Chapter 9 – End of Peace

“What the hell do we do now?!”

“Hey, hey! Calm down!” Spike demanded as he grabbed Austin by his shoulders.

“Calm down?!” Austin echoed incredulously, “that—! I just learned that some guy stole my face and voice and name and claimed responsibility for the attacks on SERRCom! Do you have any idea what that means for me?! I’m screwed! SERRCom thinks I’m a criminal for sure! How the fuck am I supposed to deal with SERRCom?!”

“Austin, settle down, we— we can work this out,” Twy urged, “I mean… even if they arrest you, once they get to talk with Spike, you’ll have eye-witness testimony on your side. It’ll work out in the end.”

“And if it doesn’t? How do you even know they’ll give me a fair chance, huh? For all they know, I just attacked their bases and probably killed a bunch of people! …Oh my god, SERRCom probably thinks I’m a murderer! Fucking hell, I’m fucked!

“We don’t know if anyone died,” Spike interjected. “There weren’t any deaths from the Denver attack, maybe no one died here, either.”

“Well that’s fantastic,” Austin drawled, “so they can accuse me of ownership of illegal weaponry and tech as well as an intent to do harm against SERRCom, but at least they can’t accuse me of murder. I’m so glad! Maybe they’ll be lenient on me!”

“Hey, cut it out,” Spike growled. “You ain’t the only one in trouble here. The twins and I are Chaotics, and that dude we ran into earlier suspects it. If they come after you, it’ll only be a matter of time ‘fore they figure out the rest of us, so it’s in all of our interests to calm the fuck down and work this shit out!”

“Wait, Spike, you’re a Chaotic?” Sky questioned.

“Yeah. Discovered it earlier today. But there’s no time to explain now.” He turned to face the Chao twins and then glanced back at Austin. “So what do we do?”

“I think we should probably run,” Sky suggested. “With that video… SERRCom is probably on their way here right now!

“And where the fuck would we go, huh?” Austin countered, “there ain’t a place on this planet where we could hide from SERRCom and their tech. They got goddamn spaceships and interstellar colonies, I mean, c’mon! You think a bunch of 20-year-olds on the run will give ‘em any trouble?!”

“And even if we did run…” Twy frowned uneasily. “We don’t have the knowledge or resources to make any real distance while at the same time keeping out of SERRCom’s grasp. We can’t use cars, because they they could track our payments. And without cars, we’re stuck with either bikes or walking.”

“Shit…” Spike scowled. “…Damn it. Well what the hell can we—?”

“OPEN THE DOOR AND COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS OVER YOUR HEAD!”

“What?!” Austin jumped, startled, as a loud voice echoed through the apartment.

Spike quickly moved over to the front door and peered through the peephole. “…Shit,” he muttered, “…there’s a bunch of soldiers out there, and one guy with a megaphone.”

“They found us already?!” Sky exclaimed incredulously. “How?!”

“That’s government surveillance for you,” Austin muttered, his arms crossed. “…But why didn’t they just bust through the door? What are they afraid of?”

“They probably think you have more robots or something—”

“I REPEAT! OPEN THE DOOR AND COME OUT WITH YOUR HANDS OVER YOUR HEAD! I WILL ONLY GIVE YOU ONE MORE CHANCE TO RESOLVE THIS PEACEFULLY!”

“Fuck, fuck, shit.” Austin grabbed at his head in panic. “What do— what do we do?!”

“…We go outside.” Spike stepped back from the door and stretched, as though preparing to fight. “Like I said, the twins and I are Chaotics — but they don’t know that yet. Well… they shouldn’t, at least. We can try to play this out, and then if things go south…”

Twy frowned warily. “You want to try fighting a bunch of armed soldiers?”

Spike grunted in affirmation. “It’s the only option we got. Now we needa move now, while they might be willin’ to listen to us.”

“Why the hell would they—?”

“THIS IS YOUR FINAL CHANCE! OPEN THE DOOR AND COME OUT OR WE WILL BE FORCED TO ENTER! THREE! TWO! ONE—!”

“Alright, alright!” Austin burst out of the apartment door, his hands raised in the air. He paused for a moment outside of the door to take a look at his surroundings: no less than ten soldiers now had their guns trained on him, with two of them sitting behind heavier truck-mounted equipment. In the middle of the group stood a somewhat stocky light-skinned man with short black hair, holding a megaphone, as well as a tall woman with a black baseball cap and a dark complexion. Judging by their posture and outfits, they seemed to be more important than the rest, but Austin had no more time to observe the environment as Spike gave him a nudge.

“…I see you’ve got friends,” the man with the megaphone commented, lowering the device and projecting his voice on his own. The soldiers around him, however, remained unflinching. “Austin Travis, right?”

Austin paused uneasily as Spike and Twy stood on either side of him, their hands also raised. “…Uh… yeah.”

“You’re Luke’s nephew, aren’t you?” The man sighed wistfully; next to him, the woman seemed to stiffen in irritation. “What a shame… he always spoke so highly of you, you know.”

“Wait, you know my uncle…?” Austin responded uneasily. He looked the man up and down before asking, “are you… Colonel Saito…?”

“So Luke does talk about us.” Saito smirked sadly. “I guess if you know who I am and who I work for, then that makes this easier.”

“I didn’t do it!” Austin exclaimed as he frantically glanced around at the surrounding soldiers. “That, that video, that was an impostor, or something! I don’t even know how—!”

“Quiet!” Saito demanded, “whether or not you’re guilty isn’t for me to decide. For your unpermitted development and usage of weaponry in civilian environments, as well as your multiple assaults on SERRCom bases, you are under arrest!”

“Hold on!” Twy interjected and stepped forward. Several of the soldiers shifted their aim to her, causing her to reflexively flinch back. “Do— do you even have authority to arrest anyone? You’re SERRCom, right? You… you aren’t supposed to be doing anything on Earth without explicit permission from the nation in which you’re operating. If you arrest us, well, that’s illegal!”

