Mercenary – Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that against your religion?”

“I’m older than Islam, remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need your help with something.”

Thomas snorted and said, “Define something.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Taauth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a sense, yes.”

“And he’s like you, right?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Slim Jim,” said Cyrus.

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

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

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

“Sometimes people need killing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Sorry. Olivia is the original feral.”

Thomas nodded, then said, “Define tough.”

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

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

“I believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyrus nodded and said, “What about Pathfinder?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

Cyrus nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I have.”

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

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

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

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

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

Cuauhtémoc refused to budge.  “No.”

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

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

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

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Homecoming – Hand of God

Olivia kept her claws out, taking a cautious step around the trio of grey suited agents standing in the middle of the lair. The others remained scattered around. Rob began drifting towards the gun cases, while Ben crept up on the suits behind Cyrus. The other dragon people, Red, Beth, and Hank, had claws and wings out as well. Olivia kept an ear for any hissing directed at each other or the grey suits. Just leave us alone.

“We deal with problems. And you could very well be a problem. A big one,” Smith, the woman at the head of the grey suits, said to Cyrus.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “When have I ever been a problem for you? No, unless you truly start angering me, I’m not a problem.”

“Your history shows otherwise.” Smith sighed. “Look, we appreciate your help. But you’ve made our bosses very nervous. You’ve never been the most predictable of people.”

“So I should apologize for existing, it seems,” Cyrus said.

“Not an apology. Right here, right now, we need to know what you’re doing.”

“I was asleep, at least until a large person was thrown on top of me,” he said, casting Olivia an aside glance. Sorry. Red was just… “Today I was meaning to visit a friend in Florida, then take a visit to China.”

“China,” repeated Smith.

“Yes.”

“I don’t suppose you’d care to elaborate.”

The two grey suits behind Smith kept their drawn weapons pointed to the floor, though they kept their feet apart in a ready stance. Beth, at least, had calmed down some, though she kept her narrowed eyes on the grey suits. Ben, Rob, Olivia, and Miya had formed a half circle around them.

“Overlord detonated a nuclear weapon in Venezuela,” said Cyrus. “That might very well force the Siberians to act.” Wait, Siberia is super far away from Venezuela, right? Or am I misremembering again?

If Smith had noticed Olivia or the others, she made no sign of it. She readjusted the silver watch on her wrist and said, “I’m curious. Why should I believe you would just give us your schedule?”

“Because I’m assuming there are very large guns pointed at this building right now, ready to level it the moment your teleporter gets you out of here. These young men and women don’t deserve to have their home destroyed on my account.”

Miya and Beth cast nervous glances at the walls. I don’t hear or smell anything outside. Cyrus let the silence hang for a moment, then continued, calm as ever, “If you’re so knowledgeable about my history, you know I tend to disappear after making a scene. I find no joy in it.”

Smith considered him for a moment. Don’t do something dumb. “Fine then,” said Smith. “I can’t argue that. I’ll let my bosses know. Don’t do that sandstorm thing again and you’ll never hear from us again.”

“Wait,” spoke up Olivia. As the grey suits turned to her, she gathered her thoughts. OK. It’s just a question. “There was another one of us,” she said, pointing to herself and Red. “She, um, she ran away when we let her out. Did anyone find her. Do you know where she is?”

Smith looked around at Red, Hank, and Beth. “That was actually a secondary reason for us coming here. There were reports of others like you. All of you are accounted for, now.”

Answer the question. “Do you know where she is?” repeated Olivia.

“She’s in custody. She’s in good hands. And before you all do anything stupid, no, she’s not going to the research institute in Houston.” Cyrus stepped aside, leaving Smith and Olivia with a clear line of sight to each other.

Olivia uncurled her hands. “What?” she demanded. “Let her go.”

“No.” Just as Olivia opened her mouth to argue, Smith said, “And I don’t remember saying it was up for debate.”

“No, no, you can’t-”

“Alright, Blackjack,” said Smith with a shake of her head. The agents vanished.

Olivia let out a snarl at the now empty space. Get back here.

Ben teleported to her as she marched for the door. “Little Bird, that ain’t worth it,” he said, nearly hanging off of her arm.

Olivia stopped and stared down at him. “How could you say that?” she asked.

“Riskin’ all out necks for someone we don’t even know? Come on, you four barely get along as is. You think addin’ another of ya will do any good? Hell, you just threw Red onto Cyrus. Another of you an’ I don’t think the rest of us would make it out in one piece.”

Olivia turned to Cyrus. “Could you-”

“Start a war with the US? No,” he said, cutting her off with a shake of his head. “You have helped me, and I am grateful for that, but you’re asking too much.”

“She was feral, Olivia,” spoke up Amanda. “Look at Hank. They’re not clones of you. She might try to kill us.”

Olivia felt her wings slump. We should still do something. Anything. Are we just giving up? She looked around to the others. Miya looked ready to jump in, but the others, dragons included, either refused to meet her gaze or showed no support. She wouldn’t hurt anyone, right? Wait, no, she tried to gouge my eyes out when we first let her out.

“Fine,” Olivia mumbled. Ben let go of her arm, teleporting to the door to check outside.

“Bastards. Just teleporting in and out without a word of warning,” muttered Miya as she joined Olivia. “Fuck them.”

“No fuckin’ kiddin’,” said Rob. His eyes lit up, and he pointed to Amanda. “Hey, Ben said somethin’ ‘bout you detectin’ Freedom Fighter’s power with black magic, right?” Amanda nodded slowly. “Notice anythin’ when those fuckers teleported in?”

Amanda’s eye widened. “I have no idea. Let’s find out!” She rolled over to another computer, Rob hovering over her shoulder.

Olivia stomped over to the table as the others dispersed. Chris would know what to do, she thought as she sat down. Miya passed by behind her, heading towards the fridge between two wooden cabinets on the floor.

“Want something?” Miya asked Olivia.

Food. “Yes please. Just… anything,” she replied.

Miya grabbed an apple for herself. She passed Olivia a package of sliced ham as she sat beside her. The moment she slid a claw through the plastic wrapping, Beth’s head swiveled in her direction from her corner in the lair. Olivia frowned. Get your own. Cyrus took a seat across the table from Miya and Olivia.

“You two seem down,” he commented.

“We lost a friend yesterday. Or was it the day before that? Shit,” said Miya with a grimace and a shake of her head.

“I’d heard.”

No one ever seems to care. “Why do you care?” asked Olivia, the question coming out harsher than she’d intended.

Cyrus raised an eyebrow. “You forget, Chris worked under me, along with Amanda over there, for half a year in the MHU. I tried to keep tabs on them as best I could, before…”

“Before Marcus dicked you over?” said Miya.

“Hrm?” You don’t remember? A small smile formed at the corners of his mouth. “Ah yes, that.”

“You’ve lived basically forever,” said Miya, “How do you deal with it?”

“You remember them as best you can,” replied Cyrus.

Miya nodded as she bit her lip. “That’s what Bob, that one officer, told me. Sounds so easy.”

“Give it time,” said Cyrus.

“You always know what to do, don’t you?” said Olivia, some resentment creeping into her voice in spite of herself. Thousands of years. I have two months, and you get thousands of years.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“No, sorry I just… I can never remember what I’m supposed to do.” Hank and Red and Beth and me keep fighting and I don’t know how to make it stop.

His gaze grew distant. “I… can’t, not truly. Bits and pieces, nothing more. I can remember what happened, not actually being there. It’s more like reading it out of a dry book, the details from it half remembered, than reading it. I know I had a wife, I can barely remember what she looked like,” he said, his voice cracking towards the end.

“So all those things you said to Slim Jim,” began Olivia. About fighting legions and Mongols and stuff?

“Could be true,” said Cyrus, finishing her sentence. “From what I can remember, what I said seems likely.” He shook his head. “The human mind was not meant to exist this long.”

“Wait, Taauth is like you too, isn’t he?” asked Miya as she sat up in her chair.

“I spent several centuries as an acne ridden teen,” he said, one hand stroking his beard. “They’re about a year for me, and I assume the same for him.”

“How does Taauth remember how to do anything, then?” asked Miya. “From what I know, the different schools of magic are radically different from one another. You can’t just tell it to go, there’s a lot of subtleties to it. All the different types of magic is like stuffing you head full of every textbook.” I can barely even get it to work.

“That is a good question. He was old when he came to rule Babylon. And he was always powerful, very powerful.” Cyrus grimaced. “I can’t remember much, I’m sorry.” Olivia resisted the urge to wrap a wing around him.

“How did you even kill him, then?” asked Miya.

“We surprised him. I crushed his head before it could reform as three of my king’s mages slowly disintegrated his body. It took four days.”

“You can remember that?” asked Olivia. I want to remember stuff.

“No, that’s an educated guess. Why so much interest in Taauth? I would have thought the twins would have had more interest.”

