Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Revenant

Olivia found herself falling in a featureless grey void. Usually she could just spread her wings, but they remained limp no matter how hard she tried to move them. She just fell and fell. A soft white glow appeared before her.

The falling sensation vanished. Without warning or impact, she found herself lying face first on a rough, brown stone floor. Where… She climbed to her feet and took in her surroundings. A short man with his back to Olivia stood between her and a solid stone table jutting out of the floor. Restraints of stone pinned a bizarre, scaly creature to it. It arched its body and let out a guttural scream that echoed on the walls. Eyes wide, she backed away slowly until her back hit something. A small gasp of surprise escaped her lips.

Before she could blink, the man whirled around and pinned her against the wall by the throat, too fast for her to see. He barked what sounded like a demand in a strange, incomprehensible language, though for a brief moment she thought she recognized his voice. She brought her foot back and kicked him in the stomach. The man didn’t flinch, instead pulling his arm back and slamming her against the wall for her troubles.

“How did you get in here?” he demanded, his voice low, deep, and calm. His dark brown eyes bore into her.

Olivia choked, prying at the man’s hand without success. Black, smoky tendrils formed in the air and circled her head. She jerked her head to the side as one probed at her temple. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the others shoot for her. No, no.

The man’s eyes glazed over. After a moment, he relaxed and smiled.  “Ah. Appearances are deceiving. You are not truly human, are you girl?” He released his grip on her throat and stepped back.

Olivia scrambled back as she held her normal, clawless hand to her throat. Her back, not her wings, pressed against the unyielding stone wall behind her. She searched frantically for a way out.

Stone walls encircled the room, the bumps and crevices in them cast flickering shadows along their length. A glowing orb embedded in the ceiling filled the room with golden light. Olivia couldn’t find an exit of any kind, just stone. She slid along the wall, away from the man. He made no move to follow her, instead simply maintaining eye contact.

“You may call me Taauth,” he said, his low voice almost strong enough to shake the stone walls. The back of her mind screamed danger. I know that name. “Still afraid? Cautious? We may have a common enemy in this Overlord.”

Olivia froze. OK. Who is this guy? After a few seconds she found her voice and said, “You’re… you’re that guy in Iraq, right? The Islamic guy?” Why do you care?

“Ah, yes, you have heard of me. And no, I am not Muslim. Though the Muslims are… fascinating. Have you seen their Hajj, their pilgrimage?” he asked, his gaze growing distant.

Olivia shook her head. What does this have to do with anything?

His eyes returned their focus on her. “A pity. To see what the beliefs of men can bring… but no matter. We have something else to discuss.” He waved a hand, and two chairs of stone grew out of the floor opposite each other. “Come, sit.”

Olivia made no move towards the new chairs. No thank you. “What about that?” She glanced towards the scaly creature on the table in the center of the room. Its four thick limbs strained against the solid stone restraints.

Taauth displayed no such hesitation. “I believe they are called Siberians. One must know the enemy’s mind to defeat them, after all. This is mankind’s planet, not theirs,” he said as he reclined in a chair.

“What are you going-”

He cut her off. “Pay it no mind.” With another wave of his hand, the table and its occupant plunged into the floor. Another guttural howl from the Siberian was cut off by a sheet of stone materializing to cover up the new hole. Taauth looked at her expectantly.

What do I do? What do I do? She looked around the room again. No exits had materialized in the ten seconds since she’d checked last. He can help get rid of Overlord? She searched her memory. How did I get here? There were… Overlord robots. And drones. And a guy with an axe. Then something exploded. Why aren’t I in that parking lot then?

“How did I get here?” she asked, not moving from the wall.

“You are asleep. This is not the real world.”

“How do I know this is real?”

“Only my word and your own conclusions.” OK? This can’t be real, can it?

“And… you can help? Against Overlord?”

“I will. I saw your memories. I would not stand for such a man to rule.” Taauth cackled. “The machine man. He, along with everyone else, has forgotten. Forgotten the old gods, the old ways. He would have all humanity reduced to slaves. Even in my homeland he has tried to exert an iron grip on men.”

Well, he sounds like he’s telling the truth. Maybe this isn’t so bad. But this all seems… wrong. He’s a warlord. Why would he be nice? He had that alien thing restrained. It was thrashing and stuff.

“Then why haven’t you done anything? Like… looked into his mind like this or something.”

“Dreams are complex. There is a certain logic to their layout, though I do not know it. Finding a certain person in the quagmire is impossible, even in the old days. Now, with billions of people on the planet? No, attempting to find him here is futile.”

Hold on. Olivia’s eyes flickered over to where the alien had been. “What about that Siberian?”

“I did not choose that one specifically. But an alien’s mind is different from that of a human. They are distinct. I chose one to… study it. That principle may be why you are here. An untrained human’s wandering mind cannot enter here, but you are not truly human.” He extended his hand to the free chair. “You will not sit?”

It’s got a backrest. “No thank you.”

He sighed. “Very well.” It slid back into the floor without a trace. “You do not trust me?”

She shook her head. Why would I?

He grinned wide. “Wise. But you need me. With my guidance humanity’s potential is boundless. With Overlord it is doomed.”

That’s not right. Olivia’s hands opened. “Your guidance? What makes you so much better than Overlord? You’re a warlord yourself!”

Taauth leaned forward in his chair. “Because I can enact change, and because no one will stop me. Anyone could, but they do not. A man may accomplish anything if he commits himself fully to it. Few do. Very few. That Overlord is making an attempt to bring his own goals to fruition is admirable, even if his endgame is severely flawed. If I succeed in my goals, then I have succeeded. If not, then I have spurred change. I have spurred mankind to overcome me, to prove my vision wrong and set themselves on a better course than my own. In essence, I cannot lose.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“It amuses me to do so. And you will not remember anything I don’t want you to.”

Olivia’s eyes widened. No, no, not forgetting. She pushed herself off the wall and spread her feet in a stance that Ben had taught her. Taauth roared in laughter as he stood from his seat.

“Ha! You are no human. All your strength means nothing here. This is my dream, my mind.”

“I don’t care about Overlord. Let me go!” Olivia growled.

Tendrils of stone from peeled off the wall behind her and wrapped around her arms and legs. They yanked her back so more could pin her against the wall by her hips and shoulders. She struggled against them as Taauth sauntered over to her. Dark smoke appeared around her head. A threatening hiss escaped her lips.

“Then you may go in a moment. First there is something I’ve been meaning to do. And I must thank you. You provided the last piece of the puzzle. I had my suspicions.” He locked eyes with her. “Find the Persian, you will know him when you see him. Tell him the sands of Babylon remember. He will understand.”

The smoke shot forward. Her vision went blurry and a massive headache erupted in her skull.

Over the pounding in her head she heard Taauth say, “Oh, and I doubt we will see each other here again, though the future is uncertain and my work is just beginning. No matter. You may awaken now.” Her world went black.

***

Above Olivia, a voice spoke. The back of her mind screamed danger. Someone opened her eye. She snarled and shot forward, ready to fight. Her hand wrapped around a neck and threw its owner to the ground. Leave me alone! Around her, people shouted.

She froze. Her scaled hand wrapped around a choking Ben, pinning him to the floor. Chris ran up to her and tried to pull her off. He sounded like him. That guy. That… who?

“Olivia!” Chris shouted.

She released Ben, shot to her feet, and backed away. Oh no. What happened? Why’d I do that? Everyone in the lair shot her confused, fear tinged looks. Miya and an armored man were halfway out of their seats. Rob rushed to Ben’s side, next to the bean bag Olivia had been laying on. She’d had torn a ragged hole in it with her feet in her haste to get away from Ben.

I need to find him. Wait, what? What him? She shook her head and took a hesitant step forward. Ben gasped for air on the floor.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Is he OK?” she stammered. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Stupid me. Stupid.

“The fuck was that?” said Rob.

Olivia shrank back. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m so sorry.”

“Easy,” Rob murmured to Ben. Miya rushed to his side. Olivia saw a flash of red as she touched Ben’s neck.

Ben’s breathing returned to normal. “I’m alive,” he said as he sat upright. He massaged his throat. “Gonna feel that in the mornin’. Also, what Rob said. The fuck was that?”

“I don’t know. I thought you were… I don’t know. I didn’t mean… I didn’t-”

“Calm down,” ordered Chris. He faced her and raised a placating hand. “What do you remember?” It’s OK. Calm. I’m calm. Don’t mess up again.

“Um, the robots. A light and an explosion. That’s it.”

I need to find him. She looked around the lair. Not here.

“Alright, take a seat. It’s OK,” said Chris. “You were just jumpy.”

“I’m sorry,” Olivia repeated.

“I believe ya. Jus’, ya know, don’ do that again, please,” said Ben.

Olivia let Chris guide her to her chair with the sawn off backrest beside Amanda. The whole lair settled into an uncomfortable silence. Rob helped Ben back to his feet.

I need to find him. Olivia let out a small hiss. Stop that.

“You OK?” asked Amanda.

Olivia shook her head. “No. I hurt Ben. And…” Something stopped her from continuing.

“And?” prompted Amanda.

“Nothing. Just… nothing.”

“OK. You had us scared there for a bit.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I overreacted. And… wait, when did Chris get back?”

“He got back when the rest of us pulled you and Ben out of the fire. Oh, and Purifier too.”

“Who?” Olivia sniffed. Someone else is in here.

“Him.” Amanda nodded towards the armored man. Olivia noted the enormous axe strapped to his back. Bad, bad. Amanda must have sense her discomfort. “Don’t worry about it. Ben is alright, and we’ll figure something out.” Olivia nodded and let the conversation die.

I need to find him. Olivia got up and headed for the back door.

“Where you goin’?” asked Rob as she passed.

“I… I don’t know,” she replied as she left.

“Something’s not right,” she heard Chris say before the door closed behind her.

She took flight, following the path she and Ben had taken earlier. She heard gunfire all throughout the city, broken up by the occasional siren. What looked like a military convoy burned in the streets. She gave the billowing smoke a wide berth. A car started behind her.

I need to find him. What is that? Stop it. She dropped onto a roof. Find who? He could be anyone. Why won’t this go away? She hissed and took a passing swipe at an air conditioning unit, leaving a series of long gouges in the metal. I need to find him.

Maybe… maybe this guy can make this stop. She took flight again. What else can I do? She sniffed the air as she approached a familiar apartment complex. A certain scent caught her attention, beneath the smell of smoke and oil. There. I remember. Make it stop. She followed the scent, past a ruined tank. Debris was scattered everywhere in the area. Make it stop.

The scent led her to more wreckage. In someone’s lawn, a squad of robots surrounded a kneeling Cyrus, with a few drones hovering with their spotlights overhead. Found him. She dove. Her wing took out a drone as she aimed for a bulkier robot that stood head and shoulders above the others.

The moment her wing made contact, the robots scattered in all directions and fired up at her. Two grabbed Cyrus and began dragging him away. She collided with the big robot on the sidewalk and slashed. It rolled with her, using her momentum to slam her into the ground with it on top.

She hissed, heedless of the bulk of the robot weighing down on her. She dug a hand into its metal casing and ripped a chunk free. The robot didn’t make a sound beyond the movement of its limbs. It rolled off of her and slammed its arm into her chest. The concrete below her cracked under the impact.

She snarled and hooked her claws into its arm as it pulled back. It pulled her upright, allowing her to get her feet back under her. She reached forward as the robot tried to escape and tore the arm off. Bullets bounced off of her.

Three normal sized robots dogpiled her, knives flashing. She lost her grip on the larger robot. Her tail snapped out, catching one and taking its leg off. She twisted, dislodging the one in front of her. The final one stabbed down towards her shoulder, the knife digging into the muscle between the shoulder and neck.

She roared in pain. The robot let go of the knife and jumped off her back. The dislodged one ran back to her. She slashed with her uninjured arm and carved a massive chunk out of its chest.

“Power nullifier!” shouted Cyrus, pointing at the large, receding robot she’d lost track of. Cyrus tackled the robot behind him and wrestled with it for its rifle.

She tore into the last robot, the one that had stabbed her. The remaining ones kept their distance, firing incessantly. Then, a massive gust of wind obliterated them. Olivia’s attention snapped to Cyrus.

He stood over a ruined robot and pulled a knife out of his leg. His wounds vanished before her eyes. I should say something.

“Are you… the… I don’t know. Arab guy?”

He stiffened and turned around to face her. “I’m Persian, not Arab. And what does-”

That’s the word. “Yes! I’m… I’m supposed to say something.” The sands of Babylon remember. “The… the sands… of… of Babylon remember.”

Cyrus’ head snapped back. “Repeat that.”

“The sands of Babylon remember. The sands remember. That’s all I know now make it stop!” she screamed.

Cyrus flew off without a word, leaving Olivia staring at empty space. She whirled around to catch a glimpse of him rocketing eastward, away from the mountains. No, no, no. That’s it? I found him.

Gunfire and familiar smells caught her attention. Uh oh. She spread her wings and flew towards it. Ben, and Miya exchanged fire with a group of robots across the street. They took cover behind Ben’s car, with three blown out tires. Chris, in liquid form, squared off with two others in the center of the street. Why were they following me? She tucked in her wings and dove as fast as possible towards them.

She spotted a group of battered and clawed robots approach the fight below her. One towered over the others, sparks shooting out of an empty arm socket. The moment it came within twenty feet, Ben collapsed, holding his head. Miya and her golem didn’t seem affected. But in the middle of the street, Chris snapped back to human form, off balance. Several robots shot him point blank.

No.

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Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Empire

Chris checked his phone again, his free hand fiddling with the napkin on his lap. The waitress of the diner arrived with his cup of coffee. He thanked her and took a sip, mind wandering. Maybe I should stop showing up so early to these things.

He leaned back in the booth. How in the hell am I going to patch this up? Can I even patch this up? They probably thought their foster child died at the feral place after getting him a job there. And now I just show up out of the blue, alive. I fucked this up.

“Hello, Chris,” he heard over his shoulder. It took him a moment to match the voice with the person he knew, but when he did make the connection he practically jumped out of his seat and spun around to face his foster parents.

Patricia and Frank Collins were both tall even in their early fifties, though they still stood a couple inches shorter than Chris. But that was where the similarities between the two ended. Frank’s skin was pale from long hours in an accounting office. Patricia, a retired MHU officer, probably could have snapped him in half. Chris’s eyes wandered over the scar on the side of her neck. They stood side by side, waiting for him to make the next move.

“Hello,” Chris managed. Handshake is too formal, they don’t look like they’re in the mood for hugs. What do I do? He offered them a seat in the booth across the table from him. They all sat, not bothering with the menus.

Frank had a nervous smiled on his face. Someone isn’t looking forward to this either. “So, kiddo, how’ve you been? What’d you wanna talk about?” This was your idea.

Chris blinked and said, “Well, what do you want to know?”

“The truth, please,” said Patricia, her voice icy.

Chris explained as much as he dared. He ran through Olivia’s capture and their efforts to break her out of the research facility in Houston. “So Miya had some family business to take care of in Phoenix. We wrapped that up and got back about a week ago,” he fnished.

