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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Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Mechanized

Amanda hunched over her desk, tightening the screw on the side of the railgun prototype. A quick glance at the comm radio told her Olivia and Skulker still hadn’t called in. It’s working, right? She grabbed the comm, a ham radio she’d tinkered with, and checked the back. Still plugged in. All lights are green.

She shook her head and returned to the railgun. Quit worrying. I didn’t mess up. They’re fine. From the other side of the lair, she heard Miya’s knife carve into bone once again. She’s facing the door, and I think she said she can see through her golem outside. We’re fine.

The case of the railgun clicked as she forced the butt of the gun casing into place. Two more screws. Then it’ll be done. To her left, her computer hummed quietly as she finished the railgun.

She slapped the screwdriver down on the desk and arched her back. Her hand shot to her upper stomach as a lance of pain made her regret trying to work out the soreness in her back. She gritted her teeth and checked the clock on a computer.

How long has it been since my last painkiller dose? Almost time. Early couldn’t hurt. She rifled through her backpack on the floor by her foot. Her fingers scrambled at the cap of the orange bottle. She got the cap off, shook out a few little white pills onto her unsteady palm, then stopped herself. No, no, I need to start easing myself off those. I’ve still got one hour to go.

“Got it all wired up?” asked Rob over his shoulder as he worked at the desk behind her. She dropped the pills on the desk and spun her office chair to face him.

“Yep. Should be ready to go any time. And what are those?”

He set down what appeared to be a grenade next to a couple of its twins. “Wirepatches. Thing is, they’re good for makin’ a lotta light cuts. Robot couldn’t give less of a shit, wires’d bounce right off, maybe scuff the metal up a bit.”

“What exactly do they do?” she asked.

“Spit out tons of wires that cut up any exposed flesh.” He rolled his chair over to join her. “So anythin’ else I need to do for this?”

“Nope. Just thought you’d like to see the fruits of your labor. I had to alter a couple things, too.” She tapped casing of the rifle shaped railgun he’d designed.

“Alright, what exactly you change?” he asked. Why do you… oh, right, for future models.

“Not much. I drilled in a hole for this little red light.” She tapped a portion of the case above the trigger. “It’ll light up red once a thousand rounds have been fired.”

His brow furrowed. “Those rails can take just shy of fifteen hundred, why a only thousand?”

“Early warning. You wouldn’t want it to tell you it’s useless right when you need it. A thousand rounds is more than you’d be able to carry anyways.”

“Oh shit, right. How’d we not think of that earlier?”

“Don’t worry, I caught it. No need to worry your simple mechanical mind.”

“Har har.”

“I also had to force the power source in, it needs about two millimeters more room. Oh, I don’t know if this will ruin the durability, but from what I can tell, we can get rid of that solid disk a quarter of the way from the muzzle.” At least, I think we can. Whatever, we’ll figure it out once we shoot this thing.

“Solid disk? You mean one of the-”

“The support things, yes,” said Amanda. “Couldn’t think of the word for a moment. That would also cut down on the weight.”

“If weight is a concern, we could make the disks like wheel spokes, rather than solid. I just made ‘em solid cuz that’s easy. But yeah, next time I’ll look at that.”

Amanda glanced at him. “Other than those things, it’s good, I suppose.”

He inclined his head with a smirk. “Why thank you.” They realized only an inch separated their faces. At the same time, they both leaned back in their chairs. Rob rubbed the back of his head as Amanda readjusted her glasses, staring straight ahead. What the hell was that?

She broke the silence. “So, um, I was thinking. Maybe use it as a stun gun?”

“Uh, how?”

“Well, maybe modify the projectiles? Rather than just a slug, it could fire a hollow charged round.” I’d love to research this, but of course the internet is out. And thousands of shut-ins across the city are losing their minds.

Rob shrugged. “I guess that’s possible, but that’s black magic as far as I know.”

Oh come on. “No, there’s no magnetism involved with charging it, theoretically. The magnetism is what moves it.” It’s not that hard.

