– Tuesday, September 13, AD 2129 –
Austin absentmindedly rubbed his eye and sluggishly glanced around at his surroundings. Just like yesterday, he had been victim to a rude awakening — except this time, it was Mote who woke him up. And with an electric shock, no less. He scowled and rubbed his shoulder tenderly; the shock didn’t leave behind a mark or any lingering pain, but he could still easily recall the unpleasant sting.
Immediately after waking up, changing into his grey jumpsuit trainee uniform, and eating a small breakfast, he and his friends were rounded up by Mote and shuffled to the E.S.C. Deception, one of SERRCom’s Frigates. They now sat in a small central room adjacent to the airlock, waiting to see what activities the day would bring them.
“Mm…?” Austin slowly glanced over at Twy. “…That obvious?”
“Ha!” Spike snorted. “You didn’t even look this half dead on the first day of classes!”
“Ngh…” Austin grunted in response. “Well, bein’ woken up at fuckin’ six in the mornin’ by electric shock will do that to you…”
“Stop bitching. We both know you can handle it.”
Austin, Spike, Twy, and Sky all looked over to see Mote approach. His hands on his hips and his face stern, he continued, “you’re a Simulator Psychotechnic. If that shock didn’t hurt me, then it certainly didn’t hurt you.”
“You say that, but I can pretty vividly remember pain…”
“If you’re going to complain about something as utterly insignificant as that, then your potential here is truly abysmal indeed.”
“No backtalk. I’m in charge today; that means I’m your commanding officer. And you always listen to your CO.”
“…Except when given illegal orders,” Twy commented quietly.
Mote gave her a pained glance. “…Yes, except when given illegal orders,” he eventually stated. “But there will be nothing illegal happening today.”
Aside from putting a bunch of unwilling conscripts through boot camp, Austin thought to himself.
“So, what are we doing today?” Sky questioned.
“That’s, ‘what are you doing today, sir,’” Mote corrected.
Sky grimaced. “O…kay…?”
“Say it again. The correct way.”
“What? No. You’re only a year or two older than me, I’m not saying ‘sir’ to you.”
Mote drew back, apparently surprised. He then narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow. “Well… if that’s how it’s going to be,” he huffed, “I originally planned to start with life jackets, but now I’m just going to throw you into the deep end of the pool unaided.”
“Oooh, clever,” Austin replied — and immediately yelped in pain as Mote shocked him.
“That will be enough backtalk,” Mote snapped. “This isn’t fun and games. SERRCom is a military, a respectable military, and we.” He stepped toward Austin. “Do not.” He stepped closer again, this time shoving his face into Austin’s. “Screw around. Understood?”
“…I think so?” Austin managed to squeak out.
“Hmph…” The irate Electrotechnic backed away and glanced over at the others. “…Well, we should get started. Let’s see — a Formtechnic, a Pyrotechnic, a Hydrotechnic, and a Psychotechnic… that means at least two of you can fly.”
Austin made to protest, but before his exclamation fully escaped his mouth, his surroundings changed. The cramped, dull gray Frigate interior gave way to a bright light, prompting Austin to shield his eyes. A moment later, the air around him chilled and started rushing past; as he lowered his hands, he took note of a blue, cloudless sky…
…and a flat plain several thousand meters below.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa!!! Ahagh!!!” He began flailing around, reflexively reaching out to grab something, anything, and stabilize himself — but his hands grasped nothing but air. His breath caught in his throat and his heart nearly leaped out of his chest, his eyes wide as one thought dominated his mind:
I’m going to die!
“Austin! Snap out of it!”
“What…?” The rushing air made it difficult for Austin to hear his surroundings, and the ever-approaching ground remained at the forefront of his mind. But he managed to slowly crane his head to the side, where Spike was carefully managing his own descent to match Austin’s.
“Spread eagle!” Spike shouted.
Austin responded with a confused stare. “What?!”
“Spread eagle, damn it!”
“…Right!” The reasoning behind Spike’s demand finally clicked — in a free fall like this, the best course of action is to slow down as much as possible, and spreading out would achieve just that. Austin spread out his body as much as he could, but didn’t feel a significant decrease in speed. Is that ‘cause I actually haven’t slowed down, or ‘cause I’m just really bad at skydiving? Wait, this isn’t skydiving! We don’t have parachutes! Fuck! What the fuck!! “What do we do?!” Austin screeched, his attention again focused on the ground. “Spike, what do we—?!”
“Settle down!” Spike barked, “damn it, panickin’ll just get you killed! Stop flailin’ around, and trust in the twins!”
