LL.I

The beginning of the end will not start with a boom
Yet nor shall it start with mere silence.
The key to the Keys, though it may bring doom
Will spell the eventual end of the violence.
The Ayas have acted, at last, they decide —
Just who may perform the final deicide.

Prologue – A Beginning From Old Ends

Agh…!

A flash of light — the clang of clashing weapons.

You… ignorant fools…!

The world flipped upside down, the sky and ground literally changing places — only to be reversed again a moment later.

I… was saving our galaxy…!

A red-haired woman with a blue and golden sword charged forward, paying her allies little heed as she brought her weapon down on her opponent. The dark-skinned monster summoned a giant black and silver scythe from thin air, as he had done countless times before, and parried away the sword — knocking it out of the woman’s hands. Yet still she charged forward as the blade simply reappeared in her hands, ready again to be swung.

It is thanks to me you still live… and yet you seek the death of me and my kind?!

“How can you possibly believe that?” a black-haired woman cried from the side as she chucked a pair of chakrams toward the monster. “You and ‘your kind’ did nothing to save us or ours! When we reached out to you, prepared to exchange peaceful words, you turned us down!”

Because your kind betrayed my trust and ambushed me and my forces! The dark-skinned creature paused for a moment to knock back both the woman with a sword and a silver-haired man with a chain weapon. Both tumbled along the ground before quickly picking themselves up and rushing in to attack again, showing no interest in the exchange of words.

“I won’t deny that we’ve made some mistakes,” the black-haired woman continued, summoning the chakrams back to herself as she watched the battle from afar. “But neither were we unjustified in our actions. If the safety you’d bring involves visiting disaster upon all of our worlds… then we want no part in it!”

Huu…raaaaghhhh! With a roar, the humanoid monster raised the ground around him and replaced the rest of the cavern with an endless abyss, causing his opponents to fall and fall — until the black-haired woman called out “Chaos Reset.” The abyss immediately reverted to the dimly lit cavern from before, leaving the monster surrounded and defenseless.

You do not seem to understand the circumstances… He turned toward the woman to address her, seemingly unconcerned with his other opponents despite his lack of defenses. It is truly unfortunate that this galaxy has suffered so much, but without my drastic actions, it would have been outright destroyed! That you cannot see nor accept this is proof enough!

“You’ll have to pardon us if we don’t believe you,” the red-haired swordswoman replied. “You — and you alone — are the cause for all of this destruction, Ikirom. Even our conflict with the Drakkars did not cause so much death and loss — as it stands, your appearance marked the beginning of the end! And by the name of the Raen lineage, I will have you pay for your sins!”

…Hmph, the monster snorted, once again summoning a large scythe and wielding it in a defensive stance. …You may be Keys… but on what grounds do you think you can defeat me? Me, who holds reality itself in my hands—!

His words were cut off as a streak of light pierced his torso from behind. The blow forced him to his knees, his dark eyes wide in shock before turning to the swordswoman in a rage — where his gaze froze. In the swordswoman’s hand was a silver sphere, just small enough to grasp perfectly. Ikirom then noticed a number of other gemstones falling on the ground around him as the swordswoman thrust her arm forward and called out, “Chaos: Seal!

Arrggh! The monster felt himself forced into a standing position as the gemstones around him began to glow. Pale blue light appeared beneath his feet, outshining the rest of the dim cavern lighting as his extremities began to dissolve away like mist.

You… you fools actually used it… he growled, his eyes darting between the swordswoman, the man with the chain weapon, the woman with the chakrams, and a man with a bow, who had just appeared. The monster then glanced down at his legs and up at his arms, where his body was slowly disintegrating into a blue mist. This is not the end! he roared, his attention now focused on the swordswoman. You know as well as I that this is no end! Curse you and your descendants, Aldredians! Curse your role as the Keys, and curse the Priors and the Oraculm for orchestrating this mad conflict! By this point, his arms and legs had wholly disappeared as the blue mist slowly worked its way up his torso. I will obtain my revenge! I will never forget this betrayal! Carry with you to your deaths the knowledge that you have doomed this galaxy to oblivion, not I! His glare deepened as only his head and neck remained, yet his attention still fell solely on the swordswoman. For the Morikai…

were never the true threat!

Chapter 1 – Awakening

– Sunday, August 28, AD 2129 –

“Guh…?”

A young man awoke with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a couple moments before squinting and turning his head to the side. A dim holographic display against the wall read out “9:56 AM,” as well as some extra gibberish that he could barely read from his bed. He considered going back to sleep — it was the weekend, after all — but eventually he decided against it. With a groan, he sat up and rubbed his eyes, and then turned toward the window. The curtains were utterly defeated by the sunlight outside; as such his room was lit rather brightly for having no lights on.

Looks like a bright day today… he thought to himself, and then shook his head vigorously. “C’mon, Austin.” He slapped himself lightly on the cheeks. “Outta bed already…”

He rolled off of the bed and trudged toward his room’s door, opening it as he yawned again. The rest of his apartment was lit with only the natural brightness of the sun, indicating that he was the first one up. He wasn’t surprised; there was about a 50/50 chance of him waking up before his flatmate on any given day.

Austin moved through the morning quiet to the bathroom, where he didn’t bother to turn on the light as he glanced toward the mirror. His tousled black hair was the epitome of bed head, and only stood out further against his pale skin. He simply sighed and reached for his toothbrush, on which he dumped a dab of toothpaste and then shoved in his mouth.

Yay for electric toothbrushes, he thought to himself as he flipped the device on.

While he was busy staring himself in the mirror and brushing his teeth, the doorbell rang.

“Oi, Spike!” he called out around the toothbrush, “get the door, will ya?”

He then continued lazily moving the toothbrush around his mouth until a few moments later, when he realized that he hadn’t heard any movement. He poked his head out of the bathroom and looked toward his flatmate’s room — where the door was still shut, and the light inside apparently still off. Bastard’s still sleeping this late in the morning, Austin thought to himself, seemingly forgetting that he himself had been asleep not even ten minutes ago.

His thoughts were interrupted as the doorbell rang again — and again and again, as though being mashed by an impatient child. He sighed, removed his toothbrush, spit into the sink and then called out, “coming!”

Of course, Austin made no actual motions toward the front door until after rinsing his mouth under the faucet and replacing his toothbrush on the charging stand. He then sauntered over to the door, stretching and yawning simultaneously before grabbing the handle and opening it.

The first thing he noticed was how incredibly bright it was outside. It made the dimly-lit apartment look as dark as an overcast night under the new moon, with his eyes conveying the difference through pain. He reflexively recoiled away from the sunlight, at this point noticing how obscenely hot the air was that now entered through the open door. It must have been nearly a hundred degrees out, which was a distinctly ill omen considering that the clocks read only a little past ten in the morning.

“Well are you gonna let me in, or what?”

Austin forced his eyes open into a squint and glanced down. In front of him stood a short light-skinned girl, her wavy shoulder-length black hair resting as still as a statue — apparently there wasn’t any wind. On top of that, she appeared to be sweating, even though she wore a red spaghetti strap shirt, short shorts, and flip flops.

Today’s gonna be a fuckin’ terrible day, Austin thought miserably.

“Hello? Austin?”

“Mm,” he grunted in response, and then shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Sorry. Just woke up.”

“You don’t say,” the girl drawled as she glanced down. It was only at that moment that Austin realized that he had answered the door in nothing but an undershirt and boxer briefs.

“…Oops.”

“Hmph,” the girl responded with a snort as she pushed past Austin into the apartment. “Is Spike awake? He isn’t, is he?”

“I wonder,” Austin replied as he hastily shut the door behind her. He then shouted, “oi, Spike! Sky’s here!”

He smirked to himself as rustling noises emerged from the closed bedroom. If there was anything that could rouse Spike in the morning, it was his girlfriend coming over. Austin’s smirk deepened as he realized the double meaning behind his previous thought, and immediately made to address it. “Remember,” he called after Sky, who was already making for the other bedroom, “these walls ain’t exactly soundproof. Keep it down, alright?”

Sky simply turned back and made a face at him before barging into the closed bedroom and shutting the door behind her.

Austin made a face back, even though there was no way she could see it. He then retreated into his own room, where he began looking through his closet. He grabbed the nearest blue t-shirt and then yanked a pair of jean shorts out of a nearby dresser, rapidly exchanging them for his sleeping garb. After ensuring that he was publicly presentable, he returned to the bathroom, where he spent a few minutes battling with the mess that was his hair.

A few minutes later — after a surprising period of quiet — the door to Spike’s bedroom opened again. Austin casually poked his head out of the bathroom to see a huge, incredibly fit man with a dark complexion yawn and lazily nod at him. Austin returned the nod. “Finally awake, huh?”

“Mm,” Spike grunted in response, his mind yet to catch up with his body. He trundled into the kitchen and began rooting around in the cabinets as Sky came out and flopped down on the living room couch.

“Hey Austin, are you busy today?”

He glanced down at Sky, who looked up at him expectantly. She may have been 20 years old — just as he and Spike were — but her childish demeanor made her seem several years younger than that.

“Not really,” Austin eventually replied, tossing his brush onto the bathroom counter top and then coming to lean against the living room wall across from Sky. “Probably just stay inside and game. Way too hot to go outside.”

“Oh come on,” Sky responded with a scowl, “this is hardly your first Texas summer. If anything, this is kinda cool for August.”

“’Kinda cool’ my ass, a hundred degrees is still a hundred degrees. I ain’t goin’ out there even if you paid me.”

“Hmph. What if I said Spike and I were going to see my sister, hmm?”

“…You mean Twy?”

No, I meant Clarice,” Sky drawled. “Of course I meant Twy, dumbass. I don’t even know where Clarice is right now.”

“…Where y’all goin’?”

Sky smirked slyly in response to Austin’s sudden interest. “We’re going to the Nature and Science Center,” she explained, “there’s a new Chaos Energy exhibit that sounds pretty interesting. They’ve even got footage of those big battles from the Nanocreature War!”

“There’s plenty of stuff about Chaos Energy and the Nanocreature War on the Relaynet. Why d’ya needa go to a museum, of all places, to learn about it?”

“Ah, don’t be a stick in the mud,” Spike responded from the kitchen, from where he emerged with a bowl of cereal in hand. “I heard they got exclusive access to some recently declassified footage from the Battle of Neticen.”

“Really,” Austin drawled, “a museum in dinky little Austin, Texas? Exclusive access? To footage not even from SERRCom, but the CSA?”

Spike simply shrugged in response. “Just what I heard.”

“They also have replicas of the Chaos Ayas!” Sky added, “they’re the same size and shape as the real things!”

“Nobody cares about replicas,” Austin rebuked, “get me access to a real ones and I’ll consider going.”

“Not even if Twy will be there?”

“We’ve been friends for over a decade, it’s not as though she’ll disappear just ‘cause I didn’t see her this one time.”

“Oh, well that’s a shame.” Sky shrugged and sighed loftily. “She said she was looking forward to having you around, you know. Guess I’ll just have to pass along the bad news.”

“W-wait, she did?” Austin responded impulsively, spluttering the first part of his sentence. In his distraction, he failed to catch the wink that Sky passed to Spike. “W-well, I…” He sighed wearily. “I guess I can come along, then. Couldn’t hurt.”

“I knew you’d come around!” Sky grinned broadly, popping off of the couch and moving to the kitchen herself. “We’ll leave in half an hour, then! You hear that, Spike? Hurry up and get ready!”

Spike merely grunted in response as he continued eating his cereal. Austin smirked and then retreated into his room for the time being, hoping that he wouldn’t regret agreeing to go out.

*     *     *

“Well, here we are.”

“About time,” Austin grumbled as he climbed out of the car’s backseat. He squinted through the midday sunlight as he took a moment to stretch, and then glanced back at the car. “Oi, hurry up.”

“Calm down.” Sky rolled her eyes as she and Spike walked around the car to Austin’s side. She then flashed her wrist at a sensor on the side of the car, at which point it sped off on its own to service other travelers in the city. Turning back to Austin, she commented, “what are you in a rush for, anyways? Are you that eager to see Twy?”

“No, I just wanna get out of this god damn heat,” he countered as he turned away from his two friends to approach the entrance to the museum. “Shoulda gone to the pool or somethin’, not some museum…”

“Well it’s too late for that,” Sky retorted as she bounced past Austin. “But if you hate the heat that much, then race you to the front doors!”

“Wha…?” Austin stared after her, dumbfounded, as she ran off. He then glanced over as Spike shuffled up to his side, apparently still tired. Neither of them were morning people, but Spike took mornings the worst.

“For what it’s worth, I agree with you,” he muttered to Austin. “…No point in complainin’ now, though. Let’s go.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Austin shrugged in response as the two men neared the front doors. Sky had already disappeared inside by the time they arrived, so they wordlessly entered through the double doors. Austin sighed of relief the moment the cool indoor air washed over him, thankful above all else for the existence of air conditioning.

“Not a lotta people here,” Spike remarked as he glanced around. Sure enough, there were only a handful of people in the foyer — a nearly pitiful scene, given the grandiose sign situated in the center front. Austin’s attention lingered on it only long enough to tell that it was related to the Chaos Energy exhibit Sky had mentioned; it was evident that the museum hoped to increase the visitor count with the exhibit, but it was also evident that the attempt wasn’t all that successful.

“For someone who was so impatient just a few minutes ago, you sure are taking your damn time.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Austin waved off Sky’s statement as he and Spike approached her. “So where’s Twy? She’s meeting us here, right?”

“She’s already inside,” Sky replied, and then gave Austin an impatient look. “Apparently she got tired of waiting.”

“…Oi, help me out here.” Austin elbowed Spike, but his friend simply responded with a resigned smile and a shrug.

Sky shook her head and exhaled warily. “If the two of you are done dragging your asses, then let’s check in.”

She then turned around and approached the front desk, as did Spike and Austin. Despite implant identification being widespread, the facility didn’t seem to have any automated scanners around and had to make due with handheld ones. As Austin held out his wrist for the staffer to scan his ID implant, he couldn’t help but feel annoyed — museum visits weren’t free, after all, so where exactly did the money go, if not to upgrade their equipment? He shook his head of the thoughts as soon as he entered the museum proper; the low visitor count was more than enough to explain the state of affairs anyways. Museums in general were faring poorly in modern times, as Virtual and Augmented Reality technology had become so advanced as to make museums practically obsolete. Why bother going to a special building to look at things when you can do so from your own home, or so Austin thought.

As Austin turned his attention away from his internal thoughts, he realized that he had been abandoned — Spike and Sky had already gone on ahead. He sighed in annoyance and began meandering his way through the building, casually taking in the exhibits. Front and center was a generic holographic display of the solar system. To the left of that, on the way to the Chaos Energy exhibit, was a separate display that showed the Milky Way galaxy. Thanks to the denizens of Earth stumbling onto the galactic stage and trading information with alien races, the galaxy was confirmed to have four arms, and its shape was no longer in question. In fact, the vast majority of mysteries involving the Milky Way were resolved by simply asking the other space-faring races, who had already surveyed much of the galaxy. Many people were disappointed to find that aliens had so soundly beat Earth to countless discoveries around and regarding the galaxy, but most astronomers were chomping at the bit to travel to other planets and observe the universe from angles thought before to be impossible.

