30: Bones

Miya crawled behind a desk as gunfire went off all around her. Fuck you, Sanchez. I’m not getting shot or ripped in half by a feral for you. The buzzing at the back of her skull, there ever since Sanchez tried to force her to bring back his dead wife and nearly summoned a demon, had vanished once she entered the hideout. She summoned a ribbon of magic, coiling it around her hand for a moment before letting it dissipate. OK. No control over me for now. Maybe I can grab a gun in the confusion. If Sanchez wins, maybe I can kill him and figure out something if he doesn’t have a lot of guys left. If the vigilantes win, maybe I can do the same. Or maybe I can cut a deal or something. They had a techie. 

The absence of gunfire broke her train of thought. Am I out of time already? She heard muffled talking, then footsteps approached. Fuck, fuck, fuck. The desk Miya hid behind was lifted up and tossed aside like cardboard. 

“Wait, wait!” cried out Miya, holding up her hands in surrender. She found herself staring down three people. Far taller than Miya or the others, the feral stood out with wings and claws. I can see where they got the demon angle from. No glowing eyes though. To her left stood a man in a grinning mask. To her right stood what looked like a somewhat smaller than average riot cop, without the shield. She pointed a pistol at Miya’s chest and asked in a distorted voice, “You one of Sanchez’?”

“No,” replied Miya, taking pains to keep her hands up and in their sight. “It’s complicated. He’s holding me hostage and dragging me around.”

“Was. He’s dead now,” barked the man to the left, his words blurring together. 

“Great,” said Miya, pumping as much genuine sincerity as she could into a single word. 

The woman let her pistol drop a few inches, now pointing it at the floor. The feral moved forward. Don’t eat me. Instead it offered a hand to her up, asking, “Do you have a name?”

Huh. “Just call me Miya.” A scaly hand engulfed Miya’s, hauling her to her feet with ease.

“I’m Delta,” said the woman. “That’s Olivia. He’s Skulker.” The guy gave her a quick mock salute.

Miya’s gaze drifted past them, to the shot up and half ruined building beyond. Dying flames licked the side of the truck the vigilantes had somehow to slag. Several dead or dying men lay spread out on the ground between the front wall and the wreck. If there were any injured, they had been pulled out by their friends as they retreated. Well, I guess I’m stuck here. The air reeked of residual gunpowder smoke, even though the wind dispersed most of the white smoke. 

“So, there any particular reason we should believe you?” asked Skulker. 

Miya looked to Delta and nodded. She must be that techie Overlord wanted. Amanda something. “You wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with everything electrical going all wonky here, would you?”

“Yes, why?” said Delta after a few seconds of hesitation.

“Well, Overlord did some experiments with me. I’ve got a kill switch in me that will activate once things return to normal. I’d rather not die.”

Skulker broke into laughter. “Fuck, I hope that ain’t a lie. Be damn stupid of you if it were.” Well fuck you too.

“Oh shit, Overlord? You’re lucky not to be a brain in a box right now,” said Delta, not bothering to wait until Skulker finished. 

“I think that’s what they wanted to do originally. Good thing they don’t know much about magic,” said Miya.

“Magic, huh?” asked Skulker.

Miya shrugged. “I’m a mage. Overlord wanted a way to control magic, and the best way he’s found so far is to control a mage.” The vigilantes remained wary, guns still held at the ready even if not aimed directly at Miya. Please believe me. Please don’t shoot me. I should throw them something else. “Overlord is looking for you two,” added Miya. “You dead, and you alive.” She pointed to Olivia and Delta in turn.

The feral tilted her head to the side a few angles in confusion and Delta’s helmet gave no clues as to her expression. We’re all on the same side here. After a few seconds, Miya’s heart pounding in her ears, Delta asked her, “So what do you know about what Overlord did to you? I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to do anything, but anything you can give me will help.”

“There’s a chip in my brain, I’d rather you not go poking around with that. They told me some knife was set up to ruin my spine, I think. There’s wires hooked up to pain receptors to keep me in line. And there’s some stuff in my hands, to regulate magic.”

“Alright, come with me. If your friends didn’t ruin all my stuff I’ll see what I can do.”

Delta led Miya back towards the warehouse Sanchez and the feral had fought. Olivia followed right behind, looming far over Miya, with Skulker bringing up the rear. They returned to the warehouse Miya had just escaped from, when Sanchez and his few remaining loyal men fought Olivia and the other man. Said man, a tall blonde with hints of a beard on his cheeks poking out from the blue bandana covering his lower face, watched her entrance with curiosity. 

“Who’s that?” he asked. Once Delta and Skulker, both talking over each other, introduced them and explained the situation, he studied Miya for a moment and said, “Alright. Delta, help her out. Skulker, keep watch out front in case they come back. Or if the police come around.” As the two went to their allotted tasks, Miya heard Chris mutter under his breath, “It’s like herding cats.”

“Fuck, he’s right. I forgot about the cops,” grumbled Delta

“We’ll have to get ready for that,” said Nomad. 

“You aren’t thinking about getting into a firefight with the whole MHU, are you?” asked Miya, incredulous. Am I going to have to jump ship again?

“Absolutely not,” replied Delta with a shake of her head, though she refused to elaborate further. Instead, she asked, “What kind of magic do you do?

“Bio magic,” simplified Miya. “Bones.”

“Bio, that makes this easier.” What? How? You’re a techie, not a mage. “Alright, I’ve got a low power metal detector that won’t heat up the metal inside of you and melt important stuff.” Delta tapped something on the side of her helmet and studied Miya for a moment. “Why isn’t this working? Right! The jammer.” Delta froze, halfway to a laptop set up on a nearby table. “Lock Corp.” she whispered. She spun around and jabbed a finger at Miya.”What do you know about them?”

“Lock Corp.?” asked Miya, hands half raised in surrender again and thoughts scrambling to keep up. They’re that big security company, right? “Sanchez might have mentioned them once or twice but I never saw them or talked to them.”

Nomad asked Delta, “What is this about Lock Corp.?”

“If I shut down the jammer I can track down where that Lock Corp. guy is. Or maybe it’s a small team. It doesn’t matter, they’re probably still in the area and waiting on Sanchez. Once they figure out their contractor is dead they’ll bounce. I need to get to their systems.”

“I’ll die if you turn that jammer off,” Miya pointed out. Please don’t.

Nomad tried to put his foot down, “We’re not fighting a war with Lock Corp.”

“That’s not the plan,” insisted Delta. “I’m not going to kill him. I just need his equipment and computers. He’s not going to sit around forever. This is my chance!”

“Amanda!” said Olivia, tone full of disappointment. 

Silence hung in the air for a moment, with Delta’s hands right above the keyboard as all eyes bored into her. If I try to stop her, will the others stop me?

“Fuck,” said Delta, shoulders slumping as she withdrew. “You’re right. Let me think of something.” She brushed aside some debris and opened a box beneath her desk. Olivia and Miya both craned their necks to look inside, only to see a mass of indecipherable metal parts and insulated wires. Delta pulled out a foot long rod, with several smaller ones jutting out at regular intervals, then paused. “Hey Olivia, can you grab that black and yellow striped box? The one I usually keep under the second desk?”

Olivia nodded and trundled off. Did she just boss around the feral? Miya watched as Delta began wiring several small metal boxes to the base of the metal rod. Once Olivia returned, she rifled through the striped box for a moment before withdrawing what appeared to be a wifi antenna. Fifteen long minutes passed before Delta finally deemed her contraption ready. 

She waved the rod over Miya’s upper body a couple times, pausing a few times over her shoulders and wrists. 

Delta tapped her helmet as she set the rod aside, saying, “Come on. There, done.” She remained quiet for a couple seconds. “All right. I think I can stop it from killing you, but it’s going to hurt.” She pulled out a combat knife about as long as her palm.

Olivia eyed the knife and hesitantly asked, “Amanda, what’s the knife for?”

“I need to get to the implants somehow. Come here.” Delta set up a curtain around an old beat up bed on the floor. She tapped a point on Miya’s wrist with a finger. “Biology isn’t my specialty. If I go in through here, will I nick anything important?”

Miya reached for her magic, sending ribbons of magic to examine herself. “That should be good.” They repeated this process a few more times, gradually narrowing down their options. The implants inside her felt like rocks in an otherwise living and healthy river, cold and out of place.

Miya moved quietly off to the side as Delta grabbed some black and red wires and an unidentifiable tool from the desk. “This whole process is going to be something out of a horror movie. And in the interest of full disclosure, it’ll probably kill you.”

Miya nodded, a hard look in her eyes. “I don’t have much of a choice. Do it.” 

“Lay on your back on the bed. There’s a wire to cut in you. Olivia, hold her down, no matter what.”

Olivia’s eyes widened, and she hesitated. Delta said, “Now. Trust me.” This is going to suck, but I’m not exactly drowning in options. 

Miya lay down and felt a sudden shock in her side, knocking her unconscious.

***

She came around with her back on fire. Olivia and Delta were arguing elsewhere in the room.

Olivia was saying, “I don’t think you should do that without telling her first.”

“Hey, it’s over with. If she’d have been conscious there was a good chance something stupid would happen, like her twitching and me cutting something important,” replied Delta. That’s her normal voice, isn’t it?

“I’m still not OK with it.” They stopped arguing as Miya groaned and sat upright, hands seeking out where Delta cut the most, near her left shoulder blade. I’ve gotten through worse. The gash on her back was covered by a rough bandage that Miya couldn’t see. Please be clean. She began to reach for magic when everything started hurting again.

Olivia was beside her, Delta not long after. Miya waved them off. “I’ll be fine, just recovering” she managed through gritted teeth. Fuck, knife wounds hurt. “How long was I out anyways?” asked Miya.

“Almost ten minutes,” said Delta. 

Oh, that’s not bad. “Did it work?”

“Well, the jammer is off and you’re still breathing.”

Miya blinked. “You turned it on while I was asleep?”

“Yeah, I did what I could. If it didn’t work you would have died in your sleep instead of in pain.”

“Thanks?”

The vigilantes had managed to get a little cleaning done in the time Miya was out. Bodies had been lined up near the exit, their feet sticking out below a ragged old blue tarp pinned down with broken bricks. A phone sat on one of Delta’s desks, surrounded by bits of techie equipment. The laptop next to it cycled through pictures. Is that Sanchez’ phone? I saw Jess for a second, there. Skulker was back, helping Olivia sweep up broken masonry, drywall, and discarded bullet casings.

Nomad approached. He took a knee, getting closer to Miya’s eye level as she sat upright. “Delta, how is that phone cracking going?”

“Almost done. Let me check.” 

“Olivia, go help Skulker with some of the bigger pieces of rubble.” Once the two of them left, he looked to Miya and said, “You should know that the four of us are wanted right now.” He trailed off as Miya started laughing. “What?”

“So am I,” she replied with a wave of her hand. “Even before all this. That’s not a problem.” 

He raised an eyebrow. The bandana still covered his face, though he’d set aside his rifle. “It might be. The cops are on their way, I give them about five more minutes since I called them. Do we need to hide you?” 

“I’m not from around here, they won’t know me,” she said with a shake of her head. 

“If you say so,” he said with a shrug. “Are you good to stand?”

“Yeah.” He helped her to her feet. 

Miya kept herself out of the way as the vigilantes prepared for the arrival of the cops, her time with Sanchez giving her ample opportunities to practice. That’s it. Sanchez is dead. I’ve got the crap out of me. Now what? She could hear the sound of approaching sirens. Miya hung back, next to Oliva, as Delta and Chris opened one of the back garage doors.

Soon enough, three heavy vans rolled up to the backlot. They came to a stop and disgorged dozens of heavily armed and armored MHU officers. They fanned out in a semi-circle around the opened door. Out of the frying pan. A trio of officers marched forward, a heavier man taking the lead. Nomad and Delta, without their face covers and guns, walked down the concrete ramp to meet them. The two groups stopped half a dozen paces away.

“Bob,” Nomad greeted them.

“Chris,” said the lead man, Bob, his voice far frostier. Miya paused for a moment. The tall man to his right looked familiar, but she couldn’t place the face. “I’m shocked you two didn’t skip town entirely.”

“We’re not traitors,” replied Nomad with a shake of his head. Wait, those two are cops too? “In fact, we did our job. Sanchez is dead.”

Bob waved a hand up. Two of the officers marched forward, towards the body Delta indicated. One knelt down, pulling a small camera from a pouch at his hip. The other studied Sanchez’s face for a moment before giving Bob a thumb’s up. 

Nomad continued, calm and steady despite the firepower arrayed against him, “Lehman Construction was in charge of the renovations at HQ. You know, the ones super late and over budget. They were walking right into our building under our noses. You have a bigger problem than us. You have a rat.”

Delta passed him a flash drive. Bob studied her with a critical eye for a moment before taking it. “We’ll have to confirm this.”

“We know.”

“You still have a feral,” pointed out the tall man. 

“Jeremiah brings up a good point,” said Bob, cocking his head to the side. “Now what? You keep her as a pet? She gets a desk job?”

“She’s one of us. She was critical in helping us and I think throwing her into a jail cell would be a mistake on a moral level. As for what’s next, that’s for her to decide, and I trust her judgment. I hope that still means something.”

“You’re asking us to take a lot on faith. She’s killed.” He’s not wrong. Miya glanced at Olivia next to her. She stood stiff as a board, eyes locked on Bob. 

“You’ve met her yourself. If you don’t push her she wouldn’t hurt a fly.” 

“That sounds unstable to me. Dangerous.”

“That was then. Now-”

Bob held up a hand, stopping Nomad. “I’ve heard what you have to say. What does she have to say?”

“What?” croaked Olivia as everyone looked to her. You’re not good at talking, are you?

“Are you a danger to yourself or the people of this city?”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” mumbled Olivia.

Bob cupped a hand to his ear and said, “Kid, speak up, I’m too old for that whispering shit.”

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she repeated, now louder and steadier. “I don’t know who I am and I want to figure that out. I don’t want to fight.” Huh.

“Marcus wants all your heads,” pointed out Jeremiah. 

“Marcus didn’t even bother to be here, instead we did his job,” countered Chris, motioning to Sanchez’ body. “We’re not asking for the keys to the city here, we’re asking for a fair shake instead of a cell and six months before a trial even gets considered.”

Bob sighed and motioned to the other officers. “Pack it in, we’re done here. We’ll get these bodies and evidence back to HQ.” Once the mass of men got moving, he turned to Chris and the rest and said, “We’ll be keeping in touch. And by that I mean all of you are calling in once a week. We’re not throwing you in the slammer for the moment, but running again will look very bad.” Miya suppressed a snort. That’s a paper thin threat right there.

The vans rumbled to life after a few minutes of packing, driving out one after the other, leaving them alone in the late afternoon with a ruined building. Olivia fidgeted, pressing a knuckle to her ear. 

“You alright?” asked Miya as they withdrew back into their building and shut the door. You’d better not go crazy when I’m right next to you. I’ve seen what those claws can do.

“Ever since the grenade went off my hearing has been weird. And I hear this ringing. It’s not going away. I guess that’s the weird thing I was hearing when they were here.”

Silence reigned for a minute or two. 

“Are you going to stay?” asked Olivia. “I mean, I don’t really know where to go from here. I want to figure out who I was before. Do you have any plans?”Miya considered for a moment. “I guess I’ll stick around for now,”  she replied with a shrug. I’m still low on options. Olivia beamed down on her with a smile.

29: Monster

Olivia, Chris, and Amanda found themselves pinned between gang members cutting through the metal doors at the back of their auto-shop turned hideout behind them, and two groups of advancing gang members in front of them. Even with Ben melting their heavy truck mounted gun, truck included, and several of them peeling off to track him down, a good dozen armed men with a motley collection of pistols and rifles approached the torn up and ruined front wall.

Olivia shook her back and wings as she got up off the ground, dust and debris from the heavy gun sliding off her. She shot a glance at Chris and Amanda doing the same, from behind their overturned desk. What do we do? She’d warned them of the impending danger from behind, though with Amanda’s computers and cameras in ruins they had no way of knowing how many were back there. Chris shook his head.

“Jammer still up?” he asked Amanda, keeping his voice low to avoid tipping off their attackers.

“Yeah, but I’ll lose my connection.”

“Your equipment is dead. Turn it on,” he ordered. To Olivia he said, “Five seconds. We’ll fire, you get forward. Get close.” He jabbed his hand at an office to Olivia’s left that only had a few bullet holes torn through it. They’d used it to store food before, perhaps the mini fridge had escaped destruction. Behind him, Amanda gripped her pistol tight with her expression hidden behind her helmet.

OK. Go to place. OK, I can do that. With the thunderous beating of her heart drowning out the typical rustling of people in motion, she tensed her legs and prepared herself to sprint. Five seconds passed slow, so slow that Olivia found herself looking over her shoulder at Chris to make sure she’d heard correctly. 

In that instant, Chris heaved his rifle over the desk and began firing, Amanda following suit a split second later with her handgun. Go. Olivia shut out the deafening sound of gunfire at her back and sprinted towards the shot up office. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted five attackers, halfway through climbing through the broken windows, hastily fall back in the face of unexpected stiff resistance. A bullet caught one of the five in the leg, sending him to the ground with a strangled cry. 

Olivia barreled through the doorway to the office, finding a room with a huge chunk torn out of its front wall and the minifridge with three holes through it in the corner. Crouched low, she headed up towards the wall, near the edge of the broken window. Behind her, she heard Chris’ rifle fall silent as he ran forward. A moment later, Amanda did the same. 

Footsteps, not Chris or Amanda’s, approached under the sound of gunfire from the outside. Olivia poked her head around the corner. The attackers had been pushed back, away from the building and towards their cars scattered around the otherwise empty parking lot. Four men, hunched over much as Olivia had, sprinted towards her. She pulled back before any could spot her. Wait for them to get close so they don’t shoot me. Stop them from getting to the others. I can do this. 

Her heart pounded once, twice, thrice. A man taking short, ragged breaths entered first, pausing only a moment to look in before vaulting over the jagged glass. One of the shock traps, miraculously still operational, sprang to life. A white bolt of lightning lanced down, catching him mid-jump. He collapsed to the ground, glass embedding itself into his flailing leg. Oh. That was easy. Wait. She heard a curse and several gunshots as the reek of burnt hair dug its way into her nostrils. Rifle bullets tore through the upper part of the wall where the shock had come from. 

Someone tossed a rock through the broken window. Olivia jumped out of her skin at the unexpected sight, nearly charging out then and there. When no shock answered the thrower, a head poked in above his fallen comrade, this time taking a thorough scan of the interior. After a moment, his eyes came to lock with Olivia’s. She let out a threatening hiss through bared teeth.

“Found it!” he called out as he grabbed his fallen friend. “Where are those ‘nades?” The bleeding and unconscious man was pulled back through and out of her sight. Nades? Whatever, they know I’m here now. No more hiding. She pushed off of her hiding place in the corner and prepared herself to take a swing at the others right around the corner. 

With a hiss, Olivia rounded the corner, claws out and ready. Instead of seeing any other attackers ready to climb into the building, she found them beginning the process of retreating back towards their cars with their injured friend carried between two of them. They’re getting away. She vaulted over the broken window and ran in pursuit. A thought at the back of her head brought her to a stop.

Wait! Listen!

Olivia’s quarry reached the car line. “He’s got ‘em. Just keep shooting. There it is!” 

I can’t just run in like I always do. There’s fifty feet of open space between me and them. Olivia pulled back to her original position, helped along by several gunshots at her back. The attackers never pushed, instead preferring to keep her at a distance and take shots from afar. Their lack of enthusiasm with the destruction of their heavy gun caught Olivia off guard. Every movement she expected a charge or something awful to happen. Instead, they just kept up with occasional shots.

Olivia hugged her wall, only occasionally peeking around the corner to make sure no one was trying to flank her for over a minute. Amanda and Chris kept up sporadic fire with the gang opposite them. A quick movement out of the corner of her eye brought her claws back out, until a familiar scent caught her nose. Ben leapt into Olivia’s room, keeping himself low.

