Community Service – Mirror

“Get out and put a brick on the pedal!” screamed a soldier.

“I’m sorry, old girl,” said the officer as he patted the wheel of the van before jumping out. Delta flinched as something exploded nearby. I will not get shot again. I will not repeat that experience. I will not get shot again…

Gears trundled up to the massive and battle scarred MHU van. He leaned into the van’s cab with a large cinder block, then jumped back. Tires squealed as the van shot forward, barely missing Gears and another soldier. The earth itself exploded as the van careened through the minefield that the robots had hidden in the narrow street. A ton of armor plating moving fast is hard to stop, I don’t care who you are. The burning mass of the van came to a stop just shy of the wall of the MHU headquarters, where Overlord had hidden his lair.

Heavy machine guns on both sides emitted an unceasing barrage of gunfire, filling the air with hazy white smoke in the morning light. Delta and the others, minus Olivia and gears, knelt behind a couple cars along with some soldiers.

An officer nodded to Delta. She activated the comm in her helmet and said, “Olivia, mess ‘em up.” For the love of god, make the robots stop screaming.

Olivia fell from the sky, landing feet first directly on a robot machine gun nest. The gunfire stopped not long after.

Delta gave the officer a nod. “Clear! Go!” he yelled.

Delta’s group, plus close to a dozen soldiers, rushed for the MHU headquarters. An armored robot emerged from behind a building and bulled into their group, flinging an unfortunate soldier flying and trampling another. The robot spun towards the largest remaining group with its oversized rifle raised, spraying bullets indiscriminately. Another soldier fell as the others dove for cover. Counter fire bounced off of its chest. Then, it stopped moving.

The armored robot toppled, a massive hole melted through its chest. What…

“I love this thing!” yelled Skulker from behind the scope of his sniper rifle. He stood and teleported over to join Delta and the others.

“Get inside! Go, go!” screamed the soldier before turning back towards the oncoming robot horde.

“Do as he says,” barked Skulker, returning the rifle to the sheathe on his back

They burst in through the front doors of the MHU headquarters. The thick walls deadened the sounds of gunfire outside.

“OK, now we need to find the vault. I’m not sure where that is, but I’m pretty sure it’s downstairs,” said Delta. Shit, I should have gotten out of my workshop more when I was here.

Skulker laughed. “Or just follow the massive trail of destruction,” he said, pointing to three ruined robots and a massive scorch mark in the ceiling.

Delta sighed. “Or we could do that. Come on.”

They jogged through the familiar hallways and corridors of the MHU headquarters. A couple rooms had exploded, a couple more had machine gun nests that would have cut down any intruder had they been functional, but beyond that the robots hadn’t done much to the place. Where do they get repaired and maintained? The bunker?

The trail led them a wide room in the basement. They climbed through a one foot thick steel door that looked like giant hands had twisted them aside like tin foil. Beyond that was an elevator. There it is. The vault is always underground.

“Think you can fly down there?” Skulker asked Olivia as they approached the elevator doors. The doors themselves were nowhere to be seen. There was simply an empty doorframe leading to a darkened elevator shaft with no elevator.

Olivia faced the shaft fully. She spread her wings out a bit and sized it up. “Maybe. Um, yeah, but it’ll be tight. But… what about you guys?”

“Point. Hold up. Oliva, pull this?” asked Skulker, motioning to a cable in the middle of the shaft.

She reached out and grabbed the steel cable. Gears steadied her as she pull it and herself back. She gave it an experimental tug.

“Hang on,” she muttered. She dug her clawed toes into the bare concrete floor and yanked, hard. “Heavy.”

“Can ya bring it up? Should be the elevator,” said Skulker.

“Yeah,” said Olivia through gritted teeth. She began the slow process of hauling the elevator up the elevator shaft.

Delta leaned against the wall beside the elevator door, feeling her eyelids droop with the sudden lack of threats to her life. Stay awake. Sleep later. Maybe I could give myself a shock. She smiled. Heh, terrible idea.

“One more pull,” said Skulker over the sounds of the elevator itself scraping along the walls, breaking Delta’s train of thought. The top of the elevator came into view.

“Think you can carry the five, no, four of us?” asked Delta, joining them by the torn up elevator door.

Olivia nodded, keeping her concentration on the elevator she held. Her feet dug deep gouges in the floor. Delta put an experimental foot on the roof of the elevator. Olivia held it steady. Well, let’s see how this goes. Delta walked onto the elevator, the others following behind her. Olivia let out a hiss when Gears in his armor stepped last onto the elevator roof.

“You good?” he asked her.

“Heavy,” she replied through gritted teeth.

She began the arduous task of lowering the elevator plus Delta and the others. Soon, their surroundings were dark, only the light from up above

“Think this’ll hold?” asked Skulker, tapping the taut cable in the center of the elevator.

Gears snorted. “It’s an elevator cable,” he replied. “Its purpose in life is to hold.”

A sharp drop stop cut off their conversation. Miya let out a stifled shriek. The fall jerked to a stop a couple meters down, slamming them back down on the elevator roof. Everyone remained frozen for a moment. Olivia slipped? She OK?

A faint voice above called out, “Sorry.”

Skulker let out a shaky laugh and stretched his neck. “We’re good, keep goin’,” he called back.

Could she hear that? She probably heard that. Olivia lowered them the rest of the way without incident. The elevator came to a stop just below the floor of the vault. They climbed up out of the elevator shaft and into an imposing concrete hallway. The remains of several bots were smeared across the walls and floor to one side. To the other was a bank of monitors. I’d be willing to bed that’s where the actual cells are. Overlord’s bunker look like it was hidden in the broom closet.

Wind blew out from the shaft behind them as Olivia descended. The bangs of her messy brown hair were plastered with sweat against her forehead.

“You OK?” asked Gears, offering her a hand up.

“Yeah,” she replied, accepting. “My arms kind of hurt. And I think a couple scales got torn off,” replied Olivia, flexing her hands.

“All the security stuff looks busted. And there’s Overlord’s bunker,” said Delta, gesturing to the broom closet. Follow the destruction.

“This shit is easy when Cyrus does everythin’,” said Gears with a laugh.

“No kiddin’,” agreed Skulker. Can’t argue with that. Maybe Cyrus will handle everything. That’d be nice.

They climbed through the wreckage and into the bunker. Olivia had tear out a piece or two of concrete so she and Gears could fit through. If it weren’t all in ruins, the defenses that greeted them would have torn them to shreds. I count… thirty armored bots. Too many normal ones. Can never have enough bullets, I guess. I can barely tell what kind of static defenses were here. It looks like Cyrus tore out solid walls here. The fuck? Who is this powerful?

“Gas canisters? Probably poison, cuz fuck you. Looks like they exploded,” said Gears, pointing to several holes torn into the walls.

“Yep, Cyrus was here,” agreed Skulker.

They climbed over more machine guns, more wrecked robots, and other, stranger things.

“The fuck is this?” asked Skulker, pointing his pistol towards what looked like a three meter long snake made of razor blades embedded into the wall. That’s a lot of wires in that wall there. Oil dropped slowly and steadily into a pool beneath it.

“I don’t know,” replied Delta. “Lick it and find out.” Oh, sure, the engineer will magically know all the technology things.

Skulker snickered and replied, “Pass, thanks though.” They moved on into what looked like the bunker proper. Less space seemed devoted to defense, and more to research. They passed several empty robotics labs.

“Hey, Delta,” began Gears. “When this is all over, wanna go get dinner somewhere?”

Sure, why… wait a minute. Delta blinked under her helmet. Really? I know we’ve kind of been spending a lot of time together. But dinner? Like, a date? That’s a date, right? But where would we go? I’d need to check if I can eat the stuff on the menu. Or…

“Yeah, sure. Where?”

It’s just the two of us, right? He would have asked everyone else otherwise, right?

“I dunno. Whatever’s left standin’?”

Delta laughed. “Sure.”

“Alright, sounds good,” replied Gears. Woo! I didn’t fuck that up!

“Why’d you two say that? Now one of you is gonna die,” said Skulker. You jackass.

Olivia swatted him upside the head. “Not funny.”

“Yeah, little too far,” said Gears.

Skulker snorted and held up his hands in mock surrender. “Sorry.”

Olivia stopped in her tracks. Miya took notice. “What is it?” she asked, bringing Delta and the others to a stop as well.

“I smell something,” replied Olivia, gaze distant.

“What?”

“I don’t know. But…” She turned towards a side corridor labeled “Biology & Nanotechnology”. “Over there.”

They followed Olivia’s lead down the thinner corridor. She ignored several doors, until she came to a locked one. “Here,” she said. She worked her claws into the crack between the doorframe and the wall, then yanked the sliding metal door free.

A man in a lab coat with glowing orange goggles confronted them. “What are you doing here?” Beside him stood a similarly dressed man with grey goggles.

“You,” whispered Miya as she shouldered her way past Olivia. “You motherfucker!” she screamed.

The orange doctor tilted his head. “Hm? Oh! The initial mage subject. I remember you. You’re still alive! Amazing! Have you encountered any problems with the implants?”

“Problems? Problems? I was a fucking lab rat against my fucking will. I will put you in the fucking ground!”

“So? The advances we made were amazing! We have so much to thank you for.”

“Oh, oh, it’s that feral, too” said the grey goggled doctor with a small giggle.

The orange doctor looked at Olivia, and said, “Truly? That’s not my department. She’s the original?” Original?

Miya leveled her gun at Doctor Orange. “Shut up, you two. Any last words?”

He frowned. “There’s no need for that.” Wait, he kept his hands are in his coat pockets when a bunch of people pointed guns at him.

Right as Delta opened her mouth to yell a warning, a light flashed and mass of shiny grey goo burst out of a tank set into the wall next to Miya. Her shot went wide as she whirled around and backed away from the oncoming tide. The goo flowed over the desk and left a melted mass in its wake. Oh no. Miya scrambled away, the doctors giggling as they ducked under a desk.

Olivia skirted around the goo, heading for the doctors. The mass adjusted, throwing itself at her. She snarled and thrashed, trying to dislodge the flecks of the silver goo that had caught onto the edges of her wings. Skulker fired a couple shots into the oncoming mass, doing absolutely nothing to stop it. It formed a crescent on the floor, spreading towards all of them.

“Not helping. Run!” barked Delta.

Miya and Skulker made a break for the door they’d come in through. Gears pulled Olivia along. The bots had burned small holes through her wings, though there was no trace of them now. Delta brought up the rear.

We’re gonna run out of hallway real soon. She chanced a look over her shoulder. The goo advanced at a brisk walking pace. Always at the same speed, never slowing, never speeding up. The corridor after it looked partially melted. Not getting bigger. Not replicating, Don’t want apocalypse. Shiny. Metal. Heat! Heat or electricity. Not enough heat. Electricity, power, where? Wait.