After taking in the galactic display, Austin finally moved on to the entrance of the Chaos Energy exhibit. He paused for a moment to look up at the poster stationed next to the entrance. “’Chaos Energy — The Mysterious Resource That Flipped Physics On Its Head,’” he read aloud, and then glanced around. He was actually rather surprised at the size of the exhibit; everyone knew that Chaos Energy was integral to modern life in the galaxy, as it allowed for all manner of physics-defying feats — particularly faster-than-light travel and communication — but there still wasn’t much actually known about Chaos Energy. No one knew how it came to be, or even what it actually is, despite the fact that the other races in the galaxy had studied the resource for thousands of years. The exhibit reflected this lack of knowledge rather well, as only a small minority of the displays were dedicated to theories about what Chaos Energy actually is, or how it came to be. The majority of the displays were about its effects or how it’s used in technology, rather than about Chaos Energy itself.

As Austin surveyed the room, his eyes fell on a prominent display in the center, dedicated to the most well-known users of Chaos Energy: Chaotics. Chaotics were people who could manipulate Chaos Energy in order to produce all kinds of supernatural effects, ranging from simple super speed or super strength to the ability to manipulate reality itself. I wish I was a Chaotic… Austin thought to himself as he stepped up to the display and took stock of the many images of people performing superhuman feats, but a note in the center of the display explained exactly why Austin’s dream could never be realized: Chaotic ability was innate, not learned, and far less than one percent of the entire galactic population had any kind of superhuman ability. And Earthians had no Chaotic potential at all.

Except for those four… Austin glanced to the side of the display, where an image of four people featured prominently under a title in large, bold letters: “Eximius Vir.” All four of the individuals looked to be little older than Austin, with tan skin and inexplicably generic facial features that almost seemed to be a mixture of every ethnicity. Despite their unremarkable appearances, however, they were famous across Earth for one fact alone: they were the only known Earthian Chaotics. “Lucky bastards,” Austin muttered to himself as he skimmed the information the display provided on them. The pool of public knowledge regarding the Eximius Vir wasn’t large; everyone knew that they worked for SERRCom — Earth’s interstellar military — and they would often show up around the globe to perform standard heroic actions, like saving civilians from natural disasters, or putting a stop to terrorist activity. But sometimes, they would just disappear without a trace for weeks, or even months on end, and then suddenly reappear later on as though nothing had happened. They worked for SERRCom, after all, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine that they were off on some secret mission during those times. But what could those missions possibly entail?

“Probably a bunch of cool spy-movie stuff… heh.” Austin snorted and shook his head. “Wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to meet them… hope they live up to the hero image.”

Eventually, Austin decided that he’d had enough of marveling at the Eximius Vir and began looking around the exhibit for other interesting displays. He already knew most of the information present at the exhibit, and as he spent more time inspecting the displays, it became evident that the rumor Spike had heard wasn’t true. So much for getting to see some space battle footage, he thought forlornly, but it would figure. There’s gotta be something interesting here, though, right…?

Just as he finished his thought, his attention fell on a massive display set up in the center back, dedicated entirely to the Chaos Energy Quake of AD 2088, a year-long event during which Chaos Energy all across the galaxy became inert and unusable. And standing directly in front of that display was a young woman with a black ponytail, dressed in a pale blue t-shirt and jeans.

Ah, so that’s where Twy went… Austin thought to himself, finally found her. ‘Bout time. He shook his head wearily as he stepped up beside her and looked up at the display. “So. Chaos Energy Quake, huh?”

“…Oh, you actually came.” She glanced his way. “I’m actually kind of surprised.”

“Wait, you are?” Austin’s eyes widened slightly. “But, Sky said—…”

“…She said what?”

“…Nothing.” Austin sighed and looked away, realizing that he’d been had. He was already at the museum, though, so complaining would do no good. Chastising Sky for her white lie could come later.

“You know, I’ve read about the Chaos Quake many times, but every time… it still manages to amaze me.”

“…Yeah?” Austin turned his attention up to the display in front of them. “Why’s that?”

“You have to ask?” Twy frowned as she gestured toward a display of Earth to the side. “The natural disasters that occurred during the Quake killed nearly a billion people around the globe! That level of devastation is… unprecedented. I don’t think there has ever been an event in recent history that wiped out over a tenth of the human race.”

“Sure, but in the grand scheme of things it ain’t much,” Austin countered. “Like, during the Nanocreature War, an entire fucking planet was destroyed! That’s a lot worse than a billion people dying.”

“It would be if that planet was a population center, but it wasn’t. Neticen was a Fortress World, and by all accounts it was fully evacuated before it was destroyed. It’s hardly the same.”

“…How do you know all this stuff?”

“Unlike you, I actually paid attention in history class.”

“Meh, history is boring.”

“’Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’”

Austin scowled in response to Twy’s quip. “What’s to learn from natural disasters? It ain’t like that kind of freak accident is ever gonna happen again, and even if it did, what the hell would we do about it?”

“We could learn from the circumstances leading right up to it,” Twy suggested. “After all, were it not for the Quake, World War 3 probably would’ve happened.”

“Ain’t no way another world war is ever gonna happen. Not while SERRCom is still around and in charge, at least.”

“I guess so. I only hope SERRCom remains as the ‘good guys’ forever.”

“That’s incredibly optimistic of you.”

“Not all of us can afford to be a cynic, you know. Someone has to keep their spirits up.”

“Says the person who brought up the Chaos Quake death count.”

Twy made a face and punched Austin lightly on the arm. He simply responded with a self-amused grin before glancing around the exhibit.

“Bored already?” Twy questioned flatly.

“…Not at all, no, I’ve no idea why you’d say that.”

Twy simply sighed and began looking around the exhibit herself. “Is there anything you wanted to see?”

“Most of this stuff you can find on the Relaynet, so… no, not particularly.”

“Then why did you even come here?”

Austin remained conspicuously silent for several moments before eventually responding, “…’cause I was bored?”

“Uh huh.” Twy nodded patronizingly as she began walking around the room. Austin quickly fell into step beside her as they idly investigated the exhibit.

“…I wish I were a Chaotic.”

“Don’t we all,” Twy replied wistfully. “The dream of superpowers… denied because of where we were born. It’s a damn shame.”

“What, are you tryin’ to say that the universe is racist?”

“Funny to hear that from a white guy.”

“Oh, is it time to check my privilege already? I thought that wasn’t for another two hours.”

“Heh,” Twy stifled an amused chuckle as the two stopped in front of another display. On it were nine gemstone-like objects, and above them was a sign that read “Chaos Ayas.” “The universe really is a lot different than what we expected, though,” Twy pointed out, “especially Chaos Energy… that alone changes everything.”

“Yeah, poor physics. Used to be that huge guy on the block that no one messed with, then suddenly Chaos Energy swings in and rips him a new one.”

“…Interesting analogy.”

“I challenge you to come up with something better.”

Twy made an exaggerated show of rolling her eyes. “I’ll think about it.”

“…Chaos Energy really is weird, though.” Austin crossed his arms as he looked over the display in front of him. “Apparently, it’s ever-present, except when it’s not? And the Chaos Ayas are the only things that actually generate Chaos Energy? …Is it really energy?”

“In the colloquial sense I’d say yes, but in a technical sense, it seems to exist outside of the normal matter-energy definitions,” Twy answered. “You’re right that it’s weird, but that’s hardly news.”

“Heh, true.” Austin nodded absentmindedly, his eyes falling to the replicas of the nine Chaos Ayas. A light blue and a dark blue stone, both cut like diamonds; a light green and a dark green stone, both cut like emeralds; a light red and a dark red stone, both shaped like quartz; a white and a black stone, both with a triangle cut; and one silver sphere: those were the Chaos Ayas. They were all approximately the size of baseballs, the perfect size for securely holding them in one hand. That said… “The Ayas are a bit smaller than you’d think.”

“No kidding,” Twy remarked. “For stones so powerful as those, you’d think they’d be big and difficult to move. Instead, the Master Ayas looks fit for a game of catch.”

“Ha! Imagine, tryin’ to use one of the most powerful objects in the galaxy in a game of fuckin’ catch. It’d be like playin’ football with a nuclear bomb.”

Twy smirked. “Brings a whole new meaning to ‘nuclear football,’ doesn’t it?”

Austin snorted in amusement. “Welp, don’t think I can top that one.”

“Heh, of course you can’t! I bet Sky could, though. Speaking of…” Twy then glanced around the room. “…Where’d Sky and Spike go?”

“Probably found a dark closet to make out in,” Austin quipped with a roll of his eyes, but nevertheless began surveying the room himself. A couple seconds later, he felt something bump against his foot; looking down, he found a silver sphere, nearly the size of a baseball, rolling on the ground. “Oh…” he muttered as he stooped to pick it up, “did it fall from the display…?”

—ON WHAT GROUNDS DO YOU THINK YOU CAN DEFEAT ME?!

“What—!?” Austin reflexively clutched his head and squeezed his eyes shut as a voice echoed through his ears. Before he could think any further, his vision blurred and was replaced by a field of deep red. Just in front of him stood a tall brown creature decked out in black and golden robes as it used a massive scythe to fend off attacks from all sides. Some distance away from it stood a tall red-haired swordswoman with a beautiful blue and golden claymore; she then raised her hand into the air, mouthed words that Austin couldn’t hear, and with a flash of light—

YOU BELIEVE YOU CAN DEFEAT ME?! ME — A GOD?!

—the scene changed, the creature replaced with a tan-skinned, multi-tailed monster of a person who rapidly exchanged blows with seven other individuals, one of whom was dressed in blue and golden robing and wielded the same sword as the swordswoman from before as she fired off electric blast after electric blast—

C’MON FAKIE, YOU CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT!

—then he saw himself, wearing what looked to be some kind of powered armor as he lunged forward and attacked another version of himself, this one with a metallic arm—

I WILL REMEMBER WHAT NO ONE ELSE CAN!!

—then the second Austin was replaced with a blond-haired man with a deranged look on his face and blood on his clothes as he whipped a massive chain weapon through the air toward Austin—

—who was suddenly standing in front of a massive army of metallic creatures, his own face raked with metallic rashes—

—replaced with the visage of a short, stern, pale man with short black hair and an emblem of a darkened sun on his shoulder—

—followed by a tall, mouthless humanoid with four knees, dressed in black robing—

—then a similar creature with red markings on their skin and two spheres of purplish energy around their hands—

—then the creature from the first scene, except facing Austin and glaring at him—

—then a tan-skinned humanoid with green eyes, short black hair, and a maroon trench-coat—

—and then the Earth itself, seemingly under attack from a massive hostile fleet as its surface burned, before his vision faded to black…

…and for a brief second flashed a blue sphere of energy, with tendrils of blue and cyan racing along its outer and inner surface.

Once Austin was able to regain his bearings, he realized that his ears were ringing. He shook his head fiercely in an attempt to re-orient himself and opened his eyes, only to find a concerned Twy staring back at him. The ringing in his ears still dominated his hearing, so he couldn’t hear what she was saying — but he could tell that at some point he had dropped to his knees, and she was kneeling beside him.

“…tin? Austin? Can you hear me?!”

“Ngh…” he groaned warily as his hearing returned. With what felt like tremendous effort, he rocked back on his legs to sit on his bottom proper, at which point he shook his head again. “Ugh, what the… what the fuck just happened…?”

“I was about to ask the same thing.” Twy sighed of relief now that Austin seemed to be fine. “You just suddenly collapsed. Do you need a drink?”

“Couldn’t hurt…” he croaked. Twy turned and nodded to someone off to the side; it was at this point that Austin realized that he had drawn the attention of everyone at the exhibit, and at some point Sky and Spike had come to his side. His face immediately flushed red with embarrassment.

“Really, just collapsing like that…” Twy shook her head wearily. “…You really need to look out for yourself better.”

Austin was about to respond when the lights in the exhibit flickered. Shortly afterward, two museum employees entered and began gesturing toward the exit.

“…What’s going on?” he questioned.

“I’m not sure…” Twy’s expression darkened. “…Whatever it is, it’s not good.”

“And they’re kicking us all out?”

“Looks like it.” Twy sighed, and then turned back to Austin and offered him her hand. “Here.”

He grabbed her hand and let her pull him up; his head immediately began spinning, but it stabilized after a couple seconds.

“Don’t fall over again, now.”

“Yeah, yeah…” he grumbled in response and began trudging toward the exit. “…Oh! Did you put the Master Ayas replica back? It fell off the display…”

“…What?” Twy gave him an odd look before glancing back at the Chaos Ayas display, where all nine gemstone replicas were sitting, undisturbed. “The replicas are in a glass box. They’ve been there the whole time.”

Austin’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What? But… I could’ve sworn…”

“You probably imagined it. A fall like that… you really do need water, don’t you? Go ahead without me, I’ll go see what’s taking Spike so long.”

“Yeah…” Austin muttered as Twy rushed off. He glanced back at the Ayas display once more before turning toward the exit. “…What the hell just happened…”

Chapter 2 – Unlocked

“…and indeed, the disconnection of the Relaynet earlier today is the proof that confirms SERRCom’s recent report: the galaxy is now suffering through yet another Chaos Energy Quake. Some of you may be familiar with the first Quake that occurred over forty years ago, in 2088…”

“A Chaos Quake, huh?” Sky idly echoed as she and her sister listened to the broadcast news.

“I suppose that might explain why the Chaos Energy exhibit closed so suddenly,” Twy commented.

“It was just an exhibit, it’s not like it had any functioning Chaos tech. Kicking us out was stupid.”

“They were probably reacting to the Relaynet unexpectedly going down, which would always be a bad sign.”

“I guess.” Sky shrugged as she sat back in her chair. She and Twy were sitting around the small kitchen table in Austin and Spike’s apartment; the four friends had elected to spend the rest of the day there after being kicked out of the museum. Twy was the first to start searching the news for an explanation, and before long she had found it: another Chaos Energy Quake had started, meaning that Chaos Energy was utterly unusable. Technology that relied on it shut down, and Chaotics — those who could use supernatural powers — were reduced to the level of normal people.

Practically, this meant little for the citizens of Earth. As first contact occurred a mere 29 years ago, the Earthians were incredibly new to the galactic stage and had yet to widely adopt the advanced Chaos Energy-based technologies of the other races. The single most well-known and widely-used piece of Chaos Energy-based technology were the Relay Network Points, which connected Earth to a galaxy-spanning information network known as the Relaynet, not wholly unlike the Internet. The Relay Network Points were capable of sending information at faster-than-light speeds thanks to Chaos Energy, but network latency was still high, preventing any kind of social interaction beyond message boards and wikis. And with Chaos Energy suddenly inaccessible, not even that was possible. To the average Earth citizen, the rest of the galaxy had effectively ceased to exist.

“What in the—? Austin, you bastard! Get back here!”

“Yeah, eat my dust, dirtbag! You ain’t got shit on me!”

Of course, the average Earth citizen didn’t often concern themselves with the rest of the galaxy in the first place.

“Guys, can you not take this a little more seriously?” Twy glanced toward the living room area with mild annoyance. Whereas she and Sky were watching the news, Austin and Spike had quickly broken out the VR headsets and booted up a racing game. It wasn’t long before the air filled with their constant taunting and trash talking.

“What’s that—? No! Fuck! Where the hell are these shells comin’ from?!”

“Ha! Havin’ fun in last place, huh?”

“Suck a dick, asshole.”

“What’s that? You’ll have to speak up, my massive lead makes it hard to hear you!”

Twy huffed, irritated at being ignored. Her sister simply smirked in amusement, and then jumped in surprise as Austin suddenly whooped.

“Haha! Victory!”

“Victory my ass.” Spike scowled as he roughly removed his headset from his face. “Only Twy can beat me so soundly. Today was a total fluke. All luck.”

“Bah, you’re just mad you didn’t win,” Austin retorted, a smug grin covering his entire face.

“Are the two of you finally done?” Twy cut in.

A frown rapidly replaced Austin’s grin. “…What’re you bein’ so pushy for?”

“Yeah, this is just what we usually do when we hang out,” Spike added.

