Chapter 15 – Negotiations

…We’re about half an hour outside of New York. No hostiles in sight… we’re clear to contact HQ, Mote.

Mote sighed warily. He pulled himself to his feet and stretched before replying, thanks, Danielle. Setup the holocoms in here, please.

Got it.

Sky looked between Mote and the ceiling, at the intercom speaker. “…Is Danielle piloting this thing?”

Mote gave her a sidelong glance. …Yeah. Let’s say that.

“What’s that mean?” Austin questioned.

It doesn’t matter, not now. Mote shook his head as a holographic projector appeared in the ground toward the front of the small room. Apparently, the General wants to speak with the four of you; something about that Cruiser we just saw.

“The General?” Twy frowned. “As in… General Matthew Lead? The head of SERRCom?”

The one and only. And that’s why you need to be on your best behavior. Mote stared pointedly at Austin. The General won’t tolerate bullshit. You don’t want to make him angry.

Danielle’s voice came over the intercom again. Transmission incoming, Mote.

Patch it in.

A moment passed. Then, the hologram projector sprung to life, spawning millions upon millions of virtual particles in the air. The particles rapidly coalesced into a humanoid form, and before long, the large stature of General Lead became apparent. The image before everyone may have been only a hologram, but between Lead’s large frame, strong jawline, full mustache, and sharp, attentive eyes, he appeared every bit as intimidating as he would have in person. As the General’s eyes slowly swept over Austin and his friends, Austin couldn’t help but gulp. Any urge to behave irreverently had been completely snuffed.

General! Mote saluted.

Lead turned his attention toward him and nodded. “Lieutenant. At ease.” He then looked back at the others. “So these are our rookie Chaotics?”

Yes sir.

“…Hmm…” The General continued staring at them for a moment. “…I understand that this has been a rough couple days.”

“Understatement of the century…” Austin muttered under his breath.

“Um… sir…?” Twy spoke up tentatively, ignoring Mote as he suddenly glared at her, “I don’t mean to be rude, but… don’t we have something more important to discuss than small talk?”

“…Heh.” Lead slowly chuckled. “You’re right. This is about the Cruiser, and recent events. The owner has identified himself — it’s EA.”

“EA…?” Sky echoed questioningly.

“Yes. It’s an abbreviated manner of referring to Austin Travis’s apparent doppelganger.”

“Oh, no…” Austin scowled. “Don’t tell me it stands for ‘Evil Austin’…”

The General looked pointedly at Austin. “Do you disagree?”

“Uh… well, not entirely,” he responded uncomfortably, “but, uh… it’s a… little on the nose, don’t you think?”

“Heh. Well let’s put this discussion off for now; we have more meaningful things to discuss. Namely, EA’s latest demand.”

He’s actually made a demand? Mote questioned in surprise.

“Yes…” Lead nodded slowly. “…He demanded that the rookies go free.”

A wary silence fell over the group. Austin glanced uneasily toward Spike, who returned the look. Is this a test, or something? Austin thought to himself, …the General isn’t going to go through with that, is he? Just like that? There’s gotta be a catch…

“He’s given us six hours to respond, before he, quote, ‘obliterates New York like it’s Pompeii.’ So we have time… but not much.”

“Do you think he’d really do that?…” Sky asked.

Can he do that? Mote crossed his arms and cocked his head in thought. All he has is the one Cruiser. He could do some damage, sure, but wiping out the whole city?

“The fact that he has a Cruiser in and of itself was a surprise,” Lead countered. “I’m not willing to bet against him having more, wherever the hell they came from.”

“Why not just blow the damned thing up?” Spike suggested.

Not an option… Mote responded, Cruisers are too maneuverable. Any shot from orbit that misses the ship, hits the city. And by the time any of our ships could maneuver such that their firing arcs don’t intersect Earth, well… he’d be long gone by then, I’m sure. Even if we took out the Cruiser, the resulting debris would rain down on the city and cause just as much, if not more damage than what he could do by opening fire.

“All valid points, but I didn’t engage this discussion to talk about military action,” the General cut in. Mote promptly stiffened up, his expression pained, as though he had just been caught misbehaving. Lead simply ignored him as he turned his attention toward Austin. “I want to know what you think of EA.”

“…Me?” Austin pointed at himself warily. When the General nodded, Austin continued, “well… um… hmm. …To be honest, I kinda agree with him here. I want out.”