He gave her a blank stare. I explained this to you a ton already. She spun in her chair and wiggled her computer mouse, looking for the cursor. Fine, whatever. Need to program this anyways.

“What?” said Rob. “You ain’t that good at explainin’ stuff. ”

“Am too.”

“What’s that do?” he asked, pointing to a section of code on the screen.

“I don’t know, but if I get rid of it everything stops working.”

“Seriously?” he asked.

“Seriously,” she repeated back.

He blinked. “I couldn’t fuckin’ stand that.”

Amanda glanced at the complex mass of gears of his partially disassembled armor and asked, “You know how all that works?”

“Yeah. If I don’t know what a gear does, it ain’t goin’ in ‘til I figure it out. Actually almost done. Just need to put some pieces back together.”

“And believe me, I’d love for that to be the case here. But if it works, don’t question it.”

“But I am questionin’ it.”

“Welcome to the wonderful world of coding. Suck it up,” she said with a smirk.

“Ew. I’ll pass.”

“Excuse me?” asked a woman’s voice. Amanda whipped her head around to the source of the unfamiliar voice.

A woman in an impeccable charcoal grey suit stood just inside the closed and locked back door. Miya, halfway across the lair, looked up from her bone carving and nearly jumped out of her seat. Rob, poised halfway out of his seat next to Amanda, reached for the screwdriver.

“Please, stay seated. We only have some questions for you,” the woman said in an even, pleasant tone. Her empty hands rested in front of her, a grey metal watch on her wrist. She simply stood by the door, posture easy and relaxed.

Rob and Amanda exchanged glances. Who? What? Why?

The woman took their silence as acceptance. “You three are Amanda Lafitte, Miyahuatl Teixeira, and Robert Alderman, correct?”

“Yeah, who are you?” replied Rob. If the woman noticed he now stood with a screwdriver in hand, she didn’t show it. Amanda’s eyes flickered towards her armor. No time to get that on. If I move quick I can grab a baton, though.

“You may call me Smith. The others, Benjamin Alderman, Christopher Collins, and the feral Olivia are absent, correct?” Is that a code name, or just a fake last name? No way in hell that’s your real name.

“Yeah,” said Rob. Amanda kicked him in the shin. What are you doing?

The woman nodded and said, “Amanda, you accessed the records of the Houston Feral Research Institute after you had broken Olivia out.” Amanda felt the blood drain from her face. I’m pretty sure that’s a federal offense.

In the same pleasant tone, Smith continued, “The records in question were Olivia’s blood samples. After we did some digging, we found that the records had been changed in a rather clandestine way. Was this your doing?”

Oh shit. Let’s test the waters. Before Rob could speak up, Amanda said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I would ask that you do not insult my intelligence. So long as you do not continue this behavior in the future, no charges will be pressed. We have larger concerns. What we really need to know is why you did this.” The woman held Amanda’s gaze.

“We didn’t change anything. We were checking on something.”

“Something?”

“Yes.”

“Do not play coy with us. We can and will bury you if you do not cooperate.” The room grew very still.

Well, what’s the harm in telling her? We were just looking at the number of blood samples. “Just the number of blood samples. Three of them vanished when we broke her out.”

“And why would you check on that?”

Amanda glanced at Miya. “We had suspicions. About Overlord. We think one of the doctors was working for him.”

Damn government spook. Hold on, how do we know she’s with the government? Amanda looked Smith over again. She never gave a badge or what agency she worked for. Despite the fact that Rob and Miya looked ready and able to stab her, Smith remained calm. She wouldn’t be calm if she wasn’t able to handle us. Or maybe that’s just what she wants us to think. Or maybe… fuck it.

“Based on?” asked Smith.

“He vanished,” said Amanda.

“I heard him mentioned before,” said Miya.

