Mercenary – Prophet

The buzz of a hair trimmer filled the grungy hotel bathroom. Cyrus ran the silver and blue handheld shaver over his face, cutting down his distinctive beard. A pair of moths banged their heads on the dim fluorescent light overhead, wings fluttering and beating against the clear plastic as they circled. He set the trimmer aside and ran his hand along his now much shorter beard. After three centuries of being stuck as a pimply youth, he refused to give up any sign of maturity even now, even if various world authorities would be looking for a bearded man of his exact description. Consistency, even with small things, kept him grounded.

He cleaned off his face with a damp towel and returned to the main room. The local news station on the TV in his room burbled out background noise. The ruffled bed in the center of the room served as an impromptu table for Cyrus’ things. He stuffed the corner of the loud Hawaiian shirt he’d picked up from a dollar store into an old backpack and flipped it over. After a moment of rummaging through a pocket on the front of the pack, he found a slip of paper with an address written on it.

He slipped it into his pocket and walked out of the room, the hotel door clicking shut behind him. The moment he stepped out of the building a faceful of northern Florida humidity hit him. The late June sun beamed down as the people around him went about their days. The taxi he’d ordered pulled up not long after, a standard yellow cab plastered with advertisements.

The drive didn’t take long, no more than fifteen minutes. Cyrus stared out the window the whole time, taking in the novel sights of the modern world for the umpteenth time. In the first two millennia he’d lived, not much changed. A horse and cart on a dirt road wouldn’t be out of place in a Persian bazaar or the capital of the great Khans. Now cars, paved roads, and concrete dominated cities teeming with people. Though for all the world had changed, the taxi came to a stop in front of one of the oldest of buildings Cyrus could remember: a bar.

He paid the taxi driver and climbed out, taking a moment to examine the bar Thomas had told him to go to. The small, one story building stood alone, back to a green wall of a Floridan forest. Kudzu vines had enveloped one of the walls of the building, and the neon Open sign flickered alongside a faded banner that read Support our Troops.

Cyrus headed inside. The cramped interior only sported a few tables and booths beyond the bar itself. Plenty of light beamed in through the windows. The bartender glanced away from a TV on the wall for a moment to give him a nod. Towards the back of the room sat the man Cyrus was looking for.

“Thanks for meeting me,” said Cyrus as he took a seat across from him.

Thomas raised a half empty bottle of beer in greeting. He leaned forward in his battered wooden seat, elbows resting on the table. A somewhat stocky Native American man, most people only knew him as X. Then again, most people only saw a massive suit of power armor with an equally massive gun that Thomas just happened to be inside. “I would have been here later anyway, my military ID gets me nice a discount.”

“Does that apply to friends?” asked Cyrus, craning his neck to get a look at the alcohol behind the bar.

“Isn’t that against your religion?”

“I’m older than Islam, remember?”

“Shit, sorry, forgot.” At Cyrus’s raised eyebrow, he added, “Don’t give me that look, there’s not a lot of cultural contact between the tribes and Iran of all places. You probably think we all live in teepees.”

“You mean you don’t?” asked Cyrus, the corners of his mouth flickering upwards in the beginnings of a smile.

Thomas snorted and said, “Those are only our summer homes. Speaking of which, do you have a place to stay?”

“I’m fine. I’ve had contingencies in place. It’s a little shack up in Montana. My neighbor, Ted, is a nice guy, always talking about packages, but it’s been about twenty years since I last saw him.”

“Ted?” Recognition flashed in his eyes a moment later. Thomas chuckled as he ran a hand through his black hair, now greying at the temples, and said, “Oh god, the Unabomber. That can’t have been twenty years ago. Quit making me feel old.”

Cyrus smiled and said, “Please, do tell me about feeling old.”

“Yeah, yeah,” grumbled Thomas. “I should have known. You didn’t age a day the twenty-five years I’ve known you. Lucky bastard.”

“I wouldn’t call it luck,” said Cyrus, smile slipping from his face.

“What?” asked Thomas, a slight frown on his face. “You’ll never die. You get to do whatever you want, time isn’t in your way. Hell, I thought you’d be ruling the world, like one of those shadowy guys from the movies. You’ve had two, three thousand years to do it.”

“If I could remember everything, I probably could. But my memory is only accurate for maybe a century. I know I was born on a farm in Persia. I couldn’t tell you where, I couldn’t tell you when, I couldn’t tell you what my old name or speak a word of my old language. It just slips away.”

Thomas didn’t respond for a moment, instead taking a quick drink of his beer. “Shit, after I found out you were the Haboob I was wondering how Overlord kept himself hidden away in Westward for so long.”

“I wasn’t looking for him. Especially not right under my nose,” said Cyrus with a shake of his head.

“How did he do that? Do you have any idea?”

“I don’t know. I’m not exactly in the loop anymore, but most of the data from his bunker was lost. Deliberately destroyed, actually. I’m sure not a single person thought that he would be hidden under the MHU headquarters in Westward of all places. I sure didn’t.”

“Yeah, I thought he’d have some sort of doom fortress in Central Asia. Somewhere insane.”

Thomas leaned back, taking another sip from his beer. Cyrus took the time to look around the bar. With the exception of the bartender, now cleaning glasses, he and Thomas were alone. Plenty of sunlight shone into the building from the large windows out front.

“So what brings you to my neck of the woods?” asked Thomas.

“I need your help with something.”

Thomas snorted and said, “Define something.”

“I need help bringing down the tyrannical dictator taking over the Middle East,” replied Cyrus as Thomas took another drink.

Thomas coughed on his drink. He regained his breath and said, “Oh, is that all?” Cyrus simply nodded. “And hold on. You need help? Didn’t you kill Overlord?”

“Yes.”

Thomas took another drink instead of responding, studying Cyrus’ neutral face for a moment. He held up a hand and said, “Alright, a couple things. This guy… what’s his name? Taba? Tatha?”

“Taauth.”

“Yeah, him. Why this interest in him? He’s a dime-a-dozen tinpot dictator.”

“He is not. I know him. He’s an ancient Babylonian king with powers similar to my own.”

Thomas stared, face expressionless and beer forgotten by his hand. “What?”

“My memory of those times is extremely fragmented to be sure. But he can wield magic, any kind of magic, the same way I can wield the air. In essence, there’s very little limit to his power. I managed to kill him when the first Persian empire rose, but he has somehow returned. He can’t be killed by normal means, either, same as myself. I was merely an escort for my king’s mages.”

“That doesn’t sound good, but for the sake of argument what makes you think he’s evil?” asked Thomas. “Not just the average jackass, you’re trying to say he’s absolutely evil. You have way more power than most other people, but that doesn’t make you more or less evil than the average person.”

“He is cruel. He cares nothing for the lives of others,” said Cyrus, leaving no room in his voice for misinterpretation. “He disguises his own arrogance as populist speeches, and make people think building his vanity projects is in their own best interest. He will try to conquer all he can. The only reason he stopped at Babylon millennia ago is because he deemed the rest of the world not worth conquering. Ants to be exterminated when they got annoying.”

Thomas leaned forward and massaged his forehead. “Alright. That’s not the weirdest thing I’ve heard of, but it’s up there. He’s a mage, right?”

“In a sense, yes.”

“And he’s like you, right?”

“Yes.”

“How does he remember all the spells and shit?” asked Thomas. “It takes a lifetime for the average mage to get really, truly good at what they do. And that’s for just one type of magic. You said he can do nearly anything. How does he remember it all? You can’t remember the specifics of more than one lifetime. I’d assume he can’t either.”

“I don’t know, though I wish I did. I’d never thought of it like that before.”

Thomas nodded, lost in thought. His fingers tapped on the tabletop. Cyrus leaned back in his seat and folded one leg his knee, awaiting his response.

Finally, Thomas said, “To be perfectly clear, you’re looking for help to stop this ancient Babylonian guy?”

“I’ll take all the help I can get,” replied Cyrus. “We’ve worked together for decades, and you’re a member of the Koitsenko. Even if you yourself are not interested, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction of people who might be.”

Thomas drummed his fingers on the tabletop again for a moment. “Off the top of my head, Cricket and Hammer might be interested. And myself, of course.”

Cyrus blinked. “You didn’t sound so eager five seconds ago.”

“I’m not a soldier because I want to sit on the sidelines. If Taauth is bad as you say, he needs to be stopped,” said Thomas, his expression dead serious.

Cyrus pursed his lips. He’d expected Thomas to take a bit more convincing. “If that’s the case there is a bit of a caveat. I have two people more or less onboard already. One of them is someone you won’t care for.”

“Who?”

“Slim Jim,” said Cyrus.

Thomas set aside his beer and stared hard at Cyrus. “

Cyrus nodded. “You can’t deny he’s good at what he does.”

“What he does is murder. No morals, no humanity, just killing.”

“Sometimes people need killing.”

“That doesn’t justify harboring a notorious criminal,” said Thomas, anger in his eyes. His free hand rested on the table in a fist.

“I’m not harboring him, I’m using him,” replied Cyrus, injecting steel into his voice. “He attacks my targets now, not Overlord’s. I’m not going to wildly shoot a gun in the middle of a crowded mall.”

“You say that. It sounds so neat and nice right now. But he’s not a mindless tool. He’s a man, barely. He can make his own decisions, and when he does this is going to backfire, and people will die.”

“I could have simply not told you about him. In fact, there would have been a good chance you would never have found out. I’m trusting you to not report me to the police. I’m asking you to trust me that I know what I’m doing.

Thomas sighed and shook his head. “You mentioned two people working with you. Who’s the other one? Pol Pot?”

“No, nothing like that. When you were deployed to Westward a couple months ago, do you remember the feral that was there.?”

Thomas leaned back in his seat, waiting to see where Cyrus was going. “Of course. Big girl, smarter than the average bear, right?”

