Chapter 25 – New Acquaintances

“Today’s Monday?!

“Yeah… it’s been two days since EA kidnapped you. Did you not know that?”

“Well… no.” Pierce scowled. “We all only woke up yesterday. You’re telling me I was out for a whole day?!”

“I dunno what to tell you, man.” Austin shrugged. “EA sure seems to like knockin’ people out…”

Pierce shot Austin a wary glance as the two continued searching through the hallways, with everyone else trailing behind them. “Isn’t EA… well… you?”

“He looks like me, but he isn’t me,” Austin insisted. “I dunno what his deal is, but it’s got nothin’ to do with me.”

“If you say so…” Pierce turned his attention forward as the hallway began a gradual turn to the left. Thanks to exchanging information with Austin and his friends, Pierce knew now that they weren’t standing in a base — they were on board EA’s Cruiser. The very same Cruiser, in fact, that he had used to hold New York hostage, if the sensor signatures were to be believed. Pierce was at first glad to hear that they were on a ship, thinking that it meant that EA had limited places to hide, but then he learned that Cruisers — this one included — were often half a kilometer long. That was larger than an Aircraft Carrier, and those were often referred to as “floating cities” already, so Pierce was highly displeased to learn that he could be searching the equivalent of a city in order to find EA.

And when we do find him, we’re not even supposed to hurt him! The fuck is that? Pierce frowned with irritation at the thought. Austin and his friends had insisted on capturing EA alive, apparently at SERRCom’s behest — despite everything he had pulled over the past two months. Abandoning the Cruiser and bombarding it from orbit was high on Pierce’s list for preferred methods of dealing with EA, but apparently SERRCom wasn’t having it. …It’s not like I’m beholden to SERRCom, though. What would they do to me if an ‘accident’ happened, huh? Conscript me? …Well probably, but I can outrun them, I’m sure.

He then glanced over at Austin, who was keeping a careful eye on the surrounding bulkheads. The two groups had given each other brief descriptions of everyone’s abilities, and upon doing so, they decided that Pierce and Austin should lead the group — Pierce, because his superspeed would allow him to react to any surprise threats, and Austin, because his Simulator powers would allow him to borrow Pierce’s superspeed and react similarly quickly. Phoenix and Twy guarded the rear, leaving Spike, Sky, Conrad, and Kestrel to remain in the center of the group as they moved.

“Hey.” Pierce elbowed Austin, drawing his attention. “Why are we in one big group, exactly? Wouldn’t this go faster if we split up?”

“It’d be more dangerous if we did that,” Austin countered. “Don’t you know? You never split the party!”

“…What?”

“Ah, just a— just a joke. You see— …nevermind.” He shook his head before glancing back at Spike. Pierce followed suit, noting that Austin seemed to actually be looking at the large device that was strapped to Spike’s back.

“Something to do with that hunk of metal?” Pierce questioned.

Austin nodded. “It’s supposed to be some new prototype beam-jamming tech, to prevent EA from just beamin’ us into cells or some shit.”

“What’s the range?”

“Uh… not sure. Like, 50 meters or so?”

Pierce grunted in disappointment. “Not enough to split up… though it’s better than nothing, I guess.”

“You could say that about everythin’ on this mission,” Austin grumbled. “Even these shields are nothin’. Two hits and they go down? C’mon…”

Pierce passed Austin a questioning glance. “Where did you get this stuff? From SERRCom?”

“Yeah. They’re the ones that sent us on this mission, after all.”

“You were conscripted, right? Forced to join?”

“Yep…” Austin nodded, his lips pursed in irritation. “Full disclosure, they’ll probably do the same to you.”

“Why not just bail out now? We’ll all alone, here. No SERRCom to watch us flee. What’s stopping you?”

“Lots of things. For one, we were told that this beam jammer would only jam EA’s beamin’ tech, not SERRCom’s.”

“How do you know that’s true?”

“We don’t, but testin’ it is pointless. SERRCom already knows our names, our faces, our identities — there’s no where for us to run. We definitely can’t return to our normal lives, not by runnin’. So what’s the point?”

“Really? You’re giving up already?”

“Hey, if you want to live the rest of your life on the run from a fucking interstellar military, be my guest. Personally, I’d rather have some amount of stability in my life, as much as it might suck.”

“Really sucks to be you, then,” Pierce remarked. “Luckily for me, SERRCom doesn’t know my exact identity. Not yet, at least.”

“Uh, about that…” Austin passed Pierce an uneasy glance. “Yesterday, EA released a video showin’ off your name and face, as well as your friends back there. He showed some video of you fightin’ his robots, too, on top of a dam somewhere. So SERRCom definitely knows your face.”

“What?!” Pierce scowled. “Video of me on a dam? I’ve never had my face exposed while fighting on a dam! They can’t link that video to me!”

“I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if the video was doctored somehow. EA also claimed you and Phoenix were Nimalian shapeshifters, planted while you were off-world in order to spy on Earth, and that’s pretty obviously a lie.”

“He… he what?”

