Cyrus rocketed towards the horizon in the East. Below him stretched on the sands of the Sahara. Even up in the lower stratosphere, he felt the heat radiating from the desert below. His mind wandered, the view below him just as monotonous and brown as it had been thirteen hundred years ago the first time he’d flown over the area.
The sands of Babylon remember. Babylon, not Baghdad. No one cares about Babylon anymore. There’s only one reason the dragon girl would desperately scream that at me. But that reason is impossible. Taauth’s dead, gone, and buried for the last three thousand years. But he’s the only possible reason.
Cyrus adjusted his course, turning north towards the coast of the Mediterranean. There he could doubtlessly find a town or city to get new clothes. He still wore his MHU uniform with a face concealing helmet that stuck out like a sore thumb. Local clothes would be better for blending in.
He willed his bubble of air that kept him aloft to descend. From his current height, the sparse and scattered small towns would be nigh impossible to spot. Flying over a densely populated area like Europe was just asking for trouble. Any government that couldn’t monitor their airspace for techie planes and flying supers wasn’t long for the world. If all else failed, Egypt would be fairly hard to miss. It’s been too long since I’ve visited the Nile last. I wonder how much smaller the Pyramids are now.
After a few minutes, he caught sight of a grey smear in the distance. A small city, then. That works. He headed for the desert just outside the city, and landed near a rock formation jutting from the sand. The helmet was the first to go, followed by the battered dark grey flak jacket. He placed them out of sight on the top of a tall rock. His pistol he tucked under his belt, out of sight.
That done, he shot into the air, buoyed by solid air beneath his feet, and memorized the brown swirls of sand and stone below. Once he had a good mental image, he came down close to a road on the outskirts of town. Do they still speak this dialect of Arabic? It’s been a century since I’ve spoken it last. Oh well, I’ll make due.
Sweat soaked his undershirt and heavy dark grey pants as the afternoon sun beat down on him. I’ve been in one place for too long. He caught a ride from a truck driver to the center of the city. The rough roads jostled him and the cargo in the back, the large bags of rice almost toppling on top of him. The driver dropped him off next to the market near the center of town.
He caught some wary and hesitant looks from the locals as he searched for someone who sold clothing. From his dress and features, he obviously wasn’t a local. Only long experience kept his face neutral. Ha, and Westerners think everyone between Morocco and Pakistan looks the same. And my skin isn’t pale enough to be some rich Westerner exploring the world.
The call to afternoon prayers sounded off from a minaret overlooking the area, catching him off balance. What do I need to do? It’s not Friday, is it? No, it was Tuesday when I left, and now it’s Wednesday here. Has Ramadan started? No, I passed an open cafe with customers. Shia or Sunni? Is there a difference in their prayers? Too many things to keep track of, to remember. Too much. Cyrus bowed in meditation, rather than prayer.
Once prayers ended, he resumed his search through the market. Despite his foreign-ness, vendors still hawked their goods at him. He kept a hand on his wallet in his front pocket. American dollars were usually taken anywhere except Europe and East Asia, and this small city on the Libyan coast proved no exception.
Eventually, he found someone in an out of the way area with clothing. Though his Arabic was rusty, and the vendor spoke a different dialect than Cyrus was used to, pointing and nodding worked anywhere.
Several minutes of haggling later, he fiddled with the last button of the simple red button down shirt before loosely wrapping the brown and grey checkered scarf around his neck. Another outbound truck brought him to the edge of town once again. The moment he was certain no prying eyes watched him, he shot into the air once again.
Baghdad came into view as the sun set. Cyrus brought himself to a stop and hovered upright. He dispersed the bubble of still air he kept over his face when he flew. This place is much nicer now that there’s no Mongols killing everyone in sight.
From vantage point, the area looked calm. Even with night falling, most buildings were lit up. There were people on the streets, even as the sun vanished from the sky. All in all, the city seemed calm. He’s adapting much faster than I thought he would. This place was a war zone of different Islamic metahuman factions a month ago.
His search for the largest, most ostentatious building didn’t take long. Overlord had several palaces built for him and his trusted underlings during his reign. Not all had been leveled by the invading US forces or the resulting years of upheaval and insurgency.
