Mercenary – Prophet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Isn’t that against your religion?”

“I’m older than Islam, remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I need your help with something.”

Thomas snorted and said, “Define something.”

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

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

“Yes.”

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

“Taauth.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In a sense, yes.”

“And he’s like you, right?”

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Slim Jim,” said Cyrus.

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

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

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

“Sometimes people need killing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

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

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

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

“Who?”

“Sorry. Olivia is the original feral.”

Thomas nodded, then said, “Define tough.”

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

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

“I believe so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyrus nodded and said, “What about Pathfinder?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So?”

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

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

Cyrus nodded. “I understand. Thank you.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I have.”

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

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

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

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

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

Cuauhtémoc refused to budge.  “No.”

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

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

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

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Assemblage – Q & A

They exited the van, and immediately several cameras flashed. Miya and Nomad had an escorting officer apiece. Four officers flanked Olivia in a box around her, X walking behind, guns held loosely. At least they didn’t bother locking the cuffs too tight. She figured she could break them fairly easily if it came to it, no matter what they did with them. The police seemed to know that too. They seemed kind of spooked by the whole bulletproof thing at first. She’d cooperated, and that seemed to take the edge off them. Olivia herself felt far more at ease now that a good dozen guns weren’t aimed at her.

The police had herded Olivia, Nomad, and Miya onto the armored van with several officers and X. Pathfinder and the other officers without a patrol car got in the other police van. Olivia couldn’t see or hear it now. They marched towards the somewhat grim, grey, concrete building. Few windows marked the walls; nothing but more concrete and the occasional dark metal statue composed of the surrounding exterior.

Some members of the press were there (hence the cameras), taking pictures as they entered the building. Olivia ducked her head down to attract less attention, but they gawked anyway. At least the officers are keeping them away. Some police lined the short walkway into the building, keeping the reporters out.

Once inside, most of the officers peeled off, heading down a different hallway to the right, leaving Olivia with only one officer (Bob, I think) and X. The one leading Nomad continued going forward. The remaining officers led Olivia and Miya down. She saw, with some other people at some computers, Delta, who waved. Olivia was too nervous to drag up a sincere smile, but tried anyway. That seemed to satisfy Delta, who nodded and returned to talking to the others. They moved on. Finally, they came to a cell. Bob removed the cuffs as X opened the door. Ahead of them, Miya and her officer continued on further.

There was a mattress, a toilet, and nothing else beyond the metal walls, ceiling, and floors. X motioned for her to go in, saying, “You’ll wait here until we call you for questioning and we get this sorted out.”

She hesitantly moved forward, then stopped in the doorway. Half turning, she said, “Excuse me,” to Bob. She could gauge his reactions better than X’s, who hadn’t taken off his helmet.

“Hmm?” he grunted curiously

“I’m not going to be sent to a…lab, or anything…right?” she asked. “And…my friends. They aren’t in trouble, are they?”

Confusion briefly crossed Bob’s face, but it was X that responded, “Depends. It’s not for us to say. But don’t worry too much about that.” With that he motioned to the cell again. She entered, and the door shut behind her. At least those stupid cuffs are gone.

She waited about an hour. At one point she tried to stretch her wings, only to discover that the cell was not big enough for that. Combined with the fact that the cell didn’t smell too great, this gave her a mild case of claustrophobia. She spent the rest of the time torturing herself with all the different ways this could go terribly, horribly wrong.

A beep sounded from over the door, causing her to jump slightly. The door opened to reveal three different officers. One looked at her with barely restrained hostility, and ordered, “Up. Now.”

She mutely complied, even when he produced the cuffs again. Why? They led her to a well lit room with a metal table in the center, with two chairs on either side. A black glass window took up one of the walls to the left of the door. They indicated she should take the far seat, then the angry one left, leaving the two officers, one man, one woman, flanking the door. Five minutes passed, the officers not so much as coughing. Olivia fidgeted nervously on the edge of her seat. Stupid backrest.

She could hear faint murmurs from outside the room, occasionally rising in volume, then falling again. Finally, the door opened and in walked a bearded man, lightly armored in black. His helmet extended to cover the top half of his face.

He introduced himself as he sat across from her, “My name is Cyrus.”