They digested this in silence. Then Patricia said, “What were you thinking?”

He took a deep breath. “I was thinking I was helping the people who rely on me, and who I rely on.”

“We thought you were dead. Dead. Shall we list everything?” asked Patricia, locking eyes with Chris. “You call us to say Alice had been killed in the riots, and then went silent for a month.” Under the table, Chris’ hands clenched into fists.

“We thought you needed some space,” added Frank.

“And then, then, you called us asking to help you get a job in Houston. Not a week later we saw the news and thought you were dead in a mass feral breakout. We called some people and they said you’d just vanished. Just gone.”

Frank’s smile had vanished now, replaced by a serious frown. Chris felt himself shrinking under their gazes. I’m an idiot.

“We had our suspicions, especially when they said a certain feral was missing and you vanished from their systems. And you just confirmed those suspicions. You used us to break it out. So explain. Go on. Explain,” finished Patricia. She leaned back in the booth with folded arms.

“You were in the MHU,” he replied. “What would you have done for your squad mates?”

Patricia’s face darkened. “Don’t try to turn this around like that. This is about you, not me,” she exclaimed, her voice rising.

“Dear,” Frank murmured in warning. The loud and busy diner was filled with people, people with

“I can and will,” said Chris. “They’re my friends. We’ve kept each other alive when supers were trying to kill us. You think I should just throw that away? Just cut and run at the first sign of trouble?”

“Excuse me?” said the waitress as she approached, cutting him off. “Hi. Is there anything I can get you two?” she asked his foster parents.

“No thank you,” said Patricia, her voice curt.

“I’ll take a glass of orange juice,” said Frank with a smile for the waitress as he handed her the menus.

“Can do. That will be out in just a moment.”

“That’s your excuse?” Patricia continued when she left.

“Come on. You know she’d never see the light of day again if we didn’t get her out.”

“She?” asked Frank, eyebrows drawn together.

“The feral.”

They both sighed. Patricia massaged her forehead and said, “We thought you’d grown out of doing dumb things.”

“You didn’t think to tell us any of this,” added Frank.

“I thought you’d disapprove. And obviously you do.” I’m butchering this, aren’t I?

“Then why lie to us? Why?

“I did what I thought was right.”

“For who? A feral and a couple crooks?”

“The feral’s name is Olivia. She’s a sweet girl who’d rather curl up with a good book than anything else. Two of those crooks? Rob and Ben. They’re worried about their brother, deployed overseas. They try to hide it but they’re always gobbling up news about Iraq. Or Miya. She’s always angry, lashing out. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound exactly like me when I first moved in with you?” He took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Please don’t talk about them like they’re irredeemable thugs.”

Frank considered Chris. He placed a hand on Patricia’s arm when she opened her mouth. “And so your best idea was to lie to us to get into that research place,” he said.

Chris nodded. “It was the only way we could think of to get in. Otherwise we would just be reduced to beating our heads on the walls. I’m sorry. We made sure they couldn’t trace us back to you, but I didn’t think about what it would look like to you when the news broke. I’m so sorry.”

Just then, the power in the diner went out. Now what? Conversation in the diner faltered as everyone looked around at the now dimmed lights. Plenty of light came in through the large windows in the walls.

“Here you go. Sorry about all this,” said the waitress as she hurried up with Frank’s glass of orange juice. “We’ll try and get everything back up and running as soon as possible.”

“No problem. Thank you,” said Frank, accepting the glass. He took a long drink then asked, “You really want to stick with those people?” I guess we don’t need lights to have a conversation.

“Yes.”

“Well, I agree with your intentions, if not your execution.” He nudged Patricia, who nodded.

“You need to consider your friends carefully. Very carefully,” she added.

“It’s your decision and we will respect it,” said Frank. His tentative smile vanished. “But don’t do anything like that ever again.”

“We’re not going to keep this a secret, but we’re not going to go around telling everyone either,” added Patricia. Frank nodded in agreement.

That’s probably as best as I could have hoped for. “Thank you.”

“Sorry folks. Everything in the kitchen’s gone out,” announced a manager in the center of the diner. “If you didn’t get your food, it won’t be coming out unless your waiter says otherwise. Don’t worry about paying.”

“Just in the nick of time,” said Frank, his smile returning as he took another drink.

Chris took a sip of his now lukewarm coffee. A silence overtook their table. Not a hostile, glare ridden silence, or the silence of a lull in a friendly conversation, but a sort of awkward silence between people who don’t know what to say next.

Once they’d finished their drinks, Frank broke the silence. “Well, it was good to see you again, Chris,” he said as he got up. Chris and Patricia followed suit.

Chris shook his hand and said, “You too.” Frank moved aside for Patricia.

She wrapped an arm around Chris. “Don’t do anything else stupid.”

“I’ll try.” She released him, they said their goodbyes, and they went their separate ways. Chris headed back to the bus stop. That… that was good to get off my chest.

***

Bus is twenty minutes late. Wonder what’s going on. He leaned on the bus stop sign. I miss owning a car already. Around him, several other people also waited for the bus. He pulled out his phone. Whoa, no bars.

“What’s taking so long?” a woman said to herself aloud.

“Power went out. Probably messed with the lights,” replied the man between Chris and her in a gravelly voice. God damn it. Another power outage? I thought that had been fixed.

Finally, the bus trundled into view. Chris climbed on behind the man once it came to a stop. He managed to claim an empty seat. The bus lurched from stop to stop. Someone mentioned Overlord.

“Thank god. Finally,” said Gravel Voice, in the row ahead of Chris.

That caught the attention of the couple talking across the row from him.

“Did you just say thank god Overlord is here?” asked the young man. Chris turned his attention from the window to the conversation. This can’t be good.

The man grinned. “Maybe. Whatcha gonna do about it, punk?”

“What is wrong with you? He’s evil,” said the young woman.

“What did you just say, you little bitch?” Gravel Voice stood up from his seat. The young man shot up right after him. I can almost smell the testosterone.

“Hey, sit down back there,” called out the driver from the front.

“Shut up,” Gravel barked back.

“What did you just say to my girlfriend?”

Chris stood up. Alright, you two have had your fun. “Hey, pack it in-”

Flames shot out of Gravel Voice at Chris, cutting him off. He took a cautious step back. Why is it always fire?

“You know what Overlord means? Do you know?” asked Gravel, his voice low. The young couple also backed away, eyes wide.

“What are you on about?” asked someone from the back of the bus. Chris realized that the driver had pulled over, and spoke quickly and quietly into a two way radio.

“Order, that’s what. He won’t put up with bullshit like this.”

“And what are the police for?” asked a woman towards the front.

“The cops are band of well-meaning idiots too blind to see the truth.”

“And what truth is that?” asked Chris.

“That they’re protecting a corrupt and complacent society.”

“You’re an idiot,” said the bus driver, hanging up his radio.

“Shut up, you little faggots,” barked Gravel. He pulled out a pistol from his belt, flames shooting off of him. Guardsman? The vigilante? “You think he’s just going to go away like a bump in the night? He’s here to put an end to this bullshit,” he roared.

He won’t burn up everything in here. That would destroy his own oxygen supply. He’ll either use it small scale or try to get out so he can go hog wild. Or…

The temperature in the bus dropped several degrees. I hope he can’t go below my freezing point. Chris shifted into liquid and slammed into Guardsman’s arm. Someone screamed. The temperature around him plummeted, though Chris remained liquid. He slammed Guardsman’s arm into the ground. It went off. Shit.

Chris ripped it from Guardsman’s grasp and whisked it away within his liquid body. All the while, the temperature dropped further and further. Pain spiked at Chris through the usual numbness. Bad. He flowed off of Guardsman, and the pain died off.

Frost had accumulated on any exposed metal in the bus. The breath of the other passengers who hadn’t already escaped clouded in the air, despite the fact it was mid-June and eighty degrees outside.

Guardsman climbed to his feet with a shaky grin. “That all you got?”

I can’t spend too long around him. I think that pain was me freezing. Chris flowed between the seats to the right as Guardsman sent a blast of cold down the aisle and towards the back of the bus. A couple people in the back who hadn’t gotten out collapsed, shivering.

Chris burst up from behind a seat and rushed towards Guardsman. Guardsman dodged to the left, taking only a glancing blow to the shoulder. Chris readjusted, sending the middle part of his liquid body directly into Guardsman’s chest and punching him through a window.

A massive spike of pain arced through Chris. He forced the gun and random debris out of himself and reverted back to normal. It took a moment for him to recover, but he grabbed the gun and peeked out of the new hole in the bus.

A bloody Guardsman staggered to his feet, away from bus. He managed to pick up to jogging pace, crossing the street. Chris fired the magazine at the retreating figure until the magazine was empty. None hit.

“Fuck.” Chris cursed to himself and threw the now useless gun to the ground. Fucking lunatic. Fucking vigilantes.

He heard something from the back of the bus. A man curled on the floor, shivering. The young couple tended to someone else who had been hit by the cold.

Chris knelt by him. “Hey, listen to me. We’ll get you out of here and warmed up.” He looked up to the young couple, who nodded back.

Chris hauled the man to his feet and helped him walk down the aisle. He heard the couple behind him do the same. Everyone outside stared at him once he got out. He heard sirens in the distance approaching. Why can’t I have nice things? He passed the man to a bystander. “He’s super cold. Just let him warm up.”

With that, he shifted to liquid and flowed away, trying to put as much distance between himself and the bus that would soon be crawling with police. Once he gone a respectable way, he came to a stop behind a grocery store and half collapsed against a wall.

Once he’d caught his breath, he took stock. Well shit, I don’t have a way home now. Maybe I could walk to… where? He pulled out his phone to call a cab. Still no reception. Damn it. Lightrail? I have no idea where the nearest station is. I guess if I’m not too attached to my kidneys I could hitchhike. I should probably avoid public places, though. He sighed. Walking it is.

***

Hours later, several dodged police checkpoints, and a close run in with a tank, Chris found himself back in familiar territory. A few minutes later he slipped in into a lair completely devoid of people. This can’t be good.

He searched for a note, or any kind of indication as to where everyone else could be. Some yellow white flakes on the table caught his eye. These… these are bone. He spotted a half carved bone on the floor, along with a knife. Never seen Miya leave stuff like this lying around.

The work area was in more chaos than normal. Scattered tools. Par for the course. What is this? He spotted several opened gun cases strewn about. They armed themselves. Why? I don’t see any casings on the floor. No bullet marks on the walls, either.

He threw up his hands. It’s just one thing after another. He collapsed on a nearby chair and peeled off his shoes, letting them do something besides carry him for the first time all day.

A familiar rumbling came from the back lot of the lair. He pulled his shoes back on and rushed out back to the sight of the whole team, plus an armored man with an axe, climbing out of the battered and bullet ridden truck.

“What happened? Are you…”

“Purifier. You must be Nomad,” said the armored man as he climbed out of the back of the truck.

“Yeah,” answered Chris.

“Me an ‘liv’ were scoutin’ around. Ran afoul of some Overlord bots.”

Amanda and Rob got out of the cab and staggered towards the back.

“Olivia’s hurt. She got knocked out,” added Miya, next to Ben.

Together they bent down and lifted Olivia up. Shit. Chris helped them carry her into the lair. They set her face down on her beanbag. Olivia twitched occasionally, though her face remained relaxed.

“Where the fuck have you been all day?” asked Ben as everyone crashed around the table. “‘liv’s been stressin’ out over ya.”

“I’ve been trying to get back here this whole time. I… may have wrecked the bus I was on.”

“Why’d you do that?” asked Rob with a grin. Ben laughed behind him

“Because it turns out Guardsman is a big fan of Overlord. He got really violent and pulled a gun on some people.”

Purifier sighed. “I was afraid of that.”

“Had a bit of a reputation,” added Ben. He knelt down in front of Olivia and pulled up one of her eyelids. “Anyone know how to deal with reptile eyes? They any different than human ones? Can’t tell if she’s brain dead or somethin’.”

Right as Chris opened his mouth to ask what exactly had happened to them, Olivia shot upright with a snarl and grabbed Ben by the throat.

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Loaded – Dominoes

It’s so comfy! Olivia snuggled further into her vast beanbag. My feet aren’t hanging off the edge, either. Where did Ben and Rob find this? She used the back of her claw to hit the next page button on her new tablet thing.

Amanda, asleep under her wing, twitched and mumbled something incoherent before quieting down again. I always forget how quiet it gets in here when everyone’s asleep. It’s nice. Something smells funky though. Not in here, but somewhere. Olivia lay her head down on her plushy jaguar, tilted the tablet accordingly, and resumed reading.

Blankets rustled from Rob’s section. After a moment, he staggered out from behind the curtain and headed straight for the makeshift cupboards by the table.

“Hi Rob. Up already?” she said, her voice low.

“Bwah?” he mumbled, spinning around. “Oh, there you are. Good morning,” he replied.

It’s morning? Olivia grabbed her phone from beneath the jaguar’s tail and checked it. Oh, wow. Seven already. I wish there were windows in here.

“Yeah, woke up a bit ago, figured I wasn’t gonna get back to sleep,” continued Rob. Plastic wrapping crinkled as he opened something he’d grabbed from the cupboard. Ew, smells like one of those granola bar things. “Amanda awake yet?”

“No.” She extended her wing enough for Rob to see the top of Amanda’s head underneath. “Just you and me.”

He took a seat facing Olivia. “Have you two been like this all night?” he asked between mouthfuls of his breakfast bar thing. Stop eating with your mouth open. You and Ben both. It’s so gross.

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Well, I didn’t want to wake up Amanda or anything. And I was reading.” She held up the tablet to show him.

He leaned in closer. “Is that… oh, gotcha.” He grinned. “You’ll be wavin’ around a wand an’ speakin’ Britishisms soon enough.”

Olivia blinked. OK? “Yeah, Chris gave me a bunch of recommendations.” There are so many books out there!

“Find anythin’ in particular?”

“No. Well, yes. I’ve liked everything so far. There was also that other one, I think it had game in the title or something.”

“Oh man, that one. A dystopian young adult book with a female protagonist fightin’ against the government. The originality is staggerin’.”

“What?” I have no idea what you’re talking about.

“Nothin’. You just ain’t jaded yet. Likin’ the bean bag?” he asked, before she could say anything.

“Yes!” said Olivia with a smile. “Thank you guys so much, again. It’s so comfy.” Why did they do that? I guess that sounds kind of ungrateful, though. Maybe… oh! “You guys didn’t know if it was my actual birthday though, right?”

“No, not at all.” He finished off his granola bar and got up from his chair.

“Oh.” Darn it. “Yesterday wasn’t actually my birthday, then.”

“So?” he asked over his shoulder as he reached the trash can beside the fridge.

“Well, why yesterday?”

“We thought it’d be fun.” He grinned again, sitting back down on the chair and balancing on two of its legs. “Just tryin’ to be nice.”