His grey metal mask looked up at her. “Rifle’s fucked. Comms fucked. How we doin’?” he asked, hunched low as several shots chased after him.

“They backed off. They’re about to get in from the other side though,” she replied during a lull in the fire. 

“I got this. Go tell Nomad.”

“OK.” She slunk back, keeping her wings tucked in tight to keep anyone from shooting them. Once out of immediate danger, she rushed off to where she’d left Chris and Amanda, finding them crouched behind the front wall, much as Olivia and Ben had. 

“Chris!” she called out. 

He took a look over his shoulder, then turned into liquid form and flowed back to her. “What?” he asked as he popped back into human form with a shiver. 

“Ben has my spot. They’re about to get in from the back,” she said. In the distance, muffled between a couple walls, metal shrieked as it was twisted and shorn. 

“Alright. You and me, back door.” He looked over his shoulder and shouted, “Delta, hold this wall with Skulker.” She gave him a curt nod in response. 

Together, Chris and Olivia rushed off to the warehouse in the back. They barreled through the entrance to find themselves face to face with half a dozen armed men crawling through two holes cut into the garage doors on the opposite side of the room. We’re late. One man at the led, currently helping another to his feet, twisted over his shoulder at the sound of their entrance.

Most of the gunfire from the heavy gun out front hadn’t pieced that far into the building. The lights overhead still worked, and the part of Amanda’s workbench she hadn’t had time to pack up lay untouched. In preparation for an attack from the back, they’d scattered a few overturned desks and tables in a quarter circle, arcing around the garage doors. Chris sprinted for one.

“That’s him, Sanchez,” he called, pointing out the tan, muscular man staring at them, in old desert camo fatigues and a bandolier of knives across his chest. 

You. You’re the one we’ve been looking for. With a roar she charged, heedless of the two men flanking Sanchez who brought their guns up to bear. The claws of her feet punched into the floor as she ignored the shot that managed to connect to her shoulder. Sanchez finished hauling the man to his feet, who promptly scattered out of Olivia’s way, and drew a knife out of its holding place and flung it in one fluid motion. 

In a split second, something in the back of Olivia’s mind noticed danger. The knife shot forward, far harder and more accurate than his throw should have allowed for. She abandoned her charge, turning to the side as much as her momentum allowed. The knife cut deep into the side of her ribcage instead of her heart. She hissed and reared back.

Chris, utterly unnoticed with Olivia making a scene, popped up from behind a desk they’d turned on its side in preparation and opened fire, catching one of the men unawares and dropping him. With the gunfire drawing his attention, Olivia resumed her charge towards Sanchez.

“Boss!” called out one of his men as they scattered for cover. Chris helped them along their way with a few more shots.

Her claws grazed Sanchez’ forearm before he could pull it out of harm’s way, tearing four shallow gashes into his flesh. He whipped out another knife and drew it across his chest, nearly carving into Olivia’s own arm. As she hesitated in the face of danger, he backed away, his free, if injured, arm reaching for a metal ball at his hip. 

Don’t let him get away. Olivia kept pace with Sanchez, taking two wild swings at his chest. She misjudged the distance on her first swing, simply carving into empty air. Her second swing pulled against some source-less resistance as Sanchez pushed himself back and out of range of her claws. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw a small figure climb in through one of the holes cut in the doors. 

Sanchez pulled something out of the metal orb as he dropped it to the ground and sprinted away in the same direction as the newcomer.

“Olivia! Grenade!” yelled Chris before she could pursue. What? He waved his arm to the side. Get away? OK. “Down!”

The metal ball exploded as she dove down. Some tiny bits of metal hit her wing, punching straight through the membrane of the wing itself. One hit a bone, breaking it. She let out a scream. Kill him, kill him. 

With another roar and half deaf, she clawed her way back to her feet and charged Sanchez. Her own bed slid along the floor and caught her in the shins. Though she shrugged the blow off, her next step took her onto the bed, which then slid back and pulled her foot out from under her. With a smirk, Sanchez pulled the pin on another grenade and tossed it behind her as she struggled to get her feet back under her. He dove to the side and out of sight. 

Without the time to run, she swatted it away with her tail, sending it skittering across the concrete to the opposite end of the shop. One of Sanchez’ men let out a yell, before the explosion cut him short.

Chris, now a quarter way across the room behind their makeshift shower, called out, “Olivia!” as the echo died down. She bared her teeth in the direction of Sanchez. “Olivia!” Listen. Don’t be stupid. 

She tore her attention away from her prey and joined Chris behind the remains of the shower. Even if the curtains wouldn’t stop a bullet, they kept the attackers from seeing and thus aiming at them. They still lay on the ground as several exploratory bullets whizzed overhead. 

“Don’t bother using the desks for cover, their rifles punch right through. They’ve got three men, I go right, you go left,” Chris ordered under his breath. 

Olivia let out a frustrated hiss. They won’t leave us alone. 

“What?” he asked.

She took a deep breath. Don’t be stupid. “Sorry. OK,” she replied as she climbed back to her feet.

I keep complaining about fighting, then I wind up turning off my brain and getting into fights anyways. A bullet hit her shoulder, breaking her train of thought. She reared back with a hiss. Like that. Fight now, think later.

“Now.”

Olivia burst out from behind the shower. The repeated grenade explosions had ruined her normal hearing, but she could still smell someone moving to her left. She tracked it until something in the corner of her eye caught her attention.

Sanchez, with no trace of wounds on his skin, flung another grenade at her. She ducked her head and sprinted away from the impact site. The shockwave sent bits of iron digging into the desk she dove behind. Gunfire from Chris sounded off to the right, pulling Sanchez’ attention away before he could throw another grenade. 

A bullet hit her left wing, near the grenade wound as she climbed to her feet. The sudden spike of pain caused her to stagger for a moment, balance fuzzy. She locked her sight on the gunman, a thin man with a shaved head and lazy, hooded eyes who had a perfect firing angle on her, and rushed him.

He stood his ground with a defiant yell in his throat, firing two more bullets into her chest. She managed to clear the rest of the distance, taking a swing at his head. He ducked, letting her arm pass harmlessly overhead. The butt of his rifle snapped to the knife wound in the side of her chest. She flinched, pulling her arm back to protect herself. With a hiss, she snapped forward with her mouth, coming within an inch of his throat as he ducked back once again. She took a step forward as he tried to bring his rifle back up to fire once more. Her hand came up and caught the body of the rifle, sending a shot somewhere in the ceiling. With her claws digging into the metal and rendering it worthless, she pulled back before he could realize what had happened and release it. Her second swing caught his throat with her claws, nearly tearing his head off. 

As her adversary collapsed to the ground, she spun around to take stock. Chris, or Sanchez, had closed the gap between each other, Sanchez’ last man wheezing on the ground with a bullet in his chest. As Chris took aim with his rifle, Sanchez let out a roar and flung two knives in quick succession at him.

Chris snapped into liquid form, the knives sliding into his pale blue blob form. He flowed towards Sanchez, crashing into the heavy plastic box Sanchez threw in his way. Chris popped the knives out of his body and snapped back to human form, rifle already raised and aimed in Sanchez’ general direction. Before Chris could pull the trigger the lid of the box flew up, sending his shots wide and Sanchez dove for cover. Another wicked fast knife forced Chris back into his gun-less blob form. Help.

Olivia let out a roar from across the room. Sanchez, now well trained to listen for that particular danger, spun towards her, knives flashing out only to find empty space instead of a charging feral. Nomad threw out a tendril that caught Sanchez’ leg, pinning him in place as the bulk of Nomad reared up. He caught Sanchez in the head and slammed it into the concrete. The man lay still as Nomad flowed off him and snapped back to human form, a pool of blood spreading from the impact site.

Olivia stared for a moment at the man she’d just met, now dead on the floor, who’d been trying to kill them, and they had been trying to kill in turn. That’s it? We’re done? Wait. She spun in the direction she’d last heard his gunmen, only to find no one. She heard footsteps slapping against the pavement, retreating to cars in the back.

Chris, spotting her distant look, shouldered his rifle and leaned against a wall. He poked his head just around, then turned back to her with a smile unmistakable under his bandana. “I think that’s it. They’re running.” He double checked as Olivia lumbered over to see for herself. Just as he said, only one empty car, its doors still left wide open, remained in the back lot. “I’ll keep an eye out here in case any come back. You check out front.”

He’s dead, she thought as she walked in a near daze. All these weeks. And he’s dead, just like that. He had a name. Everyone has a name, I guess, but I knew his. It’s that easy to die?

She found Amanda and Ben pushed back to the relative safety of the building and front offices. The two sides fired potshots at each other from behind cover, Amanda and Ben being only two, and the gang content to keep them busy for their boss. White gunpowder smoke drifted through the air between them. Enough. With neither the time nor the patience for strategy, Olivia rounded a corner and trudged forward, intent on breaking the line or causing a distraction for the others. She braced herself for gunfire that never came. After a few long strides, the gunfire from the gang stopped completely.

“Fuck this.”

The retreat started slowly, half slipping back as the others at least pretended to keep up cover. A few more steps from Olivia and they abandoned all pretenses, the retreat turning into a mad dash for their remaining intact cars. She stopped, not even past the front door, as the last car peeled out of the front parking lot, tires screeching against asphalt. Amanda lowered her pistol, watching as it turned a corner and vanished. 

“Was that the last of them?” she asked Olivia. 

“I think so,” replied Olivia. I can’t hear any more shooting. Or shouting.

“Fuck yeah!” exclaimed Ben, jumping up and landing a light punch on Olivia’s shoulder.

Amanda holstered her gun and picked one of her shock batons up from the ground. “Holy shit, we’re alive. Are you injured?”

Olivia’s response died in her throat as she caught the sound of panicked breathing, light and small from within their hideout. Another one? They sound weird. She stomped over to the source within an old office, Amanda and Ben right behind her, and pulled back an overturned desk.

“Wait, wait!” cried the young woman crouched behind it, holding her hands up in surrender. Olivia blinked at the sight of her shaved head, dark hair only just starting to grow back. Brown eyes locked on to Olivia’s, with a strange mixture of fear and anger. Dull red spots pockmarked her temples and high, prominent cheeks. She’s so little. 

28: Blood and Iron

Click.

Which would be worse, this or just silence? Olivia asked herself. Ben loaded another round into a magazine for Chris’ rifle. A carbine, he’d specified at some point, a gun shorter and lighter than the rifles people kept shooting at Olivia. He’d managed to hold onto it since escaping the MHU with Amanda and her. She wrapped her arms tighter around herself, even at the cost of agitating some of the bruises across her chest.

Click.

At the back of the shop, Olivia hovered near a stack of boxes and back wall. She leaned her shoulder against the concrete, trying to blink the exhaustion from her eyes. We’ve only been back an hour. But Sanchez and his guys could be here soon. I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I don’t think I’ve ever even seen him. Why is he trying to kill us? 

Click.

Ben fished another bullet from the almost empty ammo box on the table in the center of the room, brass rattling against brass. He leaned back in his chair without a care in the world, as if a bunch of murderers might not be bearing down on them right that moment. 

Click.

Amanda hunched over a large, rugged laptop, Nomad leaning over her shoulder. Feeds from several different cameras played across the screen, as the two of them tried to plan out different potential approaches Sanchez might take. They, at least, seemed as worried as Olivia felt.

She jumped up when the expected click failed to happen, exhaustion temporarily forgotten as her wide eyes darted around, looking for any threat.

Ben flipped the magazine over and smacked it into the table, driving the last round in. The thud echoed off of the ceiling, twelve feet above even Olivia’s head. The handful of other magazines, most now heavy and loaded, bounced against the table. Ben leaned forward, one hand grabbing an empty one, the other returning to the ammo box. Olivia let out a sigh as a hiss died in her throat. She slumped back against the wall.

Click. 

With nothing to help with, she could only wait, stewing in her own thoughts. Everyone else is busy. Maybe I can go outside and look around. The cameras can’t see everything. It’s not like I’m doing anything right now anyways. I don’t know what else to do and I’ll sound stupid if I ask stuff. She trudged over to the back door and headed out, blinking a few times as the midday sun hit her eyes. With the backlot safe and empty, she flew up to the roof to get a better view.

She kept back from the lip of the roof, and away from any prying eyes that might be on the ground. A random civilian might call down the whole MHU on them if they spotted her. Her half spread wings caught the warm sun as she paced between two air vents. I’m always inside during the day. This feels nice. Only half focused on keeping an eye out for trouble and no one nearby, she watched and listened to the dull roar of a city in motion instead of the incessant clicking.

The north-south highway, so small in the distance, towered over the buildings in the area. Buildings much like the one Oliva now stood atop of. If she flew over there, she would be dwarfed by a gigantic strip of concrete and asphalt, with dozens of cars and trucks passing every second. Beyond that lay downtown, towering once again before buildings that seemed to blend into the plains. 

She reached as close to the edge of the roof as she dared and turned around. Now before her lay the impassive range of mountains, with the last of the spring snow melting away from their peaks. Evergreen trees clung to their flanks, and to the line of rolling hills at their feet. A few fluffy white clouds gathered above and behind them, some of the only in view. From her vantage point, the sky stretched on unbroken in every direction as far as she could see, the land losing all details and turning into a light brown smear on the horizon. She could fly forever and never reach the end.

I have a family somewhere out there. Probably. I hope they’re nice. I still have no idea who I was though. What will I even do once I find out? Ben said he’d help, but everyone has been so tired or busy trying not to die. Are we ever going to stop? Stop having someone try to kill us? How can I make it stop?

She scratched at the fading red welt on the back of her neck with a claw. The sting had subsided, though she still felt a small alien thing under the skin. They’re tracking me. Could I just run away? If I fly really far maybe they’ll come for me and not the others. Would that keep everyone else safe? But if anything goes wrong, we can’t help each other. We’d all be dead if it weren’t for each other. 

What can I do? Why are they even trying to attack us anyways? I don’t want to fight anyone. Could we just talk to them? If we leave them alone they leave us alone? I think it’s too late for that, though. We’ve fought and killed too many times. Wait, no, I read this somewhere. That ship has sailed. That’s a simile? Or metaphor? Whatever. We messed up. I messed up. Someone messed up and now we’re stuck here. I wish I had known what would happen when I first met Ben. Maybe I could do stuff differently. But this is my home now, and I don’t want to leave it for some guy who is trying to kill me.

Close to the edge of the roof once more, she turned around, pacing towards the city again. What am I doing? I’m sitting here worrying as people get ready to kill us. Us. Not just me. And I’m pretending to keep lookout. I don’t know what to do, but sitting here and worrying is what not to do. I can learn from Ben and Chris and Amanda. It would be better than just waiting around like this. With the backlot still empty and abandoned, she jumped from the roof, wings spread to reduce the impact to a light jostle to her legs as she hit the ground. Once back inside, Olivia strode up to the others. 

“Perfect timin’! Just about to come grab you,” said Ben as she joined him at the table. Amanda and Chris sat on the other side, with a blueprint of the building laid out before them. Amanda only half paid attention to the conversation, keeping an eye on the cameras on the laptop beside her. “What’s the plan, Blondie?”

“We do to them what they did to us. Unless he’s an idiot we’re going to be hit by a lot of people, we won’t win a straight up firefight,” explained Chris. While calm and even toned as ever, he spoke with urgency. “We might not have as much room to work with, but we can slow them down, make them miserable, and grind them to the bone.”

“We’ve got four doors leading in here, as well as a row of garage doors. No basement, no roof access from the inside,” said Amanda. “One of those doors is a heavy metal thing at the end of a long hallway. Chris already hauled a bunch of spare furniture and boxes to fill it,

“They won’t be able to throw manpower at it, it’s not very wide. It took me about thirty minutes to barricade, call it fifteen for them to get rid of it.”

“The two doors out front are glass. I’ve rigged them up with shock traps, along with the windows if someone breaks them to get through. They’ll be able to get through, but it buys us time to react. That leaves us with the ones back here.” Amanda tore her eyes from the camera feeds to spread her hand out at the shop, where all their beds and other salvaged furniture lay. Along the back wall stood a series of garage doors, along with an ordinary heavy metal one in the center.

“We’re going to have to react to wherever they try to force entry,” explained Chris. “Amanda has all the camera feeds routed up to her armor, we’ll have to rely on her to keep us informed.” I can hear and smell really good. Maybe I could help? Like with that robot. Wait, what if they bring the robot again? 

Before Olivia could work out how to speak her ideas, Ben tapped a knife point on one of the doors on the paper. “Sittin’ still in here a good idea?” It’s safer in here, right? That’s why we’re running as a group already.

“No,” replied Chris with a shake of his head. “That’s why we won’t. You have a sniper rifle. I suggest you find a good vantage point covering the back lot. That’s where we’ll strike out from first. After that we’ll have to wing it.” 

Ben snickered and nudged Olivia. She stared at him, head tilted in confusion. Wait, was that a joke?

“Focus,” ordered Amanda with a roll of her eyes. “If I had to guess I’d say they’ll try the front first, glass is a softer target than metal.”

“Yeah, I’ll cover the front then. I hope you ain’t expectin’ me to start poppin’ heads at will. Not much practice, ammo is expensive for the damn thing.”

“As long as you make them miserable,” replied Chris. Ben cackled.

“What should I do?” asked Olivia, finally able to get a word in.

“You’ll start with us,” said Chris, motioning to himself and Amanda. “We need to stick together, don’t charge at the first person who shoots at us.”

Olivia felt her cheeks heat up. I guess I do that a lot. “OK.”

“If we move outside, get in the air. If not, keep off to the side. If any of them get to close, slap them down. Life will be easier for Amanda and I if we don’t have to worry about a flank.”

“OK.” I guess that makes sense.

They continued laying out several contingencies as Ben slipped out with his rifle. Olivia kept pace as best she could with Amanda and Chris as they bounced ideas off of each other. OK. Maybe we know what we’re doing. Maybe I know what to do for once. 

Amanda’s computer let out a loud beep, causing Olivia to jump in her seat. On screen, half a dozen cars and trucks barrelled towards their hideout from one of the nearby sidestreets. Olivia frowned, spotting some strange thing in the back of one truck in the brief moment she could see into its bed.

“That’s got to be them,” confirmed Amanda. 

“Here we go,” said Chris, slipping his blue bandana over his face. How is he so calm? “Skulker, you in position?”

“Yeah. Watchin’ now. They’re splittin’ up. I got the back half.” 

Amanda and Chris checked their guns one last time, moving to take their predetermined positions. Olivia followed after them. They kept out of sight, unwilling to give their attackers a target. Olivia tapped her claws against the wall she leaned against, seeking some outlet for the nervous energy building up. 

“They’re stoppin’. Stand by.” The seconds ticked by, with no sound from the front. “Technical! Front side, get down!” shouted Ben over the comms. What?

“Olivia, on the ground,” ordered Chris. The urgency and worry in his voice  

She lay flat not a moment too soon. Heavy gunfire, heavier than Olivia had ever seen or heard before, tore through the entire front of their shop. Ordinary fire she’d seen bounced off of solid walls and floors. These bullets dug in deep, kicking up puffs of concrete dust. Glass shattered and drywall disintegrated. Some shots drilled straight into the back shop, where they’d been living for the past few weeks. 

“Skulker!” shouted Chris into his comm, his voice half drowned out by the gunfire.

“Bad angle, movin’!” came his response.

The fire continued unabated. Amanda had dragged most of her equipment to a room in the center of the building, hoping to keep it out of harm’s way. Whatever heavy gun they fired tore through boxes and wood. Oliva could hear boards and glass breaking from that direction. She spotted Amanda also looking in that direction, though her expression was unreadable beneath her helmet. 

A crack sounded out, echoing off the walls as the gunfire cut off. Silence reigned for a moment, leaving Olivia with a sourceless ringing in her ears once more. Oh god. She rose to her knees and placed an eye against one of the holes above her, taking a look at the devastated front half of their hideout.