“That’s certainly in line with what Saito’s told me about you.”

“Eheheh…” Austin couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He’s actually heard about my complaining? I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

The General then turned toward Spike, Sky, and Twy. “What about the rest of you? What do you think of EA, and of this whole situation?”

“I’m with Austin.” Spike jerked his head toward his friend. “If I can get out, I want out.”

“I don’t know…” Twy commented warily, “EA’s method here is… questionable. He’s holding a whole city hostage, basically.” She glanced between Spike and Austin. “Are the two of you okay with that?”

“What? No, of course not.” Austin scowled. “I can agree with his words without likin’ his actions. In fact, I kinda think I hate him. I mean, c’mon, he stole my name, and my face! The whole world probably thinks that he’s the real me! Not to mention he’s the reason for our fucked up arrest in the first place. So yeah, he’s kind of a dick.”

He’s a dick because he inconvenienced you? Mote deadpanned, not because he attacked innocent people? Or because he’s currently threatening to wipe out an entire city?

“Well, yeah, that too…”

“Look, is there somethin’ you’re tryin’ to get at here?” Spike turned back toward the General. “What’s the point of askin’ these questions—?”

Mote interrupted him with a brief shock. Watch your tone, he growled, this is the General of the Space Forces you’re talking to.

“No need to be so rough, Lieutenant,” Lead commented. “If all goes well, these past few days won’t matter at all.”

All five Chaotics gave the General a confused look. “What’s that mean…?” Austin questioned uneasily.

“Let me put this simply…” Lead clasped his hands in front of him. “EA is more valuable to SERRCom than the four of you are.”

Sky drew back in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“Yeah, what?” Austin frowned. “Are we fuckin’ worthless now?”

“Not per se, but my statement should be obvious,” Lead continued, “the four of you are novice Chaotics. That is certainly interesting, given that virtually no Earthians are Chaotics. However, EA has demonstrated an ability to construct a fleet of robots that can operate entirely on their own, and has even gotten his hands on a Cruiser of completely unknown profile and technological ability. If we can figure out how he did this, then it could serve as another technological surge for SERRCom, much like the appearance of the Battlecruiser Genesis twenty years ago. I’m sure you can see how valuable an opportunity this is.”

“I’m not sure I like where this is going…” Twy muttered.

“There is also the matter of EA’s broadcasts leading to decreased public opinion of SERRCom, which we cannot afford. We need to discredit him, and at the same time, capture him.”

“Let me guess…” Spike smirked despite himself. “…You want us to capture him?”

The General nodded. “And in exchange, I’ll reverse the conscription order and allow you to return home.”

General! Mote exclaimed, you can’t—! You can’t seriously be thinking of letting novice Chaotics run around in public!

“Lieutenant.” Lead cast a reproachful glare toward Mote, who immediately withered. “I know well what I’m doing, and what’s at stake.” He then turned back to Austin and his friends. “Well? Do you agree to these terms?”

“How, exactly, do you expect us to capture him?” Twy asked.

“The plan is simple. He is awaiting your release atop the One World Trade Center; you need only to approach with your ship and disembark. Speak with him briefly, just long enough to confirm that he is indeed a separate individual from Austin, and then capture him with your powers. It’s four against one; surely, even novices such as yourselves can handle that.”

The four exchanged uneasy glances with each other.

“…Worth a try, I guess,” Spike eventually replied with a shrug.

“I’d like a public apology for recruitin’ us against our will, though,” Austin interjected.

The General chuckled briefly. “We’ll talk once EA is in our custody. Good luck with your mission. General Lead, out.” The hologram dispersed into millions of virtual particles, which then faded away into nothing.

…Well, this is fantastic, Mote muttered. He then turned to face the four novice Chaotics, his expression irate. Well, you heard him. Sounds like you’ve already got your first mission. Don’t fuck this up.

“Given what’s at stake,” Austin responded, “I wouldn’t count on it.”

…Hmph, Mote snorted, and then directed his attention upward. Danielle! Set a course for the roof of the One World Trade Center in New York City. We have a mission to complete…

*     *     *

We’re in the city. Approaching the tower.

Alright. Mote turned toward Austin and his friends. The five Chaotics were standing in the Frigate’s loading bay, just in front of the loading ramp. …I can’t believe the General is entrusting you with this.

“Inspiring words,” Austin deadpanned.