Smith nodded and stayed silent for a moment. To Miya she said, “In the report you gave to the police after Freedom Fighter’s attack, you claimed you had been experimented on by Overlord. Documents seized in the aftermath corroborated this. The real question is how you managed to identify an Overlord agent.”

“I know what I saw and heard,” replied Miya.

Smith paused again. “Olivia left before more comprehensive tests of her abilities could be administered. Though her abilities are magic based, they are far more varied and powerful than any typical mage’s. This begs the question of how exactly she manipulates that amount of magical energy.”

“She don’t know, an’ we don’t either. If your white coats can’t figure it out, then we got nothin’,” said Rob, his voice heated. A tiny frown tugged at the corners of the woman’s mouth.

“It’s unconscious,” added Miya. “She doesn’t control it.”

“Very well.” Smith looked at her watch and hit a button on the side. “Blackjack, if you would?” Who?

A man materialized behind Rob. Before Amanda could shout a warning, an arm wrapped around her neck. She thrashed, her air supply cut off. A needle pierced the side of her neck. Her struggles grew sluggish as the man behind her murmured something, the words lost to her as she blacked out.

***

“Delta! Delta!” Skulker’s voice screamed from the comm.

Amanda snapped back to reality, her head foggy. She sat in her chair, the completed railgun before her. It’s done? Oh shit, right. Her neck itched as she leaned in and pressed the button on the radio to talk back. Behind her, Rob and Miya stirred to life in their chairs .

“What? What is it?”

“‘liv’s hurt,” barked Skulker, his voice fuzzy through the static.

“What hap-” Amanda cut herself off. Rob appeared by her side.  No time. Priorities. “Where are you?”

“Library. Lakewood.”

That’s… shit, I can’t look it up. Where is that? “Where?”

“North, on Kipling.” She heard a couple gunshots over the radio.

“We’ll get there as soon as we can.” She received no reply. Rob grabbed his keys and shotgun.

“What about curfew?” asked Miya, jogging up behind them. “There were tanks out there.”

“An’ I don’t give a shit,” said Rob, looming over Miya. “That’s my brother out there.”

“We won’t be able to help if we’re dead.”

“Won’t be able to do anythin’ here either. You wanna stay here or come with?”

Miya bit her lip for a moment. “I’ll come.”

“What about you, Amanda?” Rob asked, turning to her.

And be the only one here while Olivia and Ben are fighting for their lives? No thanks. “Yes. Give me one second.” Rob nodded.

Painkillers. As she reached down for her bag, she noticed three of them on her desk. What? Whatever, not important right now. She scooped them up and swallowed them dry.

That taken care of, Amanda jumped out of her chair, ignoring the lance of pain in her upper stomach. Need the neutralizer, baton, and helmet. No time for full armor. She spared the railgun a glance. No, not for this. She grabbed her gadgets and put on her helmet. Beside her, Rob strapped a long knife to his belt and slipped on his grinning mask. What’s his code name? Gears, right.

Miya passed her a pistol and a couple spare magazines as they followed Gears to his truck out back. Miya’s golem climbed into the bed of the truck and they were off.

The drive only took three minutes, but Amanda kept twisting her head around, on the lookout for anyone else on the road. I’d like to get through the night without getting shot. That’s all I ask. She heard tapping from Miya in the seats behind her. Amanda checked her gear, making sure it all worked. Her eyes flickered over the controls in her helmet. Damn it, should have at least brought that glove. Would make this easier.

She called up Skulker again. “Any news?” she asked.

“No. We’re holed up at the front. ‘liv is out, bots are circlin’ ’round. Purifier’s coverin’ them. Heard sirens earlier.”

“Alright. We’re close. Don’t shoot us.”

Skulker chuckled and cut the line. The library and several spotlight drones overhead came into view. Several bots fired at the front entrance. Amanda thought she saw a muzzle flash from the door. Wait, why isn’t Rob slowing down? Everyone in the truck jostled as Gears drove straight over a curb. They barreled right for the front door.

