The room brightened momentarily as a streak of lightning flashed across the screen at the front. The video continued on, focused on Spike as a shield flew out of his hand and he stumbled back. He moved to recover… but the camera zoomed out just enough to bring Mote into frame, who had his hand outstretched toward Spike, Sky, and Twy. A moment later, another burst of lightning leapt from his fingertips, instantly knocking out his three novice opponents.
The video of the previous day’s SERRCom arrest paused on the shot of Mote standing over the collapsed forms of Spike, Sky, and Twy. The image moved to a corner of the display as the man who looked like Austin stepped into frame.
“See here?” he commented with a pained smirk, “SERRCom discovers a new group of Chaotics… and what do they do? Knock ‘em out and arrest ‘em! They didn’t even do anything wrong, but then — BAM! Shocked for no good reason!” The man shook his head, as if trying to evoke a sense of pity. “These are hardly the kind of people you want protectin’ Earth. They were careless this time, but just imagine: if they’re willin’ to forcefully arrest innocent civilians in broad daylight, then just what are they doin’ behind your backs? SERRCom cannot be trusted. And this is the reason I attacked the Shanghai office just a couple hours ago — someone has to let SERRCom know that what they’re doing is wrong. And if they don’t get their shit together… well.” He winked at the camera. “Guess we’ll just have to see what happens, huh?”
Then, the video stopped.
Hamasaki, Mote, Mark, and Austin stared at the screen for a couple seconds in silence.
“Mote…” Mark broke the silence, his voice low. “…Was that footage edited?”
“…It didn’t show this guy.” Mote scowled as he jerked his head toward Austin. “All the shots kept him out of frame.”
“So you’re saying that everything else there was accurate?”
“Now isn’t the time for this.”
“I’ll say,” Hamasaki interjected. “…I’m actually disappointed in you, Lieutenant Emerson. And not just you, but Colonel Saito as well. Did your time with the EIIC teach you nothing? How the hell did you allow someone to catch the arrest on video?!”
Mote drew back in alarm. “I—! There was no one around when we made the arrest. Saito says that they checked! And I made sure to blast the area with an EMP, anyways. That video must’ve been taken on some kind of telescopic lens!”
“Telescopic lens or not, that arrest was the work of amateurs! I had no idea Saito’s mission report left out so much. And now the entire world has seen this!” The Director held a hand to her forehead, her brow furrowed in frustration. “This… this is going to be a right pain in the ass.”
“Uh, about that…” Austin spoke up, raising his still-cuffed hands, “doesn’t this… doesn’t this video prove that he isn’t me…?”
“…He’s right,” Mark stated, “there’s no way he could have taken that video. And there’s no way he could have made that commentary on it, either. That video had to have been produced after he was arrested.”
Hamasaki crossed her arms and took a deep breath. “…I suppose that’s true.”
“You suppose?!” Austin exclaimed incredulously.
“…There are still many things left to investigate.” She turned toward one of the soldiers standing guard near the doorway. “You— get me security footage and CENT generator logs for the past 48 hours from the occupied brig cells. Delivered straight to my inbox, please.”
The soldier offered her a curt salute before ducking out of the room.
“This is absurd,” Mark argued. “You can’t doubt him forever!”
“Oh, I certainly can,” Hamasaki shot back, “this man has demonstrated that he is a significant threat to SERRCom. Both militarily, and in terms of image. He must be dealt with swiftly and with a heavy hand. I will take no chances.”
“Can I at least see my friends?” Austin questioned. When Hamasaki’s brow furrowed he quickly added, “c’mon, we’re at your fuckin’ Headquarters! We’re all under guard or some shit, right? Just what the hell do you think I could possibly do?”
“Mind your manner of address,” the Director demanded. “Keep up the attitude, and I’ll make sure you never see the light of day again.”
“Director,” Mark interjected, “I’ll personally watch him, if that satisfies you. But he doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.”
Hamasaki looked up at Mark with a mixture of irritation and contemplation. She then glanced over at Austin, who was staring at her hopefully. And then she looked over at Mote, who sighed and shook his head warily.
“…Very well,” she eventually replied. “…I’ll allow it.”
“Finally…” Austin muttered under his breath.
“But this whole station is watching you.” She turned toward Austin to address him. “There are cameras, sensors, and CENT fields everywhere. Make one wrong move, one suspicious step, and it’s back in the solitary cell for you.”
“U-understood…” Austin responded uneasily.
