Operation Machina

Operation Machina

Oh hey look I can still write.


"Are you ready, Ramlah?"

I brushed the sand out of my light-blue hair.

"As ready as I'll ever be."

It was a particularly windy day in Cairo, which was a bit weird, but I would soon find out that everything about today was going to be pretty weird. I was posted up on top of a Pizza Hut —  ugh, tourists —  looking at my target across the street.

"You're sure this is the place?" I asked. Ahmed crackled through to my earpiece.

"I'm sorry, do you know of a different Pyramids of Giza that I haven't heard about? Yes, I'm sure this is the place. Specifically, it's one of the Pyramids of Queens, G1-b, if our client's information is correct."

I snorted. "Which you can't confirm."

"Don't take that tone with me! ...But yeah, no, I can't. I tried everything! Tracing our calls, getting some kind of address. Nothing. She may as well be a djinn."

"Maybe she is," I said, wiggling my fingers. There was silence on the other end of the line for a few moments. Finally Ahmed spoke.

"Anyways—"

"Hey, don't sandbag me—"

"Anyways, I know you barely skimmed the the mission brief, so I'm just gonna go over it again."

"Fiiiine."

"Our client is looking to get her hands on an AI that's hidden in an experimental research center of unknown origin. It is supposedly hiding under the Pyramids, but my initial scans didn't find anything, so you're going to have to find out where and how to get in."

I clicked my tongue in understanding, watching the sun set behind the Pyramids. Tourists below me were trying to find taxis home, and my people were beginning to close shop. Before I became a Phantom Thief, this would be the prime time to scam some shmuck out of his Pounds looking for a doo-dad to take back to his kids. Wasn't really in the cards for me anymore.

"The client didn't give us any specifics about how to steal the AI out of there, but that shouldn't be a problem with my Persona."

"I knew we kept you around for a reason, buddy!"

"Ugh. Just get going."

"You know I love our talks, Ahmed."

"Go."

I rose from my perch and stretched out, before gracefully leaping off the Pizza Hut's roof. I landed neatly, barely making a sound, and startling the boys that were playing soccer in the alleyway below me. I made my way out, barely looking on either side before crossing the street. No one was going to stop for me anyways.

"We don't know what kind of security you're gonna see in there, so be careful."

"I'm always careful," I said. I went into a light jog, then dropped flat, sliding under a gap in the fence that separated the Pyramids from the rest of Cairo. I had snuck in so many times to sell ice cream to tourists that it was second nature to me.

Security on the Pyramids wasn't exactly tight nowadays. The government had grown complacent in protecting it. Once, when I was younger, I was able to get close enough to climb onto the Sphinx if I wanted to, the only thing stopping me the earful I would get if my parents found out. Getting to G1-b was going to be the easy part.

It was now completely dark out, the heat quickly turning to cold that threatened to pierce through my light jacket. It was hard to see, but subsequently it was hard to see me. I grabbed a broken off piece of roofing from a construction place nearby, and slid down the desert hills, barely suppressing my urge to shout in excitement.

The Pyramids of Queens weren't nearly as popular as something like the Pyramid of Khufu, so security was light. I took a deep breath, then snapped my fingers.

A brief flash of light engulfed me, and then I was in my Phantom Thief garb. I felt the warmth of my mask, modeled after Bastet, as it settled on my face.

"What was that?"

Ah crap.

A guard noticed my transformation. I could see his flashlight pierce through the darkness, getting ever closer to where I was standing. No time to waste. I leapt out of the sand, three times higher and twice as fast as a human should be able to. I landed up on the stones of G1-b.

The guard made it to where I was standing seconds ago. He scratched his head.

"Huh. Guess it was nothing."

"Hey Mahmoud! Get over here, this poker match isn't over and I'm not done kicking your ass!"

The guard muttered a curse under his breath, before turning on his heel and back to his post.

"Always careful, huh?" Ahmed said over our comms, voice dry.

"Shut up."

I made a small prayer of forgiveness to the historians that would strangle me if they saw me sitting on the pyramid, then jumped off of it. I stared intently at the stones in front of me.

"What are you doing?" Ahmed asked.