It would be just like Taauth to use one. That one with all the flags looks like a good place to start. And all those men on the roof, they’re watching for something. All the fanciest technology in the world is just now getting as good as a few pair of eyes. And men cost less.
Cyrus retreated to the edge of the desert. He pulled the scarf over his beard, closed his eyes, and extended his grip on the surrounding air, allowing himself to let loose and stretch himself almost to his limit. Ah, home. The sheer mass of air resisted his will for a moment, before it began to spin. The massive howling sandstorm, over a mile in diameter, formed with him in the center. He formed a bubble of calm air around himself, the sand bouncing off of it.
A smile formed on his face. The feeling of power, of absolute control, overwhelmed him for a moment. Right concentration. He willed himself, and by extension the howling winds, back towards the city. Though the sand blocked his sight as it would anyone else’s, that did not stop him from sensing the movement and shape of all the air under his control.
His sandstorm tore through the city, the wind blocking out all sound around him. He headed directly for the palace. People rushed indoors, their lungs fighting against the sand and dust in the air. And so the Haboob makes an appearance once more. He let the sandstorm go the moment his feet touched the roof of the palace. The guards had vanished, no doubt seeking shelter indoors. The sandstorm around him lessened, no longer under his control. Momentum kept it going.
He found the door leading to the interior of the palace and blasted it open with a wall of solid air. No alarm sounded. He took the stairs down to find several guards waiting for him.
He threw them against the walls with a burst of expanding air in their center. Until he knew more, he wouldn’t mindlessly butcher everyone in his way. For all he knew, and in all likelihood, these were just local men working for a small paycheck and with no real devotion to Taauth. In all of Cyrus’ experiences, most draftees had no real love for their officers.
Without breaking his stride, he grabbed one of the guards struggling to his feet. “Taauth,” he said, his voice low and calm.
Behind them, another of the guards had recovered enough to draw his sidearm. Cyrus smacked him in the hands with a hard gust of air, and his own gun smashed into his face. Cyrus kept his eyes on the guard in his hands. The others were either unconscious or not willing to get up again.
“I… I don’t know. I don’t know where he is,” replied the terrified guard in Arabic.
“This building?” asked Cyrus in the same language.
“Where would he be?”
“Down, one story.”
Cyrus released him and strode off down the stairs. He poked his head around the corner. Before he had a chance to register what he was seeing, twenty rifles opened fire on him. He pulled back as a bullet grazed his head. His skull knitted back together and the pain receded immediately. Trap or just bad luck?
He felt out the large room beyond. Twenty guards took cover behind the lines of columns, their breathing fast and nervous. They’ve heard the stories, same as their fathers, and their fathers before them. At the opposite end of the room was a large double door. And behind them sat a man behind a desk, breathing normally. Found him.
He burst into the room. The air howled around him, more for show than anything else. If he so chose, he could have simply ripped people’s lungs from their chests. He’d done that several times before, though he always felt sick after. No number of centuries of grisly sights had ever inured him from the disgust.
Within ten second, he had formed a whirlwind in the center of the column room. Off balance, the guards’ shots went wide. The fight, if it could be called that, didn’t take long. He sent a punishing strike of air at shin level, breaking the legs of anyone not behind a column. The few that were left got caught up in the whirlwind, and found themselves slammed into the walls hard enough to crack ribs. He marched forward threw open the wooden double doors.
Within sat Taauth. Darkness silhouetted him, swallowing all the light of the lightbulbs in the room. All the files on the large wooden desk sat under large metal paperweights. Someone was definitely expecting me. Taauth himself simply leaned in his high backed chair, his expression unreadable under the strange grinning mask he wore. I’ve seen that before. That’s Skulker’s mask. What’s he doing with it?
“Hello,” said Taauth in English.
“Give me one reason I shouldn’t kill you again.”
Taauth slammed a hand on the desk and roared with laughter. “Again! You were lucky. Had I not been otherwise occupied you would have been crushed like the gnat you were and are.”
“I’m not the same acne covered kid you met in Babylon. I’ve been alive and well for the last two millennia. You’ve been gathering dust in the dirt.”
“It makes no difference,” replied Taauth with a wave of his hand. One of the paperweights rose into the air and hovered. With a flick of his wrist, it began flowing like a liquid.