Olivia got even more nervous at that. Delta and the others had told her that Cyrus had one of the strongest powers in the world. Why is he in here with me? She managed to keep herself from reacting further than slightly widened eyes and a twitch of her tail.

Cyrus continued in a matter of fact tone, “I’m here to ask you some questions.” Everyone I’ve talked to has a high opinion of you, so I’m just going to assume some government protocol is making you state the obvious.

“For the record, state your name.”

“Olivia.” He seemed to be waiting for something else. She fixed her eyes on the desk in front of him. “Um…that’s it.”

He nodded and continued, “First things first, were you and your friends working with Freedom Fighter in any way?”

“No.” Hadn’t we gotten past this by now?

He seemed satisfied with that. He said, “Now, we want a recounting of the events today.”

“Um, OK,” she said, thinking of what to say. “We were looking for Freedom Fighter. Delta, she had made some things that blocked out his power, so we could get close. We ran into a big group of rioters, and two guys with powers. One was called Membrane, I think. He smelled pretty bad. The other was…Tod, that was it.” She remembered not remembering any names (if that made any sense), even Nomad’s. She’d think about it later, now was not the time.

She continued, “Um…they shot at us. We fought. I think Skulker and Delta got away. Then you found me and Nomad and Miya.”

“So did you take part in this combat?”

“Yeah. Um…the Tod guy. He hit me a couple times. I think I might have broken his knee or something.”

“Solid Tod hit you?” He sounded somewhat incredulous. Solid? Whatever.

“A couple of times. Um…three or four times, I think. It kind of hurt.”

“Kind of?” She glanced at him. He eyed the bullet holes in her clothes, they hadn’t provided a change of clothes.

What did I say? “Yeah. I don’t…I don’t remember it too well though. Why?”

“Tod strikes with enough force to go through walls and vehicles. Most people wouldn’t be in one piece after one hit.” Cyrus let that sink in, then continued, “You said Delta developed some new invention, correct? One that would nullify Freedom Fighter’s power.”

“Yeah, I have no idea how though. I mean, she was here earlier, she’d know how it worked.”

“Yes, but do you know if it worked?”

“Erm, well, I never got within Freedom Fighter’s power, so…no, I guess I don’t know. Sorry.”

He nodded. “You mentioned Miya. How did she fall in with you four?”

Olivia wasn’t entirely certain if there was anything she shouldn’t tell the police. She couldn’t think of why she shouldn’t. On the other hand she hadn’t thought that her little trip to the hospital would end the way it did, so maybe caution was best? Lying will probably get me nowhere with these people.

“We were looking for ways to find Freedom Fighter. Delta,” was basically the only reason we were able to do this. “found some sort of hideout his people were using. We found Miya in there.”

After a pause, he said, “And? Why was she in there?”

“Um, I didn’t really talk to her about it.” It seemed like a personal thing to Miya; Olivia didn’t want to talk about her to someone else like this. “She mentioned something about someone named…Overlord, and experiments.”

“Then how did she end up with Freedom Fighter’s men?”

“Um…well. I think they…sold her to…to them.” The words left a bad taste in Olivia’s mouth.

“Yes. Unfortunate. Now, about you,” Olivia flinched slightly, eyes still firmly planted on the desk, “Why did it take you so long to pop up on our radar? Why did you hide, instead of trying to find help or information?”

She thought for a moment. Because look at me. Though on second thought that probably wasn’t the best answer she could provide. She managed to mumble, “I…I don’t…know. I didn’t…didn’t know what…was going on.” Why am I stammering so much? “I don’t want…to be dissected or anything.” She was quiet after that.

“How long ago do you remember? We know some strange things happen to feral minds.”

“Um…about three weeks, I think.”

“Was there anything you did recognize? Names, places, anything like that?”

“No. I kind of…learned everything from scratch. Or relearned, I guess.” I know, I’m weird. “Skulker seemed almost…offended that I didn’t know what ‘I am your father’ was. I still don’t, either.”

Cyrus blinked, as did the guards by the door. “So you didn’t know what Freedom Fighter could do? At the hospital.”

Olivia had been wondering when this would come up. Of course, she still didn’t have a good answer for them, but you can still worry about a problem without a solution to it. “Um…no. I…I didn’t.”

