"Tazia, cielito, stop fussing, you look beautiful."
Taz dropped her hand from her head with as forceful of a huff as she could manage in the ridiculous dress her mother and aunts had forced her into. All lace and poof, it suited her nearly as well as the teased hair and eye-drooping makeup. "I look like you could cut and serve me as a wedding cake, mamá."
"You look like a young lady," her mama said, "As well you should, for your quinceañera. You're fifteen now – a woman grown. Time to stop being such a muchachota – you'll never catch a man's eye climbing trees and picking fights like you do."
"One day," Taz said. "That's all I promised."
Her mama sighed. "Dios mío, my daughter, what am I to do with you?" She lifted the curtain, ever so slightly. "Have you at least decided whichchambelán will have the honour of the first dance with you?"
Taz followed her mother to the window. "Maravilloso," she whispered despite herself. The yard was unrecognizable, her aunts having turned it from chickens and grass to a twinkling wonderland – fairy lights and flowers, guests in all their finery, the band setting up in the corner, and a cake almost as large as her dress. She'd been dreading this day for months – a quinceañera was a girl's coming out party, and there was nothing Taz hated more than being the center of attention. Especially in an outfit like this. The mass had been bad enough, sitting up at the altar on display for everyone to see – but now she had to go out and face them, talk to people, socialize… and dance.
"I don't know, mama," Taz said. "I don't want to dance with any of them." Her chambeláns, or escorts, were a motley collection of awkward youths, pimply and barely moustached, and most of them her cousins. And besides, she didn't know how to dance.
Her mama tutted and opened her mouth, but just then there was a wicked crashing sound, far away but close enough to shake the windows of their tiny house. Her mama looked up worriedly. "I didn't think it was meant to rain today."
One of Taz's aunts poked her head in the door. "It's time, Tazia! Everyone is waiting for you!"
Taz froze and cast a glance back at the safety of her bedroom, but her mama took her by the arms and marched her forward, but gently. "I'm proud of you, hijita mia."
There was applause as she exited the house, and Taz wanted nothing more than to die, or have the earth open up and swallow her, or perhaps a hoard of ravaging robots could conveniently stage an attack on their village right at that very moment…
A second crash, closer, caused a falter in the applause, and Taz saw her mama look up at the starry, unclouded sky with worry. A third, and then a brilliant flash, and Taz was no longer on her feet but soaring through the air, and for a second it was exhilarating. Fear overcame her just before she hit the ground.
Unable to breathe, unable to move, Taz tried to open her eyes and found them burning from the smoke filling the air around her. Shutting them quickly, she listened instead. Screams, and more explosions. A dreadful ripping of something that wasn't cloth, and then the sound that struck fear and hatred into the hearts of every human still living on Earth – the unmistakable mechanical sound of a robot.
Dragging her hand over her mouth, she took a cautious breath and coughed. She had to get out of the smoke. Summoning all her strength, she managed to will herself to flop and roll across the blackened grass until the air entered her lungs a little easier. She wanted to rest, to sleep, to give in to the overwhelming sense of fatigue, but the screams had gone silent, and it unnerved her. Staggering to her feet, she pulled herself to her full height and squinted through the hazy air.
Rrrr. Rrrr. Rrrr.
Through a tower of smoke emerged the white, deadly form of a robot, and its weapon-arm was pointed directly at her.
"Up! Up! Come in, Up!"
Lieutenant Up coughed and reached blindly for the crackling radio. "This is Up."
"Thank dead God you survived. We saw that blast from up here – how's the rest of your team? We can't get them on the line."
Up raised his head. He was on his belly on the ground. Around him were the charred remains of seven human bodies. The G.L.E.E. insignia was still visible on the chest of the one nearest him, but he couldn't tell who it belonged to. He turned away. "There's just me."
A pause on the other end. "All right, Up, get yourself back here. There's nothing more you can do for these people."
"Got it." Up winced as he stood, battered but not really injured, and took in his surroundings. He had only taken a step in the direction of the pickup location when he heard it: a scream. A terrible, human scream, raw and edged with anger and fear, but more than anything, defiance. It was a girl.
His soldier's instincts made him turn back.
The scene was bizarre as any he'd come across. Half a dozen robots in a circle, dead bodies and spilled cake and in the centre, trussed and hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the girl. She spun slowly, with each turn giving the same dreadful battle cry. She was wearing the remains of an elaborate, burned dress, and her tangled black hair fell loose, reaching for the ground. Her face was blackened and swollen. She had put up a fight.
She hadn't noticed him yet, and neither had the robots. One stepped forward, tapping a two-by-four against its palm as if it was a pinata stick. "Hush, little hu-mahn," it said. "We are just wanting to play a little game with you."
"Ha. Ha. Ha," deadpanned the others.
"I'll see you all burn in hell! Hijos de puta!" the girl bellowed, and the force of her efforts turned her again. Her eyes met Up's, and widened. The robot turned.
Up moved. It was quick, and if they had been human, it would have been bloody, but that wasn't a problem when your enemy was made of soulless automatons. It was over in less than a minute, and amidst the smouldering metallic remains, the soldier turned to the girl pinata.
She was watching him with very large eyes. He was breathing heavily, and it was far too loud in the sudden silence. Finally she said, in a thick Mexican accent, "Aren't you going to cut me down?"
He did so, making sure he was close enough to catch her before she hit the ground. She was tiny, featherlight, and in pain, that he could tell from the gasp that escaped her when she landed in his arms. "Are you all right?"
"What the hell kind of question is that?" she asked, gritting her teeth. He looked around. It was a dumb question, she'd just been strung up by robots and they were surrounded by the bodies of likely everyone she knew. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and looked at him. "Who are you, anyway? Where did you come from?"
"I'm-" Up swallowed and wondered why he was feeling so thick-headed all of a sudden. "I'm Lieutenant Up, from the Galactic League of Extraterrestrial Exploration. I'm a – I'm a Starship Ranger. My platoon landed nearby to try and curb this attack, but I'm afraid we were too late."
There might have been the chance of a tear in her eye, but she blinked it away. "I'm Taz," she said. "Put me down, I can walk."
He complied, setting her down as gently as he could. She still seemed too delicate for words, but her fiery eyes, taking in the scene around them with a frightening lack of emotion, told him otherwise. "Walk? Walk where?"
"Where ever you're going, Starship Ranger," she said. "I'm coming with you."