Cyrus nodded. “Overlord had experiments with powers and magic in that bunker of his. Somehow, he managed to find a way to give other people powers. Some of his subjects were released.

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“He was one. He has the same powers as that feral.”

“He isn’t psychotic, is he?” asked Thomas.

“Not that I’ve seen. He has some anger management issues, but that could just be chalked up to being an angry teenage boy. If he’s anything like Olivia, he can take a hit.”

“Who?”

“Sorry. Olivia is the original feral.”

Thomas nodded, then said, “Define tough.”

“I punched her through an apartment building. She got back up and charged me again,” said Cyrus.

Thomas nodded. “And this guy’s the same?”

“I believe so.”

Thomas gave a mirthless chuckle. “What do you need me for? Hell, you alone could probably kill Taauth. Slim Jim and this dragon guy just sound like overkill.”

“He knows me, and he’s a mage. You can’t stop magic with a gust of wind.”

“You want a techie, don’t you?” said Thomas.

“Having options couldn’t hurt,” replied Cyrus.

“You know I’m just the pilot for my suit. I know enough to keep it maintained. The egghead who built it comes in once a year to bitch at me and tell me what I’ve fucked up. If you want me to invent some bullshit new device that solves all of your problems, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

“I know. But the X suit brings a completely different set of skills to a fight than I do,” said Cyrus.

“True, but I don’t think I’m exactly what you’re looking for.”

Cyrus nodded and said, “What about Pathfinder?”

“Him?” scoffed Thomas. “He’s got a self righteous stick lodged so far up his ass I don’t think it’s ever coming loose.” He set his beer down and leaned forward. “Members of the Koitsenko can’t just fuck off for their own assignments. We’re in a weird middle ground between the tribes and the US military, but we ultimately respond to Uncle Sam. We can’t just do whatever we feel like.”

Cyrus frowned. “You and I both know that’s not strictly true.”

Thomas sighed. “The upper brass and the Tribal Congress both give us a lot of leeway. But that could end if we push it. And abandoning our posts to keep Confederate uprisings down to go halfway across the world counts as pushing it.”

“I’m not asking you to drop everything for the next five years. I’m asking that, if I should call, you will respond.”

Thomas nodded. “I can do that.” He picked up his beer and took a drink. “So you got yourself, a ruthless mercenary, and a near unstoppable force. And me now, for what that’s worth. If you get rid of Slim Jim, you’ll have another couple members of the Koitsenko, because I know for a fact the rest of them won’t stand to be anywhere near the same side as him.”

Cyrus shook his head. He’d expected resistance when it came to Slim Jim. “He knows more about Overlord than anyone else still living.”

“So?”

“Overlord still had operations in Iraq, even today. According to Slim Jim, he knew about Taauth. He was trying to find anything about him, where he was buried, artifacts, anything. That’s why Overlord was suddenly so interested in magic in the past couple years. But Slim Jim isn’t stupid. He knows I don’t trust him fully. I can guarantee he’s holding information back.”

“Fine.” Thomas pointed to Cyrus and looked him dead in the eye. “Look. I trust you. I trust that Taauth is as bad as you say, I trust that you need Slim Jim, and I trust you still have a good head on those shoulders. That’s the only reason I’m going along with this. Make sure I don’t regret it. You’re walking a fine line here.”

Cyrus nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”

***

A few hours later, Cyrus landed in Mexico, on roof of Chapultepec, the Royal Palace. Dust and dirt settled down as he released control of the air around him. He leaned on the railing, taking in the sight of Mexico City laid out before him, and waited. Within moments, several doors burst open. Heavily armed guards poured onto the roof, rifles aimed at his chest.

Just behind them strode the man Cyrus was there for. Cuauhtémoc, in a simple cotton tunic. Cyrus raised an eyebrow. Modern Mexicans didn’t wear that. Four jagged lumps of obsidian flanked Cuauhtémoc, floating to either side at head level. Cuauhtémoc narrowed his eyes. He towered over Cyrus, as people so often did nowadays. Finally, Cyrus spotted recognition. Cuauhtémoc barked an order over his shoulder, and a guard began speaking into a radio on his shoulder.

They waited. The guards didn’t aim their rifles at Cyrus, though he never saw less than five pairs of eyes on him at any time. Cuauhtémoc studied him, arms folded. Finally a translator came. So far as Cyrus knew, Cuauhtémoc staunchly refused to learn any language beyond Nahuatl. Two men and two women accompanied the translator, their long, uncut hair marking them as priests.

Cuauhtémoc spoke immediately. Through the translator, he demanded, “What are you doing here?”

From what Cyrus knew, the man was traditionalist warrior, not a politician. Cyrus spoke directly, “I come with a warning. Have you heard of a man named Taauth?”

“I have.”

“He is a threat to us all.” Cyrus kept his sentences short and simple for translation’s sake. “I need your help to stop him.”

Cuauhtémoc’s expression didn’t so much as flicker. Without hesitation, he said, “No.”

Cyrus kept the grimace from his face. He’d been afraid of this. “He is a threat.”

“He is none of our concern.” One of the priestesses, a young woman with long black hair and a scar across her lips spoke up.

“He will be. If you will let me explain, I will. We need to help each other.”

Cuauhtémoc refused to budge.  “No.”

“This isn’t someone you can fight alone,” said Cyrus.

The priestess from before spoke up again. Before she could get far, Cuauhtémoc roared at her in in Nahuatl. He stared her down, until she broke her gaze and fixed her eyes on the floor. To Cyrus, through the translator, he said, “The empire has stood for six centuries without your help. If you are right, we will be prepared. You may go now.”

Cyrus frowned. Pushing the matter would make another enemy, yet anger rose up as Cuauhtémoc turned his back, not giving him the chance to respond, to try to change his mind. The guards watched them warily. “Very well,” managed Cyrus through clenched teeth. He took to the air on a small tornado, leaving the guards choking on dust.

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Mercenary – Innocence

Olivia stretched her tail out behind her, leaving it hanging off the side of her dark blue beanbag. Beside her, Beth giggled at the video playing on the tablet. “She just keeps chasing her tail!”

“It’s been an hour. Ain’t makin’ those little squealin’ sounds gettin’ old? Wanna, you know, preserve your dignity or somethin’?” called out Ben from across the lair. The pieces of his pistol lay in front of him on Rob’s desk as he scrubbed them down with an oily rag.

“Shut up, these are great,” shot back Beth with a smile.

“Let’s watch another!” said Olivia, before Ben could say anything else.

“That one,” said Beth, pointing with a clawed finger. “It’s got three puppies instead of one.”

Olivia nodded in agreement and tapped her knuckle against the video’s thumbnail on the screen. Just as it began to buffer, a critically low battery warning flashed over the screen.

She looked around at the bare, oil stained concrete surrounding them. “Darn it, there’s no outlet.”

Beth sighed and said, “It’s OK. I should probably get going.” They both stretched their wings as they rose from the beanbag. “Do you know what time it is?”

Olivia checked the dimmed tablet. “Seven thirty, almost.”

Beth’s eyes widened in alarm. “Oh crap, I’m super late,” she said. She rushed over to the back door and opened it a few inches. Morning sunlight streamed inside. “I’m not going to be able to fly home now.”

Beth took a deep breath and paced a few steps in either direction. Why are you freaking out so much? “Are you OK?” asked Olivia.

Beth nodded. “Let me think. Oh! I’ll just ask my parents to stay over today. If that’s OK,” she said.

“Sure!” replied Olivia with a smile.

“Let me text them.” She fished a cell phone, different than the one Amanda had given her, from her pocket and fumbled with the keys for a moment. After a moment, she said, “There. Forgiveness is easier than permission.”

“Forgiveness? What’s wrong with you staying here?” asked Olivia as they headed for the center table. Olivia took her seat with the backrest sawn off, while Beth spun a normal seat around to make room for her own wings and tail.

Beth’s smile vanished. She shrugged and said, “They don’t really want me leaving their sight. But they’ll be mad and I’ll get over it. It’s not like I can just fly around in broad daylight.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“It’s alright. Your parents sounded way worse,” said Beth.

“It’s OK. At least I know now,” said Olivia, voice subdued. At least I know.

“I’m sorry they were assholes.”

It was Olivia’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I only saw them for a couple minutes. I guess I can’t blame them.”

“Hey! Don’t say that,” broke in Beth with a frown. “They had a posse point guns at you and told you to get out. That’s bullshit.”

Olivia studied the tabletop. It was dumb. I was dumb. They were dumb. It’s done now. Her tail curled around the leg of the chair. “Well, how is everything at home for you?” she asked.

“It’s OK. I’m figuring stuff out. My little brother is nice! He’s been patient and helping me relearn stuff. Apparently we went to England a couple years ago. The pictures were pretty cool.” Beth laughed. “There was one with me and my brother, next to this guard guy with this huge fuzzy hat. It looked great.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it was huge. It stuck up another foot or two in the air. It was great. I kind of want one.”

“That sounds cool,” replied Olivia. Why hats? They don’t stay on when you fly. I guess if you’re not flying they make sense.

“I found out I have a couple other fun hats hiding in my closet. I have this big pirate hat and a fez with this little tassel hanging off of it. They’re great. But there are some other things I found where I just have to ask myself ‘what I was thinking?’”

“Buyin’ shit, an’ a week later wonderin’ why you ever did?” called out Ben.

“Kind of, yeah.”

“Happens to everyone, don’t worry.”

“OK, good.” She turned back to Olivia and said, “Apparently I have these white shoes with the most obnoxious bright green stripes on them you’ve ever seen. It’s not the fact I can’t wear shoes, they’re just hideous. So hideous.”

“I’m kind of glad I don’t have to worry about shoes,” said Olivia. “They just sound annoying.” I guess if you have to worry about rocks and stuff cutting up your feet they make sense. But flying is so much better.

