Olivia kept her eyes closed, concentrating on the whirring of the drone overhead through the walls of the lair. The old white concrete slabs had enough cracks in them near the ceiling for her to figure out its general location by sound alone. It’d be nice to have some windows in here. We could actually see what it’s doing.
The drone had been circling for half an hour now. Ben or Miya had risked a peek out the door a couple times to see its powerful spotlight still sweeping over the area. Everyone had weapons close at hand, just in case. No one has any idea what’s going on, do they? The only hint of normalcy was Rob and Amanda murmured to each other off in their work area.
Olivia slumped in her chair and yawned wide. No, no, I need to stay awake. I won’t be useful if I’m asleep. She stood and paced, keeping her tail off the ground to cut down on noise. That stupid thing better go away soon. We need to find Chris.
Miya tapped Olivia on the arm as her pacing brought her back to the table. Olivia stopped and opened her eyes. Miya asked, “Hey, back in Arizona you said those robots smelled like, what was it? Oil?” Olivia nodded. “Does that drone smell like that oil?”
I smell that bitter oil stuff, but not from above. “No. It doesn’t really smell distinctive at all. But it sounds different than other stuff.”
“Do you smell any oil at all?” asked Miya.
“I can smell some. It’s stronger than before, but not from anything nearby. And… hang on. Something is coming.”
Several sets of broad tires drove along the road, coming closer and closer. What is that? It sounds like a couple of huge cars. Kind of like Rob’s truck. The whizzing of the drone receded as the thunderous sounds of the engines approached. Around her, the others began grabbing their guns.
“Some big things are coming closer. I think they’re trucks,” Olivia announced. “But the drone is flying away.”
“Shit. We wanna fight or run for it?” asked Ben. No, no, no. No fighting. Not here. This is our home.
“Wait and see,” said Amanda as she unplugged several cables from a gauntlet of hers. “If the drone is flying off, then it might not have belonged to whoever is coming.”
She and Rob rushed to get pieces of their armor on. Miya’s eyes glowed dark red for a moment, then her golem clattered to life outside as she headed for the back door.
“Olivia, you’re our early warnin’. If they’re comin’ for us, you let us know,” said Ben, teleporting to Olivia’s side.
She closed her eyes and concentrated again. The rumbling engines were nearly on top of them. Just as she opened her mouth to warn the others, they ground to a halt. “OK. Um, they’ve stopped.” She waited a moment. “I don’t think I hear any footsteps coming this way.”
Olivia winced as Amanda dropped a heavy metal plate on the concrete floor. Amanda and Rob froze as the plate clattered to a halt. Ben raised a finger to shush them.
“No, wait,” said Olivia, putting a hand on his shoulder. Why does everyone have to be so loud right now? “They’re saying something.”
Through the walls of the lair, Olivia heard a man say, “Nothing here. Scared it off.”
Another, deeper voice said, “There’s something here. Keep an eye out.” Boots hit the road outside and began milling around the idling trucks.
“They’ve stopped,” Olivia relayed to the others. “I think they’re just standing around. They don’t know what’s going on either.”
“Turn off the lights,” whispered Ben, pointing to the overhead lights. Amanda hit a light switch and the lair went dark. Olivia opened her eyes as Ben tugged on her wing. “Let’s take a peek.”
Amanda and Rob joined Miya by the back door while Ben and Olivia slipped outside. Olivia hunched over as far as she could through the doorframe. No, stupid wings. Don’t whack against stuff. They crept over to the corner of the lair, Ben leading the way. The bone golem took position behind them. He poked his head around the corner for a moment before withdrawing it.
“Too dark. No street lights. All I can see are humvees an’ people shaped silhouettes,” he whispered.
Olivia sniffed the air. “No oil. They’re normal people.”
“Can you see in the dark?”
Ben backed away from the corner and motioned for Olivia to take his place. “You take a look. Watch your wing, don’t let it stick out too far.” Yeah, yeah, I know.
She spotted a soldier manning a large gun on the roof of a truck. Oh, that’s a humvee? Why not just call it a truck? The convoy of three humvees had parked on the opposite side of the street, just shy of the lair. Olivia counted a dozen soldiers around them, including the gunners. The men on foot were all in bulky body armor, with large rifles at hand.
The two soldiers closest stood by the side of the lead humvee, both casting glances up towards the cloudy night sky. A soldier in the middle humvee stared the dashboard with a black thing held to his ear.
“They’re looking up a bunch. One of them is doing something in a truck. Or humvee.”
“Patches?” What does that have to do with anything?
“Sleeves, near the shoulders. Any patches?” She focused on one of the soldiers, leaning on the door of the humvee.
“Um, yes. There’s, um, a US flag? It’s backwards, though.” Am I seeing that right?
“Yeah, tha’s a rah rah USA thing. Wha’s the unit? Should be the patch under the flag.”
“A circle. Um, then there’s a C in the middle, and a bar of lighter stuff down the middle, and the top and bottom are dark.”
