Chapter 20 – Aftermath

2 Days Later

— Monday, October 10, AD 2129 —

“…Anyways, that concludes this week’s introduction to energy shielding. On Wednesday, we’ll take a look at how they work below the hood, as well as common applications of the technology — and I might just be able to swing a shield generator soon, so be sure to come to class this week to get a look yourself!”

The sounds of moving chairs and general rustling increased as the morning class came to a close. Pierce himself quickly stood up from his seat and began scanning those present, hoping to catch a particular person before they left.

“You have some experience with energy shielding, don’t you, Mr. Bradley?”

“Huh? Oh…” Pierce glanced to his side, where the professor had approached. “Uh, yeah, that’s right…”

“Excellent! If it’s no bother, I’d like to pick your brain over what you know. Most of my knowledge is second-hand, after all, given the rarity of the technology on Earth.”

“Uh… sure. Another time, though,” Pierce replied as he began rushing toward the exit. “I have something I need to take care of first, sorry!”

“That’s alright, but if you could come by my office later—!”

The rest of the professor’s statement was lost on Pierce as he practically leaped through the room’s doorway, in chase of a particular blond-haired woman who had disappeared in the small crowd. “Hey, Andra!” he called out, “hey, hold on!”

Several of the students briefly glanced back at him, but further down the hallway, just in front of the stairs, he could see the back of a blond head as the individual quickened their pace. With an annoyed frown, Pierce rushed after them, taking the stairs down two steps at a time until he had intercepted the woman. “Hey, c’mon,” he urged, “what’s going on? Why the silent treatment?”

Andra glared down at him as he blocked her way down the steps. “I think I should be asking you that.”

“Huh?” Pierce’s brow furrowed in confusion. “What’re you talking about? I messaged you multiple times yesterday, and you never responded once!”

“So yesterday is what matters, huh?” Andra’s lips pursed, in an expression that Pierce could only perceive as contempt. “Not Saturday?”

“Oh, c’mon… look, it was an emergency, alright? I’m sorry for missing our date, really!”

“What kind of emergency was it that you couldn’t be bothered to let me know beforehand that you wouldn’t show up?”

“That…!” Pierce paused momentarily as thought back to Saturday, and the dozens of robots he had taken out all across the bay, followed by his confrontation with the Eximius Vir. He had spent the following night on Conrad’s couch, as he wasn’t fond of the idea of running a few hundred miles at night — and then the following morning he had messaged Andra to apologize for missing their date and attempt to reschedule. When she failed to respond, he suspected that she might be angry with him, though he still figured that a face-to-face conversation would clear everything up. Now that he stood in the moment, however, he realized that he couldn’t actually explain the nature of Saturday’s emergency — not without revealing that he was a Chaotic, at least. And with her mom being a SERRCom contractor, showing Andra his secret was a risk he wasn’t willing to take.

“So you can’t even tell me what the emergency was?”

“Uh… no,” Pierce responded sheepishly to Andra’s irate question. “Look, I—”

“Keep your excuses to yourself. If you had told me beforehand that you couldn’t make it, or even if you could tell me now why you couldn’t — then I might have been willing to forgive you. But instead, you stood me up, and won’t even tell me why!”

“What? I didn’t stand you up — well, hmm, I guess I did… but it wasn’t intentional, I assure you.”

“Right,” Andra drawled, her expression blank. She then sighed and looked away. “I guess I should’ve expected this from you.”

“What?” Pierce frowned. “The hell does that mean?”

“I’ve heard the rumors about you,” she declared, “it’s hard not to, when so many people talk about you. I thought people were just bitter or jealous about your accomplishments, and that’s why they were spreading bad rumors about you… but I guess the rumors were true after all.”

“That’s— what? What rumors?”

“The rumors that you fall for a new girl every month. You might be an accomplished athlete and student, but you just use those accomplishments to woo women, and then forget about them mere weeks later!”

Every month? That’s not right. It’s more like… at least two months!”

“You… are the fucking worst.” Andra scowled at him before turning her chin up and pushing past him. “Don’t talk to me again!” she shouted over her shoulder.