“He sounds terrifying,” replied Miya. “Whenever Rob or Amanda mention Overlord, they almost sound scared. He is, or was, the boogeyman of techies. He could take their whole life’s work and use it to make screaming terror-bots. This guy sounds like what Overlord was trying to do.”

Cyrus sat up straighter. “Repeat that?”

“What? I don’t know. Taauth sounds like he can do what Overlord was trying to do. Control magic, absolutely.” Olivia wrapped a wing around Miya’s shoulders as her voice grew quiet. It’s OK, he’s gone now.

Cyrus frowned. “So that’s what Taauth was afraid of.”

Miya managed a shaky laugh. “I bet. It’s kind of funny that you don’t already know everything.”

Cyrus roared with laughter for a moment. How is that funny? “I am not all knowing. In fact, I am not a smart or cunning man at all. I would more say I’m a very average man who has been alive for far too long. But I have taken up too much of your time.” He stood and left a slip of paper on the table. “If you need to contact me, call this number. If I don’t answer, just leave a message, I’ll get to it within a day at the most.”

“You’re leaving?” asked Miya. All of a sudden?

“Yes. I wasn’t lying to Smith. I do have places I need to be, Taauth will only get harder to stop as time goes on. In any event, I cannot thank you enough for your help.”

Olivia looked around the lair. No one else besides Hank paid any attention, though Hank sneered and turned away once she looked at him.

“Yeah, sure,” replied Miya. “Any time, I guess.”

Cyrus smiled and slipped outside.

Miya let out a deep breath. “Oh thank god. I couldn’t tell if he was going to get bored and flatten us or not.”

“He wasn’t that bad,” said Olivia with a frown. “People keep saying that about me, too.”

“True, true.” Miya yawned. “I’m still tired and sore,” she said. “I’m honestly thinking of just passing out for a while.”

Olivia shrugged. Reading doesn’t sound bad at all. Without a word, they headed off to the curtained off area. Miya collapsed on her bed. Olivia felt sleep overcome her as she lay in the soft beanbag, the scratched tablet falling from her hands.

***

Olivia awoke to hissing. No, let me sleep. The hissing continued. But… sleep. She grimaced and climbed to her feet, taking in the sight of Red and Beth squaring off against each other near the food. Before she had to intervene, Beth backed off, backing away towards the long table. Oh, hey, they didn’t fight. Olivia looked down at her beanbag. I could go back to sleep. It’s so comfy. But… food.

Once it didn’t look like another fight was about to break out, Rob and Amanda returned to whatever it is they had been working on lately. Olivia thought she recognized some of the railgun parts, but they could have been for something completely different for all she knew. Olivia ignored Red as she grabbed breakfast and sat at the table.

What do you want? She glanced down at her hands, where her claws had dug into the plastic of the table. She relaxed and eyed Beth as she sat across from her. Beth kept her head down and claws curled up. Not hissing, not a threat. Olivia opted for silence, with only Beth’s tail swishing along on the concrete floor to break it.

“Hey,” said Beth after a few minutes.

Did I do something? “Hi.” That’s what she was saying, right?

“How’s it going?”

“Good, I guess.”

The conversation dropped off for a few silent moments. “So,” began Beth. “You’re, like, the original, right? Like, with the wings and stuff?”

Olivia nodded.

“So you can’t remember much either?”

Olivia shook her head.

“How far back can you remember, then?”

“Two months. Wait, it’s the end of June, two and a half.” Why do you care?

Beth looked down at her clawed hands. “But you know more about all this stuff than me. So, like, what exactly is different about us?” she asked.

“Um, well, you can fly. It’s fun!” Olivia sat up straighter in her chair, wings relaxed. I need to go flying again soon. Maybe I could bring the others along!

“These aren’t useless? Yes!” said Beth, cracking a smile.

“Yeah, if you do it right, you can go almost as fast as a car,” explained Olivia. “Landing is kind of annoying, though.” Stupid feet.

“So I can just flap my wings and go?”

Olivia shook her head. “No. I jumped off a building my first time. It takes practice.”

Beth laughed. “Wow. That’s one way to do it.”

“Yeah,” agreed Olivia. That was kind of dumb, looking back. Oh well. “It’s really fun. Do you want to learn?”

“Sure,” said Beth.

“We have to wait for night. Because, you know, people don’t like us.” They freak out, usually.

“Yeah, feral. Fuck,” said Beth, her smile slipping away. “And my ears keep giving me trouble. They’re going to drive me insane, I swear.”

“My ears are kind of messed up, too,” said Olivia. “Sometimes there’s this annoying ringing sound in them. People keep shooting guns and stuff next to my ears. It hurts. But it gets better. Once you figure out what it is you’re hearing. Oh, yeah, we’re kind of bulletproof. They still hurt, but they don’t really break skin.”

Beth looked down at her arm for a moment. “Seriously?” Olivia nodded. Why would I lie? “Wait, how did you figure out you’re, or we’re, bulletproof?”

“I got shot.”

Beth stared. “What? Why? What did you do?”

“They shot me. They were mean.”

“They, who is they?”

“Some mercenary guys,” replied Olivia.

After a dumbfounded moment, Beth said, “Every answer just leads to more questions.”

“I know, I’m weird.”

Rob and Amanda walked over together, both huddled over a tablet in Amanda’s hands.

“Think that’ll work?” asked Rob.

“It should. Let’s give it a shot after food,” replied Amanda. “How are you two?” she asked as she sat next to Olivia as Rob went off to the cupboards.

“Just chatting,” replied Beth. “Where is everyone else?”

“Hank is sulking somewhere, Miya’s talking with Red out back. Something about magic. Oh yeah, and I think Ben is with them,” replied Amanda. Oh, they moved.

“What did you say? Magic?” asked Beth with a disbelieving smile on her face.

“Didn’t know?” said Rob as he returned, protein bars in hand. “Miya thinks you and Olivia and the others can use magic.”

“No, no that was never mentioned,” said Beth, shooting a glance at Olivia.

“Sorry.” I was going to get to that.

“So what were you two chatting about?” asked Amanda.

“Just us,” replied Olivia.

“Like, what we can do,” added Beth.

“Oh, the flyin’ an’ strength an’ stuff like that,” said Rob.

“Strength you say,” said Beth, shooting another look at Olivia.

“Sorry, there’s a lot of stuff,” said Olivia.

“Seriously, so much,” muttered Beth.

“Right, yeah!” said Rob, jumping out of his chair. He jogged over to his work area.  “Here, bend this,” he said as he returned. He passed her an inch thick bar of steel. Rather than taking the bar, she cast him a doubting look. “Trust me,” he added.

She took it, grasping both ends of the bar. With a look of concentration, she pushed, bending the bar a few inches. “Wow,” she said, holding it in front of her. “I didn’t think I could do that.”

“Damn it,” said Rob as he took the bar back.

“Why did you ask her to bend it, then?” asked Olivia.

“Just testin’. I’m tryin’ to make somethin’ you lot can’t bend. Gotta have a goal, after all,” Rob called over his shoulder. He tossed the bar over to the work area, where it hit the ground with a sharp clang.

“OK, Beth, I need your opinion on something,” said Amanda. She twirled her tablet around, showing Olivia and Beth a picture of a jaguar lounging on the bank of a river. “Do you think this is cute?”

Of course it is, how could it be anything else. Beth considered the picture for a moment before saying, “Now that you say it, I guess so.” Olivia gave her a small smile. See guys, it’s not weird.

Rob and Amanda exchanged glances as he took a seat beside her. “I got an idea,” he said, commandeering the tablet. “For both of you. Here’s an enormous grizzly bear. Same question.”

“Oh my gosh!” said Olivia, clasping her hands in front of her. “It’s so fat and furry and cute!”

Beth glanced at her before saying, “Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of cute.”

“And, give me a sec,” said Rob. “This pack of snarling wolves?”

“Yes! Those are even better. But… why do they look so mad?” I want one. And a jaguar. I want both.

“They’re wolves,” said Beth. “That’s what they do.” Her gaze flickered between Rob and Amanda. “Right?” But, just look at them.

Rob nodded. “Come on, one of them has blood on its muzzle,” said Amanda.

“Yeah, but they don’t look that threatening.”

“You’re funny,” said Rob. Yeah, well, you’re short.

A series of hisses and snarls caught their attention. No, no, no. She looked over just in time to see Hank drive an elbow into the center of Red’s chest. What are you doing? Why? She grunted and took a swing at his head, aiming for his throat. Her claws glanced off his chin, failing to hook into anything.

Ben teleported over to them. “Hey, hey, break it up!” He ducked under Hank’s backhanded blow.

“Enough!” roared Olivia as she advanced. Beth hissed behind her.

Right as Hank whirled around to face her, she wrapped an arm around his midsection, lifted him off his feet, and threw him face first to the ground. He let out a snarl as he tried to get up, cut short by a stomp to his back. His claws curled in as he gasped for air.

