Chapter 8 – Too Close to Home

– Wednesday, September 7, AD 2129 –

“I did not cheat!”

“Then please explain why your reasoning and answers are so similar to Mr. Tan’s.”

“I… I don’t know.” Austin glanced between the two quizzes laying in front of him. Both were from the quiz a couple days ago — one was his, and one was Eric’s, his classmate. Austin knew for a fact that he didn’t cheat, but after looking at the two quizzes, he could not deny that they looked almost exactly the same. “…I mean, is a coincidence really so hard to believe?”

“In most circumstances, no,” the Professor responded, her gaze steady as she stared down Austin. “But you finished shortly after Mr. Tan — you finished second in the entire class, in fact. Compared to your performance in previous classes, this is incredibly abnormal.”

“What…?” Austin couldn’t help but scowl. “Wait, did you look me up or somethin’?”

“Normally I wouldn’t, but I think this is a special case. Now stop beating around the bush, Mr. Travis, I have other things to attend to.”

“I swear I didn’t cheat! C’mon, we were across the classroom from each other! How would I have cheated?!”

“Mr. Travis, if you do not intend to offer a satisfactory explanation, then I will be forced to give you a zero on the assignment.”

“Just me? What about Eric?”

“Mr. Tan finishing when he did was not abnormal. You finishing when you did, was. In short, I am not concerned about Mr. Tan.”

“That’s bull—!”

“Mr. Travis, engage in any further belligerence and I will have to report you to the Dean. I’m sure you don’t want that, now, do you?”

Austin’s scowl deepened, but he offered no further response. It was clear that the professor was set on not believing him, so arguing any further would only hurt him more. He clenched his teeth to suppress his welling anger and bowed his head in acknowledgment.

“Good,” the professor replied, and then disengaged the holographic projections of the quizzes before turning to the computer beside her desk. “I hope to see better of you in this coming term. You may go.”

Austin simply grunted and stood up from the chair. He turned away and stormed out of the office, all the way down to the first floor of the Department for Computer Science and then out the main entrance, where Spike was waiting.

“What’s wrong?” Spike questioned as soon as he saw Austin’s expression.

“Prof thinks I cheated,” Austin answered flatly.

“What? Oh, shit, this is that one bitch of an algorithms prof, ain’t it?” Spike shook his head warily. “If she’s got it out for you this early, then you might as well drop the class and try again next term.”

“Man, that’s bullshit…” Austin kicked at the ground in frustration. “There’s gotta be some way to prove I didn’t cheat.”

“Well while we’re thinkin’, let’s go get some lunch, huh?” Spike began descending the steps in front of the building. “How’s pizza sound?”

“Dude, you always want pizza.” Austin quickly followed after Spike and fell into step beside him. “Can’t we get somethin’ else for once?”

“Worth a shot. What do you want, then?”

“…Eh, I dunno. Burgers, I guess.”

“That’s what you always say. If I can’t get pizza, then you can’t get burgers.”

“You sound like a kid throwin’ a tantrum.”

“That’s rich, comin’ from you.”

“What places are even open? Isn’t, like, half the city closed because of SERRCom or some shit?”

“First I’ve heard that, though I wouldn’t be surprised. Hmm…” Spike rubbed his bearded chin in thought as the two approached the campus bell tower. Austin began looking around absentmindedly, trying to think of a good place to go himself.

“…Ramen?” Austin eventually suggested.

“Bah. I get plenty of that when I go out with Sky.”

“Brag about it, why don’cha.”

“Shut up, you fuckin’ pussy.”

“Hmph. Well, what about—”

Austin was cut off as sirens began to sound throughout the campus. Both Austin and Spike jumped in surprise and immediately looked skyward — where there was nary a cloud in sight.

Spike glanced down at his watch. “…Ain’t it a little early to be testin’ those things?”

“Why, what time is it?”