That question came out wrong. “No, no. I just… um… sorry.”

“What the?” came a muffled voice beside Olivia. She withdrew her wing. Amanda rolled away blinked at the light overhead.

“Good morning, Amanda,” said Olivia. Rob just laughed.

Amanda winced as she flipped over and propped herself up on her elbows. “Oh, good morning, you two.” She rubbed her eyes. “When did I fall asleep?”

“Um, I think at around eleven last night,” replied Olivia.

Amanda nodded. “Wait, was I literally under your wing this whole time?”

“Yeah, you showed me the option menu thing, then kind of fell asleep. I didn’t want to wake you up or anything.”

Amanda flopped back down on the bean bag. “This thing is pretty comfortable.”

“I know!” It doesn’t have a backrest or anything.

“Thank Miya, she’s the one who found it,” said Rob. “Oh, Amanda, when you’re ready to leave the land of comfort, I made some progress on a couple of those projects.”

Amanda raised her head. “Oh, what?”

“I almost got the rails ready, give me an hour and they’ll be ready for testing. I carved out some space in my armor for those sensors an’ comms you got. Oh, an’ I’ll need your measurements for makin’ the plates for your own armor, too.”

“All of that already? Awesome! Oh, did you get all that wiring finished?”

“Who the fuck do you think I am? Of course I did. Took maybe an hour. Oh yeah, did you get around to insulating my armor yesterday?”

“Yep, in that you should be safe from any electrical attack short of a lightning bolt now. You may want to check on the right arm gears, though. I had to pull a couple things out of place and didn’t want to mess up anything else trying to put them back in.” I wish I could do stuff like that.

Rob frowned for a moment. “Oh, that’s an easy fix. No worries.”

“Cool. Excuse me, Olivia,” said Amanda, half covered by Olivia’s wing again.

Right. Olivia got up, curling her hands to keep her claws from slashing up the bean bag. She offered a hand to Amanda.

“I’m not made of glass, you know,” she grumbled, accepting Olivia’s help. She bit her lip as she got to her feet.

“You OK?” asked Rob.

Amanda nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine.” She started for her own section. “Just give me five minutes. Still waking up.”

It’s only been two weeks. She seems skinnier. Or is it just me?

“Sure, I’ll be over by the workshop,” said Rob as Amanda nodded and disappeared behind a curtain. Olivia heard something hard and plastic rattle.

“Doin’ anythin’ fun, ‘liv?” asked Rob.

“I’m actually thinking of going to sleep.”

“Readin’ all night take it outta you?”

“A little.” She stretched all her limbs, having been in roughly the same position for ten hours.

“Oh yeah, what’s up with your back?”

She blinked. “What?”

“Your shirt was sticking up in weird places on your back when you were layin’ down.” What… oh no, the spikes.

“I, um, it’s nothing,” she stammered, walking backwards to her section. “It’s, um, it’s just, you know, um, nothing.” She reached the curtain and dodged behind it.

“Um, OK?” said Rob.

A moment passed, then Rob walked over to another part of the lair. Darn it, they’re getting obvious? She scratched at the inch long spikes. Please stop growing. Please?

She sighed and collapsed onto her bed. I don’t need to be any weirder.

***

Olivia woke up to an intense conversation between Amanda and Rob. I don’t know what shear stress is, but that sounds really technical. She lay in bed, eyes closed. I should get up and do something. I just sat around all of yesterday. What’s everyone else doing?

The only other set of lungs drawing breath in the room was Miya, at the table. Olivia couldn’t hear or smell anything else. Maybe she’s setting up for another lesson thing. It’d be great if I can get something besides flickering green stuff from my fingertips. Or claws, whatever. Olivia cracked her eyes open and glanced at the green scales of her hands. Of course the magic stuff had to be green, too. Whatever, I should get up.

After a couple more minutes of repeating ‘I should get up’ to herself in her head, she finally dragged herself out of bed. She stopped at the curtain. I’ve wore this shirt since all of yesterday. I should probably change. She zipped open the black duffel bag next to her bed, and rifled through the clothes within.

A plain blue shirt with a penguin caught her eye. Why not? She frowned the instant she pulled on the shirt. When did this one get so tight? She rolled her shoulders, trying to find some extra room. This is kind of annoying. What about the others?

She pulled the too small shirt off. The spikes on her back caught on the shirt fabric in the process, ripping the shirt in half. Her hand jerked in surprise, and her claws tore through more fabric.

“No, no, no. Darn it,” she muttered under her breath, wrestling with the shirt. Get off.

“Olivia, you OK in there?” asked Miya. Olivia froze, arms tangled in the shirt, as Miya pulled aside the curtain behind her. “Whoa. Sorry, sorry. I’m an idiot,” she said, retreating behind the curtain.

She didn’t… she didn’t see the spikes, did she? Olivia kept still for another moment. I guess not. She’d have said something. Olivia grabbed another shirt and threw it on, this time careful not to demolish it.

“Sorry about that,” said Miya as Olivia joined her at the table.

“No, it’s OK.” Olivia twisted around a chair and sat, backrest in front of her.

“What was all that I heard?”

“The… the shirt was too small.” Miya sighed. “Sorry,” mumbled Olivia.

“No, it’s not that. Just thinking. Me and Amanda went through the big and tall store at the mall. I guess they might have some bigger sizes we could get. Anything you want in particular?”

“I don’t know. Um, I like what I have now.” Does that count?

“All you wear are cargo pants, which are too short for you, and t shirts, which are also too short for you. We can get other things. In fact we did. We bought other things besides t shirts and cargo pants, you know.”

“Yeah, but a lot of it was too thin. Like, when I cut the back, they kind of just disintegrated. Oh, and the tank tops didn’t work at all.” I couldn’t figure out how to get those on around the wings.

“You didn’t think to tell us this?”

“I didn’t want to make a fuss.”

“Just tell us. That way you don’t have to cycle through the exact same clothes every couple days.” It’s not that bad.

“OK,” said Olivia.

“Also, what were those things on your back?” No, no.

“Nothing.”

Miya raised an eyebrow. “I’m not an idiot. I saw a bunch of dark grey things on your back.”

She saw. Just… just get it over with. “I, um, spikes.”

“Spikes,” Miya repeated.

“Yeah,” said Olivia, looking at the claws of her feet digging into the concrete. I know, I’m weird.

“What? Why are you looking like I’m about to hit you? You have wings and a tail. You really think spikes make any actual difference?”

“I… I don’t… I don’t know.” Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Olivia heard a sharp crack from where Rob and Amanda were working. Something small and metal clattered on the concrete floor.

“Fuck yeah!” exclaimed Rob.

“I think we have a winner,” said Amanda. They slapped their hands together in a high five.

“Hang on, that gives me an idea” Miya walked off to where Amanda and Rob worked. “Hey, guys, do you have a tape measure I could borrow?” A what?

“Uh, yeah. One sec,” replied Rob. Olivia heard a cabinet drawer open.

Miya returned with a small black box looking thing. She grabbed a small tab sticking out of a corner and pulled out a length of bright yellow tape.

“Here, keep this under your toe,” she said, crouching down. Olivia pinned the end of the tape down with a claw. Miya looked up at her for a moment. “Yeah, I’m not tall enough. Pull this until it reaches the top of your head, then hit this little lever,” she said with a tap to the side of the tape measure.

Is it some kind of ruler? Olivia took the tape measure and did as Miya instructed. Oh, yeah, there are a bunch of lines and numbers. I think Dr. Ruskov used something similar. She passed it back to Miya, who read the tape closes to the little black box.

“Yeah, you’ve over seven feet tall now. Just short of seven foot one.”

Olivia hung her head. No. Please no. I don’t want to get any taller. I’m already smacking my head on door frames. Please no.

The door to the lair opened. “God damn gas is expensive,” proclaimed Ben as he walked in, ammunition box in hand.

“You’re surprised?” asked Miya.

“Fuckin’ five dollars per gallon?”

“Well, about half the world’s oil is being invaded. Well, not the oil, the land. Whatever, you get what I’m saying.” Why is there always so much bad stuff going on?

“Venezuela, yeah, I get that.”

“There’s a warlord in the Middle East. He’s moved on to Kurdistan from Iraq.” Olivia heard the door open again.

Ben shrugged as he set the ammo down against the wall behind Miya. “I guess.” He tilted his head as he looked at Olivia. “Why you lookin’ so sad?”

Olivia tucked her wings in tighter. “I, um, nothing.”

“She’s taller,” said Miya.

“Better than the alternative.” He wrapped an arm around Miya’s waist and lifted her off the ground, chair and all. “This is a Miya. See how small it is?” he said, dodging Miya’s surprised flails.

“Hey, don’t call her ‘it’.” That’s not nice.

“Yeah, fuck you,” said Miya, elbowing Ben in the collarbone. He set her back down on the ground.

“Think of it this way,” he said as he walked around the table. “Miya, how many times you needed a stool or ladder to reach somethin’ high up?”

She glared. Ben just smiled as he sat. “A lot,” she conceded with a sigh.

“See?”

“I think you’re underestimating how awkward it is to be the tallest person in the room,” said Chris from the fridge. Thank you! You’re not that tall, though. I guess you’re taller than everyone else, but you’re not that tall. Right?

“Oh, hey there, Chris,” said Ben with a wave. “Also, what’d ya say?”

“Being tall is not all fun and games,” repeated Chris. Seriously?

“You’re tall?” asked Olivia. Everyone burst into laughter. She just blinked. I’m serious.

Ben composed himself enough to say, “Olivia, I’d consider Amanda tall for a chick. An’ I’d consider Chris tall for a guy. You’re super tall, your view is kinda skewed.”

“Yes, I’m tall,” added Chris, taking a seat next to Olivia. “I’m six foot five, and I stopped really growing sometime around freshman year of high school. Trust me, I know the struggle.”

“Wait, six foot five as a freshman?” asked Miya, eyes wide. “Jesus Christ.”

“Yeah, height wise. I filled out later,” said Chris, holding his hands out and spreading them apart. Oh. I guess growing isn’t that weird. Olivia glanced down at the top of Miya’s head. Still, though…

“Where have you been all day?” asked Miya.

“I just got done talking with my roommate. He had my stuff moved to storage. Because, you know, I was gone for two or three months and didn’t pay my share of rent.”

“Wouldn’t the cops be watchin’ that place, then?” asked Ben.

“Oh, yeah. Of course. Hell, we’ll be on the feds’ radar if we keep up all the public mayhem. Still good to know. I might have to get that stuff back eventually,” said Chris with a sigh.

“What was that sigh for?” asked Miya.

“Just thinking.”

“‘bout what?” Yeah, what Ben said. What’s wrong?

Chris shrugged. “What I want to do with my life, I guess.”

“I hear ya,” agreed Ben.

“But what about what we’re doing now?” asked Olivia.

“This?” He waved an arm around, gesturing to the rest of the lair. “This isn’t exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

“What’s wrong with us?” she asked.

“What? No, not you guys. Just the whole getting hounded by the cops, not having any clear idea of what to do, living in a place with no running water. That kind of stuff.”

“It’s not as though we’d never see each other ever again if we got other jobs,” added Miya. But… we wouldn’t be together and stuff.

“I gotcha. I’m missin’ two fuckin’ fingers. Havin’ a hard time grippin’ stuff. I can’t really fight with this hand anymore,” said Ben, wiggling the three remaining fingers on his maimed hand. “Thing is, I don’t know what else to do. The more I think about it, the more I don’t wanna do this for the rest of my life.”

“I don’t know either. I was thinking about going back to college.”

“And study what?” asked Miya.

“That’s the thing. I have no idea.”

“What’d ya do when you first went?” asked Ben.

“MHU training. That was two years of basic and classes.”

“Basic?” asked Olivia. Basic classes? Then why would he say it like they were two separate things?

“Basic training. We basically had the Army’s training with some modifications to it. It was focused on taking care of all kinds of powers. But that’s the only skill I have, and I’ve soured on that career path. And I know what they could do,” Chris said, jerking his towards Rob and Amanda. “Techies can get a job anywhere. What are the rest of you thinking about doing?”

I… I don’t know. I don’t really like hurting people, but what else can I do? I don’t… I can’t go to school or anything. Can I?

“I got no idea,” said Ben. “No high school diploma. All my experience is in food, an’ I’m sure as hell I don’t wanna do that shit. Hell, worked as a line cook one summer. That shit sucked.”

“Really, just making food?” asked Miya. Food? Is anyone else hungry?

“Jus’ makin’ food? Jus’ makin’ food? I worked twelve fuckin’ hour shifts. I had to juggle a dozen orders on two grills for twelve fuckin’ hours, no fuckin’ breaks. Got a ton of nasty burns on my arms, nearly sliced off the tip of my finger once, watched a guy spill boilin’ fry oil on his leg on my second day on the job.”

“Twelve hours? Why would you do that to yourself?”

“Cuz that guy spilled oil on himself an’ they needed me to take the slack. I was healin’ up from a big fight then, had nothin’ else to do, an’ I’m a fuckin’ idiot sometimes. What about you, Pokey? Any retirement plans?”

Miya shrugged. “I don’t really have any complaints right now. I’ve been in worse places.” Olivia wrapped a wing around her.

“Well, aren’t we an indecisive lot?” said Ben with a grin. How is that funny?

“Here, let me make a decision: I’m gonna go to sleep now,” said Miya, rising from her chair.

“Yeah, same here,” said Chris. “I need to meet with my old foster parents tomorrow.”

“What for?” asked Ben.

“Well, they work for the Freeman Company, the same company that was in charge of that feral place in Houston. They helped me get a position there.”

“You didn’t think that through, did you?” asked Miya.

“Yeah, I was an idiot. Amanda wiped all records of me from their databases, but they could still put two and two together when they saw the news of the breakout.” Chris shrugged, a frown on his face. “We’ll see. Anyways, good night.”

“Oh yeah, Olivia. Found a firin’ range we could use for target practice,” said Ben, pointing to her as Miya and Chris left.

“Oh, well, um, do I really need to?” Guns are just… I don’t know, violent. She glanced down at her claws.

“Come on, don’t tell me knowin’ how to shoot wouldn’t have been better than runnin’ up to someone, gettin’ shot the whole way.” Getting shot is annoying. But… I don’t know. He’s just going to keep asking.

“Um, OK.”

“Lemme give you the directions.”

***

Olivia landed in the woods in the foothills of the mountains. The only light besides the moon and stars was a small lightbulb on a large pavilion looking structure. Behind her, Ben drove up the dirt road. She sighed. Do I have to do this?

Olivia helped him unpack the box of ammo he’d bought and a few gun cases. Ben flicked on a few more floodlights, illuminating the general area. He set up a few bottles on a log a short distance away.

“Before I hand you a gun, a couple things,” he began. “Keep it pointed at the ground until you’re ready to shoot. An’ if there’s people ‘round, never, ever, ever, ever point this at someone unless you mean to shoot ‘em. Second thing. Keep you finger off the trigger at all times, unless you’re ‘bout to shoot. Good so far?”