“We need you to tell us exactly what happened.”

I killed a bunch of people. “Well, there was the bomb. The others were ordered to go somewhere, they told me to stay there. But, I don’t know. I…I guess I thought I could help…or do something.” Her reasoning sounded really dumb to her once she said it out loud. Cyrus’s expression gave no indication of what he thought.

He remained silent, so Olivia continued, “When I got there…I got…I got really angry. And then I kind of…blacked out.”

“So you don’t remember any of what you did?”

“No. Not really.”

Cyrus remained silent for a minute. I messed up something didn’t I? They’re going to kill me, aren’t they? The earpieces of the door guards buzzed with orders. Both exited without a word. She heard shouting as the door closed. Olivia looked around, but found nothing helpful in the featureless walls of the interrogation room.

“Ummm, excuse me, um…Cyrus?”

She waited until he said, “Yes?”

“What…exactly, is going to happen…now?”

Cyrus also had an earpiece, and from it she managed to hear a harsh voice bark out, “So, what are you waiting for? Tell it.” It. He sounded like the angry guy from earlier. I really don’t like where this is going.

Cyrus seemed to consider his words. He sighed. “Your friends will be released, without charges. You will be sent to the feral institute in Houston.” Nononononono.

There was a faint hissing sound, not from her, but from the walls. Pale white gas filled the room. There seemed to be a bubble of clean air around Cyrus. She was up, handcuffs snapped and chair on the floor before she realized it.

Cyrus remained in his seat, unfazed. He muttered, “Marcus,” and shook his head. Olivia managed to take a step towards the door or glass, then felt the knockout gas take effect. She heard the murmurs of yet more shouting from the glass before the world went dark. That was fast.

***

She slowly came around, all of her surroundings vibrating slightly. She cracked her eyes open slightly. She appeared to be in the back of a moving van of some kind. She immediately forced down her rising panic to take stock, and stay absolutely still. I want to get out of here as soon as possible.

She re-closed her eyes and listened. And smelled. They had a gas mask attached to her face, making her breath what she assumed was the gas that had knocked her out in the interrogation room. Olivia picked up a very faint odor from it. She recovered from the effects of it remarkably quickly. It was probably in place to keep her under until they got to Houston. I might have the element of surprise if they’re not expecting me to be awake.

Olivia could tell that they strapped her to a bed or cot of some kind on her back. It’s actually incredibly uncomfortable. There’s a reason I’ve never slept on my back, and that reason is called wings. The straps were actually chains, Olivia could feel the cool metal and links on her. One length on her shins, another on her waist (keeping her arms pinned as well), and the final on her upper chest. I really hope I can break those. She had no idea how strong she was, she’d never really been pushed to her limits in that respect.

From the smell, the van had a driver, and two other people monitoring Olivia in the back. She hazarded a look through her eyelids. One held a rifle of some kind on his lap. Some kind of guard, from his clothes. She couldn’t make out any insignia that would mark him as an officer, MHU or otherwise.

The other was a woman in plainclothes, watching Olivia. Uh oh. Did they see me twitch or something. The woman pulled out a book and started reading. I guess not.

The guard said, “Nothing?”

The woman spared him a glance up from her book. “Nothing,” she said. “We have enough of the sedative to keep her out for two days if need be.”

“Isn’t it kind of dangerous to keep someone on a sedative for this long?”

“No, it’s techie made stuff, apparently. It shouldn’t be lethal.” The conversation trailed off.

Olivia had fully overcome the effects of the gas at this point. She maintained a slow breathing, in spite of every survival instinct screaming at her to get out as fast as possible. She began to plan.

Olivia couldn’t tell how far they had gotten from Westward City. The guy with the gun could be a problem. I really hate this. The back of the van lacked windows, it was hard for her to confirm what was outside. By the sound, they were moving fairly fast on a highway, very probably going east. She could kind of make out the sounds of other cars and trucks moving as well. No signs of any helicopters, though they could be surrounded by patrol cars.

Got to get the chains off. And this stupid mask thing. I think I can block the guy from getting a good aim on me once I’m up. If I can, stop them from radioing anyone, though that’s a nice to have, not priority. But if I can’t break these chains this is going to be over real fast.