"You told me I needed to find a way in, didn't you? I'm finding a way in."

"You're gonna stare your way into finding a secret laboratory that no one's ever heard of?"

I pushed the boy's taunting out of my mind, pursing my lips as I paced back and forth.

"You're going to leave footprints."

"Footprints that the wind will turn over in an hour's time. Remember that I've lived here longer than you have, Ahmed. In fact, it just so happens I was born here."

"As you so love to remind me every thirty seconds."

"I have country pride, okay?"

"You have pride in that football team?"

Before I could describe the terrible things I was going to do to Ahmed when I got back to HQ, I felt a rush of wind behind me. I turned to see my Persona, Ma'at, floating behind me. A year ago this would have scared the hell out of me, but I had gotten used to it. The goddess was her own being, not tethered to me like any of my friends' Personas. Rather, it seemed she simply chose to be by my side. Sometimes I wondered if she was even manifested by me.

The woman smiled, gliding past me in all her glory. I always marveled at her multicolored wings whenever she appeared. She stopped in front of the pyramid, then spread her arms wide.

There was a quiet rumble for a moment. Then, to my surprise, the stone in front of us lowered, getting swallowed up by the sand. When it was finally submerged, what was left looked like a stairway that led deeper beneath G1-b.

Ma'at turned back to me, gesturing towards the stairway. For once, I was at a loss for words.

"T-thanks," I said.

She smiled, before fading away, the glittering light she left behind returning to my mask.

"At least we have one competent person to count on during this Op," Ahmed said.


As soon as I stepped through the gap in the pyramid, I heard another rumble, and turned to see the stone that let me in rise back out of the sand, now locking me out.

"Whelp. Gonna need a new escape route when I locate the target," I said, pulling out my flashlight and beginning my decent.

"When you get to the lab, look for a map. I'll do the rest," Ahmed said.

I walked for what felt like hours, happy that I wasn't claustrophobic. My flashlight was flimsy and dim, more suited for finding a phone under the bed then exploring the depths of a pyramid. I smacked it a few times as it flickered, threatening to extinguish for good, and made a mental note to ask Yalina to procure us some new gear. Finally I felt the ground level out, and found a metal doorway standing in front of me.

"Bingo."

Only one problem. There wasn't a door handle. The thing was dead-bolted four times over, and it was thick enough to take a grenade blast and not get so much as a dent. I put a hand to my chin.

"Ahmed, you're up."

"Hell yeah! Thoth, let's do this."

My headset crackled with red energy, a tell-tale sign that Thoth was at work. Ahmed's Persona was able to interface with technology of any kind, and could hack it in an instance. A perfect companion for the guy behind the computer, so to speak.

The energy shot from my headset and towards the door in front of me. A second later, and the bolts quietly unlocked, the door sliding open. Light poured through from the other side, nearly blinding me.

"No thanks needed," Ahmed said. I could picture his smug face on the other end of the line.

"Your Persona did all the work," I said, shrugging.

"So did yours!"

"Eh, touché."

I stepped through the door, and felt the dirt and sand under my feet turn into stone tile. The walls on either side of me hummed with electricity, lines etched into them pulsing with blue energy. The hallway I found myself in stretched out in front of me, another door barring the way. This was definitely the place. Every aspect of it looked like something out of the sci-fi novels my cousins would always try to get me into. I was grateful I was wearing a jacket — the combination of being underground, and the metal all around me, was extremely cold.

I felt heat radiate off of my mask. The walls in front of me began to shift, expanding outward. They folded outwards, into the size of a football field. Stairways appeared, leading nowhere, and halls led to doors that may or may not have had rooms. It was like an Escher painting, if said paintings had a sea of wires and circuitry outlining every aspect of them.

"This is..." Ahmed whispered.

"The Reversal," I finished. I thought this would be a standard operation, but like I said, weird day. At least it explained how this place was hidden under the Pyramids with no one finding out.

"That means our client knows about the Reversal too, then," Ahmed said as I unsheathed my khopesh from my belt. I hummed in agreement.

"It certainly makes things more interesting."

"I guess that's one way to put it...well, that doesn't change the mission. Just be on the lookout for Reversed."