“Aw…” Pierce simply stared after her dejectedly, but then he took a deep breath and shook his head. Ah, she’s just being melodramatic. Like seriously, all this over a single missed date? And a first date, at that. Literally the least important of them all. I totally would’ve shown up, too, if not for an attack on my fucking home. If only she knew I was a hero! He sighed again, and shrugged. Oh well. Plenty of fish in the sea, as they say.

With that, he turned toward the campus cafeteria. Andra had walked off toward the student houses, so Pierce wasn’t concerned about running into her at lunch. Though as he walked, his thoughts turned back to the past weekend. Realization that he hadn’t checked the news yesterday turned to curiosity, prompting him to whip out his phone and begin checking the various news headlines as he stepped into the campus cafe. He quickly found that talk of EA’s newest attack dominated the national news cycle — it was the first robot attack since EA’s appearance near Dallas over three weeks ago, after all. Furthermore, the robotic attack on the San Francisco Bay Area was the first time EA’s robots had been intentionally released near civilians — not to mention this newest attack was the largest scale one yet.

And yet, there was no video nor announcement from EA whatsoever.

This key point seemed to serve as the biggest talking point of the national news outlets. Every attack prior to this one was accompanied by some sort of proclamation from EA, or a direct appearance. The fact that EA hadn’t shown his face at all was reassuring to some, who took the silence to mean that EA was pushing the limits of his resources and wouldn’t be relevant for much longer; and was worrying to others, who assumed that the silence meant that the attacks were only going to grow larger and more commonplace. The only shared thread through all of the speculation was that dealing with EA was ultimately SERRCom’s responsibility.

Doesn’t exactly instill in me a whole lot of confidence, Pierce mused as he progressed through the lunch line and ordered a burger. He then stepped off to the side to continue looking through the news as he awaited the preparation of his food. SERRCom’s response yesterday was hella slow. Do the national outlets not care about that part? Hmph. What about the local headlines…

He navigated to the web pages of several news organizations local to the Bay Area, where — to no surprise — he found more talk about the robot attack. As he read through a couple of the local articles, he noticed that they seemed to talk more freely about SERRCom’s involvement — namely, the appearance of the Eximius Vir. However, to Pierce’s surprise, there was no mention whatsoever of Mote’s fight with the flying robots over the waters of the Bay. All of the photos of the Eximius Vir seemed to be limited to pictures of them patrolling the top of the dam. The hell? Usually people are all over fights like that. Did no one really see it? I guess it was right at dusk, but still… hey, wait a minute… His brow furrowed as a particular image jumped out at him: a picture of a man wearing a demon mask, standing over the wrecked carcass of one of EA’s robots. Just above the picture was the headline, “Mysterious Masked Man Defeats Evil Robots — A New SERRCom Chaotic?”

“SERRCom Chaotic?” Pierce echoed incredulously. Who the hell told them that? Just what does this article say He quickly skimmed the article, which purported that SERRCom itself was claiming responsibility for his own actions in fighting the robots. You must be kidding. SERRCom’s stealing my credit! Those assholes! Though… it looks like the article actually mentions the name ‘Speed Demon’ a couple times. Oh, good, it also mentions how I literally EXPLICITLY said that I’m not with SERRCom. Phew. The waters are still muddied, though… I need to do a better job of divorcing my image from SERRCom’s. Damn, this part is harder than I expected…

He momentarily put aside his thoughts as he heard his order called out. He quickly grabbed it and moved over to the cash register to pay; as he did so, he felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. A quick check later led to his expression souring — it was a message from Phoenix. For fuck’s sake, she just will not get off my ass… ugh. With a sigh, he finished paying for his burger and grabbed a seat near a wall, at which point he pulled his phone out to check the actual contents of the message.

“You’re being careless,” it read.

Pierce snorted and typed back a quick, flippant response: “careless about what?” He then set his phone down and took a large bite out of his burger; just as he finished chewing and swallowed, his phone vibrated again. That was fast. She must really be mad, he mused. Instead of checking the message, however, he took his time in finishing off his burger, slowly chewing each bite and taking more time to savor than he normally would. The burger wasn’t exceptional — it was pretty average as they go, filled with lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese, ketchup, and mustard. Yet something about delaying any response to Phoenix’s inevitable ranting made his lunch taste better than usual.