Mote shot him a glare before continuing, this… impostor will be expecting the four of you to be leaving SERRCom, so Danielle and I can’t stick around. Once you’re off the ramp, we’ll fly off and then circle the tower in camera range. We’ll be filming the whole thing from afar to discredit EA, as the General said. But if things go south, well… He looked over at Twy and Sky. The two of you figured out how to fly, sort of. So just get back to the Frigate as fast as you can.

“Won’t he find it suspicious that you’re just circling?” Twy questioned.

He shouldn’t take it for more than us keeping an eye on him, to make sure he doesn’t open fire on the city, Mote explained. If he does show suspicion… well, that’s on you guys to sort out.

“Fantastic,” Austin drawled.

This guy is your impostor, isn’t he? You should know best how to deal with him.

“Assuming he didn’t just edit all those videos to look and sound like me,” Austin countered. “Who knows what he actually looks like?”

A loud mechanical clank reverberated throughout the Frigate’s hull as the loading ramp locks disengaged. …Well… Mote watched the ramp slowly lower. You’re about to find out. Don’t mess this up.

Uneasy silence fell over the group as the ramp continued to lower. The dark Frigate interior was quickly overwhelmed by the bright environment outside; a few seconds passed before Austin could see the blue sky, as opposed to blinding white light. There wasn’t much else to see, however — this was the top of the tallest building in New York, after all. But as the loading ramp made contact with the roof and Austin began tentatively walking down, his attention was drawn upwards to the massive ship obscuring part of the sky. It had already looked huge when it suddenly appeared earlier in the day, but it was even closer now — its underside seemed to barely scrape the spire atop the skyscraper. And this is just a Cruiser? Austin thought to himself warily, finding himself having to turn his head from shoulder to shoulder just to see the front and back ends. Shit, this looks way bigger than even an aircraft carrier! How big are other spacecraft, then? They must all be ginormous!

“Austin.”

“Huh…?” He glanced back at Spike, and then at the Frigate, which was slowly lifting off behind them. He then looked in the direction Spike was pointing… and froze in shock.

Approaching from several meters away was a tall, lanky, pale-skinned man, with dark unkempt hair that flopped over his forehead. He wore a tuft of hair on his chin, enough to give him a mature, yet still young appearance — reinforced by his simple manner of dress, with only a gray t-shirt, jeans, and a navy blue vest. Austin felt his jaw drop; it was like looking into a mirror, down to even the wardrobe style. The only physical difference between Austin and the impostor was the man’s left arm, which was replaced with a cybernetic prosthetic.

“Well, well, well.” The man stopped a couple meters short of the four friends, his hands on his hips. “You actually showed up! I’m a little surprised, to be honest.”

“Who are you?” Twy demanded.

“Huh? That’s kind of a weird question, ain’t it?” he replied, “I’m Austin. Austin Travis. You know me!”

The impostor’s words finally shook Austin out of his stupor. “No you aren’t! I’m Austin. You’re an impostor!”

“Well that’s fuckin’ rude,” the impostor responded with a frown. “For all I know, you’re the fake.”

“Cut the shit,” Spike growled. “There’s no chance of that. Austin — the real Austin — was with me the whole time your robots attacked the SERRCom base in Texas. And he was arrested, like the rest of us. There was no time or chance for him to’ve done any of the shit that you did!”

“…I have to admit, that accusation kinda hurts…” The impostor sighed. “…But, can’t say I didn’t expect it. As is, the cards are stacked against me pretty heavily. Even I can see that convincin’ y’all that I’m the real Austin would be fightin’ a losing battle…”

“Huh…?” Austin stared at his impostor incredulously. He had been expecting some kind of physical altercation, or a long drawn-out argument over who was the ‘real’ him. But for his impostor to give up the argument so easily?

“What are you after?” Twy questioned, voicing the thought at the forefront of Austin’s mind. “All that anti-SERRCom propaganda where you took so much care to edit Austin out of it, so you could pretend you were him… and you give it all up so easily?”

“Eh, sort of.” The impostor shrugged. “I was mostly just forcin’ SERRCom’s hand, you know. Tryin’ to get them to let y’all go. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Right?” He looked to Austin expectantly.

“Uh… yeah…?” Austin answered uneasily, his mind still spinning.

“We wanted out of SERRCom, sure,” Spike cut in, “but the way you did it…”

“Yeah!” Sky exclaimed, “you attacked innocent people! Hell, you’re holding a whole city hostage!”