“What’s illegal is you launching pointless attacks on our bases and injuring countless servicepersons,” the woman next to Saito finally spoke up as she directed a fierce glare at Twy and Austin. “You attacked us. Don’t think you’re getting out of this.”

“Hackett, cut it out,” Saito responded, “the girl’s got a point.” He turned back to Austin and company. “Don’t think you’re going anywhere until the local cops arrive, though.”

“Then can’t you at least listen to me? While we wait?” Austin pleaded, “I didn’t do it! I barely know how to program, let alone write AI and create entire fucking combat robots with guns! How the hell do you think a stupid 20-year-old like me is supposed to pull off two attacks on SERRCom?!

“So you say,” Hackett replied, “but then how do you explain the broadcast where you explicitly claimed responsibility?”

“It’s — it’s an impostor. It has to be!”

“What, are we supposed to believe that you have an evil twin running around, now? We aren’t stupid.”

Austin furrowed his brow. Just as he was about to respond, however, another voice interrupted him.

Colonel!

Saito glanced backwards as someone ran up behind him. He stopped at Saito’s side, opposite of Hackett, at which point both Austin and Spike tensed up visibly in apprehension.

The newcomer was Mote.

“Lieutenant.” Saito nodded toward Mote. “You’ve finally arrived. Where’s the rest of your team?”

They’re making sure that there aren’t any more ‘bots around, Mote responded curtly. If I understand correctly, this is the residence of the suspect…? He trailed off as he finally turned toward Austin and Spike, his eyes narrowing — and then widening in recognition.

“Fuck,” Spike muttered under his breath.

Hey, what the hell are you two doing here? Mote demanded, didn’t I tell you to stay put by the bell tower?

“You know them?” Saito questioned.

Not really, Mote answered, his attention still focused squarely on Spike, but I ran into them while chasing one of the robots. Something was off… He scowled before summoning a massive battlehammer with an exquisite blue and silver design out of thin air and backing into a defensive stance. I think they’re Chaotics.

“What?!” Saito exclaimed, and then snapped his attention forwards again as Sky and Twy both jumped in front of Austin, creating shields of water and fire as they did so.

“What are you doing?!” Austin hissed.

“He figured us out,” Twy commented uneasily, “no use hiding any more.”

Austin opened his mouth to respond, but found himself speechless. Instead, he turned back toward the soldiers — who had all backed away a significant distance. Mote now stood in front, his hands and battlehammer cackling with electricity.

“STAND DOWN!” Saito demanded, this time through the megaphone. “STAND DOWN, AND NO ONE GETS HURT!”

“You’re not taking us!” Sky shouted back, “we aren’t guilty of anything! You can’t arrest any of us!”

“BELIEVE IT OR NOT, THE REST OF YOU HAD BETTER CHANCES BEFORE YOUR STUPID DISPLAY RIGHT HERE. BUT NOW THAT WE KNOW YOU’RE CHAOTICS, YOU’RE COMING WITH US, CRIMINALS OR NOT! NOW I WILL GIVE YOU ‘TIL THE COUNT OF THREE TO STOP YOUR ATTACKS OR EMERSON WILL BE FORCED TO DISABLE YOU! ONE…!”

“What do we do?!” Austin questioned in a panic.

“TWO…!”

“Only one option left now…” Spike grunted as he stepped forward and summoned a massive shield.

“THREE!”

“We fight—!” Spike started, but was stopped as an incredible blast of electricity knocked his shield away. Thrown off-balance, he was completely unable to react as Mote raised his hand toward the group. Sky and Twy quickly fired off elemental projectiles, but Mote’s lightning was faster; a split second later, an arc of electricity jumped from his hand to Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy, stunning them all — and completely knocking out the latter three. Austin collapsed to his knees, panting heavily as he braced himself for another attack. When none came, he slowly looked up at Mote… only to find him staring back with a mixture of incredulity and unease.

That should’ve disabled you, Mote growled, are you an Electrotechnic?

“A what what…?”

Mote’s scowl simply deepened in response. Then, without warning, he issued forth another lightning arc, striking Austin with enough force to blast him back into the building behind him. Stunned, Austin barely had time to reorient himself before Mote tackled him to the ground and pinned him.

Colonel! Mote shouted back at Saito, get a CENT generator, ASAP!

“Agh—! Argh… damn it!” Austin growled, wriggling around in an attempt to free himself from Mote’s incredibly effective pin. “God damn… get off of me!”

Damn it, sit… still…! …What…?!

Mote’s grip suddenly softened, allowing Austin to wriggle free. He quickly backed off several steps before turning back toward Mote… who was frozen in the air over the ground, still in the same physical position as he was when he had Austin pinned.

The hell did you do?! Mote demanded, unable to move his head to look up at Austin.

“I…” Austin glanced between Mote, his downed friends, and the other SERRCom soldiers. “I, I don’t know! I don’t know what’s goin’ on!”

What type of Chaotic are you? How the hell did you resist my attack, if you aren’t an Electrotechnic?!

“I don’t know! Just—! Damn it, leave me alone!”

“…I’m sorry,” Saito replied, having reapproached Austin. “…But we don’t have a choice. You are coming with us, and nothing will change that.”

Austin snapped his attention toward Saito, his breathing ragged from adrenaline and exertion. But just as he intended to respond, he felt a pinprick in the back of his neck… and everything went black.

Chapter 10 – Interrogation

“…Guagh…”

Austin came to with a start. He stared at the ceiling for a couple moments before rubbing his eyes and taking a second look. Since when did my ceiling have a metal finish…? he wondered to himself as he slowly turned his head to survey the entire room. …Since when did my room look like a jail cell…? Wait… shit…

He immediately sat up, the events just prior to him falling unconscious returning to his mind. He reached behind himself to rub the spot on his neck where he had been pricked, but couldn’t find any kind of wound or scab. “Whoever that was knew what they were doin’, I guess…” he muttered to himself. Returning his attention to the room itself, he turned to hang his legs off the side of the stiff bed and dropped his feet to the floor. As soon as he did so, he noticed someone peek through the small window in the metal door to the cell; they stared at him for a moment before disappearing. Shortly afterward there was a short buzz, and the door opened. Austin immediately threw his hands up in the air as one of the guards entered the room, her gun pointed squarely at him.

