Chapter 5 – Unlocked

“You know, I never really realized just how much the galaxy depends on Chaos Energy.”

“Seemed pretty obvious to me.”

“Yes, it’s obvious enough, but just because you know something doesn’t mean you truly understand it. And this Quake has given me more understanding than any lecture or mentorship ever could.”

“Mm…” Pierce grunted as he walked down the street beside Phoenix. Her statement wasn’t wrong; the currently ongoing Chaos Energy Quake was one of the best examples of “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone” that Pierce had ever seen. Even hovercraft, one of the most popular means of intracity mass transportation, relied on Chaos Energy for their anti-gravity functions. Without mass transit, among other things, the entire city had practically shut down, with the vast majority of the residents holing up either at home or a local bar. What was already a surprisingly quiet urban area, by Earth standards, was now almost completely devoid of human noise.

Pierce idly looked up at the environment around him. Tall, old-growth trees and shrubs framed both sides of the wide street that he and Phoenix were walking on, casting shade over enough of the street to give off the impression of walking down a tunnel. These “tree tunnels” were a popular street decoration method throughout the city of Alus, even in the well-built-up city center. Along the outskirts of the city, the tree tunnels dominated the visual landscape, as most buildings were built no taller than the trees that bordered them, resulting in an effective floor limit of two or three. Within the inner limits of the city, however, buildings began to grow taller and taller, ultimately creating the familiar skyscraper skyline that many cities back on Earth possessed. However, as opposed to the randomness of Earth city skylines, the skyline in Alus appeared to be intricately and purposefully arranged. Maximum heights were imposed on buildings relative to how far they were from the city center, and the buildings themselves were constructed to have natural contours, as though they were faces of a hill, pillars of stone, or tree trunks. The end result was that, from afar, the Alus skyline reflected that of a towering mountain. Additionally, all of the buildings in the city were either constructed out of glass or possessed a color scheme consisting of natural blues, greens, and grays, and most of the skyscrapers featured open-air plazas every ten floors or so, on which a number of trees, plants, or water features were installed. When combined with the mountain-esque skyline, it almost appeared as though the city had been constructed by hollowing out an already-existing mountain — and yet, due to an intricate system of lenses and holograms, citizens standing deep within the forest of buildings could still glimpse the blue skies and shining sun in every direction.

The mountain skyline was a sight that Pierce and Phoenix were able to enjoy daily, due to their apartment being located in the city outskirts. Normally, the skyline would be accompanied by the tiny dots of hovercraft and the silhouettes of coming and going spacecraft, but today, only the clouds gathered around the tallest buildings.

“I wonder how Conrad and Kestrel are doing…”

Pierce glanced down at Phoenix, her comment having returned his thoughts to the present. “…Ah, I’m sure they’re fine,” he eventually replied as the two turned down a path that led to their apartment complex. “This Chaos Quake stuff — it’s only bad because the Nimalians rely so damn much on Chaos Energy. But we don’t have any of that shit on Earth. I bet they’re just living life like normal, the lucky bastards.”

“Even so, surely the Quake will have some kind of impact on Earth,” Phoenix countered. “The original Quake coincided with a freak series of intense natural disasters on Earth. If that happens again, then things could get really bad.”

“As bad as the last one? No way. All the biggest fault lines and volcanoes blew their loads already. There’s no way forty years is enough time for them to trigger again.”

“You can’t be certain of that. The first Quake was a freak incident as is, who knows what could happen this time around?”

“Well there’s no way for us to know, so why bother freaking out about it? We’ve got more pressing shit to deal with, like—” Pierce stopped mid-sentence and mid-stride just after turning a corner. In front of him and Phoenix was the two-story building that contained their first-floor apartment, which had one front door that faced directly out toward the path they were walking on. Little about the building stood out from its surroundings — aside from the fact that the door to their apartment was ajar.

Phoenix looked up at Pierce, a wary expression upon her face. “We closed the door when we left, right?”

“We did…” Pierce scowled. “…Don’t tell me the landlord is already evicting us.”

“If that was the case, I’d expect to see movers, or something.”

“…Well, we can’t know unless we check, can we?”

“I don’t know, Pierce…” Phoenix eyed the open door with unease. “I have a bad feeling about this…”

“What, you scared?”