She activated a baton at full power and dropped it in the path of the advancing goo. Where the active part of the baton touched the goo, it blackened and powderized. Soon enough, the tide overtook the baton, reducing it down to its elements. Yes. More power. Armor can’t provide enough. She looked around, still backing up. The lights overhead caught her eye. There. We have room? She glanced at the goo again.

“Gears, Olivia, tear the walls open!” she screamed, backing away from the oncoming tide. The two of them skidded to a stop. “Now!”

Olivia clawed open the paneling on one wall, Gears hammered away with his crowbar on the other. “Why?” he shouted.

“Power.” Delta took her eyes off the approaching grey goo to take a look at what they’d done.

“What’re we lookin’ for?” He pried his panel free.

“That one,” she said, pointing to a thick grey cable. Power line. The goo advanced, now only a couple meters away. Shit, need more space. “Olivia, over here. Tear out all the panels over this thing, as far down as you can go. Don’t touch the cables. Gears, with me.”

Miya and Skulker lead the way as Olivia rushed as fast as she could with one hand tearing through the panels on the walls. Gears and Delta followed behind, regaining a little distance from the goo.

Far enough. She pulled out a knife from her boot. Gears grabbed her arm. “What’re you doin’? Zappy things bad.”

Armor is insulated against lightning. So is his. Should work. “We need to cut this somehow.”

He shouldered her aside, pumped his shotgun, and fired it two inches away from the power line. “That work?”

Fuck it, sure. She grabbed the part of the cable furthest from the goo. Warning signs flashed in her helmet. Faster. “Gears! Other end! Get the end close to the ground.” Gears nodded and yanked out more cable.

The others had stopped at a corner. Long enough.

“Good!” she yelled.

Gears dropped the cable, letting it dangle just enough to touch the floor and the goo. They turned heel and ran, the goo just brushing up against Gears’ boot. Should work. Or it’ll arc and just burn little bits of the goo. No time. She looked over her shoulder. The grey tide overtook the first end of the cable. Gears thundered towards Delta.

“Now this end!”

He grabbed the other end and yanked it out of the wall. The goo washed up against his boots. No, no, no. Come on, Rob, faster.

“Drop it,” she yelled at Gears once he had a long enough length of cable free of the wall. He dutifully dropped his end of the cable on the floor and picked up speed.

The goo overtook the end he’d just abandoned. Complete the circuit. Please work please work please work. Sparks flew as the entire mass of nanobots writhed. Veins of black lightning shot through the mass. The goo contracted as the veins grew, until the whole blob was nothing but black ash. Silence fell over the hallway, with only the sound of Delta’s ragged breathing in her helmet as she finally stopped running.

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” said Skulker, pulling back his hood and running a hand through his sweaty hair. Oh god.

Miya and Gears leaned heavily on the walls. “Thought we were going to die, there,” gasped Miya.

Delta pulled off her helmet just in time to avoid vomiting all over the inside of it. She fell to one knee, clutching her stomach. Breathe, breathe.

“Whoa, what’s wrong?” asked Skulker.

“Hurts,” she gasped. Running. Too much. Can’t…

“Here,” said Gears, offering her a metal canteen from his hip.

“Thanks,” she managed before gulping down a couple mouthfuls. Hate throwing up. Hate, hate, hate it.

“Good to go?” he asked after a minute had passed. The others had formed a semicircle around her, concerned looks on their faces, even Miya’s.

It’s not like I have a choice. Delta grimaced, straightened up, and replaced her helmet. “Come on, we need to keep moving.” God help me.

“Where are the bots?” asked Miya. “We haven’t seen any in here. Well, moving ones.”

“Probably gettin’ killed by Cyrus,” said Skulker. “Overlord’s got no other choice.”

They headed back towards Doctor Orange’s lab, the floor of the hallway now warped and misshapen. They paused a few meters behind the door Olivia had clawed open.

“Let me,” said Miya, going in first. Fuck it, sure. Don’t screw up. Delta and the others followed after her.

The doctor stiffened, then spun around as they rushed in, mouth agape. “How-”

Miya cut off his question with three bullets. The doctor staggered back, colliding with the counter behind him. Miya kept firing and advancing. The wall behind the doctor took a couple bullets. She let out a wordless scream, advancing until she came to a stop by the doctor, out of bullets.

She spat on his body and kicked his head for good measure. “Fuck you!”

“I think he’s dead now,” pointed out Gears.

“Grey?” asked Delta. If he’s waiting with some other horror I’m finished. I quit. Cyrus can deal with it.

“Don’t see him,” replied Skulker.

“That way,” said Olivia, pointing a claw towards a second door to the lab, opposite where they’d come in from.

“Wait, what about that thing you smelled before?” asked Delta.

“Also that way.”

Miya hadn’t moved, still standing over the orange googled doctor’s corpse.

Olivia wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her away. Miya kicked her in the thigh, struggling as hard as she could against her.

“Miya, stop,” Olivia whispered.

Miya stopped and took in a shaky breath. After a moment she said, “I’m good, let me down.”

Olivia spun around, putting herself between Doctor Orange and Miya, and set her down. Gears began systematically shooting every computer he could find.

“What are you doing?” Delta asked.

“Makin’ sure these can’t be used,” he said, cocking the shotgun and blasting the last computer. “Good to go.” Whatever. They’re not paying me enough to care anymore.

Olivia led Miya out the door she’d pointed out. Skulker and Gears followed after. Delta took one last look at Doctor Orange’s lab. Nope, not gonna fuck with whatever else he has in here. Nope.

They passed rooms with empty hospital beds, some with bloodstains and toppled IV drip stands. Miya kept her eyes firmly on the ground in front of her, following Olivia’s lead. She’s probably got a whole bunch of issues I’m in no way qualified to take care of right now. We should very probably get her out of here soon.

“Here it is. Um, the thing I smelled. Grey is further in,” said Olivia, stopping at a door.

“Cool,” said Skulker. “Let’s go.”

Gears kicked in the door, Olivia close after him. Miya, Skulker, and Delta followed after, and nearly collided with their backs.

“Uhhh,” began Gears.

Everyone followed his gaze to a wide room attached to the new lab they’d burst into. What the hell? Two long rows of floor to ceiling tanks stood along each wall. Five held people, floating in a pale and sickly green liquid. It took a moment for Delta to register the fact that each person had a massive and familiar pair of wings jutting out of their backs, and thick, scaly tails trailing behind them.

Skulker teleported and rapped a knuckle on the wall of one of the tanks. The girl gave a barely perceptible twitch. “They’re out of it,” he announced. “The fuck are we lookin’ at?” How is this possible?

Delta and the others joined him, still staring. Of the five people in the tanks, three were girls, two were boys. Each floated in the liquid, arms a few inches out from their sides. It took Delta a moment to realize they were breathing, albeit at an extremely slow pace. They’re all huge, too. Delta cast a glance at Olivia. She had frozen, a stricken look on her face.

“Let them out,” she whispered. Right. Delta spun on her heel and headed towards the one thing she knew well, the computers in the lab.

“Whoa, hold up. What if they come out swingin’?” asked Gears, holding up a hand.

“What? Fuck, let them out,” barked Miya, squaring off against him.

“Said hold up,” said Skulker. “Think this through.” Whoa, come on, you two. Delta found what looked like an important console. It’s got a computer, it’s got a bunch of important looking buttons. That’s why I went to college.

“What?” demanded Olivia, turning on him with eyes wide.

“Little Bird, I know you. I trust you. I don’ know ‘em. I don’ trust ‘em.”

“They’re gonna come out panickin’ and scared. I would,” added Gears.

“‘cept my hands can’t carve up steel an’ bones like paper,” concluded Skulker. Delta thought back to when they’d first met Olivia. She got mad and killed fifty people. Olivia, the big, cute teddy bear. She took her hands off the command console.

“So, what? You’re saying we should just leave people in there?” said Miya. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Both of you?”

“I like keepin’ my organs on the inside,” replied Skulker.

“Amanda?” asked Olivia.

Delta glanced at the others. Miya and Olivia’s eyes bore into her, while Skulker and Gears refused to look them in the eye.

“Hang on. Let me see if I can even get them out of there at all.”

She turned on the main screen. Looks like no one bothered to log out. It’s not like the robots would try to steal anything, I guess. A background of a beautiful tropical island greeted her, almost buried under folders on the desktop. Commands? No? Information. Information never hurt.

“OK, it looks like they were in the ‘let’s see what we can do phase’. And…” Delta’s eyes skimmed over the report. “It went better than they thought possible.”

“All this from just a few blood samples?” asked Miya, casting a look over her shoulder at the tanks.

“These are people who revived fuckin’ dinosaurs,” pointed out Skulker, making a vague gesture to Doctor Grey.

“Still though. How?”

The tension in Delta’s shoulders eased with the change of topic. “These aren’t the first experiments Overlord’s people have done with powers. From the wording, they have a way to induce certain powers. They keep referencing ‘the Lakhanpal effect’. It looks like this is just the first time they’ve done it with a feral power.”

“So they force a trigger.”

“Yes. It takes a lot of energy, it looks like. It doesn’t look like it comes from wherever a power’s energy comes from usually.”

“That’s the how. Where’s the why?” asked Gears.

“Hang on, I think I saw something about that back here.” A few more clicks brought up the document in question. Delta’s eyes flickered over the page. “Living magic generators, I think. Oh, this part makes a bit more sense. Whether certain aspects of her power could be isolated and used. Weapons, super soldiers, there’s about a dozen possible applications here. They want funding for cloning as well.”

“Wait, the fuck you readin’?” asked Skulker. “Why would that all be spelled out here?”

“A big report. They had a section labeled applications, I just went down to that. I figured it would explain things for non-geneticists like us.”

“Huh?”

“Whoever was working here, they need to be able to communicate with people outside their field. Hell, that’s half of the average engineering job.”

“So, can we let them out?” asked Olivia.

Shit, right. Delta grimaced under her helmet. Compromise? “How about this? We let one out. One. If they’re fine, we release the others. If they go berserk, we…” How do I say this?

“We keep ‘em in there, let smarter people than us figure ‘em out,” said Gears. Delta gave him a grateful nod.

“But…” began Olivia, facing them fully.

“But we gotta look out for each other first,” said Skulker.

“Can you live with that?” asked Gears.

Olivia frowned. “Fine.”

Let’s see here. Ah, here’s the release command. Fluid first, then the person. She double checked the number of the controlled tank. “Alright, the girl in the middle. Be ready,” announced Delta. She hit the button.

A green light appeared at the top of the tank. The fluid began draining. Once its level passed the girl’s face, she coughed and a finger twitched. Once the tank drained completely, leaving the girl crumpled at the bottom, a yellow light came on next to the green light, and the machinery stopped. OK. Another command? Inside, the girl coughed, spitting up the green liquid. Her eyelids fluttered open. Ah, here it is.

With the press of another button, the walls of the tank retracted into the floor with a faint hydraulic hiss. Everyone except for Olivia stood back as the girl began climbing to her feet. Then, the girl let out a hiss.