“It’s just bullshit, don’t bother with it. But the video is what matters. Doctored or not, I guarantee SERRCom’ll use it to try and conscript you. And since they know your identify, there’s no where for you to run.”

“…I can’t believe this…” Pierce sighed with frustration. “Fucking… hell. Why can’t SERRCom just leave us alone?!”

“Fuck if I know, man.”

“This is hella fucking stupid…” He took a deep breath and faced forward again. “Well… at least we can find EA and kick his fucking loser ass for dragging us into this situation—”

“Wait, Pierce! Hold on!”

“Huh?” Pierce and Austin both stopped and looked back at Phoenix, who met Pierce’s gaze with a wary frown.

“Something bad is about to happen,” she said, “I… I can feel it.”

“Something bad?” Pierce echoed, exchanging an incredulous glance with Austin as he did. “That’s hella vague.”

“Mm…” Kestrel snapped her attention to her left, the sudden motion drawing the attention of everyone present. “…Something’s there.”

“What? Where?” Spike questioned as he turned in the direction Kestrel was facing, only to find nothing but a steel wall.

“How do you know?” Twy asked.

Kestrel shook her head. “Don’t know. But something’s there.”

“First Phoenix says something bad is about to happen, then Kestrel says something mysterious is through the wall? That doesn’t sound like a coincidence to me!” Sky remarked as she backed into a defensive stance and summoned a fireball in her hand. “We should be careful!”

“Already on it,” Conrad replied, having already turned himself invisible.

“But… what do we even look out for?” Austin questioned, “just, EA and his robots? We were already lookin’ out for that…”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Phoenix replied. “I don’t know how I can tell… maybe it’s another Chaotic ability. But I can definitely say that something bad is about to happen. Kestrel, which direction are you sensing something?”

Kestrel pointed to the left of Austin, at part of the wall. “Nearby.”

“If it’s close, then I say we get the jump on it!” Spike rolled his shoulders as he approached the segment of the wall. “Everyone, stand back. And get ready to attack if somethin’ shows up.” He waited a moment for everyone to back off, at which point he drew back his right fist and then threw it forward, easily puncturing the metal bulkhead. Once his hand was through, he grabbed the edge of the new hole and tore it downward, creating a jagged hole into the next room — which was completely bathed in darkness.

After a tense few moments of staring at the hole, Pierce eventually commented, “well, doesn’t look like there’s anything to me.”

“Maybe, maybe not…” Twy regarded the hole with a wary frown before turning toward her sister. “Sky, can you light it up? See what’s inside?”

“Gladly!” Sky jumped forward, standing in front of the hole as Spike worked to make the opening larger. As he did so, Sky slowly manipulated her fireball through the air, moving it through the dark room to cast light on the objects inside. The fireball was only able to illuminate a small part of the room at a time, but its light at least made it clear that the room extended several floors below the one on which they currently stood.

“Big place,” Conrad remarked.

“Yeah, but is there anythin’ in it?” Austin questioned.

“Can’t you make more light than that?” Pierce pressed.

“Just, shut up!” Sky retorted. “I’m doing what I can!”

The fireball continued to float through the air, shedding light on some boxes along a wall, which itself extended many meters back. A few seconds later, the fire’s light revealed a large four-legged machine standing in the back. None of the legs had proper feet, instead touching the ground with just the tips of the lower leg segment; they appeared somewhat similar to that of an insect’s leg, in fact. The machine’s “head” also possessed massive mechanical pincers on its front, as wall as a large, tinted canopy.

“It’s another mech,” Twy observed.

“Looks a lot like the Bug Crawler…” Austin frowned. “Does EA have another one? Already?!”

“Bug Crawler?” Pierce echoed in disdain, “what kind of lame-ass name is that?”

“It’s not— it’s not lame!” Austin refuted, and then looked down sheepishly when Spike, Twy, and Sky all passed him incredulous looks. “I mean, uh… it’s the big mech we fought in Plano. Er, in Texas. You know, the one that made the news?”

“It’s called the… Bug Crawler?” Phoenix’s face scrounged up in confused disgust.

“Doesn’t even look that much like a bug, aside from the legs… and the pincers, I guess,” Conrad commented.

“Look, that doesn’t— the name is—! Ah, whatever, it doesn’t matter.” Austin turned toward Sky. “Is there anythin’ else down there? If this is some kind of mech bay, then we might be able to steal some of EA’s mechs.”

“You would like that, wouldn’t you,” Sky remarked, returning her attention to the fireball in the room below. She began sweeping it through the air back toward the group’s viewing hole, casting light on a variety of machinery strewn across the ground, as well as—

“Wait!” Phoenix jumped forward, grabbing Sky by the shoulder as she pointed into the darkness below. “Something moved!”

“Huh…?” Sky squinted into the darkness as she tried to retrace her path with the flames. “I don’t see anything. …Wait…”

Off to side, just outside of the light shone from the fire, something glimmered. Pierce crouched down, prepared to launch an attack as Sky tentatively moved the flame toward the glimmer. Once the flame moved closer, it revealed a large, sharpened metal spike, attached to what appeared to be a thick rubber tube — at least the diameter of a person.