“OK, I’m guessin’ Colorado National Guard. Well, the uniforms, I got no idea who’s in ‘em. Not sure exactly what unit they’re in, either.” He reached up and patted her on the upper arm. “Come on, let’s get back before someone spots us.”
Olivia withdrew, following Ben back inside the lair. inside, Rob and Amanda managed to get bits of their armor on. They’d both been tearing their armors apart over the past few days, and hadn’t gotten around to finishing parts. Rob only had his mask and a dark grey body vest. Amanda wore her old, black helmet and a bulky glove of some kind on her left hand.
“Guys in national guard uniforms out there. No bots,” said Ben in a low voice.
“Are they searching for us?” asked Amanda.
“No. Think they were lookin’ for the drone,” said Ben. How do you… oh, right, they were looking at the sky. Duh. Olivia nodded, backing Ben up.
“So what are they doing?”
“Waitin’ for somethin’, I think,” answered Ben.
“It sounded like it,” added Olivia. I think.
“So what. Just gonna sit here?” asked Rob.
The deep voice outside barked out some orders. “They’re moving,” announced Olivia, as loud as she dared. I hear… car doors closing? Yeah. Around her, the others backed away from the front of the lair and raised their firearms. Wait, right, you guys can’t hear that. “I think they’re leaving.”
What do you mean, ‘really’? My tinnitus hasn’t been that bad lately. The engines rumbled again. Soon enough they drove off.
“Yes, really. They’re gone now.”
The others let out a collective sigh of relief. Amanda practically collapsed on Olivia’s bean bag.
“Was thinkin’ of goin’ about town, checkin’ in on some things before they or tha’ drone come back,” announced Ben in a normal voice. Olivia tilted her head. Chris?
“Check on what?” asked Miya. Olivia stifled a yawn. No, stay awake. Not done yet. She straightened up, not having noticed she’d been leaning heavily against the wall with her shoulder.
“Movement, cops, military, or bots. Me an’ the other vigilantes have a couple dead drop points to chat, might check on those.”
“You, Guardsman, and Purifier, right?” asked Amanda. “Was the Watch part of that?”
“Yeah, jus’ us three independents. I mighta been kicked out cuz I’m runnin’ with you lot, but they’re worth checkin’ out.”
“What about Chris?” asked Olivia.
“Figured you’d ask. Wanna tag along? See if you can sniff somethin’ out?”
Olivia nodded. Finally. “Just you two?” asked Rob.
“Cars are too big an’ obvious. An’ only me an’ Olivia are really mobile without wheels.”
Rob nodded. “Point. Think it’s a good idea to split up?”
“We can’t exactly communicate very well with all the phones down,” added Miya.
“I have comms,” said Amanda, still laid out on the bean bag. “I wish I’d brought them with us when we went to Houston, but we have them now. They’re basically small, long range walkie talkies.”
Olivia spoke up. “But what if something bad happens?” I’m not that fast, and Ben can’t teleport that far.
“If the authorities knew we were here, they would have busted down the doors, not stand around for a couple minutes before leaving,” said Amanda. “And, given how long that drone was searching, and that the military chased it off, I don’t think the robots know we’re here either.”
“But what if-”
“We can handle it, Olivia,” said Miya, cutting her off. “You wanted to look for Chris, right?”
That was before the robots and army almost found you guys.
“We won’t be out that long,” added Ben.
We do need to find Chris. And it’s been forever since I’ve flown. “I, um, OK.”
“Awesome. Gimme a sec, then we’ll be off,” said Ben, teleporting off.
Olivia waited by the door as the others dispersed. Outside, Miya’s golem trundled back to its patch of the back lot and collapsed back into a pile of bones. Ben returned with his rifle slung over his shoulder and mask in hand.
“We been kinda lax ‘bout this lately. Remember, call me Skulker now.” He slipped on his mask and pulled up the hood of his hoodie. Olivia nodded.
Amanda approached them with two sets of earpieces and small remote control looking things. “The earpieces should pick up anything you say. Keep these little things in your pocket. Press one if you want to talk to each other, two if you want to hear from us. I’ll be on at our end the whole time.”
Olivia nodded and said, “Thank you.”
“Cool. Let’s get started,” said Skulker, holding the back door open for her. “Let’s go directly north first.”
Olivia ducked through the doorway. Once outside, she jumped, pumping her wings to gain altitude. Below her, Skulker jogged and teleported across the street. She stretched out her wings, working out the kinks from being folded up behind her back for hours without any use.
How far up can normal people see in the dark again? I guess I’ll just go really high. She flapped her wings, gaining more height. Skulker lagged behind, having to climb over or around obstacles on the ground. Olivia banked to the left, letting him catch up.
Her earpiece crackled to life. “Watch how far up ya go. You ain’t big enough for radar, but military’s got ways of findin’ flyin’ supers. Keep low.” Oh, I’m not big enough for something? Finally. Chairs creaking when I sit in them get really old.
Olivia furled her wings and dove. The wind whipped by her face as she gained speed. Don’t mess up this time. Just above the rooftops, she snapped her wings open and pulled up in one smooth motion. She barely felt the resulting whiplash. OK. I think I have a better handle on the sudden stop now.