Olivia growled. She grabbed the hissing newly released dragon girl by the throat, dragged her off her feet, and slammed her against the wall. Whoa. The girl bared her teeth and spat in Olivia’s eye. As she recoiled, the girl shoved her away with a hiss.

Olivia swung a hand at her shoulder and threw her to the ground. She grabbed hold of a flailing wing and twisted until the girl let out another hiss and went still, chest heaving. Olivia released her wing and stepped back. What… the fuck? What happened to nice Olivia?

“Olivia?” asked Miya in the silence that followed. “Are you…”

“I’m OK. Let the others out,” she replied, catching her breath.

“No, the hell was that?” demanded Gears.

“It’s fine, let the others out.”

The other dragon girl had climbed to her feet, keeping an eye on Olivia. She kept her wings drawn in tight behind her back, fingers and claws curled. The hissing from her had stopped, at least.

“No, the hell was that?” repeated Skulker. “You two gettin’ all territorial an’ shit?”

Olivia let out a frustrated growl. Her hand uncurled momentarily before she took a couple deep breaths to calm herself. “Nothing. She’s just… she’s fine. I’m fine. Please let the others out now. One at a time. Please.”

Delta’s fingers hovered over the next button. What do I do? Say no? That’s just cruel. She stared at the other dragon girl for a moment. She looks fine now. “OK, be ready for the next one.”

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Community Service – Bunker 7-16

Olivia tore her gaze away from Slim Jim and stared at Cyrus, hovering in the air beside her. “You died,” she whispered, drowned out by the sound of gunfire from the upper level of the abandoned factory.

“Not now,” he replied, keeping his eyes fixed on Slim Jim. “You, talk.”

“No, no, no, you died. You were dead. How are you alive now?” insisted Olivia, raising her voice. I know what I saw. I saw the blood.

“The feral is right. One of the foot soldiers put three bullets in the back of your head,” added Slim Jim, the faintest hints of a smile playing on the corners of his mouth. He remained pinned by strong currents of air. Behind him floated and spun the remains of the robots Olivia and Cyrus had torn apart.

“Thirty years, not bad,” murmured Cyrus. “Can’t be helped now.”

Wind picked up in the factory, followed by the shriek of metal tearing. Olivia whirled around to witness some invisible force tear apart the robots engaged with Miya and the grey suited agents on the upper catwalks of the factory. The air howled and whistled as it blew past ruined robots and ancient abandoned equipment. Then, without warning, everything went still. Olivia, Miya, and the agents stared at the destruction around them

“The reinforcements outside have also been dealt with,” said Cyrus, who hadn’t so much as looked at the scene behind him.

“Ahh,” replied Slim Jim with a slow, knowing nod.

Olivia turned on him. What? How does this make sense? How does any of this make sense? Cyrus was dead. I saw his head. And why can he suddenly just destroy all the robots on a whim? Behind her, the grey suits and Miya floated down from the catwalks, weapons at the ready. The bulky agent held a hand to his side with his free hand, a few droplets of blood trailing behind him.

“You did that?” one of the grey suits asked Cyrus. “All of that?”

“Yes.”

The agents eyed the blood and holes in Cyrus’ MHU uniform. “You’re not injured?”

“No.”

Smith leveled her pistol at Cyrus. Behind her, the other three grey suits fanned out. “You’re the Haboob,” she said, her voice dead calm. Olivia stopped herself from letting out a nervous laugh at the sheer absurdity of that statement.

Cyrus nodded. “Guilty.”

“The Haboob is an old Arab myth, right? He’s not real,” said Miya. Wait, what? Oh, right, I think Ben or Chris mentioned him before. He’s… yeah, they said he was a myth.

Cyrus shot her a glance. Olivia flicked her tail on the ground, drifting between him and Miya. “I’m right here,” he said.

Olivia jumped as one of the agents fired into several bullets into Cyrus’ chest. Slim Jim took the opportunity to whip a few tentacles at Olivia’s face. She snarled and grabbed at one, yanking herself towards him. The moment she got close, he drove both feet into a kick to her chest and retracted his tentacles. In the gravity-less room, he shoot back towards a broken window and the outside, far out of her reach. No! A huge gust of air bashed Slim Jim’s head into the concrete floor a few feet from the window. Olivia froze for a moment. Is he… is he dead?

Cyrus turned on the agent who had fired as Slim Jim’s tentacles began repairing himself. “Why did you do that? What possible purpose did that serve?” he asked with a sigh, his flesh knitting back together under his battered jacket.

“You’re a monster,” replied the dark skinned agent, his pistol still aimed at Cyrus’ chest.

“A monster who is on your side.” Olivia flapped her wings and floated back to Miya.

“Stand down,” barked Smith at the agent. After a moment, he glared at Cyrus and lowered his gun. Smith looked Cyrus in the eye for a moment, then raised her watch to her mouth. “Blackjack, ready to move Slim Jim to containment?” She paused for a moment as a tiny buzzing sound returned. “Good. On my mark.”

“Wait,” said Cyrus, raising a hand. “I’d like a moment.”

“You already have a lot to answer for, Cyrus or Haboob or whatever your name really is. I’m sure the Turks would like you back for leveling Istanbul.”

“I’m sure they would. I’m sure they also appreciate not living in a scorched wasteland even more, however. I’ve defended my home from Mongol hordes and Roman legions, kept disgruntled Ottoman mages from accidentally disintegrating half the planet, and prevented an insane imam from burning Jerusalem to the ground. What makes you think I’m on the side of chaos?”

“The part where I don’t believe a word out of your mouth,” said the dark skinned agent. Stop. Guys, stop. Slim Jim is right there.

The air lifted a whole and intact Slim Jim back into a standing position, inches above the ground. “So you don’t believe he’s here, right now, unable to escape? Really?” asked Cyrus.

“Stand down,” repeated Smith. “You shot him and he hasn’t killed you. Yet. Let’s see what he can do. Blackjack, standby.”

Cyrus nodded. Slim Jim said, “If you think torture is going to work, you’re very, very stupid.”

“Piece of shit, what the hell do you know about torture?” muttered Miya. Olivia looked down. Miya’s knuckles were white against the grip of her gun, though she kept it pointed at the ground.

“I know,” said Cyrus. “You don’t feel pain. You can’t. Your own power splits your skin open every time you use it. But you’re beginning to doubt. Pain is how your body tells you if something is wrong. What happens when old age catches up to you and your body begins to fail? When your heart ruptures, will you die, or will your power keep you lingering, ever lingering? You won’t feel it, but you will know something is wrong. You’re a professional above all else. What happens when you can’t perform your job to the standards you’ve set yourself?”

Slim Jim stared, his face impassive. “You haven’t offered anything yet.”

“I offer you freedom. You can either rot in whatever pit they throw you into,” said Cyrus, jerking his head towards Smith. “Or tell us where Overlord is and walk free.”

“If I tell you, Overlord will kill you, then kill me. If I don’t tell you, he kills you and releases me. You’re not very good at this.”

“That’s what every would be conqueror has said,” replied Cyrus, folding his arms across his chest. “Yet here I am and they are gone. Look, I know money isn’t a factor for you anymore. You’ve never shown devotion to any particular cause before. I’d be willing to bet Overlord has something else, some other carrot to dangle in front of you. He’ll never give you that carrot, you have to know that.”

Cyrus absentmindedly stroking his beard, considering Slim Jim. “Family, perhaps? No. If I remember correctly one of the members of the Undead we rounded up was your son. By all accounts you’re a terrible father.” Olivia’s eyes widened. What? Those guys? Miya caught Olivia’s questioning glance and shrugged. Slim Jim remained impassive.

“And he was a terrible son. And apparently one who didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut.”

That… that’s terrible. You’re a dad. You’re not supposed to say stuff like that.

“You wouldn’t retire, not gracefully.” A small smile formed on Cyrus’ face. “You think Overlord will get you a fight, a challenge that could get you killed. A fight with me, or someone like me. If you’re patient I think I can get you exactly what you want. And if I’m wrong I know just to get rid of you.”

Slim Jim’s head tilted, brow furrowing. The air shot him and Cyrus through the hole in the roof Cyrus made during his entrance. Wait, no. Stop doing that.

“Son of a bitch!” Smith shouted after them. The dark skinned agent fired a few futile shots into the sky after them.

Miya and Olivia stayed quiet as Smith composed herself. What do we do now? I have no idea. I’m… I’m just tired now. That was all just for nothing, I guess. She held a hand to her ribs, where an armored robot had elbowed her. Stupid thing.

Miya patted her on the back between two spikes, causing her to flinch. “You OK there?” she asked.

“Yeah, that kind of stung,” replied Olivia.

Miya leaned back, pulled her hand aside, and let out a low whistle. “Your back is black and blue. Jesus.”

“What?” Olivia pushed through the soreness to twist around, only getting a facefull of her own wing. “I got shot a couple times in the back, I think.”

Miya snorted. “A couple times? Try a dozen.” Well, yeah. Bullets hurt. A lot.

“Boss?” asked one of the grey suits. “Orders?”

“Nothing we can do now. Let’s get back to where there’s gravity,” said Smith, her voice bitter. “Blackja-” She stopped herself as Cyrus flew back into the factory.  “Where is Slim Jim?” she demanded before he even came to a stop.

“Not here.”

“What do you mean ‘not here’?”

“I mean he is somewhere else.”

“OK, smartass. You had no right or authority to do that.”

“And yet I did. By the way, he told me the entrance to Overlord’s bunker, seven sixteen, is hidden somewhere within the MHU vault. In case you wanted to know.”

Smith blinked. “The vault? What? How? That’s the most secure place in the city.” Wait, what’s the vault?

“And I guarantee it wasn’t on your list of possible places. So Overlord did his job well, hiding in plain sight. It’s not within the cell itself, he doesn’t want desperate lunatics somehow tripping over it. The entrance is near the lower control room.”

“One of the first places overrun was MHU headquarters,” pointed out one of the grey suits.

Olivia leaned over and whispered to Miya, “What’s the vault?”

“That’s the MHU’s supermax cell thing. Supposed to be inescapable.” Olivia nodded.

“How can we trust you?” asked Smith.

Cyrus sighed. “That’s a risk you’ll have to take. Unless you have a better idea of where Overlord could be.”

“Blackjack, get us back to the mint,” said Smith.

Pressure built in Olivia’s ears. In a split second, their surroundings changed from a run down and abandoned factory to a familiar hallway. The pressure released. Whoa. She looked around. Smells like the mint. That was so cool. Is it like that for Ben when he teleports and stuff?

“We need to get to the lieutenant, tell him what needs to happen,” said Smith. Cyrus nodded. To the three grey suits, Olivia, and Miya, she said, “Catch your breath, and get ready. We’ll let you know when everything is in motion.” She and Cyrus hurried off, leaving them behind.

“Want to find the others?” Miya asked Olivia. She nodded.