Several cars had parked in a loose ring around the front door.Several gang members rushed off behind them, heads ducked low, towards wherever Ben had taken his shot. In the center stood what had once been a truck, the same that had caught her eye earlier, now with a heavy gun mounted to the back.

Much like the MHU van, Ben’s rifle had reduced the truck, its occupants, and the man-sized gun mounted to the back into twisted slag and ash. Too late, however, for the entire front of their building, now reduced to ragged holes in drywall and broken glass. 

Ben’s voice cracked to life over the comms, instead of the usual crisp and clean audio. “Alright, my rifle’s real toasty now, gotta-” He cut off with a hiss of static.

Chris shot Amanda a look. “What happened to his comm?”

She consulted something in her helmet. “Fuck, they brought the Lock Corp. gear,” shouted Amanda. “I can’t let them get access to what’s left.”

Chris grabbed her by the collar as she broke for her surviving computers, anchoring her in place. A hail of rifle fire overhead brought her back to reality, and she took cover once more. 

“What the fuck is Lock Corp. doing here?” she demanded.

“All of their stuff was in a van. They just moved it.”

“Fuckers,” spat Amanda. “Half my shit is gone.”

The shriek of metal, muffled somewhat by distance and a wall, caught her ear. What? Oh. 

“They’re coming,” said Olivia, cutting off Amanda’s cursing. “I can hear them cutting through the back door.”

27: Don’t Miss

The doors to the small elevator slid open with a soft ding. Miya blinked her sleep deprived eyes, trying to keep up with an icy Otto as he led her through the mob headquarters. 

“They’re gone, right?” she asked, more to fill the silence than anything else. They only came out of lockdown minutes ago, once one of their patrols found some hoodie left behind when the vigilantes escaped the would-be death trap.

“Yes,” he replied. Someone is angry. I didn’t think he was that close to Tod.

She’d caught sleep where she could, though with the hustle of Sanchez’ war room it didn’t amount to much. Vigilantes probably won’t shoot a woman curled up on a chair. Probably. It’s not like they’d be any worse than the mob. Probably. She had mostly sat around and waited for something to happen. The hidden backup elevators they’d taken hadn’t even been used during the fight, the vigilantes never making it past the first floor. 

They strode up to the doors of the equipment depot, where they had watched the triumphant, then crushing, fight over camera. A pair of grim faced guards waved them through at the sight of Otto. Inside, through the rows of equipment and materials, they found their goal.

Laid out over a blanket on the ground was Solid Tod, two bullet holes in his chest. Several others lay in a line next to him, with various states of damage. Sanchez and Omar stood on the opposite side of the bodies from Miya, arms folded over their chests.

“Anything you can do?” asked Sanchez, pointing to Tod. 

She shook her head, studying the blank face of the dead man. “I can only work on living things. He’s been dead for a bit.” Looks almost peaceful. What will I look like when I die?

“You sure?”

She tore her gaze from Tod and replied, “Very. There’s no such thing as necromancy.”

“I’ve seen you use cow and chicken bones before.”

“Those aren’t people. If it could potentially use magic, you can’t use magic on it once it’s dead. Alien, human, doesn’t matter. I could maybe puppet his body around, but I don’t think you want that,” she said, reciting the answer she’d been preparing the moment she saw Tod go down.

He studied her for a few moments, long enough for her to break eye contact out of discomfort. “Help the wounded, don’t get in the way of the clean up crew,” he ordered her.

She did the best she could for the two survivors with bone breaks, one of them unconscious for the entire time, the other squirming and fidgeting no matter how many times she scolded him. Once she finished, she looked up to find the depot nearly empty of people. Otto had vanished along with the bodies, as Omar helped the man she’d healed up and towards a waiting car. 

Sanchez waved her over, by the door of his SUV alongside Jess. “You’re with me. Get in. If the cops come sniffing they won’t find anything.”

He’s got me following him around everywhere now. Am I his good luck trinket now? He hasn’t been very lucky lately.

***

A meandering road on the outskirts of town took them up the flank of a hill, the last before the mountains gave way to flat golden plains until the Mississippi. Miya leaned her head against the window, watching giant, three story mansions pass by. Skinny young trees grew around vivid green lawns and pristine rocky landscaping. Well, I guess crime does pay. These look brand new. Each house remained separated by a hundred feet from its neighbors, along with a solid, eight foot tall fence. 

They pulled into one of four garages of a sleek grey house, the driveway flanked by a pair of wrought metal lamp posts. Their lightbulbs shone out even as the sun started to rise. As the three of them climbed out, Sanchez called out, “You’ll get the guest bedroom on the ground floor. Get some rest, we have work to do.”

Without another word, he stomped off. Jess shot her a look dripping with false sympathy. “Take the first left, second door down that hallway,” she said, also leaving Miya alone to her own devices.

Miya only managed two hour hours of sleep with the sun coming in through the curtains and directly over the bed. Fuck it, I may as well explore. Most of the house seemed simply unused, or barely used. Decorations stood in perfect rows. 

The first place she found that looked lived in was a den, with a giant sinfully comfortable looking reclining chair in front of a wide TV. Here were touches of personality. A gun safe stood in the corner, its door shut tight. A long line of movies stood in the cabinet holding up the TV.

A picture on the wall caught her eye. Half a dozen men in rugged camo stood side by side, smiling in the bright sun. Leaning in, she could spot a humvee in the background, and American flag patches on their arms. Half wore dark sunglasses, it took her a moment to recognize Tod, a decade younger and forty pounds slimmer. On the other side of the line, she saw Omar and Sanchez, arms slung over each other’s shoulders. She glanced at the bottom right corner, catching a date written in pen. June 12th, 2003. Is that Iraq?

She continued through the empty house. No guards? There were always a bunch at headquarters. Wait, he had the ones at his house moved to help Omar out. Something about Russians. She came across the kitchen. A spotless granite countertop, marred only by a pair of empty rice cartons from some Chinese restaurant, dominated the center. Along the back wall stood a blender, a set of knives, and a mixing bowl, none of which had ever been used. Jess sat at the kitchen table, pecking away at a laptop. 

She shot Miya a too wide smile as she padded in. “Oh, you’re still up. Be a dear and grab the Bossman for me, would you? He’s in the second garage, to the right of where we came in. This goddamn thing isn’t,” she trailed off for a moment, eyes refocusing on her laptop. “Fuck.”

“Will do,” said Miya, slipping out before Jess could say anything else.

Miya tracked down the door Jess had talked about and twisted the door knob, finding it locked. She knocked on the heavy wooden door. The sound of a buzz saw came from behind it, loud even deadened by the door. 

“It’ll take him a while, he gets real into it,” said a deep voice behind her. Miya nearly jumped out of her skin, spinning around to find Omar walking up behind her. What the hell? When did you get here?

“What, sawing something?” she asked to cover up her surprise. 

“Yeah, dude loves woodworking. Relaxing, apparently. Knock again, he might not have heard you.” 

Miya pounded on the door again, throwing all of her tiny weight into it. The saw stopped and after a few moments the door clicked and swung open. Sanchez stood before her, sawdust in his curly dark hair and protective glasses over his eyes. 

“What?” He caught sight of Omar, surprised. “Hey. What’s going on?” You weren’t expecting him?

“Got a problem,” said Omar, before Miya could answer.

Sanchez frowned and nodded, holding the door open for them. “Come on in, I’m almost done.”

A carved crucifix hung up on the wall overlooked the garage turned woodworking shop. Several different machines lined up another wall, the only she recognized being the circular saw with a small pile of wood dust on the floor before it.

In the center, on a solid metal workbench, stood a nearly completed spice rack. Miya paused for a moment. The dude who holds my life in his hands is making a spice rack. Why can’t anything be normal? Omar stood before Sanchez as he began measuring a plank of wood, nicking a few notches on the side with a pencil. Sweet beaded at the back of Omar’s neck. The shop was warm, but not hot enough for that. Miya stood beside a wall covered in well used tools, keeping her distance.

“What are you here for?” Sanchez called out to her.

“Oh, your wife just wanted to know when you’ll be done.”

“Soon. Is that all?”

“She started cussing out her computer, I didn’t stick around.”

A smile split his face, the first she’d seen in the last day. “Alright, I’ll head back up once I’m done here.” He gave her a nod of dismissal. 

Miya left, dragging her feet. What’s going on now? “You have a plan, boss?” asked Omar, Miya already forgotten.

“Hunker down and regroup.”

“That all?”

“What else do we need?” replied Sanchez.

“Otto’s cousin got found by those four. They all had powers. Shrink says it set him back five years, easy.”

“Not much I can do about that now,” grunted Sanchez. “We’ve moved him and Otto, same as everyone else. Look, we’re all worn out, once we get a moment to cool our heads, we’ll get everyone together and hash out a new plan.”

Sanchez’s attention returned to his project. Omar shook his head as his hand drifted behind him. Miya spotted the hint of a pistol grip, hidden in his waistband. 

Miya glanced over at the door behind Sanchez. Her breathing quickened as it dawned on her. There’s no one here but Sanchez. I’m not sure which of these two would be worse. Neither has done anything for me. But if Omar will fuck over his Army buddy of a decade, he’ll fuck over me.

“Watch out!” Miya screamed as Omar reached for his gun. 

She rushed forward and collided with his arm. His footing didn’t so much as budge, but the strange angle she caught his arm at knocked his hand away from the gun. The door slammed open once more. Two men she didn’t recognize stormed in, pistols in hand. Sanchez shot up, and a table flipped at the two newcomers. Sanchez didn’t touch that. Miya didn’t see what happened next, as Omar let out a roar and drove a fist into the side of her head. She hit another table, sending a stack of sandpaper clattering to the ground. She caught herself on the edge, all her strength now focused on standing through the pain. 

“I got the girl, get him,” shouted Omar. 

Before Miya could muster up the wits to move again, he grabbed her shoulder and pinned her to the table. She grabbed his wrist, and gathered magic that wasn’t there. Just past Omar, she could see Sanchez wrestling with one of his assailants, keeping his gun pointed well away from him, and the man’s body between Sanchez and the second attacker. He spared a glance up, catching sight of Miya’s situation. 

His eyes lost focus for a moment. Miya felt her magic pour into her, following her commands once again. The man held by Sanchez shoved him back while he was distracted, sending the mob boss staggering against the tool bench. Sanchez reached out his hand and telekinetically snapped a carpenter’s hammer into his grip. 

A pair of gunshots went off as Miya focused on the man in front of her. She began to seep her magic into Omar’s bones. Though he couldn’t see the red ribbons coiling from her hands around his wrist, he could certainly feel something happening. “Stop,” he growled, shoving his gun into her face. Just a little more, come on.” 

“OK, OK,” she gasped, trying desperately to keep from looking at the barrel of the gun an inch from her eye. Finally, his bones become brittle enough. She ducked her head and squeezed. 

Omar screamed in pain as her hands fractured his wrist. His finger twitched, firing the gun into the wall behind her. Miya wiggled out from beneath his grasp, now half deaf in one ear. She heard another couple gunshots from where Sanchez fought, Omar grasped his ruined wrist with his one good hand, the gun forgotten at his feet. “What the fuck?”

She dove at him, the race between her as she tried to break his bones, and him as he tried to rip her in half beginning. Omar turned to take her clumsy blow on his shoulder, even as he swayed on his feet with the pain. His good fist slammed into her skull once more, nearly breaking her grip, and thus her rapidly forming magical tether. He wrenched his arm back and slammed his elbow into her as she clung for dear life, barely conscious.

Magically brittle bones or not, the man still had a hundred pounds of mostly muscle on Miya. His arm knocked her back and knocked some of the wind out of her lungs. Unfortunately for Omar, arm bones fractured with the blow even as they knocked her back. He dropped to one knee, breathing heavily.

On the other side of the shop, Sanchez hit the man in the knee with his hammer. With a sickening crunch, something gave way and the man collapsed, screaming and grabbing at his leg. Sanchez ducked just in time to avoid being shot by the last man. 

Sawdust flew up on its own, flinging itself into the gunman’s eyes. With a roar, Sanchez charged. His hammer swung at the attacker’s head, who had enough sense to duck under and let it sail past. As Sanchez came back with another swing, the man tried to backpedal, still blinking sawdust out of his eyes. 

Omar grasped for his pistol, not too far from him. Miya kneed him in the ribs as her magic sunk deeper, causing something important to crack. Omar groaned and gave in, his breath coming in wheezing gasps as his skeleton struggled under his own weight. 

The last man abandoned his gun and grabbed for the hand with the hammer, trying to wrench it out of Sanchez’s grasp. Sanchez grunted and drove his forehead into the bridge of the man’s nose. The man blinked, hesitating for a moment, and that was the end of him. Sanchez swung the hammer in an overhead blow directly into the man’s chest. The hammer swung three more times, the last one drawing a loud crack as something in the man’s skull broke. Miya disentangled herself from Omar and stood, the adrenaline still pumping in her veins. She and Sanchez both stood stock still for a moment, panting. They exchanged a look, the only sound of them breathing, with the whimpers of Omar and the man with the broken knee. 

“Get the guns, I’ve got the door,” he said. 

“Right, she mumbled, hands shaking. She scrambled around the now tossed woodworking shop and grabbed the two guns the men had held, then went back for the one Omar had threatened her with.

“Wait, Jess!” Sanchez shouted, charging out of the shop. 

Wait, what do I do? Miya froze, attention split between the down but not dead men and Sanchez, before opting to run after him. She followed the sound of an anguished cry, finding him seated on the floor of the kitchen, Jess’s head cradled in his lap with her throat cut. The misbehaving laptop had been thrown to the side, its screen flickering. 

“Fix her.” The command cut through the early morning air, still save for their panting.

Miya stared back at him for a heartbeat, trying to decipher the nonsense he’d just said. “She’s dead,” she explained slowly.

“Don’t give me that,” he snapped, halfway through lunging at her, stopped only by his wife’s body on his lap. Miya flinched back at his curled fists. “It hasn’t been more than a minute, you can do something.”

“I can’t!” she cried, throwing her hands up.

“Mages do shit like this all the time. Earn your fucking keep.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out Miya’s silver controller.

“No, no, no,” she said in horror, trying to back away. 

Power flowed through her as he hammered a couple buttons, and not at her direction. Overlord’s implants and machines hijacked her body and mind. It latched on to Sanchez’ will and intent, wild and raw and unfocused. It poured into Jess’ body, attempting through brute force to restart organs, to draw breath once again, though it slid off anything not made of bone without Miya to guide it. Her hackles rose as something else took interest in the spectacle.

“You’re going to summon a demon, you fucking lunatic!” she shouted through the strain on her brain.

Under no natural power, Jess’ free arm began to rise into the air, as if the dead woman were simply a child answering a question in class. It convulsed, the flesh swelling around twisting bones. Miya threw herself to the floor. Sanchez regained his senses and managed to click a button, shutting off the magic flow. The arm detonated the moment Miya’s haphazard control was cut, slivers of warped and twisted bone embedding themselves into the nearby walls and table, as well as Miya and Sanchez.

“The fuck?” he whispered in horror, the controller slipping from his grasp. His arm he’d used to block his face bled from at least two cuts.

“There’s no such thing as necromancy, I don’t care what stories you’ve heard!” Miya shouted, half blind. “Demons notice when you mess around with dead people.” She jabbed a shaking finger at the bloody mess for emphasis.

She peeled herself from the ground, mercifully unscathed from the horror, and leaned her back against the wall in exhaustion. Old surgical wounds ached, despite the lack of physical stress they’d been put under. An old, half forgotten buzzing vibrated in the base of her skull. Not again. Stupid of me to think I was free of that. 

Something metal tapped on the glass door in the back of the house. Both Sanchez and Miya jumped at the unexpected sound in the otherwise still house. A robot slid the back door open and walked in as if it owned the place. Miya blinked blood out of her eyes, trying to confirm what they saw for the second time that day. Its head hung off to the side, a huge semicircular chunk of its neck and upper chest ripped off. Its screaming cheek brushed against the sleek rifle bolted to its chest as it walked.

A voice emanated from the chest of the robot, if not a person’s then a very good impersonation of one. “Associate,” it addressed Sanchez, once he bothered to look up and acknowledge its existence. “We have information you may be interested in.”

“What?” he demanded. 

“In the recent attack, a tracker was attached to the feral. We have traced its signal here,” it said, displaying a satellite map with a red circle. An address and GPS coordinates were written just beneath it. “If you wish to remove this continual problem, we recommend striking at its source.”

The robot paused for Sanchez and Miya to digest the news. Miya shook her head, trying to get the buzzing out of her brain. Sanchez simply started blankly at the robot.

“In addition, we have detected magical defenses protecting the feral.” Magic feral? Bull fucking shit. Is it even a feral?

“So that’s why everything bounces off of it. I don’t suppose you figured out how to make good iron bullets,” he replied, his voice raw and cracking despite his efforts to cover it up. “That thing is a blender up close.” It hasn’t done anything other than bite and claw.

“No. However, we believe we have developed a blunter solution which may interest you.”

A dog sized drone flew in through the open sliding glass door in the back, the four sleek fans on each corner letting out a quiet hum. It lowered itself onto the kitchen table and deposited a small crate, then flew off. Sanchez set Jess’ head down gently on the hardwood floor before he stood and popped the top off. Miya hauled herself into an upright sitting position and craned her neck to catch a glimpse of half a dozen metal balls, the same gunmetal grey as the robot. 

“A new development. Cold iron grenades,” the voice in the robot explained. “The shrapnel will bypass magic, but retain its lethality despite the brittle nature of pure iron. It will not be equal to a true grenade, but will allow some measure of ranged offense against magic use. In this case, a peculiar feral.”

“No such thing as a free lunch,” grunted Sanchez, shooting a side glance at the robot.

“We would ask for the feral’s corpse for study. Alive would be preferable, but for obvious reasons we do not expect this.” I wasn’t just a one off. Overlord has his eye on magic for some reason. 

“It’s yours, but that can’t be it,” replied Sanchez, skepticism crossing his face.

“In addition, another request concerns the one you know as Amanda Broussard. There is a reward on offer for her, if captured alive.”

“Overlord wants another techie for his stable?” Poor girl.

The robot replied, “No, in this we merely represent an interested third party. A favor for them, if you will.”

Sanchez grunted, “We’ll see. No promises.”

“Understood.”

“Will you, or the bot, whatever, be assisting?”

“This unit requires more adequate repairs. We judge this current investment suitable, given your current manpower.”

“Great, get out. We’ll get our shit together, do some house cleaning, and head over.”

The robot performed a shallow bow, made macabre by the rolling of its loose head, and slipped out as quickly as it had entered. It at least had the courtesy to slide the door closed behind itself. The TV still played, a merry jingle from some commercial drifting in from down the hall. Sanchez shut the lid to the grenade crate and sighed. Now what?

Miya eyed him as he absent-mindedly cleaned himself with a dish towel. “You believe Overlord?” she asked. “He’s just giving you this out of the kindness of his heart?” You can’t be that stupid.

“No. Omar would have gotten the exact same talk. It’s just business. If we can’t do this we’re of no use to him.” He grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and hauled her to her feet without so much as a grunt of effort. “Get up. You’re my magic expert and I’m in the mood to kill something else.”

26: Broken Teeth

Well that sucks, Skulker though. He pulled back with his pistol behind some shelves, eyeing Solid Tod as he hefted his shotgun onto his shoulder and turned with a wide grin to the rest of his gang. Didn’t Olivia fuck him up when they hit her apartment? How is he back in action so fast?

After getting the drop on two, half of the gang had tried to bury him in lead in their depot ambush, the other half doing the same to Nomad and Delta. With those two running for their lives out of the depot, pursuers hot on their heels, Skulker abandoned fighting and simply kept hidden, teleporting to keep an eye on Olivia and their attention away from her. Not that her roaring and hissing made it easy once she charged off at some distant figure. 

His own pursuers kept together, refusing to wander alone where he could teleport in and pick one off. Even now, after nearly a minute with no contact, they stalked on the catwalks he’d abandoned on the other side of the room. The moment he broke cover they would come running. 