“H… hi…?” he stuttered out warily.

“Get up,” she demanded, and then jerked her head toward the door. “Follow us.”

Austin nodded once, his gaze never leaving the gun pointed at him. He slowly approached the doorway and glanced out, where he saw a second guard. As soon as their eyes met, Austin felt the first guard roughly grab his wrists from behind; before he could react, he found himself with his arms cuffed behind his back.

“Hey, c’mon,” he complained, “you don’t need to—”

“Shut up,” the guard growled as she nudged his back with her gun. “Now follow Preston, and don’t. Say. A word. Understood?”

Austin merely nodded once in response.

“Good.” She nodded toward the guard in front, who nodded back. He promptly turned around and began marching down the hallway with Austin and the other guard in tow.

The following silence was deafening. Austin wanted nothing more than to ask a dozen questions — where was he, what did they want with him, why were they being so rough, where were his friends — but the guards had successfully intimidated him into silence. Part of him was certainly outraged at his mistreatment, but his sense for self-preservation trumped his rage and overrode it with unease. And as they rounded a corner and walked past a giant shield-shaped emblem on the wall, with an image of Earth, the moon, and three stars embedded within, his unease transformed into fear. He had heard from his uncle that emblems that large, painted onto the wall, meant only one thing.

He was at SERRCom Headquarters.

Austin began to fidget uncomfortably. To be brought straight to SERRCom HQ meant that they thought him incredibly important — which he could understand, given the earlier video broadcast. But bringing him to their HQ held another meaning, a message directly to Austin: “you can’t escape.” It was a power play, plain and simple. SERRCom was sending the message that they expected themselves to be able to defeat whatever force that might attempt to rescue Austin. But this realization merely increased his unease; he knew that there was no one who would come rescue him. His only friends had also been detained by SERRCom. So here he now stood, facing a powerful military organization that was treating him as though they expected him to attempt escape at any moment, when in reality, escape was never even a remote possibility.

“Go in.”

“Huh…?” Austin shook himself out of his thoughts and looked over. The guard behind him was gesturing at a door in the wall. Austin approached it uneasily and opened it slightly; he glanced back at the guards, but they both gestured again for him to enter the room. He turned back to the door, took a deep breath, and swung it open as he stepped in.

What met his eyes was a room not unlike the cell he had woken up in. The ceiling and floor had matte metallic finishes while the walls appeared to be very similar in appearance to concrete. In the middle of the room was a plain white table, with two chairs on opposite sides of it. The chair nearest Austin was empty, but in the other sat a small middle-aged woman with a pale complexion and short, dark hair in a bob cut. She offered him a wide smile and gestured toward the empty chair. “Ah, Mr. Travis. Please, have a seat.”

Austin stared at her uneasily until the sound of the door slamming closed behind him jolted him out of his stupor. He scrambled into the seat before turning his attention back to the woman. Her smile actually seemed genuine — at the very least, it managed to reach her eyes. Yet, something about her still seemed… off, though Austin couldn’t tell whether or not that was because of his own unease.

“…So you’re a quiet one, now, are you?”

“Uh, no? Sort of? Maybe…?” Austin’s thoughts stumbled over themselves as they left his mouth. “Uh, um… I… I think I want a lawyer…”

Still smiling, the woman responded, “request denied.”

“Wha-what?” Austin drew back in surprise from the curtness of the response and its complete mismatch with the woman’s expression and demeanor. “You… you can’t do that. That’s, like, illegal, isn’t it?!”

“Oh ho ho ho…” She chuckled wryly as she scooted her chair back and rose to her feet with unexpected grace. When she returned her gaze to Austin, her smile remained, but her stare had hardened into something fierce. “Listen, boy, this is SERRCom you’re dealing with here. We are an international organization — nay, an interstellar organization. We follow our own rules. And on this base, we do interrogations my way.” Her smile receded into an impatient smirk. “And I’m quite afraid that you are long past the point of legal protection.”

“What…? Who… who are you?”

“Heh. My name is Akane Hamasaki. I’m the Director of the Earthian Interstellar Intelligence Command. You probably know it better as the EIIC.”

Austin’s heart sunk to the bottom of his chest. His worst fears had come true: the EIIC had come after him after all. But it wasn’t for being a Chaotic, no, it was much worse — they thought he had directly instigated an attack against them. And then, to be interrogated by the Director? Austin felt himself shiver involuntarily. Given all that he had heard on the Internet and Relaynet, he was certain that he would rather be interrogated by the CIA. The EIIC was simply on a completely different level.

The Director’s smirk widened back into a grin. “I see you realize how much trouble you’re in.”

Austin merely gulped uneasily in response.

“Well, with that out of the way…” Hamasaki slowly approached Austin and sat on the table near him. “Let’s get to business, shall we? Now… where did you build those robots?”

“I, I didn’t. B-build them, I mean. It-it wasn’t me!”

“Hmm. Saito told me you said that. And you still stick to the story?”

“Yes!” Austin urged, “I swear I didn’t do it! I-I mean, just look at my college transcripts! I ain’t smart enough to pull off shit like that!”

“Or perhaps you’re smart enough to feign stupidity.”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense!”

“I’m sure,” Hamasaki replied flatly. She got off of the table and slowly walked behind Austin, forcing him to crane his neck backwards to keep an eye on her. “Denial is common, and I will tell you now, all it will do is make this process longer and… more painful.”

“You… you’re kidding, right? As in… torture? Isn’t that—?”