"Right."

I made my way forward, crossing the hallways that seemed to lead somewhere, although I constantly found myself hitting walls and having to turn around.

"Don't suppose you could help with that map, Navigator?" I asked Ahmed.

"The Reversal makes this a bit more complicated. I'm building it as you go, but it's going to take longer than an instant scan."

"I figured. By the way..."

I took a quick glance above me, noticing the polls above me that extended from nothing, hanging suspended in the air. At the end of them were small black orbs, looking not unlike the security cameras you'd see at a mall.

"I get the feeling we're being watched."

"You noticed too." I heard the tell-tale click-clack of Ahmed's fingers hitting his keyboard.

"Thoth's gotten ahead of me a bit. Take a left here and you should be able to move forward."

I followed the boy's instructions, finding another small room with a door on the other end of it. Before I could move forward, I noticed the space in front of me vibrate.

Reversed.

A gap opened in space, and out of it dropped three monsters. They were large, human-like, but with the heads of jackals. They each carried a large axe. I flipped my sword in dismissiveness.

"Really? Anubis rip-offs? He wasn't that bad. This is the tourists' influence, isn't it."

"Focus, Ramlah!"

One of the monsters swung. I leapt over it, bouncing off of its back before slashing it with my khopesh from behind. It turned into a puff of dust. I landed in a roll, before diving out of the way of another axe swing.

I bounced back a few steps, before ripping off my mask.

"Ma'at!"

The woman appeared again, but the gentleness was gone. I felt the heat emanating off of her as she came to life behind me, before shooting forward, using her wings to engulf one of the beasts in a sea  of flames. The last Reversed was lumbering towards me, but it wasn't going to get very far. I drew the throwing spear I carried on my back, winded up, and threw. My aim was true, the spear piercing the monster and carrying it all the way to the wall behind it.

"Good work," Ahmed said. I walked to the spear, yanking it out of the wall and untangling it from the wires it was embedded in.

"Pure praise? From you? You feeling alright?"

"Maybe I don't complement you because you're an ass about it."

"Probably."

I turned to see Ma'at float towards me, a look of worry on her face. She gestured towards the door we came through. If she was nervous, it was definitely something we needed to check on.

"Hey Ahmed," I said, holding a finger to my earpiece.  "Can you get access to one of the cameras from the hallway we just came through?"

"Yup." A beat of silence.

"Uh-oh."

"'Uh-oh?'" I repeated. "What do you mean, 'uh-oh?'"

"You know those things you just fought? There's like, thirty more of them coming your way right now."

"Uh-oh."

I looked around me, my mind working on overdrive. There was nothing to bar the door with and slow them down. Which meant this was now a race.

"Alright, well, your time to shine, Ahmed," I said, making a break for the door that led away from the incoming reinforcements. "We're on a bit of a time crunch now."

"Way ahead of you. Just follow my instructions."

I fled through the halls that Ahmed directed me through. Despite feeling completely directionless, there was a shift in the environment as I ran. I could feel that I was getting deeper into the facility. The bright white and blue that surrounded me slowly seeped away, replaced with grey, and then black walls. The blinking lights  shifted into a dark yellow. Screens started to appear on either side of me as I ran. I had no time to examine them, but the scrawlings on them were in no language I knew of, English or Arabic. They looked instead like runes of some kind, not of this world.

A Reversed burst through a door on my right, nearly clipping me. I tripped and stumbled, but Ma'at appeared, blasting it with a burst of fire before it attack me while I was down.

"Thanks," I said as she helped me up.

"They're trying to cut you off. I think they know what we're here for."

"Figures," I said, brushing myself off before breaking into a sprint. "We'll just have to be fast."

I could feel rumbling under my feet as I ran, trying not to imagine the scores of beasts that were right on our heels. Ahmed's sudden shout nearly made me jump out of my skin.

"There!"

A door was in front of us, this one marked distinctly with an upside down triangle that was surrounded by a circle and glowed gold.

"I already unlocked it, you're clear!"

The door slid open, revealing a dark room inside. I mustered the last of my strength to dash through it. I saw a large stone...something to my left, but it was too dark to recognize. Regardless, I pushed at it with all my might, Ma'at helping me, until it crashed in front of the door. That would hold them off for at least a moment, hopefully.