Miya fiddled with her comm. “Hey guys. We’re back. Are you all in one piece?”

“I’m good. Keepin’ watch, it’s quiet again,” replied Skulker, his words slower than normal.

“I’m here,” added Delta, sounding out of breath. “Gears is with some MHU guys right now.”

“Cyrus is back. Him and some government spook want us to attack the MHU headquarters ,” said Miya. The three grey suits nearby shot her a look as they escorted their wounded comrade away.

“Shit. Wanna meet up?” asked Skulker.

“I’m near the motor pool, next to Gears’ truck. If you all want to meet up here,” said Delta.

Olivia nodded to Miya. They’re OK. They’re still OK. “Sounds good,” replied Miya.

“Cool, see ya in a few,” said Skulker.

Olivia and Miya passed by several small groups of soldiers and police officers on the way down. Most slumped against the walls of the hallway, their guns on the floor. The smell of sweat made Olivia’s eyes water.

“They just keep screaming,” whispered an officer, to no one in particular.

They made it out to where Delta and Skulker waited. Delta sat in an opened door, hunched over to the point she was nearly curled up. Skulker leaned on the side of the bed. Where is Rob?

“I shot a bunch of robots. Nearly got hit by a missile. Ya know, the normal durin’ a robot invasion,” Skulker was saying to Delta. She just grunted.

“Delta, are you OK?” asked Olivia.

“Just trying not to throw up,” she replied, gaze fixed on the ground.

“Oh, do you need me to…” began Olivia. Do what? Get food? No, that’d make it worse. Maybe…

“It’ll pass,” replied Delta. “I just need a moment.”

“Are you-”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Delta cut Olivia off. She straightened up. “See?”

“OK,” said Olivia, raising a placating hand.

“So what’ve you two been up to?” asked Skulker.

Miya and Olivia exchanged glances. We got shot at a bunch. “Well, we got dragged along in a hunt for Slim Jim by government spooks, found out Cyrus is the Haboob, captured Slim Jim, and then we found out Overlord is hiding out somewhere in the MHU vault,” explained Miya.

Silence greeted her words. Now that she says it out loud, it does sound like kind of a lot. Delta and Skulker had gone stock still, their expressions unreadable under their masks.

“Uhh,” said Skulker.

“So… What?” added Delta.

Miya gave them a weary smile and pulled some hair out of her face. “What? Didn’t that make total sense?”

“Sorta?” said Skulker.

“I understood the individual words, but all together they made no sense,” said Delta. “So, Overlord is here? And what’s more, he’s here in the MHU vault for some reason. And Cyrus is an old Arabic legend? And Slim Jim just told you all this?”

“Yes. To all of that.” Olivia nodded alongside Miya.

“Oh,” managed Delta.

“Gonna explain that?” asked Skulker.

“There’s not much to explain,” said Miya. “We got caught up when the spooks ambushed Slim Jim. He got away, and we followed after him. Then Cyrus showed up and beat the hell out of Slim Jim. Then Slim Jim told us Overlord was in the vault.”

“You’re a shit story teller,” said Skulker. “That was way too borin’.” Miya just stuck her tongue out at him.

“Wait, so Overlord was, or is, whatever, a prisoner in the vault?” asked Delta.

“No, that’s just where his bunker is hidden.”

“An’ how the hell you know Cyrus is some immortal destruction god guy?”

“Cyrus got shot a bunch of times in the head. I saw the… the pieces,” added Olivia. “Then, when I looked again, he was better.” The grey suits were the ones who called him the Haboob.

“So yeah, Cyrus and the agent lady in charge went to the lieutenant guy,” said Miya. “They want to attack the MHU building.”

“We’d need to get across no man’s land. That’ll get ugly real fast,” said Skulker.

“No man’s land?” asked Delta.

“Yeah, I was up on the rooftops most of the time. Towards the MHU is a lot of bots and wreckage. Fightin’s been pretty heavy.”

Where is Rob? Or Gears, whatever. He should be here for this. Olivia whispered, “I’m going to find your brother,” to Skulker and followed Gears’ scent down the road. And… is that Jeremiah? Yeah. Olivia passed by a wrecked humvee and stopped beside an MHU van with a wheel missing.

“-already saved my hide,” said Jeremiah. “I’m one person. If it comes to light that the Company helped Overlord they will have good reason to stamp us out,” said Jeremiah. “We need you to destroy all records in there that you come across. Do this and the Company will owe you a favor or three.”

“Really concerned ‘bout Overlord? You guys seem pretty entrenched,” replied Gears.

“You think Overlord would tolerate a black market? A market he can’t control? No. I hate to say it but we were tricked. If we’d known we’d never have helped.”

“Sure. If I get in I’ll see what I can do.”

“Thank you.”

Two sets of footsteps separated. Gear’s heavier armored footsteps approached Olivia’s hiding place. Rob, what are you doing? He rounded the corner to find Olivia waiting for him.

“Oh, hey!” he said with a wave. “Where’s everyone else at?”

“Your truck. Um, what was that?”

“That? Oh, you that. He offered me a good deal. I just gotta shotgun some of Overlord’s computers.”

“He said he’s-”

“Shh,” said Gears, cutting her off. “Company really values their secrecy. Can I trust you to not go talkin’ ‘bout this elsewhere?”

You weren’t going to tell us about this? The doubt must have shown on her face. He added, “You trust me?”

She sighed. “Fine.”

“Cool. Thanks. An’ don’t worry, I know a bad deal when I see one. Now come on. Everyone still back at the BAT?” She nodded. “Then lead the way.”

They returned to the others, still in the midst of conversation.

“What do you think the commander guy’ll have us do?” asked Skulker.

“We’re probably disposable,” said Miya. What? He hasn’t been mean or anything.

“Keep us in reserve?” said Delta. “Me and Gears have been helping keep all the vehicles running. Skulker is a sniper and Miya is a healer. Throwing us into a meat grinder wouldn’t be the best decision in the world.”

“So, we’re not going to split up again, right?” asked Olivia.

“Yeah, we’re stickin’ together. No worries,” said Skulker.

The wind picked up. Shouting came from all around. An idling engine roared to life.

Delta slid down from the truck seat and closed the door behind her. “Cyrus convinced the army guys. They’re moving out,” she said.

Gears shrugged. “Well, let’s see where this goes.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Patriot

“Uh oh,” Olivia murmured to herself.

The massive armored robots on the rooftops before her opened fire. She pulled in her wings and dropped like a rock, though a shot still grazed her tail. At the last moment, she pulled up, landing on her feet on a different rooftop. She ducked behind the edge of the roof as a couple more heavy bullets whizzed overhead. One of the grey suits teleported near her after a moment. How do they keep finding me like that?

“You still following Slim Jim?” asked the grey suit, a different one than before. Other than the woman Smith, the bulky man who’d accompanied her when they’d first captured Slim Jim, and the man Slim Jim had killed, Olivia hadn’t seen another of the grey suits until now. The one next to her now had darker skin and a shaved head.

Olivia stared. “Yeah.” Why do you think I’m out here getting shot at?

“Just making sure. You’re bleeding.” He pointed to her tail.

She curled her tail to get a better look. A couple of the scales had been shot off but the bleeding had mostly stopped, plugged by a fast forming scab. “I’m fine.”

“We need to go, keep the pressure up.”

“OK. Um, how?”

“Go on, straight for Slim Jim. We’ll be right behind you.”

Oh, OK. Just have me charge into the really big guns. Great. Wonderful. Olivia jumped over the edge of the roof and spread her wings, flying parallel to the robots’ roof. She pumped her wings, gaining altitude. A couple bullets shot by beneath her. Bad. She tucked in a wing, spiraled, and dropped, gaining speed.

Another bullet hit her in the shoulder. She hissed and carried on, putting the robots’ roof between her and them. Once she reached the corner of their building, she turned and followed Slim Jim’s scent. The heavy metal footsteps of the robots followed.

Slim Jim had made good time on foot. A block passed before Olivia closed the gap. Then, she heard a booming sound from up above. Uh oh. She pulled up and dropped onto yet another rooftop, and not a moment too soon. A missile streaked down from the sky and hit the building in front of her. The shockwave knocked her off her feet, and her ears exploded in pain.

She lay stunned for a moment, with only the deafening ringing in her ears and the smell of smoke and dust in her nostrils. Her lungs sucked in breath again, and she rolled over, digging her claws into the roof. Up, up. Someone grabbed her upper arm, helping to haul her to her feet. Miya stood with two of the grey suits, the new one and Smith.

“They don’t want us in there,” said the male agent, his voice fuzzy and muffled. Another missile struck, blowing up closer than Olivia was comfortable. She hissed and covered her ears. “They really don’t want us in there.”

Smith shouted something by a roof access door. Olivia stomped over and rammed it down, letting the others in. Make it stop.

Down a flight of stairs, Smith brought everyone to a stop and nodded to the other grey suit. “Do it, now.”

The agent sat down on a step, closed his eyes, and went completely still. What? That’s not helpful.

“Alright, we should be invisible to the robots and whatever is shooting those missiles for a while,” said Smith.

“This takes a great deal of concentration. Hurry,” said the agent.

“Where the fuck did that come from?” demanded Miya, pointing up at ceiling and the sky beyond.

“Congress passed a law that allows the deployment of armed drones over American airspace a few months ago. Someone in the Air Force probably had the bright idea to use them. Damn it, we told them that was a terrible idea.”

“And he’s…” started Miya, making a vague gesture to the sitting grey suit.

“He’s making us invisible to any sort of electronic surveillance. We’re the anti-Overlord task force, we were chosen for a reason.”

Miya didn’t respond right away, instead producing a bandage from her back pocket and reaching up to wrap it around Olivia’s upper arm. Oh, bleeding. Again. Olivia bent down to make it easier on her.

“Thank you,” Olivia murmured to her.

Miya nodded and knotted the bandage. “If there are missile drones, it’s going to get really ugly back at the mint, real fast. We need to get back.”

“That doesn’t matter. What matters is finding Slim Jim.”

Miya and Olivia stared at Smith. How can you say that? There are people back there. Our friends are back there. The sitting grey suit kept sitting, his neutral expression unchanged. “What makes you so sure about that?” demanded Miya.

“A decade spent tracking him and Overlord,” said Smith, her expression grim. “Slim Jim knows where Overlord is, in this city, trust me. We can find Overlord and end this, no matter what happens back at the mint.”

Miya threw up her hands. “Screaming robots and power nullifiers and now fucking drones raining down missiles. Remind me, why would Overlord even in be in Westward? He could be slinging back drinks in Tahiti while these robots and fucking hellfire drones do all the dirty work.”

“You’ve spent time seeing his operation first hand. You know that’s not how he operates. What does he always want?”

Miya frowned for a moment. “Control,” she said, eyes on the ground.

“Yes. He’ll want personal, hands on control for something this big.”

“But… why Colorado?” asked Olivia.