“What?!” Austin cried in disbelief. Below, the homogeneous green field had resolved into plants — some kind of crop, it looked like. The fact that he could even make this out simply sent him into a further panic. “To hell with panic, the fuckin’ ground is gonna get us killed—!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake—!” Spike reached out and grabbed Austin’s right leg, yanking him in close. He carefully spun around in the air so that his back was facing the ground and Austin was just above him, at which point he summoned a massive circular shield to use as a cushion. “Brace for impact!”
“Gack—!” Austin felt his whole body go rigid, the tension causing him physical pain. And then an incredible shock ran through his body as the shield cushion slammed into something — but it continued to fall. Several seconds and multiple more shocks passed as Austin attempted to reconcile the situation with his expectation of a single impact followed by death. A moment later, he felt a cold splash against his chest, tearing him out of his stupor. “…Water?”
“Woooo… oh ha ha ha ha ha!” Spike let out an adrenaline-fueled guffaw. “I told you to trust in the twins!”
“Wha…?” Austin glanced around warily — just in time for one final impact. He grimaced in pain as he was thrown to the side, off of Spike’s shield and tumbling across the ground. He stopped rolling some distance away and groaned in pain. “Ungh… what the hell…”
“Austin! Are you alright?!”
He glanced up, his eyes widening in surprise. Twy slowly descended toward him, her body surrounded up to her waist in a massive bubble of water. Once she was only about a meter above the ground, the bubble dispersed, releasing her to tumble to the ground. “Owww…”
Austin climbed to his feet and stumbled over to her side, where he helped her up. He then glanced around at the flattened crops and the abundant signs of water damage. “…Did you do this? Break our fall with cushions of water?…”
“Don’t know who else would’ve,” she retorted. “You certainly weren’t going to save yourself.”
“Hmph…” Austin pursed his lips in annoyance. “…What about Sky?”
Twy jerked her head to the side, where Sky was tending to Spike.
“…So we’re all safe, then…”
“Yeah…” Twy frowned. “For now, we are. But that was incredibly irresponsible of Mote… we could have died—! What—?”
A bright flash of light engulfed them; a moment later, the water damaged field was replaced by the dull gray metal walls of the Frigate Deception. Austin and Twy glanced around in confusion, momentarily locking eyes with Spike and Sky before noticing Mote in the center of the room, his arms crossed.
“Well that was an abysmal performance.” He shook his head in disappointment. “I’ve seen better showings of power from ten-year-olds. Literally.”
“The hell was that about?!” Sky exclaimed as she stomped over to face Mote. While she wore on her face the fury of someone who had just gone through a near-death experience, the one foot height difference between her and Mote made her appear to be little more than an angry child.
“That was a conventional test,” Mote responded, moving nary an inch as he stared down Sky. “I had the four of you beamed over a field somewhere in the midwest United States. I wanted to see how you would react, and if you would save yourselves. Which you barely did, I might add.”
“A conventional test?! We almost died!”
“Ha! Is that what this is about?” Mote snorted. “You were never at risk of dying. We would have beamed you back up before you hit the ground if there was any danger of a fatal or serious collision.”
“Is that what that bright light was?” Austin questioned, “the… us being ‘beamed?’”
“Huh, so you aren’t completely stupid after all.”
“But back to the topic at hand.” Mote uncrossed his arms and placed them on his hips. “That was a D-rated performance, at best.”
“’D?!’” Twy exclaimed, “But I—!”
“I know that you saved everyone, I was watching.” Mote glanced at her impatiently. “Individually, you, specifically, didn’t do too bad. For your first time, that is.” He then turned toward Spike. “Sutna, you didn’t do too bad either. Kept a level head, and used your power to make a shield. Even tried to save Mr. Utter-uselessness over here!”
“…What about me?” Sky asked tentatively.
“D minus,” Mote declared.
“You should be able to fly. Pyrotechnics can fly. When I said at least two of you can fly, I was referring to you and your sister.”
“Wait… what? …How?!”
“That’s up for you to figure out.”
“You can’t be serious!”
“I am always serious,” Mote responded, deadpan. He then turned toward Austin and let out an audible sigh. “…You, though… you really are hopeless.”
“Fantastic advice,” Austin retorted.
“What did I say about backtalk?”
“You really are the worst of the lot. You’re a Simulator and an Imperator Psychotechnic, aren’t you? You could’ve used any of the other’s powers to save yourself, or even your own, but all you did was panic and flail around!”
“Luckily…” Mote looked back at the others. “I’m going to give you all another chance.”
