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 covering 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 smell one. It’s OK.

“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.”

The others 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 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 inwards a few inches 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, empty and quiet in the night. Olivia ducked down beneath the flimsy padded walls after watching the others do the same. 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 peeled themselves off of the nearby walls.

“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 bare bone 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 what was originally 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. That’s not even the worst!”

“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 the man 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 might be another way,” 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 pistol. 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 in her general direction 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, hooking 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 even as her jaw made the motion, 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.

3 thoughts on “25: Steel Chewer

  1. Posting on RR is a smart move!
    Also, typo: “Instead of backing away as before, it twisted, blade flashing to her right while it’s body to the left.”

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