“Good!” All of the previous irritation and impatience that had shown on Hamasaki’s face was wiped clean by a polite smile. She turned toward the door and began to leave, beckoning for Mote to follow her.
“…Sorry about all this.” Mark sighed as Hamasaki and Mote left the room. “If I had it my way…”
“Thanks for stickin’ up for me, at least,” Austin commented. “So, uh… can I get these cuffs off, too?”
“Oh. Sure.” Mark reached for the chain holding the cuffs together. Then, grasping it with one hand, he casually crushed the chain, allowing the cuffs to fall apart.
Austin simply stared at where the chain once was, speechless.
“Follow me.” Mark gestured toward the door. “I’ll lead you to your friends.”
“…Oh. Uh… sure.” Austin shook his head and rushed after Mark. “Let’s go!”
* * *
“Austin! You’re okay!!”
“What—?” Austin stiffened as Twy nearly bowled him over with a hug. He awkwardly returned it before looking past Twy and into the rest of the room, at which point his face lit up. “Uncle Luke!”
“Hey there, kiddo.” A light-skinned man with short, blond hair casually approached as Twy let go of Austin and stood to the side. “Sorry ‘bout everything you’ve been through…”
“Don’t ‘kiddo’ me, you’re barely ten years older than I am!”
“Heh.” Luke simply chuckled in response. “It’s enough.”
Mark glanced between Austin and Luke. “So you really are related, then?”
“Ayup.” Luke nodded. He stepped over to Mark’s side and turned toward Austin, Twy, Spike, and Sky, the latter of which had just approached themselves. “Mark, meet my nephew and friends. Austin, meet Mark, of the Eximius Vir. …Though I guess you’ve already met, huh?”
“Wow…” Sky stared up at Mark in awe. At six and a half feet tall and a broad build, he was even larger than Spike — though not by much. “…Too bad you ‘Eximius Vir’ aren’t all you’re cracked up to be, huh? Earth’s Heroes my ass…”
“Sky…” Twy muttered admonishingly, but Spike soon spoke up as well.
“No, she’s right.” He crossed his arms and eyed Mark with anger. “Just goin’ and arrestin’ innocent people for no damn reason. And with force, too!”
“Now what’s this all about…?” Luke turned toward Mark. “Do you know what they’re talkin’ about?”
“I do…” Mark sighed in irritation. “…I take it you didn’t hear anything about the arrest, then?”
“The Colonel’s kept me in the dark. As it is, I had to fight just to get in here. Probably because they think my nephew is a terrorist or something.”
“Do you…?” Austin questioned warily.
“Ha! Of course not.” Luke snorted. “As if you’ve got the smarts or the ambition to pull any of that off!”
“I don’t know if I should be relieved or insulted…”
“But really now.” Luke crossed his arms. “…Let me guess. Mote performed the arrest, didn’t he?”
Spike and Sky both turned toward Luke in surprise. “How’d you know?”
“Mote can be… a little overzealous when it comes to countering what he sees as disobedience.”
“Understatement of the year…” Mark grumbled.
“We weren’t being ‘disobedient,’” Austin argued, “if anything, it’s you guys who’re in the wrong!”
“Good luck convincin’ Mote to see it that way.” Luke shrugged. “I’ve worked with the guy for years now, only Kate is more obstinate than he is.”
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Austin pressed. “C’mon. This whole stupid arrest thing is illegal, isn’t it? Aren’t you duty bound to ignore illegal orders?!”
“…It’s not so simple.” Luke looked away, his brow furrowed. “Outside of Earth, SERRCom is the highest law in the land. What the General says, goes.”
“That doesn’t make this right,” Mark insisted.
“Maybe not…” Luke passed him a sidewards glance. “But I don’t see you doing anything about it.”
Mark pursed his lips, but was otherwise silent.
“…So that’s it, then?” Spike questioned, “we’re just stuck here against our will? Because you don’t have the spine to stand up for us?”
“Don’t you start with this now.” Luke scowled. “Me tryin’ to get in the way of things will accomplish nothing, aside from gettin’ replaced and demoted. At least I can serve as a sympathetic ear where I am now.”
“You’ll be glad to have someone on CSF-1 who’s willing to listen to you soon, trust me.”
“What’s that mean…?” Twy asked uneasily.
Luke took a deep breath and exhaled warily. “…You’ll see soon enough.”
“Captain…” Mark looked at him in alarm. “You can’t be serious. They’re just civilians—!”