“Oh please. I’m well aware that torture achieves nothing. But there are plenty of advanced technologies in the galaxy that can force an unwilling prisoner to talk, and unlike torture, they all ensure honesty to a very high degree.” She stopped for a moment to give Austin a knowing glance. “Very few of them are… pleasant.”

Austin responded with uneasy silence.

“So, Mr. Travis.” Hamasaki returned to her seat at the other end of the table. “You can talk now, voluntarily, or you can talk later, involuntarily. Personally, I would recommend you talk now. If nothing else, it would probably reflect better on your uncle. As is… I truly feel sorry for the man. To be related to someone such as yourself… I fear his career may soon reach an end.”

“You— you can’t drag him into this! He has nothing to do with this!”

“So you know all of who was involved, then?”

“What—? No! C’mon! That bastard wasn’t me! Just, just ask my friends! You have them around somewhere, yeah? They were with me all day today, and last night, too! There wasn’t any time for me to pull this shit off!”

“Invalid alibis. They’re under suspicion just as much as you. And even if you truly did spend Tuesday and Wednesday with them, it means nothing. The robots were remotely controlled, and the video broadcast could have been pre-recorded. You’ll need stronger evidence than that.”

Austin pursed his lips as he fought the urge to begin shouting at the Director.

“Though, now that you’ve brought up your friends…” Hamasaki clasped her hands in front of her face, her elbows on the table as she peered thoughtfully at Austin. “…You all are Chaotics, yes?”

“Er… I guess…?”

“How very interesting. Earthian Chaotics. I can hardly believe it.”

“Aren’t the Eximius Vir Chaotics…?”

“Yes, and I could hardly believe that, either. But there is a question I wish to ask of you.”

“…Yeah…?”

“The girls are a Pyrotechnic and a Hydrotechnic, and your male friend is a Shield Formtechnic, if Emerson’s report is correct. But you… even Emerson wasn’t sure what Chaotic type you are. Care to share?”

“I… I don’t know. I didn’t even think I was a Chaotic…”

“How absurd. You took not one, but two electric blasts from Emerson, and remained standing. Furthermore, you somehow managed to immobilize him. So what is it? Duratechnism? Psychotechnism? Stronger Electrotechnism than even Emerson’s?”

“I don’t know! I already told you, I don’t know! I don’t know anything!

Austin couldn’t see the Director’s mouth behind her hands, but he heard her give a lofty sigh. She closed her eyes for a moment and then slowly stood up, her expression a mere polite smile. “It is… unfortunate, that you remain so obstinate. But I did warn you—”

DIRECTOR!

The door to the room slammed open, startling Austin such that he literally jumped out of his chair and stumbled to the side. Hamasaki casually glanced toward the door, where a large tan-skinned man in a green uniform stood.

“Ah,” Hamasaki greeted cordially, “if it isn’t Lieutenant Cox—”

The hell are you trying to do, Director? Mark barged into the room, his brow furrowed in fury, you can’t just lock up civilians! That isn’t—! He paused and slowly turned to the side, making eye-contact with Austin.

“…Hi…?” Austin responded meekly.

Mark blinked twice before whipping around toward Hamasaki again and slamming his fists down on the table, imparting so much force that it instantly broke into two. You can’t be serious! he shouted, this is not only illegal, it’s unethical! SERRCom has no jurisdiction on Earth’s surface, you should know that better than anyone! Bringing the suspect to Headquarters is an insane breach of trust and protocol! Not to mention that he’s a damned college student, there’s no way he could have pulled off those attacks!

Finally, someone who’s on my side… Austin thought to himself.

The Director simply stared back at Mark, seemingly unfazed by the fact that a large, furious man well over a foot taller than her was shouting in her face. However — for the first time since Austin had stepped foot in the room — she dropped her smile. “Do you honestly believe this boy to be innocent?”

I believe he deserves a chance! What happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?!’

“This isn’t America, Lieutenant. This is SERRCom.”

This is lunacy! SERRCom is supposed to be the representative of Earth to the rest of the galaxy! We are supposed to be the best of the best, we are supposed to represent the best of humanity! How can we do that if we throw ethics and decency to the curb for no damned reason?!

“…There is clearly much about this world that you have yet to learn,” Hamasaki replied flatly. “…But even if the boy isn’t guilty, the fact still remains that he and his friends are Chaotics, and as such, they are to be conscripted. No objections.”

That’s ridiculous! You can’t just conscript people when that isn’t even a policy the nations of Earth have agreed to! Who the hell made that decision, anyways?

“General Lead did.”

Mark faltered, apparently caught off guard by the Director’s response.

“If you truly wish to continue pursuing this fruitless line of reasoning, I can set up an appointment for you with the General.”

That’s… that’s ridiculous. And it’s beside the point! You can’t just say that something is ‘okay’ because your boss said so, that’s not how this works—!

MARK! THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?!

Mark and Hamasaki both looked back at the room’s entrance as Mote charged in. He immediately homed in on Mark and ordered, stand down and shut up! The hell do you think you’re doing, running off and accosting the Director?

This…! Mark glanced between Mote and Hamasaki before drawing back and straightening up. After a deep breath, he continued, Mote, you can’t seriously be fine with this, can you?

I can, Mote stated bluntly. What the General says, goes. And it’s hardly an unreasonable order. SERRCom has woefully few Chaotics as it stands; we need every edge we can get. If that means conscripting civilians, then oh well. Don’t tell me that you mean to say that the rest of the galaxy is wrong, too?

Of course they are! Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it right!

“Perhaps, but it does make it necessary,” Hamasaki countered.

Mark glared at the Director for a moment before turning back to face Mote. You have to at least give them a choice. At the very least, you can’t treat them as conscripts and criminals at the same time. That’s just too much!

Mote’s gaze hardened as he maintained unwavering eye-contact with Mark. You want me to go easy on the ones who launched clear and blatant attacks on not one, but two SERRCom offices?