“It’s a central location. Why do you think most US airlines use this city as their hub?” They do? “There are also a disproportionate number of robots here. He wants absolute control this city, top down.”

“Wait, disproportionate number of robots? Is that why there’s a fucking infinite number of the damn things?” asked Miya.

“Yes. He’s had close to twenty years to prepare for this. And most other cities aren’t seeing an invasion like this. He’s not toppling the government, he wants it intact and running, just with him in control of it. Classic tactic. The Romans did it, the conquistadors did it. This is less of an invasion and more of a very aggressive coup.” What?

Miya snorted and rolled her eyes. “Tell that to the CIA.”

“Yes, that line does get blurry. But you understand what I’m saying.”

“I understand I’m not leaving my friends behind,” said Olivia.

“And I am sorry, but this takes precedence.”

No. Olivia stood fully upright and looked down at Smith. “I can find Slim Jim from here. Can you?” she asked.

“We have our ways.”

“That you would be using if you had any other option,” said Miya. “But we’ve lost one friend already today, we’re not-”

“I’ve lost three people under my command in the last week, one of them from your stupidity,” shouted Smith, jabbing a finger at Miya. Olivia uncurled her claws. “Don’t preach to me about loss.”

“Faster, people,” said the sitting agent through gritted teeth. Olivia smelled sweat on him.

Smith broke eye contact for a moment, then said, “He’s right. We need to make a decision, now.”

Miya’s hands clenched into fists. “I don’t trust you. I remember you from somewhere. I know that.”

“That’s nice. Now will you help us or not?”

Olivia tilted her head at the woman. Something is off. Is she lying? Before she could ask anything, the comm in her ear crackled to life. She winced. “Pokey, ‘liv, Cyrus comin’ yer way,” said Skulker. Cyrus’ boots landed on the roof above them that instant. She narrowed her eyes as she looked up the stairs where he was heading. Where have you been? The last I remember from you is me getting possessed and you just flying off.

He appeared in view a moment later at the top of the stairs. “There you are,” he said, jogging down to join them.

“Cyrus,” said Smith with a nod.

He came to a stop beside the sitting grey suit. “I understand you are on the trail of Slim Jim,” he replied, addressing the group at large.

“That we are,” replied Smith.

“Good. He knows where to find Overlord.”

“Yes, we are aware.”

“Oh, the government hasn’t been idle after all?”

“Not all of it,” said Smith, a note of pride entering her voice. Olivia saw the other agent’s back straighten a little bit behind Cyrus.

Wait, Ben said Cyrus was coming. Does that mean… “Um, Cyrus? You were at the mint, right?” He nodded. “Was everyone…” Don’t say dead.

“They’re holding out. The lieutenant there filled me in. I took out the two drones that were giving them trouble on the way here, and the one over here,” he said casually. Olivia let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding. Wait, it’s that easy to destroy military drones? Really?

“Thank god,” murmured the sitting grey suit. He opened his eyes and stood, dusting off his suit jacket.

Miya’s brow furrowed as she stared at Cyrus. “The records don’t mention you being able to fly at those altitudes,” said Smith.

“It’s always good to keep something in reserve.”

“Not when you’re working for the Secret Service. They should have known.” With a frown she added, “They would have known.”

“It must have slipped their minds. Now, do you want to stand here debating or move?”

Smith paused for a second before nodding. “Point. Are you two in?” she asked Olivia and Miya.

“Are the others safe?” Olivia asked Cyrus.

“As safe as they can be, last I checked.”

Miya held a finger to her comm. “Delta? Gears? Are you guys good back at the mint?”

Gears’ voice crackled over Olivia’s comm. “We’re holding out. Need somethin’?”

“No, we’re good. Just checking in.”

Stop Overlord, stop the robots. “OK. Um, I can find Slim Jim,” Olivia said to Cyrus and Smith. Next to her, Miya nodded.

***

Several blocks later, they came to a stop near an abandoned factory. “There,” said Olivia, pointing a clawed finger at the low brick building. Cyrus nodded, landing next to her. A moment later, the two grey suits plus Miya teleported in. They took in the building, while the dark skinned agent masked them from any prying robot eyes.

“So what’s the plan?” asked Miya after a moment.

“Trap?” asked Cyrus.

“Trap,” agreed Smith. “No reason to stop in that building otherwise.”

“But we have no other choice but to go in,” added Cyrus with a sigh. “And they’re too smart to get drawn out of there.”

“Wait, with him here we could just sit here picking them off,” said Miya, jerking her thumb back at the grey suit, who’d sat back down and closed his eyes again.

“They’re not dumb. They’d figure out where we are really quick and carpet bomb the area. And Slim Jim isn’t a robot.”

“Power nullifiers?” asked Cyrus.

“I guarantee it.”

“Wait, why would he cut off his own power?” asked Miya.

“He’s not exactly helpless without powers. And those robots definitely won’t be.”

“I’m not. Olivia’s not.” Really? I thought I had a power.

“But the three of us will be,” pointed out Smith. “And, since this is a trap, there will be overwhelming force in there. Do the two of you want to take on everything in there?”

“Olivia, you can take a hit,” said Cyrus. Wait, what? “You go in first, draw their attention and take out every nullifier you can. You agents can teleport in after her. I can go up, make sure the airspace up is clear, then come in through the other side of the building. Two pronged assault.”

Bullets hurt. What do you people not understand about that? “Um, wait,” said Olivia. She fiddled with the bandage on her arm. “I, um, I…” How do I put this? “I don’t want to die?” Is that right? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s reasonable.

“Was that a question or a statement?” asked Cyrus.

“Both.” Does it matter?

“The moment you get clear of a nullifier in there we’ll teleport in after you,” added Smith. “Oh, and it won’t be just us. I have two more agents ready to join us.” Oh, five other people? Olivia’s confusion must have shown, because Smith spoke into the watch on her wrist. “Blackjack, can you get Jones and Taylor here?”

Two people teleported in behind Olivia. She spun around. One was the big guy that had been with Smith when she’d confronted Slim Jim. The other was a short blond woman, in the same style charcoal grey suit as the other agents. Both nodded to Olivia and the others.

“Wait, how do you keep teleporting to me?” asked Olivia.

“We put a small camera on you. Blackjack teleports us to where he can see through it. Jones is a short ranged metallokinetic.” The man nodded. “And Taylor is a multiplier,” said Smith. “With no nullifiers around, we have a fighting chance.”

Cyrus stepped up. “This is a long shot, but it’s the only shot we have. Anything to add?” he asked Smith.

“Slim Jim is utterly implacable. No one’s ever really stopped him before. He just heals and hammers away until you give in. If you can, take him out quick.” Oh, wonderful.

Cyrus grimaced. “Let’s do this.” He took off, fading from view into the early morning sky quicker than Olivia thought possible.

OK, let’s do this. Olivia lept off the roof and headed straight for the factory. In one the old, dirty windows she spotted robots. The power nullifying robot, flanked by two normal ones, had no visible head or neck, just a slight protrusion on top of its teardrop shaped torso. Two antenna stuck out from its back. You. Olivia tucked in her wings and held an arm in front of her eyes. She crashed through the window and into the power nullifier, sending them both sprawling.

That was dumb. She began climbing to her feet, when a metal foot kicked her in the teeth. Several bullets hit her in the back as a pair of normal robots started screaming. Stop it, stop it, stop it. She spat blood and whipped her tail around, aiming at the robot shooting at her. It jumped, only taking a glancing blow.

The second robot, the one that had kicked her, didn’t go for a second kick. It backpedaled and aimed its rifle. She gathered all the strength she could in her legs and lunged with a hiss. Her hand carved through the robot before it could fire a shot. More bullets hit her back, one glancing off a spike. She whirled around.

The second robot backed away, dragging a damaged leg. It raised its rifle. Behind it, the nullifier climbed to its feet, trying to escape. Olivia flinched as a bullet hit her cheekbone. No. She lowered her shoulder and charged.

In a woman’s voice, the robot sobbed, “No, no, no, please no.” Shut up. Olivia slammed into the robot. Its rifle spun free as the robot ragdolled.

The nullifier scrambled for the rifle as it flew by to its right. Olivia snarled, hooked her claws into its back, and brought it down. Go away, she thought, punctuating each syllable with a slash of her claws to its chest. The robot went still. She stood up straight and rolled her shoulders. Stupid bullets.

Slim Jim’s scent was still fresh in the building. She followed it, heading down the hallway as five friendlier scents materialized behind her. This isn’t hard. Two bullets melted through the wall, hitting her injured shoulder. She hissed and recoiled at their heat.

“Down,” yelled one of the agents. “One moment.”

A robot with a familiar sniper rifle came into view, dragged by an unseen force. The other agents and Miya opened fire, tearing it apart.

“Only one nullifier?” asked Miya.

Two of the grey suits exchanged glances. “Look like,” they replied.

He’s close. Olivia climbed to her feet and led the way towards the center of the factory. They found themselves on a catwalk overlooking the factory floor. A massive column of air burst in through the ceiling on the other side, carrying Cyrus with it. Robots went flying, bashing against the outer walls of the factory. Cyrus himself hovered a few feet above the ground.

In the center of the factory floor stood Slim Jim. Come on. Put on a shirt. Smith opened fire. Three bullet hit him, though his tentacles patched him up in an instant. The air around him howled, and he was raised up. Four thick tentacles of his wrapped around nearby machinery and flung them hard at Cyrus, who dropped to the floor to avoid getting smeared against a wall.

“He’s stalling,” muttered a grey suit.

A buzzing sound filled the air. Then Olivia found herself floating off the ground. Robots rushed into the room, including two armored and two nullifiers. They took the lack of gravity in stride, half floating towards Olivia’s group, the others towards Cyrus. She flailed, trying to grab onto something. Her tail whacked against the guardrail of the catwalk, sending her spinning.

“I recommend surrendering,” said Slim Jim, his emotionless voice still audible over the buzzing.

Behind Olivia, an agent threw a grenade towards the group of robots. One of the armored ones grabbed it and curled its body around it, taking the brunt of the blast. The other agents opened fire, the gunfire sending them back towards the hallway behind them.

The armored robot that had taken the grenade wasn’t active, but the others sailed on directly towards them. Olivia swiped as they clambered onto her. One let out a piercing shriek. Olivia curled up, unable to think about anything besides the noise. She didn’t even hear the gunfire all around her, didn’t feel the metallic hands on her. Everything was drowned out by the shriek.

Bullet hit her. Not the bullets of a robot’s rifle, but smaller pistol bullets. The shriek cut off. Olivia shrugged off the other robots and looked around. Miya clung to the remains of the armored robot, whether by accident or design the hulk was between her and most of the robots firing at the agents. Olivia stared at her. You shot me. Miya shouted something and pointed towards Slim Jim. Right. The momentum of the robots had brought Olivia up against the wall. She slashed apart another robot that had come back in range and pushed towards Slim Jim. Just like flying.