“Yes, but normally there isn’t a Chaos Quake to worry about,” Twy countered.

“Aw, c’mon, that doesn’t affect us,” Austin waved off her concern. “The only Chaos tech we have ‘round here is the Relaynet, and that’s hardly necessary for everyday life. Now, if the Internet went down, then we’d have a problem.”

Sky snorted. “What, because then you couldn’t jack off to your stupid memes all day?”

“I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

“Twy actually kinda has a point…” Spike commented as he stepped around the living room couch and stood next to Sky, where he began leaning on the back of her chair with his arm. “The last Quake caused a bunch of disasters, didn’t it? People don’t call it the ‘Apocalypse’ for nothin’.”

Twy nodded in response. “Exactly! The damage was incredible. Multiple high-magnitude earthquakes, tons of volcanic eruptions, massive hurricanes, flooding everywhere. The number of casualties is just… mind-boggling.”

“Yeah…” Austin sighed and then sat on the arm of the couch, facing the rest of the group. “…But, think of it this way: if the West Coast hadn’t been practically obliterated, then your parents never would’ve moved out here, and we never would have met!”

Twy passed Austin a deadpan stare. “I hope you realize how incredibly insensitive that sounds.”

“Yeah, it sounded better in my head…”

“Even so, we should be fine,” Sky declared. “I mean, we’re in the middle of Texas! No major fault lines nearby, and we aren’t too close to the coast, so hurricanes and tidal waves aren’t a problem either. The worst we’ll see is tornadoes, maybe.”

“Just because we aren’t in direct danger doesn’t mean we won’t feel the effects,” Twy countered. “We live in a global economy, you know. Wreck one part, you wreck everything.”

“Even just takin’ care of refugees can break a nation,” Spike added. “We already had to deal with losin’ four major cities during the first Quake, and that’s just America. Well… America and Canada, I guess. But there ain’t no way we can deal with another West Coast-level disaster.”

“Y’all are talkin’ like it’ll be the end of the world…” Austin scowled. “C’mon, it can’t be that bad, can it?”

“Tell that to Seattle, or Vancouver, or Portland,” Twy shot back. “And San Fransisco was literally flooded permanently. You said it yourself: that’s why our parents moved out to damned Texas, of all places.”

Spike sighed wearily. “And none of this is even considerin’ what happened everywhere else on the globe…”

“…Man, what’re y’all bein’ so depressing for? You’re actin’ like you were there for the first Quake, but it happened twenty years before any of us were even born!” Austin glanced incredulously between Twy and Spike. “Surely you’re just blowin’ this outta proportion?”

“Yeah, I’m with Austin on this one,” Sky quickly spoke up. “No use in suddenly being afraid of everything! We should just keep living like we always do.”

“What, eating, drinking, and sleeping all day long?” Spike smirked as he roughly tousled Sky’s hair. She let out a yelp and quickly batted his hand away before fixing the mess he created.

“To be fair, she was the one who suggested we check out the museum,” Twy pointed out.

“Yeah! See, I’m not just a lazy asshole!” Sky turned toward Spike and stuck her tongue out at him.

“Sure, sure.” Spike shook his head and sighed as if disappointed, but the slight smile on his face belied his true feelings.

“Still…” Twy muttered as Spike turned around and stepped into the kitchen, “…I have a bad feeling about this whole situation. Another Chaos Energy Quake, only forty years after the first one, but before that the galaxy went thousands of years without any such phenomenon. Something bad must be going on…”

“It’s just a natural disaster, ain’t it?” Austin shrugged. “It’s probably just random chance. And really, really bad luck.”

“Do we even know what caused the first Quake?” Sky questioned.

“There are rumors that the Nimalians know something about it… but they haven’t said much. Most of the Relaynet is more concerned with the Nanocreature War than with the Chaos Quake before it.”

“I can agree with that,” Sky declared, “that Nanocreature business is stuff that we can actually do something about, not this natural disaster Quake stuff. …What exactly is the Nanocreature stuff, again?”

“We were just at the damned museum, looking at the Nanocreature War exhibit,” Spike responded with exasperation as he stepped out of the kitchen with a glass of water in hand. He then knocked on the top of her head. “Do you retain any information in that thick skull of yours?”

Sky promptly adopted a sly smirk. “I know all of the best ways to get you out of bed.”

Austin and Twy exchanged annoyed glances as Spike’s mouth hung open for a moment. His dark complexion made it impossible to see if he was blushing, but his embarrassment was obvious all the same. Then, just as he was recovering from Sky’s remark, she swiftly grabbed the glass he was holding and attempted to snatch it out of his hands — but his grip was tighter than she expected, causing her to simply yank it into the air where it began to fall to the ground.

“Watch it—!” Austin reflexively stood up, directing an irritated reprimand toward Sky — until he noticed a distinct lack of the sound of water splashing on tile. In fact, while the cup itself had loudly clambered to the ground, the water that was once contained within it simply seemed to hang in the air.

Several moments passed in silence as Austin, Sky, and Spike stared at the floating blob of water. They each then turned their heads toward Twy, whose right hand was stretched toward the water, and whose face was frozen in shock.

“…Twy…?” Austin was the first to break the silence as he slowly approached her. “…Is that…?”

A moment later, the blob of water broke and fell to the ground, splashing across the tile as though the initial spill had been merely postponed.

“I…” Twy blinked twice, as though waking from a momentary nap. “…Did… did I just…?”

“Bah.” Spike shook his head as he re-entered the kitchen to grab some napkins. “This Quake shit is gettin’ to our heads. Some hallucinatory bullshit goin’ on here—?!”

As he turned around he froze again, as the water that had covered the ground rose up and reformed into a ball of water. The levitating mass then floated over to Twy, who held her hands under it without touching it. Her expression, initially one of awe, quickly transformed into glee as she began manipulating the sphere of water into different geometric shapes.

Austin shot Spike an incredulous glance. “…I think it’s safe to say we aren’t hallucinatin’.”

“But how?…” Spike frowned, his brow furrowed in confusion. He crossed his arms and then started scratching his temple in thought. “…Are… are you a Chaotic?”

“I guess so…” Twy replied, her attention still centered mostly on the water before her. Suddenly she froze, frowned, and glanced worriedly between Austin, Sky, and Spike. “Wait, this shouldn’t be possible.”

“What, because the chance of us Earthians bein’ Chaotics is so incredibly low?” Austin questioned.

“No, because of the Chaos Quake! If Chaos Energy is unusable, then how am I doing this?!” She gestured toward the floating blob of water.

“I don’t have the slightest idea,” Sky responded, “buuuuut, if you can control water… then, since we’re twins, obviously that means I can control fire, right—?!

As she finished her claim she punched the air — at which point a blast of flame emerged, igniting the kitchen wall.

“Holy fuck—!” Austin and Spike both immediately rushed to grab some towels in order to smother the fire. Before either of them could move far, however, Twy simply doused the flames with her sphere of water.

“…Oops?” Sky smiled sheepishly as she turned toward Austin and Spike.

“You dumbass!” Spike rapped her across the head again. “The fuck are you tryin’ to do here, huh? Me an’ Austin have to live here, you know!”

“I’m sorry! I just— I didn’t think it would actually work, you know?!”

Spike growled and shook his head. Then, with a sigh he commented, “…I know. I’ll let you off this once. But if you set fire to our apartment again—!”

“I know, I know!” Sky immediately adopted a broad grin as she turned toward Spike and lit up a small flame on her fingertip. “Be careful with those threats though, after all it’s pretty dangerous to…” She snapped and made finger pistols as she finished, “…play with fire.”

Spike gave his girlfriend a level stare as she grinned back, still pointing at him and thoroughly amused with herself.

“Please don’t turn into a walking cliche,” Twy responded flatly.

“Wait a minute, hold on, this is all fuckin’ ridiculous!” Austin exclaimed, “the hell is goin’ on? Why do y’all suddenly have superpowers? And why are you not concerned about this?!”

“What’s to be concerned about?” Sky questioned, finally putting her hands down and turning away from Spike.

“Oh gee, I dunno, maybe the fact that you suddenly and inexplicably have superpowers despite being too old and the wrong race? Or that every military ever presses Chaotics into military service?” Austin glanced between Twy and Sky with worry. “If someone finds this shit out, then who knows what’ll happen to you! Hell, gettin’ conscripted is probably the best case scenario!”

“…Oh…” Sky’s expression finally fell, as the gravity of the situation hit her. She glanced down at her hands and then back up at Austin cluelessly. “Shit… what do we do, then?”

“Can we even answer that question?” Spike scowled as he crossed his arms and leaned against the kitchen counter. “The two of you just suddenly have superpowers. How? When? Why?”

“And do me an’ Spike have powers, too?” Austin added.

Spike nodded. “Yeah, exactly. And all of this in the middle of a supposed Chaos Quake, too.”

“…This is a lot more serious than I thought…” Sky commented, crestfallen. “What do we do now…?”

“Don’t use your powers,” Spike suggested. “No one’ll know you have ‘em if you don’t use ‘em.”

“But…” Sky frowned. “But that’s…”

“Do you want to be conscripted? Because that’s how you get conscripted.”

“…”

“…Wait, Austin,” Twy spoke up, “what about your uncle?”

“You mean Luke…?” Austin stared at her for a few moments, confused, before her suggestion clicked. “Oh, yeah! He works with those Eximius Vir guys, doesn’t he?”

“Eximius who…?” Sky glanced between Austin and Twy wearily.

“The only four Earthian Chaotics to ever exist,” Austin explained. “…Until now, at least. They work for SERRCom. They aren’t much older than us, actually. My uncle, Luke, he’s a member of the fireteam that supports them, so he probably has a lot of experience and know-how when it comes to how SERRCom treats Chaotics.”

“He’s still part of SERRCom himself, though,” Spike pointed out. “Look, I know Luke’s a pretty cool dude, but can we really trust him with this?”

“Of course we can. …Probably.”

“At least we have time to think about it,” Twy stated. “Given his position, he’s probably really busy right now dealing with the fallout from the Quake.”

“Yeah, good point.” Austin nodded. “Hell, we might even be able to ask him for some better info about what’s goin’ on, in general.”

“Sounds like a plan…?” Sky glanced between Austin and Twy expectantly.

Spike heaved a lofty sigh. “Well, it’s all we’ve got for now. Just keep your powers to yourself so you don’t draw SERRCom’s attention, alright?”

“Will do!” Sky offered a mock salute as Twy simply shook her head in resignation.

“We’ll be careful,” Twy added, and then threw her sister a warning glance. “I’ll be sure to keep Sky in line.”

Sky simply stuck her tongue out in response.

“I guess this is all we can plan for now…” Austin frowned uneasily. “…Still… this whole situation just… doesn’t sit right with me.”

“You ain’t alone there,” Spike replied, “but there ain’t really much use in constantly worryin’ about it.”

“Agreed!” Sky exclaimed, and then yawned broadly. “…Oof. I think it might be time to get out of here.”

“I second that.” Twy stood up from her chair and stretched.

“The two of you gonna be alright?” Austin questioned as Spike moved to hug Sky.

“Bah, we’ll be perfectly fine,” Sky retorted. She gave Spike a quick kiss before releasing him and turning toward Austin, at which point she grinned and flexed. “After all, we just got superpowers! No one can stop us now!”

“Don’t go forgettin’ everything we just talked about, now,” Spike replied as he tousled her hair.

“I knew I’d have to babysit you,” Twy remarked with a sigh, “…but please don’t make me start so early.”

“…Man, you guys are no fun.” Sky pouted and stepped toward the door. As she stopped to put her shoes on, Twy approached Austin and gave him a quick hug.

“Don’t worry about us,” she declared, “we’ll all be fine.”

Austin nodded slowly. “Yeah… I hope so.”

The sound of the door opening drew their attention. Sky stood just outside of the doorway and waved back to Twy. “C’mon, sis! Let’s get going!”

“Coming, coming…” Twy muttered as she approached the door herself. She paused one more time to turn toward Austin and wave. “See you guys later!”

She then stepped through the door and closed it behind her. The twins were gone.

The moment silence fell over the apartment, Spike let loose an incredible yawn. “Looks like that’s it for me, too,” he grunted and moved toward his bedroom.

“Bit early to go to bed, ain’t it?” Austin questioned.

“Meh. It’s been a long day.”

“Heh, won’t argue with you there… well. See you tomorrow, then?”

“Aye.” Spike nodded as he closed the door to his bedroom. “’Night.”

“Yeah…” Austin responded absentmindedly, “…’night…”

Chapter 3 – Midst of Unknown

Monday, August 29, AD 2129 –

“Gah…!”

Austin awoke with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a couple moments before rubbing his eyes and yawning. The bright sunlight pouring in through his window signaled that morning had arrived, and no amount of determination would allow Austin to return to the comfort of sleep. With an annoyed groan, he forced himself to sit up and then glanced over at the clock on his wall.

“Nine oh two…” he muttered to himself, his eyes reflexively squinting. “…Damn, another bright day. Just my luck.”

He yawned again before shaking his head vigorously in an attempt to rouse himself. As he did so, an intense feeling of unease washed over him. The memories of the previous day rushed into his awakening mind: the mysterious ball at the museum, the start of another Chaos Energy Quake, and two of his friends suddenly gaining superpowers. Now several hours and a good night’s rest removed from these surprising events, they hardly seemed real.

“Had to’ve been a dream…” Austin muttered as he climbed out of bed and trudged toward his room’s door. He threw it open haphazardly and stepped into the common area.

Spike nodded toward Austin from his position on the couch. “Mornin’.”

“Mornin’,” Austin greeted back as he approached the kitchen. But before he took too many steps he stopped in his tracks, his attention focused on a discolored patch on the dining area wall, just above the table.

It looked a lot like a burn mark.

“Yeah, Sky did a real number on the wall…” Spike scowled, apparently having noticed Austin’s stare. “Don’t worry, I’ll get her to fix it.”

“…So all that stuff really happened…?”

“Huh?” Spike gave Austin a confused look before realizing what he meant. “Oh… yeah, you mean the twins gettin’ superpowers? Yeah, that really happened. Thought it might’ve been a dream myself ‘til that spot on the wall reminded me otherwise.”

“Mm,” Austin grunted in response as he stepped into the kitchen and grabbed a clean bowl from near the sink. “Still pretty hard to believe.”

“No kidding,” Spike responded, raising his voice slightly so Austin could still hear him in the kitchen. “Before a few years ago, everyone thought we puny… what is it that the rest of the galaxy calls us?”

“Earthians.”

“Yeah, that. Everyone thought we couldn’t be Chaotics. Then suddenly we got the Eximius Vir, and now Sky and Twy. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say somethin’ fishy is goin’ on.”

“Something fishy is goin’ on,” Austin countered as he entered the living area with a bowl of cereal and sat on the opposite end of the couch from Spike. “We’re not supposed to be Chaotics. No one in Earth history has been a Chaotic. And now suddenly we have six? I mean, at least six, who knows if there are others out there in the same position as Twy and Sky.”

Spike shrugged. “Guess you’re right.”

“…This is just the worst.” Austin sighed in irritation. “Suddenly gettin’ superpowers… that’s just askin’ to get magic’d away by the CIA or some shit. And in a world where Chaotic conscription is universal policy? Even worse…”

“If they’re careful, they’ll be fine,” Spike replied. “The twins are smart, they can handle themselves. They aren’t careless.”

Austin momentarily stopped chewing as he gave Spike a level stare.

“…What?”

“Can you look me in the eye and honestly say that Sky isn’t careless?”

“…Fair point.”

“And that’s why I’m worried. Part of it, at least. Even if we don’t have powers, we’re still witnesses to Twy and Sky, so if they get discovered… who knows what’ll happen to us?”