How do you even know it was them?

Oh, I don’t know, maybe just a little video that everyone on the fucking planet saw!?

Why is one video so trustworthy? Video and audio can be doctored, the EIIC has done it themselves countless times!

Mote pursed his lips and exhaled warily. After a moment he turned toward Austin, who was still sitting on the floor. …Did you do it?

“Oh, now you ask me,” Austin retorted.

Mote narrowed his eyes and approached Austin threateningly. Don’t get coy with us.

“No, okay?! I already told you a thousand times, no, I didn’t fucking do it!”

Then who did?

“Fuck, I don’t know! For all I know it was some fucking evil twin, I dunno!”

Hamasaki scoffed. “An evil twin? Really?”

“Man I dunno, I’m just throwin’ shit out there!” Austin glanced frantically between Mote, Mark, and Hamasaki. “C’mon, I don’t know anything about what happened! I’m a victim here, too! I just wanna go home…!”

The Director crossed her arms, her lips pursed in impatience. “You mean to tell me that someone used your face and name, but you know nothing about it? Absolutely nothing?”

“No!”

Nothing happened within the past couple weeks that could explain this?”

“No— …wait…” Austin looked down in thought before returning his attention to the Director. “…There was something… a, a week and a half ago, when the Chaos Quake started…”

Mote and Mark glanced at each other as Hamasaki leaned forward. “Go on…”

“I-it… uh, well, me an’ my friends were at some museum — you probably know that, since a couple EIIC agents already asked me about it. Well, uh, while I was there — there was an Ayas exhibit, right? With replica Ayas. And, I thought I saw the replica Master Ayas fall on the floor, and I went to pick it up, but then… I, uh, I had visions, I guess? It seemed like a bunch of nonsense at the time, but now that I think about it, I did see me fighting, uh, myself. Except with, like, a robot arm? And I saw a bunch of other stuff, too. And then when I came to, the replica Ayas I thought I saw wasn’t actually there, and the real replica was still in the display case, which was, uh, kinda weird? And then the Quake started immediately after that, which was really weird, now that I think about it…”

After Austin finished, the room fell into silence. Mote bore an expression of impatience while Mark looked on with what seemed like pity… but Hamasaki seemed to be genuinely smiling.

“So…” she muttered, “…that really was the Master Ayas, after all…”

“What?” All three men turned toward her in surprise.

Director… Mote continued, …you mean to say… you actually think the Master Ayas was here?

“…It stands to reason,” she commented. “It corresponds to the spike in Chaos Energy in Texas immediately prior to the Quake. And, given the information our Nimalian friends have given us, ‘visions’ and the like are well within the purview of the Master Ayas.”

“So, so you believe me?!” Austin exclaimed hopefully.

“We’ll need to verify your claims, of course,” the Director stated, “and this hardly absolves you of suspicion. If anything, it makes you even more—”

“Director!!”

“What now…?” Hamasaki turned impatiently toward the door as a soldier rushed in.

The soldier offered a quick salute to Hamasaki before noticing Mote and Mark, at which point he saluted them as well.

Get on with it, Mote urged.

“Uh, yes sir!” The soldier stiffened and then declared, “there’s been another attack!”

Chapter 11 – Assumptions

The room brightened momentarily as a streak of lightning flashed across the screen at the front. The video continued on, focused on Spike as a shield flew out of his hand and he stumbled back. He moved to recover… but the camera zoomed out just enough to bring Mote into frame, who had his hand outstretched toward Spike, Sky, and Twy. A moment later, another burst of lightning leapt from his fingertips, instantly knocking out his three novice opponents.

The video of the previous day’s SERRCom arrest paused on the shot of Mote standing over the collapsed forms of Spike, Sky, and Twy. The image moved to a corner of the display as the man who looked like Austin stepped into frame.

“See here?” he commented with a pained smirk, “SERRCom discovers a new group of Chaotics… and what do they do? Knock ‘em out and arrest ‘em! They didn’t even do anything wrong, but then — BAM! Shocked for no good reason!” The man shook his head, as if trying to evoke a sense of pity. “These are hardly the kind of people you want protectin’ Earth. They were careless this time, but just imagine: if they’re willin’ to forcefully arrest innocent civilians in broad daylight, then just what are they doin’ behind your backs? SERRCom cannot be trusted. And this is the reason I attacked the Shanghai office just a couple hours ago — someone has to let SERRCom know that what they’re doing is wrong. And if they don’t get their shit together… well.” He winked at the camera. “Guess we’ll just have to see what happens, huh?”

Then, the video stopped.

Hamasaki, Mote, Mark, and Austin stared at the screen for a couple seconds in silence.

Mote… Mark broke the silence, his voice low. …Was that footage edited?

…It didn’t show this guy. Mote scowled as he jerked his head toward Austin. All the shots kept him out of frame.

So you’re saying that everything else there was accurate?

Now isn’t the time for this.

“I’ll say,” Hamasaki interjected. “…I’m actually disappointed in you, Lieutenant Emerson. And not just you, but Colonel Saito as well. Did your time with the EIIC teach you nothing? How the hell did you allow someone to catch the arrest on video?!”

Mote drew back in alarm. I—! There was no one around when we made the arrest. Saito says that they checked! And I made sure to blast the area with an EMP, anyways. That video must’ve been taken on some kind of telescopic lens!

“Telescopic lens or not, that arrest was the work of amateurs! I had no idea Saito’s mission report left out so much. And now the entire world has seen this!” The Director held a hand to her forehead, her brow furrowed in frustration. “This… this is going to be a right pain in the ass.”

“Uh, about that…” Austin spoke up, raising his still-cuffed hands, “doesn’t this… doesn’t this video prove that he isn’t me…?”

…He’s right, Mark stated, there’s no way he could have taken that video. And there’s no way he could have made that commentary on it, either. That video had to have been produced after he was arrested.