“Down!” barked Gears, ducking down and jerking the wheel. What are you doing? Amanda screamed on the inside as she joined him in throwing herself down on the floor of the cab. Gunfire shattered the windows and bullets zipped by overhead.

The truck skidded to a stop. “Move, now,” bellowed Gears.

Amanda jerked her head up and scrambled for the door handle, bullets hammering the armored flank of the truck. She tumbled out of the car, right in front of the library. Miya’s golem burst out of the back and charged towards the bot.

“Delta, here!” yelled Skulker, waving to her from behind the bullet ridden front door.

She climbed to her feet and dashed to the door, the pain in her stomach drowned out by the rush of adrenaline. Behind her, she heard a couple thuds from Gears’ shotgun, followed by Miya’s feet hitting the ground.

Amanda joined Skulker in the library. Olivia lay bleeding and unconscious in the corner. Amanda rushed over to her. What the hell happened? Gears and Miya ran in moments later.

“Bots circlin’ ‘round in the buildin’, Purifier’s keepin’ ‘em back,” said Skulker in a rush. “How we gettin’ out?”

“Truck,” said Rob.

“The golem has the bots’ attention. Not sure how long. They’re organized.” Miya froze. “And… fuck. Army is here.”

Delta checked Olivia’s wounds; a great variety of cuts and lacerations all over. Not too bad. No major bleeding, I think. Just a lot of little things. OK. I think she’s OK.

“The actual army?”

“Yeah, guys in camo and humvees. They’re coming in from two different sides. They’re shooting the bots now. I’m bringing the golem back.”

“We need to move,” said Rob, grabbing Olivia’s arm and hauling her up.

“Grab Purifier,” said Skulker, wrapping Olivia’s other arm around his shoulders. Together, they dragged her towards the truck, their heads ducked down.

Maybe this will fuck up the robots. Delta hit the switch on the spike. Neutralizer on. Unless they’re hard wired to each other, the bots can’t talk now. She and Miya ran further into the library. It didn’t take them long to find who they were looking for.

An armoured man with an enormous curved axe held overhead bulled towards a cluster of bots. Yep, that’s Purifier. Rather than firing, the robots pulled back and spread out between the bookshelves. The axe cleaved down on empty air.

“The fuck is that? The fuck is that?” asked Miya, backing away with widened eyes. Delta grabbed her arm and pulled her down. A couple bullets whizzed through the air where she’d stood not moments ago.

“Focus,” snapped Delta, drawing her pistol.

Miya nodded and drew her own. They moved to the side of Purifier and opened fire on the bots, weaving their way through the book shelves. Some sort of hot shock wave burst from Purifier, toppling shelves, women, and robots alike. Damn it. Delta dodged out of the way of a falling shelf of books, loosing track of Miya.

A robot, minus its rifle, pulled itself out from under a bookshelf in front of her. As Delta took aim, the robot held up a hand and begged, “Oh god, please don’t kill me.”

Delta froze. The robot lunged forward and tackled her to the ground. Her pistol flew out of her grasp as she hit the ground. The robot wasted no time, climbing on top of her and striking down at her throat. She twisted, letting her shoulder take the blow. The next punch rammed into her helmet. She struggled to get her arms free. The next blow to the head got a cracking sound from her helmet.

She tore her left arm out from under the bot’s leg. The blows stopped. Knife! She grabbed the electric baton at her side and shoved it into the robot’s armpit as it raised its knife. The robot spasmed and collapsed. Its screaming cut off.

Oh thank god. She coughed, rolling the still robot off of her. Helmet’s broken. Don’t think I have a concussion. She sat upright and returned her baton to her hip. Miya jogged up to her. She offered her hand to help her up.

“Bots ran off, lots of army guys outside battling it out with them. Come on.”

“Wait, hang on. This one’s intact.” Delta checked the downed robot. I could totally use this.

“Are you insane? Leave it. We don’t wanna get tracked,” said Miya. Purifier joined them, axe in a sheathe on his back. Miya gave him a sideways glance and edged away.