“You mean you’re just going to dump us in the air again?” Sky scowled. She then yelped in pain as Mote shocked her.
“Don’t make me repeat myself about backtalk,” he growled.
Sky glared at him, but didn’t verbally respond.
“Now…” Mote turned around and grabbed four headsets from a seat behind him. He began passing them out, saying, “these will allow you to communicate with each other and with me. Now that I’ve seen what you can do on your own…” He passed a sideward glance at Austin. “…I’m going to offer tips and instructions on the way down. If you have even an ounce of sense, you’ll listen to me. Now brace yourselves…” He stepped back and crossed his arms again. “Danielle!”
A bright flash of light filled Austin’s vision, and he once again found himself high in the sky. His heart jumped and his breath caught again, but he managed to rein in the initial panic and focus on getting a bearing on his surroundings. He slowly spread his arms and legs in an attempt to stabilize himself, but mere moments later he felt a sensation of cold wetness wash over him. Water? …Must be Twy’s doing…
Now submerged within a bubble of water floating high in the sky, Austin began searching for his friends. He promptly abandoned the search when he realized that he still needed to breathe; he flailed around to try and right himself and then managed to swim to the top of the bubble, popping his head out to take a deep breath.
“Are you okay?”
“Ugh… yeah.” Austin glanced toward Twy as she hovered next to him in her own water bubble. As he did so, his attention was drawn to the ground below them — the ground that remained several thousand meters away. He grimaced and jerked his head upwards in an attempt to keep the ground out of sight.
“Well… I think that’s everyone.”
Against his better judgment, Austin returned his attention to Twy, thereby bringing the horizon into his peripheral vision. He then glanced to her side, where Spike and Sky were both floating in water bubbles as well.
Spike whistled in admiration. “Not bad, Twy. Not bad!”
“Yeah…” Austin nodded slowly. “…How do you even do this? How’s the water just floating?”
“I guess that’s just something I can do…?” Twy shrugged. “Er, I guess it’s just something that Hydrotechnics can do. It isn’t hard, really…”
“Show off,” Sky pouted. She then started wriggling helplessly. “C’mon, let me go! I wanna figure out how to fly!”
“Probably just some rocket engine bullshit,” Spike suggested.
“What? That doesn’t make any sense! Rockets aren’t propelled by fire, you know! It’s explosions and fuel and mass ejection and all that!”
“Can’t Pyrotechnics do explosions?”
“We could ask Mote,” Twy piped in.
“Hmph.” Sky scowled. “I wouldn’t ask that bastard the time of day.”
“Careful,” Austin snorted, “he said he can hear you through these headsets.”
“Well he hasn’t said anything.” Sky crossed her arms defiantly. “Ha ha! Is he too chicken to face me?”
“No…” Twy began looking around warily. “…Something doesn’t seem right about this. He should have said something to us by now, or at least beamed us up again.”
“Maybe this is another of his stupid tests.”
“…No, Twy’s right,” Spike spoke up, his eyes narrowed, as though trying to spot something in the distance. “Somethin’… is comin’ this way…!”
“Huh…?” Austin glanced in the direction Spike was facing — just in time to spot a robot come careening out of nowhere and crash into Spike, launching him out of his water bubble.
“Spike!!” Sky shouted after him. She then snapped her attention to the robot, which had stopped itself on the other side of Spike’s water bubble. It looked a lot like the robots that attacked the SERRCom bases, but appeared to be thinner and more lithe. It’s angular construction and bluish tint gave it a rugged look; combined with its lack of a head and the glowing red orb planted in its upper chest, it appeared rather menacing.
It slowly turned to face Sky as it spread its mechanical wings. They flapped slowly and glowed — they were surely just for show. Something else was allowing the robot to hover in the air… but thinking about the mechanism behind its flight was thrust from Austin’s mind as it raised its right arm toward Spike’s receding form and brandished a massive gun.
“You—! RAGH!!!” Sky quickly spread her arms to her sides, letting off a massive blast of heat that vaporized all of the water surrounding her. She immediately followed by thrusting her hands forward, launching a wave of flames toward the robot. It took the flames head-on and turned to face the Pyrotechnic as she began falling.
“Shit…” Twy scowled as she glanced between her sister and Spike, who was growing small with distance. “…I need to let you go, Austin!”
“O-kaaaaayyy?!” Austin’s response extended into an uncontrolled scream as the water bubble around him dissipated, leaving him to tumble back into free fall. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Twy dive past him — and beyond her, a stream of flames extended through the sky toward the attacking robot.