“Eleven thirty.” Spike shrugged. “Oh well—”

This time a distant explosion echoed through the air, startling both men as well as all of the other students buzzing around the area. Austin and Spike turned their attention to the direction the sound had come from: the east, on the other side of the bell tower. Then, before either of them could get out another word, some object slammed into the east side of the tower, completely pulverizing its supports and sending a cascade of stone and metal down on top of them.

“LOOK OUT!!” Spike roared, immediately stepping up to shield Austin from the debris. And then, reflexively, without a single thought… he spontaneously summoned a massive, literal shield, both taller and wider than he. Austin’s eyes widened in shock, but Spike spent no time contemplating his newfound power as he raised the shield over both himself and Austin and braced himself against the ground. Not a moment later, the cascade of debris rained around them, stone and metal alike rebounding off of Spike’s fabricated shield and rolling to the side. This continued for what seemed like an eternity; once the noise and the rumbling ceased and they could hear the campus sirens again, Spike hefted his shield upward to push aside the debris that had gathered on top of it. He tossed the shield aside and then paused to survey his surroundings — the remains of the top of UT’s renowned bell tower lay around him, and in the center of it all was Spike and Austin, unhurt.

“…Well,” Austin started, his voice uneven, “…guess it wasn’t just the twins who got powers, huh?”

Spike continued to slowly look around before turning back to face Austin — and widening his eyes in alarm. “Hey, get down—!”

Austin glanced backwards… and felt his heart drop. A mere several meters away stood none other than a bipedal robot of the same make as the one he had spotted earlier in the week — except this one was armed.

And the gun barrel was pointed straight at Austin.

But a mere moment later — before it could open fire — a large, tan-skinned man with short black hair suddenly bounded out of no where and slammed a gigantic halberd into its side. The point of contact glowed briefly, as though covered in a blanket of light, as the force from the blow knocked the robot backwards. It stumbled and nearly fell over; the man took advantage of the opening to take another swing, this time smashing his weapon into the front of the robot and sending it careening across the street. As soon as it was gone, he turned back to Austin and Spike.

Are you okay? he questioned.

Austin and Spike merely responded with overwhelmed silence. The strength the man had just demonstrated, his giant halberd wreathed in green and silver, his green military uniform, and the patch on his right shoulder with an emblazoned “EV” was plenty enough to reveal his identity: Mark Cox of the Eximius Vir, one of the only four Earthian Chaotics — until the recent Chaos Quake, that is.

Mark!!

Mark snapped his attention back toward the robot just in time for an eagle to dive at it — and then transform into a tan-skinned young woman with a black ponytail who immediately summoned two pistols and opened fire on the robot. Each shot simply deflected off of its energy shields, but it was enough to draw its attention away from Austin and Spike. As the woman continued to engage the robot, another tan-skinned man ran up to Mark’s side.

The hell are you standing here for? the man demanded.

There’s civilians. Mark pointed at Austin and Spike. I wanted to make sure they were safe.

The second man turned toward Austin, and then Spike. His black hair was long in the front but short in back, the signature look of Mote Emerson — the leader of the Eximius Vir. After inspecting his surroundings, however, Mote’s scowl merely deepened.

Go help Danielle. He waved Mark off as he eyed Austin and Spike. …I’ve got a few questions for these… ‘civilians.’

Understood. Mark nodded and turned toward the robot before sprinting off.

Mote crossed his arms as he stared pointedly at the shield Spike had created earlier. Austin glanced back at Spike with unease before Mote finally spoke up. What happened here?

“…The tower collapsed?” Austin responded meekly.

Mmhmm. Mote shifted his attention to Austin, the expression on his face one of impatience. And I suppose this shield here was mounted to the top of the tower?

“Well, yeah.”

Despite nothing ever being mounted up there before? And nothing being there last night?

“…Yeah?”

Right, Mote deadpanned. He turned his attention to Spike. Is all that true?

Spike nodded wordlessly.

Then how do you explain that the debris from the tower is all around you, but you’re perfectly fine?