Hamasaki crossed her arms and took a deep breath. “…I suppose that’s true.”

“You suppose?!” Austin exclaimed incredulously.

“…There are still many things left to investigate.” She turned toward one of the soldiers standing guard near the doorway. “You— get me security footage and CENT generator logs for the past 48 hours from the occupied brig cells. Delivered straight to my inbox, please.”

The soldier offered her a curt salute before ducking out of the room.

This is absurd, Mark argued. You can’t doubt him forever!

“Oh, I certainly can,” Hamasaki shot back, “this man has demonstrated that he is a significant threat to SERRCom. Both militarily, and in terms of image. He must be dealt with swiftly and with a heavy hand. I will take no chances.”

“Can I at least see my friends?” Austin questioned. When Hamasaki’s brow furrowed he quickly added, “c’mon, we’re at your fuckin’ Headquarters! We’re all under guard or some shit, right? Just what the hell do you think I could possibly do?

“Mind your manner of address,” the Director demanded. “Keep up the attitude, and I’ll make sure you never see the light of day again.”

Director, Mark interjected, I’ll personally watch him, if that satisfies you. But he doesn’t deserve to be treated like this.

Hamasaki looked up at Mark with a mixture of irritation and contemplation. She then glanced over at Austin, who was staring at her hopefully. And then she looked over at Mote, who sighed and shook his head warily.

“…Very well,” she eventually replied. “…I’ll allow it.”

“Finally…” Austin muttered under his breath.

“But this whole station is watching you.” She turned toward Austin to address him. “There are cameras, sensors, and CENT fields everywhere. Make one wrong move, one suspicious step, and it’s back in the solitary cell for you.”

“U-understood…” Austin responded uneasily.

“Good!” All of the previous irritation and impatience that had shown on Hamasaki’s face was wiped clean by a polite smile. She turned toward the door and began to leave, beckoning for Mote to follow her.

…Sorry about all this. Mark sighed as Hamasaki and Mote left the room. If I had it my way…

“Thanks for stickin’ up for me, at least,” Austin commented. “So, uh… can I get these cuffs off, too?”

Oh. Sure. Mark reached for the chain holding the cuffs together. Then, grasping it with one hand, he casually crushed the chain, allowing the cuffs to fall apart.

Austin simply stared at where the chain once was, speechless.

Follow me. Mark gestured toward the door. I’ll lead you to your friends.

“…Oh. Uh… sure.” Austin shook his head and rushed after Mark. “Let’s go!”

*     *     *

“Austin! You’re okay!!”

“What—?” Austin stiffened as Twy nearly bowled him over with a hug. He awkwardly returned it before looking past Twy and into the rest of the room, at which point his face lit up. “Uncle Luke!”

“Hey there, kiddo.” A light-skinned man with short, blond hair casually approached as Twy let go of Austin and stood to the side. “Sorry ‘bout everything you’ve been through…”

“Don’t ‘kiddo’ me, you’re barely ten years older than I am!”

“Heh.” Luke simply chuckled in response. “It’s enough.”

Mark glanced between Austin and Luke. So you really are related, then?

“Ayup.” Luke nodded. He stepped over to Mark’s side and turned toward Austin, Twy, Spike, and Sky, the latter of which had just approached themselves. “Mark, meet my nephew and friends. Austin, meet Mark, of the Eximius Vir. …Though I guess you’ve already met, huh?”

“Wow…” Sky stared up at Mark in awe. At six and a half feet tall and a broad build, he was even larger than Spike — though not by much. “…Too bad you ‘Eximius Vir’ aren’t all you’re cracked up to be, huh? Earth’s Heroes my ass…”

“Sky…” Twy muttered admonishingly, but Spike soon spoke up as well.

“No, she’s right.” He crossed his arms and eyed Mark with anger. “Just goin’ and arrestin’ innocent people for no damn reason. And with force, too!”

“Now what’s this all about…?” Luke turned toward Mark. “Do you know what they’re talkin’ about?”

I do… Mark sighed in irritation. …I take it you didn’t hear anything about the arrest, then?

“The Colonel’s kept me in the dark. As it is, I had to fight just to get in here. Probably because they think my nephew is a terrorist or something.”

“Do you…?” Austin questioned warily.

“Ha! Of course not.” Luke snorted. “As if you’ve got the smarts or the ambition to pull any of that off!”

“I don’t know if I should be relieved or insulted…”

“But really now.” Luke crossed his arms. “…Let me guess. Mote performed the arrest, didn’t he?”

Spike and Sky both turned toward Luke in surprise. “How’d you know?”

“Mote can be… a little overzealous when it comes to countering what he sees as disobedience.”

Understatement of the year… Mark grumbled.

“We weren’t being ‘disobedient,’” Austin argued, “if anything, it’s you guys who’re in the wrong!”

“Good luck convincin’ Mote to see it that way.” Luke shrugged. “I’ve worked with the guy for years now, only Kate is more obstinate than he is.”

“That doesn’t make it okay,” Austin pressed. “C’mon. This whole stupid arrest thing is illegal, isn’t it? Aren’t you duty bound to ignore illegal orders?!”

“…It’s not so simple.” Luke looked away, his brow furrowed. “Outside of Earth, SERRCom is the highest law in the land. What the General says, goes.”

That doesn’t make this right, Mark insisted.

“Maybe not…” Luke passed him a sidewards glance. “But I don’t see you doing anything about it.”

Mark pursed his lips, but was otherwise silent.

“…So that’s it, then?” Spike questioned, “we’re just stuck here against our will? Because you don’t have the spine to stand up for us?”

“Don’t you start with this now.” Luke scowled. “Me tryin’ to get in the way of things will accomplish nothing, aside from gettin’ replaced and demoted. At least I can serve as a sympathetic ear where I am now.”

“Some sympathy…”

“You’ll be glad to have someone on CSF-1 who’s willing to listen to you soon, trust me.”