“All of you,” Olivia sapt as she turned on Red and Beth. “Stop fighting. I’m tired of it.”

She let out a hiss of frustration and she stomped away, her tail smacking against the back of Hank’s head. The lair was silent beyond Hank’s labored breathing. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Homecoming – Hunter

The whole group hovered over Amanda’s shoulder as she navigated the contents of her two flash drives. Ben and Rob flicked each other in the ear, breaking up the otherwise silent moment.

“Here we go. Here’s your file, Red,” called out Amanda after a minute.

She brought a few documents up on the laptop screen. Olivia tilted her head at the picture of the familiar scowling, dark haired girl on the screen, then to Red, standing on the opposite side of the cluster of people. Wait, I’ve seen that picture before. Wasn’t… wasn’t she one of the girls that Amanda thought could be me? She tucked her wing in tighter, letting Miya beside her get a better look.

“I don’t know her. I… I don’t recognize her,” said Red, her usual identical scowl replaced with a curious frown. Her claw fiddled with a small hole in the sleeve of the shirt Olivia had loaned her. Buddy and the other girl watched the proceedings from opposite sides of the lair, gauging her reaction. Good. Just… stay over there.

“Yeah, not totally unexpected,” said Ben.

“Listen up,” said Amanda, reading off the document. “Here we go. Name of Samantha Weiss. Age fifteen. Runaway. Mom was single. They… they grabbed you off the streets, sometime in late March. They kept you under until they needed a…” Amanda’s mouth twisted. “They needed a subject, age fifteen, female. Like Olivia. After, you know, the stuff, it looks like you’re in very good health. Nothing went horribly wrong.”

“Something wrong?” asked the nameless girl from the table, halfway across the lair. “What do you mean something went wrong?”

Amanda blinked in surprise, and spun around in her chair to get a look at the girl who’d spoken. She said something! Olivia offered her a small smile, though the girl’s eyes remained fixed on the screen.

“Oh, hi. What?” replied Amanda. “Nothing went wrong.”

“No, but something could go wrong? Or could have already?”

“Yes. There were twenty initial subjects, ten male, ten female. Hang on, there was something about this somewhere.”

Amanda brought up another couple of documents.

“Here it is. Blah, blah, blah, ‘Two females expired during the process. Five more expired due to complications, detailed,’ in some other part, ‘three males expired during the same process, and five due to similar complications. Of the two remaining, one has developed abnormalities within its heart and requires further study. While the larger number of surviving females, as well as the source of the genetic material suggests they are preferable, with the small sample size any such conclusions would be premature.’”

Ben let out a low whistle and said, “Clinical motherfuckers.”

Amanda shook her head closed the new document. “I haven’t read your file, so I don’t know about you,” she said to the girl. “But so far as those Overlord guys could tell, Samantha here has a clean bill of health.”

“Samantha,” Red repeated to herself.

“Anythin’ comin’ back?” asked Ben.

“No.” By this point, everyone had turned to face Red. Rob leaned against the desk beside Amanda, and Miya watched as she bit her lip “No, nothing,” Red continued. “Is there anything else?”

“That’s all Overlord’s people had to say on you. I don’t think they cared, so long as you were healthy. But…” Amanda shooed Red and Ben out of her way, moving to a computer on another desk. “We stole a file the feds had on you. Or copied, whatever. There might be more details in there.”

“Stole?” asked Red, the corners of her lips quirking up in the beginnings of a smile.

Amanda let out a quick laugh. “Yeah, it’s complicated.” A moment later, she said, “Here’s what there is in the missing person case for you. Ran away from home. Mother is normal suburbanite. Maybe… yeah, the feds thought you were acting out. Looks like it was a messy divorce between your parents.”

“What now? Divorce?” asked Red.

“They were married, and now they’re not.”

“Oh, right,” replied Red, shaking her head. “I don’t remember.” I know, I know. Red let out a hiss. “I can’t remember shit. Fuck this. Fuck her.”

“Well, who are you, then?”

“Red.”

“Hold up, I meant that as a nickname, not a real name,” said Ben.

Red shrugged. “So?  I’m not her. She doesn’t have claws, she ran away from a family I don’t know. It’s not like I have a better name, and I’m not taking the name of some idiot girl I’ve never met.” She shook her head, a growl rising in her throat. “Fuck it, I’m going for a walk.”

Olivia felt her eyes widen. What is wrong with you? We just handed you your whole past and you’re just walking away? What?

“Whoa, hold up,” said Ben, teleporting between Red and the door as she walked away. Her shoulder collided with his, sending him staggering back. No. Olivia uncurled her claws and marched forward. Red whirled around, wings half spread and teeth bared.

It took Olivia to realize that she mirrored Red. Ben had teleported between the two of them, Rob rushing to join them. Buddy and the nameless girl hissed in the background.

“Calm down, calm down,” said Rob, trying to pull an unyielding Olivia away from Red.

Fine. Olivia curled her hands and backed away a step.

Ben talked up to Red. “Jus’ listen for a minute. You hearin’ me?” He held up a hand, his other behind his back, resting on something. Is… is that a knife? An iron knife? Red narrowed her eyes at Olivia and nodded. “OK. You’re gonna wanna stay outta sight. People ain’t gonna react well to ya, an’ soldiers might shoot at ya. Got that? Hell, I’ll come with ya. Sound good?”

Red jerked her head in a quick nod and stormed out the door without a look back. You get to know who you are. Why are you being… being an asshole? Ben grimaced and teleported after her.

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Rob, running a hand through his hair as the door shut behind Ben.

Silence fell over the lair. Olivia walked over to her beanbag and collapsed on it. Ungrateful little…

“So, do either of you want to figure this out?” Amanda asked Buddy and the nameless girl, breaking the silence.

“Yes,” said the girl. Buddy just glowered, keeping an eye on Olivia. You want some too? Once he finally broke eye contact, Olivia pulled out her tablet, with the sound of Amanda typing in the background. Stupid, stupid… She took a deep breath. Calm. No dragon. Calm.

Olivia kept her eyes on the book on the tablet, though she kept her ears open. “Beth. Your name is Bethany Alderson,” Amanda explained to the girl.

“Thank god. Is there anything else? I… I can’t remember anything,” asked the nameless girl, now Beth. She stood with the others, her tired eyes fixed on Amanda’s screen. Buddy kept his distance at the far end of the lair, near the food and long table.

“Not too much. A runaway, like Sam. Or Red, whatever. Again, healthy, no real issues. They thought something went wrong with your ears. Overlord’s people were about to start tests.”

“OK, Overlord. I keep hearing that name and I have no idea what it means. I’m tired of being confused. What is going on?” asked Beth.

“Yeah,” agreed Buddy, his voice deeper than Olivia would have expected. “I’m tired of this.”

Everyone’s heads whipped around as Buddy spoke. He stood upright and glowered at the stares. “So both of you can talk, I was wondering,” murmured Amanda.

“What, exactly, am I? Are we?”

“Olivia didn’t explain?” asked Miya.

“Yeah, I thought she’d have done that already,” said Amanda.

Olivia looked up from her book. “No, nothing.” It’s not like anyone ever listens.

“Well, ask away,” said Amanda. Olivia mostly tuned out the conversation, she’d heard it all before.

“So yeah, that’s that,” concluded Rob.

“Feral. Fuck,” muttered Beth with a grimace. Hey.

“You get used to it, I guess,” said Olivia.

“Real helpful,” said Beth, a small sneer forming on her face. Go away. Olivia set aside her tablet with a hiss.

Rob jumped between them. “Nope, nope, no fightin’. You hear me?”

Olivia locked eyes with Beth. “Sorry, I’m just frustrated. Sorry,” said Beth after a moment, curling her clawed hands.

“Sorry,” Olivia mumbled back. Just let me read my book.

“You two good?” asked Rob, taking a cautious step back.

“Yeah,” said Olivia and Beth at the same time. Just leave me alone.

“Would you want to find your family?” asked Miya.

Beth nodded.

“Alright, we’ll get that all sorted out. There’s not much here right now, but with a name I can find almost anything about you. You’re up, Buddy,” said Amanda. Beth skirted around him as they switched spots in the lair.

Olivia hit the next page button, forgetting to use the back of her claw. It left a deep scratch in the screen. No, no, no. She placed the tablet to her side and buried her face into the dark blue beanbag as the others talked. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Alright, Buddy, your real name is Hank Lentz. Another runaway kid. Grabbed in early June. And, whoa. That’s bad. They’re thinking you have heart problems.” Buddy, now Hank, frowned. Heart? Wait.

Amanda stared hard at the screen for a moment.

“I have no idea what they’re talking about,” she said. “They saw heart irregularities? I think that’s what they said. That other guy, the one that didn’t make it, they mention him as well.” Hearts, something about our hearts. What?