Beth flexed her wings. “We already have enough annoying things. I swear I’m going to hit my head on a doorframe and break it soon.”

Olivia laughed. “You’re telling me.” I have a whole two extra months of experience on you.

Beth’s smile wavered for a moment. “The spike things on your back. Is that going to happen to me?”

“Has your back been itching and stuff?” Beth considered for a moment, then nodded. “That’s how it started for me.”

Beth groaned as she hung her head. “It’s like some terrible version of puberty.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” I think mine have finally stopped itching, at least.

Beth managed a smile as she raised her head again. “It’s not like backrests weren’t already the worst thing in the world.”

“I know, right?”

“Backrests are great,” called out Ben as he leaned back in his chair.

“Shut up, they’re not,” shot back Beth.

At that moment, Olivia heard an exasperated sigh from the sleeping area. She and Beth turned towards Miya, knowing smiles on their faces, as her small form wrestled with her sheets for a moment before she stomped out into the rest of the lair.

“Good morning!” said Olivia with a small wave.

In response, Miya grumbled, “Why are you talking so much? I thought you guys wanted to kill each other.” You know, it’s not that hard to wake up in the mornings.

“Well, not anymore,” replied Beth.

“I think we just needed space,” added Olivia. And Red and Hank aren’t here. I need to check on him and make sure he’s OK with Cyrus.

Miya grunted in response. With bleary eyes, she scanned the rest of the lair. “Where are the nerds? They’re the ones that usually wake me up.”

“I don’t know.” Olivia’s eyes widened. “Oh no, where are they? What if-”

“Relax. They probably just got a hotel room or somethin’,” said Ben. He finished reassembling his pistol and teleported over to the food cupboards. Beth cast a worried eye at the metallic sounds. Miya, in the meantime, stumbled over to the central table and collapsed on a chair next to Beth, head resting on the tabletop.

“Why would they do that?” she asked. Don’t you have to pay for hotel rooms? What’s wrong with here?

“Ain’t a lot of privacy in here,” he said, grabbing a slice of pizza out of the fridge. He shut the door and leaned against it, facing the rest of the group.

“So?”

“They’re boning,” said Miya. What… oh. Oh.

Ben snorted and said, “Yeah, that.”

They both watched Olivia carefully, fighting back smiles. “Well, as long as they’re happy,” said Olivia. But bad things always happen to us. “You don’t want to give them a call, make sure they’re OK?”

“No,” replied Ben.

“Does that mean no, you don’t want to? Or no, that statement is wrong and you do want to?” asked Beth.

“That second one,” replied Ben.

“Don’t worry, English is weird,” said Miya.

“OK, you’re Aztec, you don’t get to talk about language weirdness,” said Ben with a grin.

“Bitch please. Nahua isn’t that hard.”

Olivia blinked. I’ve heard you speak Aztec before. I had no idea what any of it was. Ben burst into laughter and said, “Sure about that? Say your name. Full name.”

Miya rolled her eyes and said, “Miyahuatl.” Oh, yeah, I totally forgot about that. Cool.

“Miya-waddle?” repeated Ben.

“Close.”

“OK. Now spell it out.” Once she spelled her full name, he said, “You see, to me that’d be Miya-who-ah-tell. There’s no w in there. An’ you got that crazy tl thing goin’ on at the end.”

“Why do you think I just go by Miya? Damn yankee. And there’s a rule about the w thing, I’m trying to think of what it is,” said Miya.

“You don’t just, you know, know what the rule is?” asked Olivia.

“No, I don’t have to think about it, I just look and know. That’s like looking at a silent e. You just don’t think about it. Nahua just has different little rules like that.”

“OK, is it Nahua, Aztec, or Nahuatl?” asked Beth. “I’ve heard it as all three now and I have no idea which is which.”

Miya bit her lip, then said, “Technically Nahuatl is the language, Nahua is the people, like European or Asian, and Aztec is a group of people, like English. The thing is with Nahuatl, the Aztecs the last major speakers of it because genocide isn’t just the white man’s game. All three work, but Nahua is easier to say.” Miya’s eyes lit up. “I remember that rule now. I think if there’s a hu followed by a vowel, the hu is a w. So Nahua is like n-a-w-a. Jesus, that was bugging me.” I learned something today!

“The fuck is Aztec? Who came up with that shit?” asked Ben with a grin.

“It’s just spelled weird and dumb because Europeans tried to take a completely different language and hammer it into their alphabet.

“Sounds like they fucked up real bad,” said Ben as his phone began vibrating in his pocket. He stood up straight and took a few steps away from the fridge as he raised it to his ear. “Hello? Who’s this?” Olivia couldn’t hear the exact response on the other end. Stupid guns.

“Hey, Rob. The hell happened to your phone…” Ben’s smile slipped from his face. “Oh shit. Where are you?” Olivia frowned. I knew it, I knew it. Something bad happened. Something bad always happens.

“Yeah, combo is 02641, keys are in the second drawer. Got it. See you in a few.”

Miya had finally wiped the sleepy expression from her face, now sitting up straight and alert. She and Olivia exchanged glances.

“Amanda an’ Rob ran into some trouble last night, need a pickup. Sounded spooked, too,” announced Ben as he teleported back into the workshop.

Olivia felt her claws uncurl. “Where are they?” she asked as she stood.

Ben raised a hand. “Don’t worry about that, I’m takin’ Amanda’s car to get ‘em.” he said as he punched a code into a keypad on Amanda’s desk. He tore open the second drawer and rifled through it for a moment before Olivia heard the jangle of keys.

“Should we come?” asked Miya, brushing her bangs out of her eyes.

Ben shook his head as he teleported to the door. “You guys sit tight, keep an eye out. It sounded like someone was after ‘em, they might come here.” Out of the corner of Olivia’s eye, she saw Beth’s wings spread out a few inches, face tinged with fear. Why can’t people just leave us alone?

Ben left, leaving Miya, Olivia, and Beth in apprehensive silence.

***

Olivia paced back and forth by the head of the table, ears tuned to any movement outside. Plenty of cars had driven by in the half hour since Ben had left, none of them Amanda’s. Miya scarfed down breakfast nearby, gun close at hand. Beth tried to go to sleep in the meantime, though Olivia could hear her tossing and turning.

She perked up the moment she heard Amanda’s car return. “They’re here!” she announced.

Miya dropped her spoon into her bowl of cereal and stood, heading for the door. She shot a look at Olivia. “You sure? Not just their car.”

Olivia sniffed the air. “It’s them,” she said. From the curtained off section, she heard Beth stir.

The door opened not long after, Amanda and Rob stumbling in after a relieved looking Ben.

“No problems?” asked Miya as she set her pistol aside.

“Nothin’,” replied Ben. Behind him, Rob and Amanda collapsed at the chairs at their workshop, dark bags under their eyes and clothes in disarray. Oh no. Olivia hurried over, nose wrinkling at the reek of sweat.

“Are you guys OK?” she asked.

Amanda nodded as she massaged her forehead. “We’ve been hidin’ all night, tryin’ to get back here,” explained Rob, running a hand through his hair.

“Do you know how hard it is to break into a landline payphone and use it? Super fucking hard,” said Amanda.

“Who kidnapped you? Where are they?” asked Olivia.

“Don’t know,” replied Rob. “Probably gone by now. They were in panic mode, tryin’ not to get arrested. Cops were lookin’ hard for ‘em.” The police are being helpful for once?

“Hold on. What exactly happened?” asked Miya.

“Sure. Pass me a water bottle,” said Rob.

“Me too,” added Amanda.

Beth joined the group as Amanda and Rob explained what had happened, from the kidnapping in the parking lot, the car chase, and their eventual escape.

“So the door opens, an’ I’m thinkin’ ‘fuck, we’re dead,’” explained Rob. “These two bots come in, rifles pointed right at me. I thought for sure we were gonna die, but Amanda pulled some fuckin’ black magic in that fuckin’ box thing just in time, an’ the bots just froze.”

“That’s it, they just froze?” asked Ben in the silence that followed. Nothing else?

Amanda and Rob nodded. “Yep.”

“It was a slightly educated guess. There were so many redundant systems in that thing,” added Amanda.

“How did they know you were there?” asked Beth.

“I must have triggered some sort of alarm for the robots when I got into the brain in a box,” said Amanda. “They didn’t bother to tell the mercenaries anything. We literally just walked out the doors once the robots were taken care of. I couldn’t believe it.” Why are all our parents so mean? Only Beth has nice parents.

“Hey, Ben. There was a little more,” said Rob, voice low. “Mercenary leader guy. He knew Sam.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “Shit. What’d he say?”

“That the unit he was with in Iraq was wiped out. He said he’s probably dead.”

“That ain’t right,” Ben said with a frown. “He sent us a text right after that freaky guy, Taauth showed up. Guy wearin’ our fuckin’ masks an’ everythin’.”

Rob shrugged and said, “That’s just what he told me. He didn’t know for sure.”

“Well, when we got some free time, we gotta figure this out,” said Ben.

“Yeah, yeah, absolutely,” said Rob. Olivia wrapped a wing around Ben’s shoulders. I’ll help.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Mercenary – Whiplash

Rob ran, mindful of the mercenary leader who would no doubt gun him down if he faltered. The driver had to half carry Amanda behind them; the injured rifleman bringing up the rear of their little group. The grassy flanks of the canal rose to either side. The pursuing MHU officers fired a few times to their right, herding them away from the houses that lined the east side of the canal.

The leader grabbed Rob’s shoulder and tugged him towards a concrete path cut into the opposite side. More police cars drove towards them ahead of them, hoping to cut them off. As the leader hesitated for a moment at the sight of them, Rob twisted his head around, checking on Amanda. She stumbled along behind them, propped up by the driver. A few bullets hit the ground just shy of their heels. Fuck.