Great… Austin sighed out of a mixture of apprehension and annoyance. Twy should be able to keep us all from going splat, I think, I hope… I’ll leave that to her. But this robot? How the hell are we supposed to fight a robot with a gun?!
A flash of light shook Austin out of his thoughts and drew his attention to the robot — which had just fired at Sky. The bullet missed — as did the next. But while Sky was distracted by trying to not get shot, the robot lowered its gun, extended a long blade out of its other arm, and thrust itself toward her.
“Look out!!” Austin shouted.
She glanced his way for a moment and then at the robot. Her expression was obscured by distance, but just before the robot’s blade reached her she thrust her left hand to the side and fired off a blast of fire, launching her sideways. The robot’s momentum carried it past, missing Sky, but it swung up and around to perform another dive. Sky dodged again in exactly the same manner, this time following up by firing two jets of flame at the passing robot. It seemed to stagger slightly, but after giving Sky what looked like a glance it continued diving.
Shit, it’s going after Twy and Spike! Austin scowled. In the brief time Sky had spent exchanging blows with the robot, Twy and Spike had fallen far enough past Austin to look like mere specks. His own downward momentum was rapidly closing the distance, but even if he moved into a full-on dive himself, there was no way he could warn Twy or Spike in time — let alone keep up with a robot with its own propulsion system.
“What—?” Austin glanced upward just in time to spot Sky rocketing past him, a giant grin plastered across her face as she explosively ignited the air behind her, propelling her downward. …Is she having fun? Did she forget that thing knocked Spike out of the sky?!
The thought brought Austin’s attention back to the ground, which was growing ever closer. He could see a water bubble in the distance — it seemed like Twy had successfully caught Spike. Beyond that, however, he couldn’t tell what they were doing, only that the robot was quickly approaching.
Quickly approaching Austin, that is.
“What the—!” He reflexively held his arms out in front of himself as the robot crashed into him, sending the both of them tumbling through the air. Austin latched onto the robot’s arm in an attempt to steady himself, his grip instinctively tightening and his eyes clenched shut as the robot began attempting to shake him off. Once its thrashing ceased, Austin slowly opened an eye to see what was going on… only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Austin! Let go!!”
He barely had time to glance to his side before a blast of flame washed over the robot’s gun arm, knocking its gun off course just as it fired — thereby missing Austin. He promptly released his grip on the robot as Sky turned up the heat, succeeding in melting the barrel of the gun before the robot thrust itself backward and further up into the air.
Austin failed to catch its next action, however, as he soon found himself encased in a bubble of water. He spluttered, breathing in half a mouthful of water due to being caught off-guard; immediately he spiraled into a panic, and just as quickly the bubble broke across solid ground. Falling to all fours, he launched into a fierce coughing fit. “Ow… fuck…”
“Austin! Are you okay?!”
“Ngh…” He glanced up as Twy rushed over to his side. “Think I breathed in some…” he trailed off, his attention drifting upward past Twy and to the robot that had just fired two rockets in their direction. His eyes widened in fear. “Uh, Twy—!”
Spike charged forward, roaring with exertion as he launched a small shield through the air like a frisbee. It slammed into one of the rockets, causing it to detonate midair and rain shrapnel down on the ground; the second rocket promptly fell prey to one of Sky’s fire blasts. The premature detonations left no casualties, but the resulting smoke clouded the air and obscured the robot’s location… until it burst through the smoke, its arm blade held forward as it rushed toward Austin. Just before it reached him, Spike leaped in front of it, summoned a large rectangular shield, braced it against his left arm, and planted his feet securely on the ground, managing to block the robot with the shield and then completely stop its momentum where he stood. He pushed the robot back with the shield and then threw his right fist forward, smashing the armor across the robot’s chest. It staggered, allowing Spike to toss away his shield and hit it with a left hook, sending it tumbling across the ground. Before it could recover, Twy completely encased it in water, leaving it to flounder around helplessly.
“Sky!” she shouted up at her sister, “make a steam explosion!”
“…Ha! Roger!” Sky grinned and offered a casual salute in acknowledgment. She then turned toward the robot, raising both of her hands into the air and creating a massive fireball. “Take this!!” she shouted, making a throwing motion with her arms as the fireball rocketed down at the water-trapped robot. A second later, it impacted the ground; immediately the water bubble erupted into a white cloud, obscuring the robot and the fireball both as boiling-hot droplets of water rained on the surrounding terrain. Twy shielded herself and the others with a thin layer of water, preventing Austin and Spike from suffering any burns.