Olivia lay on the ground behind Tod, unmoving after taking the shotgun slug to the head. This went pear shaped. Do I stay or cut my losses? Skulker spotted her chest slowly rise and fall. Oh, she’s not dead. Cool. He eyed the half dozen gang members around her, Tod included. Teleportation meant nothing if one lucky bullet caught him in the spine. Or gut. Or head. Or leg. They hadn’t noticed she still lived, but that wouldn’t last long, and they had plenty of ammo for when they did. 

Skulker eyed the exit ground floor exit. Going back the way they came would lead to a long run down open corridors that could have a gunman hiding anywhere. His own hunters were now at the second floor door they’d tried to reach initially to get higher in the building, along with a window Olivia had shattered. Following Delta and Nomad out would be the best course of action. He might run smack into their attackers, but they would have their backs to him, and he would have more freedom to maneuver than in the cramped equipment depot. He could still hear gunshots from that direction over the dwindling thunderstorm.

She’s still breathing though. Ain’t dead yet. They’re just gonna shoot her. Come on, I’ve seen you shrug off bullets before. He paused, watching for a moment to see if she would recover. Kind of a shame to just drag her through all this and leave her. No one else around to care. The trio hunting him left, assuming he’d followed Nomad and Delta out of the room.

He spared a glance at the exit before he padded off to the original ambush point, where four bodies lay scattered. Olivia had crushed two, Skulker shot two others. One of Olivia’s had curled into a ball, clutching a ruined arm and muttering in delirious pain. After a moment’s searching, he found some grenades on one of the still bodies that they’d used to break up Skulker’s group. 

A few quick teleports brought him to another hiding spot. Tod had clustered off with half of his men away from Olivia, checking their guns and redistributing ammo. The other half had spread out, keeping an eye out.

“What are you up to back there?” Tod called out over his shoulder.

“Somethin’s weird. Boss!” called out one of the men, kneeling down to inspect Olivia. 

Time’s up. She’s far enough away. I hope. Skulker pulled the pin and lobbed the grenade towards the largest group, Tod included. The grenade bounced off the concrete floor and came to a stop in the middle. 

“Down!” With a boom, Tod grabbed a man and shot away from the lump of dark green metal, shotgun dropping to the ground. 

The grenade exploded, shooting shrapnel all among the men around it. Skulker peaked his head out from behind his cover.

Tod, the man he’d grabbed, and the man closest to Olivia still stood. Aiming high, Skulker fired off half a dozen shots at the one over Olivia. One managed to find its mark, hitting him and sending him sprawling. A boom shook the shelves, sending tools rattling as Tod appeared right next to Skulker’s flank.

“Get on your goddamn knees!” Tod spat in Skulker’s face, face contorted with rage. Fuck, that was fast.

Skulker managed to dodge out of the way of the haymaker Tod threw towards his head. Another dodged punch, and Skulker turned and teleported away to get some room. He turned around again, back towards Tod’s direction, and saw Tod lunge from a good fifteen yards away. Reflexively he froze time…

…and stopped Tod’s fist, an inch from shattering his skull. Tod was frozen, and not just because of the time thing. He’d traveled about fifteen yards in the exact same position as he started, lunging fist first. 

He ducked under the fist, moving to behind Tod. One, he thought, keeping a mental timer of seconds.

Still moving. He grabbed his pistol. Two.

Still moving. His head pounded in pain. Three.

He now stood behind Tod. Four.

He prepared himself, standing firm and aiming directly at the back of Tod’s head, finger on the trigger. Five. Time resumed.

He pulled the trigger. A gunshot as the pistol pushed back into his hands. Tod came to a stop where Skulker had been standing, then turned back towards Skulker and punched again, catching him off guard. I fucked up somehow. Did I miss? Skulker reflexively teleported, smacking his face into a wall but avoiding the bone shattering punch Tod would have driven into him. Tod capitalized on his surprise, punching Skulker in the gut without his power, elbowing him in the head, then grabbing it with both hands and driving it into his knee. Fuck. Ow. Fuck. Ow.

Skulker reeled back from the blows to the head, somehow still standing. He covered his head with an arm, firing his pistol from the hip to either kill Tod or force him to back off. Three shots whizzed past Tod, distracting him enough for Skulker to wiggle free and teleport out. Before he could regain his bearings, Tod teleported with a boom right after. This is no fun, being on the other end of this.

He ducked left as Tod careened over him. Going for the head again. Tod overshot him, stumbling over Skulker. The man Tod had pulled from the grenade tackled Skulker in the midsection, blindsiding him. The two of them hit the ground, the force triggering a shot from his pistol. The shot ricocheted off, smacking into something wood in the depot. Skulker managed to free a knife from his belt as the man pinned his gun hand to the ground.

The man swung to the side, giving Tod room to swing a kick at Skulker. Skulker slashed with his knife, not caring exactly what part of Tod he hit. He got a deep cut on Tod’s leg for his efforts. Tod dropped with a gasp of pain. The man on him realized too late what was happening, taking two stabs to the gut as he released Skulker’s arm to defend himself. Another stab and the man went limp.

Skulker dropped his knife and dug himself out from beneath the man as Tod let out a feral grunt. They both struggled to their feet at the same time, eyes locked on each other. I’m faster.

Skulker fired as Tod tensed to lunge. The first shot hit Tod straight through the shoulder, the second through the chest proper. The third shot clicked, the magazine empty. He lowered his now empty pistol, listening for a moment for anyone else who might take a swing at him. Who else wants a piece? Nothing answered his silent challenge. Hope Olivia’s alright. He teleported off to her side. Still breathing. Great.

Skulker lifted one of her arms and draped it around his shoulder. He struggled to stand under her weight. Yep, this is where all that food has been going. Eventually, he managed to half carry, half drag her through the depot and to the door. 

The thunderstorm had passed, only the occasional drip of dirty water fell from the surrounding buildings and trees. The occasional crack of gunfire some distance away rang out into the night. Well, sounds the others are still alive and fighting. Skulker hauled Olivia out of the building and away, putting as much distance between them and any other ambushers that might be left. 

He ducked down behind a parked truck as a pair of men ran past. This is too slow. Might not make it. He set her down and flicked her nose. No response, though her closed eyes did twitch. Another flick, and her eyelids fluttered open. A soft hiss died in her throat as she took in Skulker kneeling over her. 

“Hey!” he whispered. “Welcome back. We’re gettin’ outta here. Can you stand?”

She blinked a few times, reptilian eyes unfocused. “Ow. I think so,” she said, her soft voice now unsteady and slurred. He flinched as he spotted a couple missing triangular shark teeth in her mouth, along with a few more chipped ones. “What?” she asked.

“Later,” he replied, offering her his hand.

She stood as best she could, still requiring Skulker’s shoulder to lean on. They made faster progress to the fence at the edge of the property, only having to dodge one more agitated patrol along the way. Olivia leaned against the shipping container blocking off the view of them from the building as Skulker weighed their options. 

“Climb or fly?” he asked, pulling his hoodie off to throw over the barbed wire at the top of the chain-link fence. 

With a grimace, she managed to stand up straight on her own power and flex her wings. “I think I can fly.”

“OK, get movin’, quick.”

He clambered up the fence, not bothering to try to untangle his hoodie after clearing the barbed wire. The rumble of approaching engines echoed off the walls. Olivia managed to get herself airborne, her wings pumping to gain altitude. Though wobbling in flight, she managed to get herself over the fence as well. Olivia half landed, half crashed, then collapsed as her legs gave out beneath her. Skulker helped haul her back up, and together they limped across the street towards another office building.

They ducked behind the corner just ahead of the approaching cars. Shouting echoed from behind them as they noticed the left behind hoodie. We got out on the opposite side of the building, we’ve got to head north for a block or two to get back to the car. Olivia stumbled, almost dragging Skulker down along with her in the process. Never mind, she’s not going to make it that far. They’ll catch up.

He led them around another corner, looking for cover. They wrenched open a door, leaving behind a rock to keep it propped closed. Footsteps behind them grew closer. The two of them froze, not daring to make a sound. The gang members moved on. Skulker released his grip on his pistol, and Olivia let out a sigh of relief. 

No one looks up. Once up the stairs, they tucked into an unused office space, bare of anything but old carpet. He settled down at the corner of a window, keeping an eye on the streets below. Dozens of armed men patrolled the streets, with not a cop or civilian in sight. A few patrols passed by below, keeping an eye out for Skulker or Olivia. She simply collapsed in a heap in the corner, eyes half open.

After nearly fifteen minutes of waiting, with no changes below, he thought, Alright, fuck it. I don’t care if Lock Corp. knows about our techie stuff. Skulker activated his comm and whispered as loud as he dared, “Hey, you guys hear me?”

It took a few moments for the answer to come back. In a far more normal voice, Nomad responded, “Yeah, we’ve got you. The two of us are getting pushed out. What’s your status?”

“Olivia is out of the fight, I pulled her out.”

“Fuck. Alright, we’re leaving,” ordered Nomad. “Get yourself and Olivia out of there and back to the car.”

“We’re hunkerin’ down for now, She’s in no shape to be runnin’. We got guys patrollin’ right near us.”

“Alright, do you think we can get to you?

“If you wanna get shot, sure.”

“I’ll take that as a no. Amanda’s got the spare car key. We’ll be in the area if you need us.” Static hissed at the end of Nomad’s transmission.

“Sounds good.”

“Wait, they’re jamming us?” cut in Delta, the static growing more incessant. “Oh, you son of a bitch, don’t you dare-” The transmission cut off. Better and better.

Olivia sat upright, wings splayed to either side. “Should we help?” she asked, starting to rise.

Skulker held up a hand, stopping her. “We need to help ourselves first. They’re doin’ the same.” She opened her mouth to argue, but stopped, shoulders slumping in defeat. “How’d you get those cuts?” he asked to keep her focus elsewhere, pointing to the two long gashes on her arms. They’d scabbed over, though the flesh around them looked angry and red. 

She considered them for a moment, as if just remembering they existed. “Um, the robot. It had a knife. It hurt.”

“Two questions: Robot? An’ a knife?” You eat bullets.

“Yeah, there was a robot there. It shot me. It really hurt. When I got close it pulled a knife out of its arm and cut me a couple times.”

Skulker leaned forward. “Describe it.” Is that what I think it is?

“Like a grey person. It had a screaming head thing. But I don’t think it was actually a head. I bit it almost off and it didn’t care.” Sounds about right.

“Overlord bot,” explained Skulker. “Don’t see them too much, unless the big guy himself cares. I’ve only seen ‘em once in passin’. Sanchez is more connected than I thought. I guess that was some crazy techie knife the bot had.” 

She studied her knees. “Why am I so stupid?” she asked with a sigh.

“What makes you say that?”

“I thought I could, I don’t know. Keep everyone safe? But I got distracted. I was thinking about other stuff. I should have noticed the ambush.”

“Keep everyone safe?” he repeated. “You just charged at people! They all had guns!”

“There was the robot. I didn’t want it to kill you guys! I didn’t know what else to do.”

“An’ I don’t wanna scrape you off the floor with a spatula again. We sparred for a couple hours. That don’t make you some master slayer of men.”

“Was I smarter before?” she asked, motioning to her wings and tail.

He shrugged. We’ve been over this before. “I didn’t know you before, but you ain’t dumb now. An’ is this about that weirdo in the walled off bit?”

“Yeah. And are you OK?” she asked.

“Huh?” Am I bleeding? He though, checking himself over.

“You seemed mad when he talked to you.”

“I’m fine,” replied Skulker with a wave of his hand. “He just dragged up bad memories is all. And hey, he gave us a clue. More than we’ve had lately.”

She frowned, thinking. “I guess.”

“We’ll figure somethin’ out. Once we’re not runnin’ for our lives we can figure out what the Bible’s gotta do with you. We might wanna recheck those old records, see if any car that went by is owned by a church or somethin’.”

“He said other stuff too. ‘They’re one and the same’.”

“Fuck riddles,” Skulker replied with a laugh. 

“But what were you saying back there?” she asked. “No one noticed?”

Skulker leaned back, pulling his mask off his face. Not the best memories, no. He studied the streets below him out the window. A pair of guards had taken up position on either side of every entrance to the Lehman Construction building. Headlights flashed as cars came and went.

“I’m a triplet. Not sure if I told you. Me, Rob, an’ Sam. I was kidnapped, an’ no one noticed or cared but my brothers. We were always little shitheels, not too surprisin’. I got my powers tryin’ to escape. Rob got his tryin’ to think of a way to get me outta there. An’ Sam didn’t.”

“Didn’t?”

“Didn’t get powers,” Skulker clarified. “Fucked him up, too. Started wonderin’ if there was somethin’ wrong with him. We’re identical, you know. You get your power by bein’ under pressure, and two of him got it. But he didn’t. I know he cared. Rob does too. But he started tearin’ himself up, didn’t know who he was. Or who he thought he was. I dunno. We drifted apart once we were able to get work an’ move out. Wanted to see what we could do on our own, rather than with all three of us.” He shrugged and laughed. “Not much I can do about it right now.”

“How are you so happy all the time? You got angry, but now you’re just fine. How?”

“If I can’t change it, I don’t care about it. Can’t change the past. Can’t change most people, so it ain’t worth stressin’ out over.”

“It’s that easy?”

“You are what you do. Not in your past, not in your head. Worry is a choice, same as all the others.”

“I’m tired,” she confessed. “Of being me.”

“You’re fine, you feel like shit cuz you just got shot up,” he said with a laugh. “We’ll get you there. It just takes time. Get some rest, we’ll bug out when they settle down out there.”

***

At the crack of dawn, with the patrols dwindling and the guards looking sleepier and sleepier, Ben finally called in the others through his cellphone. Olivia lapsed into silence as the night stretched on, though her breathing grew steadier and her bruises subsided. I wish I could shrug off that kind of punishment. They snuck off to the opposite side of the building and stuffed themselves into the car Chris and Amanda drove. Amanda immediately passed Olivia water and a concerned look. Even with the bruises fading her clothes were still riddled with bullet holes.

They pulled up to the lair sometime around five in the morning. Ben got out to open the shutter to the interior. Need stretch my damn legs. Can’t sit much longer. Once inside, and with the door safely closed behind them, Olivia spun around and lifted Chris and Amanda up in a bear hug. “You guys are OK!” 

Chris spasmed in surprise as his feet left the ground. Amanda managed a half croak half squeak as the hug forcibly expelled most of the air in her lungs. Where did this bravery come from, ‘liv’?

“Oh, sorry, sorry.” Olivia released them both and withdrew, looking apologetic. Chris took a ragged breath. Skulker laughed at them. 

“I didn’t mean…I’m sorry. I just…” she trailed off, scratching the back of her neck with eyes fixed firmly on the ground. 

“It’s all right. Good to see you safe,” Chris managed. Amanda nodded, twisting to the left, then right. 

“Thanks. You guys are OK though?” Olivia said. She’s blushing a little. Do reptiles blush? Must be the human chunk. 

“Some bruises and cuts, nothing too major,” said Chris. “Amanda got grazed on the arm, but we patched that up with no problems. I know I’m more tired than anything else at this point.”

“Fuck,” Ben grumbled. “Long day.”

With that, they drifted off. Their shower, in truth little more than a twenty dollar hose, a ten dollar roll of duct tape, and a five dollar colander set up over a floor drain in the shop they were pretty sure still worked, beckoned to Ben in his sweat stained clothes. Even if the water was freezing. Along with another twenty dollars worth of privacy curtains, it was good enough to get themselves clean. 

Chris and Olivia were both quietly talking over the table, but Amanda stayed off to the side, hunched over some laptop screen. She waved him over. That lonely, huh?

“What is this?” she demanded, the moment he came to her shoulder.

He stared at the squiggly line on the screen, wiping a length of wet hair from his eyes. “A thingy. A co-sign?” I think Rob mentioned those once.

“A sine wave,” she corrected. “And no, even that’s wrong.”

“I assume you ain’t expectin’ me to give a real answer.” He stayed as she considered the screen, Rob often used idiots like himself to bounce ideas off of whenever the techie mood hit him. 

“I was worried about Olivia, I forgot to turn off my armor when we got back,” Amanda explained, eyes not leaving the screen. Not me, huh? “I saw this weird anomaly. There’s a very strange signal here, and it was back at the ambush point too. It’s hidden under the noise floor, but it’s there.” She tapped a few keys and the graph refreshed. “It’s still active right now.”

“Where’s it comin’ from?” he asked.

“That’s a great question.” She leaned over, opened a drawer, and pulled out a black plastic box with a handful of buttons on the side. After tossing aside a few, she decided on an antenna and screwed it on. “Take this over there,” she said as she flicked an On button.

He teleported over as she hunched over her computer, typing something.

“Over there,” she called out, her voice echoing through the shop. 

After a quick teleport, he saw Chris look up at the sound of their raised voices. He looked around in confusion at the two of them, but decided to approach Ben at the sight of total concentration on Amanda’s face. Ben gave him the simple catch up version. 

“Alright, come back. It’s somewhere inside. I don’t have the equipment to triangulate further,” called out Amanda.

“What is this signal?” asked Chris, as Ben tossed the box back to Amanda. 

She caught it in surprise, flipping him off before replying, “Something simple and encrypted.”

“Can you break it?” ventured Chris.

“If I have a year and the signal doesn’t change, sure.” Come on, what kind of techie are you? Do everything, damn it!

“I’ll take that as a no. What is that signal, then?”

“It’s simple. Other than being very directed but hard to detect, it’s not, like, trying to fry anything with RF burns or anything,” explained Amanda. “Wait wait wait. Everyone, stop moving. It changed” Olivia froze, halfway in the process of joining them.

“Olivia, walk over there,” said Amanda, pointing to the far wall where Ben had stood. The graph kept up its strange twitching to Ben as she complied, but he heard a sharp intake of breath from Amanda.

“Alright. It’s coming from you. You two, fuck off,” she said, waving away Ben and Chris. “Olivia, you changed your clothes, so it might be on you personally. I can jury rig a metal detector real fast. Are you alright with it if I check your back for anything? ”

Olivia glanced around at everyone, fear creeping into her expression. “Um, OK,” she managed.

After a moment, with Ben and Chris waiting in the offices out front, Amanda called them back in as Olivia replaced her shirt, her face pale.

“Yeah, there’s a very small bit of metal in there,” she said, motioning to the back of Olivia’s neck.

“Can you get it out?” asked Olivia, worry in her voice.

They gazed past Olivia’s wings at the red welt with a tiny scab on the back of Olivia’s neck. That doesn’t look like a bullet wound. Well, a bullet wound on her. Must have missed that with all the other shit she took today.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure what can get through her, I don’t know, Olivia-ness. And if I do, her spine is right there, I don’t want to kill her through brute force by accident.”

“Is it a tracker?” broke in Chris.

They went dead silent at the implication, broken only as Ben let out a laugh as he headed toward the ammo boxes.

25: Steel Chewer

Author’s note: I’ve also started posting on Royal Road, here. It will update once a week on Sunday Wednesday nights. Once it’s caught up to this site, both will update simultaneously. From what I can tell, any rating or review you care to give there would be tremendously helpful. As always, thank you for reading.


Thunder rolled across the plains. A handful of raindrops spattered against Olivia’s half folded wings as she prepared herself to dive into yet another gunfight. She found herself swaying for a moment as a wave of nausea washed over her.

“You alright?” asked Chris, his blue bandana slipped over his face muffling his words ever so slightly. 

“The thunder,” stammered Olivia. “It’s loud. I’m OK.” Bad early memories, that’s all. There’s no dumpster up here, I can’t actually smell one right now.

“The rain’s coming in,” he observed, looking out into the night sky. “Are you good to fly?”

Who was the old me? Would she be scared? No one else seems to care about the thunder. She was probably normal, she wouldn’t have cared either. Another rumble, closer this time, caught her ear. It’s not that bad. I’ve been shot, that hurt way worse. 

“I think so.” It’s just water. Water and sound. It can’t be that bad.

He nodded. “Get that jammer on the roof like we talked about while we get past the fence.”