"Let me get the lights," Ahmed said.

I took a moment to catch my breath, before stopping to gather my bearings as the room became bathed with fluorescent light. I found myself in a giant, circular room. It looked almost like a college lecture hall, but the seats were replaced with a myriad of statues, displaying various gods from the Egyptian pantheon. Glowing gold lines were scattered across the ground, but all pointed to the center of the room, where a small cube could be seen hovering in encased glass.

"Target in sight," I said, taking the steps down to the box. I tapped the glass, before putting a finger on my chin.

"How are we going to get it out of there, though?" I asked.

"There's a pin-pad at the bottom of the case. The password is 2015."

"Oh, thanks Ahmed."

"That...wasn't me."

I drew my khopesh, looking about me as my pulse quickened. "Who's there?" I shouted.

"In here."

I realized the voice was coming from in front of me. I leaned in towards the floating cube.

"Are you...the AI?" I asked, eyebrows raised.

"Quick on the uptake," the box said.

"Wait a second. That voice!" Ahmed said. "I recognize it. That's the client's voice!"

What the heck?

"I'm sure you have some questions."

"That's understating it, lady," I said, crossing my arms.

"Regardless, I'd prefer if I could answer them outside of this box. We're on a bit of a timetable here, you see."

"...Fair," I said, crouching down to input the key into the pin-pad.

"You're just gonna open that thing up?" Ahmed asked, voice tinged with worry. I shrugged.

"This doesn't change the mission, right? We were told to steal an AI. We're stealing an AI. Except now I guess it's more of a breakout than a theft."

"True enough."

I could hear the Reversed banging on the door we blocked off behind us.

"Now's not the time to argue over this anyways."

Hitting the enter key, the glass case opened outwards, leaving the AI cube up for grabs. I swiped it, dropping it into my pocket for safe-keeping.

"Hey, careful!" the client shouted. "The next step won't work if you dent me now!"

"Next step?" I asked, keeping an eye on the door. The banging was getting louder. Ma'at appeared next to me, anxious about the fight we were about to get into — and probably wouldn't survive.

"Yes, next step! Go up the steps on the north side of this room. You'll find a panel on the statue sitting at the top. I'll give you the password."

I hopped up the steps as directed, finding myself in front of a statue of the goddess Hathor. There was a panel right below its feet, just as the AI said. I typed the password she gave me, trying to not let my fingers shake as I did so.

"Quickly..." Ahmed said. I resisted the urge to snap at him. I tapped my submission, and the statue moved away from me, melting into the wall. Out of the ground came...well, one of the most fascinating things I'd ever seen.

It was a girl. She looked to be my age, with jet black, shoulder-length hair, and wearing a black and white dress that went down to her knees. Her waist was wrapped in a leather belt, and I could see ribbons trailing out from behind her. She had ball-joints, like those of a doll. She looked to be sleeping, eyes closed as she lay suspended in a glass case not unlike the one the AI was in moments ago.

"This day just keeps getting weirder," Ahmed said.

"Finally...I've waited so long," the client whispered from my pocket. Now, could you please press me against the glass? Then the process will be complete."

"O...kay..." I said. I pushed the cube into the glass, and to my surprise, it phased through it without issue. It floated towards the girl's neck, where a small compartment opened up just below her collarbone. The cube settled inside, and I heard a series of whrrs and clicks. And then...

Nothing.

"Uh, was something supposed to happen there?" Ahmed asked. I checked the panel under the girl. The screen simply said "initializing."

"We're going to have to wait," I said.

"We don't really have time for that!"

"I'm well aware, Ahmed," I replied, drawing my khopesh as the door was finally blown open by the Reversed. They tried to swarm the room, but Ma'at was already at the entrance, leaving long trails of flame to block off their approach. Two of the beasts slipped through the fire, and I was able to quickly dispatch them with my blade, but they were immediately replaced by two more. I was able to destroy one, but the other Reversed caught me with a kick square in the gut, knocking me into one of the nearby statues.

"Ramlah!"