“That’s not what I meant, you dumbass. But if you want to charge your way into the middle of a home intrusion and get yourself shot, then be my guest.”

“What? I won’t get shot. Most Nimalians don’t even have guns.”

“That’s not what I— you know what? Whatever. Do whatever you want, see if I care.”

“I will, thank you very much,” Pierce retorted. He then turned back toward the entrance to their apartment and began to approach. His pace started out normal, but he felt himself reflexively slow as he got closer — and as he heard someone rummaging around inside. He pursed his lips and glanced back at Phoenix, only to be surprised to find her right behind him. He opened his mouth to address her, prepared to jab at her obvious concern, but before he could she held a finger over her lips and quietly gestured toward the door, as if to say, “keep going.”

A loud bang, as though someone had just dropped a large object on the floor, emanated from within the apartment — followed by some cursing and a hushed exchange of words. Pierce and Phoenix passed each other wary glances, but Pierce continued his approach. Within moments, he had reached the door, and sidled up against the doorway. Phoenix took up position against the opposite side of the doorway, giving her a better vantage point than Pierce to peer into the apartment. She narrowed her eyes, in what Pierce guessed to be an attempt to see better through the interior darkness — the curtains and blinds had been closed. After a moment she looked back to him, shook her head, and shrugged. Assuming that meant she didn’t see anyone, Pierce took it upon himself to slowly open the front door and make his way in.

Once inside, the evidence of an intrusion was painfully obvious. The living room couch was overturned and the cushions scattered across the floor — and from what Pierce could see of the kitchen and dining area, the drawers and cabinets had been roughly filed through, and kitchenware covered the floor. What the hell? …Looters? Already? This is fucking ridiculous. Pierce continued to look over the scene with an irate scowl for several more seconds before he felt a tap on his left shoulder. Glancing over, he found Phoenix looking up at him; as soon as he made eye-contact, she quietly gestured toward the back hallway, where the bedrooms and the bathroom were — as well as the sounds of rummaging. With pursed lips, Pierce slowly stepped toward the kitchen, grabbed one of the knives laying on the counter top, and then began to approach the back rooms.

“Damn, there really is nothing useful here. Hey, Nisanin, you find any—?”

A stout man stepped out of Pierce’s bedroom, his attention and voice directed toward Phoenix’s bedroom. Pierce and Phoenix froze where they stood, completely caught off-guard; before either thought to hide, the man stopped mid-sentence and turned their way. What followed was an awkward silence as they stared at each other, both sides apparently equally surprised — and then the man reached toward his belt and whipped out a gun, holding it toward Pierce and Phoenix. “Stay right there! And drop the knife!”

“I fucking told you,” Phoenix hissed at Pierce, her attention focused entirely on the gun as she held her hands up.

“You can’t be serious…” Pierce muttered under his breath as he released the kitchen knife to clamber to the ground. He then raised his voice to address the intruder as he gestured at the mess in the living room. “Hey, dude, what the fuck is this?”

“I’m the one with the gun, I ask the questions,” the man countered, his brow furrowed.

“What’s going on?” A female voice floated out of Phoenix’s room, followed by a lanky woman, swathed in enough dark clothing to hide her face and body. “…Who the hell are you?”

“Who are—? What do you mean, who are we?!” Pierce questioned irately, “we fucking live here!”

“I don’t think it was a good idea to tell them that…” Phoenix whispered to him.

“You live here?” the man responded incredulously. “…Well, that makes things easier, then, doesn’t it?”

“It will if you guys leave, immediately,” Pierce shot back.

“And who has the gun, here?” the man retorted as he brandished his weapon.

“Oh sure, I guess I’ll just tell you all about where I keep my hidden stash of valuables that I totally have.” Pierce snorted in derision. “I’m not telling you shit. And if you do anything to us, I guarantee you’ll regret it!”

“I’m sure we will,” the woman retorted, rolling her eyes and then stepping back into Phoenix’s bedroom. “Listen, boy,” she shouted from inside the room, “there’s no one in this city who will help you. Even if you go to the authorities, they’re all too busy right now to bother with a couple of looters on the outskirts of the city.”

“You opportunistic…!” Phoenix cut herself off and pursed her lips in irritation. “…Looters really are the same, no matter where you go.”

“Shut the hell up,” the man with the gun snapped. “Listen, you idiots. I’m already doing you a favor by letting you live this long. If you die here, no one will bother investigating — they’re all busy with the Quake. So for your own good, just sit still, and be quiet.”