“Oh, c’mon.” The impostor waved her off. “Y’all know me! As if I would actually fire on a city. I’m kinda offended that you’d think I would.”

You’re the one who parked a Cruiser over New York,” Twy shot back. “What did you expect us to think?”

“Not to mention sittin’ over the One World Trade Center, of all buildings,” Spike added.

The impostor stared blankly at Spike for a few moments. “…Now that you mention, that’s an… unfortunate bit of symbolism there, huh.” He then averted his eyes, looking down at the ground and then up at the sky. “But even so, I’d hoped that you’d see this for the bluff that it is. I’d hoped you’d see through me…”

“Why?”

“Why? ‘Cause I’m one of your best friends, that’s why!”

“Bullshit,” Spike spat, “just ‘cause you look like Austin, doesn’t mean you are him.”

“You can’t know that!” the impostor snapped. He then pursed his lips as he glanced at each of Twy, Spike, and Sky before continuing, “I look like Austin, I think like Austin, my memories’ are Austin’s! The only reason you side with that guy over me is ‘cause he’s the one who lucked into stickin’ around. But at the core of it, we’re the same person!”

“Since when was I able to build robots and Cruisers?” Austin finally spoke up. “Stop makin’ excuses! You aren’t me!”

“That… that just isn’t true.” The impostor took a step toward Austin, his palms at his sides and facing forward, as if to demonstrate that he wasn’t armed. “I am you… but under different circumstances. You’re a Chaotic, right? Well, so am I. Except, I’m an Intellitechnic. That means superintelligence, as in, I am literally supernaturally intelligent!” He then spread his arms wide, gesturing up at the Cruiser above them. “Everything that I’ve done, is stuff that you would do, if only you had been an Intellitechnic instead of a Psychotechnic.”

“That… that doesn’t sound right…” Austin frowned as he eyed the ship uneasily. “Even if I was really smart… that doesn’t mean I’d suddenly build a bunch of robots, or use them to attack SERRCom!”

“You would if you knew what I know.”

“Huh? What do you know?”

The impostor glanced to the side. In the distance, Mote’s Frigate was slowly circling. “…If you come with me…” He turned his attention back to Austin. “…Then I’ll tell you.”

“No way!” Spike stepped forward, placing himself in between Austin and his impostor. “The hell is your goal, here? You said you wanted to help us get outta SERRCom, and now you wanna drag us off again?”

Impatience and frustration flashed across the impostor’s face before he pursed his lips into a pained smile. “Look, I can’t tell you here. And I can’t tell you why I can’t. There’s too much at stake. C’mon, why can’t you trust me? After you’ve known me for so long—!”

“We’ve known Austin for that long,” Twy interrupted. “But you? You keep saying that you’re Austin, but you sure as hell don’t act like it…”

Austin stared at Spike and Twy, startled by their quick responses. He knew, in his head, that they were right — by facts alone, he must be the real Austin, and this impostor was just that: an impostor. And in his heart, Austin was glad that his friends were so quick to spring to his defense, even when he himself could barely process what was going on. But in his gut… he couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable wrenching. What if everything the impostor was saying was correct? What if he really was just an exact copy of Austin, but with a different Chaotic ability and an important secret? Austin had no idea how he would have come to possess such a secret in the first place, but putting himself in his impostor’s shoes felt like a punch to the gut. He was being rejected by people who he thought were close friends, simply because his ‘real’ self was already with them. If that were Austin… what would he do?

“…Hmph. I had a feeling it would come down to this.”

“Huh…?” Austin looked back to his impostor — just in time to see a robot swoop down from above and slam into Spike, sending them both flying off the edge of the tower.

“Shit, not again—!” Sky scowled, starting toward the rooftop edge but stopping as Austin’s impostor made a move. He dashed toward Austin, his right arm outstretched; a moment later, a giant scythe wreathed in magnificent silver, gold, black, and white designs materialized out of thin air. Austin’s eyes grew wide as the scythe’s edge swung toward his torso — out the corner of his eye he could see Twy forming a water bubble and Sky launching twin blasts of flame at the impostor, but he simply charged through the flames, the points of contact lighting up like a wall of energy as the scythe finally plunged into and completely through Austin. He reflexively looked down, bracing himself for blood, gore, and pain, only to find his body rapidly dissolving into thousands of tiny blue particles—

—and then everything went black.

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