They climbed down from their rooftop hideout across the street. Olivia waited a few moments, then glided across the night sky, keeping pace with her friends on the ground. The rain picked up in intensity, a few errant drops turning into a low, steady beat. Who is that? Her eyes struggled to focus on a dark figure on a passing rooftop. It vanished as she blinked water out of her eyes. Huh, why am I looking over there? She returned her sight to her goal, the multi story building with Lehman Construction in a clean, utilitarian font written near the top.

With her wings spread to their full extent, more and more rain splattered against her. She pulled up, getting a few more feet of altitude against the growing downpour. A flash and a clap of thunder nearly knocked her out of the sky. Olivia found nothing to brace herself against the eddies and gusts as she flew upwards, towards the rooftop. Her claws bit only into air in an attempt to stabilize her. Sheets of rain hit her in waves battering her around. What happened to the little drizzle? That was only a minute ago! The wind twisted her wing, sending her plummeting down until she righted herself. She came to a hard landing right beside the others. 

“I can’t get up there,” gasped Olivia, one hand bracing herself against the wall just in case the storm was as bad on the ground. “The wind. I’m sorry”

“We’ll make due. Skulker, any luck?” asked Chris, raising his voice to be heard over the storm. 

“Nope,” said Ben, kneeling in front of a heavy metal door to a wing split off from the main building, a few thin bits of metal in the lock. “You wanna pick it, ‘liv’?” he asked, rising up.

“Huh?” she asked. I have no idea how to pick a lock.

“He means break it down,” called out Amanda, voice cold and robotic through the helmet she wore.

“Oh, OK.” I know how to do that.

Olivia pulled her leg up and kicked. The door bent without breaking, damaged in two different places by her toe and heel claws. That’s never happened before. Olivia slammed into the door three more times before it finally gave way. 

“The hell they make this thing out of?” asked Ben, cut short by a few shots ringing out from inside. One hit the door and ricocheted off into the night, a few more whizzed past Olivia as she flinched back. 

The others followed suit, pulling away from the opened door. Ben and Chris both knelt low and peeked around either side, firing off shots down the hallway before pulling back. Silence reigned as no bullets returned. Amanda withdrew a small plastic stick from her back and poked it around the corner. 

“They’re gone,” she announced. Oh, I guess she can see through the stick thing. 

Chris took the lead inside, Olivia bringing up the rear in case of ambush. I think all I’m supposed to do is listen for people behind us. I think that’s it. They pushed their way inside single file, hurrying towards the center of the building and a way up to Sanchez’s office. Amanda followed a rough map of the interior, leading them to a stairway to use.

They passed through a cubicle farm, abandoned and quiet in the night. Olivia ducked down after watching the others do the same beneath the flimsy padded walls. Wait, my wings are still sticking out. Wait. Olivia paused, listening over the sound of rain pounding the roof. Breathing.

A few shots rang out. The others dove down as the bullets bit into cubicle walls. Olivia spun towards the direction they’d come from, finding nothing but receding footsteps. Beyond that, silence reigned once more. 

“No one hit?” asked Chris.

They all answered in the negative as they picked themselves off the floor. Olivia glared at the hallways the shooters had disappeared down. 

Amanda guided them further in, past a dark and unoccupied break room. As they paused at an intersection, Olivia heard a door handle turn from far behind them. A handful of bullets peppered Olivia’s back, the shooters fled by the time she turned. She suppressed a hiss of pain and irritation. Come here!

“Don’t chase,” said Chris as he congealed himself out of liquid form. Amanda and Ben 

“That’s it?” asked Olivia, letting out a tense breath. I keep expecting a big fight. 

“Same guys?” he asked in reply. 

Olivia paused and sniffed the air. A faint smell of cigarette smoke from the direction of the latest shooters caught her attention. “I don’t think so.”

“It’s pressure, they’re building for an ambush.”

“And we have no jammer,” added Amanda. “Stay or go?”

“Stay,” replied Chris without hesitation. “We’re committed, we won’t have an opportunity like this again.”

They continued deeper in, passing another office space and a series of dark conference rooms. Isn’t this place a gang hideout? Or a construction office? Or both? Amanda had them double back to a four way intersection, one hallway leading off to an exit door, the other stopping short in a dead end, only a few feet away. She took a moment to study something on the wall, though Olivia could only see a small bank of light switches and a thermostat. Olivia joined the others in watching the other hallways of the intersection at Chris’ direction. Amanda moved on to the dead end, kneeling down to examine the floor.

“What’s up?” Chris asked her.

“I thought that switch placement was wrong. This wall is fake,” she announced. 

Ben nudged Olivia with an elbow and motioned to the offending wall. She rammed her shoulder into it. The drywall over a barebone wooden frame collapsed into dust without resistance, revealing an entire corridor they hadn’t seen before.

“Where the fuck are we?” asked Ben. “This why we’re just wanderin’?”

Olivia heard footsteps from down where they’d come from. She shouldered her way past Chris and spread her wings, filling the hallway. A couple pistol shots rang out, clipping her. The others ducked and pressed against the walls out of instinct at the sharp sound.

“You OK?” asked Chris.

“Yeah,” replied Olivia through gritted teeth. “It was just two. They’re gone,” she added as Ben readied his own pistol.

“They’re trying to hide something,” replied Chris, taking point once again.

Even in a rush, they quickly found the hidden rooms to be empty of anything important, save the last. Ben stopped at a large window to a conference room. Inside lay what appeared to be a comfortable, if small, makeshift apartment, complete with a bed, small TV, and nightstand. 

In the window stood a man. The skinny figure wore the remains of a charcoal suit. Frayed bits of string marked where the buttons used to be, the right sleeve ended in a ragged tear around the man’s elbow, and an oblong yellow stain marred the pants. Don’t think about what that might be. At all. The once-white shirt beneath looked like it had been scribbled on with purple crayon. 

He pressed himself against the window with a dull thud at the sight of them. The pinky finger on his left hand ended in a knobby purple stump. “Have you heard the good news?” he demanded, his voice cracking in desperation even muffled through the glass.

Ben gave a snort of amusement. “Pass.”

“How long did it take for anyone to notice? Your own flesh and blood?” Ben froze, utterly still for once. “Anyone else but two more of you? Don’t you see?”

Under his breath, so low Olivia struggled to hear, Ben whispered, “No one noticed, no one cared.”

The man’s eyes drifted over towards Olivia. That instant he let out a screech. He slammed his shoulder blades against the opposite wall, laughter mixed in with screams of agony as he clawed at his hands and feet. Olivia froze, eyes locked on him. She pulled her wings closer in around herself, as if he could reach through and grab her at any moment. 

“She doesn’t… Bwa ha ha! She doesn’t know. Ha! She doesn’t remember,” he gasped out, shakily pointing at Olivia with the four fingered hand, the other hand clenched in a fist and slamming against the ground. He dissolved into maniacal giggling again as he kicked. What? Does he know me? I’ve never seen him. Did I know him before? Olivia took a step forward. 

“What are you talking about?” demanded Chris.

The madman said, “She blames the universe, but no. No! Only a small part deserves it. Very small.”

“An’ what’s the worst?” asked Ben, breaking his silence. “The part to blame?” Olivia remembered she could move, shooting Ben a confused glance. He didn’t return it, his gaze still locked on the man.

“They’re one and the same! Don’t you see? They’re one and the same! She’s looking for both, good and bad.” Oh come on. 

“Both? What do you mean both?” asked Chris. The madman just laughed hysterically. Stop it. Do you know who I am? Say something.

“You ever read the Bible?” asked Membrane in mock seriousness.

Ben grabbed her shoulder and pulled her along without resistance, even as she let out a growl of frustration. “Keep movin’,” he said, his voice still deadly quiet. What about the Bible? I should know something about that, shouldn’t I? Chris and Amanda followed right after, steering clear of the window.

“Did he know me?” asked Olivia, voice hushed even to her ears.

“Nah,” snapped Ben. “Never seen him before either, an’ he-” He cut himself off. “No way. Somethin’s weird about him. Power maybe.”

Three more shots from down the hallway broke their concentration. All went wide, simply digging into the walls well short of their targets, but the sharp noise and rush of danger brought reality crashing back down on them. The new shooters retreated as the other had, before they could muster anything but a few potshots back..

“Fight now, think later,” said Ben with a laugh as he peeled himself from the wall, as if he hadn’t been deadly serious, just a moment ago. It’s that easy?

“Keep an eye out if they’ve tried that same false wall trick again,” said Chris, motioning them in the right direction.

Olivia took up the rear once more, attention split between their surroundings and what the madman had just said. Bible? What about it? It’s a book? An important one, I think. And I’m looking for both, good and bad. I’m looking for lots of stuff. Olivia nearly toppled Ben over as she collided with him, the group having come to a sudden stop right in front of her.

“Sorry,” she mumbled. 

“These stairs are mined,” announced Chris. 

Another shot rang out, burrowing into a wall a few feet to Olivia’s left. The others flinched, pulling back into their respective doorways. Chris eyed Olivia for a moment. No, please. Bullets hurt, I don’t want to set off a big bomb thing. He thought the better of it, his gaze turning upward as he thought. 

“Delta? Ideas? Maybe set them off?”

“Maybe, but we don’t have time to experiment and I don’t want to lose my legs,” she replied in a rush, keeping an eye on where the next shooters might come from. 

“We keep moving. Find another staircase.”

“How they gettin’ around?” demanded Ben as they set off. “Fuckin’ bombing their own stairs.”

“Elevators,” replied Amanda. “We can’t use them unless we’re suicidal, but they can.”

“But they’re powered off already,” said Olivia in confusion. 

“When we’re near ‘em, yeah,” grumbled Ben. Oh, duh. I guess they just turn them off. And that’s why we’re not using them! Oh, I’m just dumb.

“There’s roof access this way, it should lead us around traps like that,” said Amanda. 

A few minutes, and two more false ambushes later, they came to a door she indicated. Is this why I can’t figure out who I am? It was obvious to that weird guy. Is there something missing and I’m just dumb? She turned around as the others opened the door, making sure no one would take pot shots at them while her back was turned. 

They found themselves on the ground floor of an equipment depot. Bright orange traffic cones lay stacked along one wall, pallet jacks and dollies another. Several pickup trucks sat parked at the far end, loaded with tools of all kinds, though Olivia didn’t recognize any outside the obvious. True to Amanda’s word, there was a door on the catwalk ringing the room itself, just to their left. Maybe I should have questioned that guy more. But I froze up like an idiot. 

They climbed the narrow metal stair to the catwalk, Olivia squeezing through after everyone else with her wings. There’s not enough room in here.

The catwalk ahead of them detonated. Chris turned to liquid, absorbing Amanda’s fall for her as the twisting catwalk threw them down into the depot. Olivia and Ben managed to cling to one of the guardrails, climbing up to more stable footing the moment they could. Shouting filled the room, not theirs. From hiding places behind equipment and vehicles, a dozen gang members, armed to the teeth, emerged and began filling the air with lead. 

One held what it took Olivia a moment to recognize as a hand grenade.

“Scatter! Other side!” yelled Chris, pointing to a door on the second floor, on the opposite end of the depot. He and Amanda ducked low and scrambled away, bullets whizzing over their heads. Olivia stared at the ambush. How did I not hear them? Oh god I’m stupid. I wasn’t paying attention. Stupid stupid stupid. 

Ben nearly tacked her around the waist, pulling her to cover behind a broad support beam. “Move!” 

Right! Right. They’re trying to kill us. Olivia doubled over as the grenade exploded. Nothing hit her or Ben, but the soundwave split her ears. It took her a moment to recognize Ben patting her on the shoulder. 

Over the din of the ambush and the piercing ringing in her ears, she heard him say, “We need to give Nomad and Delta cover, they’re sitting ducks.”

Olivia managed a nod. Protect. She dove over a guard rail, tucking in her wings as far as she dared to avoid getting caught between two support beams. She landed feet first on the roof of a truck nearest to an ambusher, her toe claws punching into the metal. 

The crack of a gunshot rang out. The woman saw her as she came in, beginning to bring her gun up. Olivia collided with her before it moved more than a few inches. Olivia slammed her to the ground with one arm, the other grabbing her gun. A couple reflexive shots went wide. She heard other shots from somewhere else above her. Ben.

Olivia considered the woman below her. Unconscious. Keep moving. She jumped to her feet. Ben, pistol drawn and still on the catwalk above, had two others down. “Keep movin’,” he shouted. I know. She found a couple focused on firing at Amanda and Chris across the room and charged.

She smacked one ambusher down with her shoulder, then grabbed another who reacted too slow. She bent the elbow of the man she held. I’m really sorry. A crack, this time from bones. She threw the guy aside, not wanting to do any more harm to a guy who probably was out of the fight at that point. Then another crack, this time from Ben’s rifle. This time she saw an exposed guy jerk a bit, then fall. Don’t think about that right now. Don’t.

A bit of metal caught her eye. Not a glint, but the total lack of one against an otherwise shiny and chaotic surface. She saw a humanoid figure crouched with a rifle resting on a guard rail, its face a mask of a person screaming in agony. It did not breathe, its skin of gunmetal grey utterly still. The thing reeked of a familiar sickly sweet oil. It raised a rifle from across the room, shorter and sleeker than others she’d seen, with no vents or details along its metal exterior.

All the times Olivia had been shot, the number shots vastly exceeded the number that she actually felt. The robot’s rifle let out three soft clicks, and Olivia felt three hammer blows to her gut drive the breath from her lungs. With a hiss of pain, she staggered back a step, clutching her stomach. Move!

Three shots slammed into the base of her wings as she ran. She stumbled, but didn’t stop as she reached the relative safety of some shelves. Where the robot had crouched before, she saw no trace. After taking a moment to breathe, she poked her head out to look for her friends. 

Another three shots from the robot at a different angle, this time catching her throat. She ducked down and hacked out a cough, struggling to clear her airway for a moment. Gut, spine, throat. Hitting soft parts. It won’t miss, it will kill the others. I can’t be useless. Once sweet air filled her lungs again, she forced herself up and moving. It took her only a second to find the robot. Though deathly quiet, the sweet smell of its distinctive oil allowed her to zero in on its perch once more. It crouched in a giant pile of silver coils whose purpose Olivia did not know, its gunmetal skin blending in.

Bullets slammed into her outstretched palm protecting her face as she ducked low and charged the gap. Scales fractured and bent, but no bullet pierced her hand. The robot, not interested in a fist fight, pulled back when she reached halfway, slipping out of immediate sight. No. She careened through the thinner than expected coils, catching sight of the retreating robot. It withdrew a handgun from its thigh and contorted itself. It fired over its shoulder at her without looking with another three shot burst, though with less accuracy than with the rifle in its other hand. 

As cool and efficient as the robot was, Olivia’s long stride took her to it faster. With a snarl, she took a swing the moment she reached it. The robot’s chest bent in half at an impossible angle for a human, letting Olivia’s swing go right over it. It tossed aside its handgun as Olivia opted for a straight grab at what would have been its gut. As it twisted back to a more natural standing position, its rifle free arm shifted. A blade, nearly a foot long, sprang from its forearm and slashed her. With a hiss of pain, she recoiled.

Olivia stared down at the red bleeding gash on her inner forearm. It also froze for a fraction of a second, studying her. Wings spread wide, she let out a roar and charged the robot. Instead of backing away as before, it twisted, blade striking at her right while it’s body flashed to the left. Her eyes fixed on the weapon, her swing missed the actual robot completely as it ducked behind her.

Something stung on the back of her neck. Olivia whipped her tail around, catching the robot off guard in the hip. It limped back, one of its legs struggling to move properly. Now. With her opponent off balance, she rushed in. She took another slash to the forearm, hoking her claws in to make sure the robot couldn’t repeat the wound for a third time. It brought its rifle, unused since she’d closed the gap, towards her gut. She grabbed that too.

With a snarl, Olivia bit down on its neck and wrenched her head back. Her shark teeth punched into metal and tore chunks free, leaving the robot with a giant ragged gash in its neck, sparks and a trickle of oil sent flying. She spat out the foul tasting scrap as the robot twisted its bladed arm free of her grip, releasing its own on the rifle. How?

The robot, its screaming face flopping and dangling by half a neck, fought on as if nothing had happened. With a kick to her chest that served more to push itself back and away, it broke and scrambled through a window on all fours, glass shattering as it scraped against metal. Olivia’s claws missed its retreating foot by an inch. She growled in frustration. 

“Come here you scaly bitch!” A familiar boom rang out, echoing through the depot, and a punch from Solid Tod sent Olivia bouncing off the side of the wall. The cut on her arm stung as it scraped against the metal wall. She climbed to her feet, a hiss rising in her throat. You again. Leave me alone.

Tod feinted another punch to her head. As she brought up her arm to defend herself, his kick caught her in the short ribs. He danced away before she could counterattack, leaving her wide open to the handful of gunmen he’d brought along. She didn’t bother to roar at them as she nearly did, instead diving behind a set of traffic cones as they opened fire. With a boom, Tod came into view behind her.

She spun around, met his eyes, and dug her claws in. Try me. With a boom, he shot, not into her, but to the side. Before she could adjust her brace, a second boom struck her and sent her flying once again, landing in a wide open stretch of the room. The gunmen opened fire on his orders, bullets slamming into her. They couldn’t miss. She curled up, protecting her head and chest as best she could with her seven limbs. She only looked up once the shooting finally gave out, near deaf from the ringing in her ears. 

Tod leveled a shotgun at her at point blank, a smile of grim satisfaction on his face.

A metal slug hit her in the skull.

24: Oligarch

“What the fuck are you doing about it?”

“Working on it,” growled Sanchez in response.

“The fuck does that even mean?”

“I’m not just sitting here with my thumb up my ass, if that’s what you think.”

Miya rested her head against the wall behind her as the bickering continued. After the attack on the arena, Sanchez ran her ragged healing the wounded. Healing one man like Tod she could do, even muscle instead of bone. Sanchez dropped her in front of half a dozen men with a variety of flesh wounds, both gunshot and claw, and expected her to wave her hands and make it all go away. Bone breaks and fractures she could, granted, though that was the least of the worries for most of them. Healing feral wounds. Maybe I’ll get to be an astronaut next. Why not?

Sanchez, his wife Jessica Sanchez, Tod, Otto, and Omar circled around the same conference table the Overlord robot had brought Miya to her first night. Sanchez stood at the head, knuckles resting on the glass tabletop as he leaned over. The others spread out around it in high backed chairs. Miya skulked off in a corner of the room, keeping out of sight and out of mind. 

“We’re pulling Otto and his family out of their old safehouse. This right here is now the safest place we’ve got,” continued Sanchez. “If they hit anywhere else they aren’t going to find shit.”

“What are we looking at?” demanded Omar. “This isn’t the cops. We’d have seen that coming a mile away.”

“The feral, the vigilante, and two MHU cops. I think they’re wanted. Otto, you work your magic?”

“Amanda Broussard and Christopher Anderson,” replied Otto, spreading out a file on the table in front of them. Despite his own office now a shambles and his main operation broken, he remained the image of calm and dispassionate control. Miya pushed off of the wall and slunk up behind Sanchez, getting a look at the pictures. She saw a pair of smiling employee headshots, as well as a few still images from a security camera. Creepy grinning mask, giant girl with wings. Good to know.

“That’s where those two wound up. What are those former cops wanted for?” asked Sanchez.

“You think there might be a problem we could help them with if they back off?” asked Omar, receiving a curt nod from Sanchez in return.

“Is this a problem we can throw money at?” added Jess with a laugh.

Omar shot her a look of disgust.

“Not that we can tell,” replied Otto. “Marcus has stepped up as the new head of the MHU, the Mayor rubber stamped it yesterday. He seems to think they’re our rats.”

Sanchez burst into laughter. “Alright! Doesn’t help us with our vigilante problem but if the MHU is wasting time barking up the wrong tree that’s no skin off my back. What can they do?” 