Austin and Spike looked around themselves for the first time since they had heard the first explosion; sure enough, they were surrounded by stone and metal debris, while the ground immediately at their feet remained conspicuously unsullied.

“…Guess we got real lucky, heheh.” Austin chuckled nervously.

Yes. ‘Lucky,’ Mote echoed flatly. I’m going to need you to— He stopped mid-sentence and glanced to the side, as though his attention was suddenly drawn elsewhere. …Shit, really? he muttered after a couple seconds, just keep at it. I’ll be right there. As soon as he finished the statement, he turned back toward Austin and Spike, his brow furrowed. Stay here, he commanded. …Find cover, but stay here. I’m not done with you. Then he whipped around and crouched down; Austin briefly felt the sensation of static electricity wash over him before Mote suddenly launched forward and into the air, his body cackling with visible electric energy as he disappeared over the surrounding buildings.

Austin and Spike exchanged wary glances.

“We ain’t stayin’ here, right?”

“Hell no,” Austin affirmed as he began running in the opposite direction as Mote did. “Let’s get outta here!”

*     *     *

“Austin! There you are!”

“What…?” Austin glanced between Twy and Sky warily as he and Spike approached their apartment. “What are you two doin’ here…?”

“It’s… bad.” Twy frowned and gestured toward the front door. “Hurry up inside! We don’t have any time!”

“Shit.” Spike pushed forward to unlock the door and step inside; Austin and Twy quickly followed. “What happened?” he questioned, “did SERRCom figure you out?”

“No,” Sky replied as she closed the door behind her and locked it. “It’s… much worse.”

“Spike…” Twy turned toward Austin and Spike. “You were with Austin all morning, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” Spike gave Austin a concerned look before turning back to Twy. “There was an explosion earlier, and the bell tower collapsed. We rushed home immediately afterward.”

“The hell is goin’ on?” Austin pressed.

“…Best you see for yourself,” Twy replied as she stepped toward the living room area and synced the TV with her watch. “What you’re about to see was broadcast about ten minutes ago to every device on the planet capable of receiving a video stream…” She then turned the TV on… and what appeared was a video of someone who looked identical to Austin.

“Hello, citizens of Earth!” he began with outstretched arms — his voice, notably, sounded identical to Austin’s. “…Or Earthians, I guess. Anyways. You may be wondering who I am, and why you suddenly can’t change your media devices to show anything other than me. That’s because I have a message to convey; some very important information to give you. To start with, some of you may have heard that the SERRCom office in Austin, Texas was attacked a short time ago. Both this attack and the attack on the Denver office a night or so ago were committed by the robot forces of yours truly. Why do this, you ask? Well, the answer is simple. SERRCom is weak. They can’t hold a candle to the various threats in this galaxy, let alone our neighbors! Just think — SERRCom has existed for nearly thirty years, and for twenty of those they had access to Subspace technology. This technology has revolutionized transportation, but it is incredibly dangerous as well, and in the wrong hands could spell doom for us all! And I mean, c’mon, I’m just one guy with a pack of robots and I successfully attacked two different SERRCom offices — on Earth — and stole shit from them! If I can do that, then just what could the rest of the galaxy do? The CSA? The Drakkars? The Riaxen? Heh. Well, I’m here to expose SERRCom for the shabby house of cards that it is, and once they’re done, I’ll take over defense and security for the Earthian Territories. Because I can protect us from even the strongest of threats… and if you don’t believe me, well. You’ll see proof in due time.” He offered the camera a wink and a curt wave. “Well, that’s all I have for you… for now. This won’t be the last you hear of me… of Austin Travis.” He grinned slyly, and casually saluted the camera. “Adios! Austin, out.”

The video stopped there, frozen on the man’s sly grin. Several moments of silence passed as Twy, Sky, and Spike all turned toward Austin uneasily.

“Well…” Austin muttered, his brow furrowed. “…Shit.”

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