"I'm fine," I said. I spit blood, the color clashing harshly with the black tile below me.  "Just getting started. Keep an eye on the client."

I drew my spear and held it in my other hand. The Reversed came with reinforcements, three more beasts added to the fray. Ma'at was doing her best to hold the mass at bay, but I knew we'd be overwhelmed soon. I pointed my spear outwards.

"I've had a flawless track record in this line of work!" I shouted. "And to be frank, I really enjoy it. If you think you're gonna ruin that streak, you have another thing coming. Now whose getting their ass beat first?"

The Reversed stared at me, emotionless. No appreciation for dramatics. A tragedy.

"Fine then. You," I said, pointing at the nearest beast. I threw my spear into its head. Before its buddies could react, I was rushing forward, pulling the spear out and stabbing the next enemy. One of them swung its axe, but I had speed on my side, parrying the handle and slashing my khopesh clean through the beast's torso.

There was only so much I could do in a moment. The last Reversed swung its axe, and I was just barely able to block the blow with my sword. It shot out of my hand, the vibration from our clash numbing my arms. I retreated back to top of the room, the guard advancing on me in turn.

"Guess this is it..."

"Hold on, I'm trying to find an alternate route!" Ahmed said, frantically working on the other end of the comm link. I shook my head, calling Ma'at to me.

"You did your best, bud. We had a good run."

"Don't say that!" Ahmed said. His shouts receded from my mind as Ma'at looked at me, sadness  — and perhaps, pride? — etched on her face. The jackals swarmed into the room. There was nowhere else for us to run.

"Could you please duck for me?"

It was the client. Before I could respond, Ma'at knocked me to the ground, covering me with outstretched wings. I heard the sound of gears, followed by a low bass that I could feel all the way to my chest. There was a flash of light, and then...

Silence.

Ma'at picked me up from the ground. In front of us was the girl, her hand outstretched — except, where a hand should be, there was instead a canon, glowing with gold energy. There wasn't a single jackal in the room: they had all been turned to dust.

The girl shook her arm, and it reformed, snapping back into a human hand. She turned to me, beaming, and curtsied.

"Thank you for your assistance," she said. Her eyes were a piercing gold, the same color as the energy that coursed through her. It wasn't exactly pertinent to the moment, but all I could think about was how pretty she was.

"Y-you're welcome," I replied. "Who are you?"

The girl gave me a thoughtful tilt and frowned, before smiling again.

"You may call me Hathor," she said.

"Alright. Hathor."

When I said the girl's name, she rushed over to me. Before I could react, she swept me up into a hug, spinning me around the room.

"Yes! It feels wonderful to have a name, to hear it be said aloud by someone else. And to be free! Thank you so much!"

"No problem," I said after the girl put me down. I was dizzy, and my chest was on fire, but I wasn't sure if it was the spinning that was making me feel that way.

"You're alive!" I had forgotten Ahmed was still there. "Thank god. I really didn't want to find someone else to play Shadowverse with."

"Silence, clown. You can't quip me right now. You were sobbing thirty seconds ago."

"On second thought, I hope the jackals take you."

Another Reversed burst into the room. I readied my khopesh, but Hathor was ahead of me by a long shot. Compartments opened on either side of her legs, letting her burst forward on what looked like miniature rockets. She snatched the axe from the jackal, using the momentum of her engines to cut its head off in one clean sweep.

"Hey, Ramlah. Ramlah! You there?"

"I think I'm in love," I said as I stared at the girl, eyes wide.

"That's great, but do you mind being in love above ground?"

I shook my head.

"Right. Hathor, my mission's not technically complete until we get you out of here. Are you ready to go?"

The girl skipped over to me, hanging the axe over her shoulder.

"Yes! I know a way out. Let us go!"

"Whoa—!"

Hathor swooped me off my feet, carrying me princess-style. I couldn't believe it was happening, covering my face with my hands and hoping the girl wouldn't notice the heat rising to my cheeks.

"Ramlah, are you in need of first-aid? My sensors indicate that your heart-rate is rapidly increasing."

"No, I'm fine..." I muttered. "Just get us out of here."

"Onwards!"