She steeled herself, and took a deep breath. She pushed outward with her arms and legs. The cot, pulled by the chain, began to crumple up towards her legs. Then cot was deformed enough for her to kick her legs free. Meanwhile she managed to get her hands on the middle chain, pulling it free. The woman screamed. Olivia grabbed the mask with one hand, the final chain with the other and tore them both off. She sat upright. That was easy! At least she was thinking clearly, she more wanted to escape than fight anyone.

The guard tried to bring his rifle to bear on Olivia, difficult to do in a tight location, such as the back of a moving van. This was made even more difficult when Olivia snapped her nearest wing to buffet the man in the face. The woman had banged on the wall separating the driver from the back section, screaming that Olivia was loose. The van swerved slightly, then began to slow down. Need to leave now.

Olivia threw herself at the back doors. They burst open. Now airborne, she took stock of her surroundings for a brief second, then thought, perhaps there was a better exit strategy than this. She was reminded that they were still moving fairly fast on a highway when she was rammed by the police car trailing the van as an escort before she could get lift. Oww.

She bounced off the top of the police car, smashing the top in the process, and hit the ground. She rolled to a stop a couple yards later. Owwwww. Note to self: don’t do that again. She lay partially stunned in the road; two cars swerved to avoid her. The police car’s rear stuck out of the median ditch thing separating the flows of traffic of the highway. The van had come to a stop well ahead of Olivia. The sun had just set in the west, by the faint glimmer of light from that direction. A siren came from…somewhere further down the road in the direction of the van.

Olivia pushed herself up, and tried to stand. Her right leg protested with a spasm of pain when she tried to put weight on it. She did her best to ignore it. Some shots cracked out from behind her, missing. Get moving. Her wings didn’t hurt, but her leg screamed in agony when she jumped. She managed to get lift anyway, leaving the van and cops behind her. She followed the road, heading back west.

***

Several hours of nonstop flight. That’s how long it took for her get back to Westward City. She hadn’t flown that long nonstop before, though it wasn’t that much of a strain in comparison to walking on her bad leg. She kept a watch for helicopters or the police in any way. It tired her more than anything else she’d done before.

During the flight, she managed to pinpoint the exact location of the source of pain in her leg. Her kneecap wasn’t exactly where it was supposed to be, which might have had something to do with the ache she felt. She didn’t have enough medical knowledge to begin to figure out how to fix it. At least flying was remarkably easy on the legs, and she could ignore the pain enough to function.

She finally came to the shop, setting down as gently as possible. She limped towards the door to their base, hearing nothing. No. The door was locked, she forced it open anyway. Abandoned. No one inside. Most of the stuff was still there. It smelled like they hadn’t been there for about a day, though she could be wrong on that. Did…did they leave?

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Assemblage – Warpath

“Olivia…” said Nomad warningly. The MHU officers waited for the slightest opportunity to pull the trigger.

Right, don’t look threatening or we all die. She noticed she still hissed with bared teeth (what am I, a cat?). She stopped that, curled up her hands and placed them behind her back, and took a step backwards towards Nomad and Miya. She looked back at them. Nomad’s expression was unreadable behind his bandana; Miya looked furious, even as she dropped her gun and put her hands up to her head. Should I be doing that? People don’t seem to like seeing claws.

“Sorry,” she whispered back.

She could try to fly away, but that would mean leaving Miya and Nomad alone with hostile, heavily armed officers. As well, they would probably shoot her. A lot, and at close range. She’d already taken quite a few shots dealing with Tod and the rioters. She didn’t notice it at the time, until she realized she felt a sharp ache in her shoulder when she moved her left arm. That, and the two power armored figures gave her pause for thought.

Seemingly made out of dull grey blocks of metal, the larger power armor actually matched Olivia’s height. Thick armor plates covered everything, segmented for movement. The helmet was the same dull grey, save for the black visor marking the eyes. Painted on the left shoulder was a skull and crossbones, with tallies below, around thirty or so. Below that was a tank silhouette with a red X crudely painted over it. Below that, seven scratched-in tallies marked the upper arm. She eyed the massive gun in his hand once more. It’s weird, being able to compare yourself to a tank. None the less, I absolutely do not want to pick a fight with the guy who kills tanks.