Sky dropped to the ground next to her sister as the steam began to clear. As it did, it revealed a mangled, somewhat humanoid mess of metal… that nonetheless was struggling back to its feet. It slowly spread its wings, which began to glow, but just as it lifted off Spike barreled into it, grabbing its right arm and swinging it around and into the ground. He then slammed his fist into its prone form, puncturing its armor as though it were wet paper and obliterating most of the machinery inside. As he withdrew his hand, the robot’s internals let off some dangerous sparks, but it still attempted to stand; Spike pushed it back down and ripped off its arm before using the limb as a club to demolish the robot’s front-mounted sensor and then disable its wings. This time, it remained still.
“…Did that do it?” Twy asked as she approached uneasily.
“Probably not a good idea to get close,” Austin called after her.
“Ah, it’s fine.” Sky waved off his concern. “C’mon, I mean, just think about it! Our first fight, and we won! On the second day of training, too!”
“I’d rather we didn’t have to fight at all,” Spike responded gruffly. He glared at the wreck of the robot and stomped its leg joints in irritation. “…Where the hell did this thing come from? Who owns it? Why did it attack us?”
“And why didn’t Mote come help us?” Twy frowned. “…You don’t think he sent this after us, do you?”
“That’d be just like him, wouldn’t it?” Sky scowled and crossed her arms in a huff. “Trying to kill us on our second day. The nerve!”
“No…” Austin pursed his lips as he slowly approached, his attention focused on the remains of the robot. “…This ‘bot looks kinda like the ones that attacked SERRCom.”
“…I guess it does,” Spike said after taking a moment to inspect the scrap heap further. “…What, do you think that impostor of yours sent this after us?”
“Who else could it be—?!”
Halfway through Austin’s statement, a hole appeared in the sky. It looked to be a literal hole, torn through space itself, as though a portal to some weird gray dimension — and out of it shot an enormous craft, its engines drowning the environment in a deafening noise not unlike an electric motor. As soon as it exited the portal, the hole in the sky closed, leaving behind only the ship itself. It rocketed forward, passing over Austin and the others at barely half a kilometer in the air as it flew off into the distance. Between clasping his ears to shield them from damage and being caught completely off guard by the ship’s appearance, Austin was barely able to discern that it looked like a spacecraft, a little less than half a kilometer in length.
Moments later, the ship faded with distance — and with it, the noise from its engines.
“…Ow…” Sky whimpered as she tenderly rubbed her ears. “…What the hell was that…?”
“Was it… some kind of Cruiser…?” Twy questioned. “I couldn’t really tell anything more than its size…”
“Wait, there’s another ship.” Spike pointed skyward, in the opposite direction from the unknown ship. “…Is that…?”
“Looks like Mote’s ship.” Austin scowled. “’Bout damn time he got here.”
The four watched the Frigate rapidly approach. The 80-meter long craft slowed to a stop above them and slowly descended as a hatch on its underbelly opened up and extended a ramp down to the ground. Before it had completely touched the ground, Mote dashed down the ramp and rushed over.
“Oh, good, you’re all okay.” He slowed to a walk once he realized that all four were uninjured. “Whew…”
“What happened?” Twy questioned, “what’s going on?”
“What was that ship?!” Sky exclaimed.
“…We don’t know,” Mote replied, his brow furrowed with frustration. “It’s the size of a Cruiser, but its profile doesn’t match anything we’ve seen. It came out of Subspace so close to the ground, too… I don’t know of any computers that could handle a jump with such accuracy.”
“It have anything to do with us bein’ attacked by a robot?” Spike asked, jerking his thumb toward the remains of their aggressor.
“And with why you didn’t come help us?” Austin added in an accusing tone.
Mote passed Austin a reproachful glare before turning toward Spike. “…I don’t know. I don’t know where that robot came from, but it was accompanied by a beam-jamming field. That’s why we weren’t able to beam you back.”
“I thought you said what we were doin’ was perfectly safe!”
“And it should’ve been,” Mote growled. “That someone had beam-jamming tech out in the middle of no where, as well as a flying robot, of all things… damn. There was no way to expect this.”
“…Well, what do we do now…?” Twy asked uneasily.
“Good question.” Mote sighed. “…Obviously, this takes precedence over your training for today. That Cruiser was headed straight for SERRCom Planetside Headquarters. Which is located near the UN Headquarters in New York City…”
“Uh oh,” Sky responded meekly.
“…Pretty much. Now hurry up aboard.” Mote turned back toward the Frigate and gestured for the others to follow. “We need to get going. Now.”