Hathor shot out of the door, running faster than any human could, even if they were a Phantom Thief. We blasted through hallways, sometimes even barreling through jackals. The AI wasn't going to stop for anyone after obtaining her newfound freedom. I had to close my eyes from the dizzying speed of it all, unconsciously tucking myself towards the robot's chest.

Finally Hathor stopped, and I — somewhat regrettably — was let back onto solid ground. We were in a hanger bay of some sort, different in looks than anything else we had seen so far. It was a gigantic space, stretching out at least two or three football fields wide. There was a series of bridges that shot out into the center of the bay, suspended over a yawning pit of blackness that I couldn't see the bottom of.

"We'll take a personalized aircraft to escape!" Hathor said, skipping towards the nearest bridge. I followed after her, sword drawn in case of an ambush. I had to will myself not to look down as we reached the end of the bridge, where a floating vehicle waited for us. It was similar to a motorcycle, but bulkier, and shaped like the crescent rolls my mom would make during Ramadan. Two engines on its bottom kept it afloat in the air. Hathor hopped onto the airbike, reaching a hand out to me.

"Let's go!" She said, giving me another gigawatt smile. I gulped.

"R-right..."

I took the girl's hand, and she pulled me to sit behind her. I was close enough to realize that her hair smelled like bakhoor, and it reminded me of home. I was a little light-headed. Why did she smell so good?

"Keep it together, Ramlah," Ahmed said, somehow knowing exactly what I was thinking. Oh god. He was going to give me so much crap when we got back to HQ.

"Give me a second to interface with the system, and then we'll be on our way!"

I looked behind us. A swarm of Reversed were coming our way.

"I don't think we have a second," I said.

Hathor gave me a hand. Literally. She handed me her detached left hand.

"Press the little green button on the bottom of the palm!" she said with the cheerfulness someone would have if they were teaching you how to fold a paper airplane. I followed her instruction, and the hand reconfigured itself into a small cannon. A hand-cannon. Heh.

"The red button fires!"

"Hell yeah, you don't gotta tell me twice," I said, whirling on our pursuers. I pulled the trigger, and a burst of energy shot out of the canon, taking out at least five of the monsters.

"Hathor, you are literally the most amazing girl I've ever met."

I slammed on the trigger as if I were mashing buttons in a fighting game. A string of blasts decimated the area behind us, leaving huge chunks in the wall. However the sea of monsters that I destroyed were quickly replaced by more, bearing down on us.

"Let's go!"

Hathor slammed her foot on the peddle, and the airbike shot into the sky, almost leaving my stomach behind. I whooped in excitement, grabbing the girl's waist with one arm and continuing to fire at the monsters behind us with the other, out of enjoyment more than anything else.

"Ramlah, could you please destroy the ceiling ahead of us?"

I turned ahead to see the metal rushing towards us.

"Ack!"

I swung around, using Hathor's shoulder as a support as I fired multiple blasts into the wall. It crumbled a second before we shot through it. There was a second where we surrounded by darkness, and then we were home-free, shooting out of a sandy hill and into the desert skies.

I whooped again, pumping my fist.

"Mission complete!" I shouted. "We did it, Hathor! ...Hathor?"

The girl was looking out at the night sky, her golden eyes wide. Free from the pollution of Cairo, we were able to see a sea of stars that twinkled at us, as if welcoming us back from the underground.

"It's beautiful," she whispered. It took all of my willpower not to say the same of her. Instead I leaned back on the bike, trying to actually be cool for once.

"So, Ms. Client: what's next? Now that you're free. Got any plans?"

Hathor tilted her head as she thought carefully.

"I want to see...everything!" she finally said, turning to beam at me again. I wasn't used to being smiled at so much, but I wasn't remiss to having it happen more.

"That's not much to work off of, but...why don't you just hang with us?" I offered. "I—uh, we can show you around Cairo, at least. And then we'll play it by ear."

"I'd like that very much, Ramlah," the girl replied. As we smiled at each other over the Western Desert's horizon, I heard a crackling in my ear.

"Hey, what's your statu—"

I pulled the comm link out of my ear, shoving it into my pocket.



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mint

mint

I love writing, music, my friends, and food. FAAFO.