“Bring it up with the Colonel,” Luke rebuffed. “I’ve already argued the point five ways to Sunday. Nothin’ I can do now.”
“Well that’s just great.” Sky rolled her eyes. “So much for being the cool older bro, huh? When it comes down to it, you prefer your job over us, huh?”
“I already said, it’s not that simple—!”
“Bullshit!” Sky exclaimed; as she did so, streaks of flame wreathed her arms before fading into the air.
Mark’s eyes widened in worry. He immediately began looking around, as if searching for something. “The CENT fields…” he muttered, “they should still be active… what happened to—?!”
A flash of light cut him off, momentarily blinding everyone in the room — and giving way to a large robot not unlike the ones seen in Texas. It swept its single eye-like bulb across the room, eventually settling on Austin.
The next second passed as though it were a minute. The robot raised its arm over its head, Luke reached for his sidearm, Mark summoned his halberd and lunged forward, Twy and Sky prepared elemental attacks, Spike dove toward his friend — and Austin, with no time to react, reflexively shielded his face with his arms and squeezed his eyes shut.
The sound of a metal clunk and a whirring servo reached Austin’s ears. He slowly opened one eye… to see that the robot’s downward blow had been stopped by his own arms, which themselves remained perfectly intact.
I blocked that?! …Guess I really am a Chaotic, after all, he mused silently.
But he had no more time to think — the robot slid its arm down Austin’s until its hand met his elbow, at which point it grabbed him and forcefully jerked him downward. He immediately collapsed to the floor just as Mark’s halberd slammed into the robot’s side, sending it sliding across the room. Just as with the robots in the city, the surface struck by the halberd glowed briefly, and the robot itself remained unharmed.
Alarms began blaring a moment later, but Mark remained unfazed as he lunged toward the robot again. It opened fire on him, its lasers ripping a substantial hole into his shirt but leaving his skin unscathed as he swung his halberd upward, catching the robot between its legs and launching it into the air. He immediately swung his right fist forward, impacting the robot with such force that its energy shield flared brightly and then broke in a fantastic display of sparks and visual static. Another halberd blow later, the robot was little better than scrap.
“Is everyone okay?” Mark turned back toward the rest of the room as the robot collapsed to the floor.
“…That was amazing,” Sky whispered.
“Didn’t that hurt?!” Twy exclaimed, pointing at the hole in Mark’s shirt.
“…Only a little bit. But there’s no time for questions like those.” He glanced toward Austin. “So you’re a Duratechnic, huh? Or a Forcetechnic?”
“Uh…” Austin responded, shaken. Spike rushed over to his side to help him to his feet. “…Guess so?”
“Well that’s convenient,” Luke spoke up, his eyes darting around as though reading invisible text. “…There are other intruders, all over the base. Mark—!”
“Rendezvous with the others?”
“Exactly.” Luke nodded curtly. He then glanced at the three guards that had just rushed into the room. “I’ll get these guys to evac. If the CENT fields are down, then they should be able to defend themselves. But you need to track down the other ‘bots!”
“…Understood, sir!” Mark saluted. Immediately afterward he turned and broke into a full-tilt sprint, disappearing through the door and down the corridor.
“We’re bein’ attacked?” Spike questioned as Luke stepped forward.
“Seems like it…” Luke scowled. “…CENT fields and beaming sensors are down. Kind of odd to bring down the CENT fields for a robot attack, but — I won’t complain.”
“Sir,” one of the guards spoke up, handcuffs in hand. “If the CENT fields are down… how do we transport the prisoners?”
Sky and Twy backed away and prepared elemental attacks again as they eyed Luke warily. He glanced toward them, expressionless, before holding up his hand and turning to address the guards. “No cuffs. They’ll be fine.”
Austin sighed of relief, but tensed up again when he realized that the guards were glaring at him. …They all think I’m guilty, don’t they…?
“Let’s get going.” Luke stepped into the hallway after carefully looking both ways. “…Austin, Twy, you’re on me. Watch forward. Spike, Sky, you three—” He nodded toward the guards. “Watch our backs. These robots have energy shields, so if you see one — don’t engage. Run. Understood?”
“Yes sir!” the three guards replied.
“Guys?” Luke glanced back at Austin and his friends.
Twy nodded. “We got it.”
“Good. Then follow me.”
Luke began briskly walking down the corridor with Austin and Twy in tow. At each door he glanced sidewards, but he never slowed his pace. Behind him, Twy and Sky held a bubble of water and a ball of fire, respectively, in preparation for any attack; Austin and Spike simply looked around warily as the guards held the rear. They progressed in uneasy silence for several minutes, pushing past other personnel who were rushing about as they navigated the twists and turns of SERRCom Headquarters.