“I think so.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Ya think so? OK. Repeat what I said.”

“Um, keep it pointed at the ground, and keep my finger off the trigger unless I’m ready to shoot.”

He nodded. “Good. Now, second thing: Respect the gun. Don’t fear the gun. Don’t pussyfoot around with it. Keep a firm hold on it. Don’t try an’ crush it. Now, I figure size an’ recoil ain’t much of a problem for ya, but we’re still gonna start with somethin’ smaller. Glock for ya,” he said, passing her a small, black plastic pistol.

She held it, keeping it pointed towards the ground. It’s kind of small.

“Safety for a glock is a bit weird. We won’t worry ’bout that for now. Again, keep it on until you’re ready to start firin’, like the trigger.” He produced a large set of orange earmuffs. “Tilt your head down. These’ll help with the noise.” He put the earmuffs over her ears.

He showed her how to stand, feet apart and leaning slightly forward. So, now I shoot. Ben nodded. OK. Just pull the trigger. She squeezed the trigger. The resultant bang still broke through the earmuffs, but didn’t sting her ears like they did most of the time. What was he saying about recoil? I didn’t feel any.

“Alright, try an’ hit the middle bottle now,” he said, loud enough to be heard through the earmuffs.

She held up the gun again. OK. Just pull the trigger. Nothing happened.

“Hold up. Gun down. You seem to have removed the trigger. Uh, where’d it go?”

It fell somewhere? Olivia searched the floor. “Oh, there it is,” she said, reaching down and pinching the small bit of metal between her claws. She held it up for Ben to see.

He tilted his head. “Well, let’s try somethin’ else.”

***

Ben called it a night after three more broken triggers. Two more had been completely cut off, the last Olivia had accidentally bent it and the firing mechanism completely out of shape. Oh thank god.

They packed everything back up to Ben’s car. He returned to the lair. Olivia spent hours flying around in the mountains. Well, at least this got me out in this area again. There’s a lot less power lines here.

Once morning returned, Olivia returned to the lair as well. Rob and Amanda hadn’t moved much, fully engrossed as they were with something in Rob’s armor. Chris was gone, and Miya and Ben ate breakfast. Olivia sat down to join them. Is it breakfast for me, or is it dinner because it’s the last meal before I go to sleep?

“Guys, guys,” said Miya, breaking the comfortable silence. “Look.”

“What?” asked Ben.

Miya shoved the phone in his face. His smile vanished. “Call Chris.” To Amanda and Rob he yelled, “Quit what you’re doin’ an’ grab a gun, now.”

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Loaded – Cake

“Think about it. It gets you outside an’ in great shape.”

“Rob…” began Chris, weary resignation in his voice.

No interrupting. Rob talked over him. “You get to know people. The kinda people who’d be good to know.”

“Wait. Not sure ‘bout that one,” said Ben.

“Shush. Lemme finish,” said Rob.

“You two do realize what you’re talking about, yes?” asked Miya.

“Shush, all of you,” insisted Rob. “An’ not just individual people, but people in general. You get to know how they act, an’ react. What do they do under stress? You’d find out real quick.”

Ben nodded. “OK, I get that one. But what about the other one? Good to know people?”

“Well, the super wealthy are always good to know.”

“Super wealthy?”

“Who else would have the resources to do that for any length of time?”

“No,” cut in Chris. “No matter how you spin it, hunting other people for sport is not a good thing. No.”

“Did you listen to anythin’ I said?”

“Yes. And before you say anything, no. Just no.”

The four of them sat around the table in the lair. Olivia had taken advantage of the night and was out flying, and Amanda had withdrawn to her work area. She’s been throwing herself at her work since she got back. More so than usual, anyway.

Ben and Miya just cracked up. Rob snorted. “I think I made some good arguments there.”

“Yeah, I’m with ya,” chipped in Ben. “It’s decided. Human hunting is the best sport.”

“What?” said Chris, eyes wide. “The only other sport you said was arson. That’s not a sport. Neither of those are sports.”

“Hang on, I let me look up the real definition,” said Miya, holding her phone in front of her. “Here it is: ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment’.”

“Yeah, arson could totally be a sport,” said Ben.

“Yeah, so could human huntin’. Thanks, Miya,” added Rob.

She glanced at Chris with a smile. “You know they’re going to argue on, no matter how much logic you try to put in.”

“Better’n baseball,” said Ben with a grin. “That shit sucks. Barely a real sport.”

“I kind of have to agree with them” said Miya. “I can’t sit through a full game of baseball without my antifucks reaching critical levels.” Hold on a second.

Ben had the same thought. “Antifucks?” he asked Miya.

“Yeah, where you don’t give a fuck. With baseball, I so don’t give a fuck that my amount of antifucks reaches critical mass.”

Chris sighed and shook his head. “Philistines,” he muttered under his breath. What? You like baseball? There are still real humans who like baseball?

“That don’t make sense,” said Rob.

“Hush, it makes sense if you don’t think about it.”

Ben and Rob snickered.

“Hey, Amanda. What’cha workin’ on?” asked Rob.

“Olivia’s thingy.”

“What do you mean by thingy?” That could, quite literally, be anything.

“Her family. I’m working on tracking down who they could be.”

“Any luck?” asked Chris.

“Kinda. Not really. Not much I can do from here, though.”

“No family. That’s got to suck,” he said in the silence that followed.

“Meh. Family is overrated,” said Miya. Chris frowned. Whoa, that’s a little harsh.

Ben and Rob exchanged looks, then both shrugged. “Depends on the family,” said Rob. No one’s perfect.

“We should throw Olivia a birthday party or somethin’,” said Ben.

The conversation slowed to a halt as they all considered his suggestion. Could be fun. Why not?

“Why?” asked Chris. “I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, but what made you think of that?”

“Well, who else would? Besides, all she’s got to do is fly around. May as well do somethin’ for her.”

“Amanda, what do you think?” called out Rob over his shoulder.

“What?” she called back.

“Come here for a minute.” Shouting conversations are a pain.

He heard a thunk as she set something down on her desk. “What is it?” she asked when she reached the rest of them. She stood at the end of the table, rather than sitting down beside them. You aren’t covering up that wincing nearly as well as you think you are. Does Miya need to give you a checkup or something?

“Thinkin’ of throwin’ a birthday party kinda thing for Olivia. You in?” asked Ben.

Amanda blinked in surprise. After a moment she said, “Of course. When?”

“Uh…” Good question.

“Next week?” suggested Chris. “Gives us a chance to find our gifts, and its not as though we have any jobs coming in right now.”

“Yeah. We can’t just rely on you stumbling ass backwards into another job like that animal smuggling one,” said Miya.

“One week works,” said Amanda. Ben and Rob nodded.

“Cool. Let’s get our shit together a week from now,” said Ben.

***

Three days later, Rob found himself walking through the mall with Ben and Miya. They passed by a shop selling cinnamon buns absolutely overloaded with lard and sugar.

“God bless America. Anyone want one?” said Ben Miya fake shivered.

“No. I haven’t hit rock bottom yet,” said Rob.

“Point. Oh, maybe that shop?” Ben pointed to the shop in question, one of those novelty stores selling massage chairs and odd toys.

“Sure,” said Miya.

They browsed the store. Some of this stuff is cool. He picked up a grill fork that seconded as a thermometer. I’d totally buy this.

Miya walked up to him and Ben. “I found something,” said Miya, holding aloft a large jaguar plushy.

“Awesome,” said Rob.

“She loves jaguars, don’t she?”

“Yes. Very much so,” said Miya. Rob caught sight of something behind her.

“Wait, wait, guys. You seein’ what I’m seein’?” asked Rob.

“I dunno. What?” said Ben.

“That enormous fuck off beanbag.” Rob pointed to the corner of the store and a massive dark blue beanbag nearly the size of a queen size bed.

“Yes! That’s perfect,” said Miya, her grin matching his own.

“Think we should get that?” asked Rob.

“You totally should.”

They walked over to examine the beanbag. “It’s a bit pricy,” said Rob.

“Split between the two of us it ain’t bad,” pointed out Ben, motioning between himself and Rob. “An’ why you two think Olivia would like this so much?”

Rob grinned. “Because she said so,” he said.

“Remember John Doe? There was one of these in Rob’s illusion thing. Olivia loved it,” added Miya.

“Wait, she didn’t have wings in that. She hates backrests, remember?” said Ben. I didn’t, but whatever.

“She can lay forward, don’t have to be on her back,” said Rob. “It’ll work.”

“It’s huge, though.”

Your point being? “So is she.”

“No. How are we gonna move it anywhere? How are we gonna hide it?”

“My truck, and my truck,” answered Rob. “We got tarps at the lair, an’ I’d be willin’ to put money she’s asleep right now.”

Ben nodded grinned. “I think we got somethin’, then.”

***

Birthday time. Olivia slept through the day, they had more than enough time to get everything set up without tipping her off. Ben was out getting a cake with Miya. Chris helped Rob with getting the bean bag from his truck and into the lair.

“Why did you get such a big bean bag?” asked Chris as he flattened the bean bag to fit it through the door.

“It’s comfy as hell,” said Rob on the other side of it. He pulled as Chris flattened, careful to not get the bean bag caught on something and tear it. “What’d you get?”

“Sound cancelling headphones,” said Chris. “They muffle sound, not really cancel it out. You get what I’m saying.”

They worked the last few feet of bean bag in and set it down between the curtains and the table. With that done, Rob wandered off to where Amanda crouched over some new contraption of hers. He leaned on her desk.

“You ready? Got somethin’?”

“Yes,” said Amanda, not looking up. She tapped on a small tablet to her side, beneath a large computer monitor. “An e-book reader thing.”

“Aren’t those kind of expensive?”

“Not if you make one yourself out of ten dollar’s worth of parts and some pirated software. It’ll work better than anything you can get off the shelf, too. Man, I missed having actual tools and resources.”

“How long did that take you?”

“Maybe an hour or two.”

“Feel like takin’ a break?” Before you explode?

“Not really. Why?”

“You’ve been workin’ with me on your car. You’re designin’ completely new armor. You’re workin’ with Olivia on findin’ her old life. You’re still injured, I see you wincin’ an’ poppin’ pills. You think you need to be takin’ on even more shit?” He gestured to the setup she had on her desk. That isn’t an e reader thing.

“There’s a lot to do.”

“An’ you’ve been doin’ that stuff to the detriment of everythin’ else. Why?”

“Because what else can I do? I can’t fight. Not unless I manage to get a set of power armor working. But until then, I’m useless otherwise. May as well be in a coma if I can’t do something.”

“Not gonna talk with the rest of us, even?”

“And say what? Bitch about my injuries some more? No, I’ll be useful.” Pissing her off isn’t the right way to go about this.

“What are you even workin’ on now?” Let’s see if I can’t help out.

“A railgun.” Wait, what now?

“Railgun? Don’t the Navy have those things?”

“They’re working on them. And they’re focused on big guns. I’m talking about a personal weapon kind of thing.”

Rob grabbed a chair and pulled it up next to Amanda. This sounds interesting! “You know guns are artillery, right? How you gonna make that a personal weapon?”

“I was thinking a rifle. The longer a railgun is the more powerful it is. I don’t think a pistol sized one would be feasible.”

“OK. Why?”

“These rails are connected to a current. If you put a metallic object between them and complete the circuit, the resultant magnetic forces around the rails-” I don’t know what most of that means.

“Yeah. Gonna have to stop you there. I dunno how to make computers do computer things.”

“What? There’s no computers in this. Not yet, anyways. This is just an electrical system for now.”

“Sorry. Lemme clarify. I dunno how to make electricity do electricity things.”

Amanda sighed and rolled her eyes. “You’re not helping.”

“OK. Lemme think,” he said. He grabbed one of the light brown rails and scratched at it with a fingernail. Not too hard. He tapped it against the desk. Doesn’t sound right. “So the electricity makes a thing go much fasterfied cuz black magic, right?”

“Yeah. Let me show you. Hand me that rail?” Rob returned it to her. She placed it in parallel to its twin, then grabbed a small chunk of some other metal and placed it between the two. “Basically, hitting the trigger makes this go fast that way,” she said, sliding the metal chunk along the rails away from herself.

Problem. “How fast?”

“I was working under the assumption of a low caliber bullet for now. If it works, I was thinking about making something more substantial.”

–That would cause metal to grind on metal. The current materials used now would be whittled down to half their size in two shots.–

“Friction would fuck the rails up right quick,” he said.

Amanda tilted her head and considered the rails. “No? They’re already putting out a bunch of heat from the current running through them. I was going to just air cool them. The added heat from friction shouldn’t be too hard to handle.”

“No, I’m thinkin’ mechanically. Like grindin’ down a knife. The rails would be tiny little sticks after two shots.  Trust me, that’s the fuckin’ bane of my existence. Always gotta keep the gears an’ shit in my armor maintained.” So much WD-40. So much…

“Oh. Damn it.” She consulted her plans on her computer. “Well, I was just going to use that alloy for experiments anyways.”

“Wouldn’t be that hard to make a sturdier alloy to use.” What you’re using now is pretty shitty in that respect.

“Oh, really?” she asked, brightening up. “But wait, its conductivity is pretty important.”

“True. I can think of a couple things. Copper’s conductive, right?”

“Yes, that’s a good one. So is gold and silver. Wait, that’s dumb.” She hung her head back, eyes closed. “Never mind.”

Rob grinned. “Yeah, we don’t really got the budget for those last two. But I can think of a couple copper alloys I could make that wouldn’t wear out too quick.”

At this point they sat right next to each other, their heads almost touching as they examined Amanda’s prototype.

“I’ll need to test how conductive they are though.”

Rob shrugged. “Sure. An’ wait a sec, you can’t just make ‘em yourself?”

“No, I have no idea how to smelt metal or whatever it is you do. I can use the materials I have around me to make electrical systems, my power doesn’t tell me how to make those materials.”

“How do you do anythin’, then?”

Now it was Amanda’s turn to shrug. “I just do. I can rarely actually optimize anything, but I can usually make something do what I want it to do. Things just need maintenance. Oh! Speaking of which. What about maintaining the gun? Won’t the rails still be worn down in time?”

“Hrm. Make ‘em replaceable?”

She nodded. “That could work. We’ll want to make this easy to take apart, it is experimental.”

“Yeah, we gotta work out the kinks an’ shit.”

“Another thing is the power. I’ve been looking at an adequate portable power source, and the only ones I can think of are non-rechargeable batteries.” A small beep came from her computer. “Speak of the devil. It’s ready to go.”

She attached the rails to the desk and wired them to a large black battery.

“Sure this is gonna work? You just slapped that together in maybe thirty seconds,” said Rob as she readied the metal chunk of a projectile.

“Oh please, this is simple stuff.” She hit the switch, and the lights promptly died with a spark. A small whiff of smoke rose from a wire junction.

“You were sayin’ somethin’?” asked Rob. Must not laugh. Must not laugh.

“Yeah, I was saying shut up.” The corner of her mouth twitched up.