“Why am I alive, then?” asked Hank.

Amanda threw her hands up. “I don’t know, they don’t know. Hell, they were just seeing what the fuck they could do. They were surprised any of you made it. So I guess watch your heart health or whatever.”

Gland. “Gland,” Olivia repeated out loud.

“What was that?” asked Miya.

Olivia lifted her head up. “Um, at that feral research place. Dr. Ruskov said he found a gland thing close to my heart. Is that it?”

“I… have no idea,” said Amanda. “How did they find that?”

“Um, an X-ray I think. And they were talking about magic. That might be it,” replied Olivia.

Rob and Amanda turned to Miya, whose eyes widened at the sudden scrutiny. “Oh, yeah, I can take a look.Olivia sat up as she approached.

“Wait, magic? Seriously?” asked Beth, eyebrow raised.

“You’ve got claws and wings, and you’re questioning the existence of magic? Really?” replied Miya with an incredulous smile. Beth folded her arms and stayed quiet. “Alright, where is this gland thing?”

“Near my heart, on the right.”

Miya nodded as her eyes turned a solid dark red. She knelt down and placed a hand on Olivia’s bare shoulder.

“I’ve always wondered, what exactly do you see?” asked Rob.

“Just magic. People are easy enough. Organs here, bones here, and so on. The lungs take in air, so that’s what the magic tells me. Intestines take in stuff, so that’s what the magic tells me. Olivia is a bit more complex, actually. A lot more going on, some of it active.”

“Wait, we got magic an’ shit in us?” asked Rob.

“Are you made of matter?” Without waiting for a response, Miya said, “Then yes, you have magic in you. It’s dormant, don’t worry.”

“Huh,” replied Rob. Cool.

“I think I found it. Maybe. Magic is weird,” said Miya. Her eyes returned to normal as she broke contact with Olivia. “I have no clue what it does right now, but let’s see if Buddy has one.” I know, I’m weird. But there’s other weird people now, too.

Hank let out a bared his teeth as she approached. She froze. “I’m just going to put my hand on your arm. Nothing else.” He considered her for a moment, then relaxed.

“Yeah, nope, not there,” said Miya after a moment.

“Does that mean anything?” asked Beth.

“Fuck if I know,” replied Miya. “It’ll take me a while to figure it out. I spotted something there that I need to check out, first. I had no idea what it did.” That can’t be good.

“Hey, think the internet’s back?” asked Rob.

“That’s a good question,” said Amanda, wheeling herself over to another desk, with Rob following.

Miya turned to Hank. “You’re standing after a day, and I didn’t see anything terribly wrong, but if you’re feeling off, come to me.”

Hank just shrugged and turned away, heading for the side of the lair opposite of Beth and Olivia. Miya exchanged a glance with Olivia. He’s just being an ass. Whatever.

“Hey, it’s back! That was quick,” called out Amanda. On her largest monitor she put on a news channel.

“This live?” asked Rob.

Amanda tapped the bottom of the screen, where LIVE appeared in bright red letter. “Yep.” Oh, that’s easy enough.

“This is the internet,” said Rob, a confused look on his face.

“So?”

“Why do they have a cable style news thing goin’ on?”

Amanda laughed. “It’s on cable and online. Why would they want to go out of business? News stations aren’t staffed by retarded monkeys.”

Rob threw up his hands in mock surrender with a grin. “Sorry, I’ll try to be less of an idiot.”

Amanda patted him on the leg. “You do that.”

On screen, the two anchors both stared at the camera, dark rings under their eyes. The man had four long scratches in his suit across his chest. The woman stammered something about Overlord, one eye swollen shut.

“Holy shit.”

“Yeah, they’re in bad shape,” said Miya.

“No, well yeah, but not that, read the ribbon thing at the bottom,” said Amanda.

Olivia read, “Erbil leveled by Lionhead, Peshmerga forces in full retreat. The Mother spotted near the French border after botched missile tests. Nuclear detonation by Overlord in Venezuela confirmed. No survivors in Caracas. Renewed Siberian incursions into China suspected.”

“Oh shit,” said Rob softly.

“That’s a lot,” said Miya, voice equally quiet.

“In… in other news.” The woman’s hands started trembling. “I… I can’t. I can’t do this. I won’t-” The feed cut off, replaced by a please wait sign.

Are… are they OK? What’s going on? Olivia looked around to the others, who looked as confused as she felt. A few seconds later, two different anchors appeared on screen, wide plastic smiles plastering their faces. They continued with their broadcast.

“What the hell?” muttered Beth.

“You see that, too?” asked Olivia.

“What’s wrong with their faces?” Oh thank god you do tpo.

“What do you mean?” asked Miya.

“You don’t see those smiles?” asked Beth.

The others considered the anchors for a moment. “Kind of?” asked Amanda.

“They’ve always done that, right?” said Rob. What?

“No, really,” said Beth. “The hell is that?”

“Yeah. That’s super weird,” added Olivia. How do you guys not see that? I mean, I know you guys don’t see very well, but come on. We’ve had this discussion before, too.

“Hold up, I’m seein’ a pattern. What about you, Buddy?” asked Rob.

“Creepy,” replied Hank, trying to look bored..

“I’m really not seeing the problem,” said Amanda with a shake of her head.

“Are you guys insane?” asked Beth.

“Are you?” asked Miya.

“Look,” said Olivia. “Really look.”

Amanda said, “It’s the news. Why would they be hiding something?” Rob and Miya nodded in agreement. Olivia hung her head. Fine. It’s not worth the argument. Whatever. The anchors continued, expanding on the stories that had run on the ribbon below.

Just then, the door opened, and in walked Red and Ben. Red kept her eyes on the ground, heading for the food cabinets near Beth.

“Hola,” said Ben with a wave. “Anythin’ fun happenin’?”

“We were talking about the news people,” said Miya.

Beth let out a low hiss as Red approached her and the food. Red snapped. She grabbed Beth by the throat and lifted her off of her chair. Beth drove her foot into Red’s stomach. Red doubled over, loosening her grip on Beth enough for her to tear herself free, leaving small red marks along her throat.

Enough. Olivia climbed to her feet as Red recovered and tackled Beth to the ground, sending them both to the ground in a tangle of wings and limbs. Olivia hauled Red off of Beth and threw her halfway across the lair. She crashed through the curtains and into the sleeping area.

“Are we interrupting something?” asked a familiar voice. Olivia whirled around to find Smith standing in the middle of the lair with two of her agents. Olivia let out a snarl. Stop teleporting. Get out.

“Jesus! What do you want?” demanded Miya. She and the others had spread out, torn between self-preservation and breaking up the fight. Rob and Ben both had knives at hand, flanking Red.

“We need to speak to Cyrus.”

“He’s sleeping. He don’t wanna talk to you, he don’t wanna talk to you,” said Rob, sliding his long knife back into a sheathe on his back.

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Cyrus, untangling himself from some curtains. “Having someone thrown on you tends to wake you up.”

He managed to climb to his feet, a heavily breathing Red following suit behind him. Don’t do anything stupid again, Sam. She noticed Olivia’s gaze and seemed to deflate a bit, her wings tucking further in behind her back. Good.

Cyrus dusted himself off and walked up to Smith. “Is there any reason you’re harassing me and my hosts?”

“We deal with problems. And you could very well be a problem. A big one.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Homecoming – Fallout

Olivia huddled in the back of Gears’ truck, shoulder to shoulder with the red scaled girl. Behind them rose a wall of dust and wind. The truck hit a bump in the road, sending the nameless girl jostling into Buddy’s side. He bared his teeth and let out a low growl at her. Olivia’s foot shot out and caught him in the shin. Knock it off. He gave her a token, halfhearted hiss, then slumped against the wall of the truck bed.

She resisted the urge to reach over and smack him. He’s… he’s just confused. Tired. So am I. They passed an army checkpoint. Unlike the others near the city, this one was manned by dusty and worn out soldiers. They barely spared the truck a glance, eyes focused on the fight behind them. One did notice, and he stared openly at Olivia and the others in the back until they were past the checkpoint.

Olivia looked back at the maelstrom behind them. Someone, either Overlord or Cyrus, punched through a skyscraper, wreckage trailing behind them. I hope Cyrus is OK. The invisible laser Overlord had used before sliced off the corner of another skyscraper, sending twisted metal and glass careening back down to earth. What could we even do against stuff like that?

They hit another bump in the road. Gears didn’t slow down, putting as much distance between them and the fight as possible. Something pressed against Olivia’s shoulder. Her clawed fingers uncurled. The nameless girl slumped against her shoulder, eyes closed. Not attacking. And… how are you asleep? Olivia looked around at the other two. Buddy’s eyes drooped, though Red still watched him like a hawk. She tapped her extended claws against her leg.