Slim Jim twisted, letting Olivia barrel past him and into Cyrus. She backhanded a robot as she tumbled, crushing its chest. Cyrus wrestled with another. He shouted something, Olivia still couldn’t hear.

The armored robot batted her aside as she drifted past. She reached out and hooked her claws into its arm, pulling it off its stable position above Cyrus. With her too close to bring its large gun to bear, it released it and hammered down on Olivia’s injury with its free hand. She let out a roar as her hand spasmed and released its hold. Right as the robot brought back its fist for another blow, Olivia pulled the robot back to her and released her grip, narrowly avoiding getting her fingers broken.

The robot floated back in her grasp, and she pried off one of its back plates as it tried to twist. She drove a hand into whatever looked delicate. The robot went still. Finally.

The moment she released her grip, it sprang back to life, driving an elbow into her ribs and grabbing her hair with its free hand. It pulled her over its shoulder, her claws leaving deep gouges in its back as Olivia held on for dear life.

She stretched her clawed toes and drove them into the robot’s gut, keeping her arms wrapped around its neck. She kicked and kicked, until the robot went still. She kicked a few more times, until her foot burst completely through the robot’s gut.

She shook her head free of its slack hand and spotted the nullifier behind her, hanging back and out of reach. Wait, there’s still air here. She stretched her wings straight out and flapped them, driving her back towards the nullifier. It had no way to change course. The moment she made contact, she reached around, wrapped an arm around it, and began to crumple the metal.

Blood, lots of blood, floated past her. Several robots had killed Cyrus, shot him in the back of the head. Slim Jim hovered nearby, looking on. Olivia roared and finished off the nullifier. Her struggle had brought her against the wall again, and again she pushed off of it straight for Slim Jim.

He looked up and summoned a good dozen tentacles. The moment she drew close, three tentacles wrapped around her and her wing. He swung with her momentum, letting her collide with the solid concrete floor instead of him. His tentacles twisted. Something popped, and Olivia’s back exploded into pain. A robot on the sidelines shot her in the head.

A massive burst of air rocked Slim Jim and Olivia. All remaining nearby robots nearly disintegrated from the force driven into them. Cyrus floated, whole and untouched. A slash of air hit Slim Jim.

Olivia ran a claw through his arm as Slim Jim released her to deal with the new threat. At the same time, a blow from Cyrus took out his knees. Slim Jim spun in the air, droplets of blood flying through the air. A gust of air bashed him against the wall. Cyrus spun him around and steadied Olivia. Slim Jim stared back, impassively, his wounds already healed.

Cyrus spat and said, “Tell me what you know.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Blunt Force Trauma

Gears let the hood of the MHU van drop down and slam shut. “Should be good to go,” he announced, fitting his gauntlets back on to his hands.

The MHU officer beside him brushed some char and oil off his own hands before slipping his gloved back on. “Great. Want to take a look at the armor plating on the side?”

“Sure.” Gears followed the officer, his armor whirring and clanking with every move as the mechanisms within moved hundreds of pounds of steel. Like moving in quicksand.

“Here we are. Those burnt ones.”

Gears tilted his head at several holes melted into the side of the van. “The hell is this? It’s all melted an’ shit.” What kind of bullet does that?

The officer shrugged. “Dunno. I was too busy trying not to die.” Fuck it, whatever.

“Can’t argue with that. Well, that meltin’ ain’t exactly good for the armor, but I don’t got a way to fix it here. What’s left is still better than nothin’. We got bigger problems.”

“Alright,” the officer said with a nod. Something in the distance exploded. “Thanks for the help.”

“No problem. You seen Delta ‘round? Black armor, helmet coverin’ her whole face?”

The officer took a moment before responding. “I think so. Check with the radio people, other side of the lot. Can’t miss ‘em.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

Gears yawned under his mask as he stomped away. Just keep swimming. He followed the officer’s directions down the road, not that they were hard to follow. He found Delta on one knee, arms deep in the innards of some device he didn’t recognize. A couple other people with headsets chattered on in the background at similar setups in the middle of the crowded road. The fuck is going on here?

It took her a moment, but Delta noticed his approached and looked up with a wave before returning to her work.

“How you doin’?” he asked, stopping by her side.

Delta grunted and hung her head for a moment. “Tired. I need to get my contacts out soon or my eyes are going to make me suffer.” Her shoulders jerked as she snapped something in the device.

“Yeah, I hear that. The tired bit, my eyes are fine.” Didn’t make this armor to be worn for long periods of time. I probably smell real bad, too. He sniffed. Correction: I smell real bad.

“Bastard,” she murmured, just loud enough to be heard.

“What?”

“No one else has to deal with crap eyes, I swear.”

“Nah. Been thinkin’ ‘bout gettin’ a pair myself. Stuff far away is gettin’ kinda blurry for me.”

“Really? Skuker doesn’t seem to have a problem. He’s a sniper.” She grabbed something from the belt at her hip.

“Yeah, his power’s helpin’ him out there.” Lucky bastard. Sorta.

“Really? His eyesight?”

“Yeah. He got a whole grab bag of stuff. Most of it’s minor though. What’cha up to here?”

“Fixing stuff. They pulled this out of one of the MHU vans.” She patted the side of large metal box. The hell we got here? He recognized the radio build into the top, but beyond that, the bank of dials and computer monitor were beyond him.

“The hell is all this for?” he asked.

“The dispatch radio. It’s very heavy duty encryption, basically.”

“What’re the odds Overlord’s listenin’ in on ‘em anyways?”

“Oh, I almost guarantee it. But the alternative is not being able to talk. What the…” She trailed off. What? She slapped a small, thick length of cable on the top of the device for him to see. “What is this little thing?”

“Is it a mechanical piece?” he asked.

“What? No.”

Gears shrugged. “Then I got no clue. It a problem?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’ll take a look at it once I fix this up.”

“Fix? You tore a bit of it out.”

“I cut it, but yeah, I see what you’re saying. It wasn’t actually doing anything. And it seemed off.”

“How can ya tell?”

“It’s made of a different kind of plastic. And I have no idea what it was supposed to do. Oh thank god, done,” said Delta. Gears helped her to her feet. “I’m fine.” she muttered.

No you aren’t. You took three bullets to the gut not that long ago, and now we’ve been running around for hours. He held his tongue and watched as she reattach the panel on the side of the device. Something clicked. She flicked a couple switches on the console. A couple lights came on, none of them red.

“There, working.” She grabbed the cut cable and waved the two other technicians over. “It’s all locked up and working now.” To Gears she said, “I want to take a look at this.”

“Need some help?”

“Sure,” she said as they walked off. “I gue-”

The technicians cut off whatever else she was about to say. “Hey, the screen isn’t quite the same as before. The color is off.”

Delta stared for a brief second. “It’s fine. I’ll be right over here if you need anything, OK.” Once out of earshot, she sighed and said, “Why does everyone doubt engineers?”

Gears shrugged. “I got no philosophy for you. Sorry.”

“Oh, good, no philosophy. That means you’re not useless after all.”

“Aw, thanks. I try.”

They sat down on the street curb, Gears’ armor letting out a heavy thud as it made contact with the concrete.

“Let’s see here.” Delta withdrew a couple wires from her glove and tied them around the frayed ends of the cable. She then drew a taser and jabbed at the center of the cable with it. Her head shot back in surprise. What? “Do you recognize this kind of rubber?” she asked, holding it out for him to see.

“No. Should I?” Never really paid attention to it before.

“It’s super resistant, to both heat and electricity.”

“Isn’t that the point?” asked Gears.

“No, as in a lightning bolt could hit this and nothing would happen.”

“No way in hell. It’d melt.” Lightning bolts are hot. I is so smartified.

“I know how much heat electricity puts out and how it would affect materials. This thing would be slightly charred on the point of impact. I mean, I’d need to test it to make sure, but this is unicorn horn or something right here.”

“Cool.”

“No, not cool. Where the hell did this come from?”

Getting kind of tired of not knowing answers to shit. “No clue,” said Gears with a sigh. He waved when he spotted Bob and Jeremiah approaching from the direction of the mint.

“Hey,” said Jeremiah. “Have you seen the dispatcher?”

“Yeah, I was just working on fixing some of their equipment. Right over there,” said Delta, pointing.

“Alright. Thanks.” Behind him, Bob nodded. Together, they hurried off. Delta and Gears exchanged glances. She returned to examining the cable in her hands. Gears listened in when the two MHU officers reached the two technicians. Oh, something interesting about something besides electricity.

“Dispatch?” asked Jeremiah.

“Yeah, that’s me,” said one of the technicians. He hung his headset around his neck. Oh, him.

“I’m Jeremiah, and this is Bob. We’re with the MHU, like you. We have a couple questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

“Sure, go ahead,” said the dispatcher, leaning against the console that Delta had fixed.

“When was the last time you saw Marcus?”

“Saw? I haven’t seen him since he left work yesterday, before this all began. But he was in contact with us right until those bots overran HQ, giving out orders.”

“Did he say where he was at the time?”

“No, sorry.”

Something much closer exploded. Shouts broke out from the surrounding people. Uh oh. Gears stood, shotgun in hand. Delta seemed torn between joining him and studying the cable. Guess her helmet’s showing her something interesting, because that cable is still just a cable. Bob, Jeremiah, and the dispatcher looked at the smoke billowing into the air from the wall on the opposite side of the mint.

“Slim Jim!” shouted a soldier rushing past.

“Slim Jim? Where the fuck did he come from?”

“I don’t know,” replied Delta, her voice distant.

He offered her a hand. “Come on, up. This might be an attack.”

She brushed his hand aside. “I’m fine.” Her hand shot to her stomach and she let out a strangled cry as she collapsed when she tried to stand.

Shit. He knelt down next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder as she curled up slightly. Gotta do something. Uh… “You got pain killers? Somethin’ like that.”

“No. Didn’t… didn’t think I’d need them.” Right, we should be sitting back at the lair, waiting this out. I don’t want to fight fucking Overlord. I want to sleep, really.

“Ok, I’m gonna get a medic.”

“No. I can do this.” She straightened out and brought her breathing rate back down. Slowly, carefully, she got to her feet, Gears following suit. “See? Let’s… let’s go.”

Funny. “No. You’re in no shape to fight.”

“I said I’m fine.”

“An’ I don’t believe you. You think I’m blind an’ deaf?” asked Gears.

Delta put her hands on her hips. “I think you’re sticking your nose where it’s not welcome. Or whatever the saying is, you get the point.”

Gears looked around. Any immediate threats? Bob and Jeremiah still stood next to the dispatcher and his equipment, rifles at the ready. The other technician had vanished. A tank rumbled to life nearby. Gears’ own truck sat off to the side, untouched.

“Come on, back to the truck.”

“No. What about the others?”

Stalling. Fine, whatever. “Well, we got those comm things. Let’s give ‘em a call.” He fiddled with a few buttons on his own comm embedded on the upper arm of his armor. “Skulker, you there?” asked Gears.