Eventually he finished eating. He wiped his hands off with a napkin and then picked up his phone to read Phoenix’s newest message: “you know what I’m talking about, asshole. We’re finally meeting up this Saturday to talk about things. You, me, Conrad, and Kestrel. Don’t do anything until then.”

Demanding, much? Pierce sighed as he read the message. I guess she did say a few weeks ago that she wanted to meet up. Well, I can’t exactly stop her… but she can’t stop me, either. The Speed Demon still has appearances to make, people to save, fame to claim! He set his phone down and sat back in thought. How to do that, though… who knows when there’ll be another EA attack. It’d be the fastest way to get my name out there, although…

“Excuse me. Are you Pierce Bradley?”

“Huh?” Pierce glanced to his side, where he spotted a man and a woman standing beside his table. They both seemed to be in their mid thirties and were dressed casually, but aside from that, there was little remarkable about their appearances.

“Are you?” the woman prodded.

“It depends. Who’s asking?” Pierce retorted.

The woman’s expression rapidly darkened. “That isn’t—”

“I apologize for my partner,” the man quickly interjected, putting his arm out in between Pierce and the woman. He then continued, “I’m Forest, and this is my partner, Sophie.”

“That’s Rayne,” the woman insisted. “We’re on the clock, Smith.”

“On the clock?” Pierce echoed incredulously, “who the hell are you guys? Is there a reason you’re interrupting my lunch?”

Rayne glanced down at his empty tray. “You look like you’re done with lunch to me.”

“Now now, Sophie, that’s no way to make friends,” Smith chastised, and then turned toward Pierce with a smile on his face. “Sorry about the rocky start. My partner here isn’t great at making friends.”

“That’s cool, I’m not really interested in becoming friends with a couple of old fogeys, either,” Pierce retorted.

“Oh c’mon. We don’t look that old. Do we?” Smith glanced toward Rayne in alarm. “Wait, do we?”

Rayne scowled. “This behavior is unbecoming. Put a lid on it.”

“Geez. You really need to lighten up, you know that?”

Who the hell are these guys? Pierce eyed the two warily. Calling each other partners, and the woman’s acting like they’re on a job… I have a bad feeling about this. He stood up from his chair and began gathering up his trash. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t have time for it,” he said. “I’m out of here.”

“Oh no you aren’t!” Rayne quickly jumped in his way as she whipped something out of her pocket and shoved it in his face.

Pierce reeled back in surprise, at which point he realized he was staring at a badge. “What—?” he began to question, but Rayne soon answered.

“I am Agent Rayne, of the Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command,” she declared. “My partner and I have a few questions for you, Pierce Bradley.”

“That’s— what? Are you serious?” Pierce’s incredulity rapidly melted away, leaving behind only confusion and frustration. EIIC agents? The EIIC’s part of SERRCom, right? Shit! There’s no way this is a coincidence!

“We’re really sorry to bother you,” Smith insisted as he took a seat across the table from Pierce, “but if you could just talk with us for a bit, it would really help us out.”

“Yeah… right…” Pierce glanced uneasily between Smith and Rayne, who gestured for him to sit back down. He did so slowly, never once taking his eyes off of the two agents. “The hell do you want with me, huh?”

“Relax, you’re not in trouble,” Smith replied. “There’s just a few things we’d like to clear up.”

“First of all being what your sister was doing, trying to get access to a SERRCom facility,” Rayne interjected.

Pierce fought to maintain a straight face as his thoughts flashed back to that night almost two weeks ago, when he had rescued Riley from the SERRCom gate guards near the San Francisco dam. Shit, I didn’t know they were able to identify her. But still… “Why the hell are you asking me?” he questioned, “only my sister knows what goes on in that stupid head of hers.”

“But you do know that she was trying to access a SERRCom facility?”

“Hey, you asked about it. Are you saying that she didn’t, and you’re lying?”

“It’s more that your sister was never actually arrested,” Smith commented. “We were able to figure out it was her easily enough, but… well, has she told you anything about what happened?”

“She doesn’t tell me shit.”

“Is that so,” Rayne responded icily.