“This spike thing is keeping them from communicating.” Delta tapped the spike in question on her hip. “Should keep them from tracking us, too.”

“What? How?” asked Miya.

“Destructive interference. Just trust me on this.”

“That’s really not a good idea.”

“Thanks for the help, but that’s a terrible idea,” added Purifier. “We should get out of here.”

But… there’s so much I could learn. Something outside exploded, snapping her back to reality. Later. She and the others sprinted back to the truck. Gears hit the gas the moment the last person climbed in and sent the truck thundering through the parking lot turned battleground.

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Overlord’s Robotic Legions – Demon

Olivia kept her eyes closed, concentrating on the whirring of the drone overhead through the walls of the lair. The old white concrete slabs had enough cracks in them near the ceiling for her to figure out its general location by sound alone. It’d be nice to have some windows in here. We could actually see what it’s doing.

The drone had been circling for half an hour now. Ben or Miya had risked a peek out the door a couple times to see its powerful spotlight still sweeping over the area. Everyone had weapons close at hand, just in case. No one has any idea what’s going on, do they? The only hint of normalcy was Rob and Amanda murmured to each other off in their work area.

Olivia slumped in her chair and yawned wide. No, no, I need to stay awake. I won’t be useful if I’m asleep. She stood and paced, keeping her tail off the ground to cut down on noise. That stupid thing better go away soon. We need to find Chris.

Miya tapped Olivia on the arm as her pacing brought her back to the table. Olivia stopped and opened her eyes. Miya asked, “Hey, back in Arizona you said those robots smelled like, what was it? Oil?” Olivia nodded. “Does that drone smell like that oil?”

I smell that bitter oil stuff, but not from above. “No. It doesn’t really smell distinctive at all. But it sounds different than other stuff.”

“Do you smell any oil at all?” asked Miya.

“I can smell some. It’s stronger than before, but not from anything nearby. And… hang on. Something is coming.”

Several sets of broad tires drove along the road, coming closer and closer. What is that? It sounds like a couple of huge cars. Kind of like Rob’s truck. The whizzing of the drone receded as the thunderous sounds of the engines approached. Around her, the others began grabbing their guns.

“Some big things are coming closer. I think they’re trucks,” Olivia announced. “But the drone is flying away.”

“Shit. We wanna fight or run for it?” asked Ben. No, no, no. No fighting. Not here. This is our home.

“Wait and see,” said Amanda as she unplugged several cables from a gauntlet of hers. “If the drone is flying off, then it might not have belonged to whoever is coming.”

She and Rob rushed to get pieces of their armor on. Miya’s eyes glowed dark red for a moment, then her golem clattered to life outside as she headed for the back door.

“Olivia, you’re our early warnin’. If they’re comin’ for us, you let us know,” said Ben, teleporting to Olivia’s side.

She closed her eyes and concentrated again. The rumbling engines were nearly on top of them. Just as she opened her mouth to warn the others, they ground to a halt. “OK. Um, they’ve stopped.” She waited a moment. “I don’t think I hear any footsteps coming this way.”

Olivia winced as Amanda dropped a heavy metal plate on the concrete floor. Amanda and Rob froze as the plate clattered to a halt. Ben raised a finger to shush them.

“No, wait,” said Olivia, putting a hand on his shoulder. Why does everyone have to be so loud right now? “They’re saying something.”

Through the walls of the lair, Olivia heard a man say, “Nothing here. Scared it off.”

Another, deeper voice said, “There’s something here. Keep an eye out.” Boots hit the road outside and began milling around the idling trucks.

“They’ve stopped,” Olivia relayed to the others. “I think they’re just standing around. They don’t know what’s going on either.”

“Turn off the lights,” whispered Ben, pointing to the overhead lights. Amanda hit a light switch and the lair went dark. Olivia opened her eyes as Ben tugged on her wing. “Let’s take a peek.”