“Yeah. I’m good,” he replied. “Miya an’ ‘liv ain’t with me. Bot movement spotted, can’t talk.”

“Gotcha, take care.”

“You too.” Skulker’s line went quiet.

Beside him, Delta asked, “Miya, Olivia, you guys OK?”

“Yeah, we’re fine, kind of,” replied Miya. “Olivia’s after Slim Jim now.” God damn it.

“Shit. No, that’s not fine,” said Delta.

“There are some teleporting government spooks with her. I’m healing one of them now. Slim Jim knows something, apparently,” said Miya.

“Wait, so the guy who might know somethin’ just happened to fuckin’ materialize right where we are? That strike anyone else as a tiny bit suspicious?”

“Wait, what?” asked Bob. Gears jumped in his armor. Bob and Jeremiah stood behind them, waiting. Don’t surprise a guy like that. Come on, there’s a war going on. Gears and Delta filled them in on their conversation.

“How did he even get in here?” asked Gears when they finished.

“Maybe he snuck in. We just drove up and asked,” said Jeremiah.

“Yeah, I don’t think security is very tight here,” added Delta.

“Speaking of which, something is off with the dispatcher,” commented Bob. “Couldn’t put my finger on it.”

“Oh, I could have told you that. This cable,” said Delta, wiggling it in her hands, “is a little piece of Overlord tech. I can’t quite figure out what it’s supposed to do, either monitor or send a signal. But it was put in there by someone. Someone who had access.”

“What? That could be anyone,” said Jeremiah.

“No. Only dispatchers and the MHU chief have access to something as important as that radio. They don’t exactly know how the insides work, but they’re able to control who has access to it. So only Marcus and that dispatcher could have put that there.”

“And we don’t know where Marcus is,” muttered Bob.

“Exactly. The dispatcher is our only lead on this.”

Jeremiah nodded for a moment. “Alright. Let’s have another chat with him.”

“Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” asked Gears.

“I didn’t want to call you two over and raise suspicion or something.”

“You spent all your time in tech support, didn’t you?” said Bob.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Jeremiah, over Delta’s retort. “Let’s go.”

They approached the dispatcher, still at his radio. What was it Bob said about dispatchers? Rain, sun, or nuclear annihilation. Gears grabbed the dispatcher’s arm and threw him to the ground. He shoved the shotgun barrel under his chin. “Talk.”

It took the dispatcher a moment to find his voice. “What?”

“I said talk.”

The dispatcher cringed under the gun, trying to back away on his back. “What? What are you talking about?” Behind them, a couple soldiers took notice and approached. Bob headed them off, raising a placating hand.

“You know. Overlord.”

Sweat beaded on the man’s forehead. “I… what? No, I don’t know-“ Gears cut him off with a jab to the chin with the gun barrel.

“You know we received a lot of faulty orders,” said Jeremiah, kneeling down beside him. “Orders from you. We were led straight into ambushes. All of us should be dead.”

“I’m just the messenger. They told me where people needed to go, so I did my job. Look, I didn’t know. If I’d known, that never would have happened.”

“Define ‘they’.”

“The brass. You know, the people in charge.”

“Do you know what this is?” asked Delta, holding the cable in her hands. Gears saw a flash of recognition in the dispatcher’s eyes.

“He does,” he announced. Lying piece of shit.

“Why betray us?” asked Delta.

The dispatcher gritted his teeth. “I didn’t. Now let me up.”

Gears gave him another jab with the shotgun. “Liar.”

Jeremiah sighed. “I agree with Gears here. You’re digging yourself deeper. What does Overlord have on you? We can help you if you tell us.”

“I. Am. Not. A. Traitor.”

“You know how many you got killed?” roared Gears. Liar, liar, liar.

“What? You think I’m going to just let that fucking robot blow my wife’s brains out?” the dispatcher blurted out. That’ll do it. Now quit beating around the bush.

Gears moved the gun barrel to the right of the man’s ear and pulled the trigger. The dispatcher screamed as the shot tore up the asphalt a bare inch from his ear.

“You still hear me? I don’t lie. Your wife your weak spot? I’ll drag you fuckin’ wife out here an’ blow her brains out myself unless you start givin’ me answers. You’re between a rock an’ a hard place, but this hard place is much fuckin’ closer.” The dispatcher turned away, screwed his eyes shut, and kept quiet. Look at me, liar.

“Allow me,” said Jeremiah, standing and placing a hand on Gears’ shoulder. To the dispatcher he said, “We’re not going to be executing anyone. Just tell us what you know.” Gears removed his foot from the man’s chest and took a step back, shotgun still at the ready.

The dispatcher gave a nervous smile. “Good cop from you, Jeremiah?”

“Yep. You’ve already confessed. It’s just a question of how much you tell us now.”

His smile vanished. “I tried. I really tried. If I talk they’ll kill her and me.”

“How did this happen?” The gunfire drew closer.

“Marcus. It was Marcus. He was nervous, told me to visit an old house on the outside of town. They had my wife, and told me to do whatever they said. They gave me that thing and told me where to put it. Then I’d see messages on screen, them telling me what to say.” The dispatcher’s voice was growing more and more desperate, the words coming out faster and faster.

“Where is Marcus now?” asked Jeremiah, his voice as calm as ever.

“I don’t know. I don’t know, probably dead. Oh god I’m sorry, Jennifer. I’m so sorry.”

“That’s all we needed to know. We’ll find your wife,” said Jeremiah over the dispatcher’s sobs.

Bob turned the dispatcher over and handcuffed him as Jeremiah walked up to Delta and Gears.

“Would you really have done that?” Delta asked Gears.

“What?”

“Shoot him and his wife?”

“Yeah. Why would I give a shit about her or him?”

Delta stayed silent. “The Company appreciates your assistance in this matter,” Jeremiah whispered into Gears’ ear. Eh? Jeremiah continued in a normal voice, “So that’s one mystery cleared up. But we’re no closer to Marcus.”

“Maybe not,” said Delta, her voice quiet. “He mentioned Marcus was nervous. Maybe he’s under threat too.”

“What do we never need him for?” asked Gears. From what Ben tells me he’s a dick.

“He knows how to command the MHU more than the military. He knows the city better than that lieutenant guy and he’s a mage,” called out Bob.

Jeremiah nodded. “Yes. That. Dispatcher was our best lead, but I think I have a few others, if I can get into contact with them.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Professional

Olivia huddled on the air conditioning unit, eyes on her knees. Her limp tail hung off the edge by her side . Gunfire rattled off in the early morning air all around, too distant to be an immediate threat. A scattering of soldiers and MHU officers . Some rushed about on one errand or another, others simply rested, nervous eyes on the surrounding streets and buildings.

Skulker teleported to her side poked her in the cheek, sniper rifle in his free hand. Not now. He poked her again. “Please stop,” she asked, her voice soft.

“How ya doin’?” he asked, brushing her wing aside and hopping up on the AC next to her.

What do you think? “I’m OK.”

He snorted. “Tha’ ain’t the truth an’ you know it.”

“I couldn’t do anything,” she burst. “I just had to stand there and watch. I hated it. I hate remembering it.” There, better? Happier I said that?

“There ya go. Not much you coulda done, ya know? But we got a new day ahead of us, can’t be all mopey.”

She sighed and looked him in the eye. “How can you sound so… chipper?”

“I ain’t got any wise words for ya, not really” he said with a shrug, expression unreadable under his mask. He rested the butt of his rifle on the corner between the AC and his leg. “But I ain’t dead yet. No reason to make myself all sad an’ miserable, won’t bring Chris back. Gotta look at other stuff. We got revenge to get, we got guns, we got like minded people ‘round us. We’re all in one piece. Kinda.” He held up his maimed hand and wiggled his three remaining fingers.

Olivia bowed her head again. That doesn’t make it better. That just makes it not worse. You shouldn’t have lost your fingers, Amanda shouldn’t have been shot, Chris should still be alive. Why can’t people leave us alone? Something in the far distance exploded. Beyond some turned heads, no one on the roof reacted.

A familiar scent caught Olivia’s nose. She whipped her head around to the open door of the roof access. Miya stomped up the stairs, sweat covering her brow and long black hair in disarray. A white armband with a red cross hung on her exposed upper arm. Olivia noticed blood spatters on her hands and forearms. Miya caught sight of her and Skulker and staggered over.

Without preamble, she spat, “Ten minutes. I lasted ten minutes in that hellhole. Too much blood and screaming. Can’t take it.” Olivia moved over, making space for Miya on the air conditioner.

“That bad?” asked Skulker.

“Yeah. Lots of wounded. Lots of dying. There’s some nanobot grey goo thing. Dissolves flesh. They think it’s on a timer or something, it pops up on people who’ve been there a while with no sign of it.” Dissolves?

“Shit. Not much you can do ‘bout that, either.”

“Yeah. I got a couple people back on their feet. That was good.” Some of the stress and anger in Miya’s voice seemed to recede with the last statement. Olivia wrapped a wing around her shoulders, pulling her closer.

A pair of patrolling soldiers walked by. One did a double take at them. I know, I’m weird. He pointed at Miya. Olivia suppressed a threatening hiss at the sudden movement.

“Hey, take that off,” he said.

Miya blinked. “What?”

“Just, just take it off. The armband. Take it off or those bots will shoot you in the head.” You care? The soldier looked wild eyed. His partner watched him with concern.

“OK, OK,” said Miya, raising a placating hand. Her other hand wrestled with the armband before finally ripping it off.

The soldier sighed and said, “Thanks.” He walked off without another word.

“Yeah, the bots targeted medics we were with,” added his partner. “It’s not like they’d have medics. Maybe mechanics. Fucking crazy.” With that, he followed after the other soldier.

The three of them on the AC exchanged glances. He was kind of nice. Right? He didn’t just ignore us, at least. And now Miya is safer.

“Man, bots suck,” said Skulker after a moment.

“No kidding,” said Miya, her voice shaky. The armband slipped through her fingers and fell to the ground. “I’m surprised they haven’t rained missiles down on us yet.”

“No way that’d work here,” said Skulker, waving a dismissive hand.

Olivia tilted her head. “What do you mean?”

“This is the fuckin’ mint,” said Skulker. “They make money here. Literally. This is a massive target for any crime boss with supers.  It’s built like the fuckin’ White House. Security’s prepared for damn near anythin’. Solid steel walls, cameras, sensors, the whole deal. Hell, tha’s jus’ the shit they tell you ‘bout on the tour. You bet yer ass there’s way more than that. Yeah, this is the safest building in the city, provided you got good people protectin’ it. An’ I think we do.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Yeah, took tha’ tour I mentioned. Kinda cool. But yeah, this place can take near anythin’.”

“And it’s been quiet. Sort of. That seems really strange,” commented Olivia. It’s loud, actually. But no one else seems to notice, so I guess it’s just me.

“Yeah. Why hasn’t the hammer come down yet?” added Miya.