“Guys, guys, it’s time!” said Ben as he and Miya came in with a sheet cake.

“Time? How do you know? She’s still asleep,” said Chris at the table. Miya set down the cake in front of him.

“Well, we’re gonna wake her up,” answered Ben. Thank god she sleeps like a rock. Otherwise she’d have known days ago.

“You wanna eat that cake, don’t you,” said Rob.

“You’re goddamn right I do. That shit’s amazin’, an shit dries up stupid fast up here at altitude. Now come on.”

Rob glanced at Amanda, who just shrugged. Rob helped her to her feet, then they joined the others around the table. Amanda set her tablet beside Chris’ headphones as she took a seat.

Miya grabbed the jaguar from her own curtained off portion of the lair and slipped into Olivia’s. A moment later, she scampered back out, minus the plushy, and joined the rest of them.

“What’d you do?” asked Chris.

“I tapped her head a bunch, then put it on her back. She was moving when I got out,” she whispered.

They heard a sharp intake of breath from Olivia’s direction. She walked out from behind the curtain with the jaguar and a smile. “Happy birthday!”

Olivia froze with a tiny squeaking sound. She ducked her head and hugged the plushy tighter to her chest, until only her eyes poked out over the jaguar’s head.

“Come on, sit down,” said Ben. He teleported to Olivia’s side and led her to her seat with the backrest sawn off. She moved without resistance.

“You can breathe, ya know,” said Ben. Olivia buried her now red face into the plushy.

“Shhh. You spooked her.” Rob glanced around. Everyone’s attention was on Olivia, all with amused looks on their faces. Yeah, she gets funny when she’s embarrassed.

“Don’t be mean,” said Amanda, punching Rob’s arm. “Are you OK, Olivia?”

Olivia responded with a tiny nod of the head. Ben began cutting the cake. “You want some cake?” he asked.

After a moment, she gave another tiny nod, her face still buried in the plushie.

“You’re gonna have to look up to eat it, ya know,” said Ben as he passed a paper plate towards her.

She nodded again. Amanda nudged Rob beside her. What? She motioned her head towards Ben and the cake. What?

She asked, “What kind of cake is that?”

“Chocolate vanilla marble cake. Best of both worlds, if ya ask me.”

“Where’d you get it?” she asked.

“Bakery off of Wadsworth. Gone there a couple times for breakfast, it’s pretty damn good.

Chris and Miya both turned to follow the conversation. Oh, I get it, so we’re not all staring at Olivia. They continued the cake conversation for a couple more minutes as Ben distributed pieces to the rest of them. Olivia eventually mustered up the courage to raise her head again. She looks like she’s about to cry. Rather than crying, she took a tentative bite of cake, jaguar on her lap.

“Are you alright?” asked Amanda once everyone had finished.

“I just… um…” Olivia took in a deep breath. “I wasn’t… I wasn’t expecting this. At all.”

“Well what are friends for, if not surprisin’ an’ embarrassing’ the hell out of each other? Wanna see what you got?”

Olivia shrank again. “I… um…”

Chris passed the big puffy headphones to her. “New headphones. They should sound better than those earbuds you have right now. They’ll muffle outside sounds.”

Rather than letting everyone stare at Olivia again, Amanda passed her the tablet. “This is an e-book reader. I can show you how to download basically any book you want on it.”

“Oh, an’ that big-ass bean bag behind you is yours,” added Rob.

“What?” Olivia twisted around to get a better look at it. She turned back around and wrapped her arms and wings around everyone except Ben, on the opposite side of the table. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

***

Rob finished throwing out the last of the paper plates in the dumpster out back. They used the dumpster of a nearby office building to avoid having to pay for garbage. Ben, Chris, and Miya gone to sleep in the last several hours. Olivia lay on her beanbag, tablet in front of her.

“Where’s Amanda?” he asked. Need to ask her about the railgun. She never told me how long it was supposed to be.

Olivia lifted her wing. Amanda lay sound asleep on the bean bag beside her. Rob whispered, “You want me to grab her a blanket or somethin’?”

“We’re fine. She was showing me how to get the book thing to work.” Olivia whispered back.

Rob grinned. “Bueno. I’m passin’ out. Good night.”

Olivia smiled back. “Good night,” she whispered back. “And thanks again.”

<- Previous Chapter

<- Previous Side Story

Next Chapter ->

Loaded – Westward

Ben’s car jolted from a sharp dip in the road. Olivia’s head smacked into the roof, waking her up for the hundredth time that day. She sighed. I hate this. I hate this so much.

“You OK back there?” asked Miya from the front passenger seat.

“I’m OK,” lied Olivia. She adjusted her spread and twisted her wings as best she could, cramped as they were in the back of the car. At least I have the back seat to myself. She leaned back as much as her curled tail would let her. I still hate backrests.

“Don’t worry, we’re only fifteen minutes out,” said Ben, driving on the outskirts of Westward city.

Olivia double checked the blinds on the windows of the back of the car, making sure no one out in the midday sun could see inside the car, at least not the back portion where she sat. Miya and Ben looked normal, they didn’t have to worry about a passing glance. Must be nice to not have to deal with wings.

Everyone had agreed to put as much distance between them and Phoenix as possible. They had made it all the way to Westward, stopping only when Olivia nearly fell out of the sky from lack of sleep. Even with the loud noises and cramped space of the car, Olivia managed to nod off for most of the trip.

She adjusted the headphone in her ear. Miya had helped her with streaming music on her phone when she’d first joined Miya and Ben in the car. There’s so much music out there! Maybe I should get a book or something, too. Might be fun with music.

She peeked out the window. Familiar brown and green mountains rose before her, the snow on the tallest peaks in the distance had melted in the month since she’d last seen them. I should fly around in the mountains more. They were nice and quiet.

On the other side of the car was a tan truck. Followed by another tan truck. And another. And another. Then there were massive blocks. Why aren’t their tires moving? Olivia noticed the railroad beneath them. Oh, I’m dumb. Never mind.

“What is that?” she asked, pointing to the massive train.

“The train convoy thing on our right?” asked Miya. “We were just talking about that.”

“Yeah,” added Ben. “Looks like a whole armored battalion. Were a ton of tanks earlier.”

“Where are they going?”

Ben shrugged. “I dunno. Look new, not sure why they’re way the fuck out here. That shit alone could probably take all of Iraq.” Huh.

Fifteen minutes later, they pulled into a familiar lot behind the closed auto shop that was their lair. Tall, cloth covered fences obscured the view of anyone who might have been outside.

“Oh man, don’ look like anyone tried to break in while we were gone,” said Ben as he parked next to Rob’s truck. Rob himself pulled up behind him in Amanda’s car.

“Yeah, from here,” commented Miya. “Wait until we get inside.” Olivia scrambled toward the door of the car and spread her wings the moment they were free. Oh thank god. She returned her headphones to her pocket and stretched.

“Holy shit, nothin’ went wrong,” said Ben, stepping out of his own car. “Cars didn’t break down or anythin’.”

“I know, it’s weird. No one shot at us either,” replied Chris as he cracked his neck. That’s… that’s a good thing. Just accept it.

“We’re not inside yet,” added Miya.

Rob draped himself over the grille of his truck, murmuring, “Shh. It’s OK baby, Rob is back. I’ll wash off the bird shit, don’t worry.” What… whatever.

Olivia followed Ben to the entrance, ducking low to fit through the door once he unlocked it. A rotting smell hit her immediately. It almost smells like a dumpster in here. One of the bad ones.

“What the hell? You smell somethin’ off?” said Ben as he waved a hand in front of his nose. His other hand flipped a light switch. No lights came on. “Fuck, need to restart the generators, too. Looks like everythin’s in place, though.”

“You smell it too?” asked Olivia. What is this? You guys can never smell anything.

“Yeah, the fuck?” He poked his head over the top of an empty trash can by the door. Not that, that doesn’t smell like the source. “Ain’t the trash. We left in a hurry after ya. May have left somethin’ in the fridge?”

Ben walked over to the aforementioned unplugged fridge and opened the door. The stench of rot worsened. Olivia gagged and blinked away tears as her eyes watered.

“Fuck. Not somethin’. Everythin’. Fuck.” He slammed the door shut and shouted out to the others, “Who the fuck forgot to empty out the fridge before we left?”

“What’d you say? And what’s that smell?” asked Miya as she walked in with her bags. Olivia wrinkled her nose. OK, I need some fresh air.

“We left everythin’ in the fridge for the last month. We got a bunch of rottin’ fruits an’ some bad milk an’ shit,” replied Ben.

“Who forgot to empty it?” asked Miya.

“Tha’s what I was askin’.”

Olivia ducked back through the door to the reasonably fresh air outside. She shook her head a bit, as if that would get the residual smell out of her nostrils. Rob was doing something in the cabin of his truck while Chris wrestled with some bags in the back of Amanda’s car. It feels nicer out here anyways. I don’t see any clouds, too. She smiled as she walked over to help Chris with some bags. Finally back home.

***

They spent several hours getting settled back into the lair. The fridge they scrubbed and sprayed air freshener. The generator started working again without a hitch, and from what they could tell from the local news the cops in Colorado weren’t looking for them specifically.

It looks just like I remember it. In the center of the auto shop were six curtained off portions, with their clothes they hadn’t taken with them to Texas and Arizona. I don’t have to cycle through the same two sets of clothes anymore! I think I have four or five now. Their equipment was on the far side from where Olivia sat, along with Rob and Amanda’s work areas.

Olivia fished the last slice of ham out of the cold cuts packet on the table in front of her. Rob worked on his armor off in a corner across the lair. Beneath the metal armor slabs lay a complex web of wires and gears, each of which he oiled and polished. Miya munched on a sandwich at the table across from Olivia.

The only thing missing was Amanda. Her desk and chair sat empty, the computers gone or powered off. She’ll be back soon. She just has to heal some. But she hasn’t texted us or anything, though.

Olivia finished the packet and wadded the plastic up. Maybe I can get it this time. She tossed the wad at the trashcan ten feet away, near the fridge. It bounced off the rim and into the can, joining two others like it.

“Yeah!” Finally!

“Third time’s the charm,” said Miya, a small smirk on her face.

Rob let out a prolonged groan from his corner. Olivia glanced at Miya, who just shrugged. He got up and walked over to the fridge. At least that thing doesn’t smell as bad. The whole lair is kind of aired out, too.

“Fuck it, I’ll finish it later. Hungry.” He checked the fridge. “Wait, where’d all the ham an’ stuff I bought go?”

“Little Miss Apex Predator beat you to it,” Miya called out over her shoulder. Sorry. Wait, no, I’m not sorry. I was hungry. I’m still kind of hungry.

“Damn it.” He walked over and plopped down on a spare chair next to Olivia. “Anythin’ fun happenin’ over here?”

“Not really,” said Miya. “I think Ben and Chris should be back soon.”

“Chris is actually twenty one, he don’t need a fake ID or anythin’, right?” What does that have to do with anything?

“Yeah. You and Ben are twenty now, right?”

“Yep. Still got one more year.”

Miya sighed. “Hush, you. I’m only eighteen. I’ve got two and a half years to go.”

Two and a half years until what? “What happens at twenty one?” asked Olivia.

“That’s when you can legally buy alcohol,” said Miya. “Wait, you knew they were going out to get alcohol.”

“Yeah, but… I don’t know. I didn’t think you’d have to be old enough to buy something.”

“Yeah, it’s all ‘bout protectin’ the children. Mind you, a little kid or even a preteen shouldn’t be drinkin’, but we ain’t exactly that young anymore.”

“Getting too old for this shit,” muttered Miya. Eighteen isn’t old. Oh, wait, that was the joke.

“Exactly,” said Rob with a nod. Gravel crunched as a car pulled into the parking lot out back.

“Oh, they’re here,” she said.

A moment later Chris opened the door, laden with boxes.

“We have slain the mighty alcohol beast,” exclaimed Ben behind him. The bottles in the cardboard box he carried rattled against one another as he set the box down on the table.

They distributed the bottles, along with cups and shot glasses. Rob grabbed the leftover alcohol they’d had stored from last time. A ton of different smells filled the air, none of them too appealing. They all seem to like it, though.

“You want a beer, Chris?” asked Rob, offering him a bottle as he sat down.

“No thanks. I don’t drink horse piss.”

“Oh. Is that so?” replied Rob. He took a sip from his own bottle.

“Put your mouth around the horse’s cock, why don’t you?” said Chris, face and tone deadpan as he leaned back further in his chair to Olivia’s left. Chris? Olivia felt her face twist in an ill-concealed look of distaste. God, that’s disgusting.

Rob gagged and set his beer on the table. He stared at it for a moment, then looked back at Chris. “Don’t ruin this for me.”

“OK. If you want to keep drinking that golden liquid, then by all means, go right ahead.” Chris grabbed his shot glass. “Or, alternatively, you could quit being a pussy.” He downed his shot. Why are you being so mean?

“Sorry I can’t drink straight liquor. Fuck that shit.”

A smile hovered on Chris’s face as he said, “Sucks to suck.” Miya snorted in laughter.

“You want somethin’ to drink, ‘liv?” asked Ben, a grin on his face.

“Wait, she’s way underage. Fifteen, right?” asked Miya. Olivia nodded. I think I’m fifteen. That’s what everyone keeps saying, anyways.

Ben snorted. “When’s the first drink you had?”

“Uh, I think I was… fifteen? Yeah.” Miya blinked. “Wait, yeah, I’m an idiot, ignore me.”

“Still kind of young,” said Chris.

“Yeah, an’ dragon metabolism. I dunno how the fuck that works.” Yeah, neither do I. “Besides, not gonna get her shitfaced or anythin’. Anyways, really up to you,” Ben said to Olivia.

“Do… do I have to?”

“No pressure, jus’ askin’. Safe environment an’ whatnot,” said Ben, raising a placating hand.

“Well, what is there?” Everyone seems to care about this. Rob and Miya exchanged glances at that. Chris’s eyebrows shot up. What’d I say?

“Well… We got rum, a couple flavors of vodka, horse piss,” said Ben, nudging Rob with his elbow as he reached for his bottle. Rob just sighed.

“We picked up a bottle of absinthe. I didn’t know that was legal,” added Chris.

“Yeah, we figured we’d give that a shot in a moment.”

Something smells like cinnamon. “Cinnamon?” asked Olivia.

“Cinnamon?” repeated Ben, head tilted.

“I think she means the Fireball,” said Chris.

“Oh, right. You sure? That’s whiskey,” asked Ben as he grabbed a small bottle with a red label.

“Well, what’s the proof?” asked Chris. Proof?

Ben searched the bottle. “Uh, 66. Not bad, but it might be a little strong.”

“Well, we’ll figure out if she doesn’t like liquor soon enough.”

“Um, proof?” asked Olivia.

“How much alcohol is in it?”

“But… I thought it was all alcohol.”

“Yeah, all of this stuff has alcohol in it, to varying degrees. Rum is fermented sugar stuff, wine is grapes, an’ so on. It all ferments to alcohol,” explained Ben.