Amanda and Rob joined Miya by the back door while Ben and Olivia slipped outside. Olivia hunched over as far as she could through the doorframe. No, stupid wings. Don’t whack against stuff. They crept over to the corner of the lair, Ben leading the way. The bone golem took position behind them. He poked his head around the corner for a moment before withdrawing it.

“Too dark. No street lights. All I can see are humvees an’ people shaped silhouettes,” he whispered.

Olivia sniffed the air. “No oil. They’re normal people.”

“Can you see in the dark?”

“Yes.”

Ben backed away from the corner and motioned for Olivia to take his place. “You take a look. Watch your wing, don’t let it stick out too far.” Yeah, yeah, I know.

She spotted a soldier manning a large gun on the roof of a truck. Oh, that’s a humvee? Why not just call it a truck? The convoy of three humvees had parked on the opposite side of the street, just shy of the lair. Olivia counted a dozen soldiers around them, including the gunners. The men on foot were all in bulky body armor, with large rifles at hand.

The two soldiers closest stood by the side of the lead humvee, both casting glances up towards the cloudy night sky. A soldier in the middle humvee stared  the dashboard with a black thing held to his ear.

“They’re looking up a bunch. One of them is doing something in a truck. Or humvee.”

“Patches?” What does that have to do with anything?

“What?”

“Sleeves, near the shoulders. Any patches?” She focused on one of the soldiers, leaning on the door of the humvee.

“Um, yes. There’s, um, a US flag? It’s backwards, though.” Am I seeing that right?

“Yeah, tha’s a rah rah USA thing. Wha’s the unit? Should be the patch under the flag.”

“A circle. Um, then there’s a C in the middle, and a bar of lighter stuff down the middle, and the top and bottom are dark.”

“OK, I’m guessin’ Colorado National Guard. Well, the uniforms, I got no idea who’s in ‘em. Not sure exactly what unit they’re in, either.” He reached up and patted her on the upper arm. “Come on, let’s get back before someone spots us.”

Olivia withdrew, following Ben back inside the lair. inside, Rob and Amanda managed to get bits of their armor on. They’d both been tearing their armors apart over the past few days, and hadn’t gotten around to finishing parts. Rob only had his mask and a dark grey body vest. Amanda wore her old, black helmet and a bulky glove of some kind on her left hand.

“Guys in national guard uniforms out there. No bots,” said Ben in a low voice.

“Are they searching for us?” asked Amanda.

“No. Think they were lookin’ for the drone,” said Ben. How do you… oh, right, they were looking at the sky. Duh. Olivia nodded, backing Ben up.

“So what are they doing?”

“Waitin’ for somethin’, I think,” answered Ben.

“It sounded like it,” added Olivia. I think.

“So what. Just gonna sit here?” asked Rob.

The deep voice outside barked out some orders. “They’re moving,” announced Olivia, as loud as she dared. I hear… car doors closing? Yeah. Around her, the others backed away from the front of the lair and raised their firearms. Wait, right, you guys can’t hear that. “I think they’re leaving.”

“Really?”

What do you mean, ‘really’? My tinnitus hasn’t been that bad lately. The engines rumbled again. Soon enough they drove off.

“Yes, really. They’re gone now.”

The others let out a collective sigh of relief. Amanda practically collapsed on Olivia’s bean bag.

“Was thinkin’ of goin’ about town, checkin’ in on some things before they or tha’ drone come back,” announced Ben in a normal voice. Olivia tilted her head. Chris?

“Check on what?” asked Miya. Olivia stifled a yawn. No, stay awake. Not done yet. She straightened up, not having noticed she’d been leaning heavily against the wall with her shoulder.

“Movement, cops, military, or bots. Me an’ the other vigilantes have a couple dead drop points to chat, might check on those.”

“You, Guardsman, and Purifier, right?” asked Amanda. “Was the Watch part of that?”

“Yeah, jus’ us three independents. I mighta been kicked out cuz I’m runnin’ with you lot, but they’re worth checkin’ out.”

