of the mall disappeared. "We can get in through this air conditioning duct," she continued as the duct was outlined in yellow on the hologram. "We get what we need, then we get out."

"Wait, aren't we going to save those people?" Matt asked.

"Nope. There's no way we can take on that many Mods. And even if we could, it would be pointless; more would arrive to replace the ones we defeated. We'll only end up giving away our location and drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves," Kara said, as if this information should have been blatantly obvious. "Any objections?"

"No, I guess you're right," Matt conceded.

Kara gave him a look that seemed to say, "Of course I'm right!" and then said, "Let's go!" as she climbed down the fire escape. Matt followed her down and then they rapidly crossed the distance between the hotel and the mall, where Kara found the vent she had previously pointed out. The vent was at chest level and covered by a metal grating, which Kara grabbed with both hands and gave a tug. The grating did not budge; it was firmly screwed in place. While Kara took a few steps back to consider the current problem, Matt began to unsheathe H4x0r. Kara, however, grabbed his wrist and stayed his hand.

"No, you can't activate the sword now; it will just draw the Mods over," she admonished. "We can, however, still put it to use. Hold on a sec." Kara pulled a length of cable from the Backdoor and wrapped it around one of the horizontal bars of the grating down near a corner. "I'm gonna pull this back a bit; you use the sword to pry it off." Without waiting for a reply, she braced herself against the wall and tapped the button on the housing of the Backdoor. The cable suddenly became taut and Kara lurched forward slightly before recovering her balance. The grating began to groan and one corner slowly separated from the wall.

Matt shoved the dull H4x0r into the newly created space and began to lever the grating off the wall. Meanwhile, Kara immediately tapped the button on Backdoor's housing once more, cutting off the motor. She untied the knot as Matt continued to work H4x0r like a crowbar. Eventually, the screw in the bottom corner popped off and the other screws had loosened. He worked his way around the grate until two more screws had been removed, leaving the grating hanging from a single screw in the upper corner. Kara grabbed the grate once more and, after several hard tugs, finally separated it from the wall completely.

Wasting no time, she jumped into the duct and began to crawl through it with Matt close behind. It was a tight fit and he had just enough room to crawl though Kara, with her slightly smaller frame, had a much easier time. After a few yards, the vent took a sudden vertical turn and then leveled out again. The height wasn't too difficult to navigate; both Kara and Matt were able to grab the upper ledge by jumping. A few yards on, the duct came to a 4-way intersection. Kara turned left and stopped at another grate. After peeking through to check for Moderators, she removed the grate with a few swift kicks. The newly warped grating fell and clattered to the ground and, after making sure the sound had drawn no attention, Kara slid out backwards on her stomach, letting herself hang from the edge of the vent before dropping to the floor. Matt quickly followed her.

"We'll meet back here when we're done. Try to be quiet and stay as far away from the door and windows as possible. And make sure you get everything you need; we won't have another chance like this," Kara instructed as she separated from Matt and began her shopping expedition.

Matt wandered into the men's section of the store where he traded his jeans for a pair or black, insulated ski pants. He then found a black, hooded ski jacket with silver stripes down the arms. He replaced his sneakers with a pair of tall, black snow boots and pulled on a pair of waterproof gloves, also black. The gloves were thick and warm yet still allowed the flexibility Matt would need to handle a sword. Considering himself in a mirror, Matt figured he had acquired everything he would need for the trek to Diamond City, so he returned to the air duct to wait for Kara.

She took significantly longer to prepare. Matt was beginning to think that something had happened to her when she finally emerged from the aisles. Like Matt, she too had donned black boots and a pair of black pants. But that's where the similarity ended. For one thing, she had pulled her pants over her jeans. The jacket she had chosen for herself was black with bright red stripes matching the color of those in her hair emanating from the chest area and travelling down the arms, sides, and front of the jacket. She had decided to eschew insulated gloves, settling instead for her duotone fingerless gloves. On top of her head was a black ski hat with bright pink snowflakes and trim. Long tassels hung down from the ear flaps of the hat. Her ponytail had been pulled out from her scrunchie and her hair had been tucked down the back of her jacket. She also wore a backpack that she had stuffed full of energy bars and a couple of water bottles. She carried a separate backpack filled with a blanket and handed it to Matt. To top everything off, for some inexplicable reason she had decided to don a pair of ski goggles with amber shades. Matt thought this was a little unnecessary, especially with night rapidly approaching.

Kara was apparently quite pleased with her outfit, although Matt felt she had gone a little bit overboard. "Do you have everything you need?" she asked. Matt nodded. "Good. Next stop: Diamond Tower."