Olivia returned her attention to the nameless girl. Too close. She nudged the girl with her shoulder, trying to jostle her awake. The girl’s eyelids didn’t so much as flutter. Come on. Oliva shoved her so she leaned up against the rear of the cab.

Olivia’s arms burned. Not with the familiar pain of bruises from gunshots or punches from one of the many super strong monstrosities they always seemed to run into, but an ache in the muscles themselves. Scabs had formed on her hands where the friction burn from the elevator cable and stripped the scales off. The various shops and shipping centers, most abandoned and covered in graffiti, began to look more and more familiar. Olivia yawned wide. What am I supposed to do with you three? And where is the other girl? The screaming one? We should track her down, I guess. Everyone’s being really… I don’t know. Aggressive. They keep hissing and just… I don’t know. Getting too close. Soon enough, they pulled into the lair; the stop jerked Olivia back to reality.

“Wind is dyin’ down,” said Gears as he stumbled out of the truck, halfway out of his armor. He smacked an armored fist on the side of the truck. “Wakey wakey.”

Buddy jumped awake, letting out a deep growl as he narrowed his eyes at Gears. Bad. Olivia’s foot lashed out, catching Buddy in the shin. He hissed in pain and whirled around. She locked eyes with him. Don’t you dare hurt Rob.

“You two lovebirds at it again?” called out Skulker with a short laugh, joining his brother.

Olivia sighed and shook her head. Not now, please. She shook the nameless girl awake as Buddy and Red climbed out of the truck. The girl woke and flinched, shielding her eyes from the rising sun. Sorry, but I’m not letting you sleep out in the open like this. Together, they followed Red and Buddy out of the truck.

“Is it over?” asked Red.

“I think so. The police seem to think so,” replied Delta, joining them in looking out at the city.

They’d formed a rough line, watching the maelstrom lost more and more of its power. The dust settled in the air, forming a dirty brown cloud rather than a swirling hurricane.

“Think Overlord is done?” asked Miya.

Delta shrugged. “Could we do anything anyways?”

“Asked me a couple days ago, I’d say everythin’ dies if ya shoot it enough,” replied Skulker, pulling his mask off. “Now? I dunno. I’d still say shoot him a bunch, jus’ don’ expect it to go well.”

“Overlord is dead,” announced Delta. Wait, what?

“What?” asked everyone.

“He’s dead. Cyrus tore off his armor and stabbed ten pieces of rebar into him. He’s dead. Holy shit. The army guys just confirmed it.”

“Fuck him,” said Gears, tearing his gaze away from the city and stomping off to the auto shop they called home. His free hand fiddled with whatever kept his gauntlet on his hand.

They filed after him into the lair. Ben peeled off his mask and gun holsters and sat with his back against the wall, not five feet from the door. Rob joined him soon after. Amanda removed her helmet and took a seat by her computer desks. Miya crashed on the nearest mattress. Olivia collapsed onto her beanbag. She didn’t even feel her face hit the cushion.

***

Something poked Olivia in the cheek. No. Something poked her in the cheek again. Stop. She scrunched her eyes shut tighter and curled up. Another poke. She burrowed her face into the beanbag. Warm.

“You look like shit,” said a voice above her.

“Go away,” she grumbled.

Ben poked the back of her head. “Come on. Gotta wake up sometime.”

“Not now.”

Ben snickered. “Rise an’ shine. We got a whole new day today.”

“Five more minutes.”

Another poke, and more snickers. “Nope, gotta get up now.”

She cracked an eye open and turned her head to take in a bleary view of Ben’s grinning face. “Why?”

“Cuz I wanna wake Miya up an’ I need a shield.”

No. “Go get Chris.”

Silence greeted her statement. Ben’s grin vanished. What… oh. Her face went slack. Chris is gone. And he’s not coming back. He’s never coming back. And… and…

A hand rested on her shoulder. “Easy, easy.”

It took Olivia a few minutes to compose herself. Stupid, stupid… “Sorry, sorry. I just… It didn’t hit me until just… just now.”

“Know what’ll help?”

“What?”

“Messin’ with a sleepy Miya.”

Olivia let out a surprised half sniffle, half giggle. “Don’t be mean.”

“I won’t.” He offered her a hand up.

The others lay sprawled all over the lair. Amanda snored softly at her chair, a small pool of drool forming on the desk below her head. Rob still sat with his back against the wall, chin resting against his armored chest. Buddy lay on the bare concrete, though Red and the other girl had claimed mattresses, Olivia couldn’t tell whose. Why are they… hrmph.

She followed Ben to where Miya had collapsed… When is it? When did we get here?

“What time is it?” she whispered.

“Midnight.” He looked over his shoulder to take in her surprised look. “Yeah, we were passed the fuck out.”

He stopped and nudged Miya, face down on the bed, with his foot. A second, more insistent nudge got her moving. Olivia stood back. I’m not messing with Miya right now. Ben knelt down and poked her in the cheek.

“How you doin’, Pokey?”

“I will end you,” said Miya, her voice serene, though muffled through the pillow. “I will end you, slowly, painfully, with no remorse. Your last moments will be those of suffering, and pain, and fear, and despair. Unless, of course. You. Leave. Me. The fuck. Alone.”

Ben grinned and poked her in the cheek. Why would you do that? Miya let out a remarkable imitation of Olivia’s hiss as her hand snapped out, aiming for his crotch. He twisted to the side and jumped back. As Miya climbed to her feet, murder in her eyes, Ben teleported past Olivia and ducked behind her.

“Move, I have murder to do,” Miya said to Olivia through gritted teeth.

Olivia stretched out a wing, blocking her way. “No murder.”

“Fine, I’ll just rough him up a bit.”

Olivia folded her wing back up and stepped to the side. “OK,” she said with a small smile.

“What? No!” sputtered Ben, teleporting away as Miya gave chase. “You traitor!”

“You woke me up, too,” replied Olivia.

The others began to stir with much grumbling as Miya chased after Ben around the lair. Olivia gave the other dragons a wide berth. Just… stay away. Too close. She joined Amanda as Ben Miya dashed behind her. Amanda nodded to her as she approached, reaching for a bag beneath the table.

“Hi,” said Olivia.

“Hey, could you grab that water bottle over there?” asked Amanda, motioning with her free hand. “Thanks,” she said once Olivia passed it to her. From the bag she produced a couple pill bottles.

“What are those?” asked Olivia.

“Sweet, sweet painkillers. I’ll figure out what to do with the digestive ones later.”

Behind them, Ben collapsed in a chair around the table. “I quit. Legs hurt. Everythin’ hurts.”

Miya stopped at the opposite table, panting heavily. “Yeah, me too.”

“Truce?”

“Sure.”

A knock on the back door silenced them. Olivia spun around and sniffed the air. Is that… Cyrus stood just beyond the door Rob opened, his MHU uniform battered to the point of being simply rags. Why is he here? Why is he here?

“The fuck?” said Rob.

“May I come in?” asked Cyrus, leaning on the wall.

“The fuck?” repeated Rob.

“Please?”

Rob stepped aside, wary gaze fixed on Cyrus. Everyone in the lair had observed their exchange. Ben and Miya had half risen out of their seats. The dragons, though they’d spread out to different ends of the lair, had their claws out, picking up on the general mood in the air. DOn’t do anything dumb.

Cyrus stopped a few feet into the lair and removed his helmet. “I’m not going to bite,” he said.

“What are you doing here?” asked Olivia. I’m not going to go crazy again, am I?

“There are things you need to know.”

“Way to be super cryptic,” said Ben.

“You know who I am,” stated Cyrus.

“The Haboob,” replied Amanda from beside Olivia.

Olivia couldn’t stop herself from letting out a giggle. Why would you call yourself that? It sounds like boob. Ben and Rob glanced at her and snickered. Olivia composed herself, her lower lip trembling at the effort. Sorry, sorry.

“It’s an Arabic word, not an English one,” said Cyrus in a mildly affronted voice. “In any event, there are four others besides myself. People who age extremely slowly, whose powers far eclipse most others. You know of at least two. Cuauhtémoc is the Aztec emperor, he has been for the past five centuries. The Mother is another such person.”

Ben let out a low whistle. Rob said, “Those are two very scary people. So is the Haboob.”

“Do you mind if I take a seat? It’s been a long day,” said Cyrus.

Rob laughed. “You’re tellin’ us.”

They slowly gathered around the table, the other three dragons hanging back, wary and uncomprehending.

“So, you were sayin’?” said Rob.

“Have you ever wondered how the Siberians never conquered earth?” began Cyrus. “Technology beyond most human techies? Mages that put the best of humanity to shame? How is is they haven’t overrun all of Asia, if not the world, at this point?”

“Fire.” Everyone stared at Amanda. “What? You have a wind person, Cyrus, an earth person, Cuauhtémoc, and a water person, the Mother. So there’s a fire person, too. It’s not that hard.” Wait, what are the Mother’s and Aztec guy’s powers? Like Cyrus? Just with water and dirt?