“According to their MHU files, she’s a techie, good with electronics.” Otto motioned to the picture on the left, of a woman with dark, short cut hair. “He can turn into liquid. He can’t be hurt physically while changed, but they think he’s flammable.” Otto tapped the picture of a blocky headed man with blond hair and blue eyes. Cops. Knowing my luck, those two are gonna shoot at Sanchez and murder me instead.

“Think?” asked Tod.

“He didn’t want to find out the hard way and explode.”

“We can’t buy some crazy fire miracle gas from Noble, can we?”

“He’s not returning our calls,” said Otto with a shake of his head.

“Of course not,” grunted Sanchez. “I might have to give him a chat myself. Oh well, fire isn’t hard to come by. And the techie? What can we use against her?”

“We’re taking everything offline until we deal with her one way or the other.”

“You talk with that Lock Corp guy about her?” Miya glanced at the back of Sanchez’s shaved head. Lock Corp? What are they doing mixed up in this? Isn’t Overlord the sugar daddy here? 

“Yes, offline was his advice. He was confident he could counter any flavor of signals intelligence she could bring to bear if she was denied easy access online. We should, however, be careful of using any cell phone or radios, we’re not certain if she can decrypt as well as intercept signals.” Huh?

“Against a techie? He’s just a dude,” commented Jess.

“Lock Corp only builds and employs the best, he told me,” replied Otto, not bothering to look at her fully. Miya fought back a smile at the slight hint of frustration in his voice. She backed away, out of the potential blast radius if things grew heated, and pretended to study the handful of fluffy clouds drifting over the mountains through the tinted windows.

Sanchez grunted in agreement. “I trust him. Lock Corp hasn’t let us down yet.”

“Have they?” asked Tod. “I could have told you to unplug everything.”

“And then what?” asked Omar. 

“Then find and kill her,” replied Tod, as if that were obvious.

“Like how you found the feral?” asked Jess. Please don’t do that again. You’ll get fucked up and I’l get blamed somehow. Miya, heal this pile of round beef.

Tod’s face flushed deep red. “You wanna say that again,” he repeated, half rising out of his chair. “Some of us actually put their necks out for the business.”

Unfazed, Jess replied, “I’m just saying that maybe we try a different tactic instead of the exact same thing.”

Sanchez shot her a look before turning to Tod and saying, “They’re going to come to us.”

Tod’s hostile gaze lingered on Jess for a moment before he replied, “That’s not a good place to be.” Yeah, agreed, I’m here too.

“The others are combing the streets, don’t you worry. We’re not sitting still, even here. Once we have them, then we’ll be on the offensive.”

“The Bratva smells blood. Tattoos are crossing streets they should be crossing,” pointed out Omar. Bratva? The Russian mob? I didn’t know they had a hold in Westward.

“I’ll tell Jaime’s crew to get their asses into gear along your territory. They can do whatever they want on our side. If Galina wants to play, they know to call me.” 

“Ain’t Jaime guarding your house?” asked Tod.

“It’ll be fine,” replied Sanchez with a wave of his hand. “Temporary.” 

Omar nodded, satisfied. Miya dropped the pretense of not eavesdropping and returned to the table, taking an unoccupied seat far from anyone else. Only Jess bothered to glance in her direction. The short range on the controller kept Miya near Sanchez at all times, the others grew used to ignoring her presence. 

Sanchez continued to Tod, “Once we get them where we want them we’ll hit them, and you’ll be the tip of that spear. You want another go at that feral?”

“You think you can handle it this time around?” asked Omar. Jess barely suppressed a snort behind him.

“Yeah,” replied Tod, neck tensing for a moment. “Me and the guys have got a plan. And guns, didn’t use enough of those last time around. It’s big and scary, but it don’t know how to fight, just attack”

“It flies. How the fuck are we supposed to see it coming?” asked Omar. “During the day? Sure, that’s easy. But at night? It ain’t putting out radar signals or whatever it is that Lock Corp guy is doing.”

“Is it?”

“Think they’re controlling it?” asked Jess, motioning to Miya.

Miya looked up as the conversation ground to a halt, all eyes on her. She scratched at a surgical scar, now healed, at the base of her skull beneath her stubble. One day I’ll have a full head of hair again. Stubble is so ugly, everyone keeps staring at it. 

“I was under the knife for months,” Miya replied. “And I get the feeling Overlord thought I was a failed experiment. It’s also magic control, not mind control. I was immaterial. If Overlord can’t get that right, I don’t see how a couple random people can.”

“Sounds like a no.”

“Do we know how to get those bits out of me yet?” asked Miya.

“Later,” said Sanchez with a wave of his hand. Miya bit back a retort, flopping back in her seat. Please, for the love of god, stop giving me the run around. 

“So we won’t be able to see the damn feral coming at night,” explained Omar. 

“We can’t, but can the bot?” Sanchez asked the table.

After a quiet moment as they considered, Tod asked, “The freaky one next to your office?”

“Yeah. It’s just sitting there. It’s not doing anything.”

“Can we order it around?” asked Jess. “Is that something we can just do?”

Sanchez shrugged. “It’s worth a shot. Tell it to get up on the roof, watch the skies, and let us know if it spots the damn feral.”

The others around the table exchanged looks. Miya shrank as low as she could in her oversized chair, until her eyes were near level with the table top. I’m not getting anywhere near that thing. Absolutely not. I don’t care if it’s human shaped. 

Solid Tod, true to his name, broke the silence. “Alright, I’ll give it a shot.”

Sanchez nodded. “Good. Take a couple guys with you. Just in case.”

“Yeah,” Tod grumbled as he rose from his chair and lumbered out of the room, doing his best to avoid looking at either Jess or Miya. 

The group dispersed after Tod’s exit. Otto gathered up his papers, giving Jess a polite if disinterested nod as she tried to chatter to him about potential city wide water restrictions. Miya followed Sanchez out the side door, towards his office. As he poured himself a stiff drink from the finely carved liquor cabinet against the wall by his desk, Miya slipped off to the corner of the room. She claimed one of the pair of armchairs around a low desk, sinking into the soft cushions. I want one of these. The soft hiss of well oiled hinges caught her ear as Omar followed them in, making sure to close the door behind him.

“I’m good,” said Omar with a wave of his hand, as Sanchez offered him a glass. “Wanted to talk with you.”

“Something on your mind?”

“Jess.” Omar opened and closed his mouth, thinking. Oh boy. Miya shrank down in her seat once more. Don’t look at me, I have no opinions about the bitch.

“What about her?”

Omar shrugged and said, “You can’t keep bringing her to these things, man.”

“What do you mean I can’t?” asked Sanchez, voice deadly calm. Miya eyed the pair of them. Unlike Tod or Sanchez, Omar didn’t shop at the big and tall section of the clothing store. That didn’t stop him from dissecting a man with his fists in the Arena, the one time Miya had visited. 

“What does she add? I know her daddy is rich. I know he’s a good business partner, but man, what does she have to say?” insisted Omar.

Sanchez finished off his whisky with a single swig. “Come on, man. Every person in that room has thicker skin than that. Everyone has taken worse. You can take a little needling.”

“Every damn time? There’s only so much a man can take before he’s got to respond. You know this. You look at Tod and tell me he’s happy when she’s in the room.”

“He hasn’t said anything. He’s a big boy, if he has a problem he’ll say it.”

“With you or me. With a woman? Tod is just going to take it in silence until he blows up. You know how he is.” I want to see his arm again, now that I think about it. I’m pretty sure I saw a tattoo of a heart with a name crossed off on it. Those are always funny.

“This isn’t the Army anymore. I can’t just give marching orders. She gets pissed off and tells daddy, we’ve got a bunch of guys shit out of luck. Still his name on the building.”

“I know. But we need to have our shit together, or we’re fucked. The more people we got to deal with up top? The worse it gets.”

The pair shot simultaneous glances towards Miya.

“Out,” Sanchez commanded. 

I guess they haven’t forgotten about me. Without a word, Miya hopped out of the chair and left. Her shoulders slumped as she found herself alone in the conference room with a bored looking Jess. She looked up from toying with a lock of bleached blonde hair and flashed a too-wide smile at Miya. 

“Hey, girl! You’re looking a lot better. When those evil robots brought you in I thought for sure you’d be out for a month.”

“Thanks,” replied Miya.

“I know the hubby has been running you around with your magic-y stuff. Gotta take care of yourself sometime.”

“Yeah.” Like I have a choice. Did you know? Did you care? Or are you just talking?

“You were skin and bones and you can’t be more than five feet. Girl, that isn’t healthy”

Thanks for the reminder. “I’m only half an inch shy,” grumbled Miya. 

“Once you get your hair grown out we’ll get you a day at the hairdressers or something. My treat.” 

Oh god oh fuck. If Miya’s apprehension showed on her face, Jess made no sign of noticing. The silence stretched on for only a moment before she spoke up again.

“God, they’re idiots sometimes. Just kill them, he says,” she said, shaking her head. “I know they’re old buddies but that kind of stupidity is contagious.”

Miya shrugged. Nope, nope. Not touching mob drama with a ten foot pole. Nope. She’s not even good at this.

“So what were they talking about in-”

She cut off as the front door opened. Tod surveyed the room, and took only a moment to choose between Jess and Miya. “Hey, where’s boss?” he asked Miya. 

“Talking with Omar, it seemed important,” she replied, keeping her answer curt. Maybe he likes directness. I could use an ally here.

He nodded and grunted, “Robot’s good.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. I told it to look out for a big flying feral. It looked at me with its freaky scream face for a couple seconds, then walked up the stairs. I followed it all the way to the roof.”

“Told?” asked Miya.

He shrugged. “Asked.”

“That easy? Huh,” replied Miya.

“Yeah, I know what the fuck I’m doing,” shot back Tod. Whoops. His fists clenched, and Miya came to the crashing realization his arm was as thick around as her chest. 

I’ve got to get out of here.

***

Thunder shook the building, as the brewing storm descended from the mountain slopes that night. Miya hovered off to the side of Sanchez’s office, the room heavy with tension. Guards kept to their floor, no one wandering off lest they be picked off.

Tod leaned his head in through the door. “The bot reported in. The feral is circling.”

Sanchez rose from his desk, shrugging off his suit jacket. “Buckle up.”

23: Momentum

Olivia flexed her wings after nearly two days cooped up inside after their attack on the Arena. The ache in her back muscles vanished after a few hours, but the others spent an entire day recovering from two back to back fights and a run across a city. They at least managed to get a few more leads on Sanchez, not that Olivia could have helped much. She let out a yawn. Since the fight with the Watch, her ears picked up a faint sourceless ringing. Without the weight of exhaustion, it kept her from getting a full night sleep as it oscillated between ignorable and obnoxious. It forced her awake early, before everyone save Amanda, and she wandered up to the roof to get some space.

The rising sun rose over the plains city to the east, bringing it to life. Garish neon lights from about three quarters of the skyscrapers faded in the golden light, though never vanished. Why are a bunch of them always dark? They look abandoned. Why build them if they’re not used? The day promised to be a clear one, with only a bare handful of clouds in the sky, far to the north on the horizon. I wish I could fly during the day more. I bet I could see forever when the sun is up.

With a sigh, she prepared to rise from her seat on an inert AC unit and head towards the back door to their shop. People still used one of the units at the far end of the building, there would be no mistaking her wings if they looked. Apparently I look even scarier than I thought. I didn’t know I looked and sounded like a roaring monster. I should have known. 

Why do I like it? It’s like why I’m saying sorry. Why? It looks better, but that’s not it. Not all of it. I barely look at myself. It feels better. It’s not getting in my face and doesn’t feel like a shell of crap. Maybe it is looks. I look less scary. Less wild. But why do I like looking less scary? Because then I don’t scare people. Why is that good? Like Chris said, scary things look like they might hurt people. I don’t want people to think I’m going to hurt them.

Why why why? Olivia spread her wings and dove off the edge of the roof, gliding to the ground a few stories beneath her. Her clawed feet dug into the old, crumbling asphalt of the strip of pavement behind their building. Old piles of trash, some covered in tarps or broken furniture, clustered around long abandoned dumpsters. The smell, thankfully, had long rotted away to a mere annoying undercurrent.

Amanda twisted around in her chair, looking at Olivia over her shoulder at the sound of the metal door opening. “Olivia, can you come here for a minute?” she called out from her workbench. 

“What is it?” asked Olivia, once she reached her. 

“I have a phone for you,” said Amanda, passing the phone to Olivia. Though small in Olivia’s hand, the hard plastic brick seemed solid enough.

“Am I supposed to call someone?” That’s what Chris did, right? This isn’t that phone though.

“No, it’s yours to keep. Give it a try,” said Amanda. 

She spotted a hinge at the top and flipped open the phone. The screen flickered to life and read “Yes or No”.

Nothing more. But… but what’s the question? There’s no question on the screen. Maybe I’m just missing something. She considered the tiny buttons on the lower half of the phone, hovering a sharp claw tip over a button. I don’t want to break it. She curled her finger and maneuvered the outer tip of her hooked claw to the button and pressed “Yes”. 

“Error”.

“Yes or No” reappeared. 

She pressed “No”.

“Error”. What?

“Need some help?” asked Amanda, catching on to her confusion.

“Um.” Olivia showed her the screen. “I don’t think it works.”

Amanda repeated the same song and dance as Olivia. “Damn it. That shouldn’t happen. It worked before. Let me fix this.” Amanda took the cellphone back and plugged it into a computer. 

Olivia watched over her shoulder as Amanda flew through several different windows on her computer. Lines of either text or code scrolled by. I hope all this makes sense to you. Amanda grumbled under her breath. After a few minutes, and checking one box that had been unchecked, Amanda tried the phone again. 

“There we go. Let’s try that again.”

Olivia flipped open her new phone once more and found a pleasant blue on the screen, with several icons she didn’t recognize. “Cool. Now what?” I don’t know any numbers I can call.

“So here you can check the weather for the next week; daily highs and lows, chance of precipitation, et cetera,” said Amanda, looking over Olivia’s shoulder as she sat on the edge of a cot, tail curled to the other side. She pressed a few more buttons. “You can set an alarm here, change the time, and use it as a stopwatch. This is the default browser, an internet assessor thingy. If you feel like getting another one from the app store, they should be compatible.” 

Listening to her makes the ringing go away. That’s weird.

Amanda flipped the phone closed and passed it to Olivia. “Those are the basics. Oh.” She spun in her chair, grabbing a cord from her desk and spinning around to face Olivia again. “Here’s the charger. Kind of important.” 

Olivia took both. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Ask me if you have any questions. And you might want to go through the settings and change it how you like.”

“OK.” Cool. I thought you just called people with phones. Olivia slipped it into her pocket for later. Wait. “Is this what you’ve been working on all last night?”

“Mostly. What did you do last night?” asked Amanda.

“I don’t know. I couldn’t fly, so I just walked around on the roof for a little bit, and read a book.” I may or may not have been looking for something to do. Though there was this one guy I saw across the street… maybe? It was kind of hard to tell.

Amanda smiled. “Oh? Which one?”

“Ben gave me a Calvin and Hobbes book yesterday. He said it was his favorite.”

“A comic book? Ben has a favorite book?”

Olivia shrugged. “I liked it. The book, I mean. I got the humor, so that was a plus.”

Amanda’s eyes lit up. “If you want, I could probably put an audio book reader on your phone, too. There’s actually a neat little trick I use to boost the memory of a computer. For your specific phone it’s all on the sim chip.” You lost me there. Sim chip? Amanda picked up on her confusion. “Hold on, can I see your phone again?” asked Amanda.

“Sure.” She passed it to Amanda, who flipped it over and opened a panel in the back. She pulled a small white chip out.

“Sim chip. The rest of your phone itself is dumb. This is the brain of it, so to speak. I take the company’s phone, yours is an old CTC phone, and put it through the wringer. It can store more than the average phone, basically. It’s a conglomerate of a smartphone and a dumb phone, so you might have some compatibility issues with some apps, but audio should be good. This is just your phone, not all are the same.” Amanda began putting it back together.

“OK. Um, one more question,” said Olivia. It’s probably dumb, but I’ll just have to get over that.

“Yeah?” said Amanda, returning to Olivia.

“CTC?”

“The Congo Telecommunication Company. They have a different name in Africa, but translated here in the states it’s just the CTC. Had a big patent war with Apple a couple years ago over rounded edged phones or something stupid like that. Stuff like that is probably why I’m not working in industry right now.” Olivia heard Ben waking up from behind his curtained off room, clothes rustling as he got dressed.

“So do I owe you anything for it?” I really don’t like just taking stuff from other people. I did that enough before. I mean, she’s not a homeless shelter, but it’s the principle of the matter.

Amanda sighed, closing her eyes. Sorry. Before Olivia could say anything, Amanda said, “If it will make you feel better, let’s call it twenty bucks, whenever you can.”

“OK!” I think I can do that.

At that moment Ben walked out from his curtained ad hoc room. He blinked the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes and said, “Hey.”

“Good morning,” said Olivia. Amanda studiously ignored him. He joined them anyway, bare feet padding across the oil stained concrete floor. 

“Got a phone now?” he asked Olivia, motioning to the one in her hand.

“Yes,” she answered, showing him.

“Is that an old Iroko phone? Haven’t seen one of those in a while.” Iroko? Where did that come from? “Flip it over,” he said, making a flipping motion with his hand. “It’ll say on the back, for any phone, really.”

She did so. “Um, yes, it says Iroko. What does Iroko mean?”

“It’s a kind of African tree, I think,” said Amanda.

“Yeah. Their namin’ theme is trees. Never figured out why, not like they’re tree huggers or anythin’,” said Ben.

“Hey, the military names their helicopters after Native American tribes, and they haven’t exactly been the crusaders for Native American rights in the past. Or present.”

Ben shrugged. “True. Still though, I like my iPhone.” I keep hearing these iNouns everywhere.

“What? Why? Apple is Nazis,” asked Amanda with disgust.

“Now that’s a bit of a harsh comparison,” said Ben.

“Hyperbole. It’s the best thing ever,” said Amanda. Ben started laughing. 

Um… what? Wait, speak up. “Hyperbole?” asked Olivia.

“Another word for exaggeration,” said Amanda.

“Wait,” said Ben. “You know what Apple is?”

“It’s a big technology company, I think. Right?” said Olivia. I can figure stuff out. Sometimes.

“But you don’t remember words like hyperbole?”

“I don’t know. I just forgot random stuff, I guess. Not everything. Just a lot. And I didn’t know what Apple was before. I can read stuff on my own, you know.” Amanda just leaves her computer playing TV for noise. 

Movement caught their attention. Chris paused as everyone turned to him as he exited his curtain room. “Good morning, everyone.” Olivia smiled and waved in response.

“We’re bored, entertain us,” said Ben.

“Well you’re shit out of luck, I need my coffee.”

“We’re out,” called out Amanda as he headed for their kitchen in an empty office.

“Already?” Chris grumbled. He lowered himself into a chair beside Amanda, scratching at his neck. “I miss anything else? Have you three elected to form a hippie commune?”

Ben snorted. “Nah, always hated tie dye. Catchin’ Olivia up on modern technology.”

“That’s good. Do we have any plans for today? I’ve got the feeling we’re getting close to Sanchez.”

“So I don’t got a car. I’m guessin’ you two had yours taken by the MHU. That’s gonna make our lives really fuckin’ hard.”

“I can still move kind of fast,” spoke out Olivia.

“What about the rest of us?” asked Chris.

“Oh, I mean, for some stuff, I guess. Never mind.”

“No, you’re right, but we can’t just have you run around and do everything for us.”

“Could steal one,” suggested Ben.

The others, Olivia included, grimaced. “I’m not sure I like the idea of that.”

Ben shrugged. “We sit still, we die.”

“I don’t suppose we could just buy another one,” mused Chris.

“There’s only fifteen grand on that card I gave Ben,” said Amanda. “I’m not sure how we’d even do that without drawing red flags.” Silence reigned for a moment, as Ben and Chris turned in unison to stare at her. “What?”

“Fifteen grand?” repeated Chris. Oh, is that a lot? It sounds like a lot. How much does a car cost?