“What’s that mean…?” Twy asked uneasily.

Luke took a deep breath and exhaled warily. “…You’ll see soon enough.”

Captain… Mark looked at him in alarm. You can’t be serious. They’re just civilians—!

“Bring it up with the Colonel,” Luke rebuffed. “I’ve already argued the point five ways to Sunday. Nothin’ I can do now.”

“Well that’s just great.” Sky rolled her eyes. “So much for being the cool older bro, huh? When it comes down to it, you prefer your job over us, huh?”

“I already said, it’s not that simple—!”

“Bullshit!” Sky exclaimed; as she did so, streaks of flame wreathed her arms before fading into the air.

Mark’s eyes widened in worry. He immediately began looking around, as if searching for something. The CENT fields… he muttered, they should still be active… what happened to—?!

A flash of light cut him off, momentarily blinding everyone in the room — and giving way to a large robot not unlike the ones seen in Texas. It swept its single eye-like bulb across the room, eventually settling on Austin.

The next second passed as though it were a minute. The robot raised its arm over its head, Luke reached for his sidearm, Mark summoned his halberd and lunged forward, Twy and Sky prepared elemental attacks, Spike dove toward his friend — and Austin, with no time to react, reflexively shielded his face with his arms and squeezed his eyes shut.

CHgnk-rrrrr!

The sound of a metal clunk and a whirring servo reached Austin’s ears. He slowly opened one eye… to see that the robot’s downward blow had been stopped by his own arms, which themselves remained perfectly intact.

I blocked that?! …Guess I really am a Chaotic, after all, he mused silently.

But he had no more time to think — the robot slid its arm down Austin’s until its hand met his elbow, at which point it grabbed him and forcefully jerked him downward. He immediately collapsed to the floor just as Mark’s halberd slammed into the robot’s side, sending it sliding across the room. Just as with the robots in the city, the surface struck by the halberd glowed briefly, and the robot itself remained unharmed.

Alarms began blaring a moment later, but Mark remained unfazed as he lunged toward the robot again. It opened fire on him, its lasers ripping a substantial hole into his shirt but leaving his skin unscathed as he swung his halberd upward, catching the robot between its legs and launching it into the air. He immediately swung his right fist forward, impacting the robot with such force that its energy shield flared brightly and then broke in a fantastic display of sparks and visual static. Another halberd blow later, the robot was little better than scrap.

Is everyone okay? Mark turned back toward the rest of the room as the robot collapsed to the floor.

“…That was amazing,” Sky whispered.

“Didn’t that hurt?!” Twy exclaimed, pointing at the hole in Mark’s shirt.

…Only a little bit. But there’s no time for questions like those. He glanced toward Austin. So you’re a Duratechnic, huh? Or a Forcetechnic?

“Uh…” Austin responded, shaken. Spike rushed over to his side to help him to his feet. “…Guess so?”

“Well that’s convenient,” Luke spoke up, his eyes darting around as though reading invisible text. “…There are other intruders, all over the base. Mark—!”

Rendezvous with the others?

“Exactly.” Luke nodded curtly. He then glanced at the three guards that had just rushed into the room. “I’ll get these guys to evac. If the CENT fields are down, then they should be able to defend themselves. But you need to track down the other ‘bots!”

…Understood, sir! Mark saluted. Immediately afterward he turned and broke into a full-tilt sprint, disappearing through the door and down the corridor.

“We’re bein’ attacked?” Spike questioned as Luke stepped forward.

“Seems like it…” Luke scowled. “…CENT fields and beaming sensors are down. Kind of odd to bring down the CENT fields for a robot attack, but — I won’t complain.”

“Sir,” one of the guards spoke up, handcuffs in hand. “If the CENT fields are down… how do we transport the prisoners?”

Sky and Twy backed away and prepared elemental attacks again as they eyed Luke warily. He glanced toward them, expressionless, before holding up his hand and turning to address the guards. “No cuffs. They’ll be fine.”

Austin sighed of relief, but tensed up again when he realized that the guards were glaring at him. …They all think I’m guilty, don’t they…?

“Let’s get going.” Luke stepped into the hallway after carefully looking both ways. “…Austin, Twy, you’re on me. Watch forward. Spike, Sky, you three—” He nodded toward the guards. “Watch our backs. These robots have energy shields, so if you see one — don’t engage. Run. Understood?”

“Yes sir!” the three guards replied.

“Guys?” Luke glanced back at Austin and his friends.

Twy nodded. “We got it.”

“Good. Then follow me.”

Luke began briskly walking down the corridor with Austin and Twy in tow. At each door he glanced sidewards, but he never slowed his pace. Behind him, Twy and Sky held a bubble of water and a ball of fire, respectively, in preparation for any attack; Austin and Spike simply looked around warily as the guards held the rear. They progressed in uneasy silence for several minutes, pushing past other personnel who were rushing about as they navigated the twists and turns of SERRCom Headquarters.

“…Where are we going?” Sky eventually spoke up.

“To the landing pads,” Luke replied. “Anti-beaming jammers were brought online to prevent more ‘bots from beaming in, but that also means that we can’t beam out. Only way outta here is by spacecraft.”

“Is there gonna be a ship there for us?” Austin questioned.

“The Insult To Injury and Eye For An Eye were docked, last I checked. Should be fine.”

“…We’re gonna board idioms?”

“They’re Frigates—”

A not-so-distant explosion sounded, rocking the walls and throwing several of the personnel in the hallway to the ground. Luke snapped his attention to the left, narrowing his eyes briefly before widening them in alarm. “Watch out—!”

Before anyone could react to his warning, a chunk of the steel-reinforced wall exploded outward, slamming into Spike and smashing him into the far wall. Sky’s breath caught in her throat, her flames disappearing into thin air as a robot leaped through the new hole in the wall.

“RAAAGH!!”