“Yes. There is a young woman in China. She can make any carbon ignite, regardless of what form it is in. I believe the only exception is carbon monoxide or dioxide.”

“Wait, any form?” asked Amanda.

“Yes. Keep in mind Siberians and humans are both carbon based.”

“Put her in, like, a vacuum or something. No oxygen means no fire, right?” said Amanda.

“You’d think so,” said Cyrus, with a small smile. “But she already throws all natural laws out the window, just like we all do. I truthfully do not know. The point is, we are tremendously powerful, able to shape events the way few else are able.” Weird, everything everywhere is weird. Got it.

“Wait, you said four others. You’ve only said three others so far,” pointed out Miya.

“Indeed,” agreed Cyrus. “I don’t know if you have been paying attention to current events in the last month or so, but have you heard of the warlord in Iraq? He goes by the name of Taauth.”

Olivia let out a small hiss at the name. Bad name. Where have I heard that before? Miya nudged her with an elbow and shot her a questioning look.

“Heard of him,” said Ben, a frown on his face. Damn it, where have I heard that name?

“What’s he control?” asked Rob, his expression mirroring Ben’s.

“Magic.”

Silence greeted his statement. That’s not good. Miya’s eyes had widened, the others just looked confused.

Cyrus continued after allowing for a moment for his statement to sink in. “He draws near infinite energy from his surroundings. He is not a true mage, he does not draw it from himself. He does not follow traditional mage laws. He can maintain as many golems as he feels fit. He can incinerate a building, stitch any wound, and enter the land of dreams.

“So he’s basically a god,” said Miya.

“For the most part.”

You said he was back. Like, he was dead before. “How did he die in the first place? I mean, if he’s like you?” asked Olivia.

“A group of my king’s mages and I surprised him in his palace. He was occupied with his concubines.” What? Concubine?

“Where does magic even come from?” asked Amanda.

“Something something nuclear something,” replied Miya. “I’m not a scientist, I don’t fucking know.”

“Why you tellin’ us all this?” Rob demanded, his attention focused on Cyrus. Wait, yeah. You just ran off when I was mind controlled.

“You all have power. As well, you two have a personal stake in this,” said Cyrus, pointing to Ben and Rob. “I am no mage, but I believe he has somehow possessed your triplet brother.”

“Explain.”

“Now.”

“I spoke with him. He wore a mask exactly like yours. He stood the same height as you two. He had the same build as you two. His voice sounded like yours, speaking at the same time at Taauth’s. As for how, a deal with a demon, perhaps. Again, I am no mage. I don’t know.”

“No, you don’t fuck with demons,” explained Miya, voice wary. “If you fuck with a soul, any sentient’s soul, anywhere, a demon appears and you vanish. You can’t fight, you can’t negotiate. You vanish. You don’t fuck with demons.”

“What are they?” asked Rob.

“No one fucking knows.”

“What? How?” asked Amanda.

“They appear when someone fucks with a soul. That’s all I know. That’s all anyone knows. That’s why I don’t use dead human bones for anything. That’s close enough to their domain for them to take notice. They’ll latch onto any magic streams and lash out.”

Cyrus nodded. “That would make sense. He was not truly dead, then.”

“Why you tellin’ us this?” repeated Ben. “The fuck can we do?”

“I am warning anyone who will listen. Taauth was the greatest threat of our time before. His malice knows no bounds. The greatest weapon is surprise. He learned this lesson long ago. I may have been an acne ridden teenager when we first me, but he will account for the passing of time. I need to think and reach outside the box.”

“You mentioned you’d talked to him recently,” said Ben.

“Yeah, why is that?” said Rob.

“Taauth wanted Overlord dead. Overlord had begun experiments into magic. Maybe he was close to something, though how Taauth would know would be a concern is yet another thing I do not know.”

“So what you want from us?” asked Ben.

“Recruitment.”

Olivia’s eyes widened. “Wait, Slim Jim…”

“Hopefully, yes, he will assist me. Hopefully. If not I’m dropping him in a volcano.”

“You’re being very open about all this,” said Amanda.

“Yes, I enjoy things not blowing up in my face. It’s one of my favorite pastimes,” replied Cyrus with a wry smile.

Ben and Rob burst into laughter. “I knew there was a reason I liked you,” said Ben. Why are you two laughing?

Amanda shared her concern. “What are you two laughing about?” she asked. Do you two need a hug?

“There anythin’ we can do ‘bout Taauth, right this moment?” Rob asked Cyrus, ignoring Amanda.

He blinked and replied, “Not currently.”

“Then there’s yer answer,” Ben said to Amanda. “Nothin’ we can do ‘bout it right now, no need to get ourselves down over somethin’ outta our control.”

“I ain’t happy, don’t get me wrong,” continued Rob. “But if somethin’ else is funny, I laugh.”

“Weird,” muttered Miya under her breath.

Amanda shook her head. To Cyrus, she said, “Any other bombs you want to drop on us? Is the president a shapeshifting lizard?”

Cyrus smiled. “Not to my knowledge. Though I must ask a favor of you. I need to spend the night somewhere. I’ve spent hours fighting Overlord and making sure no one tracked me. I have no desire to be poked and prodded in some government facility under a mountain. I’ll be out of your hair come morning.”

Olivia nodded. No kidding. Miya and Amanda shrugged.

“Pick a bed, fall in it,” said Rob.

“We jus’ got up,” said Ben. “We ain’t sleepin’ for a while.”

Cyrus nodded to the group at large. “Thank you.”

The group dispersed. Olivia and Rob stayed by Amanda side. You look really pale. She looked at the two of them as Cyrus disappeared behind a curtain.

“You two want to help me with something?”

***

“You sure ‘bout this?” asked Rob, as everyone, sans Cyrus, gathered around Amanda’s workbench a few hours later. “What if you accidentally downloaded some crazy Overlord murderbot thing?” That sounds bad. That sounds very bad. Olivia stood off to the side, letting Red and the nameless girl get a good view of the screen. Buddy stood off, trying his hardest to look uninterested in the proceedings. Why doesn’t he want to know who he is? I would kill for this.

Amanda sighed. “These flash drives, brand new ones, have been in a pouch this whole time. This laptop I’m plugging them into is also brand new. It has zero information on it. And I’ve stripped it of all hardware that could be used to connect to anything on the outside. It is physically incapable of sending or receiving a signal. I will microwave it and the flash drives once we’re done. I know what I’m doing.”

“Why’s its battery over there?” Ben pointed to a black plastic box looking thing behind a low barricade Amanda had built out of scrap a few feet away. A couple cords over the top connected it to the laptop.

“If there’s some Overlord malware that tries to make it explode, it won’t damage the laptop or the flash drives,” replied Amanda.

“Batteries can explode?” asked Olivia. How? Why?

“Yep.”

“Shit. Go for it, then,” said Rob. Amanda plugged in the two flash drives, one after the other.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Community Service – Titan

This is a bad idea, this is such a bad idea. “OK, be ready for the next one,” said Delta, her hands gliding over the controls of the tanks. A light turned on, and the fluid began to drain from the tank of another dragon girl.

Skulker grimaced under his mask and readjusted his grip on his pistol. This is a bad idea, this is such a bad idea, he repeated to himself. He kept a watchful eye on the other dragon girl. She had backed away on wobbly feet, blinking rapidly at Olivia. She kept wings folded tight against her back, her tail with a blend of red and green scales twitching behind her. Seems confused. Let’s see if she’s anything like Little Bird. I should call her something. Red? Sure. Easy enough.

She’d noticed her nudity and covered herself with her arms and hands as best she could. She seems sane now. Clothes anywhere? He twisted around, searching the T shaped lab. Ah. He teleported over and grabbed a lab coat hanging off a hook by the door.

He walked over to her instead of teleporting. No surprises. He offered the long white coat to her. She blinked and took her eyes off Olivia to stare at him for a moment.

“I ain’t gonna bite, Red,” he said.

She snatched the coat of of his hands, her claws ripping small tears in the collar. She struggled to get it on around her wings.

“May wanna cut some holes in the back,” he pointed out.

She stared at him for a second before ripping the back of the coat out with her claws. It barely fit around her shoulders, and only came down to her mid-thigh. Better than nothing. Gives her some grounding.

“Hey, you alright, Red?” he asked, craning his neck up at her to speak. Damn it, she towers over me too.

Her gaze flickered between him and Olivia. She let out a hiss more tired than threatening and shook her head.

Skulker shrugged. “Yeah, I didn’t understand that.”

“Loud,” Red murmured. Olivia mentioned stuff like that. Sounds and shit. “What’s going on?”

He chuckled. “That’s a long, long story.”

She took her eyes off Olivia and faced him fully. “Who are you? All of you?”