“Let’s just switch gears for a bit, shall we?” Smith suggested, passing his partner a wary glance before turning back toward Pierce. “I understand you’re from San Francisco, right?”

“Oakland, really,” Pierce corrected, “but yeah, I’m from the area.”

“Right. Well, have you read any of the news coming from there, recently?”

Pierce scowled. “Stop with the stupid questions. Ask me what you really want to know, or I’m walking.”

“You can’t just walk away from EIIC agents,” Rayne declared.

“Like hell I can’t. You’d have to go through the American government if you wanted to actually arrest me — legally, that is. Though after that shit with those guys from Texas, I guess we all know now that SERRCom doesn’t care much about legality, huh?”

“Chaotics are an entirely separate matter—!”

“Ah, please excuse my partner, really,” Smith interjected, holding up a hand to silence Rayne. “We aren’t going to arrest you. Right, Sophie?”

She shot him a glare before turning away indignantly.

“Right. Well.” Smith returned his attention to Pierce. “Now that we’re on the subject of Chaotics, you’ve heard the news about this ‘Speed Demon’ guy in San Francisco, right?”

“…I have,” Pierce replied slowly. Shit. It can’t be a coincidence that they’re bringing this up. It’d probably be best if I just got the hell out of here… but it could also be useful to see just how much they know…

“Last Saturday was the first time that there were any official reports of his presence, but there have actually been rumors floating around about him for the past several weeks. Do you know anything about him?”

“Not aside from the news,” Pierce replied. “I mean, he sounds like a pretty cool guy. Certainly cares about regular people more than SERRCom does, at least.”

“The Speed Demon is a SERRCom agent,” Rayne declared.

“Ha!” Pierce couldn’t help but release an incredulous snort. “That’s fucking stupid. I know that’s the official line, but it’s literally in the news that the Speed Demon denied being a part of SERRCom.”

“I… know,” Smith replied with a pained expression on his face. He glanced left, and then right, as if checking for any listeners, at which point he leaned toward Pierce and lowered his voice. “Listen. We know that the official stance is… somewhat shaky.”

Pierce scoffed. “Just shaky?”

“Look. We just want the best for the… er… Speed Demon, as well as those he wants to protect. But I’m sure you’ve seen the aftermath of the battle in Texas, between EA and the novice Chaotics. That kind of power is dangerous, if left unchecked. SERRCom adopted the stance that the Speed Demon is under our employ to allay fears in the public about a loose-cannon Chaotic, and while that stance may not be… entirely truthful, we would like it to become the truth.”

“Yeah. Uh huh. Probably by conscripting him, right?” Pierce deadpanned. “Why are you telling me this, anyways?”

“I think the answer to that question should be obvious enough,” Rayne stated. “To bring up your sister once more, the reports say that she simply disappeared from in front of SERRCom guards. Not unlike a Velocitechnic, in fact.”

“What, are you saying that she’s the Speed Demon? That doesn’t seem likely.”

“Of course not. Photos and reports of his voice point to the Speed Demon being male. Likely young… around six feet tall, with light skin, and dirty blond hair.”

“Dirty blond—!” Pierce started, but stopped himself and pursed his lips. Fuck. Are they bluffing? Or did they somehow actually see my hair at some point? …Aw, shit, I DID lose my mask during the chaos with those flying robots on Saturday, didn’t I? Did some of my hair slip out, too? Shit! So fucking careless!

“Listen, we’re not trying to imply anything here,” Smith insisted.

“We aren’t?” Rayne questioned incredulously.

“We aren’t,” Smith repeated as he passed his partner a reproachful glance. He then turned back toward Pierce and continued, “we’re just trying to find a way to get in contact with the Speed Demon. You know, to work out some kind of deal, to make sure he has the resources he needs to do his job effectively, without endangering himself or others.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Pierce exclaimed incredulously, “you’re telling me that SERRCom wants to help him out, just out of pure benevolence? After that shit that happened in Texas? And especially after leaving me and my friend high and dry on an alien fucking planet when a Chaos Quake hits?”

“…Ah… right.” Smith’s expression clouded. “Yes, we… we’re aware of what happened there.”