Spike’s eyes narrowed. “You ain’t tryin’ to suggest that we should abandon them… are you?”

“No! No, not at all,” Austin quickly refuted as he vigorously shook his head. “I’m just concerned, is all.”

“Well, no point in worryin’ about it for now…” Spike sighed. “SERRCom should be busy dealin’ with the fallout of the Chaos Quake, so that’ll buy us a few days, at least. In the meantime…” He stood up and stretched.

“You goin’ somewhere?” Austin questioned, still working on his cereal.

“Nah. Too damn hot out. Gotta save my energy for the dojo tonight.”

“Really? You got lessons tonight?”

“Yep.”

“People still want fuckin’ Karate lessons in the middle of a Chaos Quake?”

“Kendo, not Karate, dumbass. And apparently yes. I double-checked with Sensei Roshu just before you woke up, and he still wants me there to help out.”

“Meh, Kendo, Karate, Tai Chi, Tae Kwon whatever, they’re all the same.”

“I’ve given you lessons in both Kendo and Karate, don’t tell me you’ve seriously forgotten.”

“Then I won’t.”

Spike shook his head and sighed of annoyance. He then stepped over to the main window in the living room and opened the blinds, staring outside into the rest of the apartment complex. “…I guess you have a point,” he eventually commented, “I suppose it might be weird that people still want to go on as normal during what’s basically a natural disaster. But then again, what else are people supposed to do? Cower at home in fear of some invisible bogey man? It’s not like Earth has any Chaos Energy-based infrastructure that’ll collapse.”

“Hey, who was it who brought up all those natural disasters caused by the last Quake, yesterday?”

Spike heaved a lofty sigh. “I know, I know. But a good night’s rest does a lot to calm the head, and I think we may’ve been overreactin’ last night.”

“Really? Now you say that?”

“Alright, smartass, I get the point already.”

“Though, honestly, I’m startin’ to think that maybe we weren’t concerned enough… this Quake is weird, man. You saw the twins use their powers yesterday, but that shouldn’t be possible without Chaos Energy!”

“So?”

“So either everything I’ve ever read on the Relaynet is a big fuckin’ lie, or we just discovered something big about how the universe works that no one else knows about! And if the latter is true, then who knows what else could happen? Maybe this Quake will make the last one look like a fuckin’ walk in the park!”

“…Right. Now I’m sure you’re overreacting.”

“Hey man, you and Twy were the ones who pointed out that the last Quake brought with it a bajillion different natural disasters. You remember the West Coast Exodus we were talkin’ about yesterday? You know, the whole reason Sky and Twy’s parents moved to Texas in the first place?”

“I know, I know…”

“I mean, that shit was just ridiculous. I mean, can you believe that Seattle used to be a major city? Or that there used to be a peninsula up in Silicon Valley? Not to mention all the shit that got wrecked over in Japan and China, and South America. And I think the tsunamis nearly wiped out Hawaii, too…”

“Alright, alright, I get the point.” Spike scowled. “So the Chaos Quake is bad. Okay. Well what the fuck are we supposed to do about it, huh?”

“…Good question.” Austin shrugged, and then stood up to wash out his now empty bowl. “…I dunno.”

“Then like I said, why be concerned? At least in our case, we’re in the middle of fucking Texas, the worst we’ll see is the tail end of a Hurricane, or maybe some tornadoes. There’s no sense in walkin’ around in perpetual fear.”

“Mm, guess so,” Austin muttered. “…I guess a storm wouldn’t be too bad, actually. It might help out with the drought.”

“I’d prefer a light rain to an out-and-out thunderstorm,” Spike refuted as he turned back toward the couch and stretched. “Shit’s been dry for way too long. One lightning strike, and the whole Western Forest’ll go up in flames.”

“Well there’s your natural disaster to worry about, then.”

Spike gave Austin an irritated glance as the latter smirked back at him.

“The forest hasn’t been there too long anyways,” Austin continued as Spike retook his seat on the couch. “Probably ain’t much to burn, not as much as natural forests at least.”

“Sixty years is more than enough time for an artificial forest to develop its own ecosystem and shit.”

“Wait, sixty years? Really?”

“Yeah. They planted the thing back in… 2070, I think it was? Around then. So sixty years.”

“And how do you know this?”

“Well excuse me for wantin’ to learn a bit about our home here.”

“Bah, we’ve only been in Austin for two years, and only for college, at that. Speakin’ of which, classes start next week, don’t they—?”

Austin paused as a ringing noise filled the room. Both men turned toward the back corner of the living room, where a metal pad occupied the floor. On the wall above the pad at around chest height was a small touchpad, which was currently blinking.

Austin groaned. “Bah, who’s callin’ so early in the morning…”

“Early? It’s past nine. Stop bein’ a lazyass,” Spike retorted before raising his voice. “Holo, who’s calling?”

A semi-robotic female voice promptly replied, “Twy and Sky Chao.”

“Shoulda known.” Spike exhaled wearily and stood up again. “I’ll bet it’s Sky. Probably bored.”

“Tell her not to call until after ten at the absolute earliest.”

“You’ll be fine,” Spike deadpanned as he approached the metal pad. He tapped the blinking touchpad once; a moment later, a fuzzy blue hologram of Sky appeared.

“Hey!” she greeted cheerfully.

“Hey.” Spike nodded back. “What’s up?”

“The ceiling,” Austin quickly exclaimed.

Spike sighed in mild irritation; as he did so, Twy’s voice came over the speaker system. “Real funny, Austin.”

“I do crack myself up sometimes.”

“If y’all are gonna shout at each other over the speakers, then maybe you should step up to the projectors, huh?” Spike suggested, his tone not-so-subtly indicating a desire for both Austin and Twy to be quiet.

“No promises if Austin keeps making bad jokes,” Twy replied.

“Fuck you, too!” Austin retorted playfully.

“So!” Sky immediately spoke up, breaking off Austin and Twy’s jabs, “I was just wondering what you were up to.”

Spike snorted. “At nine thirty in the morning?”

“See, I told you it was early—”

“Austin, shut up.”

Sky made an expression that looked like frowning — it was difficult for Spike to tell, given the hologram’s low resolution. “Did I call too early? I can call back later.”

“No, it’s fine.” Spike shook his head. “I hope you don’t wanna go out today, though. It’s over a hundred degrees, and I need to save my energy for the dojo tonight.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. The heat isn’t a problem for me! Last night I figured out how to—”

“Whoa whoa whoa, hold it, hold it!” Austin immediately jumped to his feet and rushed over to the hologram and stood next to Spike. “Don’t talk about… that. Not over the holocoms.”

Sky stared at him blankly for a moment. “…Why?”

“Whaddya mean, ‘why?’ Someone might be listenin’ in, that’s why!”

“Oh come on, Austin,” Twy responded wearily, coming into view next to Sky, “holocom calls are encrypted. No one can listen in on what we’re saying.”

“Says you, but SERRCom is a space agency with access to all kinds of advanced alien tech! They probably defeated civilian encryption ages ago.”

“That doesn’t mean that they’re listening in on every single call across the whole world, though,” Sky countered.

“They probably got advanced computers that can do just that, you know. And with the Chaos Quake, that’s all the more reason to monitor civilian chatter.”

“I didn’t know I was best friends with a conspiracy nut,” Spike deadpanned.

“It ain’t a conspiracy,” Austin insisted. “Haven’t you heard about that mystery Battlecruiser SERRCom has? The one with all the advanced tech that they still haven’t completely reverse-engineered?”

“How the hell do you know about that? Wouldn’t that be classified?”

“Bah, like they could classify everything about that ship. How the hell do you think they started makin’ and sellin’ Subspace Drives, huh? As if SERRCom could make a discovery like that all on their own before anyone else in the galaxy!”

“I’m with Spike,” Sky interjected, “this sounds kinda far-fetched.”

“…Mmm, no, Austin might actually have a point,” Twy commented. “Now that I think about it, there were some rumors online last night about an EIIC investigation in Austin. …The city, not you, Austin.”

“What’s the EIIC…?” Sky questioned cluelessly.

“The ‘Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command,’” Austin replied. “It’s like the CIA, except with more authority. And in space!”

“They’re also responsible for advances like the Subspace Drives you mentioned, which have revolutionized trade and transportation across the entire galaxy,” Twy retorted. “Not everything SERRCom does is nefarious, you know.”

“Says you, but if and when they swoop in and magic us all away for some reason or another, I reserve the right to say ‘I told you so.’”

“Enough with the stupid SERRCom stuff.” Sky scowled as she passed her sister an irate glance. “I wanted to talk to Spike! Not open a call for you and Austin to start arguing about whatever the hell it is y’all are talking about!”

“Ah, sorry,” Twy apologized.

“I swear,” Sky huffed, “Spike, we should really get our own holocoms. And make them red! It’d be so much better than blue!”

“How about we get full-color instead,” Spike snorted. “I don’t know why the hell we have a tinted system.”

“Tinted holocoms were cheaper than full-color ones,” Austin answered. “Well, back when we got this one, at least.”

“Why didn’t we just get a video system, then?”

“Because it’s the future, duh! Who the hell uses a flatscreen communication system when you could have fuckin’ holograms?!”

“People who actually want to see who it is they’re talkin’ to.”

“Hmph, you just don’t like havin’ fun.”

Speaking of fun,” Sky immediately jumped into the conversation again, “Twy and I were wondering if the two of you wanted to do something later this week.”

Twy gave her twin an incredulous glance. “We were?”

Yes, we were.” Sky conspicuously elbowed her sister. “It’s the last week of summer break, after all. We have to make the most of it!”

“Well I doubt we’ll be able to actually do much,” Austin commented, “with the Chaos Quake, I’d bet most places anyone would actually want to go to would be shut down. ‘Cause, you know, people are fuckin’ scaredy-cats.”

“Says the person who was freakin’ out about the Quake not even half an hour ago,” Spike retorted.

“I was not ‘freaking out,’ I was expressing legitimate concern.”

“Mmhmm.” Spike nodded patronizingly before turning back toward Sky. “Did you have anythin’ in mind?”

“…We could hit the beach,” Sky suggested.

“Bah, that’s a couple hours of sittin’ in a car.” Austin scowled. “I ain’t leavin’ the city.”

Twy nodded in agreement. “I’m not keen on going too far either. Especially with the Quake going on.”

“Hmph.” Sky pouted. “You guys are no fun.”

“We could try the pool instead,” Spike commented, “there are a bunch around here, and there ain’t much reason for them to be closed.”

“I guess that works,” Sky replied, “a pool should be more than enough to show off our—”

“Hey! Watch it!” Austin cut her off, “insecure connection, you know!”

Sky simply rolled her eyes in response. She then turned to address Spike directly. “I guess I caught you at a bad time, huh?”

“Nah.” Spike smirked. “If Austin’s like this now, then he’ll be like this all day long.”

“Hey!” Austin scowled.

“Well, I’ve got something I need to take care of,” Sky commented, “let’s say we’ll do the pool thing on Friday. Alright?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Yay! I’ll be in touch. Love you!”

“Love you too.”

The hologram then disappeared, leaving behind nothing but empty air.

Austin and Spike both exhaled deeply and glanced at each other.

“…Dibs on the main headset,” Austin declared.

“Sure, whatever.” Spike shook his head wearily and made for his room. “I’ve got something I should work on anyways. Talk to ya later.”

“Aye.” Austin nodded as he plopped down on the couch. “Later.”

Chapter 4 – Investigation

– Friday, September 2, AD 2129 –

“Finally! We’re here!!”

“…And there she goes,” Spike commented flatly as he watched Sky rush off to the pool’s edge — and then cannonball into the water. “Not even here for five seconds and she’s already in the water.”

Twy waved him on. “You go on after her. Austin and I will find a spot for our stuff.”

“Huh what?” Austin looked back at Twy, as though previously distracted. “…Wait, why me?”

“You weren’t even going to get in the water, were you?” Twy replied, glancing over as Spike removed his shirt and jumped in the water after Sky. She then began walking to the side, addressing Austin without looking back at him. “You never actually go swimming when we go as a group.”

“…Hmph.” Austin wanted to argue, but Twy was right. He had no fear of water and could swim well enough, but he wasn’t fond of it all the same — and as such he had no leg to stand on. Dejected, he trudged after Twy, absentmindedly thinking back to the past week. Despite everyone’s worst predictions, no significant or unnatural disasters had befallen any community on the planet. So far, the Chaos Quake seemed to have had little effect on the regular public — aside from cutting them off from the rest of the galaxy, of course — and as such, people seemed to be returning to their normal lifestyles. A little too quickly, maybe, Austin thought to himself as he surveyed the pool. There were several groups spread around the large public area, many of them college-aged; while the pool wasn’t nearly as packed as it normally would have been on a summer afternoon, it was still populated enough to make Austin wary.

“…Are you going to help, or not?”

“Huh? Oh.” Austin shook his head to clear his thoughts and set to helping Twy drop down a couple chairs to mark their spot. She then dumped a bag of towels next to one of the chairs before taking off her shirt, revealing a rather plain pale blue bikini. Austin stared for a couple moments before catching himself and suddenly looking away, just as Twy glanced back at him.

“You sure you don’t want to swim?”

“…Nah.” Austin shook his head as he took a seat in one of the chairs. “I’ll watch our stuff. You can go in.”

“Swimming is hardly any fun without friends,” Twy pouted.

“What, are Spike and Sky not your friends?”

“Of course they are, but they’re also a couple. As much as Spike claims to be the level-headed one… give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile. If you know what I mean.”

“Sure, but it’s not like they’re gonna have sex in the middle of a public pool.”

“No— of course not!” Twy’s cheeks flushed red as she crossed her arms in irritation. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Yeah, yeah, I get what you mean.” Austin sighed. “Sometimes, I think that if they had gotten their own apartment instead of splitting up and renting with us, we’d never have seen them again.”

“Exactly.” Twy nodded once. She looked over at the pool, and then glanced back at Austin. “…Last chance to change your mind.”

“You’re the one who said I never go swimming,” Austin retorted. He waved toward the pool. “We only got a couple hours. If you don’t get in, you’ll be the one who regrets it.”

“Hmph. I suppose so,” she responded flatly. She then turned on her heel and broke into a full sprint before catapulting herself into the water and entering with only a small splash.

Austin whistled quietly in amazement — her skill in the water was clearly better than his. He then smirked as he realized the thought had a second meaning; she could control water, after all. A moment later, his smirk transformed into a scowl. Shit… Twy and Sky wanted to come to the pool to show off their powers, didn’t they? Damn it, they better not get careless…

As the thoughts crossed his mind, Austin became increasingly anxious. The rumors of an EIIC investigation had turned out to be true — ever since Monday, the capital city of Texas had been nearly swarming with SERRCom officers. It was clear that they thought that something was amiss in the city, but Austin had no idea what. If everything he had read about the first Chaos Quake over 40 years ago was correct, then it was radial with an origin far outside of Earthian space. Presumably, whatever caused the first Quake also caused the second… but what were the chances of that cause being on Earth?

“It’s more likely that they’re looking for Chaotics…” Austin muttered. It was the only solution he could come up with; what else could possibly be worth searching for during a Chaos Quake? Then again, since all Chaos Energy had been rendered inert, conventional wisdom would hold that Chaotics wouldn’t be able to use their powers. Twy and Sky were exceptions, but with Chaos Energy inert, there was no way to track its use — and thus no way to track down the twins. So just what was SERRCom looking for?

“…Hello?”

“What—?!” Austin jumped, startled. He whipped around to see two individuals — a man and a woman — standing next to him. They both seemed to be in their mid thirties and were dressed casually, but aside from that, there was little remarkable about their appearances.