“You really don’ hear or smell anythin’, ‘liv?”

Olivia closed her eyes for a moment. The buzzing of drones, muffled by intervening buildings, reached her. Not just one. She opened her eyes pointed forward. “Drones over there. Sounds like about five.”

“Are they moving?” asked Miya.

“Um, no, I think they’re just hovering there.” Stupid things.

“Should probably tell the guy in charge up here,” said Skulker.

“Who?” asked Miya.

“That guy towards the center. No clue what his rank is.”

Together, they slid off the the big grey AC box and walked over to the soldier. Olivia hung back with Miya as Skulker explained. I’ll just be dumb and stammer. Chris was always better at talking.

“Anythin’ we can do ‘bout them?” said Skulker as he finished.

The soldier frowned. “No, not really, not from up here. Don’t have a clear line of sight.”

“Smell any bots?” Miya asked Olivia.

“Yeah, all around. There’s a lot where the drones are,” she replied. Right, I probably should have said that earlier. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But there’s so much of that oily stuff everywhere.

“You sure?” asked the soldier. Olivia nodded. “Yeah, that’s bad. Alright,  I’ll pass this on to the lieutenant.” The soldier unstrapped a radio from his belt.

“Really? You ain’t gonna fight us on this?” This is too easy. This is kind of nice.

The soldier shrugged as fiddled with the radio. “From what I hear, she’s a dragon. I ain’t gonna doubt you.” He raised the walkie talkie to his ear; they took that as their signal to leave.

“That went well,” commented Miya as they returned to their patch of the roof.

“Yeah,” agreed Olivia. “I thought he’d… I don’t know.”

“What?”

“Not believe us? He didn’t really seem that scared by me, either. It was… I don’t know. Nice?”

Miya managed a small laugh and nudged her with an elbow. “You’re not scary. Tall, sure.” I know. Tell that to everyone else.

“Not scared. Just… wary?” Is that the right word?

Skulker scoffed. “Come on. You’ve been around, what, three months now? Think of all the weird shit you’ve seen. At some point it stops bein’ weird. People roll with stuff. An’ you haven’t attacked anyone in forever.”

Olivia frowned. I know, I’m weird. I just… I don’t know. Need better self control. Her stomach growled.

“Hungry?” asked Miya. Olivia shrugged. Can you guys really hear that?

“Think we can jus’ leave?”

“Does it matter? Nothing is happening,” answered Miya.

“Yeah, but somethin’ might happen.”

“What, are they going to get pissed at us for eating food?” asked Miya.

Skulker chuckled. “At the wrong time? Yeah, absolutely. I’ll stay up here.”

Miya shrugged. “Alright. I passed by a sort of cafeteria looking thing on the way up here. They had some of those prepackaged food pack things. Want to see if there’s anything you can eat?”

“Sure,” answered Olivia. I guess I’m hungry.

“See you guys in a bit,” said Skulker with a wave. He grabbed his rifle and teleported to the edge of the roof, alongside a group of soldier manning a large tripod mounted gun.

Olivia followed Miya as they took the stairs back down into the mint. As they reached the floor below the roof, a woman rushed out of a door leading to the rest of the building. She stopped herself right before colliding with Miya. Hey.

“Oh, sorry about that,” said the woman, trying to shoulder her way past them.

“Whoa, wait, who are you?” demanded Miya, grabbing the woman’s arm. Olivia stopped alongside her and tilted her head at the woman. Wait, haven’t I seen her before? Oh, right, when we saw the lieutenant guy. She was out in the hall.

The woman in the battered charcoal grey suit curled her lip. “I’m an employee here.”

“So what are you still doing here? I haven’t see any other workers.” Miya put her hands on her hips, her brow furrowed.

“I was working late, and got trapped. That, and my car was destroyed. This area had a lot of the early fighting going on. Now, if you’ll excuse me-”

Miya tightened her grip on the woman’s arm. Miya, what’s wrong with you? “So why do I recognize you from somewhere?”

“I don’t know, and that’s not my problem. Now let go of me.”

A couple MHU officers had poked their head through the opened door, taking a look at the commotion in the stairwell. Olivia lay a hand on Miya’s shoulder. Not here. Please let go. Miya stared at the woman for a moment before releasing her grip.

“Thank you,” said the woman, her voice icy. She marched down the stairs in a huff.

Miya continued to stare after the woman, even after her footsteps receded to the point where Olivia doubted anyone else could hear them. The onlookers that had gathered dispersed, a couple throwing glances over their shoulders as they left.

“Come on,” whispered Olivia, guiding Miya to the door the charcoal suited woman had exited. It’s not worth it. And I smell food.

They made their way through the crowded hallways and grabbed some MREs from the self appointed quartermaster. Several more people, soldiers and officers alike, did double takes at the sight of Olivia. Sorry. Miya found an out of the way corner for them to sit down.

“Are you OK?” asked Olivia. You’ve been brooding. Well, more broody than usual. She ran a claw through the MRE packaging and sliced it open. 

“No. Something about that woman is off. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me.” Her face lit up. “Could you track her?”

“What?” Olivia tilted her head again. Can we just eat please?

“Track her. Like, you know, by smell or something?”

She blinked. “I guess.” Are you’re OK?

“Let’s go, come on.” Miya climbed to her feet.

Olivia stared down at the contents of the MRE on her lap. But but… Miya didn’t notice her hesitation, instead heading back for the stairs. Olivia placed her food on the floor beside her, then stood up. I guess I’ll come back for this later.

“So, she went downstairs, right?” asked Miya when she caught up.

Olivia sniffed. Um… “Yeah, follow me.”

They walked down through the mint. No one got in their way, most people too preoccupied with whatever else they had to do. Some slept in the hallways, others cleaned their rifles. Eventually, away from other people, Olivia heard a familiar voice talking down the hallway. Whoa, hang on. She held out a hand to bring Miya to a halt.

“Blackjack? Go ahead,” the woman spoke to an empty hallway. Three new scents entered the room, completely without sound. What? “We have ten minutes.”

Two different voices, men’s voices, replied, “Yes ma’am.” Three sets of footsteps headed for where Olivia and Miya stood.

“What’s happening?” whispered Miya, oblivious. “Should we call the others?”

“Back up,” Olivia whispered back. They retreated as far as they could go before reaching a dead end. Oh no, nowhere to go. The footsteps grew closer.

The woman in the charcoal suit adjusted the watch on her wrist as she passed. Her suit spasmed. The wrinkles and tears vanished, repairing themselves. In maybe three seconds, the woman wore a pristine suit that could have come fresh from the tailor. She didn’t break her stride, and the two large men behind her didn’t so much as blink, nor spare a passing glance to either side.

Miya and Olivia exchanged glances, then followed. Miya never caught sight of the people in suits, but Olivia could keep track of where they went by their footsteps. They avoided the heavily trafficked areas, but didn’t shy away from people. They headed straight for the western part of the mint, above where Olivia had met the lieutenant.

A door opened, and the footsteps stopped. “You know why we’re here. Turn yourself in,” said the woman, her voice calm. Olivia and Miya crept closer.

“No,” replied an inflectionless voice.

“Something’s happening,” whispered Olivia. They drew closer. I don’t think there’s anyone else here.

The sounds of a scuffle broke out from the room in front of them. Olivia poked her head around the corner right as it died down.

A tall, bald man in cargo pants and a thin tank top stood in the center of the room, feet slightly apart. One of the men had a pistol aimed directly at his chest. The woman stood directly in front of him, hands held behind the small of her back. The third man held his hands out in front of him, back to the others. What is he doing?

“You didn’t think Overlord is the only one who can nullify powers, did you?” asked the woman.

“No,” replied the thin man, still as emotionless as before, even with a gun aimed at him. His neutral expression didn’t flicker.

“Slim Jim,” spat Miya. She drew her pistol.

“I smell oil. From Slim Jim. Not a lot, but more than most,” said Olivia. That can’t be good.

“Yeah,” replied Miya, not listening. She marched into the room and barked, “Motherfucker!” What are you doing?

The three people in charcoal suits turned for a brief moment. “Stay away-” began the woman as Miya took aim.

In their moment of distraction, Slim Jim struck. Lightning fast, he threw a knife into the eye of the man threatening him. He ducked down and sprinted for the woman, tentacles bursting from his skin. Oh god.

Miya fired a couple shots, missing Slim Jim. Two dark green tentacles wrapped around her arms and snapped them. Her pistol clattered to the floor, discharging another shot into the air. Olivia felt a roar escape her lips. Leave her alone. The woman backed up as Slim Jim approached, reaching for her watch.

Olivia rushed forward, charging for Slim Jim. He readjusted, skidding to a halt and whipping three long tentacles towards her face. She took their blows, then wrapped a hand around one tentacle and yanked with all her might. Slim Jim didn’t budge an inch. The woman lobbed a grenade toward his chest. It exploded, rattling Olivia’s eardrums.

Slim Jim was knocked off his feet, and the tentacle in Olivia’s hand ripped from her grasp. Thin tentacles appeared all over his body, covering his wounds. Before Olivia could tell what they were doing, the grenade by his bloodied legs reformed, exploding in reverse, then exploded normally again.

Slim Jim’s body was thrown back again, and Olivia staggered backwards at the second explosion in an enclosed space. She hissed and held her hands to her ears.

Miya had struggled to her knees, red ribbons of magic surrounding her arms. Olivia staggered towards her. Miya looked up and screamed something, pointing to somewhere behind Olivia. Behind?

She whirled around to catch sight of Slim Jim standing again, all wounds on his body gone, though his clothes were tattered beyond repair. The longer combat tentacles burst from him again.

“Blackjack!” barked the woman.

The other man, the one who’d simply been standing there with arms raised, vanished right as the tentacles reached him. The plowed into the floor instead, digging deep gouges into the floor. Then, half a dozen small robots descended from the ceiling.

Each robot was only about as long as Olivia’s forearm. It had six legs sticking out of it, ending in sharp points. A small barrel stuck out of its central case. One lunged at Olivia’s face, two others circled around her, scuttling on the walls like spiders.

A sudden shot hit her shoulder, twisting her around. The lunging robot collided with her face, sharp legs jabbing at her eyes. A couple more shots rang out. Olivia slapped down the robot before it could do any damage. Before she could get her bearings back, another attacked in the same way as before. It leaped out of the way, letting Olivia claw herself in the face.

Damn it. She extended a wing and twisted, catching a third robot mid-air. She threw it to the ground and stomped down on it. She looked up to find the the robots scuttling out of sight. Olivia hissed, and nearly charged after them, before something occurred to her. Miya! She whirled around, to find her crouching over the remaining grey suit.

The woman in the charcoal suit held a hand to her chest and gasped, “Not a normal suit.”

“Yeah, you’ve still got a broken rib or three,” said Miya, her voice weary. She held a hand on the woman’s shoulder, keeping her from getting up.

“I don’t care. We need to catch him. Alive.”

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