“What about Chris?” asked Olivia.

“Figured you’d ask. Wanna tag along? See if you can sniff somethin’ out?”

Olivia nodded. Finally. “Just you two?” asked Rob.

“Cars are too big an’ obvious. An’ only me an’ Olivia are really mobile without wheels.”

Rob nodded. “Point. Think it’s a good idea to split up?”

“We can’t exactly communicate very well with all the phones down,” added Miya.

“I have comms,” said Amanda, still laid out on the bean bag. “I wish I’d brought them with us when we went to Houston, but we have them now. They’re basically small, long range walkie talkies.”

Olivia spoke up. “But what if something bad happens?” I’m not that fast, and Ben can’t teleport that far.

“If the authorities knew we were here, they would have busted down the doors, not stand around for a couple minutes before leaving,” said Amanda. “And, given how long that drone was searching, and that the military chased it off, I don’t think the robots know we’re here either.”

“But what if-”

“We can handle it, Olivia,” said Miya, cutting her off. “You wanted to look for Chris, right?”

That was before the robots and army almost found you guys.

“We won’t be out that long,” added Ben.

We do need to find Chris. And it’s been forever since I’ve flown. “I, um, OK.”

“Awesome. Gimme a sec, then we’ll be off,” said Ben, teleporting off.

Olivia waited by the door as the others dispersed. Outside, Miya’s golem trundled back to its patch of the back lot and collapsed back into a pile of bones. Ben returned with his rifle slung over his shoulder and mask in hand.

“We been kinda lax ‘bout this lately. Remember, call me Skulker now.” He slipped on his mask and pulled up the hood of his hoodie. Olivia nodded.

Amanda approached them with two sets of earpieces and small remote control looking things. “The earpieces should pick up anything you say. Keep these little things in your pocket. Press one if you want to talk to each other, two if you want to hear from us. I’ll be on at our end the whole time.”

Olivia nodded and said, “Thank you.”

“Cool. Let’s get started,” said Skulker, holding the back door open for her. “Let’s go directly north first.”

Olivia ducked through the doorway. Once outside, she jumped, pumping her wings to gain altitude. Below her, Skulker jogged and teleported across the street. She stretched out her wings, working out the kinks from being folded up behind her back for hours without any use.

How far up can normal people see in the dark again? I guess I’ll just go really high. She flapped her wings, gaining more height. Skulker lagged behind, having to climb over or around obstacles on the ground. Olivia banked to the left, letting him catch up.

Her earpiece crackled to life. “Watch how far up ya go. You ain’t big enough for radar, but military’s got ways of findin’ flyin’ supers. Keep low.” Oh, I’m not big enough for something? Finally. Chairs creaking when I sit in them get really old.

Olivia furled her wings and dove. The wind whipped by her face as she gained speed. Don’t mess up this time. Just above the rooftops, she snapped her wings open and pulled up in one smooth motion. She barely felt the resulting whiplash. OK. I think I have a better handle on the sudden stop now.

They traveled on for a bit, Olivia flying in a serpentine pattern for Skulker’s sake, before she caught a whiff of something. Uh oh.

“Hey, Be- no, Skulker?” Wait, the little box thing in my pocket.

“Skulker? I smell oil. Close by.”

“Well, let’s go check it out. Swoop down an’ point me in the right direction.”

Olivia guided Skulker to the source of the bitter oil smell, towards the center of the city. They approached an apartment complex. A thud sound nearly knocked her out of the air. What the…

“Whoa. Get down, no idea what’s goin’ on here,” barked Skulker as he skidded to a halt on the sidewalk.

That was super loud. Olivia landed behind him, right next to a closed storefront. He pulled her into the nearest alley. In the distance, glass shattered and a couple human shaped figured burst from the side of an apartment building. A tornado erupted in the center of the street, catching them. Whoa, whoa, whoa. What?

Skulker burst into laughter. “Aw, they’re attackin’ Cyrus? They’re adorable. Come on, he’s got this.”  He jerked his head in the direction they’d been headed.