“Sorry to bother you,” the man spoke up, “but you’re Austin Travis, right? Luke Travis’s nephew?”

“Uh… yeah.” Austin glanced between the two in confusion. “…You know my uncle?”

“Yeah, we worked with him a few years back.”

They worked with Uncle Luke? Austin stared at the newcomers blankly as he processed this information. …Wait, then that means—!?

“Agent Rayne, of the Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command.” The woman flashed a badge before returning her wallet to her pocket. She then gestured toward the man. “And this is Smith.”

He offered a curt wave. “Nice to meet you.”

“Yeah…” Austin’s brow furrowed.

“Ah, don’t worry, we aren’t here to arrest you or anything!” Smith chuckled. “We just wanted to ask a couple questions, is all. Didn’t even know you were here until we walked in.”

Austin simply responded with a wary stare. I guess that explains why they aren’t wearing uniforms…

“Anyways,” Rayne spoke up, “I’m sure you’re aware of the ongoing Chaos Energy Quake event, yes?”

“You could say that…”

“We’re looking for any related information. Anything you have.”

“…Why do you think I would know anything? I’m just some guy in college.”

“Hmm, is that so.”

Austin felt an impulse to give a sarcastic response, but managed to hold himself back. He had no desire whatsoever to be on the bad side of an EIIC agent.

“We have reason to believe that the Quake was triggered by an event in this city.”

That said, Austin’s impulse restriction had limits. “Oh, is that why y’all are crawlin’ all over the place like ants?”

Rayne’s gaze hardened, but Smith simply sighed and brushed his hand through his hair.

“More to the point,” he continued, ignoring Austin’s comment, “we think that something happened at the Nature and Science Center on Sunday.”

“And we couldn’t help but notice that your name was on the visitor list,” Rayne finished.

Shit. Austin scowled. ‘Didn’t even know I was here’ my ass. Fan-fuckin-tastic.

“So, yeah,” Smith commented airily. “Did you see anything suspicious while you were there?”

“Uuuuuhh… I think I want a…”

“…You want a… what?” Smith echoed incredulously, “come again?”

Austin didn’t respond for several moments. His attention was instead focused beyond the two agents, at the part of the pool his friends were currently swimming in — the same part from where short bursts of steam were emerging. Is that—? For fuck’s sake—! Why are they being so careless?!

“…Something wrong?” Smith questioned as he began to glance behind himself.

“N-no! No, no, nothing’s wrong,” Austin quickly replied, drawing Smith’s attention back to himself. Good. I think. Damn it all… “I was just, uh. Thinking.”

“Thinking,” Rayne echoed flatly.

“Yes, thinking.” Austin threw her an impatient glance. “You can’t just walk up to some random person in the middle of a public place and expect them to drop everything and immediately answer all your questions.”

“Maybe you can’t,” Rayne responded, her tone low, “but we are EIIC agents. If we think that you could help us, then you will.”

“What my colleague means to say is that we’d really, just, we’d really appreciate any help you could offer us,” Smith quickly spoke up, inching closer to Rayne to insert himself between her and Austin. “We don’t mean to pry.” He glanced toward Rayne. “Right, Sophie? No prying.”

“We’re still on the clock. It’s Rayne.”

Then why aren’t you wearing uniforms? Austin kept the question in his head, but he couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the situation. He glanced back at the pool… and then balked when he failed to spot Twy. Where’d she go?!

“Back to the topic at hand.” The woman turned her attention back to Austin. “The Chaos Energy exhibit at the Nature and Science Center, Mr. Travis. What happened?”

“Nothing,” Austin insisted. “…Or at least, I didn’t see—!?”

His eyes widened in concern — just behind the two agents, Twy had leaped out of the pool, clearing several feet in what was clearly an unnatural exit from a body of water. And to make matters worse, plastered on her face was a mischievous grin, and around her right hand was a small — yet highly noticeable and obviously unnatural — sphere of water.

Austin immediately began shaking his head in panic. As soon as he did so, Twy’s gaze moved over to the two EIIC agents — who had just started to look behind themselves at whatever Austin was looking at. She quickly hid her hands behind her back and awkwardly shuffled forward, already too close to be able to escape discreetly.

Rayne eyed Twy suspiciously before turning back to Austin. “What was that about?”

“Uh, I just, uh, had to clear my head,” Austin stuttered out an excuse as Twy approached his side, careful to keep her back away from the two agents. “Best way to, uh, help you, and all that. …Yeah.”

Rayne’s eyes narrowed — Austin could tell she wasn’t buying it. She then snapped her attention to Twy. “Who are you?”

“You first,” Twy shot back.

“Ah, pardon my partner’s manners.” Smith extended his hand toward Twy. “I’m Smith, of the EIIC. She’s Rayne. Nice to meet you.”

Twy glanced down at his hand uneasily. What followed was a rather conspicuous splash on the ground just behind her before she reached out her own hand — which Smith quickly withdrew from. Realizing what the situation may have looked like, Twy’s face flushed beet red and she quickly turned away.

“Well.” Smith flashed a quick smile. “I think we’re done here. Right, Rayne?”

“…Yes. Fine,” she huffed, and turned to address Austin. “You’re off the hook for now. But if we learn you were withholding information from us—!”

“Relax,” Smith interjected, “it was pretty silly to expect anything in the first place. Let’s go.”

Austin and Twy silently watched the two agents as they made for the pool’s exit. Just before stepping out, Smith offered one final wave, which Austin reflexively returned. By the time he realized what he had done, the agents were gone.

“The hell was that?” Twy questioned.

I’m the one who should be askin’ that,” Austin hissed, “what the hell were you thinkin’, messin’ with water like that in public?!”

“I—!” Twy started, but glanced away uneasily. “…You’re right. I got carried away. I’m sorry.”

“’Got carried away’ is one way to put it,” Austin growled. Irritation flashed across Twy’s face and she made to retort, but before she could, Sky rushed up.

“What was that? Who were those people? What were they doing? What did they ask you? Did they see Twy’s water?!”

“Slow down,” Spike commanded, approaching from behind her and tousling her hair. “Kinda hard to get answers if you don’t give people time to respond.”

“You can say that again,” Austin snorted.

“Hmph,” Sky pouted, but then adopted a serious expression. “But really— who were those people?”

“…EIIC agents.”

Spike’s expression hardened. “Shit.”

“Wait, the EIIC? That’s that thing that you said was like the CIA, right?” Sky questioned, “what were they doing here? Did they figure us out?!”

“Hey, hey, watch it,” Austin leaned forward and spoke in hushed tones, “don’t just bring up that topic in public, who knows who’s listening?”

“It’s still a fair concern,” Twy asserted. “What did they ask? And what did you tell them?”

“I didn’t tell them jack shit,” Austin declared, “…but as far as I can tell, they aren’t lookin’ for Chaotics. That said… they know we were at the museum Sunday afternoon, and they seem to think that the Chaos Quake was caused by somethin’ happenin’ at the museum.”

Spike frowned. “I don’t remember anythin’ happening…”

“And that’s what I told ‘em. Still… this is a bad sign.”

“No shit. I think you should try talkin’ to your uncle. The sooner, the better.”

“I’m not so sure. Those two agents claimed to be coworkers of his, from a few years ago at least. If I talk to Luke now…”

“…It might get back to them,” Twy finished, and then sighed. “Great. Just great.”

“This isn’t how it was supposed to go at all,” Sky complained. “Superpowers are supposed to be fun! We shouldn’t have to worry about all of this bullshit…”

“I’d like to agree with you, but this is the world we live in,” Spike responded. “If we want to keep our lives as normal as possible… we need to do everythin’ we can to make sure that SERRCom pays us no attention.”

“Which means no carelessly doing things in public,” Austin interjected as he passed the twins an irritated glance.

Twy bristled. “One warning is enough.”

“Hey,” Spike cut in, “we’re all in this, arguin’ won’t help at all.”

Austin and Twy exchanged annoyed looks before sighing in tandem.

“Well this just put a damper on the whole pool experience,” Sky pouted. “Barely here for half an hour, and already the day is ruined!”

Austin sighed with irritation. “I told y’all the EIIC was no good.”

“Yes, yes…” Twy rolled her eyes. “Anyways, it’d probably be best if we left. I don’t think sticking around is a good idea.”

“The mood’s been ruined anyways,” Sky sulked. “The last Friday before school starts, too! Damn it! This sucks.”

“Not as much as getting caught by the EIIC and whisked away, I’m sure,” Austin retorted.

“Alright, alright, enough with the complainin’,” Spike declared as he began gathering up the chairs and equipment they had brought along. “Let’s get goin’.”

“Hey, look on the bright side…” Austin smirked as he glanced upward at the rapidly darkening skies. “Looks like we’re still gonna get plenty wet.”

“Argh, even worse!” Sky growled, “the forecast said nothing about rain earlier this week!”

“We can discuss just how everything went to shit when we get outta here,” Spike insisted, now carrying most of the equipment. He then set off for the exit, with Austin, Twy, and Sky in tow. “C’mon. Let’s go.”

Chapter 5 – Heroes?

Several Hours Later

“…and that’s why you have shit taste.”

“What?! Bullshit! Sword Kings was a perfectly good show, you just went into it expectin’ bad stuff!”

“And ‘bad stuff’ is what I got. The writing was shit, and the characters were flatter than compressed paper, not to mention half of what they did didn’t make any god damn sense at all!”

“Well duh. No one watches Sword Kings for the writing. You watch it for the action! It’s all in the name!”

“Action and good writing aren’t mutually exclusive. And besides, I see better action every week at the dojo.”

“Hmph.” Austin scowled and turned away from Spike in irritation. “Well, I liked it.”

“Cool. So long as you realize you have shit taste,” Spike retorted.

“I do not—!”

“Sorry, Austin, but I have to agree with Spike here,” Twy interjected. “If you can watch the second half of that show and still defend it, I really have to wonder about the quality of your judgment.”

Austin simply made a face in response before turning to stare out a nearby window. Outside it was dark and cloudy, just as it had been since the four left the pool. They all returned to the Chao twins’ apartment with the intention of riding out the storm, but the clouds had yet to open and instead continued to gather. What once looked like it would be a minor shower now looked to be a super-cell thunderstorm.

“Still cloudy?” Sky questioned from the couch across the room.

“Ayup.” Austin sighed. “Still cloudy…”

“I’m honestly a little worried now…” Twy commented as she rounded the table to look out the window next to Austin. “The Western Forest isn’t far from here, and it’s super dry, thanks to the drought.”

“Looks like the drought won’t last much longer, huh?” Sky replied.

“I wish, but it’ll take more than one thunderstorm to make up for well over a year of drought conditions.” Twy sighed wearily. “A thunderstorm is a terrible start, anyways…”

“Yeah.” Spike nodded knowingly. “One lightning strike in the right place, and everythin’ goes up in flames.”

“I’m more concerned about flooding,” Twy countered, “with all this compacted dry ground — the water has no where to go. All the water will just wash away and create floods; meanwhile the plants that actually need water won’t get it, because the soil is too tough.”

“Spoken like a true water user!” Sky grinned cheekily.

“Don’t get carried away,” Spike quickly responded, “you’ve only had your powers for less than a week.”

“I know, I know.” Sky rolled her eyes. “But c’mon, we only have so much freedom. Give us a break! Plus, classes start on Monday, so that’s even less free time than we have now!” She crossed her arms and sunk into the couch, a sullen expression on her face. “And here we are, wasting it all just sitting around and talking!”

“Well what else should we do?” Austin shrugged. “Ain’t much to do out, it’s late. And soon to be rainin’. Probably.”

“Are you kidding?! Late on a Friday night is when everything happens!”

“If you’re so scared of missin’ out, then why’re you still here?” Spike questioned.

Sky passed him an irritated glance before huffing crossly. “…Hmph. This is what happens when you’re friends with a bunch of introverts…”

“Austin’s right, though, it is rather late.” Twy glanced toward Austin, and then back at Spike. “Are the two of you going home soon?”

Austin smirked. “I feel like you’re tryin’ to tell us to leave.”

“Well, kind of, but not really.” Twy frowned as she cast a glance at her sister. “I was wondering if at least Spike might be sticking around…”

Sky’s eyes immediately lit up. “Really? That’s fine with you, sis?”

Twy sighed. “Only if I don’t… hear anything, okay?”

Austin snorted. “Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s got a problem with that.”

“You two just don’t understand.” Sky stuck her tongue out at them before turning toward Spike expectantly. “You’ll stay over, right?”

“Might as well.” He shrugged as he stood up and stretched. After yawning he added, “now that we’re talkin’ about it, man, I’m really tired…”

“Suppose I’ll go home alone then.” Austin got up himself, but Twy quickly cut him off.

“It’s fine,” she declared as she moved toward a small closet, “I’ll get the extra blankets out and you can sleep on the couch.”

“…Oh. Okay, then. I guess?” Austin glanced toward Spike, who simply shrugged again before following Sky into her room. Austin sighed and sat back down, returning his gaze to the dark skies outside.

*     *     *

“…”

“…ak… …u…”

“…”

“…tin… …et…”

“…”

“—Austin!

“Guh!” Austin jolted awake, blinking several times and furrowing his brow. Despite being sure that his eyes were open, everything looked dark, save for a distant red glow. A moment later, he realized that he was looking out a window — and a moment after that he noticed that a blanket was draped over his shoulders. Must’ve fallen asleep at the table… he thought groggily, and then sniffed once. Wait… is that… smoke?

“Austin!”

“What—?” Austin was finally shaken out of his stupor as a large hand grasped him roughly by the shoulder. He glanced to the side, where he met eyes with Spike.

“Get your ass in gear,” Spike growled. “Looks like your disaster hit after all.”

“Huh?” Austin stared at his friend for a moment before snapping his attention back to the window. Now that he looked closer, the distant red glow was accompanied by a large billowing cloud that rose up into the sky and meshed with the storm clouds. Occasionally, the clouds would light up for a split second, a sign of internal lightning strikes — and evidence enough of what had happened.

“Is Austin—? Oh good, you’re awake!” Twy rushed into the living room and approached Spike and Austin as she rubbed her eyes. “We need to get out of here.”

“Wh-where’s the fire?” Austin’s eyes widened in alarm, barely paying Spike any heed as he returned to Sky’s room. “How close is it?”

“Western Forest. Central part, or so the alerts say,” Twy answered. “…But there are smaller fires around the outskirts. There’s one immediately north of our complex, in fact…”

“Fuck. Well where the hell do we go?”

“We can go back to our place,” Spike replied as he ushered a groggy Sky into the living room. “We’re far enough from the forest to be safe.”

“But how do we get there?” Austin frowned. “Everyone and their mom will be tryin’ to get a car out of here. Can the system handle it?”

“We won’t know if we just stand around here.” Spike scowled as he strode toward the front door and threw it open. “Can we at least get outta the building before we talk about this?”

“He’s right.” Twy glanced back at Austin before hastily slipping into her flip flops and following Spike out the door. Sky quickly followed suit, apparently now wide-awake enough to grasp the situation; Austin then stepped out last. Twy closed the door behind him and held up her wrist to the handle to activate the lock before rushing down the nearby flight of stairs to ground level.

“Aw, it’s raining…” Sky shivered reflexively, grasping her bare arms as she plodded after Spike.

“Don’t complain,” Twy countered, taking the lead as she led the group to the designated fire evacuation zone. There weren’t many people there yet, but it was clear that people all over the apartment complex were waking up and realizing the situation.

“Yeah…” Spike nodded slowly. “At least if it’s rainin’, it should help keep the fire contained. Last thing we need is a real wildfire to burn down the city.”