“Are you? I went through a lot of stress, because no one from SERRCom was around to back us up. I was this close to being homeless on an alien planet, you know! And you want me to believe that you aren’t just looking out for your own best interests, now? Fucking bullshit!”

“Watch your tone with us, boy,” Rayne snapped. “Don’t blame us for the failing of another command—”

“The outreach program was managed by the ETAA, which is literally a part of the EIIC,” Pierce countered.

Rayne’s posture stiffened and her mouth turned down into a scowl as she began to reach into her jacket. “If you continue with your insolence, we will arrest you—”

“Hey! Pierce!”

Rayne froze with her hand halfway into her jacket as she, Smith, and Pierce all turned in the direction of the voice, where they found two young men approaching — one with a light complexion, and one with a dark complexion.

“Grant! Kai!” Pierce’s eyes lit up as they approached. “Great timing!”

“Huh?” Grant stopped next to the table and eyed the two EIIC agents with suspicion. “…Who’re these guys?”

“Friends of yours?” Kai questioned.

“No. Just… acquaintances,” Smith replied, and slowly stood up from his seat. “Come on, Sophie. I believe we’ve overstayed our welcome.”

“Tch…!” She remained seated for several more moments, her hand still partway in her jacket as she glared at Pierce. Eventually she closed her eyes, sighed… and removed her hand from her jacket.

“Great!” Smith flashed a smile at Pierce, Grant, and Kai as Rayne stood up herself. “Sorry to bother. Really. If you hear anything more about the Speed Demon, though, we’d love to know!”

“I’m sure you would,” Pierce retorted, watching the two agents turn around and leave the cafe.

Grant and Kai stood by silently, watching the two agents leave as well; the moment they were out of sight, the two men practically jumped into the now vacant seats at the table.

“Dude, what the hell was that?” Grant questioned, his voice low.

“Yeah, that looked really suspicious,” Kai said. “Really tense. Were those guys undercover cops, or something?”

Pierce passed Kai an incredulous glance. “Undercover cops? How the hell did you get that impression?”

“I dunno, man, everyone just looks really tense,” he replied. “I’ve seen it before. Never pretty.”

“What was going on here, man?” Grant pressed.

A moment of silence followed, during which Pierce released a weary sigh. Eventually, he said, “those were EIIC agents.”

“EIIC?” Kai echoed, “…wait, isn’t the EIIC part of SERRCom? That EIIC?!”

“Yep…”

“Dude, that’s worse than cops! Hell, that’s worse than the Feds! What the hell did you do?!”

“Nothing,” Pierce insisted, “but they seem to think otherwise…”

“Wait, hold up. What’s the EIIC?” Grant questioned.

“The ‘Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command’,” Kai answered. “They’re like the CIA and FBI wrapped up into one overbearing package, but in space, and way bigger. There’s nothing good about them.” He then turned his attention back to Pierce. “Man, good thing we came around, huh?”

“Are they gonna be back for you?” Grant asked.

“…I don’t know,” Pierce replied. “Hopefully not.”

“Well, if they show up again, we’ll do our best to drive ‘em off, just like this time!” Kai declared with a self-assured smirk.

“…Heh. Thanks, guys,” Pierce responded in kind. Though realistically, if someone from the EIIC shows up again… shit. Screw spreading the Speed Demon name, I need to keep a low profile. I refuse to let SERRCom get their hands on me!

“I don’t really know what just happened, but you’re welcome, I guess,” Grant said, snapping Pierce out of his thoughts. “But, uh, there something else we can talk about? Something less intense?”

“Oh, I’ve got the perfect subject.” Kai’s smirk transformed into a mischievous grin. “One of us here had a date last weekend, and I hear it didn’t go so well.”

Pierce made a face at him. “Oh fuck off.”

“Hey man, c’mon, we just saved your ass here. You owe us the story!”

“…You are a piece of work,” Pierce retorted, but he couldn’t help but smile. “Alright, well, it went something like this. It’s related to those attacks on Saturday, actually. See…”

The three then whiled away the remaining part of the lunch hour, as Pierce fabricated a cover story for his failure to meet with Andra, and Grant and Kai exchanged banter and playful insults at his expense.