“Hey, dude, it’s your namesake,” Conrad remarked, turning his face visible just long enough to grab Spike’s attention.

“Yeah, yeah, real funny,” Spike replied flatly.

“What is this thing?” Sky questioned as she moved the flame across the tubing. While the spike itself rested on the floor, the tubing seemed to be hanging from something above — as the flame moved, it revealed what appeared to be a half-finished machine, with half of a metal shell and a load of exposed internal machinery. A couple moments later, the entire shell could be seen, as well as two large orbs on either side of the shell at the top.

“…Wait, I think I know this one…” Austin commented.

“What? Have you seen it before?” Phoenix questioned.

“Uh…” He glanced away sheepishly. “…It’s a long story.”

“Well it looks like another one of EA’s mechs, alright,” Twy declared as Sky’s flame revealed two long metallic arms, with three arm segments each, attached to the two orbs on the metal shell. “It looks kind of weird, though. And I’m not sure where the cockpit is…”

“Check on top,” Austin suggested.

With a nod, Sky moved the ball of flame vertically. Sure enough, attached to the metal shell at the top, in between the two shoulder orbs, was another short length of tubing connected to a cockpit unit. The cockpit appeared to be able to move separately from the rest of the mech, as though it were a head mounted on a long neck. Slowly, Sky swept her flames over the cockpit, finding that the cockpit unit possessed a pair of mechanical pincers, not unlike the Bug Crawler that had been destroyed in Texas. Eventually she held the flame over the cockpit’s canopy, allowing the group to peer inside—

— where they saw the silhouette of a man with unkempt hair sitting at the controls.

“Surprise!”

“What?!” Sky yelped as a voice echoed over a loudspeaker from within the darkness. Immediately, the mech she had been investigating leaped to life, diving forward through the air to smash into the hallway where the Chaotics were standing.

“Holy shit!” Pierce exclaimed in disbelief as the mech completely pulverized the bulkheads all around the hallway. He attempted to leap out of the way, but the hallway was only so large — and the mech was significantly larger. It bowled through the group as well as the next several bulkheads over, creating a cacophony of wrenching metal and a cascade of debris that made it difficult to tell exactly what was doing on. Pierce’s world spun as he rolled uncontrollably along the ground; by the time he was able to regain his bearings and jump back to his feet, he found that the mech had punched massive holes through several bulkheads and knocked everyone into a large room several hallways over — a large room not unlike a gymnasium, but at least thrice as tall and nearly as long as half a football field.

“Wait a minute…” Pierce scowled. “This is…!”

“Welcome back to the arena!” EA’s voice echoed through the room, drawing everyone’s attention to the flying mech near the back, nearly ten meters from head to tail. Now fully illuminated, the mech’s full shape was plain to see — between its long, spiked tail; angular head unit with pincers; and its expansive mechanical wings, it appeared somewhat like a cross between a wasp and a serpent, with two long arms attached to its shoulders and a bevy of exposed internal machinery in its torso. “Or I suppose just, simply, ‘welcome’, for some of you,” EA finished as the mech brandished its tail spike.

“EA!” Austin jumped to his feet, rushing forward to stand next to Pierce as he glared up at the flying mech. “You…!”

“Ha! Speechless, Fakie?” EA taunted over the mech’s loudspeakers as the other Chaotics recovered from their spill. “I hope you recognize this one. Remember the name?”

“The War Wasp, right? But you didn’t even finish it!”

“War— the War what? War Wasp?” Pierce glanced incredulously at Austin. “What kind of stupid name is that?”

“It’s the name of the mech that’ll put you in your place,” EA declared, as three flying robots appeared on the other side of the arena and alighted on the ground behind the Chaotics.

Pierce regarded the robots with annoyance; two of them appeared to simply be skinnier versions of the ground-based robots he had fought near San Francisco, but the one in the center had thicker armor and what appeared to be heavier weapons. Three robots and a mech… great.

“Allow me to introduce you all to A-02 Beta,” EA proclaimed as the War Wasp gestured toward the bulkier robot. The mech then pointed at the two slimmer robots as EA continued, “and these two are E-series ‘Eagle’ robots. I’m sure the three of them, combined with the War Wasp here, will be more than a match for all of you!”

“What the hell are you even planning?!” Austin questioned, “were you seriously just waitin’ for us to show up?”

“Well, yes and no,” EA replied. “But what I’m plannin is simple — I’ll beat you all, destroy that annoyin’ beam jammer on Spike’s back, and put you all back in captivity until you agree to work for me.”

“You really are persistent, huh,” Conrad remarked.

“I don’t know what you expect to happen here,” Pierce retorted, “these guys we’re with already beat you once, and we’ve spent literally hours destroying tons of your robots. How’s this situation any different?”

“I’ll leave that to you to figure out,” EA responded smugly. “Now…!” The War Wasp shot upward through the air, where it disappeared through a hatch in the ceiling; a moment later it dove back into the room, now wielding a massive gun with both hands that it aimed directly at Austin and Pierce. “C’mon, Fakie, Speed Demon! Let’s see what you’re made of!!”