They traveled on for a bit, Olivia flying in a serpentine pattern for Skulker’s sake, before she caught a whiff of something. Uh oh.
“Hey, Be- no, Skulker?” Wait, the little box thing in my pocket.
“Skulker? I smell oil. Close by.”
“Well, let’s go check it out. Swoop down an’ point me in the right direction.”
Olivia guided Skulker to the source of the bitter oil smell, towards the center of the city. They approached an apartment complex. A thud sound nearly knocked her out of the air. What the…
“Whoa. Get down, no idea what’s goin’ on here,” barked Skulker as he skidded to a halt on the sidewalk.
That was super loud. Olivia landed behind him, right next to a closed storefront. He pulled her into the nearest alley. In the distance, glass shattered and a couple human shaped figured burst from the side of an apartment building. A tornado erupted in the center of the street, catching them. Whoa, whoa, whoa. What?
Skulker burst into laughter. “Aw, they’re attackin’ Cyrus? They’re adorable. Come on, he’s got this.” He jerked his head in the direction they’d been headed.
“Wait, really?” We’re not going to help?
“Yeah. I’m actually surprised they were this dumb. Maybe they thought they’d got the drop on him.”
“We can’t just leave him alone here.”
“You know he’s a cop right?” Olivia frowned. “Alright, fine.” He pulled the sniper rifle from its sheath on his back and said, “Find me somethin’ to shoot.”
She returned her attention to the melee on the street in front of them. Two bots lay mangled and half buried in the ground. Another flew through the air, caught up in the tornado. Two massive armored robots, easily a foot or two taller than Olivia, thundered towards the upright figure in the center of it, heedless of the howling winds. One held a massive gun in its hands, the other was unarmed. Where did those come from?
“The big things,” Olivia pointed out to Skulker. Although you didn’t really need me to say that.
“I can’t shoot somethin’ in a tornado,” he responded.
Cyrus rose, bringing the tornado with him. The robots stayed on the ground. One lifted a massive gun and took aim. Cyrus dropped, far faster than Olivia thought possible. The gun robot tracked him and fired. The rifle exploded in its face. The tornado widened, now picking up more and more detritus.
A street sign struck a glancing blow on the second robot’s flank as it charged, leaving a small gash in the armor. The robot stopped and twitched. The hole widened, then the robot burst from the inside out.
Right as the tornado winded down, two rockets from above streaked towards Cyrus. The wind picked back up, and they went flying up into the air and away from any buildings. Where did that come from? Olivia scanned the area, tracing the thin white lines of smoke to a rooftop overlooking the area.
“There, rooftop,” said Olivia, pointing. Two robots reloaded rocket launchers.
Skulker stayed quiet for a second, aiming towards where Olivia had pointed. “Yeah, I see ‘em.” He fired two shots. “That’s done. We’re outta here.” That easy?
Cyrus flew off in the direction the rockets had come from as Skulker returned his rifle to its sheath.
“Should we… should we do something else?” Say hi… no, that’s dumb.
“Cyrus thrashed you last time you met him. Come on, let’s get outta here.” Olivia frowned as she took flight again. He was just stopping me from destroying more stuff.
She and Skulker headed northwest. From the lack of gale force winds pursuing them, Cyrus either didn’t know about them or didn’t care. There’s more oil everywhere, though. And I don’t smell Chris at all.
After a minute, with the oil growing stronger and stronger all around, she called Skulker again.
“Hey, there’s a lot of robots everywhere. There’s definitely some up ahead, too. There’s even a couple flying drones. I think we should head back for the others.”
“We’re maybe two minutes from a dead drop point. It’s just ahead. Wait… you said there’s bots up ahead?”
“Yes.” Someone else is being attacked.
They sped up. Olivia heard screaming ahead. No, no, no, not these kind of robots. One scream stood out. Rather than begging for mercy, it was a rasping, wordless scream, with a bizarre high and low pitched inflection. That doesn’t make sense. That sound should not be. The source of the fighting came into view ahead.
Bots circled around the armored figure in the empty parking lot of the public library. That is to say, they circled around a ring of fire around an armored figure. A couple fired into the flames directly at the man, but he didn’t so much as flinch.
Olivia swore she saw twisted faces in the flames. Something is wrong here. She stopped and landed. I’m not going near that fire. No.
Skulker teleported to her side, pistol drawn. “What are you doin’?” he said in a rush.
In front of her, the flames around the man burst outward. The robots recoiled, and the man rushed forward. His axe cleaved down on a robot, disintegrating it. Two robots shot him from behind, knocking him down. Skulker teleported forward and opened fire. Olivia took a hesitant step after him. The fire is gone. Go, go.
An airborne drone zipped down in front of Olivia. Before she could react, it blasted a spotlight in her face. She recoiled, blinded. Something metal bounced on the ground in front of her.
“Grenade!” screamed Skulker an instant before the metal thing exploded.