Before Rob could rush over to her, the leader snarled, “Move,” and shoved him off the sidewalk, towards the strip mall on the opposite side of the street. They sprinted, sirens on their heels. Any time Rob tried to check on Amanda, the leader shoved him again, keeping him moving. They ducked through fences and passed through a park, gaining distance between themselves and the plodding armored MHU officers.

Finally, Rob heard the sirens recede into the distance, searching the wrong area. A helicopter with a spotlight passed in the distance. Too late for that. Though maybe the cops would be a better option than these guys.

“Keep your head down,” the leader hissed to Rob, following it up with a metallic click from his pistol. They huddled out behind an old brick office building, between a dumpster and the rear entrance. The night air around them was thick with the smell of sweat and residual adrenaline.

“I think we lost them,” said the rifleman, rifle hanging from one hand as he probed his injured face with the other.

The mercenaries let out a collective breath of relief. The driver left Amanda’s side, clasping his hands behind his head. Rob eyed the leader. Go for the balls. Gives me time to get up. When he reaches for his gun, twist his arm. Put him between you and the others. What about Amanda? Rob glanced past the rifleman to see Amanda curled up, back against the wall off the office building they hid behind. She’s in no shape to run. Fuck, I’m not just leaving her. What if she’s just faking it? That’s a damn big if.

“That giving you any problems?” asked the leader after a moment for the group to catch their breaths, tapping his own cheek where the rifleman’s cut was. As the rifleman shook his head, he turned to the driver. “How is she doing?”

“Not good,” said the driver, hovering over Amanda’s shoulder.

“I was shot, you asshole,” growled Amanda, arms over her stomach.

The driver muttered, “Shit. Let me see.”

She shrugged his hand off of her shoulder. “No, no, a month ago. It hasn’t fully healed. It just hurts.” Rob had barely taken a step towards her before the leader lightly elbowed him in the upper arm. He shook his head. Jackass doesn’t even want us talking. Paranoid.

“You’re not going to die on us, are you?” the rifleman asked Amanda, a weary expression on his face. Rob felt his hands tighten into fists for a moment. You don’t actually give a fuck, do you?

“Painkillers would be great.”

The rifleman laughed. “They would.”

“Think you can keep carrying her, or do you need me or John to?” the leader asked the driver. Rob glanced at Amanda again. She grimaced and sat up, as straight as she could, refusing to meet Rob’s eyes. Now isn’t the time to get stubborn.

“I can, but where are we supposed to go?” asked the driver.

The leader ran a hand through his greying, short cut hair. “I’m calling it in.”

“What if they’re listening?”

“What?” asked the leader as he reached into his pocket.

“How did the cops know where we were going? What if they were listening into our phone calls?” asked the driver, Amanda totally forgotten behind him.

The leader shook his head. “We can’t spend all our time coming up with what-ifs. We’re not losing anyone else.”

OK, fuck it. Rob shouldered his way past the distracted rifleman and took a seat next to Amanda. “How you doin’?” he asked, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

“Get back over there,” ordered the leader before she could reply, pistol leveled at the two of them. Rob felt a smile forming on his own face as he met his gaze. Fucking really?

Amanda spoke up, “If you shoot him I will-”

“Save it,” said the leader, cutting her off.

Rob shook his head. “What, gonna fuckin’ shoot me over this? After all that nonsense? Look. The fuck’s the problem with this?”

Silence fell over them, the leader’s glare boring holes in Rob and Amanda. “Fine,” he growled. “Just shut the hell up while I make this call.”

The leader turned his back on them as he dialed a number and held the phone to his ear. The rifleman kept watch on Rob and Amanda, face impassive, while the driver was torn between nervously watching the leader or them. Maybe Amanda could do some crazy techie thing? I know I’ve got no ideas. These guys know what they’re doing. They knew to keep a phone out of her hands.

“How you holdin’ up?” Rob asked again, voice low.

“Fine,” she replied. “It just hurts a little bit. I’m not about to die if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Hell of a first date, ain’t it?”

Amanda cracked a smile. “You could say that.”

“Dinner good? What’d you get, the gnocchi?”

“It was good. Although…” She trailed off, struggling to keep a straight face. “Though not as good as the terrifying murder bot we could have been making.”

Rob burst into laughter. “Fuckin’ romantic right there.”

“I try.”

They both leaned back against the wall, observing the mercenaries. The leader paced back and forth, shoulders hunched over. “Ideas?” asked Rob. The rifleman, still watching them, raised an eyebrow.

“Well, beyond hoping for Cyrus or Olivia to drop from the sky, not really,” replied Amanda. She raised her voice above a murmur and said, “My parents must be desperate, they’ve never sent a team of jackboots to kidnap me before.”

If she was trying to provoke a reaction from the mercenaries, she didn’t get one. The driver and rifleman didn’t so much as blink. The leader wrapped up his call and hung up.

“They’re taking off now,” the leader announced, turning to face the others. “We’re taking her to the Riverside safe house and work on getting her out of the country.”

Amanda managed a choking laugh. “On the run, serves them right. Why the hell are you still working for them?”

“Shut up. They write the checks,” said the leader. That was a little defensive.

“Used to,” muttered the rifleman.

“What about him?” asked the driver, motioning to Rob. “We taking him with us?” I ever mention I like living?

The leader sighed and said, “He’ll come with us if he’ll cooperate.”

Rob shrugged. “Sure.” Don’t know why you’ve put up with me for so long, but sure, why not?

“Then get back on your feet, we’re leaving.”

Despite their earlier bitching, the mercenaries didn’t seem to mind when Amanda leaned on Rob instead of them when they got moving. The leader led the way, on the lookout for any cops or other witnesses. Across the street they found a row of small houses.

“This one looks good,” said the rifleman when the leader turned to him, leading the way to an old, beat up car. He smashed in the window with the butt of his rifle, then reached in to open the door. No alarm sounded. Soon enough, he’d hotwired it, and the leader took the spot of the driver. The old driver was crammed in the back with Rob and Amanda. This again. This didn’t work last time, jackasses.

They drove without incident this time. No one felt like talking, and the leader kept the radio off. The roads were empty, as always. Can’t blame people. Freedom Fighter starts riots, Overlord and Cyrus make a tornado, people like us are always dicking around this time. Best to just stay in at night nowadays.

Twenty minutes later, the leader pulled into a mostly empty parking lot behind a club. He motioned for everyone to get out. “We’re walking the rest of the way,” he said. Dumping the car somewhere else. Won’t stick out here. Hell, I’ve done that once or twice.

Another hurried five-minute walk, and they found themselves in front of a large metal door of what looked to be an old video rental store. The leader pounded his fist against the door a few times. A slot in the door opened and a pair of suspicious eyes peered out. “What?”

“It’s me, Brian,” replied the leader. “We need in.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Change of plan,” said the leader.

“Yeah, a lot of that going around. Define ‘change of plan’.”

“The police intercepted us. We’re still in custody of the boss’ daughter.”

“Shit.” The slot closed in their faces, leaving them in silence. Just as Rob was about to let out a laugh, the door creaked open. “In.”

The mercenaries ushered them in, and the metal door slammed shut behind them. Inside loitered half a dozen other mercenaries, as well as four Overlord robots. Son of a bitch, don’t start screaming and trying to murder us.

“The hell are those doing here?” demanded the leader, anger seeping into his voice. Huh? Weren’t you guys working with Overlord? That’s the whole reason the cops are gunning for you. Rob glanced at Amanda, who looked just as confused as he felt.

“Bosses told us to take them,” said the man who’d opened the door for them.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. They came with this big ass metal box. Bosses told us to protect it at all costs while we figure out a way out of here. Cops been around here sniffing since they showed up though.”

The leader eyed the impassive robots distastefully before turning to the rifleman and saying, “Get yourself cleaned up.” To the doorman, he motioned to Rob and Amanda and said, “We need a place to put these two for the night. Can you do that?”

The doorman shrugged. “Lemme check.” The small crowd dispersed.

“Are we going to get out of the city in one piece?” asked the driver.

“We will,” the leader replied. “Go get some rest, I’ll take them from here.” The driver hesitated for a moment, then nodded and left, heading for the rifleman. “Fucking knew Overlord was a bad job. I fucking knew it. Going to get killed for them again,” muttered the leader once the driver was out of earshot. What was that?

“Hey,” called out the doorman, catching the leader’s attention. “We got two rooms. Secure as we can get them. Down the hall, second left.”

“Good. How is the situation here?”

“Bots are covering the outside. They don’t sleep or anything. They probably kept me from blowing your head off. Been real jumpy, lots of cops making sweeps. But we’ve been good so far. Just waiting for word from the bosses.”

“Anything?”

“Nada.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Oh, and we’re only a third of the people in our operation. Have you heard anything about the others?” Others? What? You mean those other mercs you were with? You left them to the wolves.

“Nope, sorry.”

“No problem. Thanks.” The doorman nodded and left to rejoin the others.

The leader murmured to himself under his breath as he led Amanda and Rob to where the doorman had indicated. He stopped them just before a pair of heavy doors, checking over his shoulder a couple times. “Rob, right?”

Rob nodded. Me now? I thought you cared about Amanda.

“Look, I’ve never been any good at this. Your brother’s probably dead. Overlord had us protecting a dig of his, out in Iraq. He said something about a gold knife, that it was the key. But the fucking rag heads, they hated him, hated everything to do with him. The moment they found out, they fucking wiped that whole place out. It came out of nowhere. I was pulled out to oversee a different job maybe five days before it happened. And fuck. Your brother and most of the guys had no idea what they were really there for. None of them knew what they died for: some fucker’s delusions of power.”

Rob stared at him for a moment. The leader looked dead serious, almost pained. He isn’t dead. Amanda pressed up against Rob, a thoughtful frown on her face.

The leader shook his head and said, “I’m fucking sick me and my friends being some fucker’s battle fodder. I’ve had to tell four women they’re widows. Might have to do that again. Those cops weren’t fucking around. Can’t use a paycheck to make that go away.”