“…Where are we going?” Sky eventually spoke up.
“To the landing pads,” Luke replied. “Anti-beaming jammers were brought online to prevent more ‘bots from beaming in, but that also means that we can’t beam out. Only way outta here is by spacecraft.”
“Is there gonna be a ship there for us?” Austin questioned.
“The Insult To Injury and Eye For An Eye were docked, last I checked. Should be fine.”
“…We’re gonna board idioms?”
A not-so-distant explosion sounded, rocking the walls and throwing several of the personnel in the hallway to the ground. Luke snapped his attention to the left, narrowing his eyes briefly before widening them in alarm. “Watch out—!”
Before anyone could react to his warning, a chunk of the steel-reinforced wall exploded outward, slamming into Spike and smashing him into the far wall. Sky’s breath caught in her throat, her flames disappearing into thin air as a robot leaped through the new hole in the wall.
The robot turned toward the source of the grunt — just in time to be knocked backward as the wall fragment slammed into it. Spike charged after it, slamming his fists into the robot and then digging his feet into the ground in an effort to hold it back.
“Spike—?” Austin started, but his friend threw him an impatient glance.
“The fuck are you waitin’ for?!” he roared, “didn’t you listen to Luke?! RUN!”
“But—!” Twy started, but Luke grabbed her and Austin’s wrists and began tugging.
“I’ll hold this one for now!” Spike declared as he adjusted his grip to prevent the robot from slipping away. “The rest of y’all, get outta here! I’ll be right after!”
“He’s right,” Luke urged, “c’mon!”
“Fuck,” Austin swore under his breath and began running down the hallway with Luke; Twy followed shortly afterward. “…Fuck!”
“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine,” Luke commented, speaking between breaths as he effortlessly kept pace with Austin and Twy. “Holdin’ back that ‘bot like that… he’s gotta be a Forcetechnic. Which means he’s got increased durability. Would also explain how he survived gettin’ crushed by the wall.”
“But…” Twy countered, their jogging pace interrupting her speech far more than Luke’s, “…I thought… his power… was summoning… shields…?”
“Could be both. Double-type Chaotics aren’t exactly rare. Hell, all of the Eximius Vir are Double-types. Some of ‘em triple!” Luke pointed forward at a pair of doors at the end of the hallway. “Almost there! That’s the exit!”
“Wait…” Twy began slowing down as she looked backwards. “…Where’s Sky?”
“Probably stayed to back up Spike,” Austin replied, stopping for a moment in front of the doors. “…Should we go back?”
“Not yet,” Luke stated, “we need to meet up with the Frigates and get a better grip of the situation. AR sensors aren’t enough to track down these ‘bots, so we’re essentially running around… blind…”
He trailed off as he opened the exit doors, revealing sunlight, the loud hum of spacecraft anti-gravity devices… and another robot standing barely two meters from the exit.
“Shit,” he muttered as he drew his pistol and brought it to bear. He watched the robot slowly turn toward the exit as he retreated back into the building and slammed the door shut.
“What now?” Twy questioned as Luke began backing away from the door, his pistol trained forward.
“We run,” he responded, “what else?”
“…I could fight it,” Austin suggested, “I, I stopped that one robot, earlier. Like Mark said, I’m a Forcetechnic! I gotta be!”
“You also aren’t trained like he is,” Luke refuted, “you’ll just hurt yourself!”
“C’mon, you left Spike to do the same thing!”
The exit doors slammed open as the robot charged into the hallway. After several steps it stopped itself and brought its gun to bear; from his position directly in front of it, Austin could see the interior of the barrel begin to glow. Reflexively, he jumped up in front of Luke and Twy, adopting a defensive stance while simultaneously trying to block as much of the hallway as he could.
“The two of you, get back!” he shouted, “I can handle the rest from here!”
“Damn it,” Luke growled, “Austin, don’t be careless—!”
“Too late.” Austin shrugged as the robot’s gun flashed. An instant later, its laser fired —
— and Austin’s left arm exploded off at the shoulder.
He stumbled back from the force of the blow, his hearing swamped by a deafening ringing. He blinked rapidly, disoriented, his vision drifting and blurring until focusing on his arm… which now lay on the floor, several feet behind him.
“…Huh…?” he muttered, “…what…?”
And then everything went black.