“Yeah,” replied Amanda, eyes flickering between the two. 

“I could get like ten crap used cars for that much!” explained Ben. “I’ve been carryin’ a year’s worth of rent in my pocket? You serious?”

“Really?”

“Fuck yeah. Hell, could pay in cash if we wanted to. What the hell was your first car?”

“Nothing special, but it was more than fifteen thousand.”

“Fifteen thousand can’t buy a car? You ever been used car shoppin’?”

“No,” admitted Amanda. “Why is this such a big deal?”

“You handed a guy who you don’t like or trust fifteen thousand dollars like it’s nothing, and only seem to be just now realizing how much that was,” explained Chris.

“We’ve been eatin’ little oatmeal packets,” grumbled Ben, shaking his head. Despite his annoyed tone, his amused smile never wavered. “I coulda grabbed a grill an’ some steaks, god dammit!”

“Enough, Ben,” cut in Nomad, his voice more restrained and level than Olivia had ever heard before. “Amanda, this would have been good to know before.”

“I thought you were being frugal,” snapped Amanda.

“Cuz I gotta be,” replied Ben.

“How much money do you have available at the moment?” asked Chris.

“Why?” she replied.

Nomad took a deep breath before explaining, “I’m trying to figure out how much money we have access to.”

“We?” Amanda leaned back, face closing off, quashing all emotion. “I’m not sure you all need to know my entire financial situation.”

“Fine. How much are you willing to part with?”

“The card Ben has. The rest I can’t tap into unless it’s an emergency.” Before Nomad, annoyance crossing his face, could reply, she added, “Real, no shit, ‘we are going to die right now’ emergency.” Olivia tilted her head to the side, eyeing Amanda. Her heart is beating really fast. Why are her face and hands twitching so much?

“OK, good to know,” said Chris. “I think we’re rested enough to start going after Lehman Construction.”

“Um, those people before. The Watch. Are they going to be after us too?” asked Olivia. My ears are still ringing from them.

“Yeah, where the fuck did they come from?” added Amanda. 

“The Watch’s got a weird relationship with the cops. They don’t like runnin’ to ‘em every time somethin’ major happens,” explained Ben. “Might have been lookin’ for Sanchez’ men out there, an’ we just stumbled into ‘em.”

Chris nodded. “Alright, back on track. This place is going to be defended. They’re insane if they can’t see the pattern. But we’re going to have the element of surprise if we do this right.” He’s always so focused. 

“Every problem can be solved with the proper application of explosions, might I add,” cut in Ben.

“Yeah. That’s super illegal,” said Amanda.

“I’m aware,” said Ben. Of course you are.

“Alright, for today,” said Chris. “No explosions. You get us transportation.” Ben gave him a sloppy salute. “I’ll go over what to look for with Olivia. If we can have a pair of eyes in the air, she might be able to see defenses and people that would be hidden from us on the ground.”

“OK,” said Olivia. If it’ll help. I’m not sure what I’m going to be looking at though.

He turned to Amanda. “I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. You’ve delivered every time I’ve asked. Get whatever you can on Lehman Construction.” 

“Already started. About that MHU contract they have,” she said. “Should we tell the MHU?”

“Who do you trust?” After a moment of silence, Chris added, “This isn’t a trick question, I really want to know. I would say Cyrus, but he’s god knows where, not that he wasn’t loopy by the end. Bob?”

“If the main target of the city’s MHU is able to get his front operation business for the MHU, there is something seriously wrong going on. How high up is the rat? If we tell someone who is trustworthy, are they just going to get found out by the rat?” asked Amanda. “I don’t know anyone there to tell.”

Chris gave a grim nod. “I know.

“The press?” asked Amanda.

Ben barked out a laugh. “Controlled by the government in all but name,” replied Chris. “We only have so many man-hours, let’s put a pin in that and focus on what’s in front of us.”

Tasks in hand, the group dispersed.

***

Wind whipped past Olivia’s face as she coasted high above the city. The headquarters for Lehman Construction squated below her, an older ten story building of steel and glass. The main tower rose above a wider two story ring. She kept high up, out of sight of anyone who might be looking down below. No one ever looks up. It’s night. I should be safe. We talked about this. The Tech Center, a sort of secondary smaller downtown area, stretched on all around her. 

Her head still swam after Chris’ crash course in surveillance. The hours flashed by, but Olivia felt a little more confident in what to look for.

“Look for burn pits. They might be burning trash or documents to get rid of evidence.

Olivia took another pass, lower this time to catch the scent of the air around the building. A vaguely familiar scent of a light, almost sweet oil caught her nose, before concrete powder washed it away. There’s a lot of gas and stuff here. But is there any ash or soot? She circled one more time, keeping an eye to the ground for the dark marks of burn pits on the ground. Nothing.

“Pay attention to the parking lot. They seem fond of things underground, this won’t be perfect, but this might give us a general idea of activity. Take a note of how many cars you see, where they’re parked, and what types of cars. We don’t care about a fleet of work trucks, this is still a real operating business. But expensive cars? The type that might be rewards, or flashy status symbols? Those we care about.” 

Olivia could only spot a small handful of cars scattered around the parking lot at the late hour. None stood out as unusual, though she did see three motorcycles near the employee entrance. That’s a bunch, does that mean anything? 

Well inside the premises, in a fenced off area, a van parked against a wall caught her attention, or rather, what was on top of the van. That looks like those antenna things Amanda put on our roof. Olivia swooped down for a closer look, struggling to make sense of what she saw. There’s extra stuff on them, they look bulkier, but that does look similar. Several crates rested against the back of the van, as well as a pallet leaned against the front. It doesn’t look like it’s moved in a while. Though hard to make out even for her eyes at that angle, she managed to read ‘Lock Corp.’ along the side facing the wall. 

“If there are any people, take note of them. Patrolling guards walk slower and more deliberately than workers coming off their shift.”

Olivia marked a few people on the lower roof. She spotted the occasional glint of cigarette embers, though they never left their positions other than to walk a slow circuit. OK. Not on smoke break. A pair of women, smelling of chemicals when Olivia swooped overhead for a closer look, strolled to their cars. Cleaners? They smell like that stuff Chris uses in the bathroom. Bleach? I think that’s what he said it was. They’re probably fine.

She circled a few more times, making out several protrusions recognizable as cameras. A few windows were lit, though tinted to keep her from taking a good look in. She saw motion in some of them, and kept a mental note of their location. Two hours passed before she finally decided to call it quits, gleaning no new information from the gang headquarters below her.

I have time. We’re going to sleep through the day anyways. Her winding route back to the shop took her past her old apartment. The ragged hole where Tod had punched her out still marred its wall. I guess it is still being watched, I swear I saw a guy on the roof for a second. I kind of miss the apartment. That couch was comfy. 

Finally, she pulled up to land just outside the back door to their shop. She angled herself through the metal door frame to find the others standing or sitting around a beat up, crooked old table they’d found somewhere. Olivia could see three different deep gouges on the top, and a set of printed off blueprints only partially concealed a large dark discoloration on the rough surface of the wood. 

“So what are we looking at?” asked Chris.

Olivia relayed all she’d seen, heard, and smelled. Chris nodded, as Amanda split her attention between the conversation and a laptop off to her side. Ben simply drummed his fingers against the table’s edge. “If they’re not burning evidence they might not know we’re coming,” pointed out Chris.

“How?” asked Amanda. “We just might not be able to see it.”

“Shredders are a thing.” added Ben.

Chris grimaced and ceded the point with a nod. 

“I think they know we’re coming,” said Amanda. “There’s a lot in this building that’s been disconnected. Like, granted, I’m not some magic leet hacker or anything, but I couldn’t ping anything in that building. And the Lock Corp van is a bad sign.” Leet?

“Who?” asked Olivia.

“Lock Corporation is a big merc security company, one of my brothers signed on with them,” said Ben. 

“Wait, really?” asked Amanda, attention snapping fully to Ben without a hint of malice. Is she worried?

“Don’t worry,” replied Ben with a laugh. “He’s in some miserable sand pit in the middle east.” 

Amanda’s worry did not lessen in the slightest. “I think they know we’re coming. Lock Corp is mostly east of the Mississippi,” she explained. The what now? “They only recently started expanding into Westward. They can’t have been set up for that long.”

“Um,” began Olivia, waiting to make sure she wouldn’t be talked over. “It looked like the van was there for a while.”

Amanda frowned. “Olivia, did it look like this?” She pulled up a picture on her laptop for Olivia to confirm. “That’s definitely sigint equipment. We’re going to have to be very silent when we approach.

“What? Sigint?” asked Olivia. I don’t think sigint is a word. Right?

“Signals intelligence,” replied Amanda.

“I mean, it kinda makes sense for Lehman to contract a security company for shit they can’t do themselves.”

“Did you see anything else, anyone else, or was it just the van?” asked Amanda.

“Just the van,” answered Olivia. 

“OK, that’s better. Lehman might just be leasing equipment, and maybe an operator if that’s the case,” said Amanda, relaxing.

“How much of a problem is this going to be?” asked Chris.

“Not much of one. They know what they’re doing, but I can skirt around most of their equipment and techniques. Like I said, we’ll need to keep chatter to a minimum around this place. If we use them too much, we’ll give them info on how our comms work and compromise them in the future.”

Chris nodded, satisfied. “What about the company itself? Lehman, not Lock Corp.”

“On paper, Mark Lehman, the son of the owner, is still CEO, but no one has seen him for years, outside of the occasional social event. No clue what’s going on there and I don’t feel like wasting time digging. They have a good reputation, from what I’ve seen. Their workers are a bit more annoyed.”

“How can you tell?” asked Ben. “You ain’t left the building.”

“Oh, there’s a new ‘rate your boss’ website thing online. A lot of employees have complaints about long hours and poor communication.”

“Think we might be able to find a friend?” asked Ben. 

“We don’t have the time, energy, or expertise to do something like that,” pointed out Chris. “Physically, what are we dealing with?”

Amanda tapped the blueprints on the table. “So this is what I’ve got on the building itself. It was supposed to be a children’s hospital, but funding dried up,” explained Amanda. Huh? Oh god, that’s terrible. “Lehman Construction took it over. Other than big structural things like load bearing walls, this should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ll be amazed if Sanchez just left blueprints of his own headquarters lying around for anyone to find. He’s proven shockingly competent at adapting physical structures to his own needs and covering his tracks.”

“Shockin’ly?” repeated Ben.

“Mob boss and structural engineer are two completely different jobs.”

Chris sat upright and pointed out, “It’s not just him.”

“True. But he is the shot-caller,” explained Amanda. “He makes good calls, and we have to assume he or someone advising him knows their stuff. This is too competent a company to simply be a front.”

“That CEO you mentioned?” I hope he’s OK. If he’s not helping the bad guys, that is.

Amanda shrugged. “Maybe. With this and what Olivia brought us, we can make a rough idea of a plan.”

“Which will turn to shit the moment we meet the enemy,” said Ben. Everyone looked at him. “What? Murphy’s Law.”

Amanda rolled her eyes and said, “Anyways, there are three entrances, one of which is fairly out of the way.” 

“We can’t split up like last time, we’ll be overwhelmed,” said Chris. We almost were, last time. “Where are the elevators and stairs?”

***

Boiling dark thunderclouds over the mountains swallowed the last of the sunset. Looking to the north or south, Olivia could clearly see the sharp line of the spring storm front moving in, where pale blue sky gave way to clouds. It was so nice and sunny yesterday. Can we just go back to that? I know it’s night now, it’s the principle of the matter.

Olivia watched for anything unusual at the entrance they’d marked. The others knelt or sat out of sight below the lip of the roof they hid on, preparing themselves and their gear. Just like the night before, she saw only cars streaming away as the work day ended. Their own new car, a beat up old clunker even more cramped than the jeep, lay parked behind a wall in a nearby parking garage. No sirens came their way that she could hear. She could trust her ears again, now that the ringing had fallen off over the day. I guess they’re fine now. She took a deep breath. Don’t mess up.

“Hey, you all right?” asked Ben, making her jump. He slipped on his grinning metal comedy mask.

“Oh, sorry. Yeah. Kind of,” she stammered in reply. Good job me. Way to babble.

“You look nervous.”

“Is it that obvious? I’m just worried, I guess.” Chris and Amanda, scattered around the roof and lost in their own tasks, paid them no attention. Amanda, face unreadable under her helmet, studied a small, rugged laptop she’d produced from her backpack. Chris flipped through some papers he’d brought, lists of names to look for inside.

“Just don’t fuck up! Easy.” Of course.

“I know. I just don’t want any of us to get hurt.”

He glanced sideways at Olivia. “You gonna be able to do this?” he asked.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Figured I’d ask. We got this.” He punched her elbow and returned to organizing his pistol magazines.

A nervous silent hour passed, then Chris grunted as he stood with his rifle. “Let’s get started.” No going back now. Lightning cracked the sky over the mountains, and thunder rumbled across the plains.

22: Patchwork

Chris grunted as he slow-walked over to the overstuffed mini fridge they kept in one of the front offices. His stiff legs burned, even a full day after their desperate, cross city run. Silence reigned over the shop, even with all four of them technically up and moving. I shouldn’t have pushed Amanda last night, he thought to himself as he grabbed a pop. We’re still in no shape to do much of anything. Even if we find something in all that paperwork and info we got, there’s not much we’ll be able to do with it in this state. I’ve got to make this right, though.

“Hey! Blondie, pass me one?” Chris fought back the urge to jump at the sudden sound of Ben’s voice. He looked over his shoulder just in time to spot Ben slouch against the door frame. 

“Here,” said Chris, handing him a second can and keeping the surprise from his voice. The last few cans in the near empty fridge clattered as the door closed. If he doesn’t get a rise out of me, he’ll get bored and stop. “Blondie? Is that going to be my nickname?” he asked, tone even.

“Yeah, you’re blond. Easier to say,” answered Ben, a wide grin splitting his face. He cracked the top of the can, shying back a little as a bit of spray came out.

“Chris is one syllable.”

“You know what I mean.”

Chris folded his arms, setting his half finished drink on top of the fridge. Though garbled, he finally caught wind of a Baltimore accent in Ben’s rapid speech. “I’m not sure that I do. Besides, it’s too obvious for a nickname.”

“What? It’s quick, gets to the point. You knew exactly who I was talkin’ about.”

“I’m the only other person in this room. Come on, get clever with it at least.” Maybe he’ll be less annoying if he has something to chew on.

“Clever? Come on now, everythin’ about you is blond. Tall midwestern lookin’ white guy with blue eyes? I’d be shocked if you weren’t. Even your scruffy-ass beard is blond.”

“Yeah, I know,” replied Chris, scratching at his cheek. “We don’t have any razors here.”

“Sorry, I forgot about that. I never really need shit like that. I just get a little pedo ‘stache after a month” Chris winced in sympathy. “I always wanted to grow one of those long bushy beards that go down your chest when I was a kid, you know?”

“Why?” asked Chris. Those things look like nightmares to keep clean.

“Cuz it’d be funny.” 

Whatever you say, dude. Chris resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “We are starting to run low on everything, again. Do you think you can make another supply run?”

Ben chuckled. “I don’t got a car at the moment.”

“Walk. I’ll join and help you carry, if you want to risk someone recognizing me.”

Ben teleported over to the fridge, checking inside. “Fair enough, might take you up on that. Fuck, ‘liv’ eats a lot. Wanna check in on the chicks, see if they can think of anythin’ to pick up? Shit, think they need razors? Chicks shave their legs, right?”

Chris paused, considering him. You’ve never mentioned a girlfriend or anyone, have you? “You’re welcome to ask them.”

“Sure, I’m bored.” Ben pushed off the wall and teleported out. 

Chris followed after him. For all his confident talk, Ben walked with legs just as stiff, relying far more on teleports than usual. They returned to the main shop. Olivia poked her head around one of the makeshift walls they’d set up around their beds, some being only a curtain held up with a rod of metal they’d found, balanced on a stack of boxes. Amanda hunched over what appeared to be half of an old, brick shaped flip phone, her workbenches now lining the wall directly next to the door. A giant magnifying glass clamped to the bench lit up the phone’s innards as she poked at something with a gloved finger.

“Hey, runnin’ down to the store. Need anythin’?” Ben announced to the two of them.

“You’re going out? Are we sure no one tracked us to this area? The Watch? Sanchez?” asked Amanda, looking up from her workbench.

“Olivia was up in the air the whole time back. If she couldn’t see or hear them, they weren’t there,” replied Chris. Olivia walked up to stand beside Ben, which translated to looming over him.

“Fuck that’s helpful. I wanna fly,” said Ben, elbowing Olivia in the hip with a grin. 

“It’s fun,” she replied, cracking a small smile. 

“So we’re using her as a spy drone now too, great,” muttered Amanda. She moved aside her magnifying glass and spun her chair, facing the rest of the group. 

“What’s wrong?” Olivia asked her, head tilting to the side by an inch.

“I don’t know, I feel bad,” said Amanda with a shrug. You had a problem? Why didn’t you speak up?

“Why?” asked Olivia, beating Chris to the punch. 

“We’re using you as a wrecking ball! You walked through a wall and mauled five armed men last night. What we just walked into would have been suicide if you hadn’t just bulldozed everthing we pointed you at.” It wasn’t that bad. We pulled through.

“I was just trying to help,”

“The whole wall thing was kinda crazy. I loved it!” said Ben with a grin.

“It’s kind of scary, watching you go from you to a predator,” said Amanda, ignoring him. “I’m a little worried for you when you do that.”

“I’m not that scary,” whispered Olivia, more to herself than the others. “They’re way scarier.”

“Remember Michael?” explained Amanda. “You were making this low rumbling in your chest, I thought it was an engine outside somewhere.”

“You’ve got a twenty foot wingspan too, you pretty much filled the room by yourself,” Chris pointed out.

“You were starin’ at the bastard like you wanted to kill ‘em,” added Ben with a laugh. Olivia shrank back as each of them spoke, her posture seeming to collapse in on herself.

“Speaking of which, what was up with that?” asked Amanda. “What did he ever do to you?”

Olivia remained silent for a moment. Chris kicked Ben in the shin as he grinned and took in a breath. Let her think. “I don’t know.” Before Chris could offer a suggestion, she continued, “I sort of recognized him. His smell. Like he was a danger before.”

“Smell?” asked Amanda, a concerned frown on her face. 

“I know, I’m weird,” Olivia mumbled in response, head hanging. I didn’t know her nose was that sensitive. She said her hearing was good, too.

“Wait, what the hell? Come down here,” said Amanda, standing to meet Olivia halfway and motioning her down. Olivia hesitated for a moment before she figured out what she was asking. Amanda parted some of her brown hair. “Olivia, your hair is all matted. When’s the last time you cleaned this?”

“Um, I don’t know,” Olivia replied. Her eyes remained glued to the floor, even as Amanda released her hair and she stood upright once more.

“Does that mean never?”

“Maybe?” Olivia mumbled after a moment. “I did when I was in that cell.” Chris kept quiet, hair care being beyond his ken. 

“What exactly did you do?” asked Amanda.

“I just bent down and let water run over it,” mumbled Olivia. Her wings rustled, pulling in tight behind her back.

“Wait, bent down?”

“Yeah,” broke in Chris. “Half the showerheads I come across come up to my chin.” He eyed Olivia for a moment. “She’s got about five or six inches on me.” Though it’s kind of hard to tell when she’s hunching over.

“Your hair can’t be comfortable like that.”

Olivia shrugged. “I guess not.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?” demanded Amanda.

“I didn’t want to get in the way or anything.”

“Who cares?” cut in Ben with a shrug. “Just hair.” Why is everyone talking about hair today? This is the second conversation about it.

“There is something to be said for putting at least a little bit of care into your appearance,” replied Amanda, shooting him a look of scorn.

Ben leaned in and grinned. “What happened to don’t judge a book by its cover?” Chris frowned in thought. Ben had a sort of ruthless intelligence, selectively applied. Is he fucking with us intentionally to amuse himself, or is he just not bothering to think and genuinely asking?