Rob jabbed a finger at him. “Hey, buddy, you were gonna gun me down, probably the moment Amanda was outta sight. You’re tellin’ me my brother is dead. You want sympathy now?”

“No, I wasn’t going to shoot you, not unless I had to. I was going to let you go the moment she got on that plane. Believe me or not, I don’t care. They got fifteen years of damn good work out of me, and they tell me to die for their little family squabble. Fuck your parents, fuck Lock Corp, and fuck their secrets. I’m done”

“What’s your name?” asked Amanda.

The leader sighed and stared at the wall. His fists unclenched. “It doesn’t fucking matter.”

“You don’t have to do this,” she said.

He snorted and said, “Just get in your cells. I’ve got a job to finish.”

He shoved Rob into a room and slammed the door behind him. Thick iron bars, set deep within the wall itself, covered the tiny window near the ceiling. The door locked behind him. OK, how am I getting out of here. The only thing in the room, beyond Rob himself, was an old mattress.

He circled around the room, tapping his knuckles against each one of them. Solid, solid, solid. Can’t just punch through drywall here. Rob came to a stop by the door and stared at the lock, then at the metal wire bed frame in the room. Is that a keyhole? Seriously? I don’t just make metal armor, jackasses. I can get this jimmied open in five seconds. He felt a wide grin form on his face. You fucked up!

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Mercenary – Ward

Amanda felt her shoulder press into Rob’s as they eyed the people surrounding them. No, no, no. What the hell? Not now. Not tonight. The man with a goatee and calloused hands, who’d first spoken to them, repeated, “Please keep quiet and come with us. This is the last time we’ll ask.”

The other people in dark suits moved in, faces cold and impassive.  They didn’t have any guns out at the moment, though that could change in a heartbeat. She glanced past the man’s shoulder. The parking lot was completely empty, save for them.

“What if we don’t want to?” asked Amanda, now back to back with Rob as they were fully encircled. Her hand reached for the empty space at her hip where her stun baton usually hung.

“Then we put a bullet in your boyfriend here and you come with us anyways. Now move.” He stepped to the side and held out his hand, indicating where Rob and Amanda should go. “I ever mention I like livin’?” muttered Rob to her.

Amanda heard laughter from across the parking lot. Another young couple exited the restaurant, hand in hand. Their laughter died down when the noticed the people surrounding Rob and Amanda. They looked away and hurried to their car. If I scream for help, they’ll kill Rob. And maybe those people over there.

I’m not seeing a way out of this. Rob nudged her and shook his head. You don’t see one either, do you? Amanda grimaced and walked by the goateed man and towards a large idling SUV. The small group flanked them on either side, leaving no room to make a break for freedom.

The leader stopped them as they reached the car. A man and a woman held out their hands, palms up. “Your phones.”

Well fuck you too. Rob pulled his phone from his pocket, while Amanda withdrew hers from her purse.

The man raised an eyebrow at the single phone she’d produced. He nodded to the woman next to Amanda and said, “Take her purse. Pat her down.”

Another man coughed and tapped his wrist. “Time.”

The leader barely spared him a glance. To the woman he said, “Do it.”

Rob’s jaw jutted out for a moment as he narrowed his eyes at the man. Don’t pull out some stupid protective boyfriend instincts now. The woman grabbed her purse, set it out of reach, and quickly patted down Amanda’s torso and legs.

“Nothing,” she said.

“Good. Get in,” said the man, opening the door to the car.

Rob climbed in, followed by Amanda. The kidnappers behind them dispersed, heading to two other cars. There was a driver in the SUV already, along with a man in the rear of the car, keeping an eye on Rob and Amanda. The moment the leader took the shotgun seat, he put the car in reverse and pulled out of the parking lot. Their car took center in the three car convoy.

“You alright?” asked Rob under his breath.

“Yeah, for now,” said Amanda with a grimace. My meds won’t wear off for another couple of hours. We have some time. She blinked a couple of times, testing her contacts. Some with these things. Damn it, I should have brought my glasses.

OK, OK, think. They said something about shooting Rob. They’re here for me. God damn it. The dinner went fine, too. I only babbled about sweatpants for a little bit. No, focus. This has something to do with my parents. It has to be. Bounty hunters? I doubt they’re the police, they probably wouldn’t be using all the cloak and dagger. I could just ask. If they wanted to beat us up, they could have already.

“Hey,” spoke up Amanda. “Do you mind telling us what this is all about?”

“Your parents have requested your presence,” responded the leader, glancing at her through the rearview mirror. Amanda’s heart sank. Why don’t they just give up?

“Requested?” she asked.

“Their words, not mine.”

Well, at least they won’t touch me unless absolutely necessary. But Rob they’ll kill in a heartbeat. Amanda rested her head against the heavily tinted window of the car for a moment, before a bump in the road reminded her that was a bad idea. They’re keeping him around because they need my cooperation, she realized. If I were in their shoes, I’d be pragmatic about that, though. My cooperation is a nice to have, not a necessity. I can’t push that very far.

“So, Mom an’ Dad ain’t happy with you?” asked Rob, breaking her train of thought.

“Looks like it,” she replied.

Rob laughed and said, “They got a hell of a way of showin’ it. You know, if they can get all these guys to stick with ‘em when the government is huntin’ ‘em down, they gotta have a lot of money. You workin’ with the cops before you met us, right?”

“Yeah,” replied Amanda. Where are you going with this?

“Why work for the cops, then? Coulda done anythin’. Hell, probably had a nice cushy job at Lock Corp all lined up.”

“Fuck that. If I get a job it’s because I’m the best at it, not because of who I just happen to be related to.”

“Didn’t wanna go corporate?” Amanda stared at him for a moment. Did you miss the Corp in Lock Corp? “You know, some other company,” clarified Rob.

“Why? Money? No thanks. I wanted to do something with my life.”

“I hear you. But you dropped the whole police thing real quick when the opportunity came, same as Chris.”

“Working for the police sucked. I guess I was just trying to piss my parents off.”

“How’s that whole ‘pissin’ ‘em off’ thing workin’ out?”

“Not now,” she said with a shake of her head. He chuckled to himself. “What could you possibly be laughing at?”

“This,” he said, waving his hands around. “We can’t have nice things, can we? We’re just sittin’ there, mindin’ our own business, when John Doe comes outta nowhere. Then we’re tryin’ to lay low, an’ Overlord decides to take over the country. We try to go for a bit, an’ this happens. The hell?”

Amanda shook her head. “I don’t know.”

Silence fell over the car. The man behind Amanda and Rob kept watch on both of them. They passed under a highway. If that’s I-25, then we’re heading east. Where are we going? Their house is to the west, in the mountains.

We’ve got to get out of here before we get any further. Amanda nudged Rob’s leg with her foot. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. Her hand drifted towards the lock of the car door, in full view of him. He gave her a barely perceptible nod, his own hand on the handle to his own door. Please have forgotten to child lock these. A large hand came down on their shoulders.

“I wouldn’t do that,” said the man behind them. Damn it, how did he see that? Once they pulled their hands from their doors, he released them.

Rob leaned forward in his seat and said to the mercenaries, “You know, my brother works for you guys.”

“What?” asked Amanda. Ben? The mercenaries barely spared him a glance.

“The other one, Sam,” said Rob. Oh, right, I keep forgetting about him. “Yeah, he mentioned somethin’ about a feral. He an’ his buddies were in Teresina, huntin’ it. I think it was half cat, half beetle or somethin’ crazy like that.” That got their attention.

The mercenary leader tapped the driver on the shoulder. “Hey, you hear that?” he murmured.

The driver, a younger, clean shaven guy, twisted in his seat for a moment to take a look at Rob. “Sam?”

“No, that’s my brother. Triplets.”

The driver turned back to the road in front of him, though Amanda could see him stealing glances at Rob in the rearview mirror. “Worked with him for a while in Teresina. He’s a good kid. Hell, everyone in that unit was.” The driver sighed. “You know we’re not going to just let you go for that, right?”

“No, no, I get it. Got a job an’ all. Know where he is now? Last he told me, he was in Iraq somewhere,” said Rob.

“Then you know as much as I do. Sorry.”

“No worries. Tryin’ to figure out where he is. Hell, not sure if he’s even allowed to talk, I know he took a real sketchy job for Lock Corp in Iraq, an’ that’s the last I heard. All three of us never really tried to hide before.”

The driver snorted and said, “That truck of yours is very obvious.” The mercenary leader coughed. In the rearview mirror, Amanda caught sight of the driver snapping his mouth shut with a rueful grimace.

She sat back in her seat as Rob chatted on about his brother. OK. I can work with that. If that’s true, they’re not watching the whole city, otherwise they would have found us much earlier, because there’s no hiding that truck. I don’t know how to use that yet, but any information can be helpful. I guess the question is how they were able to monitor all of that area effectively.

“Whoa, what’s this?” said the driver as they turned a corner, cutting off whatever Rob was saying.

Amanda craned her neck to see a blur of police lights ahead of them, MHU vans blocking the road. As they came to a stop behind the lead mercenary car, a blur of officers moved up to either side of them. Some stopped at the first car, while others moved on to Amanda’s car.

“The others will keep them occupied. Go,” the leader said to the driver.

The driver threw their SUV into reverse and hit the gas, just as the officers reached them. Though muffled, she could hear shouting from outside. Gunfire erupted around them as the driver put the car in gear and gunned the engine, heading away from the police blockade. They ducked as a couple bullets glanced off the car. Sirens filled the air. Amanda twisted around to see half a dozen police cruisers in pursuit, as well as what looked like an MHU van bringing up the rear.