“This is what we get for not modernizin’ infrastructure.” Austin sighed impatiently. “Apartment buildings nearly a hundred years old, ‘course they’re gonna burn down.”

“That’s absurd,” Twy refuted, “just what would ‘modernizing’ do? Modern small-scale buildings are still primarily wood. It’s not like we can afford to make everything out of metal. Nor should we.”

“Mm…” Austin simply grunted in response.

“…You know…” Sky spoke up after a short period of silence, “if the problem is a fire…”

“No,” Spike cut her off. “You can’t. Not an option.”

“This is hardly the time to be worried about being discovered!” Sky insisted, “people will get hurt!”

“Exactly. Wildfires are dangerous, and underestimatin’ them leads to death. Which is what you’re doin’ right now!”

“But I can control fire! How is it a threat to me if I can control it?!”

“We don’t know how well you can control it! We don’t know on what magnitude, or what strength, or with how much finesse. For all you know, you could just end up gettin’ yourself killed without actually havin’ any effect!”

“I can’t know until I try!”

“No. Let the professionals take care of this. They actually know what they’re doin’.”

“Spike…!” Sky whined, and then turned toward her sister. “C’mon, Twy! We can do this, right? Between me and you, it should be easy!”

Twy frowned uneasily, unsure of how to respond. Just as she opened her mouth to reply, though, a cry rose from a group several meters away.

“Building 9 caught fire!!”

“What—?!” Sky and Twy exclaimed in unison and snapped their attention to the north. Austin and Spike followed suit — they couldn’t see the building that was on fire since another one stood in its way, but the nearby billows of smoke coupled with the sudden ear-piercing ringing of the complex’s fire alarms were evidence enough of the truth of the matter.

“Shit.” Spike scowled. “…We need to get out of here, now— hey! Wait! SKY!”

“Sorry!” Sky shouted back as she dashed in the direction of the fire, “get out of here while you can! I’ll be fine!”

“She— damn it!” Twy sighed, and then broke into a sprint after her sister.

“The hell…?” Austin muttered, watching as the twins ran off. “Do they really think they can handle this?”

“Argh… damn it all!” Spike growled — and bolted after Twy. Austin’s eyes widened in surprise before he took off after Spike himself.

“Spike!” Austin managed to shout between breaths as he neared the northern building, “Spike, c’mon man… this is… suicide…!”

“Then why’re you followin’ me?” Spike shouted back, showing no signs of slowing down himself.

Austin merely grunted in irritation as he continued on running around the northern building. As soon as he rounded the next corner and entered the parking lot, he stopped in his tracks to take in the sight before him: an entire three-story apartment building, in flames from bottom to top.

“Holy shit…” he muttered, half in awe, half in horror. Most of the inhabitants seemed to have fled — many people were certainly running past Austin, away from the burning building. He could feel a part of himself urging him to do the same; after all, there wasn’t much he could do. Twy and Sky were the ones with supernatural powers — not him. But as he heard the screams of those still trapped in the building, he couldn’t bring himself to turn away. His friends were risking their lives to help, however foolish that may be. And indeed, Austin thought it incredibly foolish — suicidal, even.

After a moment of thought, he sighed in apprehension and began again to approach the building. Attempting to help may have been foolish, but he wasn’t about to let his friends risk it all without him being there to watch out for their own safety.

“Hopefully I won’t get the chance to say ‘I told you so’…” he muttered as he ran up to the front of the building. He could feel the heat against his face, but as close as he was to the fire, he had expected it to feel much hotter. Must be Sky’s doing, he thought to himself, and then raised his voice. “Spike! Twy! Where are you?!”

“Second floor!” he heard Spike shout from above. Austin quickly rushed to the nearest set of stairs and nearly flew up them before stopping as Spike burst out of a nearby door, followed closely by two unknown adults. They offered him a brief thanks before fleeing to safety, with Sky and Twy rushing out after them and to the next door apartment. As they went, the flames around them seemed to lean away, as though repulsed by some kind of invisible force — yet none of them were outright extinguished.

“Hello?!” Spike shouted as he banged on the door. “Anyone in there?!”

A muffled “help” drifted through the door. Sky immediately stepped forward and held her hands toward the doorknob, rapidly heating it to melting point. As the lock melted and the door drifted open, Twy managed to pull what little moisture there was out of the air and into a small floating bubble that she used to cool the malformed metal and prevent it from igniting more fires.

As soon as she was done, Spike charged forward, knocking in the door and glancing about frantically in search of the inhabitant.

“Over… *cough* …here…”

Sky stepped forward, coughing into her elbow as she swept away the flames along the apartment interior. In so doing, she exposed a collapsed segment of the ceiling — and a man trapped underneath the debris.

“Shit,” Spike swore under his breath and quickly approached. He immediately squatted down and grabbed the largest piece of debris, which seemed to be a part of the crossbeams in the ceiling. “Austin!” he managed to grunt, “little help!”

“Right…” Austin rushed up and grabbed the other end of the collapsed beam. Together, he and Spike managed to lift it up and toss it aside, at which point clearing the rest of the debris was a simple task. Spike knelt down next to the man and hoisted him onto his back as Austin cleared away the final bits of debris. Sky moved to clear the path to the door — but just as she did so, a deafening snapping noise sounded from above.

“WATCH OUT!” Spike boomed, lunging forward and twisting himself so that the man he was carrying was below him. He then thrust his arms upward just in time to catch a collapsing crossbeam, managing to hold it in place with great effort. But before he could attempt to respond further, another cracking noise echoed through the apartment… and then, the floor gave way.

Spike!!” Sky shouted after him as he and the man he was holding fell through the floor, the crossbeam above them following suit. Twy immediately launched her small water bubble at the beam and managed to catch one end of it, but she was only able to hold it in the air for a few moments as the water rapidly evaporated. However, those few moments were all that was needed, as the crossbeam’s downward momentum had been significantly slowed — enough for Spike to reach up and bat it away such that it fell to the side of him.

“Shit.” Austin scowled, and then called down after his friend. “Hey! Are you okay?!”

“I’m… fine,” Spike grunted. “…The dude is, too, I think. But he’s unconscious! We need to get the hell out!”

“Don’t have to say that again,” Austin muttered, his heart racing as he scrambled around the hole in the floor and toward the exit. He barely paid Sky any heed as she jumped down after Spike, choosing instead to follow Twy as she worked her way to the door while fending off flames with her own sweat and the dismal amount of moisture still left in the air. Before long they reached the door, stumbling out in a fit of coughing as they both gasped for breath. It was only at this point that Austin realized just how smoke-filled the building was; the mere realization that he could have well and truly died released enough adrenaline into his system to rush down the stairs and into the parking lot.

“Holy fuck…” Austin gulped for air as he collapsed onto the pavement and rolled over onto his back. He glanced over at Spike and Sky, who had escaped the apartment they fell into by busting down the door. “That… was way… too close…”

“…He’s still alive,” Spike declared as he kneeled over the man he rescued from the burning apartment. “…Alive, but he needs medical attention.” He wiped his brow of sweat and then looked up as the sound of approaching sirens filled the air. “…About damn time.”

“If… the firefighters… are here…” Austin managed to speak between breaths, “…should really… …leave rest… to them…”

Spike glanced back at Twy and Sky. Both of them were panting heavily, apparently too breathless to speak, or even make eye-contact with Austin or Spike. He shook his head wearily before picking the man back up. “Twy! Sky!”

They both reflexively looked to him. He jerked his head in the direction of the sirens, just as two firetrucks entered the parking lot. A number of water-pumping robots immediately unloaded and approached the burning building as two individuals leaped from the truck and rushed up to the group.

“Hey!” one of them called out, “what are you doing? You need to get out of here!”

“We have injured,” Spike responded, stepping up to one of the firefighters and glancing down at the man in his arms. The firefighter who hadn’t yet spoken stepped up, removed his glove, and pressed two of his fingers to the man’s neck. After a moment he nodded toward the other firefighter and then turned back to Spike.

“We’ll take it from here,” he declared, carefully taking hold of the man as Spike handed him over.

“Do you know him?” the other firefighter questioned.

“No,” Spike replied. “He was trapped in the building. We barely managed to save him.”

“You entered a burning building?” The firefighter’s brow furrowed. “You’re lucky to still be alive. You know that?”

“Oh, believe me…” Spike glanced back at Sky, who pretended not to notice. “…We know.”

“Well it’s a good thing that it worked out in the end, but don’t be careless next time!” The firefighter then waved them off. “Now get out of here! It’s dangerous!”

“Don’t need to tell us twice,” Austin responded as he ushered the twins away.

“It’s about to get real hectic around here.” Spike sighed. “…Sky, Twy, do you want to stay the night at our place?”

The sisters glanced at each other. They seemed to have caught their breath, and were now silent mostly out of shock. After a moment, Twy nodded once.

“Thought so,” Spike replied, taking the lead as the group rounded a corner and approached a crowd of people.

“Hey…” Sky spoke up quietly, “…sorry.”

Spike glanced back at her before looking forward again and exhaling deeply. “…It all worked out in the end, and that’s what matters. We can talk about the rest later. For now… let’s get outta here.”

Chapter 6 – Unusual Norms

– Monday, September 5, AD 2129 –

So the Chaos Quake is over, huh…

Austin stared at his phone as he trudged forwards, idly reading through the morning news. Plastered across every blog and news site on the Internet was a single piece of news: the Chaos Energy Quake that began on August 28th was now over after a mere week. Chaos Energy was now usable once more, Relaynet connections were restored, and the galaxy was back to functioning as normal — this time, with few disasters. However, there did still remain a number of questions regarding the Quake, namely: what caused it, and why was it so short?

Austin shook his head warily as he approached the campus of the University of Texas. He had more pressing matters to concern himself with than the now-over Quake. He knew that SERRCom seemed to think that something had happened at the museum last Sunday, and he knew that they knew that he and his friends were there at the time. The EIIC would be sure to continue their line of questioning from earlier, and Austin was apprehensive about just how they would do it.

But even more pertinent than that was the fact that classes started today.

I hate school. Austin scowled as he glared up at the building he now stood in front of. It had some sort of fancy name — presumably related to the alumni who funded its construction — but Austin and most of the other students knew it as the Department for Computer Science, or simply the CS Building. He took a deep breath and began climbing the steps up to the entrance, along with a sea of other students. Many of them looked to be Freshmen, bright-eyed and ready to learn, but Austin could spot a handful of fellow weathered Juniors as he entered the building. Shit, I’d hate to see how the Seniors feel, he idly wondered as he navigated the halls and stairways of the building to his classroom, ignoring confused and lost underclassmen along the way.

A couple minutes later had Austin sitting at a desk, a tablet laying in front of him as he continued browsing the Internet on his phone. He wasn’t wholly interested in the subject material — it had something to do with algorithms, if the textbook was anything to judge by, but he was content to spend his time in this class the same way he spent his time in all his other classes: wasting away time on his phone.

That is, until he finally looked up at the board.

“…Shit,” he muttered under his breath. “A quiz? On the first day? This fuckin’ sucks.”

Austin glanced over at the professor, who had yet to speak a word. She simply stood in the corner of the room, arms crossed as she surveyed the students coming in. The moment the clock hit ten, she pressed a button to the side of the board; immediately the tablet in front of Austin lit up, and his Internet access was cut. She then returned to crossing her arms and uttered only a single word: “Begin.”

Great… Austin stared at the tablet, the quiz now loaded on its screen. What a way to start the year. A quiz in algorithms. I hate algorithms. Fuck… what was the last class I took on this shit? Was it Intro? Shit, way back in Freshman year? I’m so screwed… …wait a minute… He looked at the questions more closely. …Huh. I actually know how to answer these. Maybe my memory isn’t so bad after all…?

He continued staring for a few moments before simply shrugging his shoulders, pulling out the stylus attached to the tablet, and beginning to write. The solution to each question came to him without issue; from the first moment his stylus touched the screen, he did not stop writing until all ten questions were sufficiently answered.

With a self-satisfied smirk, Austin placed the stylus down and then glanced around the room — at which point his smirk rapidly transformed into an uneasy frown. Every other student in the room still had their heads down as they tried to hash out their own answers… except for one pale-faced blond-haired man sitting at the far side of the room. Eric… Austin’s frown deepened. I know him, he’s the smartest guy in my class. I finished second? Just after him? Before everyone else…? He glanced down at his tablet, suddenly wary. Shit, I must’ve done something wrong. I never finish early. But what…? He began going back over his answers, certain that something was wrong — but no matter how many times he checked his answers, he couldn’t find a flaw.

“…And… stop!”

Every student in the class gradually dropped their styluses and looked up from their work. The pop quiz was over, and the atmosphere in the room filled with a mixture of relief and unease. For Austin’s part, he felt only unease, but eventually he simply resigned himself to whatever grade he might get. Guess I got too good at bullshiting… he thought to himself as the professor launched into the lecture proper. …Just when I think I finally know something, all I did was fool myself. Bah. He glanced toward the room’s single window irately, his attention focused anywhere that wasn’t the professor. Can’t wait to get out of here…

*     *     *

2 Hours Later

“…There you are. ‘Bout time.”

“Sorry.” Spike grunted as he sat down on the park bench. He pulled out a plastic container and ripped its top off, revealing the day-old pizza stored inside. “Class ran a little long. Didn’t get out ‘til about ten minutes ago.”

“You made it here from the CS building in ten minutes?” Austin whistled in admiration, and then continued talking as he ate a sizable sandwich. “Aren’t we a few miles away from campus?”

Spike shrugged. “Traffic was surprisingly light today.” He glanced at the tree line to his left and then at the grassy field in between, where a number of people were playing an impromptu game of soccer. “…It’s also surprisingly cool out.”

“Rain’ll do that,” Austin remarked. “At least somethin’ good came outta that weekend-long thunderstorm, eh?”

“Guess so. Helped contain the fires, too. That could’ve gotten outta hand real fast.”

“It did get out of hand.”

“Yeah…” Spike pursed his lips in irritation before sighing. “Well, I can hardly blame Sky for doin’ what she did. I’d’ve probably done the same, were I her.”

“You always go soft on her.”

“I know, right? It’s almost like we’re a couple or somethin’.”

“Heh.” Austin chuckled, finished his sandwich, and sighed wistfully. “…I wish I had a girlfriend.”

Spike stopped chewing momentarily to give Austin an incredulous stare. “Are you fuckin’ serious?”

“…What?”

“Why the hell haven’t you asked out Twy yet?”

“Wha—?! …Because she’d say no.”

“How do you know? You haven’t asked!”

“Be-because. If she liked me, she would’ve said somethin’ by now.”

“Says the guy who’s been crushin’ on her for, what, two years? Three?”

“Look, leave me alone, alright? I know what I’m doin’.”

“Just fuckin’ ask her out already! I’m certain she’d say yes.”

“You always say that…”

“Because it’s fuckin’ true!” Spike exclaimed, exasperated. “For fuck’s sake, you are a dense motherfucker, you know that?”

“Mmm…” Austin grunted and glanced away uneasily.

Spike noticed the gesture and exhaled warily. He finished the slice of pizza and opened his mouth to speak, but was beat to the punch by Austin.

“Hey, what’s that?”

“Huh…?” Spike turned to look in the direction Austin was pointing. At the far side of the grassy field, down a slight incline and next to the road, was a large bipedal robot. It stood a full head taller than the people surrounding it and was nearly humanoid in shape, in that it had two arms and two legs — but it lacked a head, and its legs were digitigrade. Its torso was sloped and bulky, with a glowing blue orb in the upper center, and its entire body — save for the shoulder joints — was covered in slate blue metal plating. A small crowd gathered around it as it slowly yet steadily walked down the sidewalk, but it seemed to ignore its surroundings entirely.