“That’s for little children, not grown ass adults,” replied Chris.

“Y’all turn your noses up at me, were damn close to throwin’ ‘liv’ in a concrete coffin. Seems like grown ass adults ain’t on the right track here.”

Chris looked Ben dead in the eye and said, “It took us about two minutes to decide to make contact with Olivia instead of going in guns blazing. And when have I ever turned my nose up at you?” Ben pointed to Amanda without breaking eye contact. “Granted, but I am not her.”

Ben nudged Olivia again. “You should argue more. Ain’t had this much fun since me an’ my brothers split.” She just looked confused.

“Brothers?” asked Amanda.

“Yeah, triplets.”

“Oh god there’s three of you,” said Amanda with dawning horror as Ben cackled in amusement. “Your poor mother.”

Let’s get back on track. “So, Amanda,” said Chris, raising his voice to be heard over the cross talk. Everyone snapped to attention as his voice echoed through the shop.  “Can you think of anything Ben can pick up from the store?”

Amanda snapped her ringers at Olivia. “Right. You, bathroom, I’ll get you cleaned up. You,” she said, snapping her fingers at Ben. “Grab a hairbrush while you’re out. And some deodorant. And a toothbrush.”

“Already grabbed one of those for her,” said Chris in a normal voice.

Amanda considered Oliviafor a moment. “Have you been using it?” she asked her.

“I think so?”

Amanda simply grunted in response, leading a befuddled Olivia out of the shops and to the bathrooms. Alright, I guess that’s taken care of. 

“Need a hand?” Chris asked Ben.

“Nah, I’ll suck it up. Keep outta sight.” Ben grabbed a jacket and teleported out, leaving Chris alone in a cavernous empty shop. I wonder if I can install a shower in here. We’re not using half this space.

***

An hour later, Olivia walked back into the shop. Chris looked up from the website of a local hardware store and gave her a nod as he leaned back in his chair. What am I doing? This is never going to happen. I’m either getting back to normal with Alice or dying. He put away his phone as clawed feet approached. 

Olivia handed him his forgotten and half finished pop, damp hair now somewhat organized and tied into a ponytail with a rubber band. She gnawed on what appeared to be the last of their beef jerky. 

“Thanks,” he said, taking a polite sip of now lukewarm soda. “Feeling better?” he asked, gesturing to her hair.

“It’s not getting into my face anymore!” she said with a smile. “I didn’t think about it before. It’s so nice.”

How old are you? Is that a question I’m not supposed to ask? “Good to hear.” Amanda entered, hands damp and disgruntled look on her face unchanged. I should probably deal with that at some point. She marched over to her workbench, drying off her hands with a paper towel. Later. Techies hate being interrupted too much.

“Are you OK?” asked Olivia, breaking his train of thought.

“Sorry, I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

“You seem worried.” 

“I guess I am.I don’t want to mess this up. My girlfriend, Alice, she’s not really happy about all this. She sounded really mad, actually, when I talked with her yesterday. Sorry, I’m rambling.”

“Why are you apologizing?”

“You shouldn’t have to worry about me.”

“Why not?” He glanced to the side at her, seeing nothing but an earnest question.

“Because I’m supposed to be dependable.” He stared off into space, as if he would be judged for the admission. “She was nervous about me being a cop, you know? She made her peace with it because I’m not the kind of guy to go off and do something stupid and impulsive, like exactly what we’re doing now. It’s almost like I’m betraying that trust, you know?”

“But you’re trying to make it right. Right?”

“Yeah, there’s that. We’ll see.” He took a deep breath, feeling a weight off of his shoulders. “You’re speaking up more,” he said, changing the topic.

“Yeah,” she replied. Now it was her turn to avoid eye contact, reptilian eyes lost in the distance. “That other feral, he couldn’t talk.”

“Oh, the mantis one?” He’d caught a quick glimpse of it as they’d fled the Arena; a car sized feral covered in insect chitin plates over both animal and human bits. 

“Yeah. He couldn’t talk, I don’t think. And with what you guys said earlier, I don’t want to be like him. I don’t want to be a dumb thing sitting in a corner.”

Ben burst in through the back door, plastic bags rustling as he angled them through. “Hey, party people!” he called out into the shop. Goodbye, peace and quiet. It was nice having you for almost a full hour. Chris gave Olivia a reassuring pat on the elbow as he got up from his chair to help Ben.

They unpacked and gathered around Amanda’s desk, fresh food and activity breaking them out of their tired haze. Chris spread out the paper’s they’d stolen from the office in the Arena as Amanda set up three different sized spare monitors to display files and pictures. The three of them read through their own pile of documents, occasionally looking over each other’s shoulder for clarification or comparison. Olivia looked over shoulders, asking the occasional clarifying question but otherwise keeping out of the way.

“Hold up, hold up,” said Ben, smile gone for once. “I recognize that address.” He pointed to what appeared to be the picture of a medical record.

“What about it?” asked Chris.

“Been there. Kid was taken, tryin’ to track him down with ‘liv’.”

“What happened?” asked Amanda.

“Gone.” 

Chris squinted at the paper. “I’m no expert, but it looks like something to do with magic? Magical aptitude?”

“Kid was a mage?” said Ben. 

“It looks like they just figured it out,” replied Chris, eyeing the date in the bottom right corner, in horrible doctor scribble.

“Sanchez had him grabbed, passed him off to Overlord.”

“He’s branched into human trafficking now? That’s new,” said Chris.

“Wait, we’re fucking with Overlord?” demanded Amanda, face pale. 

“Yeah. Oh shit, never did compare notes, did we? Yeah, me an’ ‘liv’ found some Overlord guns for Sanchez. This checks out. Might’ve been payment, now that I think about it. Money’s easier to track than guns you keep hidden anyways.”

“Why not both?”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe.”

“OK, so Overlord is using Sanchez to acquire people, mages by the look of it,” said Amanda.

“Couldn’t do that himself?” asked Ben. 

Chris looked at Amanda. You’re the techie. Overlord is your wheelhouse. She shook her head vigorously. “No idea. Techies don’t research Overlord himself unless they want a visit from him or a government black team. I’ll take a look at gear, but I stay as far away from his organization as possible.”

“Mages don’t exactly grow on trees. Magic frustrates almost any scientific explanation,” said Chris. Amanda nodded in agreement. “We can sit here and guess about Overlord’s motivations all day long, but that will get us nowhere. Let’s keep that in the back of our mind, but Sanchez is our current target. Who built that place we raided?”

Ben nodded and grinned in agreement. “You don’t build a giant fuck off cave like that with shovels.”

“Overlord?” asked Olivia. That’s a good point.

Amanda shrugged. “Maybe. He keeps a low profile, and he certainly has the resources and technical know-how to pull off something like that. Would he go through all that effort for Sanchez though?” Ben shook his head. 

“Not what I meant. We’re focusing too much on the shady part. Who made the building topside?” asked Chris. “A legitimate business needs legitimate paperwork.”

Amanda frowned as she sifted through the files. “Here we go. This is an invoice from Lehman Construction. There’s a few more. And an engineering report. Yeah, these guys are all over it.”Blood drained from Chris’s face. That name is familiar. “Weren’t they doing the renovations at MHU headquarters?” he asked. “The ones that are late and over budget?”

21: Black and White

With the main group of guards dealt with, along with their pet feral, Olivia and Ben held their ground at the main stairwell leading out of the Arena. Only a few more gang members probed at them, in ones and twos who quickly backpedaled once they realized the situation. Chris and Amanda didn’t take long, hurrying up to meet them with a backpack full of documents and drives. They retraced their steps out of the Arena, though their pace slowed at the sight of the feral sized hole Olivia left in the middle of the cavern. They froze at the entrance to the garage. 

“Trap?” asked Amanda. “We haven’t seen anyone in a while.”

“Maybe,” said Chris, turning liquid and poking a lump of himself around the corner. He snapped back a moment later. “Clear.”

“Shouldn’t there be sirens?” asked Olivia, as they stepped into the night air. That always seems to happen when we get into fights. I do hear a lot of engines around though.

“You think a gang is gonna call the cops?” asked Ben, incredulous. “You think anyone heard those guns when we’re underground like that?”

“Oh, sorry,” she replied with a slump of her shoulders. Why am I so stupid? At least that mantis guy didn’t look like he was worrying about anything at all. Is that what I’m supposed to be?

“Why the fuck you apologizin’?”

Before Olivia could think of a reply, Amanda snapped, “Leave her alone.” Ben shrugged as he ran, but kept quiet. How could I answer that question? Olivia frowned. I’m tired of never being able to answer questions. Why did I apologize? 

As the others reached the concrete wall covered in broken glass that ringed the steakhouse, Olivia took flight once more. She circled a few times, no longer caring about whether cameras might see her. The sound of engines in the night stood out to her, approaching fast. She disassembled the signal blocker she’d set up on the roof and pushed the button on her mic once the airwaves were clear. 

“Can you guys hear me?” she asked. 

“Yeah. How are we looking?” replied Chris. 

“I don’t see anything, but there are a lot of cars approaching pretty quick,” replied Olivia. 

“From our car?”

“Um, maybe? I don’t think I understood.” Why would they be coming from our car? They have their own.

“The direction they are coming from. Will we run into them when we get to our car?” clarified Chris, the pace of his voice picking up as he talked. Right, talk faster. 

“No.” Sorry, I’m stupid.

“Alright, meet us over the wall, let’s get out of here.”

Olivia glided off the edge of the steakhouse and over the wall, joining the others in their dash to their escape. Ben teleported ahead with the keys. They dove into a jeep already started, if rattling horribly, and ready to go. Soon enough, they left the steakhouse behind as Ben took them on a winding route through the city. 

They drove north through the dark streets in silence, passing no other cars. Olivia shifted nervously in her seat, resisting the urge to puff out her wings. We’re kind of sticking out. If anyone looks into the windows they might see me. It feels like we’re being watched. The others left their faces bare for that exact reason. Ben had a scanner built into the car’s radio to listen in on the police band. They definitely noticed something at the steakhouse, but no one called in about them specifically.

As the jeep rounded a corner, they came face to face with a pair of trucks parked in the street, leaving only one car width between them. The moment they came into view, someone in black stepped out of the second truck. Olivia caught sight of an image of a white eye on the masked man’s shoulder as he raised his hand, motioning them to stop. 

“Fuck that!” said Ben with a laugh. He put on his mask in one fluid motion, Chris pulled up his bandana, and Amanda fumbled with her helmet. 

Ben spun the wheel as hard as he could and gunned the engine. The jeep hit the curb, jolting the occupants, and drove along the sidewalk, refusing to be stuck where the eye people wanted them to be. The trucks roared to life just behind them.

Amanda called out, “What, these guys aren’t just unmarked?”

“No, they’re the Watch,” replied Chris. Olivia heard guns going off and Chris yelled, “Keep your head down.” Easy for him to say.

“Who?” Olivia asked Amanda beside her.

“Organized vigilantes,” she replied back, voice now projected by the helmet. A bullet snapped past. “Basically a militia.” I don’t know what that means.

They tore away from the trucks, who naturally had no problem closing the gap with their rattling old ride. An orange beam of light passed by them, narrowly missing Ben’s door. What was that? Olivia eyed the door handle next to her, her wings bent and aching. She shuddered a bit. I’m not going to abandon everyone just to save myself. She winced as they came within two inches of being hit by a pursuing truck again. Though not being in here would be great. She was jolted back to reality when the truck made contact, causing Ben to almost lose control.

Olivia doubled over at the sharp sound of the impact, metal shrieking and snapping. Oh, this is going to be a recurring thing isn’t it? Painful, painful noises. She gritted her teeth and forced herself upright. Gotta get used to it. 

Another laser lanced out from behind them, striking the wheel just in front of Ben, melting it into slag. Ben lost control, and the car flipped and rolled, coming to a stop on its own roof.

It took a few moments for Olivia to regain her bearings. She wasn’t hurt, but she wasn’t sure of the others. She smelled blood, not her own. Chris had turned into goo before impact, he was reforming, albeit slower than she had seen before. Liquid Chris had no blood, so by process of elimination that left Ben and Amanda. He hung there by his seat belt, the airbag had deployed and filled the majority of the space up front. Amanda groaned, shifting in her own seat belt and jostling Olivia’s right wing, still sore from the thrashing the mantis feral had given it.

She could still hear a heart beating and lungs drawing in breath from Ben, so at least he was still alive. She could also hear the trucks drive up, the click of weapons and the impact of boots on the asphalt. We need to get out of here. She punched a claw through the buckle of her seat belt, releasing her and sending her curling into the roof below her. With footsteps fast approaching, she twisted to get herself back upright as much as possible. She kicked at the door beside her, sending it flying off its hinges. Oops. Oh well, Ben needs a new car at this point anyways. 

She crawled out and froze. Nearly a dozen armed members of the Watch, all with that eye insignia on their right shoulder, began to form a semicircle around the upside down jeep. She saw Chris, still in liquid form, flow out of the broken window on his side. Ben and Amanda began to stir, pulling themselves out.

Olivia looked back at the Watch members. A woman called out “Come out with your hands up. Don’t make this harder than it has to be.” In a normal voice she said, “Blackout, Whiteout, you focus on the feral.”

That doesn’t sound good. 

Then, suddenly, everything went black. A complete absence of light. She could see nothing. The only thing she heard was herself. Wait, are those my organs? There was absolutely no other sound. She moved forward, immediately bumping into something. It had no texture, perfectly smooth and spherical. Her shoved in wings and tail pushed out with no success. I hate tight spaces. I’m going to go insane if I can’t get out of here. 

She braced herself and rammed her shoulder into the offending wall. Nothing. It was getting hotter, her breath getting shorter. And louder. What’s going on out there? She hit it again, putting all of her desperate strength behind it. Nothing. A third time, and it shattered.

“Breaking through. Shoot it! Shoot it!” said the masked man she stumbled into, knocking him on his back. She came upright next to another masked man on her right in the process of pointing a pistol at her. 

She dodged to her left. Suddenly she was encased in the blackness again, no light or sound. She froze, her tail was extended somewhat, it hadn’t been shoved inward like it had before. Three rounds suddenly struck her in the gut. She screamed, partially out of surprise, partially out of pain. She hadn’t heard anything coming. These guys really want to kill me. Ow, that hurt. Just leave us alone. 

She hunched over and rushed forward again, towards the last place she’d seen the man. Light and sound returned with a couple steps. Blackout was dressed identically to the rest of the Watch, the masks, or lack thereof, being the only difference between the individual members Olivia could spot. Narrowed eyes stared at her through the holes of a pure black featureless  mask covering his entire face. Instead of enveloping her, the next black bubble covered up the man, leaving her charging at nothing.

She heard the man she’d knocked down start to get up behind her, well within range of her tail. She whipped it towards him. Her tail met something smooth and unyielding. She snarled in frustration, then spun and lunged at who she presumed to be Whiteout. He looked the same as Blackout, only with a pure white mask. 

Blackout managed one stray shot at Olivia’s back, striking her shoulder and shoving her forward. Two separate black bubbles engulfed her, but she ignored them, as well as a white orb meant to trip up her charge while her vision was blocked. A few long strides brought her right up to Whiteout, and she brought down her open hand to slash, when a white orb appeared between her hand and Whiteout.

She hissed in frustration as her claws scraped against the bubble without finding purchase and everything went black again. Her wings, half outstretched as she fought, pushed against her back as a solid bubble engulfed her. Leave us alone! She broke through with far more ease than before, and was again greeted with pistol fire, though this time she barely felt it.

Black and white bubbles met her every time she tried to advance, but the two kept moving, keeping her from ever seeing more than one at a time. She roared as she slapped aside a bubble that she nearly ran her nose into. 

A familiar voice shouted out over the shouting and gunfire. “Olivia! Stop!” 

Olivia froze, out in the middle of the street. Who? What? Behind her, Chris and Amanda had taken cover behind the engine block of the jeep and fired over it. Where is Ben? The other Watch members fanned out behind their own cars, three working their way around the flank opposite Olivia. Both groups took potshots at each other, more keeping each other pinned than filling the air with lead. There were sirens in the air, and Olivia heard the sounds of an approaching helicopter.

A woman in a dark blue mask with one eye hole and three diagonal orange stripes across it launched an orange laser from her hand at Chris. The air shimmered around the beam, and the car melted where the laser made contact. Blackout and Whiteout bubbled her once more.

Right. Leave them, help friends. With two slams she broke out, running to the others. She bulled through the bubbles meant to trip her up. A few bullets hit her partially outstretched wings, bouncing off the skin instead of anything substantial. 

Blackout yelled, “Ryan, she’s running!”

A mask-less guy, the closest of the Watch shooting at the others, turned and withdrew something from one of his many pockets. Before Olivia reached the overturned jeep, he clicked a button on the side of a small grey box. A piercing whine, impossibly high pitched, brought Olivia skidding to her knees. Her screams couldn’t drown out the noise of a gunshot, drawn out forever.

She managed to look up at Ryan as she pressed her palms to her ears, scales digging into skin. He called out to the others, “Got her! It worked.” He walked out from behind the truck, getting the box closer towards her. Pain scrambled all thought.

Blackout and Whiteout both relaxed as they flanked Olivia, other members of the Watch keeping Chris or Amanda from reaching her with gunfire. None else seemed to even hear the noise. “Fuck, we should have started with that.”

Ben teleported up to Ryan, grabbing the box with one hand over Ryan’s and stabbing a knife into his wrist with the other. Ryan cried out and dropped the box, but had enough presence of mind to pull back as Ben ripped out the knife. The next slash went wide, nicking Ryan’s skull instead of his throat.

The box had fallen to the ground, Olivia could see it through her tears. Ryan managed to free his bloody hand from Ben, who gave him a hard kick to the groin for his efforts. Ryan went down with a strangled cry, and Ben took the opportunity to stomp on the fallen box. Just like that, the noise stopped. Several members of the Watch turned, and a laser lanced out at Ben. He ducked and teleported over to Olivia. 

Ben yelled out, “Gotta get outta here, now.” The sirens were much louder, and the helicopters were almost upon them. He helped Olivia haul herself to her feet. Liquid Chris covered Amanda as they began to sprint away from the wreck of the jeep. Olivia felt a few more bullets hit her wings and back as she lumbered after Ben, ears still echoing with the box’s shriek. 

***

Olivia landed ahead of Chris, the next fastest of the group. Flight had spared her a night of running and hiding across miles of city. Ben and Amanda leaned on each other as they rounded the corner of the building, too exhausted to snipe at each other. Without a word, they crawled back into their shop.

It’s OK. We’re OK. We’re safe and OK. Olivia collapsed on her mattress, feet, tail, and wings hanging off the edges. Her back ached after constant flying back and forth to scout. A couple dive bombs kept the Watch from following too closely until they could lose them entirely, along with their injured members. No one followed. I made sure. We’re OK.

“Was that at least with it?” asked Ben after they caught their breath, peeling off his sweat soaked hoodie to reveal an even more sweat soaked tank top. 

Amanda took a moment to rouse herself from her customary chair. She set her helmet down on the desk and replied, “It looked like it. Whoever’s office that was, they were pretty high up in the food chain.”

“Says you,” he grumbled under his breath. “I miss my car.”

“Gonna fix this,” murmured Chris under his breath, so low Olivia second guessed that she’d even heard it. Out loud, in a far more forceful tone, he said to the group at large, “I know all of us had our doubts today, but that was damn fine work we did. It came close, but we got what we needed and out in one piece.” Oh! If he says it was good, then that must be what good looks like. “Amanda, do you think we can start sifting through what we got?”

She gave him a curious look before replying, “Right now?” We just spent hours just running. Olivia took a deep breath, getting ready to haul herself up. I’m not sure what I can help with, but I guess she’ll need it.

“Time isn’t our friend.”

“No. Not right now. We’re too exhausted, it will be a waste of time.”

Chris considered for a moment, then gave a curt nod. “Alright. Good point. We can pick this up once we’ve recovered.”Olivia slumped back down on her bed. OK. Good idea.