“Keep your head down,” the mercenary leader barked at her. He held a pistol in his hand, keeping an eye on the pursuing police in the side mirror. The SUV’s engine roared as they barreled down the road, the police right behind them. A few more bullets headed their way, most missing or plinking harmlessly off the frame of the car.

“Look at the time,” said the driver. “I can’t lose them that fast.”

“We came prepared,” said the leader with a nod to the man in the back. The man ducked below Amanda’s seat for a moment, before rising back up with a long rifle that looked suspiciously like Ben’s in hand. He leveled it at the back window and fired, shattering it. A few more squeezes of the trigger, and two of the police cars jerked to a stop, lost in the distance shortly thereafter. The driver took a hard turn, tossing Amanda into Rob’s lap.

“We need to get out of here,” she said into his ear, just loud enough to be heard over the sirens just behind them. I don’t know how the police found us, and right now I don’t care.

The rifleman fired again, and another police cruiser careened off the road. The remaining two backed off, letting the MHU van take the lead. The incoming fire picked up.

“Next turn,” Rob murmured back. Right. High profile vehicle. He has to slow down a lot for a turn. His hand fiddled with the lock, then came to a rest on the handle.

“Don’t you fucking think about it,” said the leader, pointing his gun at Rob.

Amanda hauled herself up, placing herself between the leader’s pistol and Rob. “Fuck off,” she spat. The leader scowled and opened his mouth. The MHU van rammed into the backside of the car before he could respond, sending them skidding. How is that thing keeping up? The driver wrestled control back with the steering wheel. The rifleman fired a few more shots at the front of the pursuing van. It kept coming.

“We don’t have time for this!” shouted the driver.

“I know.” To the rifleman, the leader shouted, “John, aim for the tires.”

“Trying,” the rifleman growled back. “Brace!”

Rob and Amanda ducked down just in time, as the van slammed into the SUV again, sending them hurdling off the road and down a drainage ditch. The impact sent Amanda hurtling into the seat in front of her. She kept herself curled up, arms covering her head until the car came to a stop. The brakes of the van screeched behind them.

“The hell?” muttered Rob. “You OK?”

“Get the door.” A lance of pain struck her in the gut as she tried to get off the floor of the car. Fuck. Rob frantically yanked on the car door handle. It didn’t budge. Fuck everything.

“Out of the car.” ordered the leader. He and the driver climbed out of the car, smoke rising from the engine where it had rammed directly into a large rock. The rifleman groaned as he pressed a hand to his bloody cheek.

The leader pulled the door open and dragged Rob out of the car with a gun pressed to his head. Once they were clear, the driver wrapped an arm around her and pulled her to her feet. Behind them, the rifleman crawled out, blood pouring from a nasty gash on his cheek.

“Move!” barked the leader, leading them away from the advancing MHU officers above them on the road. We can work with this. We’ll have to.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Mercenary – Suit

“How is Olivia holdin’ up?” Rob asked Ben.

“Not bad,” he replied. “Think she went out flyin’ with Beth last night, once she finally got in the right headspace.”

“Good, good,” said Rob. She’ll shake it off. He returned to the back plates of Amanda’s new armor, screwdriver in hand. He tightened a screw between two plates, then tested the range of motion between the two of them.

“How’s that goin’?” asked Ben.

“Alright. Just doin’ the bare bones right now, we gotta sit down an’ design the full thing here soon.” Rob didn’t bother to explain further, it would simply go right through Ben’s ears like it always did. “Just gotta get this done soon. We’re goin’ to an Italian place tonight.”

“Mmm, pasta,” said Ben, swinging his legs beneath him, seated on the workbench next to Rob.

“That was my thinkin’. I ain’t met someone who hates Italian.” One less thing to fuck up. Rob moved onto the next pair of plates. Miya and Amanda had left the lair together earlier, while Olivia snored softly from her beanbag.

“Good thinkin’. Hey, just remembered, heard anythin’ ‘bout Sam?” asked Ben.

“I fuckin’ wish. Dead silent, like always,” replied Rob, tightening the screw harder than strictly necessary. “Think Cyrus was tellin’ the truth? All that shit ‘bout some old timey god takin’ him over?” I wanna call bullshit, I really do.

Ben threw up his hands to the air and said, “I don’t fuckin’ know. Ain’t like anythin’ I’ve ever heard of. That shit just don’t sound possible. An’ what the fuck was the dude’s name again? Taauth? That a real word?”

“Think Cyrus was bullshittin’ us, then? Cuz that means we got no idea where Sam is.” He was working for Lock Corp. That’s the only lead we’ve got.

“Cyrus has always done alright by me. An’ hell, you saw that tornado thing he killed Overlord with.”

“That just means he can make a tornado, not that he’s thousands of years old. Two separate things right there,” said Rob. He stood up from the armor and grabbed a rag, wiping off the lubricating oil from the armor joints on his hands.

“Never heard of someone that powerful, though. An’ besides, the Mother and Cuauhtémoc are both ancient. Can’t deny that. Gotta consider if it’s true, cuz then we gotta beat down a god to get Sam back.”

Fuck, forgot about those two. “Fuck, I don’t know. We’ll deal with that when we get to it.”  Rob spun the armor stand, now facing the chest plates.

“It’s be nice if we had a little more info to go on.”

“Then you wanna grab the thing?” asked Rob.

“What thing?”

“You know, the thing,” he said, waving his hand towards his desk where his laptop sat

“That don’t help.”

“My laptop.” Come on, wasn’t that obvious?

“Coulda just said that,” said Ben, reaching over and grabbing the laptop. He opened it and asked, “What’s your login again?”

“Type notapassword. All lowercase, no spaces,” said Rob, not looking up from the armor.

Ben laughed and said, “That’s probably not the best password in the world.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what Amanda said, too,” grumbled Rob. I’ll get around to changing it when I get around to changing it.

He focused his work on the armor as Ben began typing away. The armor’s a bit thicker over her stomach, right? He tapped a knuckle against the plates in question. Yeah, good. I don’t think she can take any kind of injury there again and keep breathing.

“Well this is interestin’,” said Ben after a minute or so. “Was lookin’ up anythin’ with Lock Corp. The feds are tryin’ to dismantle ‘em. Sayin’ they were workin’ for Overlord.”

Rob looked up. “Say what?”

“Lock Corp. was workin’ for Overlord.”

“Shit.” He set his screwdriver aside and looked over Ben’s shoulder. Hold up, what’s this? “Quit scrollin’. Look at that. List of wanted people. An’ Lafitte. Lafitte. Shit, that’s Amanda’s last name.”

“Really? Oh right, yeah. Totally forgot about that.” When Amanda had finally gotten back to them after the severe bullet wound in the stomach she’d received in Arizona, she’d given them a brief explanation of where she’d been and why.

“Yeah, an’ remember when she went missin’ for a bit? We couldn’t find her?”

“Of course. Didn’t she have you pick her up in a…” Ben trailed off as realization dawned. “A super nice car, right?”

Same last name as some people super high up a massive corporation. She had a really expensive car, like the kind owned by people super high up a massive corporation. She didn’t offer that many details about her parents. Hell, I just assumed they were able to dictate her because she was hopped up on painkillers. “Shit. Her parents are wanted for treason.”

“Think she knows?” asked Ben.

“Think she cares? Might be a better question.” Ben just shrugged. “Well, I’ll let her know, see what she wants to do with that info.”

***

They didn’t manage to find much on Taauth beyond conspiracies and calls for his death by various Islamic militant groups fighting against him as he cut his way through the Middle East. The fact that he came out of nowhere and that he was commonly seen on the front lines as his armies advanced had people throwing out all sorts of speculation as to who he might be. But his first documented appearance was only a week before both Rob and Ben received some strange, garbled texts from Sam.

As for Lock Corp. and Overlord, Amanda didn’t so much as blink when they told her, once she returned about an hour later with Miya. She simply shrugged and said, “That’s nice.”

Note to self, don’t bring up her parents, thought Rob, finishing the last button on his shirt. “How do I look?” he asked Miya and Ben as he turned around.

“Exactly like me, just in a nice shirt an’ pants,” said Ben with a grin.

“Haha, you fuckin’ jackass.”

Miya looked up from her phone and gave him an appraising look, biting down on her lower lip in thought. After a moment, she nodded and said, “Good.”

“Thanks.” Rob turned to Ben and said, “See, that’s what I was lookin’ for.”

“You two are making way too big a deal out of this,” commented Miya. “Relax. Just let it happen.”

“It ain’t like she’s a piece of metal or somethin’. If I fuck up I can’t just hammer her back into shape.”

Miya stared at him for a moment, concern on her face. “I would hope not.”

“OK, bad example. But you get what I’m sayin’, right?”

“That you’ve been workin’ too long with machines an’ get a little scared when you’re outta your comfort zone, cuz you don’t know how to fix this if you fuck it up?” said Ben. Miya looked up from her phone and stared at him.

“Well, I wasn’t thinkin’ of that before, but now that you say that…” Now you’re just being a dick.

“What the fuck did I just say about relaxing?” said Miya, turning her attention on Rob.

“Sorry?”

“Good. You should be.” She focused on something over his shoulder. “Now get out there and have fun.”

Rob spun on his heels to find Amanda approaching, Olivia looming behind her. “Ready?” she asked, a small smile playing on her lips.

“Sure.” He turned to the others and said, “See you guys later,” with a wave as he and Amanda left the lair.

By some unspoken signal, they both headed to his truck, his keys jangling in his pocket as they walked side by side. Is she wearing perfume? That smells nice. Wait, shit, am I supposed to say something about it, then? He shot her a sideways glance. She wasn’t studying his expression. I guess not. Saying, ‘I like how you smell,’ is kind of creepy.

“You ever been to Mario’s before?” he asked as he climbed into his truck.

“Once or twice,” she replied, shutting her own door. “It’s pretty good.”

“Good. The internet didn’t lie. I’ve only been livin’ here for a month, gotta find all the good places to eat again.” They pulled out of the lot behind the lair, heading towards downtown.