“A robot, huh?” Austin idly commented as he watched it continue along. “Wonder if that’s somethin’ the robotics guys are workin’ on.”

“Seems a little big for a research ‘bot,” Spike pointed out, “lot of armor, too… but I guess I wouldn’t be surprised. Not like you’d see a bipedal robot for practical purposes.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Legs are stupid and pointless when anti-gravity technology exists, and can be miniaturized enough to use on car-sized objects.”

“Oh that’s a load of bullshit. Anti-grav tech is dependent on Chaos Energy, you know? And guess what just happened last week?”

“…Fair point.”

“Anti-grav is too expensive for random everyday use anyways, only SERRCom has anti-grav stuff. Legs are perfectly fine.”

“Now that ain’t true. Wheels are better than legs in pretty much every way, they’re faster, more stable, and can support more weight. Sure, legs give you an advantage on uneven terrain, but you still gotta worry about gettin’ the balance right. That’s why most ‘bots with legs have six or eight of ‘em, like those octopedal firefightin’ bots we saw Friday night. Two legs is too hard to balance to be useful.”

Austin raised an incredulous eyebrow before nodding toward the robot that continued to steadily walk alongside the road. “Well that robot seems to be farin’ just fine.”

“No shit, all it’s doin’ is walkin’. And slowly, at that.”

“Hmph.” Austin scowled. “Why you gotta ruin all the fun?”

“I’m sorry if reality ruined your dreams,” Spike responded patronizingly.

“Bah. Well, if two legs are so stupid, then how do you explain mechs having two legs, huh? Everyone in the galaxy uses mechs, so there’s gotta be some merit.”

“Fuck if I know. Maybe advanced alien tech figured out the balance secret, I dunno. But we haven’t, not yet.”

“Need I point out the robot that is walking on two legs right fuckin’ there?”

“If it can run and maneuver on those legs without fallin’ over on its ass, then I’ll concede your point.”

“Of course.” Austin rolled his eyes. “You know, now that I think about it, why the fuck are mechs called ‘mechs?’”

“…Because that’s what they are?”

“No no, I mean, why can’t they be called somethin’ cool? Like, c’mon, they’re basically giant human robots! Why not call ‘em somethin’ like Titans, or Mobile Suits, or Metal Gears?”

“’Metal Gear’? What kinda fuckin’ stupid name is that?”

“Well why don’t you come up with somethin’ better?!”

“They’re called mechs.” Spike gave Austin an exasperated glance. “It’s like complainin’ that tanks are called tanks. Fuckin’ get over it.”

“Well if I ever get a mech then I’m gonna call it…” Austin held his hands up and then spread them apart, as if beholding an imaginary sign. “…Excalibur.”

Spike snorted in derision. “…That’s your idea of cool? Mm, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; you like Sword Kings, after all.”

“Not this again. I’ll have you know that Sword Kings is a perfectly legitimate—!”

“Yeah yeah, whatever.” Spike waved him off as he finished his last slice of pizza. “…You got any other classes today?”

“Yeah, two of ‘em,” Austin responded, annoyed. “First day and I got four hours of classes. Hmph.”

“Well at least it ain’t High School, right?”

“Guess so. Got more free time nowadays.”

“Time you should be usin’ to study.”

“Says the guy whose grades are worse than mine.”

“Touche,” Spike snorted. He replaced the lid on his plastic container and tossed it in his bag before standing up. “Well, I gotta get goin’. There was somethin’ Sky wanted help with this afternoon.”

“Help, or…” Austin held up his hands to form air quotes. “’Help?’”

Spike shot an annoyed glance at Austin and then turned toward the road.

“Just how long should I expect to have the place to myself?”

“Pretty late.” Spike turned back to answer Austin’s question. “It’s a Monday. That means I got a shift at the dojo to cover.”

“Oh, yeah.” Austin nodded absentmindedly. “…Well, don’t lemme keep ya. Have fun, er, ‘helping’ Sky.”

“Real funny.” Spike offered a curt wave as he began walking toward the road. “See ya later.”

“Aight.” Austin casually returned the wave. “See ya.”

*     *     *

Several Hours Later

“Ah, damn, not again…”

Austin sighed in irritation as he tossed his game controller across the couch. The words “Game Over” appeared on the screen in front of him for the twentieth time that hour; precision action games were hardly Austin’s forte, and the game he was currently playing was known as one of the hardest in the genre.

“Why did I ever let Spike convince me to get this shit,” he muttered to himself as he stood up and stretched. His stretching prompted an involuntary yawn — it was late, after all, with the outside skies tinged with twilight. After idly glancing around the room, he trudged over to the kitchen, where he pulled out a bowl, spoon, and a box of cereal. A minute later, just as he was adding milk to his cereal, the doorbell rang.

Who the hell is that…? Austin took a moment to replace the milk jug in the refrigerator and grab his bowl of cereal before approaching the door. He peered through the peephole, only to see the top of a head of wavy black hair. Shortly afterward, the doorbell rang again.

“Oi, oi, oi,” Austin commented lazily as he opened the door, “you really like to ring doorbells, huh?”

“Well maybe if you answered the door sooner, I wouldn’t have to hit the damn button so much,” Sky retorted, making eye-contact with Austin for but a moment before she began looking into the apartment. “Is Spike here?”

“Can’t you, you know, call him?” Austin questioned, “instead of comin’ all the way out here when he might not even be here?”

“I take that as a no.”

“He’s probably still at the dojo, doin’ whatever it is they do there.”

“Kendo.”

“Yeah, that.”

“For someone who watches so much anime with swords and shit, I’d think you’d remember that your best friend does Kendo.”

“…Meh.” Austin then turned his attention from Sky to the multiple flies that had just entered the apartment through the wide-open door. The twilit skies, stuffy warm air, and chirping crickets rounded out the signs of a Texan summer night… and Austin was having none of it. “Are you comin’ in or what? This door needs to close.”

“No, I’ll probably go check on Spike, see what’s keeping him,” Sky replied lightly. “The dojo’s only a block or two from here, after all. Wanna tag along?”

“…Eh… might as well, I guess. Been a while since I dropped by the wherever.”

“Now you’re trying to sound dismissive.”

Austin simply shrugged as he slipped on his shoes and stepped outside, closing the door behind him with his unoccupied hand. Sky eyed his bowl of cereal incredulously.

“I’m hungry,” he stated as they began walking off, “I just poured this bowl, too. I ain’t wastin’ it.”

“If you say so.”

“I do say so.”

Sky simply rolled her eyes in response. A couple moments of silence passed before she asked, “well, how was your first day of classes?”

“Meh. It was as first day of classes as a first day of classes can get.”

“…The hell does that even mean?”

“Just boring shit. Syllabus, schedules, how homework and exams work, blah blah blah. Oh, and my first class had a pop quiz. On the first fuckin’ day! Some bullshit.”

“Oof. I had to deal with the administrative stuff too, but not a quiz. That sounds pretty bad.”

“Yeah. I probably failed miserably. Not a great start to the year…”

“Well at least you’re doing something you like, right?”

“…Sorta, I guess.” Austin threw a sidelong glance toward Sky. “Sounds like you’re tryin’ to imply somethin’ here.”

Sky sighed of irritation and looked away. “It’s nothing.”

“You haven’t given up on that singing career, have you?”

“…A career was never really possible. That’s why I’m going for a generic engineering degree.”

“Didn’t really answer my question.”

“Can’t give up on what was never possible in the first place.”

Austin frowned. “It’s not like you to be so pessimistic…”

Sky glanced back at Austin and then down at the ground. After a moment she slapped herself lightly on the cheeks and made an exaggerated show of stretching. “Ah, you’re right. Sorry ‘bout that. It’s just frustrating to have a dream, and have it be so far out of grasp… you know?”

“Heh. At least you have a dream.”

“I didn’t realize we were in a ‘whose life is worse’ pissing contest.”

“Hey, you started it.”

“Hmph. Fair.”

“I mean, you and Twy have some real talent, you know? I’d bet you’d both do well in creative fields if you really put your minds to it.”

“Implying that we don’t already try as hard as we can.”

Austin adopted a pained expression. “You know what I meant…”

Sky smirked and punched him in the arm playfully. “Heh, I’m  just messin’ with you.”

“You say that…”

“Yeah, well…” Sky began, and then trailed off as something in the distance caught her eye. “Hey… what’s that?”

“Huh?” Austin squinted into the distance in the direction Sky was pointing. “…That… hey, I think… I think that’s the robot Spike and I saw earlier today.”

“A robot…?” Sky echoed warily, “what’s it doing standing outside of the dojo?”

“…Doesn’t seem like it’s doin’ anything,” Austin commented as they approached. “It’s just staring… is that—?”

“Hey, Spike!” Sky shouted and then broke into a jog to close the last few meters. “What’s going on?”

Spike didn’t turn away as Sky approached, instead remaining squarely in the entrance to the dojo, with his arms crossed and feet planted securely at shoulder width. He glared back at the robot, nearly as motionless himself. “…I don’t know,” he eventually responded. “…Damn ‘bot just walked up a few minutes ago. Hasn’t moved an inch since.”

“Weird,” Austin muttered as he stepped up next to Spike and Sky. “Hey, Spike, isn’t this the same robot we saw earlier—?”

The robot shifted and slowly turned toward Austin. The glowing blue orb on its upper chest momentarily increased in brightness and then projected a beam at Austin, as though it were scanning him. He froze up in apprehension; Spike uncrossed his arms and lowered them to his sides expectantly as Sky summoned a small fireball in her hand, both ready to pounce on the robot at a moment’s notice… and then it simply turned away and began trundling down the road.

Austin sighed of relief. “The hell was that about?”

“Beats me,” Spike shrugged, and then tousled Sky’s hair as she hugged him. He glanced toward Austin and opened his mouth to speak further, but paused and pulled a face. “The hell did you bring a bowl here for?”

“Hey, I was hungry.”

“Spike! Is the ‘bot gone yet—? Oh.” A middle-aged Japanese man appeared through the dojo’s front door. “Well, if it isn’t Sky. And… Austin, correct?”

Sky bowed in greeting, while Austin simply offered a half-hearted wave.

“Nice to see you again, Sensei Roshu!” Sky exclaimed.

“Nice to see you, too.” Roshu smiled in response, and then glanced around. “…So the ‘bot finally left?”

“Yeah.” Spike nodded. “…It just stood here for a while, and left once Austin and Sky got here.”

“Mm, must be afraid of the uncommitted.”

Austin frowned. “I get the feeling that’s a dig at me…”

“Ha!” Roshu smirked. “Maybe you should have completed the beginner’s track, if you feel so bad.”

“Whoa now, never said I felt bad.”

“Austin,” Spike muttered curtly, in a clearly reprimanding tone.

Roshu simply laughed in response and heartily slapped Spike on the back. “No need to be so uptight around me. Anyways, now that the ‘bot’s gone, you should probably get back to teaching Twy.”

“Twy?” Austin and Sky echoed simultaneously before turning toward Spike. A mere moment later, Twy appeared at the dojo entrance, fully decked out in Kendo training gear.

“You didn’t tell me you were getting Kendo lessons!” Sky exclaimed.

“Oh. Uh…” Twy glanced away uneasily. “Well… I’m getting Kendo lessons…!”

Austin and Sky responded to Twy’s forced enthusiasm with blank stares. Austin then turned toward Spike, his eyes narrowed suspiciously, before simply turning on his heel. “Well, I’m done here. ‘Night y’all—”

“Now, hold on one moment,” Roshu interjected, moving over to Austin’s side and grabbing his shoulder with surprising swiftness. He spun Austin back around to face the group before suggesting, “surely you didn’t think you could just waltz on in, insult my teaching, and then leave, did you? How about a duel?”

“Oooh, a duel between Austin and Sensei?” Sky rubbed her hands together eagerly. “Can’t wait to see this!”

“No no, I’m not that cruel.” Roshu shook his head. He then gestured toward Twy. “The two of you should be at about the same skill level by now. Well…” He glanced back toward Austin with a glint in his eye. “…Assuming you didn’t forget anything, at least.”

“A duel with Austin…?” Twy’s lips slowly turned up into a smirk as she thought over the idea. “Well, why not?”

“Ha! That’s the spirit!” Roshu grinned as he re-entered the dojo. Twy promptly followed, as did Sky. “Come on in, Austin!” Roshu shouted through the front door, “hurry it up!”

Austin simply stared at the opened door uneasily until Spike came up and put his arm over his shoulders.

“Now listen here, dumbass,” Spike muttered, his voice lowered so that only Austin could hear. “Don’t be gettin’ the wrong idea, now.”

Austin narrowed his eyes. “You mean because Twy’s training with you?”

“Now listen here. She ain’t here for me. She’s here so she can get better and impress you.” Spike stabbed his index finger at Austin’s sternum. “…Well, she never actually said that. But I’m sure you’re part of it. …Probably. Maybe?”

“Uh huh, right. And now I’m supposed to duel her? You know I haven’t had lessons in months!”

“Ah, you’ll be fine.”

“I better not have to wear that stupid get-up.”

Spike glanced down at himself, and the Kendo uniform he was wearing. He then released Austin and straightened up. “Well if you’re gonna be a cry-baby about it, I won’t make you wear the uniform. But you gotta at least wear the protective gear, alright?”

“Yeah, yeah…” Austin sighed in irritation. He shoved his bowl into Spike’s hands and finally approached the front door; as soon as he stepped through and removed his shoes, Roshu threw a breastplate at him. He barely caught it, and inspected it for a moment before donning it.

“I see you remember how to put on the dō,” Roshu remarked. “Don’t forget the rest.”

“Don’t patronize me…” Austin muttered as he approached a nearby rack of protective equipment. After putting on the headgear and the protective gloves, he moved over to the rack of shinai and grabbed one. He swung it through the air a couple times before turning toward the middle of the dojo and approaching uneasily.

“What’s the matter?” Twy taunted, “are you that afraid of losing to me?”

“More like I just don’t like pointless ass-kickings,” he grunted back. He glanced to the side, where Spike, Sky, and Roshu were watching. Spike offered a curt nod before Austin turned back to face Twy. “…Welp. Might as well get this over with.”

“Right,” Twy responded as she gripped her shinai with both hands in front of her. “Ready when you are.”

Austin took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He couldn’t quite see Twy’s eyes through the facemask she was wearing, but he knew she was more than prepared for anything he could throw at her. Well… here goes.

He rose his shinai into the air, preparing to strike. Twy immediately swung forwards, aiming to hit Austin’s wrists; he quickly turned his shinai sideways, blocking the attack. As Twy drew back he pressed forward, attempting to tag her breastplate, but she dodged backward before darting forward to attack Austin’s wrists again. With surprising swiftness, he snapped his shinai up and to the side just fast enough to block the incoming attack. Twy immediately retreated and returned to a neutral stance.

“Seems I underestimated you…” she commented.

“Or maybe you just overestimated yourself,” Austin shot back.

Twy didn’t respond. Instead she lunged forward, swinging diagonally from her left and batting Austin’s shinai to the side. She immediately moved to close the distance and attack his core, but he reflexively fully gripped the hilt of his shinai with both hands and horizontally blocked her strike. Then, without thinking, he let go with his right hand and brought his shinai over to his left side before grabbing it halfway down the shaft and thrusting forward. Startled, Twy jumped back to dodge, but Austin acted faster, letting go with his left hand and swinging his shinai — hilt first — down on Twy’s head. The weapon’s length, combined with his superior arm span, proved too far for Twy to evade; she took the hit square on her forehead.

“Hey!” she exclaimed in irritation, “that wasn’t Kendo form!”