“I’m Skulker, tha’s-” The release of the next dragon girl interrupted him.

He spun around to watch Olivia give her the same treatment as Red. Both hissed, before Olivia lowered her shoulder and rammed into the girl, then pin her to the wall. Behind Skulker, Red let out a low hiss of her own. God damn it. The third dragon girl let out a half scream, half roar and clawed at Olivia’s eyes.

The moment one of Olivia’s hand left the girl’s shoulder, she twisted away, still half screaming, half roaring. As she spun she smacked her tail into Olivia’s stomach, sending her reeling back a couple steps. Rather than continue the fight, the girl broke free and bolted for the door.

“Watch it!” shouted Delta, pulling Miya out of the way of the charging dragon girl in the nick of time.

The girl burst out the the room, Olivia on her heels. Miya and Gears followed soon after. Skulker readied himself to teleport before remembering the person beside him. Everyone just going to ignore Red? Come on, do you people not know how to deal with released captives? He holstered his pistol and turned back to Red. She had her claws out, glaring at the door the others had bolted out of.

“You still with me?” he asked. She blinked in surprise and curled up her clawed fingers. He waited for her to nod. “They’ll be back. Again, I’m Skulker, the one in grey is Delta,” he said, pointing out Delta, who’d stayed behind.

Delta tore her gaze from the door at the mention of her name. She waved and said, “Hello.”

“The tall one like you tha’ ya saw is Olivia, short one’s Miya, armored one’s Gears.”

Red stared at him. “What kind of names are those?”

“Code names. What can you remember?” How like Olivia are you gonna be?

She closed her eyes and grimaced. “I… nothing. What the hell? What? Just…” Her breathing picked up.

“Calm down. Was kind of expectin’ this.”

She reopened her eyes. “You were?”

“Yeah,” he replied. He looked around and spotted a stool off in the corner of the tank wing. “Wanna take a seat?” he asked.

She shook her head. OK. Not a big talker, then.

“We’re in a lab. We let you outta one of these,” he said, pounding on the empty tank beside him with a fist.

“Why?” she asked, her voice low. Not soft, low. Too much to hope for a second Little Bird.

“Because we ain’t assholes.”

“No, why… why was I in there? What did you call me? Red?”

“Red. Yeah, the scales,” he said, pointing to her tail. She curled it around to get a good look at it, and grimaced. “That ain’t yer real name. Hey, Delta? Those files say anythin’ ‘bout them?”

“Digging into that already,” she called back, face glued to a screen.

“Bueno,” replied Skulker. Turning back to Red, he said, “So yeah, patience.” She frowned and nodded, pulling the lab coat tighter around her shoulders. She seemed to wear a permanent scowl. “Don’ worry, we’re gonna get you outta here an’ fill in the blanks.”

At that moment, the others returned. “She got away,” announced Gears as he stomped back into the lab. “Fast an’ desperate. We didn’t wanna get too far away from here.” Miya and Olivia followed him soon after.

Now liv’ looks pissed. I’m getting a headache from all this. “Give me a moment,” he murmured to Red. Olivia stopped as Skulker teleported to her side. “She…” she began.

“You tried beat the shit outta her, what were you expectin’?” he asked. I’m kinda surprised Red stuck around.

“She was… she was…” Olivia grimaced. “I don’t know.”

“Confused as hell an’ gettin’ pummeled?”

“That wasn’t-”

“Tha’s exactly what happened,” he said, cutting her off. “You sure ‘bout releasin’ the others?” Together, they returned to the wing of the room with the tanks, still containing three dragon people.

Olivia hesitated, casting a glance towards Red, on the opposite side of the room from her. “Yes.”

Skulker raised an eyebrow, then remembered his mask would obscure the gesture. Gears read his mind. He asked, “You sure? That one nearly took out Miya.”

“Maybe don’t beat them right out of the gate,” added Delta.

“But… OK.”

Miya managed a shaky grin, the first Skulker had seen on anyone in a while. “I don’t know. Maybe she would have breathed fire everywhere before getting her head bashed in.” Skulker snorted. Just what we need. Fire!

Delta returned to the command console. “Alright. Try to hold off this time.”

Olivia’s face reddened as she nodded. Delta pressed a few buttons, and the release process began again. Skulker suppressed a yawn and teleported back to Red. Back and forth, back and forth. She jumped when he appeared next to her and uncurled her claws.

“Whoa, sorry,” he said, holding up a placating hand.

She took a deep breath and curled her hands back up. “She’s… like me,” she said, motioning towards Olivia with her head. “Claws and a tail and shit.”

“Yeah. She’s kinda the template you’re based on.” She nodded. “You’re takin’ this pretty damn well,” he added.

She barked out a quick, humorless laugh. “Day’s not over yet. I’m kind of overwhelmed right now. And… wait, based on? Her? Me?”

“Ya know what powers are, right?” She nodded. Huh. Didn’t Olivia need a reminder about that? He nodded to Olivia. “You got her power.”

“That’s not normal, is it?”

“Absolutely not. Ain’t the worst power in the world, though. I’ve seen her lift cars.”

Red’s reptilian silver eyes widened. She’s got gold flecks in her eyes. Cool. “Whoa. Really?” She looked down at her hands.

“Ready!” shouted Delta. Red and Skulker turned to watch.

The walls of the drained tank retracted into the floor. The girl inside simply curled up, hands over her ears. Red and Olivia both let out a hiss. Olivia’s tail swished in agitation, and a quick look over his shoulder showed Red’s doing the same thing. OK, is this an unconscious thing for you two?

Miya approached the new girl first. Skulker flexed his maimed hand. Don’t get your fingers clawed off. The girl let out a halfhearted hiss, not so much as twitching when Miya laid a hand on her shoulder.

“She’s in pain. Her ears and eyes hurt,” announced Miya after a moment, her gaze distant. “Something isn’t quite right. Her muscles aren’t responding as well as they should.”

“How the fuck can you tell?” asked Gears.

“Magic.”

“Right,” grumbled Gears.

The new girl didn’t protest when Olivia lifted her to her feet. She leaned on her heavily. Red’s hissing grew louder as Olivia approached with her burden.

“Over here,” said Gears, from his position by the door they’d entered the lab through. Furthest from me and Red. Together, Gears and Olivia set the girl down on a stool, where she huddled without a word.

Red hadn’t calmed down any. Olivia stayed back, unwilling to approach her. Thank you, Olivia. Keep the peace. Skulker snapped his fingers in front of her. “You with me?”

Her face contorted, and she let out another hiss.

“Hey, hey, listen to me. You know I am, right?” he asked, standing in front of her. Everyone in the room held their breath, watching the one sided exchange. “You got control over yerself or not?”

Red got her breathing under control. She curled up her claws yet again. She noticed Skulker and turned away. “The hell was that?” she murmured.

Everyone in the room seemed to draw a collective breath. “Next one?” asked Delta.

“Sure,” said Miya and Olivia.

“Alright, guy in the middle,” she said, pointing.

Skulker followed her finger to the tank in question. You know, given how big Olivia and Red are, I thought a dude version of them would be jacked. He returned his attention to Red. She kneaded her forehead with her knuckles, her frown deepening.

“You back with us?”

“Yeah,” she replied.

Don’t look it. He snorted in amusement. “Don’t look it. You sure?”

“Leave me alone,” she snapped.

“OK.” I’m not poking this particular bear anymore. “I’ll be over there if ya need anythin’.”

She just grunted in response. Skulker teleported over to Gears, who had knelt down by the other dragon girl, who remained huddled on a stool with a lab coat awkwardly draped over her shoulders. Gears met his eyes and shrugged.

Skulker joined Gears in kneeling down beside her. “How you doin’?” he asked. She flinched, not saying a word.

“Can’t handle the noise,” said Gears. “Can’t move well. Power hasn’t set in yet.”

“How the hell you know that?”

“I don’t. Total wild-ass guess.”

Skulker laughed. “Fair enough.”

Everyone froze as something rattled the entire bunker. Nearby, a beaker slipped off the counter and shattered on the ground. The girl let out a small whimper and clutched her hands tighter to her ears. At least she’s not berserk.

“So, any chance you could make this go just a tiny bit faster?” Miya asked Delta.

“God I hope so. But I doubt it,” she replied, leaning over to inspect the console more closely.

Skulker returned his attention to the girl by his side. Her tail, its scales a deep, dark green, had curled around the leg of the steel stool.

“Hey, can you understand me?” he asked, speaking slowly.

She managed a short, jerky nod, face still buried in her arms.

What did Olivia say? Something about concentration. Yeah, concentrating on things helped her. Well, fuck it. I don’t have any other ideas.

“OK. I want you to focus. Listen to me. I don’t know what else you’re hearin’, but I can tell ya it’s far, far away. Tune that shit out, it don’t matter.”