“Yeah, I can see that,” said Amanda. “I keep meaning to bring everyone to this awesome little pizza place near my old house. But I keep forgetting to grab some honey at the grocery store. That places pizza is just made for honey.”

Rob held up a hand. “Wait, hold up. Honey?” Who came up with that? Who looked at pizza and said, ‘This needs honey.’?

“Yeah. Don’t you put it on pizza crust?” asked Amanda, with a genuinely confused look on her face.

Rob shook his head and said, “No. I’ve never heard of that.”

“Seriously? That’s just a thing you do. Huh.” Amanda sat back in her seat, confusion on her face.

“You’ve never lived outside of Colorado, have you?” he asked.

“No, I’ve lived in Colorado all my life.”

“Good skier, then?” he asked with a grin. It must be nice to have real mountains here, not a bunch of little Appalachian hills.

Amanda snorted and said, “Not so much. When I was eight I crashed and broke my arm. I haven’t been since.”

“You get a lot of bad injuries, don’t you?” asked Rob with a shake of his head. Ow. That hurts just thinking about.

“I know. Trust me, I know. When I was about ten I got a really bad case of pneumonia. I was coughing my lungs out for a week.”

“Damn. We’re probably gonna get E. coli or some shit from this place.”

“Don’t worry, only I’ll get it, knowing my luck. But I’m pretty sure I’m immune to food poisoning, somehow. Have you ever been to Turkey?”

“Nope. Never been outta the US.” Why the hell did you go to Turkey? Isn’t that a Muslim country? I’d have thought that would be kind of shitty for a woman, but what do I know?

“They have these huge kabobs of lamb or chicken rotating next to a heater kind of thing,” she said with a smile. “You can find them anywhere on the street in Istanbul. They’re delicious, I went to one every chance I got. But this one I went to, I ordered a chicken plate thing, I forget the exact name, and started wolfing it down. But then halfway through, I stopped. The chicken was cold. The meat was totally uncooked.”

Rob burst into laughter. “Holy shit! Bird food poisonin’ is some bad shit. Right up there with shellfish, right?”

Amanda nodded and said, “Yeah, but that’s the thing. I was totally fine. Not even a hiccup. Moral of the story is, if I can take undercooked Turkish poultry, I can take whatever Mario’s can dish out.”

“Speak of the devil, here we are,” said Rob, as the sign for Mario’s came into view. Packed, too. They parked at the far end of the lot and began their walk to the restaurant. Shit. Do I put my arm around her? Or is that not something to do. Or… No. Relax. He slipped an arm over her shoulders. Some tension in his shoulders eased as she put her arm around his waist. You know, this is nice. I think I can live with this.

They walked in together. “Reservation for two,” said Rob to the host, who led them to a small booth by the wall at the far end of the building. Just as they sat down, a waiter appeared to order their drinks. Rob ordered a Coke, Amanda a water, and the waiter was off, leaving them alone. Now what?

“What were you an’ Miya up to today?” Women like talking about their day, right?

“Just shopping. Olivia’s starting to grow out of her clothes again, we were looking for anything that might fit, and it wouldn’t hurt if we found some things for ourselves.” Rob smiled and nodded mutely. Oh god, I’ve made a terrible mistake. Amanda continued, “Miya had this great little saying from a friend of hers from Arizona. Sweatpants love you for who you are, not who you want to be.

Rob laughed, though Amanda just took a sip of water, a slight blush spreading up her cheeks. Shit, what did I fuck up? We were doing so well in the car. Talking, that is.

The waiter returned with their drinks and took their orders. They killed the time with idle chatter while they waited for their food, not really discussing anything substantive. Rob did everything he could to steer the conversation away from family. Me and Ben’s problem, not hers. And she hates hers. Probably not good first date material. He wiped his sweaty palms against his pants under the table as the food arrived. They dug in.

His eyes scanned the table after a few silent minutes, looking for a distraction, or anything to break up the sound of chewing. Dinner was a terrible idea. Shit. Should have thought of something fun. “You see that new movie?” he asked.

She blinked. “Which one?”

God damn it. “The new Superman movie?”

“No, sorry.” Shit. What else is there to talk about? In the awkward silence that followed, she set down her fork in her half finished dish, looked him dead in the eye, and asked, “Do you want to get out of here and work on the armor designs?”

“Oh thank god. I was hopin’ you’d say somethin’ like that.”

They rushed to split the check and leave, leaving their waiter blinking in confusion. “I’ve got the bare bones of the armor pretty much done,” explained Rob as they headed out the door and back to the truck. “Now we gotta figure out what we’re puttin’ on it. If we’re goin’ the power armor route, it’s gonna need reinforcement. We ain’t half assin’ anythin’ if we do that.”

“Absolutely. I was thinking-”

“Excuse me, Miss Lafitte?” spoke up a man behind them, cutting Amanda off. She stiffened at the sound of her last name. Together, they spun around to see a man in a suit, hands hidden behind his back. Two more men and a woman, all in similar cheap dark suits, appeared from between the cars in the parking lot, surrounding them.

“We need you two to come with us,” said the man who’d first spoken. Who the fuck are these guys?

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Mercenary – Steel

Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. What was I thinking? That everything would just magically work? Ben took a sharp right to get back on the highway, squishing Olivia’s wing between herself and the car door. ‘No place here.’ Some of those people wanted to shoot me. My own mother wouldn’t even look at me. Stupid, stupid, stupid monster thing.

Amanda and Ben were both quiet, even the radio of the truck was turned off. The only sounds Olivia heard, beyond the roar of the engine and the whooshes of other cars passing them on the road, were Amanda’s fingers tapping on her phone. So stupid. My own family doesn’t want me. Stupid wing, stupid claws, stupid tail. Stupid. The whole drive back to the lair passed without a word spoken between the three of them.

They pulled into the gravel lot behind the lair. “Sorry for dragging you two out there,” mumbled Olivia as they climbed out of the truck. Her head bumped against the roof of the cab as she angled herself and her wings out. Leave me alone.

“No need to apologize,” said Ben.

Amanda nodded in agreement and said, “If you need to talk, we’re here.” They both watched for Olivia’s reaction, concern all over their faces. Sorry. I’ll get out of your way.

Olivia mutely nodded trudged over to her curtained off bed, her tail scraping along the concrete floor. Her heel claw left a small gouge when she walked over an oil stain in the floor. She pulled the curtains shut behind her and collapsed face first onto her bed. Her claws dug into the mattress as she buried her face in it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The others, Rob and Miya included, left her alone for a few hours. Olivia tried to tune out the sounds of them going about their day. Miya and Ben left for the gym, while Amanda typed away at a keyboard. Olivia only realized she’d drifted off to sleep when Rob dropped a wrench, the loud metallic clatter waking her up again.

She couldn’t think of a reason to get out of bed. I could probably just stay here. No one would notice. Not hungry. Don’t feel like reading. Flying is too much of a pain. Footsteps approached. A small figure plopped down beside her on the mattress. Go away. Something plastic pulled on her hair with a thousand tiny fingers. Olivia turned her head, looking up at Miya sitting beside her, hairbrush in hand. What do you want?

“Jesus,” said Miya in a matter of fact tone. “This is so tangled. When is the last time you brushed your hair?” What? Where did this come from? After waiting a few silent moments for a response, she continued, “And it’s matted in a couple places. I know flying makes your hair all messed up, but this is basic cleanliness. If you want to keep it neat, just use a ponytail. Here, watch.” Miya put the brush aside and pulled a hair tie out of her pocket. In a flurry of hand motions and flicking hair, she pulled her long black hair back into a ponytail. “See? Ponytails are great. You can do anything with them without your hair getting all tangled up.”

“OK. Um, thanks” said Olivia.

Miya returned to brushing her hair. “We’ll get into braids and stuff later. Or you could just do what Amanda does and keep it cut really short.”

Olivia shrugged and said, “I like my hair, I guess.” I haven’t had a reason to complain about it, at least.

“Alright, once I’m done here,” said Miya, pausing to pull on a particularly tangled bit of hair, “I’ll give you a couple hair ties and clips.”

They beat Olivia’s hair into some semblance of organization, though it was mostly Miya. She had Olivia sit up and show her that she could get her own hair under control before leaving her with the brush and some hair ties. She dangled one from a claw.

I guess if it keeps everything neat. It does feel better now, actually. I’m sure it looks better, too. Miya kept muttering something about a crazy cat lady. I didn’t look crazy though, did I? I guess I did. My parents sure thought so. She sighed. Maybe if I’d just… I don’t know. Maybe if I’d called them on the phone instead. They wouldn’t have had to see me. Maybe that would have worked. I bet Chris would have known what to do.

“Hey, Olivia, got a sec?” called out Rob from across the lair, breaking her train of thought. “I need a hand.”

She climbed to her feet and brushed the curtain surrounding her bed aside. “What?”

Rob waved her over to his armor stand. “Hold this. I’m makin’ part of Amanda’s new armor, need to adjust the stand.”

“Oh, um, OK.”

Together, they lifted Rob’s suit of armor off of its stand. “Hold up a sec,” he said. “Need to fix up somethin’ real quick.”

He left Olivia standing with a massive set of metal slabs that constituted his armor while he darted over to his desk to grab a screwdriver. He knelt down in front of Olivia and the armor and opened up a plate.

“How you doin’?” he asked, head halfway into the torso of his armor. “Is it heavy?”

Olivia readjusted her grip on the back plates and said, “Kind of. It’s not bad.”

“Alright, now we should hear a click.” There are a lot of clicks. You mean a louder one? “There it is. We’re good. Set it down gently.”

“Where?”

“Any open space on the floor. There’s good,” he said, pointing to a patch of floor by the end of his workbench. As she set it down, he said, “Thanks. It’s a pain in the ass to move it on my own without gettin’ in an’ out of it.”