“Doing us a favor my ass,” Pierce muttered irately. “I bet that’s just an excuse, huh?”

“You—” The male intruder scowled. “Didn’t I just tell you to shut up?”

“If you were really willing to kill us, you would’ve done it already,” Pierce countered. “I bet a dumbass like you doesn’t have the balls to pull that trigger!”

“Pierce…!” Phoenix muttered, “what are you doing?!…”

“You trying to test me?” The intruder moved his gun to the side and fired, triggering a brief flash of light — and then the couch exploded under the force of a single bullet. He then aimed the gun back at Pierce. “The next one goes in your head!”

“Yeah fucking right. You’re scared, aren’t you?” Pierce sneered. “You don’t even believe yourself with that investigation bullshit. Hell, we’re guests from another nation, you know. If we die here, there’s no way in hell Earth or the NSD would let that fly, you know? They’d hunt your ass down faster than you could plead guilty! So how about you just leave now, and we’ll pretend this never—”

In the middle of Pierce’s sentence, the muzzle of the gun flashed. Shit, the fucker actually did it—! Reflexively, he threw himself to the side, leaping over a cushion to land in the middle of the living room. Just before he landed, he glanced back at the gun — and then snapped his attention to the bullet that was flying through the air at an easily watchable pace. …What the? Since when were bullets so slow…?

By the time his thought completed, the bullet had accelerated back to supersonic speed and hit the front wall of the apartment, where it blew open a hole several inches across. Phoenix reflexively ducked to the side as soon as the bullet hit, but the man with the gun simply stared at the wall in confusion before looking over at Pierce. The man’s face then contorted with anger as he whipped the gun around to fire again at Pierce — only for the Earthian to leap out of the way once more, causing a loud crack sound in the air as he escaped the incoming bullet just after it left the barrel of the gun. Once again clear of immediate danger, Pierce stopped to look down at his body. What’s going on? Was that… a sonic boom?!

“…The hell?!” The intruder stared at Pierce with a mixture of confusion, awe, and anger. “How… this shouldn’t be possible! The Quake—!” The man stopped as Pierce suddenly appeared at his side faster than he could react.

“I told you,” Pierce spoke into the man’s ear, and then grabbed the gun out of his hand and smashed it over his head, sending him crumpling to the ground. “You really should have left.”

“Hey, what’s going on—?” the female intruder began to question as she peaked back into the living room, but the moment she did, Pierce chucked the gun at her head and cleanly knocked her out.

Once her body hit the floor, Pierce stopped to stare at both her and the male intruder. Now that he was clear of danger, his mind slowly began to catch up with and process everything that had just occurred. It had barely been ten seconds since he first dodged a bullet, and yet…

“Pierce, what the hell was that?!”

He slowly turned around to face Phoenix, who was still sitting on the ground where she had collapsed after the second gunshot. She stared up at him in shocked confusion, evidently unable to process exactly what had happened. Pierce remained uncertain of exactly what was going on as well, but as he considered the events that had just transpired, there was only one answer that came to his mind: he had just moved faster than sound.

“…I can’t believe this,” Phoenix muttered, drawing Pierce’s attention back to her. She climbed back to her feet and rubbed her temples, as though trying to massage away a headache. “I must be seeing things…”

In response to her voiced doubt, Pierce leaped across the room and appeared at her side in a split second. She promptly recoiled away from him in shock as he crossed his arms and grinned smugly.

“Well, would you look at that,” he exclaimed proudly. “I guess I’m a Chaotic!”

“But that… that doesn’t make any sense,” Phoenix responded. “You… you’re an Earthian. Right? Aren’t you…?”

“Oh c’mon. As if I could be from anywhere else.”

“But there’s also supposed to be a Chaos Quake right now… even if you are a Chaotic, it shouldn’t be possible for you to do anything!”

Pierce immediately sped into the kitchen, picked up all of the kitchenware off of the floor, and replaced them in their proper drawers — all in under a second. He then stopped and casually leaned against the kitchen counter tops, his expression and posture brimming with pride. “Sure looks like I can move faster than sound to me,” he remarked.