Gears added, “Yeah. We ain’t gonna scream an’ shout at you. Calm down, listen, get your bearings.”

The girl still huddled, though her hands had loosened around her ears. “You gettin’ a little better?” he asked. Another nod, and a small hiss. What is it with all the hissing?

Gears stood up. “About time for the guy,” he murmured to Skulker.

Skulker got up just in time to see the walls of the tank vanish. Just like before, Red and Olivia began to hiss. The guy got to his feet, letting out a hiss. Before Miya could say anything, he lunged at Olivia, claws aimed for her throat. Olivia turned and slammed her elbow into his face as he passed. He skidded to a stop on unsteady clawed toes. As he spun around to face Olivia again, she closed the gap, grabbed his shoulders, and drove her knee into his ribs. Scary Olivia is scary.

Olivia stood over him, foot resting on his back. He let out a final hiss and went still. Dragon hyper aggressiveness spans gender. Wonderful. Olivia stood back as he picked himself up, backing away from her. Miya guided him over the the end of the tank wing of the T shaped lab. Oh, right. Skulker grabbed the third and final lab coat from the hooks by the door. Last guy is gonna have to go freebird until we find something

Skulker walked over to the guy as Delta began the release process of the final person.

“Hey,” he called out, offering the lab coat. The dragon guy turned around and gave him a scornful stare. Skulker grinned. “It’s a war zone out there, buddy. I don’t care who ya are, you don’ want it all hangin’ out.”

The guy narrowed his eyes, then grabbed the coat and tied it around his waist with a crude knot. Tough guy? No. Buddy!

“Buddy! I’m callin’ you Buddy.”

The guy sneered and spat on the floor, on Skulker’s boot. Jackass, just what I was worried about. Skulker began to laugh. God damn it. He thinks I care? Buddy tried to backhand him. He leaned out of the way, still laughing. A bastard with Olivia’s strength. Just our fucking luck!

“Whoa there, Buddy!” Life is funny.

Skulker heard a familiar roar from behind him. He teleported to the side, and out of the way of the charging Olivia. Her shoulder hit Buddy square in the chest. They both hit the floor. Olivia grabbed his head and slammed it down before he could recover, cracking the concrete. Skulker felt his laughter subside. Funny old world, isn’t it?

Olivia released Buddy’s head and stomped away. As she passed Skulker, she wrapped an arm around his midsection, carrying him away.

“Stay,” she said a few paces later, setting him down.

“But I wanna poke him more,” said Skulker, pointing to a shaken Buddy on his hands and knees.

“Skulker, how long’s it been since you last slept?” called out Gears.

Skulker chuckled. “Too long, probably.”

“Yeah. Shut up and stay,” said Gears.

“Jackass,” Delta murmured under her breath.

They settled into an uncomfortable silence as the last guy was released. The walls of the tank retracted. He burst to life for a moment, thrashing off the pedestal like a fish out of water before the dragons in the room had a chance to start hissing. He lay on the ground and twitched, foam at his mouth.

Miya rushed over. “His heart is going crazy. We’re losing him,” she shouted.

“Do something!” replied Olivia, hovering over them.

“Do what? It’s not a heart attack. It’s… I don’t know.”

“Something, anything!”

The guy’s twitching and foaming stopped. His chest lay still. Miya cursed. “He’s gone. Something went wrong, I don’t know. He’s not human.”

“What? No, no, no,” said Olivia in desperate voice. “Maybe…”

“Olivia, there’s nothing we can do. Something was wrong with his heart,” said Miya, blocking Olivia.

One moment you wanna beat the shit out of them, the next you care. Why? He closed his eyes, and the urge to curl up and sleep nearly overwhelmed him. Fuck it. Just fuck it. This is tomorrow’s problem. Figure it out later.

“Anyone forget we’re in the middle of a robot fortress? We’ve spent way too long in here as it is,” spoke up Gears after a moment.

“I didn’t. I just said fuck it and downloaded everything I could,” said Delta, retrieving a pair of flash drives from the computer. “These should have everything on these guys. Ready when you are.”

“Olivia, we need to get out of here,” said Miya, guiding her away from the body.

Gears helped the nameless girl to her feet. Despite her good half a foot in height on him in armor, he managed to keep them both upright. Skulker spared a glance at Buddy. I like Red more. He teleported over to her. She’d remained in the same spot he’d last left her. She stood up taller, however, and straightened her shoulders.

“We’re outta here. Comin’?” She nodded.

“Same way we came in?” called out Gears.

“Any other ideas?” responded Delta.

“Nope.”

“Then back to the elevator it is.”

They filed out the door, making sure to keep Olivia and the others as spread out as possible. Skulker kept himself between Gears’ charge and Red. Another quake shook the bunker. The hallways were still empty of any people or robots. You know, I don’t really miss getting shot at by those bots. As they traveled, a flash of color in an otherwise soulless and grey corridor caught his eye.

He held up a hand. “Hold up. What’s this?”

He poked his head into the room. Six bodies were laid out on tables, all in colorful costumes. One large blond man had runes all over it, another looked like a knockoff of a plant woman from a comic book.

“Tha’s a pile of bodies right there,” said Gears.

“Aren’t these guys the Chevaliers?” asked Miya, crowding the doorway.

“Where do I know that name?” Skulker asked the group at large.

“They were on TV. They said they were going after Overlord,” whispered Olivia.

“Well, they found him,” said Gears. Skulker chuckled. Idiots probably thought it’d be good PR.

Olivia smacked him upside the head, sending him reeling. “Don’t be mean,” she said.

“Ow. Fine then,” he replied, rubbing the back of his head.

They froze again as a much larger quake hit the bunker. Dust fell from the roof, and all of the dragon people hissed in pain, Buddy and the nameless girl covering their ears.

“Let’s keep moving,” said Delta from the corridor now dust filled corridor.

Their travel ended by the next corner, where they came face to face with a massive pit that lead all the way up to the surface, if the distant sound of gunfire above them was any indication.

“Well, Olivia, you wanna pull us all up on an elevator or climb.”

“Oh thank god. Climb,” she said.

They began the laborious process of climbing out of the dusty pit. Skulker had a slightly easier time of it than the others, teleporting from solid spot to solid spot. Olivia took flight, landing to help anyone in trouble. Above them the winds howled, drowning out any other sounds. Is this what a tornado sounds like? Like, one of those monster tornados? The sky is clear, though. I can see the sun through the dust. That’s Cyrus, isn’t it?

A grueling half hour later, Skulker made it to the top, followed by the others. The dragon people even seemed too tired to snap at each other. The winds up top forced Olivia to land beside them. In the distance, two specks hovered in the air, rocketing towards them.

“Shit, outta here!” yelled Skulker.

He led the way towards a shell of a building as Cyrus and a sleek armored figure he took as Overlord approached. Overlord slammed into the street, leaving a twenty yard gouge in the asphalt. Cyrus hovered in the air, with Overlord between Skulker and him. A few tiny rockets burst out of his shoulder, streaking towards Cyrus.

Just as the wind shifted the rockets’ trajectories, they exploded, spraying a fine grey mist at Cyrus. Grey goo spread along Cyrus’ front half. He paused before blasting off the goo along with flecks of blood off himself before it could form into the ball of goo that had menaced Skulker and the others earlier.

In the meantime, Overlord floated back into the air and aimed his wrist at Cyrus.

“Oh shit!” shouted Delta.

The air shimmered as Cyrus bolted out of the way. A hole melted in the building behind him. As Overlord spun in place after him, carving three buildings in half before an uprooted tree slammed into Overlord from behind. The fight moved on, leaving Skulker and the others staring at three collapsing buildings.

“We should help. We should do something,” shouted Olivia over the wind.

“‘liv, Overlord just shot an invisible beam through three buildin’s,” shouted Skulker. “This is outta our league. This is outta everyone’s league. Best thing to do is keep ourselves alive, an’ that means gettin’ outta here.”

A high pitch screeching sound brought everyone to their knees. Through blurry vision, Skulker watched as Cyrus flew past their shattered window, the screech emanating Overlord close behind him. They couldn’t move for an eternity, before the screech cut off entirely.

As they picked themselves back up, Skulker asked, “So, what were ya sayin’ ‘bout helpin’?”

“Not now,” replied Olivia with a sigh.

They ran as fast as they could back to the mint, dodging debris and the odd rocket. Delta and the nameless girl flagged, Gears and Olivia supporting them. They passed piles of ruined bots and burning vehicles, not to mention the odd body. The military seemed to have pulled out. They came to Gears’ truck, with a street sign resting on the hood.

“Damn well better work,” said Gears, pulling the keys from a small box on his hip. The dragon people piled into the bed with minimal hissing. The truck started without a fuss, and soon the maelstrom of lasers and debris was behind them.

Skulker grinned. We’re alive. We’re alive and not dead. Overlord is someone else’s problem now.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

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.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

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.”

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