“No. If I have learned anything age does not equal wisdom. It is experience that matters,” responded Cyrus.
Taauth leaned forward. The metal began flowing in an infinity symbol. “Perhaps. But they go hand in hand, do they not? You have no doubt discovered you have time aplenty, just like me. Have you not more wisdom?”
Cyrus frowned. He held on to the air in the room, ready to crush Taauth’s head at a moment’s notice. Just like me. “What are we?”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t remember my mother’s tongue. Do you?” Taauth paused. The metal froze. Cyrus continued, “Are we even human anymore?”
“I believe so, but I do not know. I do know that there are others. What do you know of them?”
“The German woman is insane. And I’m not sure about Cuauhtémoc.”
“And the Chinese girl?” Damn. I thought the Chinese government had their secret weapon under lock and key. How did Taauth figure out she even exists?
“I haven’t met her yet.” Too many aliens in China, too much to do in Westward. Too much. It’s always too much. “You definitely won’t.”
Taauth sighed. “You think me a mere usurper. Do you know where our powers come from?
“No, and I wasted three centuries trying to find out. I spent another…” he trailed off. Another century trying to reach Nirvana, or anything that would mean I could stop. “It doesn’t matter. No one knows, not really. Faith has changed, but still no one knows.”
“Indeed it has. Merciful gods rule now.” The floating liquid metal resumed its twisting.
“Not just them. An Aztec high priest will tell you that the world will end as they believe it began, in fire and death as those chosen by the gods wreak havoc. Every fifty years they insist it is the end of days and then the world keeps turning. Talk to a Christian priest, he’ll tell you the same kind and loving God is the one that allows men to use their supposed god given powers to kill and maim to their hearts’ content. Ahura Mazda, Allah, Yahweh, all the same, really. They don’t really know where powers come from, no matter what they claim.” I’ve said this rant too many times before.
“Everywhere there is faith. It is a part of man.”
“Faith in what?”
“I do not know,” replied Taauth.
“Neither do I.” Cyrus straightened. “And it doesn’t matter right now.”
“Indeed. How many have died in your new home while you piddle your time away here with me? I did not know you enjoyed conversation so much.” Taauth reached for a manila folder on his desk. “I very much doubt you came here to discuss the nature of God with me.”
“No. The dragon girl screamed ‘the sands of Babylon’ at me. That was your doing?” asked Cyrus, though he already knew the answer. He likes talking. Perhaps his mouth will get ahead of him.
“Of course. I needed a sturdy messenger who could find you.” So he sought her out. I’ll need to find a dreamwalker and a psychological mage later. “I assume you flew directly here. You haven’t heard the news.”
He waited. After a moment, Cyrus asked, “What news?” Spit it out.
“A nuclear device was detonated in Venezuela. A very large one, at that. The Siberians have become agitated.” Cyrus kept his face still. Right in the middle of two invasions from the Overlord and the US. Correction, disposable old bots of Overlord, and the US. “And it appears as though there was a computer glitch in the French defense network. Several standard missiles of theirs have detonated in the Mother’s territory. She has sworn revenge.”
That’s how the last two world wars started. Is Overlord insane? “Divide and conquer,” murmured Cyrus.
“Quite. Overlord’s attack dog, Slim Jim. Have you met him?’
“No. I’ve heard stories.”
“Yes, pleasant fellow. Overlord did not leave much behind when he was ousted from this country. None the less, I have tracked down some of his former collaborators. For some of them, their memories were addled by drugs, but I was able to extract everything in this folder. This information is old, true, but there are a few things you may find significant.”
Cyrus took the folder Taauth offered. He opened it up and thumbed through some of the papers within, keeping half an eye on Taauth. This is… disturbing.
Taauth spoke up again, “Find Slim Jim, and you find the bunker.”
“How can I trust this information?”
“I thought Babylon the height of what man could accomplish. I have been wrong before, and I will be again. It does not matter. I will not lie to you in this matter. I am confident that Overlord must be stopped. Now go.”
Darkness enveloped Cyrus in an instant. He lashed out and found his strike obliterating a sand dune in front of him. The palace, and any signs of human habitation, were nowhere to be seen.