The smaller one, small in this case relative to the other set of armor, appeared to be composed entirely of cords of some burnished red metal. Arranged in a vague imitation of a human muscular system, the cords shifted as the suit moved. That seems delicate and exposed, but then again I couldn’t make a suit of armor to save my life, so I guess I can’t judge. On the back appeared to be a jetpack of some kind. He held the same gun the grey one held, the one that might actually be able to blow a hole through Olivia.

The officers in front relaxed marginally when she backed up. The officers behind them put Miya into cuffs. The one in grey power armor produced another set of cuffs and handed it to a nearby officer. The officer walked up, tore off Nomad’s bandana, and motioned for him to hold out his hands.

“If you try to shift, that will set off the thermite charge inside instantly. I recommend you don’t. And don’t think we didn’t come prepared if that fails,” said the officer.

Nomad’s face was impassive. He nodded, then said, “What is it that Marcus told you? That two MHU officers decided to defect out of the blue, along with a random vigilante and a feral? You buy that Bob?” He looked at another officer. The officer shook his head, but kept his weapon trained on Olivia. I really wish there weren’t a dozen guns aimed at me right now. She kept herself very, very still.

“Doesn’t matter what we think. If you’re innocent, you’re innocent. You know that. This isn’t up for debate,” said one of the power armor figures.

“Fuck you,” called out Miya. “We’re looking for F.F. too.”

“And who are you?” asked one of the power armor figures. The red one, I think. Miya spat at his face as he approached her. “OK then.”

Olivia noticed that no one had approached her with cuffs. In fact, they had moved Nomad and Miya off a little bit to the side. Now that no guns and explosions were going off right next to her, her ears began to recover. She heard the shuffles and clicks from officers behind her, well out of arm’s reach. Please don’t shoot me.

“So we just happened to be out here, fighting Freedom Fighter’s minions, even though you think we’re on the same side as them?” asked Nomad calmly.

“I can’t think of any other reason for F.F. escaping the first time. So far as we can tell he got out through where you were supposed to be guarding,” said Red.

“Never mind the fact that one of us tore his arm off in the process.”

“And your proof of that is…?”

“She did it, if you’ll believe that.” Nomad motioned to Olivia with his head.

“Didn’t you send two members of the Watch to the hospital? Aren’t you and your buddies running around with that feral? You aren’t talking your way out of this one,” said Red.

“That first one was Skulker, and you know how vigilantes operate. Besides, they fired on us first. And as for the feral, her name is Olivia. She’s actually been quite helpful against Freedom Fighter.”

“Oh, you guys named her.” Even through the voice filter, he sounded condescending. Olivia wasn’t liking the red guy.

“We didn’t, she did. Ask her, she can speak for herself. Marcus told you nothing, did he?” Should…should I say something? Should he ask a question first?

Red emitted a sort of derisive snort, sounding very strange after going through his speakers, or voice modulator, or whatever it was he used to mask his voice. He turned to Olivia. “So, Olivia,” he began, speaking slowly and deliberately, “Why haven’t you said anything yet?”

“Because I really don’t want to get shot. I can’t stress enough how much it hurts. I know firsthand, I got shot a bunch not too long ago” she answered. I probably sounded like an idiot right there, didn’t I? A couple officers exchanged glances, otherwise maintaining discipline. She heard trucks approaching.

“Wait a minute…” Red trailed off, probably taking stock of the bullet holes in her clothing for the first time. I’d really like to go home now. The rest of the officers came to the same conclusion, suddenly gripping their guns far more tightly. They’d been awfully relaxed before, considering the circumstances. Did you not hear the ‘please don’t shoot me’ part?

Grey said, “You know, there might be some truth to what they’re saying.”

At that moment two trucks appeared and parked a short distance away, one of which appeared to be far more armored than standard.

“You need to listen to me,” said Nomad. “We were sent to see if Olivia was not a standard, murderous feral. It was during this that Freedom Fighter’s attack started. We were sent to help contain, and Olivia got caught in his power. Delta recorded all of this. We’ve had no dealings with F.F.” How is he so calm? You’d think he was walking through a park or something instead of in handcuffs and staring down a hostile robot guy.