“Twy is correct,” Roshu stated as he stepped forward. “Were you holding an actual katana, you would’ve sliced open your hand! Those techniques are hardly useful with Japanese weapons against Japanese armor, anyways.”

“…Wait, ‘techniques?’” Austin echoed. “…What are you talkin’ about?”

“Hmm?” Roshu gave Austin an inquisitive glance. “What you just did there at the end were western longsword techniques. Half-swording and such. You didn’t know that?”

“…Er, no. It just kinda… happened.” Austin turned toward Twy sheepishly. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to do that.”

“At least we had this headgear,” Twy muttered as she worked to remove her facemask and hood. “That blow hurt.”

“Hey, I said sorry…”

“Hmph. Apology accepted. But be careful next time!”

“Bah, there ain’t gonna be a ‘next time.’” Austin scowled as he began removing his protective gear. “…Man, I just came down here to check on Spike, and then I got roped into this bullshit…”

“Well you performed rather well for ‘bullshit.’” Roshu smirked. He then glanced back at Spike and Sky before stretching wearily. “The day is over now, though. Spike, Twy! Help me clean up, will you?”

“Yes, Sensei!” They both bowed and began moving to close down.

“I can help, too!” Sky exclaimed as she rushed forward to Spike’s side. “Hey, what can I do?”

“Oh, well thank you.” Roshu smiled, and turned toward Austin. “Will you—?”

“Ah, sorry.” Austin waved as he retreated toward the front door. “I, uh… have classes tomorrow. In the morning. Early morning.”

“Sure you do,” Spike deadpanned.

“See you later, then?” Twy waved back.

“Aye, yeah.” Austin nodded as he finally set foot outside. “See y’all later.”

Chapter 7 – Obscured Meanings

– Tuesday, September 6, AD 2129 –

“Breaking news: tensions across the nation are rising after a mysterious attack on the Denver SERRCom office last night…”

“Shit.” Spike scowled, watching the news from his seat at the table as he slowly worked through his breakfast. “SERRCom was attacked? On Earth?”

“Where else would you attack them?” Austin retorted. He adjusted his position on the couch to face the TV directly before adding, “the bigger question is, why Denver?”

“Bigger than that is who,” Spike countered. “Is this a local thing? Or is it aliens?”

“What a world we live in, that that’s a legitimate question.”

“Shut up. This is serious shit. SERRCom’s never been attacked before, not like this.”

Austin grunted in response, his attention focused on the news as the newscaster continued on.

“…Particularly, the offenders in last night’s attack appear to not be human — rather, they’re robots.”

“…No…” Austin froze as images of the offending robots appeared on the screen. “…Spike… is that…?”

“That’s the same kinda robot we saw yesterday at the park, and at the dojo…” Spike’s brow furrowed. “Shit. So those things are walkin’ around town? We needa tell SERRCom—!”

Spike stopped himself as the newscaster answered his question. “There have been reports of similar robots appearing in cities all over the globe yesterday. SERRCom issued a statement early this morning that they are aware of these sightings and have launched a full investigation into the robots’ capabilities, locations, and above all, their handler.”

“How do we know they have a handler?” Austin frowned. “For all we know, these things are AIs!”

“I doubt it,” Spike refuted, “no one’s been able to figure out full AI yet, not even the CSA. If someone made AI, they’d be makin’ way better use of it than attackin’ a SERRCom base on li’l ol’ Earth.”

“Bah, you don’t need true AI for combat ‘bots.”

“Yeah, but if they ain’t true AI then someone’s gotta be controllin’ ‘em, right?”

“…Understandably, the attack on the Denver office has made many uneasy,” the news report continued, “General Matthew Lead of SERRCom issued a statement himself shortly after SERRCom’s official press release.”

The video changed to a recording of a large, light-skinned, graying man with a conservative, dignified mustache. He was sitting behind a large desk; on the desk’s front was the shield emblem of SERRCom, while behind the man was an image of Earth itself, as though from a satellite in orbit. “The attack last night came as a surprise to all,” he declared, “but the fact that it was a surprise is a hint as to its size and scope. This attack was nothing more than a haphazard small-scale strike that failed to claim any lives and was, in fact, repelled quickly and easily by the brave men and women serving within our ranks. Everyone in SERRCom, myself included, are working our hardest to locate the source of this disruption, and we will stop at nothing to ensure that Earth’s long-standing peace remains unbroken. After all, we all survived through last week’s Chaos Energy Quake; in comparison, these robots are hardly a threat. Please, allow your minds to rest easy. The danger to you is insignificant.”

“…Some statement,” Austin snorted as the recording ended and the newscaster reappeared on screen.

“Yeah…” Spike nodded. “Shit like that is what makes you worry more.”

“So now there’s just a bunch of killer robots walkin’ around, huh? How the hell is it safe to go outside?”

“I mean, you saw the thing. They’re as big as I am, at least. They can’t really sneak around.”

“Just sounds to me like you’re underestimating fuckin’ killer robots.”

“Hmph,” Spike grunted in response. He and Austin fell silent for several moments until Spike’s phone went off.

“What’s goin’ on?” Austin questioned as Spike picked up the device and scanned through his new message.

“…It’s Sensei. Apparently the cops dropped by the dojo to ask about the ‘bot. He wants me to swing by to help answer questions.”

“You gonna be okay out there?”

“I should be the one askin’ you that,” Spike retorted. He grabbed his now empty bowl and dropped it off in the sink before going to retrieve his shoes. “In all seriousness, I’m sure it’s fine. If there was actually a threat of death by killer robot, I’m sure someone would’ve said so.”

“Damn well better.”

“…Well, I’m off.” Spike opened the door and stepped outside. He paused for a moment to shout back inside. “Don’t forget your classes today!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. See ya later.”

“Aight. See ya.”

*     *     *

Several Hours Later

Austin sighed warily as he stared listlessly out the car window. Rapidly passing buildings masked the empty sky and low sun; sunset was less than an hour away. A sort of serene silence filled the car’s interior, giving Austin a calm environment to simply relax and reflect on his day… if he weren’t so busy brooding.

“Stupid late afternoon classes,” he grumbled, “I didn’t get outta high school and go to college for this shit. Hmph.”

He glared down at his phone and began scrolling through the assignments he had just received. Homework on the first goddamn day, he thought miserably, maybe I should just drop out. That universal income shit oughtta be enough to keep up with video games. Probably…

After entertaining the thought for several moments he shook his head vigorously. Accepting the universal income in lieu of a job would mean either moving back in with his parents to save money or forever living in a cheap, run-down apartment — neither of which he wanted to do. Programming wasn’t exactly his primary interest, but as far as he could tell, it was the easiest path to lots of consistent money. If that meant he had to soldier through years of annoying classes, he would do it. Probably.

A moment later, his phone vibrated. He glanced down; Twy had sent him a message. “…‘Meet me by the pond,’” he read aloud. “Eh, I guess she wants to show off her—…” He stopped himself from finishing his thought out loud. He was currently riding in a publicly-owned self-driving car, after all. Who knew who could be listening in?

Austin glanced back at his phone as it vibrated again. He realized that Twy must have sent her message to Spike and Sky as well, since the newest message was a response from Sky: “Sorry, Spike and I got tied up helping at the dojo. Can’t make it.”

…That means it’d just be me and Twy… Austin mused. He checked the location pin Twy had attached to her message; the pond in question wasn’t too far from his current position. He quickly input the new location into the car’s console and then replied to Twy’s text, stating that he’d be over soon. Just as he did so, the car passed a number of military vehicles, all displaying the emblem of SERRCom: an image of part of the Earth with the moon above it and then three stars above that, all on the face of a shield.

“I guess the General wasn’t kidding,” he mumbled as he craned his neck to watch the vehicles shrink with distance. Those weren’t the first signs of SERRCom activity he had seen today — he saw several of their vehicles and personnel on his way to class earlier, and he had even heard rumors that the Eximius Vir had appeared in town. Austin had doubts as to the veracity of those rumors; he may live in the capital city of Texas, and there was indeed a small SERRCom office in the city, but there were still a number of far more important SERRCom bases and offices scattered across the world. Why would the Eximius Vir choose to visit the city of Austin, when cities like Tokyo, New York, or London would be far more attractive targets to outside threats?

Austin snorted in mild amusement as his car passed a peculiar, but not uncommon billboard: an image of Mote Emerson, the leader of the Eximius Vir, standing stoically in front of SERRCom’s shield emblem and next to some pithy message of public assurance. Such billboards were a common site across the planet, but several more had popped up since the beginning of the Chaos Quake the previous week. I bet SERRCom themselves started that rumor of the Eximius Vir bein’ around, Austin mused, probably supposed to ‘put the public at ease’ or some shit. Then, as his car passed by another SERRCom checkpoint, a second thought came to his mind: if SERRCom was trying to push the public security angle, then why would they set up checkpoints or attempt to monitor civilian activities? All of the reported threats were robotic in nature, after all, and said robots weren’t exactly small or easy to hide. It could indeed be possible that SERRCom’s show of force was merely intended to convey a sense of security, but as Austin thought about the issue further, he only grew more anxious. SERRCom didn’t hold any authority on Earth’s surface, not unless they believed there was a credible threat to the Earthian Territories as a whole. So why didn’t they simply coordinate with local officials? His run-in with the EIIC agents at the pool last week came to mind — clearly, SERRCom was looking for something, and it probably had something to do with the Chaos Quake. But what could they hope to find on Earth?

The thoughts racing through Austin’s mind distracted him so thoroughly that he didn’t realize that the car had stopped for nearly a minute. He glanced down at his phone; sure enough, he had arrived at his destination. He promptly hopped out of the car and squinted into the late afternoon sunlight in search of Twy. Where could she be…?

As the car zoomed off, Austin could feel the quiet surround him. It wasn’t complete silence — rather, a sort of serene combination of rustling leaves and infrequent bird cawing that melted into the background. He exhaled deeply as he slowly meandered towards the pond a short distance from the road; he didn’t get out often, but this sort of natural quiet with no one around was exactly what he imagined to be a good excuse to leave home.

“Boo!”

“Ack!!” Austin jumped back a solid two feet in surprise, his eyes wide beyond compare. He snapped his attention to the source of the sound — and promptly let out a sigh of irritation. “Oi, don’t sneak up on me like that!”

“Then don’t make it so easy,” Twy replied with a smirk, her hands on her hips.

“Hmph.” Austin then looked around at their quiet surroundings. “…So, uh, why did you want to meet here, exactly…?”

“Well, I wanted to show everyone something…” Twy sighed and glanced toward the road. “…But I guess you’re the only one who could make it, huh?”

Austin held up his hands and shrugged. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Twy spun around, her hands clasped behind her back as she began walking toward the pond. “Maybe even for the better…”

“For the better…?”

“Yeah. Less witnesses.”

“What—?!”

Austin stopped mid-exclamation as Twy turned toward him, grinning broadly. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill you or anything,” she teased.

“Oh no, I’m so scared, please oh please won’t someone help me,” Austin replied, deadpan.

“Figures you’d beg for help. Can’t even take me on in a fight, huh?”

“Bah, I’ve got a good ten inches on you, of course I could take you.”

“Height and reach aren’t all that matters. You’ve gotta keep flexibility in mind, too.”

“Oh yeah, you were real flexible last night, eh?”

Twy pulled a face, but didn’t continue the conversation. The two had arrived at the water’s edge, and her attention appeared to be elsewhere.

“Wait… Are you gonna do what I think you’re—?!” Austin’s question was cut off as a giant mound of water suddenly sprung into the air. It reached a height of nearly ten meters before splitting into two water ribbons at the top, with the ribbons spiraling through the air and down to Twy’s position, where they began to swirl around her. She winked at Austin before leaping into the pond, bringing up another mass of water to meet her midair. The depths appeared to swallow her, the watery ribbons gone… until she burst out of the water’s surface a couple seconds later, a pillar of water beneath her feet.

“What do you think?” she shouted from on high.

Austin stared up at her for several moments, mouth agape, before finally coming back to his senses. He shook his head vigorously and gestured for Twy to come down. “That was cool and all, but what if someone sees you?!”

Twy responded with a moment of silence. She sighed before creating a ramp of water from the top of the pillar to the ground, which she slid down on her feet. Austin couldn’t help but feel impressed… until she stumbled at the bottom and faceplanted on the ground. It took all the effort he could muster to not break out into laughter; a few chortles managed to escape all the same.

“…Oh, sure, laugh at me,” Twy drawled as she picked herself up. “…Hmph. I suppose I should’ve expected you to be unappreciative.”

“What? No, no, that’s not what I—!” Austin pursed his lips as he took a moment to gather his thoughts. “…I thought what you did was pretty cool. I really did. But if someone else saw you—!”

“Yeah, yeah, something something SERRCom,” she replied with a roll of her eyes.

“Oh c’mon, it’s a very real concern! Do you really wanna get drafted?”

Twy huffed. “Of course not. I’m also not a dumbass, you know. I searched the area for cameras and the like before you got here, and found nothing. And there’s no one around but us! Trust me, no one saw me. Except you, of course.”

“Oh…” Austin scratched his head sheepishly. “I didn’t realize you’d already looked…”

“Honestly, I’m a little insulted that you think I’d be so careless, but I’ll let it slide this once.”

“How gracious of you.”

“You’re trying really hard to get on my bad side tonight, huh?”

Austin scowled. “I’m just tryin’ to look out for you.”

“I can look out for myself perfectly fine.”

The two glared at each other for several seconds before simultaneously sighing and looking away.

“…Kind of a stupid argument.” Austin smiled meekly. “…Sorry. The past week and a half have kinda put me on edge…”

“Yeah…” Twy sighed again. “…Apology accepted. You’re not wrong, about the whole SERRCom conscription thing. I just wish you’d loosen up a little, you know?”

“I’m just surprised you aren’t worried as much as I am,” Austin countered.

“Trust me, you do more than enough worrying for the both of us.”

“Pretty much all I can do for you at this point. The only thing I can do better than you is accidentally cheatin’ in Kendo duels.”

Twy raised an incredulous eyebrow. “’Accidentally?’”

Austin returned the expression. “Do you really think I knew what the hell I was doin’?”

“…Fair. You are pretty careless most of the time.”

“Bah, I ain’t no where near as bad as Sky.”

“But really. You didn’t know what you were doing?”

“No…”

“What you did were longsword techniques, you know.”

“I do know, I was there when whatshisface said so. Honestly, those sound like stupid techniques. Grabbing the blade? Swingin’ the thing end-first like a bat? Sound like great ways to slice up your hands.”

“Take it up with medieval knights, not me. They’re the ones who pioneered the style.”

“Well I’ll be right on that, as soon as I find a time machine. Don’t suppose you know where to find one?”

“If I had a time machine, I sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting around here.”

“Glad to know you’d abandon me in the present in favor of the past.”

Twy shoved Austin playfully. “I was thinking of taking you with me, but after a remark like that, I think I’ll just take Sky instead.”

“I dunno, depending on where you are, go more than a couple centuries back and havin’ a spindly white dude with you would probably be more useful.”

“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever need a token white friend.”

“Now that’s a combination of words I didn’t think I’d ever hear.”

“Hehe,” Twy giggled in response before turning toward the western horizon. The sun was set, and even twilight had mostly given way to darkened skies. Chirping crickets now dominated the soundscape, completely masking the soft sound of leaves rustling in the wind and running water.

“Probably time to go home, huh,” Austin commented.

“Yeah…” Twy sighed. “…Wish I’d gotten to show you more. I’ve practiced a lot.”

“I could tell. Next time I’ll try to keep the chastising to a minimum.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” Twy began walking toward the road with Austin in tow. “…Thanks for coming.”

“Eh.” Austin shrugged nonchalantly. “It was nothin’.”

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.”