“OK. I’ll try some.” Those cinnamon bun things were good. A cinnamon drink thing should taste good too, right?

Ben blinked. “Alright.” He grabbed a shot glass and filled it about one third of the way. “Word of warning, this’ll be a bit strong.”

Why is everyone looking at me? Olivia pulled her wings in. Is this such a big deal? She sniffed the shot. It doesn’t exactly smell bad. There’s a lot of cinnamon in it. I guess it’s OK. She took a sip and started coughing the moment the liquid hit her throat. “What the…” she gasped, mouth covered by her hand.

Everyone burst into laughter. Rob wove an arm under her wing and patted her on the back. “Easy,” he said, a wide grin on his face. She pushed the shot glass away.

“Why do you guys drink this stuff?” She shook her head. Ew, it’s got an aftertaste. Make it stop. Miya passed her a cup of water. Olivia nodded in thanks and drank. “Seriously. That stuff was just awful.”

“What, the burn?” asked Miya, struggling to suppress another laugh at Olivia’s expense.

“Burn? No, it just tasted… awful. Just awful.” Like… I don’t know. Chemical-y maybe. Dumpster food wasn’t that bad.

“If ya want a burn we got some Everclear.”

“No, no, no,” said Chris as he leaned forward again. He shook his head. “That’d be cruel. No.”

“Want to try a beer?” asked Rob. “Much less alcohol.”

No. It doesn’t smell good at all. “No thank you,” said Olivia. I think I’m fine.

“Well, speaking of tryin’ stuff, let’s try that absinthe,” Ben said to Chris. Why? Why? Why? Olivia just wrinkled her nose. “Maybe we’ll get some kickass hallucinations.”

“Pretty sure that’s a myth,” said Rob, sipping his beer.

“Shut up an’ get back to your horse piss,” said Ben as he unscrewed to top of a white glass jug. Olivia wrapped a wing around Rob. I’m sorry they’re so mean to you.

Ben filled two shot glasses and passed one to Chris. They clinked their glasses together and drank.

“So, how is it?” asked Rob after a moment. Probably awful.

“Meh,” said Ben.

“Wasn’t bad. Wasn’t worth the hype. There’s better stuff out there,” agreed Chris.

“Anyone else want a try?” asked Ben.

Olivia shook her head vigorously. Nope. Nope. “No thanks,” said Rob. “I think I’m addicted to horse piss now.”

Ben nodded. “So long as you’ve accepted it. You, Miya?”

“Sure.”

Ben poured and said, “Here you are. Careful.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Miya, her voice calm and even.

“Well, tiny an’ chick ain’t a good combo for alcohol.”

“I’ll make my own damn decisions, thank you very much.” Miya snatched the glass and drank it, glaring at Ben all the while. She grimaced. “This tastes like shit.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you guys,” exclaimed Olivia. Why do you guys keep doing that to yourselves? That stuff is awful.

“Yeah, fuck you guys an’ your liquor. Drink horse piss,” said Rob, a grin on his face.

Chris just shook his head. That beer stuff doesn’t smell very good either. I can’t believe cinnamon betrayed me. They settled into amicable silence for a moment, Rob grabbing another beer and Chris pouring himself another drink.

“What are we doing now?” asked Miya.

“What? You mean existentially? Who are we and where are we going in life, or just here and now?” replied Chris.

“When is Amanda going to be back?” asked Olivia.

“I called her earlier. Went straight to voicemail,” said Chris. “She’s with her parents, though, she’s fine.”

Rob frowned and shrugged under Olivia’s wing.

“Anyone wanna play poker?” he ventured.

Ben poked Miya in the face. “God damn it,” she muttered.

“I’m game,” said Chris. “Texas hold’em again?” Oh, I remember that. That sounds like fun.

***

A couple hours and lots of downed drinks later, Rob asked, “How do you fly, Olivia?”

Olivia looked up from her pair of cards. I… do? I… I just fly. “What… what do you mean?” Am I missing something?

“Like, how much do you weigh? If you look at, like, a bird or somethin’, they got big wingspans. An’ they weigh almost nothin’. I get your wings are big, but they ain’t that big. An’ compared to a bird, a human ain’t, uh, aerodynamic.”

Olivia answered, “I think they said I weighed two hundred and ninety pounds.” Miya coughed. “And I don’t know. I fly just fine.”

“What beer are you on, Rob?” asked Miya. What?

“Uh, seven. Yeah.”

“That explain it,” muttered Miya.

“What?” asked Rob.

“Nothing,” said Miya in a normal tone. Fine, you don’t want to explain. Whatever.

“Guys, got a game goin’ on,” said Ben, stifling a yawn.

Oh right. Olivia checked her hand and the table again. This didn’t go the way I hoped. She just folded. Every time I bluff they call it.

Rob tossed whatever the call was into the pot. Miya bit her lip for a moment, then called as well.

“Aces,” she said.

“Three of a kind,” said Rob with a grin.

“Beats me,” said Chris, passing his cards to Miya.

Rob raked in the pot. “Suck it.”

Miya’s eyes turned a solid dark red. Wait, what’s happening? She flicked Rob’s arm. He jumped in his seat. “Ow, the fuck?” he said, rubbing his arm where she’d flicked him.

“Heh,. Drunk magic is fun magic,” said Miya with a smile.

“Why do your eyes turn all red when you do magic stuff?” asked Olivia. Her eyes had nothing to do with flicking Rob, right? Why would they turn red?

Miya froze. “You can see that?”

“Her eyes turn red?” asked Rob. What?

Olivia blinked. “Yeah. You guys don’t see that?”

“No,” said Chris. “Not at all. The rest of us can’t use magic.” He paused for a moment. “Wait, let’s back up a moment. You see the magic stuff, whatever it is?”

“Yes,” said Olivia. Why is everyone looking at me like that?

“From what I understand, only people who can use magic can see it,” said Chris. Oh.

“Yes,” said Miya, waving a hand around vaguely. “She has a whole complex magical web thing already, but I figured that was, I don’t know, bio stuff or something.”

“So, I can use magic?” That sounds kind of cool. What can magic do?

“Maybe,” said Miya. “Probably. I dunno.”

“Doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me,” said Chris.

A snore caught their attention. Ben lay passed out on the table, two bottle caps pressed into his face and an empty shot glass still in hand. That looks super uncomfortable. How are you sleeping like that?

“Damn it, where’s a permanent marker?” asked Rob, looking around at the table.

Chris sighed as he got up. “No, let’s… let’s not.” He swayed on his feet a bit. “Thinking about passing out myself.”

Rob pointed to Ben. “But… but… fine.”

“Should we, um, put him in bed or something?” asked Olivia.

“Nah,” said Chris. “That looks comfy enough for a guy who drank himself to sleep.”

No that doesn’t. “But…”

“Might wake him up,” added Rob as he passed. Oh, I didn’t think about that. I guess.

Olivia shrugged and got to her feet to follow the others. Rob and Chris soon said their goodnights and drifted off to their own curtained off bedroom section things.

“You going to sleep too, Olivia?” asked Miya.

“No. I was going to fly around a little bit.”

“Cool. See ya tomorrow, then. We’ll get that magic stuff sorted out, too tired to do that right now.”

Olivia smiled. “OK. Good night.” I can see all the cool stuff in the city again! She stepped out into the night and took flight.

***

The next day started quietly enough. Olivia only woke up in the mid afternoon. Ben had moved to snoring on his own bed, and everyone else was out of the lair.

Olivia stretched out on her bed. Don’t wanna move. Too comfy. Light glinted off the small gold bars in her hand. So shiny.

The door opened and light footsteps approached. “Olivia, you there?” asked Miya.

Olivia shoved the gold bars back in her pocket. “Yes.”

Miya poked her head in through the curtain and asked, “Did you want to figure out that magic thing now?”

“Sure,” said Olivia as she got up to join her.

“Alright, I went to the library to research and pick up books on the subject. They might end up being worthless, but it doesn’t hurt to have them anyways.”

She and Olivia sat across from each other. A couple thick books lay strewn on the table between them.

“First we need to find your specialty. Now there are two ways you’ll see this referred to. If you look at older books in the Western tradition, the old three classes were life, alchemy, and spirit. Spirit was man, life was everything else, and alchemy was stuff that wasn’t alive. This came from… I dunno. Some old Greek mage, can’t pronounce his name. That’s not the point. The problem with that was that they don’t work. The classes didn’t mean much of anything. I can affect both humans and animal bones, for example.”

“So… what does that have to do with anything?”

“For reference, in case you stumble on anything that mentions those three. Mages tend to be old school. And in a lot of places you’ll still hear references to alchemy or spirit. This is just general information, you’ll need to do some research yourself.”

“Why?”

“This is gonna sound a little cliché, but the power comes from within. I can explain all day long to you, but you need to be able to grasp the concepts and channel the magic yourself. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First we need to figure out if you even can, first. You’re half dragon, this is entirely unexplored territory here.”

Olivia nodded. I guess that makes sense. I’d like to know what I can do too. Nobody else seems to know.

“So, the modern classifications are biology, chemistry, and physics. People debate about psychology, whether that’s its own thing or not, but that’s pretty much a result of biology stuff. I fall within biology. And one thing to note is that you can’t really affect anything in the other two. I can’t do anything to non-biological things. The only exceptions are golems, but those are special cases. My magic needs a biological thing to travel through. It dissipates if it tries to go through anything else. Make sense?”

“I… maybe?”

“OK. The reason my specialty is bones is because bones conduct my magic best. I can affect non bone stuff, but it’s harder. The class means what kind of stuff the magic can affect.”

“So what is chemistry?” That seems vague.

“Kind of a misnaming thing. This book had a lot to say about it.” She tapped a book titled Applications of Scientific Principles in Magic. “I skimmed it but I got the gist. In magic, chemistry is causing reactions. Magic can tell between living and nonliving things, even if the living thing is dead. Don’t ask me how, it just does.”

“Oh, OK.” Olivia nodded for Miya to go on.

“There are a couple different major schools of magic all over the world. Each has different strengths. Magic is magic, no matter where you go, but different cultures developed different ways of doing things. I say major schools because some cultures emphasize magic more than others. According to this history book, the English magic tradition isn’t very strong because of both the wildfyre plagues and the bunch of iron on the islands. Also, Muslim countries don’t like magic. Only the extremists outright ban it, but there’s probably some passage in the Qur’an that could be interpreted as denouncing it or something. The book didn’t say, exactly.”

“So different people are good at different things?”

“Exactly. You’ve got Australian dream walkers, Congolese witch doctors, and so on. Norse mages are notorious for flash freezing their enemies and shattering them, literally. All sorts of stuff. Aztec magic, for example, is really good with bones, blood, and plagues.”

“Plagues? Why plagues?”

“That’s a good question.” Miya leafed through her book. “Aha, here it is. ‘Mesoamerican mages grew adept at fighting diseases, of both mundane and magical nature, due to the risk posed to them by the native wildfyre.’ Huh, didn’t know that. Anyways-”

Wait, don’t move on. “Um, wait. Mesoamerica?”

“Oh, yeah, Mexico is also called Mesoamerica. So yeah. The ones we’ll go over for now are Aztec, Scandinavian, and Tibetan. Aztec we’ll go over first because that’s what I’m good at and what I’ve learned. The Scandinavian and Tibetan schools are more based on a hunch of mine. Scandinavian techniques are good for heat manipulation, and Tibetan ones are good for air. Dragons breathe fire, and Rob is fairly confident you shouldn’t be able to fly if we just looked at you without magic, so air seems like a good thing to go over.”

“OK,” said Olivia.

“So,” said Miya. “Let’s get started.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Loaded – Grand Theft Auto

Ben heard a tiny click as Rob’s lock pick broke. Rob muttered, “Fuck.”

Ben bit his tongue to keep himself from shooting a witticism at him. Must… not… mock. Must… stay… quiet. Rob pulled another bit of wire out of his pocket and returned to the fence’s lock. He kept his other hand on the chain links surrounding the impound lot to prevent any shaking.

Ben faced the streets behind Rob, one hand on his phone. Olivia circled overhead in the night sky, ready to send him a pre-written text if anyone approached.

Another tiny click. “There it is,” said Rob.

He pulled the chain out from around the gate posts and pushed it open with no resistance. He’d broken the gate motor by forcing a knife into a vent a minute ago. Ben teleported through, and Rob closed it behind them to avoid suspicion. He threaded the chain back in a lazy loop around the gate before he followed Ben.

They made their way through the impound lot. While the normal impound was a vast expanse of towed vehicles, their own cars were in a higher security area next to the main building, cordoned off by a taller fence. Ben’s phone vibrated halfway through the lot.

“Down,” he whispered. He grabbed Rob’s shoulder and yanked him behind a large truck. His phone displayed the nonsense text Olivia had sent that they’d typed up before as he pulled it out of his pocket.

Ben laid down on the ground to observe the street they’d left behind. After a few seconds, a police cruiser drove by. Ben counted to thirty in his head. No second message from Olivia; the cop car hadn’t stopped.

He nodded to Rob. They climbed back to their feet and continued towards the main building. Inside waited one sleepy guard, according to Quarrel. They’d avoided cameras so far, but their cars weren’t exactly built for stealth. That guard would trip an alarm if he were to see anything. They skirted around the view of another camera.

My turn. Ben pulled on his ski mask as they drew close to an open window one story above them. He jumped, extending his arms, and teleported up. He caught the edge of the windowsill and pulled himself up. The break room appeared to be empty. Guy was just sitting at the front desk when we were scouting out the place a half hour ago. He let go of the windowsill with one hand and grabbed one of Rob’s knives at his belt.

His other hand almost immediately started to slip. Shit. He tightened his grip and pulled the knife out of his belt. A couple quick hacks at the screen and he was in. Good, would’ve never have heard the end of it from Rob if I’d had to teleported down again. He pulled himself into the break room and returned his knife to the sheath at his belt.

He crept through the lifeless hall. No one heard me cutting? Good. The glow of a red exit sign at the end of it caught his eye. There’s the stairs. He opened the door, keeping an ear out for any footsteps beyond his own.

Ben finally reached the ground floor. Security, where are you? He followed the sound of a distant grunt. Is he jacking off? He poked his head through a partially opened door. A guard sat, back to Ben, before a massive bank of security cameras that showed various points of the impound. A laptop displaying something pink had the guard’s attention. Oh my fucking god, he is. Must be really boring this time of night. Do I have to do this? Fuck it.

Ben teleported in, catching the guard unawares. He wrapped his arm around the guard’s neck. Hope you’re not into this. The guard shot up, nearly driving the top of his head into the underside of Ben’s chin before Ben could tighten his grip.

Ben used his knee to shove the chair back under the guard, keeping him off his feet. His free hand reinforced the arm around the guard’s neck. He pulled as tight as he could to push the bone of his forearm into the arteries in the side of the guard’s neck.

The guard twisted to the side, bringing them both down. His fingernails scratched at Ben’s arm, trying to get a grip and pull it away. No. Ben redoubled his effort, eliciting a gurgle from the guard. His struggles lessened, and eventually stopped altogether. Finally.

