Chapter 22 – Exposed

“Ungh… fuck, my head…”

Pierce slowly opened his eyes, squinting in pain as bright lights around him flooded his vision. Gingerly, he reached up to his head and attempted to massage away the pounding headache that scourged his thoughts and prevented him from focusing on his surroundings.

“Pierce? Are you up?”

“Ngh…” he groaned, and gradually turned his head to his right, where he had heard Phoenix’s voice. A moment later, his vision cleared, allowing him to see her standing several meters away from him in what appeared to be a small room, with its fourth wall completely missing. He then glanced around at his own surroundings, taking note of the fact that he was also lying in such a room. A brightly-lit walkway passed between the open walls of Pierce and Phoenix’s rooms, just wide enough for Pierce to peer into another similar room adjacent to Phoenix’s — in which he could spot Kestrel.

“What the hell…” he muttered as he forced himself up into a sitting position. He then began massaging his back; for whatever reason, he had been lying on the floor, which looked to be hard, bare metal. “Where are we?”

“Your guess is as good as ours,” replied Conrad’s voice. Pierce glanced around; he couldn’t see his friend, but it sounded as though his voice was originating in a room adjacent to his own, across the walkway from Kestrel’s.

“Yeah…” Phoenix frowned and looked down. “But wherever we are, we’re trapped.”

“Trapped?!” Pierce echoed incredulously. He jumped to his feet and began to approach Phoenix. “The hell are you talking about? Where’s the—oof!” Just as he was about to step onto the walkway, a bright plane of light appeared in front of his body and forced him back.

Phoenix sighed and shook her head. “You really do never listen to me.”

“Hmph!” Pierce snorted as he kicked at the air, only for his foot to once again be stopped by the appearance of a bright plane of light. “Fucking energy shields,” he muttered as he inspected his environment more closely. It seemed that the fourth wall of the room he was in was actually just an energy shield, allowing him to easily see out of it, but completely preventing him from leaving. I’ve brought down shields before, though. Overloading this one should be a piece of cake.

“…I wouldn’t try that, if I were you,” Phoenix warned as she spotted Pierce winding up for another kick.

“You only say that because you haven’t seen what I can do,” Pierce countered. “Just watch this!” He launched a kick, slamming his foot into the energy shield once more — only for the impact to send painful shivers up his leg. With a yelp of pain, he jumped back and grabbed at his foot. “Agh! What the… a kick like that has never hurt this much!”

“Again, you should really listen to me,” Phoenix responded flatly. “…Look. For whatever reason, our powers don’t work in here.”

“Huh?” Pierce looked over at Phoenix in confusion, and then turned his attention to his left when he heard a brief chuckle.

“Did Pierce just try to kick the shield down?” Conrad questioned.

“Yup,” Phoenix replied.

“I’ve done it before… are our powers really not working?” Pierce frowned before throwing out another kick, and then another. To his frustration, his legs refused to move as fast as he wanted them to — it almost felt as though his body had been plunged into a vat of molasses. Shit He scowled. It’s like that time at the dam all over again. What the hell? …Wait, if this is like the dam, then does that mean—?

“Well, it looks like y’all are all up. Finally.”

“You…!” Pierce lunged toward the walkway as EA walked up, though the energy shield in front of his room stopped him once more. “What the hell do you want with us?” he demanded.

“I didn’t realize hostages were the ones who asked questions,” EA retorted, his hands in his pockets as he casually strolled down the walkway and glanced at each of the four friends. “Especially after such a sound defeat.”

“Only because you cheated,” Pierce shot back. “In a straight fight, I’d win every time. That should be obvious enough from what I did to all your robots.”

“Robots that were intentionally neutered,” EA countered, and then passed Pierce a smug smirk. “Every time you’ve gone up against one of my flying models, though, well… care to tell everyone else how that went down?”

“‘Every time’?” Phoenix echoed incredulously, “Pierce, how many times have you fought this guy?!”

“Now isn’t the time for that,” Pierce snapped back, his glare remaining on EA. “Just what do you want with us, huh?”

“And how did you find us?” Phoenix questioned.

“That was actually a complete coincidence. I was only after the Syn Ayas,” EA remarked, and then jerked his thumb in Pierce’s direction. “It was only when I saw this guy’s face and heard his voice that I realized he was the ‘Speed Demon’ who attacked me near New York, and interfered with my plans near San Francisco.”

“Bullshit, I had my face covered the whole time!” Pierce exclaimed. “How’d you recognize me?”

“You aren’t as good at hidin’ your identity as you think. Hell, SERRCom was already onto you.”

“What about the rest of us?” Phoenix asked. “Why kidnap us?”

“A hunch.” EA glanced toward Phoenix. “Fakie’s friends all became Chaotics, so I figured the friends of the ‘Speed Demon’ here would be the same way.”

“Uh… what?” Conrad responded in confusion. “Who’s ‘Fakie’?”

“…That doesn’t matter right now. What does matter is that the four of you are now in my custody.”

“This doesn’t sound right at all,” Phoenix countered. “Aren’t you opposed to SERRCom’s conscription of Chaotics? Wouldn’t you say it’s a little hypocritical to kidnap us?”

“I suppose it might be,” EA replied. “But those proclamations I made a month ago weren’t sincere. Well, they kind of were, but my primary goal was to instill distrust in SERRCom — which I think I’ve managed to do quite well, personally.”

“What do you have against SERRCom?”

“A lot of things. But at the same time… well, it’s complicated.” He looked down before returning his attention to Phoenix. “But for now, that doesn’t matter. What does is that I now have my own Chaotic force, to oppose SERRCom’s.”