“I don’t understand what’s going on…” Phoenix pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “Chaotics can’t use their powers without Chaos Energy. That’s just a fact. So how the hell—”

“Hold on,” Pierce interjected as he eyed Phoenix warily. “…Say that again.”

“Say what again?”

“That— what you just said. All of it.”

“What, that Chaotics can’t use their powers without Chaos Energy? …Wait…” She gingerly held a hand to her throat, and then repeated, “Chaos” As she spoke the word, her voice was accompanied by a barely perceptible, yet clearly unnatural echo, as though the word itself held the power to influence her environment.

“Sounds like I’m not the only one who’s a Chaotic,” Pierce observed.

“What the— what the hell?!” Phoenix began massaging her throat with increased intensity. “Chaos. Holy shit. Chaos! What the fuck? How long has this been happening?!”

“I’m not sure. I want to say that something seemed off about your voice earlier today… this would certainly explain that.”

“But, this…” Phoenix stared at Pierce with a mixture of panic and confusion. “This doesn’t make any sense at all!”

“Isn’t that the whole point of Chaos Energy?” Pierce questioned, “you know, that it doesn’t make any fucking sense?”

“It doesn’t make any sense in relation to standard physics, yes, but it still has its own rules! Very clear rules, that have been established by millennia of tests and experience by the other races in the galaxy! And what’s happening right now — it defies all of them!”

“Well I’m not complaining. Do you have any idea how much easier this is going to make moving?”

“No! We can’t do that! We can’t use our powers so blatantly!”

Pierce passed Phoenix an incredulous glance. “And why the hell not?”

“Well, first of all, we should really figure out the limits of what we can do before we start trying to exploit our abilities,” Phoenix pointed out, “but that’s not the worst of it. Chaotic conscription is a universal policy in the galaxy, you know!”

“For everyone else, sure. But SERRCom only has, what, four Chaotics? Those Eximius Vir guys, right? There’s no way SERRCom has a conscription policy in place, there just aren’t enough Chaotics on Earth for it.”

“Do you think that will stop SERRCom from trying to draft us the moment they learn about us?”

“I expect them to try, but I don’t expect them to succeed.”

“Don’t be stupid. There are all kinds of ways to neutralize Chaotics — hell, just think of Trenon! He had superspeed, too, and look where that got him!”

Pierce’s expression collapsed into an annoyed scowl as a dull throb passed through his right torso. “…Yeah, but that’s only because he was weakened beforehand. Last night was just a clusterfuck, anyways. If I’m careful, I won’t suffer the same fate as him.”

“You? Careful?!”

“Just shut up. SERRCom doesn’t have any weird shadow monsters to throw at us, anyways, so we’ll be fine.”

“‘Shadow monsters’ or not, there’s still no way that you’ll be able to evade SERRCom for long. And even if you could, you’d never be able to live your regular life when SERRCom is constantly chasing you. Do you really want that?”

“Please, like I could give two shits about my regular life when I could be off doing superhero work. You know, saving people and shit. Imagine all the accolades, rewards, and recognition we could get!”

“Leave it to you to find the worst reason to become a hero…”

“Oh c’mon. If the end result is good, then who fucking cares about the motivation?”

“Look, just…” Phoenix sighed warily. “Just try to keep your speed in check at least until the Quake is over, alright? In the very least, we don’t want to give the Nimalians any reason to think that we might be responsible for the Quake.”

“But we aren’t.”

“I know, but if they learn that a couple of Earthians can suddenly use Chaotic abilities when their world is going to shit, do you really think they’ll just let us be in peace?”

Pierce sighed and shook his head. “Alright, alright. Fine. I still think you’re taking this too seriously, though.”

“And you’re taking it too lightly,” Phoenix countered, and then turned her attention to the two unconscious intruders. “We already have a whole situation to deal with here, because you just can’t resist goading others on. Even when it almost costs you your life!”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “Fucking whatever, it worked out in the end.”

“And what do we do when they wake up and tell everyone they know that the people who live here are Chaotics who can use their powers during the Quake?”

“Hey, you said it yourself, this should be impossible. There’s no reason for anyone to believe them.”

“That’s…!” Phoenix closed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose, and took a deep breath. “…Alright. Fine. Whatever. Let’s just… let’s pack our shit and get out of here already.”

“Won’t hear me argue with you there,” Pierce remarked as he sauntered into his bedroom, prepared to gather together his things and get on with the day.

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