Ben rolled the pantless man off of himself. You got some explaining to do whenever you wake up. He grabbed a small key ring from the guard’s belt. Security down. Should be a cakewalk from here out.

Ben sauntered out of the security office and to the back door. He unlocked the door and strolled outside. Rob gave him a thumbs up from the car he’d been hidden behind. He joined Ben by the gate to the walled off section of the impound. Ben pulled out his phone and sent Olivia a text.

Maybe thirty seconds passed before Olivia landed inside of the fenced off section and tore the gate open. The cameras probably caught every second of it, but there was no point in disguises anymore. There may be security cameras still, but there’s only one Olivia.

“Thank you,” said Ben as they joined her inside. She gave him a small smile. They were far enough away from the roads that they wouldn’t need her on lookout duty.

“Happy birthday,” said Rob as they reached Ben’s car.

Ben pointed out Amanda’s car a few cars down. “Happy birthday to you too,” he responded.

“What are those yellow things?” asked Oliva, pointing to the tire of Ben’s car.

“Boots. Gotta get them off.”

“Could we just…” began Olivia as she reached down to grab one.

“Wait, gotta make sure we don’t wreck the tire like that,” said Rob. “Put your hands here, an’ pull straight out.”

Olivia wrenched the boots off the cars, keeping the tires intact. Ben pulled his keys from his pocket and started the engine. Still got gas. We’re good. He leaned over the central console to open the glove box. Papers, papers. Aha. He found the small silver device Quarrel had told him about, maybe the size of a fingernail. He tossed it out the door. Through the window, Ben saw Rob do the same.

“An’ we’re good to go. See ya back at the church,” he said to Olivia.

“OK. Good luck, guys.” She waved and took flight again. She’s gonna take someone out with a wing doing that one of these days.

They drove out of the impound and onto the darkened, abandoned streets. Rob led the way towards the construction site Roach had prepared for them. They passed few other cars, 3 AM not exactly being an active time of day for most people.

They pulled into the construction site on the outskirts of town. Behind a trailer were a set of massive brown tarps. They both stopped short of them and rolled down their windows.

“Tarps are there. I’m likin’ Roach,” said Rob. Damn right.

“Yep. Let’s get these covered an’ get back.”

Disguising the cars went smoothly. They hurried away from the construction site and hopped into a familiar car across the street.

“Oh, hey, fancy meeting you here,” said Quarrel as Rob and Ben sat in the back seat of her car.

“Yeah, figured you could use the company,” said Ben.

Quarrel smiled as she started her car. “Everything go alright?”

“Yep. Plan went off without a hitch,” said Rob. It’s like Christmas came early.

“Seriously?”

“Not completely, I had to tackle a fappin’ guy.”

“Seriously?” asked Quarrel and Rob.

“Yeah. Security guy was… yeah.”

Rob snickered. “You avoid a sticky situation?” Ben sighed. They mocked him all the way back to the church.

***

The next day brought no cops, or attacks, or any other life or death situation. I could get used to this. Ben had joined Rob in the kitchen, cleaning up their last meal in Phoenix.

“I made you a watch for our birthday,” mentioned Rob. “It’s in the lair in Westward.”

Ben passed him another bowl and asked, “Is it a cool watch?”

“Who the fuck do you think I am? It’s a fuckin’ amazin’ watch. Gotta barometer an’ shit in it. Even put in a little battery an’ light.”

“Look at you, branchin’ out to electrical shit. How’d ya do that?”

“Lot’s of tinkerin’ an’ trial an’ error.”

Olivia poked her head around the corner. “It’s really your guys’ birthday?” Shit. Forgot she can hear everything.

Rob and Ben glanced at each other. “Yeah…” said Ben.

“Oh. Happy birthday! But… wait. Sorry. I didn’t get you guys anything. I didn’t know, or… but…. why didn’t you guys say anything?”

Great, now everyone is going to hear. “Uh, yeah, yeah,” said Rob. “It’s alright. No need to worry or anythin’.”

Miya joined Olivia. “What was this I heard about a birthday?”

“It’s their birthday,” said Olivia helpfully. Damn it.

“Oh, cool. Happy birthday. Or is it birthdays?”

Ben glanced at Rob, who shrugged as he scrubbed another bowl. “I dunno. Birthday,” said Ben.

“Alright. You guys doing anything?”

“Ehhhh.” Not really.

“Nah,” said Rob.

“Why not?” asked Olivia.

“It’s a… a private thing. A family thing.” Don’t make a big deal out of this. We don’t. We were trying to avoid these questions, really.

Miya shrugged. “Alright. Well, happy birthday, you two.” She dragged Olivia away. Now that I think about it, when’s Olivia’s birthday? Guess she doesn’t have one. That kinda sucks. Rob passed him a bowl as he shut off the sink

“That the last one?” asked Ben as he dried the bowl.

“Yep,” answered Rob.

They joined the others in the main room. They had a few hours until dark, when they would slip out of the city and north to Westward.

“I like these couches. Could use one of these as a permanent bed,” said Chris, lounging on a couch, his bag packed at his feet.

“Just try not to think about how many farts it’s absorbed,” said Rob, crashing alongside Ben on another.

Chris sighed. “Damn it. Can’t just leave me to my comfort here?”

“Nope,” said Rob with a smile.

A loud thunk came from the closet across the basement. Roach wheeled out an old tube TV atop a cart.

“Church shows movies for youth program,” rasped Roach. “Has DVD player. And cable.” He set the TV in the center of the far wall and plugged it in.

“Cool. What do we wanna watch?”

“What DVD’s do we even have?” asked Chris.

Roach rubbed the back of his head. “Brought a couple,” he said, producing a small stack of DVD’s.

“Hell yeah. Thanks,” said Ben.

“What did you bring?” asked Quarrel.

“Gladiator. And… a couple of these are in Nahua, sorry. Matrix. Godfather.”

“I dunno. Maybe something a little lighter?” said Quarrel. Olivia nodded in approval.

“Forrest Gump?” Sure.

“I’ve never seen it,” said Miya. What?

“What? It’s a classic,” exclaimed Rob.

“Yeah, I think that settles it,” said Quarrel. “We need to cure her of her Forrest Gump ignorance.”

***

“Olivia, are you still crying?” asked Miya.

Ben glanced at Olivia. She had a tear running down her face. He suppressed a snicker. Are you serious?

“She… Jenny died,” croaked Olivia. “She can’t be dead.”

“Yeah, she’s dead,” said Ben.

“They were so cute together.”

“It’s OK, Olivia, it’s not real,” said Quarrel.

“I know. But… but…”

Miya, sitting next to her on the floor, wrapped an arm around her waist. Like a teddy bear hugging a grizzly bear.

“So, I think it’s about time we head out,” said Chris as he got up from his couch, breaking the moment.

Everyone followed suit. Quarrel and Roach said their goodbyes and shook hands.

“Here, have some guns for you. Unless the roads have turned into an apocalyptic wasteland when I wasn’t looking, you should be fine,” said Quarrel. She gave them a large box.

“Awesome. Thank you,” said Chris.

“Don’t mention it. We were keeping them here. We’ve decided to move out of here, not impose of Father John anymore.”

“Oh yeah, reminds me,” said Ben. “We need to give you shootin’ lessons when we get back, Olivia.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“We’ve been over this. Be better than havin’ to run up to somethin’ with a gun. If you have a gun, just shoot ‘em,” said Rob.

“Better to know it and not need it than need it and not know it,” added Ben.

“But…” began Olivia.

“Those bruises hurt? Cuz they look like they do,” said Ben, pointing to the various bruises on her arm she’d accumulated from getting shot the past couple days.

“A little. It’s not bad or anything. I can ignore it.” Come on, Olivia.

“Ok, given the choice between takin’ pain an’ not takin’ pain, which would ya choose?” asked Ben.

“Not?”

“Exactly. Don’ even have to shoot to kill. Just shootin’ at someone makes ‘em duck. Only thing that can really hurt ya is another bruiser or an iron weapon. If ya have a gun, they can’t use those to hurt ya.”

“Guys, guys, check the news,” interrupted Quarrel, staring at her phone.

“Gettin’ kinda tired of watchin’ the news all the time,” said Ben.

“Seriously, this is about Overlord. He’s invading Venezuela.” What? Why?

Ben spotted the remote and teleported over to it. “This have cable?”

“I think so. Let me plug it in,” said Roach.

Ben turned on the TV to a reality TV show once Roach was done. Who the hell was watching this last?

“Try channel five,” said Quarrel.

Ben pressed the five button on the remote. A commercial appeared on the screen.

“Damn. How about seven?”

Ben hit the seven. On the screen appeared a harried woman on the streets of a city. Buildings burned behind her, lighting up the night sky.

“-units have been unable to repel the attackers. We have multiple reports of Overlord drones being used in the assault, the same models used a decade ago to defend his holdings in Iraq. Citizens of Caracas are advised to seek shelter immediately.” Subtitles in Spanish scrolled along the bottom of the screen.

“Lemme get this straight. Overlord jus’ invaded Venezuela?” asked Ben. Shit, that’s bad. That’s very bad.

“Shush,” said Chris.

The reporter continued, “No one has heard from the president since the attack began. Local police have been losing ground-”

A bright flash overtook the screen and the feed cut out. A couple anchors appeared on screen after a moment.

“We’re sorry about that, viewers. The White House has just released a statement, stating that this incursion of Overlord’s will be met with appropriate force. We’ll try and reestablish contact with our reporter in the field during the break.”

Commercials began playing. When in doubt, go to commercials.

“What the hell is in Venezuela?” asked Rob, breaking the silence.

“Oil? Iraq has oil, too, and he took over there a while back,” said Quarrel.

“Those robots smelled like oil, I think,” Olivia chipped in.

“Awful convenient that Freedom Fighter jus’ up an’ left Venezuela to get killed here two months ago,” said Ben.

“One less competitor,” rasped Roach.

“He’s right. F.F. would’ve been a really bad ally,” said Chris. “Anarchy and all that.”

“I… don’t think that’s how the anarchist philosophy works.”

“You’re right,” said Miya. “Anarchism is more a philosophy of freedom of choice, and that how governments restrict the choices of people. Therefor governments are to be abolished. I’m probably butchering the details, but that’s not the point. The point is that anarchism was just a banner for F.F. to use. Kind of like how terror groups in the Middle East don’t actually represent Islam.”

“That still doesn’t explain why he just willingly got himself killed in Westward.”

“Maybe Overlord tricked him. Said he’d have his back, then left him high and dry.”

“Well, he wasn’t in bad shape, either. Police an’ military weren’t able to do much ‘bout him.”

“Yeah, until you killed him.”

“Point.”

“Wait, wait. You killed him?” asked Quarrel, pointing at Ben.

“That I did. Slit his throat an’ everythin’.” I should put that on my resume or something.

Quarrel stared at him for a second, trying to tell if he was serious. I don’t lie. Realization dawned on her face. “Oh right. I remember reading something about that. That was you guys?”

“Not I, I didn’t join up ‘til later,” said Rob.

“The rest of us, yes,” said Chris.

“Well, full disclosure, it was me an’ Amanda. You, Miya, an’ Olivia were too busy gettin’ arrested.”

Chris rolled his eyes and nodded. “OK, granted. But it was still a team effort.”

The news returned with a blaring theme song, replacing the commercials they’d been ignoring. The anchors burbled something behind their backs.

“What the fuck?” said Rob with a grin, pointing to the TV.

A group of people in colorful costumes sat at a round table across from the microphone wielding reporter. What the fuck? It looked like they were in some big important conference room. A couple tall potted plants graced the corners of the room, and the chairs everyone sat in looked rather comfortable.

“Thank you. We’re here now with Foy, the leader of the Chevaliers.” A small girl in a brown and green skintight leotard smiled and nodded. “Now, Foy, we understand that your team was formed in response to the recent riots in Los Angeles. Would you care to expand on what exactly your goals are now?”

“Overlord has already caused too much suffering around the world, and even attacked our city. The people of Venezuela need us to put a stop to this. We need to put an end to Overlord for good before he can do anything more.” You chucklefucks? Seriously? “To that end, we’ve formed the Chevaliers, dedicated to tracking down Overlord and bringing him to justice.”

The reporter nodded, a serious expression on her face. “And would you like to introduce the members of your team?”

“Of course. The man to my right is Coyote.” A large, blond man with Viking runes covering his costume inclined his head. But… what?

“The Jabberwock.” A brooding black man in a martial artist uniform sat back in his chair, fingers steepled beneath his chin.

“Rose.” A woman in a green costume with a rose motif waved.

“Tempest.” The thin man next in the circle had a penguin emblazoned on his chest.

“Soul.” A vaguely human shaped mass of grey mist occupied the last chair.

“Turn it off, turn it off,” said Rob, grinning. Oh come on, this is quality entertainment right here.

“Can’t watch this anymore,” muttered Chris. Fine. Ben switched off the TV.

“Did I just see that?” asked Quarrel.

“Some fuckin’ idiots in L.A. tryin’ to go after Overlord? Had the colorful costumes an’ everythin’? Yeah, saw that too,” explained Rob.

“What’s wrong?” asked Olivia. “They’re just trying to help.”

“They’re helping in the least helpful way possible,” said Chris.

“Yeah,” added Ben. “They looked like they were more there for a photo shoot than actually gettin’ shit done.”

“Does it matter what they’re dressed like? I mean, as long as they can do stuff…” Olivia trailed off.

“Kinda. They’re goin’ for looks, not effectiveness,” said Rob.

“MHU training had us all dress in spandex and go through regular sparring drills. It was rather unpleasant,” said Chris.

“Ha! Sucks to suck.”

Chris nodded. “Yes, Miya. Thank you. Anyways, that sucked. A lot. It was insanely restricting, provided no protection, painted you as a massive target, and was just generally a pain in the ass. And yes, you can drop a ton of money for a custom-made costume that removes most of those downsides, or you could just go to an army surplus store and get a combat uniform. The same damn thing for a fraction of the cost.”

“Yeah, but ya don’ look as stylish,” said Ben, grinning.

“You wear a hoodie and cargo pants. I wouldn’t call that a spandex eyesore.”

“So why are they doing that?” asked Olivia. Wide eyed idealists. Idiots. Who knows?

“There have been a couple good teams like that, ones that are competent. There’s a good chance those guys won’t last long, especially if they’re going up against Overlord of all people. But successful teams like that aren’t without precedence.”

“That’s how the Watch was started, right?” asked Miya.

Quarrel paused for a second, then nodded. “I believe so, yes.”

“So you guys are just basing this on their costumes?” asked Olivia.

“PR is secondary to effectiveness. You don’t design a tank to be civilian friendly, you design it to shrug off tank shells, bruisers, and techie contraptions,” explained Chris.

“Tanks are made to fight supers?”