“YOU need to stop talking. You’ve been spouting lies from the beginning. I have no reason to believe anything you’ve said,” said Red.

“Hey, you ever hear the term ‘scapegoat’, you bitch?” asked Miya.

Red made a move towards her. To Olivia’s surprise, the two officers flanking her looked like they were about to come between the two.

“Hey, leave her alone,” said Olivia, forgetting the fact that she wasn’t supposed to move, beginning to move towards Red and Miya. Several metallic clicks from various guns reminded her of that. She froze again.

“You know, the Aztec might be right,” said Grey, seemingly unconcerned.

Red ignored him, turning his attention to Olivia. “What did you say? Go on, go on, say it,” he prompted.

“Leave her alone,” she said. After a brief pause she added, “Please.” No reason not to be polite about such things, I guess.

“Please,” he said contemptuously, “Why should I? You people are the criminals, I am the law.”

“So? Doesn’t mean you’re any better than anyone else. You’d hit a handcuffed girl?” said Olivia.

“I’m better than you lot. At least I got powers, instead of just some hideous mutations. I don’t care how smart you are, you’re still only just above an animal.” Ow.

“You’re nothing special. You’re just a bully who happens to have power.”

“Damn right I have powers! Damn right it makes me ‘special’, as you call it.” Suddenly, the officers around him seemed to cast hostile glances towards the oblivious Red.

“Pathfinder, enough, back off. Remove the cuffs from those two,” said Grey suddenly.

Everyone stared at him, the officers only moving when Grey motioned for them to move.

“What the fuck are you doing, X?” asked Red. Or Pathfinder, I think. And what kind of name is X?

“Cyrus’s been corroborating everything Nomad over here’s been saying, showed me some records from Delta’s headcam thing. The Watch and a vigilante named Purifier reported in, saying they were getting overwhelmed when this lot came up from behind their attackers. Also, Skulker and Delta, the two others that were working with these three, just killed F.F., so there’s that. Delta just delivered a goldmine of info to counterterrorism if you need any more reasons. I’ve broadcast it to everyone else too. Just to let you make an ass of yourself for a couple minutes,” said X, with a hint of amusement. I’m starting to like this Cyrus guy, and this X guy.

“Cyrus…” began Pathfinder.

“Is a good friend, one I trust,” said X. “We’ll take these guys in for questioning, but they’re to be treated as non hostile, except the feral.” No, no, no, no. She tensed, going into overdrive.

The smoke of five distinct fires reached her. Blood, dirt, sweat, adrenaline, gunpowder, gasoline, much more, too much. The red suit smelled of some strange substance Olivia couldn’t place, the other smelled more of oil and steel. The air tasted of soot and the trash of a city.

Several helicopters buzzed, going about to various destinations, ones Olivia did not know. Whirring noises escaped from both the suits of armor, with no rhyme or reason discernable to her. The hearts of the officers near her beat fast, far faster than her own. Their breathing heightened. Something exploded off in the distance for the millionth time; gunfire still rang out from pockets of the city.

She realized why the officers were so taut. She’d backed up a bit, taking up more of a fighting stance. Her hands uncurled, she crouched, observing the officers warily. Aaaaand, of course I’m hissing slightly. I need to keep better track of that. Her tail thrashed.

“Wait, why?” asked Nomad.

“Technicalities, more or less. Nothing to worry about. While I suspect they’ll be worthless, she’ll just be in standard cuffs. I’m trusting she knows fighting will only make her position worse.” He looked at Olivia. No, no cages or experiments or anything else. No.

She hesitated, so he added, “Don’t get me wrong here, this isn’t a request. You might even escape if you try. But that will only be digging yourself a hole, and I don’t think you want that.”

I hate logic right about now. Nomad gave a small nod. She’d been half hoping for him to shake his head. She gave an incredibly hesitant nod towards X.

“What?” exclaimed Pathfinder. “Non hostile? Are you and Cyrus out of your-”

He was cut off by X, all hints of humor gone from his voice, distorted as it was. “Another word out of your mouth and there will be hell to pay, Lieutenant. I will get Full Metal Jacket on your ass. Or have you forgotten you’re in the army? Act like it. Now, everyone, move.” An officer approached Olivia hesitantly with the cuffs.

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