“Wait, really?” We’re not going to help?

“Yeah. I’m actually surprised they were this dumb. Maybe they thought they’d got the drop on him.”

“We can’t just leave him alone here.”

“You know he’s a cop right?” Olivia frowned. “Alright, fine.” He pulled the sniper rifle from its sheath on his back and said, “Find me somethin’ to shoot.”

She returned her attention to the melee on the street in front of them. Two bots lay mangled and half buried in the ground. Another flew through the air, caught up in the tornado. Two massive armored robots, easily a foot or two taller than Olivia, thundered towards the upright figure in the center of it, heedless of the howling winds. One held a massive gun in its hands, the other was unarmed. Where did those come from?

“The big things,” Olivia pointed out to Skulker. Although you didn’t really need me to say that.

“I can’t shoot somethin’ in a tornado,” he responded.

Cyrus rose, bringing the tornado with him. The robots stayed on the ground. One lifted a massive gun and took aim. Cyrus dropped, far faster than Olivia thought possible. The gun robot tracked him and fired. The rifle exploded in its face. The tornado widened, now picking up more and more detritus.

A street sign struck a glancing blow on the second robot’s flank as it charged, leaving a small gash in the armor. The robot stopped and twitched. The hole widened, then the robot burst from the inside out.

Right as the tornado winded down, two rockets from above streaked towards Cyrus. The wind picked back up, and they went flying up into the air and away from any buildings. Where did that come from? Olivia scanned the area, tracing the thin white lines of smoke to a rooftop overlooking the area.

“There, rooftop,” said Olivia, pointing. Two robots reloaded rocket launchers.

Skulker stayed quiet for a second, aiming towards where Olivia had pointed. “Yeah, I see ‘em.” He fired two shots. “That’s done. We’re outta here.” That easy?

Cyrus flew off in the direction the rockets had come from as Skulker returned his rifle to its sheath.

“Should we… should we do something else?” Say hi… no, that’s dumb.

“Cyrus thrashed you last time you met him. Come on, let’s get outta here.” Olivia frowned as she took flight again. He was just stopping me from destroying more stuff.

She and Skulker headed northwest. From the lack of gale force winds pursuing them, Cyrus either didn’t know about them or didn’t care. There’s more oil everywhere, though. And I don’t smell Chris at all.

After a minute, with the oil growing stronger and stronger all around, she called Skulker again.

“Hey, there’s a lot of robots everywhere. There’s definitely some up ahead, too. There’s even a couple flying drones. I think we should head back for the others.”

“We’re maybe two minutes from a dead drop point. It’s just ahead. Wait… you said there’s bots up ahead?”

“Yes.” Someone else is being attacked.

They sped up. Olivia heard screaming ahead. No, no, no, not these kind of robots. One scream stood out. Rather than begging for mercy, it was a rasping, wordless scream, with a bizarre high and low pitched inflection. That doesn’t make sense. That sound should not be. The source of the fighting came into view ahead.

Bots circled around the armored figure in the empty parking lot of the public library. That is to say, they circled around a ring of fire around an armored figure.  A couple fired into the flames directly at the man, but he didn’t so much as flinch.

Olivia swore she saw twisted faces in the flames. Something is wrong here. She stopped and landed. I’m not going near that fire. No.

Skulker teleported to her side, pistol drawn. “What are you doin’?” he said in a rush.

In front of her, the flames around the man burst outward. The robots recoiled, and the man rushed forward. His axe cleaved down on a robot, disintegrating it. Two robots shot him from behind, knocking him down. Skulker teleported forward and opened fire. Olivia took a hesitant step after him. The fire is gone. Go, go.

An airborne drone zipped down in front of Olivia. Before she could react, it blasted a spotlight in her face. She recoiled, blinded. Something metal bounced on the ground in front of her.

“Grenade!” screamed Skulker an instant before the metal thing exploded.

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