“Yeah there are some scary metahumans out there. Hardware is designed with that in mind. You’re insanely strong, so why do you think bullets still hurt you so much? Lots of bullets and guns are made to shred tank powers and techie armors and so on. And on the flip side, lots of decent body armor models out there can keep you alive if a bruiser punches you. Well, wouldn’t really help you, you’d be fine. The rest of us.”

Don’t we have some place to be? Rob coughed. “We might need to get movin’. Only so many hours in the night,” he mentioned.

Quarrel sighed. “Right. Well, goodbye again. Don’t forget to look us up if you ever come back.”

“Of course. Give us a call if you ever find yourselves in Westward,” said Chris.

They followed Roach out of the church basement and to his truck. Quarrel waved goodbye as Roach drove them to where their cars were hidden.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Loaded – Awake

Olivia woke up to the ever present sound of high pitched, source-less ringing in her ears. She burrowed her face further into her pillow. No, stop it. And why do my legs ache?

She rolled over and sat upright on the floor, massaging her thigh in hopes of getting the ache to stop. Anyone else awake? In the kitchen behind her, something metal tapped on the counter. The five people scattered around her on various couches were still sleeping, if the slowness of their breathing was any indication.

Who’s that in the kitchen? Olivia got up with care, keeping her wings from whacking Ben on the couch behind her. She walked over to the kitchen, the only part of the basement with lights on.

Roach had a couple bowls out, along with a box of pancake mix and a carton of milk. He rummaged through the fridge.  The stove behind him had a couple of lights on. His head popped up at the sound of her approaching footsteps.

I should say something, standing here being quiet and staring is weird. But… just… don’t say something dumb. Go. “Good morning,” she whispered. Hey! That wasn’t so bad! He gave her a small wave and returned to the fridge.

She leaned her hip against the counter and watched him produce a small carton of eggs from the fridge. He began measuring out flour. Should I just be standing here silently? This seems weird.

“Um, excuse me? Do you need any help?” she asked, keeping her voice down.

He paused for a moment. “Fill with water. To this line,” he said, handing her a large glass measuring cup and tapping the line with his index finger.

Olivia took it and placed it in the sink, twirling the faucet handle. “What are you making?”

“Pancakes. The church holds pancake breakfasts every month, have most of the stuff here.” He dumped the flour into a large bowl. Olivia shut off the water and handed him the glass cup. “Thanks. Rob made dinner. Figured I should make breakfast.”

Roach cracked a couple eggs and poured. Olivia tilted her head. What are the eggs for? I get the water makes the batter powder stuff into, you know, batter. What do eggs add?

He stirred for a minute. “Too thick, needs more water,” he murmured, holding up the wooden spoon and observing the batter.

“Oh, sorry.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “They’re just pancakes. Just need to add more water.”

“So… what do you need the eggs for?”

“Make them rise. Fluffy,” he rasped as he poured a little more water in.

It’s just an egg. “How?”

Roach shrugged, the heavy scarring on his broad shoulders visible beneath his tank top. Sorry. I’ll stop bugging you with food questions. The pancake batter sizzled as he poured it on the heated pan on the stove. That’s so loud. How is no one else waking up from this? Olivia, again with nothing to do, leaned back on counter. It’s weird that I’m just standing here silently, though. Oh, idea.

“Um, excuse me?” she asked. Roach glanced at her. Um, OK. “Why are there only two of you in the Watch here? I mean, three, but… Sorry. Sorry.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. I brought up a guy who just died. Stupid.

“It’s alright,” said Roach, even as his face darkened. Sorry. Shouldn’t have brought Preacher up. Sorry. He flicked the pan up. The pancake flipped midair and landed square in the center of the pan. “What do you mean, only three?”

“Well, um, there were six people in the Watch back home.”

“Who?”

“Um, there was Cinder, Blackout, Whiteout, um… I think their leader’s name was Laura. There were two others, I think. I don’t think I ever heard their names, though.”

Roach shrugged. “Six is a lot. Not sure why. Colorado, yes?” Olivia nodded. I kind of miss the mountains. “Watch must have been lucky there. Or a bunch of libertarians.”

“Libertarians?”

“Watch does the government’s job, policing. Funded privately. Libertarians like that. Dunno about Westward though. Never been.” He judged the golden brown pancake to be done, sliding it off the pan and onto a plate.

Olivia waited until the sizzle of the next pancake died down to ask, “Why did you join?”

“Twenty years ago, was a street punk,” rasped Roach, putting the plate with the pancake in the oven. “Got arrested. Throat slit in jail. Triggered, healed up. Saved my life, but my voice never came back. Served my time, decided to do some good. Cops wouldn’t take a former convict.” His normally deep voice squeaked. He held a hand to his throat and coughed. “Sorry. Joined the Watch instead, got a job working construction on the side.”

“Your throat didn’t heal? Why not?” I saw you get shot in the head. How is your throat still all raspy?

He glanced at her. “See the scars? Very fast healing, not better healing. Broke this arm once,” he said, lifting his right arm. “Healed crooked. Had to re-break it twice. Get it back to normal. More important is faster and better. Brain important, heals perfect. Big blood veins,” he said, tapping the side of his neck. “Important. Healed well. Same with throat. Voice, not important.”

He moved on to the next pancake. That sounds awful. The voice thing, not the pancake thing. The pancakes smell kind of like donuts too. Olivia heard rustling from Quarrel’s couch behind her.

“Good morning,” said Quarrel, padding up to them. Olivia moved to the back of the kitchen to make room.

“Hi. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up,” said Olivia.

“Nah, it’s alright. Been awake, just didn’t want to get up.”

“Didn’t want to help with breakfast,” said Roach, a sly smile on his face.

Quarrel stuck her tongue out at him. “Guilty.” Roach just laughed. “So, Olivia, sleep well?” she asked, leaning against the counter like Olivia.

“Um, yes?” Is… is there something more you’re asking?

Quarrel nodded as silence filled the space. Um… yeah. Eventually, she said, “OK.” She turned to Roach. “You scared her.”

“No. That was you.” Scared? I’m not scared.

“What?” asked Olivia.

“We’re just teasing you, don’t worry.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Quarrel let the silence hang for a moment before asking, “So you really can’t remember anything?”

I know, I’m weird. “No. I can… remember stuff. Just not stuff from, you know, before. Um, I think it was three months ago now.”

“Not even your name?” asked Quarrel. Olivia shook her head. I have a name now. It’s Olivia. I just don’t know what it was before. “Where did Olivia come from, then?”

“I… I don’t know. I thought it sounded nice.” Olivia looked down at her feet. Is that dumb? That sounds kind of dumb.

“What’s it like, flying?” asked Quarrel. Olivia looked back up at the sudden change of topic. Quarrel looked serious, at least more serious than the playful smile she’d been sporting before. Even Roach was paying attention out of the corner of his eye.

“Um, I like it. It’s really fun, actually. I can do rolls and stuff, and go really fast if I dive. And I don’t have to worry about getting spotted, either. Everyone has really bad eyesight, especially in the dark. And I can see the whole city if I go high enough, even the skyscrapers look small. It looks really pretty at night, too.” Olivia realized she’d been babbling. “And… um… yeah.”

Ben teleported to the kitchen. Gah! When did you get up? “Pancakes!” he said in a loud voice just shy of shouting, causing Quarrel to jump. Not so loud. Don’t be mean.

“Wha?” said Quarrel, spinning around. Ben grinned.

“Yes, pancakes,” said Roach without a flinch.

“Damn teleporters,” muttered Quarrel. In the common room beyond, everyone started to move around. Olivia heard Miya curse something. See what you did, Ben? Or hear, whatever.

“About half done,” continued Roach. “Might need to make more batter.”

“Awesome, thanks!” He walked back into the common room and shouted, “Hey, pancakes everyone.” He flicked on the lights. OK, now you’re just being mean.

Olivia heard sighs and groans from everyone else.

“Ben, I’m gonna fucking kill you,” spat Miya.

“That’s not very nice,” he answered.

“Any bacon?” called out Rob. Oh, bacon sounds good. Do we have any bacon?

“Good question,” Ben called back. He twisted his head around. “Any bacon?”

“Sorry, no,” said Roach. Aw.

“Damn. No bacon,” announced Ben.

“Damn,” said Rob.

Olivia and Quarrel joined the others gathering around the table from last night, leaving Roach room to work. Everyone chatted for a while, until Roach finally walked in with two large plates stacked with pancakes.

“Done. Grab your plates and stuff in the kitchen.”

“Do we have any peanut butter?” asked Chris as he got up.

“Maybe? Check the pantry. Why?” asked Quarrel.

“For my pancakes,” replied Chris, walking over to the kitchen.

Everyone paused for a moment. “Peanut butter on pancakes?” asked Quarrel. Ben and Rob tilted their heads simultaneously. What’s wrong with that?

“Yeah. Have you people never had that before?” answered Chris from the kitchen.

“No, never heard of that,” said Ben.

“Well, it’s great,” said Chris, jar of peanut butter in hand. “You non-believers can get up and get you precious regular butter.” He sat down at the white plastic folding table and sighed. “And I forgot a plate.” He climbed out of his seat again.

“Good job,” said Rob with a grin, patting him on the shoulder as he passed.

They eventually got everything distributed and dug in. Olivia and Rob both tried out the peanut butter pancakes. Tastes good with syrup. But then again, so do the normal pancakes. So hooray for syrup.

“Thanks for the food,” said Rob, nodding to Roach.

“No problem.”

“I got the dishes,” said Ben, gathering plates. Quarrel got up after him.

Chris scratched at his two days’ worth of stubble once he passed his plate to Ben. “Hate this,” he muttered. He looks kind of cute like that.

“Sucks to suck,” called out Ben as he walked to the kitchen.

Chris sighed. “I hate you two.”

“Just us?” asked Rob, leaning back in his chair. He pointed to Olivia and Miya. “When they, too, lack magnificent beards?”

Miya nodded and stroked her smooth chin. “What are you talking about? Been growing this out my whole life, you know.” Olivia scratched at her own face as she glanced at Chris again. That… no. No thank you.

“Sorry about that, Chris,” said Quarrel, walking by with a cardboard box. “I think we might have some razors in here somewhere. None of us ever really needed them.”

“Not even you, Roach?” asked Rob.

“No. Aztec. No facial hair,” he rasped.

“So? Seen guys from Mexico with facial hair before,” said Rob.

“Probably from the north, then. I think I’m about one eighth Hispanic, after all the math and shit. But I’m a girl, so it’s kind of a moot point,” said Miya.

“Family is from Michoacán.”

Olivia blinked. What? Did you just make that word up?

“Where’s that?” asked Rob.

“West of the capitol, and that’s in the center of Mexico,” said Miya. “Right?” she asked Roach, who nodded.

Quarrel’s phone buzzed as she rejoined them at the table. She checked it as she sat down. “Boss got us a meeting with Sarge. We’ve got thirty minutes,” she said, standing right back up.

Roach’s eyes widened as he jumped out of his seat. “Sorry,” he rasped. “We need to go, now.”

“Understandable,” said Rob.

“No problem,” added Chris. “Good luck.”

Quarrel and Roach rushed off. Whoa, that was sudden.

“Who is Sarge?” asked Olivia. He’d better not hurt them.

“Probably the head of the MHU here,” said Chris. “If they don’t have a code name like Cyrus they go by the rank they had before their promotion.”

Rob looked around at the others. “Well shit. Hope everything works out for ‘em.”

***

They dawdled for most of the day without Roach and Quarrel. Olivia occupied herself with her phone, Miya having shown her how to download apps. No. Stupid snake thing. I pressed the right button. Olivia looked up from her phone and stretched her neck, vision sliding over the boring basement walls once again. I miss the sun. Can we go outside soon?

“Gettin’ tired of waitin’ on other people to let stuff happen to us. Wanna be in control of our destiny for once,” said Ben, breaking the silence.

“Such is life,” said Chris, not bothering to open his eyes as he relaxed on a couch, hands behind his head.

“Having fun polishing your rifle?” Miya asked Ben, who’d taken his sniper rifle apart on the table across from Olivia.

“You wanna help? You know how to work those bones, shouldn’t be much… harder.” Why did you put emphasis on harder like that?

Rob snickered, on a second couch on the far side of the basement. “Yeah,” he added. “Just long, hard bones, all day long. Work them real well.” I’m missing something here.

“An’ sometimes a bone ain’t a bone. Gotta be careful there,” said Ben. What? But… What’s a bone that isn’t a bone? That doesn’t make any sense.

“Um, guys. What?” said Olivia. Everyone burst into laughter, even Chris. Come on.

“Nothing, Olivia,” said Miya. No one is going to tell me? OK, fine, whatever. Don’t want to make a fuss. Olivia frowned and returned to her phone.

They settled back into silence, until a few minutes later the lock of the door to the basement rattled. Everyone looked up to see Quarrel enter the basement.

“How’d it go?” asked Rob.

“OK… yeah. Just OK,” said Quarrel, crashing on an unoccupied couch.

“Where’s Roach?” asked Olivia. I don’t smell him upstairs. Or hear him.

“Outside on the phone. He said he’d be down soon. But I do have good news for you guys. You had a grey 2003 Crown Vic, right?” Quarrel asked Ben.

“Yeah,” said Ben.

“Well, the cops found it and impounded it, along with your super car thing and my car. We couldn’t get them out for you, and any other actions against the police on our part will land us on their permanent shit list. What I can tell you is that the night watchmen at the impound are generally sleepy, especially around two in the morning. I can also tell you that Sarge likes to put tracers on high value evidence like your cars, usually in the back of the glove box or under the passenger seats.”

“Any news on my car?” asked Chris. “Red 2001 Civic?”

“No, I don’t think they got that. More than likely it’s in a chop shop now. I think a couple Tzontlis wanted to keep Ben’s car.”

“You’re not havin’ a fun day today, Chris,” said Ben.

Chris sighed. Does he need a hug? “So this impound-” he began.

“Ten miles north of here. Your cars are right by the main building. Me and Roach took a drive by before coming back.”

Footsteps pounded on the stairs. Roach entered, saying “Got a call from the hospital. Amanda is awake.”

“Really?” asked Rob, sitting upright. Everyone got up, previous conversation forgotten.

“What? Can we see her?” asked Olivia as she jumped up from her seat and headed for the door. She paused. Why is no one else coming?

“She’s under police surveillance right now, remember?” said Ben.

“Doctors said her parents haven’t left her side, either,” said Roach. “They don’t speak highly of you all.”

“What? But…” said Olivia to herself. Amanda. She’s OK. We can’t just not see her.

“They’re moving her to Westward at her parent’s insistence.”

“Thought she was on trial?” said Chris. “Once she’s healed enough, at any rate.”

“Parents have got money. They pulled strings, not sure how.” Roach looked at everyone quizzically. “How did you not know this?”

“I dunno. Never said anythin’ ‘bout her parents,” said Rob.

“Don’ even know her last name, know that I think about it,” added Ben.

“Well, I don’t know either. But your best chance of meeting her is in Westward, Sarge is keeping a close eye on her until she’s gone.” But… but… No.

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