“What? You can’t be serious!” Pierce exclaimed indignantly. “You don’t seriously think we’re going to work for you, do you?”

“Especially not when you can’t even give straight answers to simple questions,” Phoenix added.

“…Well, I can’t say I didn’t expect this.” EA sighed and glanced back at Conrad and Kestrel. “What about y’all?”

Kestrel merely shook her head as Conrad replied, “I just want to go home and take a nap, man.”

“Figures.” EA turned back to Pierce and took a deep breath. “C’mon, Speed Demon—”

“Stop calling me that,” Pierce snapped.

“Oh? But you came up with that name yourself, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but when you say it, you make it sound stupid. Just like your hair.”

“My hair isn’t stupid,” EA countered defensively as he ran a hand through his unkempt hair. “It’s… unique.

“I can definitely agree that your whole style is ‘unique’,” Phoenix retorted. Pierce let out a brief snort in amusement, prompting EA to glare at them both.

“Alright, look here,” he demanded, “you don’t like SERRCom. Right? And I don’t like SERRCom. If we work together, we could replace SERRCom with a better rule, and properly prepare the Earthian Territories for any future threats.”

“Sounds like a lot of work…” Conrad muttered.

“I don’t know why you expect us to trust you, anyways,” Phoenix responded, her brow furrowed in frustration. “You just admitted to us that everything you said last month was a lie. Why should we trust what you’re saying now?”

“Not to mention the fact that you dropped your robots in the middle of a city!” Pierce added indignantly. “You attacked civilians! If I weren’t around to stop you, there would’ve been actual deaths, you know that?!”

“That only shows how much you don’t know,” EA replied. “My robots have never fired on civilians — in fact, they’re hard-coded not to. Even the ones I dropped near San Francisco were coded to only attack people in retaliation to being attacked.”

“Then what was the point of deploying them?” Conrad questioned.

“To force SERRCom’s hand.” EA glanced back at Conrad. “I wanted to investigate the dam — I’m sure you’re familiar with the rumors about it, Speed Demon?”

Pierce scowled. “I told you to stop calling me that, you loser.”

“You say that, but I think it’s kinda cool, personally. But we’re gettin’ off topic. The reason I dropped robots all around the city was to distract SERRCom from the dam, as well as to further instill distrust. I’m not a monster, you know — not once did I intend to hurt or kill civilians. The fact that my big fight with Fakie down in Texas didn’t result in a single casualty should be proof of that!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Phoenix declared. “You may not have hurt anyone directly from your fight in Texas, but you did destroy their homes and everything they owned. I don’t see how you can frame yourself as the good guy after that.”

“Yeah, I’m with Phoenix,” Pierce added. “Your excuses sound way too short-sighted and convenient. I don’t buy ‘em.”

EA released another frustrated sigh as he stared down at his shoes. He muttered something, but Pierce couldn’t quite tell what; then he looked up at Pierce, then over at Phoenix, and then at Conrad and Kestrel. “Y’all really won’t listen to me, huh?”

“You’ve given us literally no reason to,” Phoenix countered.

“Yeah, and this whole jail cell thing isn’t very cool, either,” Conrad stated. “Can we just, like, go home, and pretend this never happened?”

“Too bad for you, that isn’t an option,” EA snapped. “If I can’t go home, then neither can you. And if you won’t join me, then, well… Athena!” He directed his voice upward. “To the combat room!”

«Understood,» replied a robotic female voice through a speaker in the ceiling. Before Pierce could question the voice, a bright flash of light momentarily blinded him — but as soon as it appeared, it disappeared, revealing that his environment had changed. Now he stood in a large room with an overall appearance not unlike a gymnasium, but at least thrice as tall and nearly as long as half a football field. Furthermore, Phoenix, Conrad, and Kestrel all stood beside him, none of them separated by energy shielding — and all of them still wearing exactly what they wore just before EA had kidnapped them.

«If you won’t fight for me,» EA’s voice echoed through the room from some loudspeakers in the ceiling, «then you fight against me — and I intend to demonstrate exactly why that is a poor idea!»

“You can’t be serious…!” Pierce muttered, and then turned toward his friends. Before he could address them, however, a loud metallic clunk echoed through the air from across the room, drawing all of their attention. Standing there was a humanoid robot, similar in appearance to the flying robots that Pierce had already faced — but this one appeared to be half again as large as the other robots. Its mechanical wings spread several meters across, and an extra pair of arms extended from its sides. In two of its four hands were guns; Pierce couldn’t tell what kinds, but he knew enough to be apprehensive. He knew that he was bulletproof as long as he had access to his superspeed, but none of his friends had near the same level of durability. Shit. Do we have to fight this? If I was all on my own then I could manage, but having to watch out for the others…!

«Meet my fifth A-series robot: A-05 Epsilon,» EA announced over the loudspeakers. «Speed Demon, I believe you’ve encountered three of the others. But this one… I’ve designed Epsilon to be significantly more of a challenge. Bigger, better, smarter! And while it doesn’t ‘cheat’ like Gamma and Delta did, I’m sure it’ll be more than a challenge for the four of you.»

“I don’t like where this is going,” Conrad muttered as his body faded from sight.

“A fight… damn it.” Phoenix frowned. “I’ve never been in a fight before, not with my powers…”

“Me neither…” Kestrel added.

“But I have,” Pierce declared, crouching down in preparation to lunge. He passed Phoenix a knowing glance. “Looks like all that fighting I’ve already done is about to pay off.”

“All of that fighting is why we’re here in the first place,” she snapped back.

«Alright, that’s enough grandstanding for now!» EA exclaimed, drawing everyone’s attention back to the robot just as it began to lift into the air. «Epsilon… make them regret choosing to go against me!»