Olivia nodded. “Yeah, it’s big.”

“Gotta make sure Amanda’s armor fits an’ all. That’s somethin’ you want fittin’ perfect, but she ain’t Ben, so she’s got different measurements than me. She’s also goin’ for a less bulky design than mine. Sleeker, more techie lookin’ that that monstrosity,” he said, jerking his head towards his own armor. “I wish she’d been around when I was makin’ mine. Hell, been thinkin’ about tonin’ it down once we get her armor done. It’d be nice to have reflexes an’ shit. She can probably put in a couple cool things to. Think she can put in a kickass lightin’ gun on my wrist?”

Olivia had been nodding mutely along.  “Oh, um, I don’t know. Probably. I mean, why not?”

Rob laughed. “Ain’ that the real question. ‘Why not?’” He set his tools aside and

“Do you need any more help?” she asked.

“I’m good here. Thanks,” replied Rob.

Olivia nodded and turned to walk away. “Hey, ‘liv’, got a favor to ask,” called out Ben, just before she could return to her bed.

“What?” she asked as she walked over to where he was cleaning his rifle. Why does everyone need something from me all of a sudden?

“Can you go check on Red? Make sure she ain’t been abducted or somethin’.”

“Oh. Does she need something?”

Ben shrugged. “I dunno. Ask her. An’ you might wanna talk to her, too. She’s all alone out there, gets kinda borin’.”

“OK. I can do that.” What time is it?

Ben grinned and said, “Thanks. Don’t wanna spend any more on gas for the BAT. She’s still in your old apartment. Just knock, she’ll know you.”

“OK, I’ll go.” I haven’t talked to Red in a while. Olivia poked her head out into the night. Wow, I slept all day. She slipped out and took flight, circling a few times to get up high enough to get out of view, in case someone on the street happened to look up. She headed back to her old apartment building, a couple miles to the southeast of the lair.

Familiar rough roofing scratched against her clawed feet as she landed on the roof of the apartment building. She sniffed the air before heading for the stairs. Smells like her now. I never thought I’d be here again. Eventually, she came to her old home. Red, however, had added some touches of her own. Intricate flowing patterns, carved by claw, covered the entire wooden door.

“Whoa,” said Olivia, leaning in to get a better look. The richly detailed carvings didn’t depict anything specific, though they swirled together beautifully, even making up for where the paint on the door had chipped off. Right, I’m here for Red, not the door. She tapped the door with the back of her hand, not willing to put her claws anywhere near the carvings.

She heard a couple heavy footsteps beyond the door, then Red opened it. “Hey,” she said, resting her shoulder against the door frame.

“Um, hi,” said Olivia. “I’m just stopping by, making sure you’re OK.”

“I’m good for now.”

Olivia fidgeted. I’m just standing here being weird. “I like these carvings,” she said, more to fill the silence than anything else.

Red shrugged. “I was bored. It looked cool.”

“So you don’t need anything?”

Red shook her head and stepped away from the door. Olivia followed her into the apartment. “I’ll probably need some more water soon, but I’ve got enough food for the next month,” said Red, gesturing to the kitchen as she passed.

“How are you doing, though?” It’s just you here.

“I’m bored. Don’t get me wrong, I love having this whole building to myself. It’s way better than being cooped up in that little auto shop. But there’s no one else here.

“It’s quieter. That’s nice.” Ben, Amanda, everyone, I love you but you guys are always making noise.

“That is a definite plus,” said Red, her expression thawing. She crashed onto the old couch in the living room. “I’m kind of surprised, a lot of the stuff in here was untouched. Didn’t you live here for a couple weeks?”

“I didn’t spend that much time in here. I was flying around and stuff,” said Olivia. She sat beside Red, twisting her tail away from her.

“Yeah, I’ve been flying around too. I’m starting to think I’m not very good at it. I hate falling. And just taking off is a pain.”

“I can give you some pointers if you’d like.”

“Like what?” asked Red, a slight tilt to her head.

“Well, if you’re ever falling, don’t panic,” said Olivia. “That’s the first thing I learned.”

“That’s not exactly reassuring,” said Red, doubt written all over her face.

“It’s worth it. The first time I flew, I panicked and folded a wing. I fell a long way. But once you get used to it it’s so much better than walking around.”

“I can’t argue with that,” said Red. She crossed her legs and flexed her long, clawed toes. “This claw where my heel should be is a real pain in the ass.”

“I know, right! Getting down stairs is the worst.”

Red pointed to her and said, “Yeah! When you can’t tell if the stair is wide enough to get your whole foot on it or if your heel is going to catch.” Red smiled and said, “Last week, a day after I moved in here, I was heading for the roof. I’d forgotten something, it was probably my phone, back here, so I spun around and just tripped over my own tail. Did a total face plant.” She rubbed her jaw, a rueful smile on her face. “I’m just lucky no one saw that.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. The first time I ever sat in this couch, I’d forgotten about my wings. So I sat, and it twisted my wing in,” said Olivia, bending the wing as far as she could in demonstration.

Red winced. “That sucks.”

“It was just surprising. I think I jumped halfway across the room. That was the first day I’d, you know, woken up. I just wasn’t used to everything.”

Red laughed. They settled into silence for a moment. She hit her face on the ground? That can’t be fun. “Where the hell did you get food?” asked Red.

“What?”

“When you first woke up, where did you get your food from? I’m kind of sick of just waiting for deliveries.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asked Olivia. “It’s better than stuff from dumpsters.” Anything is better than food from a dumpster, trust me.

“I know. But it’d be nice to be self-sufficient, you know?”

Olivia frowned and ran a hand through her hair, thinking. “You know the Rocky Mountain Shopping Center?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” replied Red.

“Um, it smells like donuts?” Maybe we could get some donuts! Well, have one of the others get some donuts. Still!

Red’s face lit up in recognition. She knows what I’m talking about. They smell so good. “Right, that one. What about it?”

“The drug store there. If you go there when they get a delivery, there’s only one guy unloading the stuff, and he’s super slow. And they don’t have any cameras either. You know, if you want to get food on your own.”

“How do you know that?” asked Red.

“Because I got a lot of my food from there,” explained Olivia. “Before, you know, I met the others.”

“What, you just took it?” Olivia nodded. “Damn, advocating robbery. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Food is food.”

“True, true,” said Red. Her wings relaxed, spreading out a bit.

“Have you heard anything from Hank?” asked Olivia.

“That asshole? No. Why?” He wasn’t… OK, he was kind of mean.

“We haven’t heard anything from him, and I just wanted to make sure he was OK. I was just wondering if you’d heard from him.”

“Nope, sorry.” Red pulled the tabled Amanda had given her out from under the couch. She fumbled with the screen for a moment before saying, “And no, still nothing. You have one of these too, right?” Olivia nodded. “How do you use it without scratching it up?”

“Oh, Amanda explained this to me once.” Olivia leaned in to get a better look at the tablet. “The touch screen of this detects heat, not touch. So if you used the eraser end of a pencil, it wouldn’t work. It’s meant for, you know, people with fingertips. I use my knuckles.”

Red examined her own fist for a moment. “Really?”

“No, not like that. Extend a finger, then bend the first two little bones until your claw almost touches your palm. Yeah, like that. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.”

Red smiled as she tapped on her tablet. “Alright. This is a lot better than what I was doing.”

“What was that?” asked Olivia.

“I was just using the side of my finger. It was a huge pain in the ass. I think I can finally use this without the urge to break it in half.”

“Amanda would kill you.”

“And it would be worth it.”

Olivia laughed. A few minutes passed, Red engrossed in her newfound tablet prowess. I missed this couch. But I could be getting donuts right now. Olivia stood up and said, “I’m heading home now. You just needed water, right?”

Red looked up from the screen. “Yeah, and no rush on that. See you later.”

Olivia nodded in goodbye and left the apartment, heading straight back to the lair. Donuts! She landed between Rob’s truck and Amanda’s car.

Ben waved to her as she entered the lair. “How’s Red?” he asked.

“Good. She said she needs more water. But I think she’s bored.”

“Yeah, I’d recommend she get a job or a hobby or somethin’, but I ain’t sure what for her.”

“She’s carving a lot.” She looked around the lair. By the soft, slow sounds of three other peoples’ breathing, the others were asleep. She sat at her chair at the table, a few seats over from Ben.

“We’ll that’s somethin’ to do. You got any plans for tonight?”

Olivia shook her head. Wait a minute. “Why do you guys all suddenly have stuff for me to do? Are you just trying to distract me?”

“Yep.” As Olivia frowned, he said, “Hey, don’t give me that look. Better up an’ movin’ than sittin’ an’ wallowin’. Amanda said you get all quiet when you’re sad, an’ I never see you try an’ avoid people like you did all today.”

You guys were just tricking me? All the sorrow and self-loathing she’d forgotten about for the last hour or two came crashing back. “I don’t know. I just wish it’d worked, you know?”

“Hey, hey, listen. Fuck ‘em,” said Ben. “You did absolutely nothin’ wrong. If they don’t want you ‘round, they ain’t worth havin’ ‘round. You choose to be a feral? No, course not. If you’d chosen to, I dunno, eat twenty heartwarmin’ orphans, then yeah, I’d see where they were comin’ from. But you didn’t. You wanna get mad, get mad at them, not yourself.”

“But they’re family.”

“Family? Same deal. Can’t choose who you’re related to. But you can choose who you hang out with. Beatin’ yourself up over somethin’ completely outta your control is a real good way to make yourself miserable.” He moved over to the chair next to her and nudged her in the ribs. “It’s up to you. But you heard Amanda. We’re here for you.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

Ben just laughed. “Don’t mention it.”

After a moment, she asked, “Do you want to get some donuts?”

“I got no idea where we’re gonna find ’em this time of night, but you’re goddamn right I do.”

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