The robot turned toward the source of the grunt — just in time to be knocked backward as the wall fragment slammed into it. Spike charged after it, slamming his fists into the robot and then digging his feet into the ground in an effort to hold it back.

“Spike—?” Austin started, but his friend threw him an impatient glance.

“The fuck are you waitin’ for?!” he roared, “didn’t you listen to Luke?! RUN!”

“But—!” Twy started, but Luke grabbed her and Austin’s wrists and began tugging.

“I’ll hold this one for now!” Spike declared as he adjusted his grip to prevent the robot from slipping away. “The rest of y’all, get outta here! I’ll be right after!”

“He’s right,” Luke urged, “c’mon!”

“Fuck,” Austin swore under his breath and began running down the hallway with Luke; Twy followed shortly afterward. “…Fuck!”

“Don’t worry, he’ll be fine,” Luke commented, speaking between breaths as he effortlessly kept pace with Austin and Twy. “Holdin’ back that ‘bot like that… he’s gotta be a Forcetechnic. Which means he’s got increased durability. Would also explain how he survived gettin’ crushed by the wall.”

“But…” Twy countered, their jogging pace interrupting her speech far more than Luke’s, “…I thought… his power… was summoning… shields…?”

“Could be both. Double-type Chaotics aren’t exactly rare. Hell, all of the Eximius Vir are Double-types. Some of ‘em triple!” Luke pointed forward at a pair of doors at the end of the hallway. “Almost there! That’s the exit!”

“Wait…” Twy began slowing down as she looked backwards. “…Where’s Sky?”

“Probably stayed to back up Spike,” Austin replied, stopping for a moment in front of the doors. “…Should we go back?”

“Not yet,” Luke stated, “we need to meet up with the Frigates and get a better grip of the situation. AR sensors aren’t enough to track down these ‘bots, so we’re essentially running around… blind…”

He trailed off as he opened the exit doors, revealing sunlight, the loud hum of spacecraft anti-gravity devices… and another robot standing barely two meters from the exit.

“Shit,” he muttered as he drew his pistol and brought it to bear. He watched the robot slowly turn toward the exit as he retreated back into the building and slammed the door shut.

“What now?” Twy questioned as Luke began backing away from the door, his pistol trained forward.

“We run,” he responded, “what else?”

“…I could fight it,” Austin suggested, “I, I stopped that one robot, earlier. Like Mark said, I’m a Forcetechnic! I gotta be!”

“You also aren’t trained like he is,” Luke refuted, “you’ll just hurt yourself!”

“C’mon, you left Spike to do the same thing!”

“That’s different—!”

The exit doors slammed open as the robot charged into the hallway. After several steps it stopped itself and brought its gun to bear; from his position directly in front of it, Austin could see the interior of the barrel begin to glow. Reflexively, he jumped up in front of Luke and Twy, adopting a defensive stance while simultaneously trying to block as much of the hallway as he could.

“The two of you, get back!” he shouted, “I can handle the rest from here!”

“Damn it,” Luke growled, “Austin, don’t be careless—!”

“Too late.” Austin shrugged as the robot’s gun flashed. An instant later, its laser fired —

— and Austin’s left arm exploded off at the shoulder.

He stumbled back from the force of the blow, his hearing swamped by a deafening ringing. He blinked rapidly, disoriented, his vision drifting and blurring until focusing on his arm… which now lay on the floor, several feet behind him.

“…Huh…?” he muttered, “…what…?”

And then everything went black.

Chapter 12 – Transition

“…”

“…”

“…in…”

“…”

“…Aus… …”

Muffled sounds. Voices.

Everything was dark. Black. But still somehow blurry and shaky.

“…”

“…rm…”

“…”

“…isten… … …ar…”

Somebody was talking. It was impossible to tell who, or from where. But there was a voice. Austin was able to recognize that much. His mind felt too heavy to process much else.

“…”

“…”

“…refo… … …urry…”

“…”

“…arm…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…reform… ar… … …hurry…”

“…”

The voices began to fade again. What little of Austin’s vision that had returned, faded back to black.

“…”

“…”

“…”

*     *     *

“Ungh…”

Austin’s eyes fluttered open, the rest of his body numb and unmoving as he slowly came to. He remained still for several moments as he simply stared at the white ceiling above him. …Where am I?… Why is everything so numb…?

He slowly curled his fingers and attempted to flex various muscles, gradually encouraging them to wake up. Before long he could feel his body again; his feet, his legs, his arms and hands. Sitting up slowly, he continued to check over the rest of his body until something in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He glanced over, curious, and then fully turned his attention to it in awe:

Through the entire wall and a small part of the floor, Austin could see Earth. The planet appeared to rotate slowly from some distance away; nearly the whole of North America was visible, indicating that wherever he was, it was probably in middle Earth orbit. And just as he was thinking that, the memories of the past several days hit him like a brick — the Chaos Energy Quake, the discovery of the twins’ powers, the reveal that he had an impersonator, SERRCom arresting him and his friends, a robot attack on SERRCom headquarters —

— and the loss of his left arm.

…the same left arm, in fact, that was now somehow reattached to his shoulder.

“The hell…?” He stared at his left arm incredulously. He reached up with his right hand to lift up his shirt collar and inspect his shoulder; there did not appear to be any seams, stitches, or scarring. Puzzled, he held his left arm up to his ear and then knocked on it with his right fist. What followed was the familiar thud of flesh against flesh.

“Not a prosthetic,” he muttered. He warily balled his left hand into a fist and then relaxed his fingers. “…The hell is goin’ on? …Did all that stuff actually happen?”

A quiet hissing sound drew Austin’s attention to the right, where the room’s door had just opened. Just as he noticed the two guards standing outside, Twy virtually flew into the room, catching herself against the rail at the foot of Austin’s infirmary bed.

“You’re awake!” she exclaimed, a relieved smile plastered across her face. “How’s your arm?”

“Huh?” Austin stared at her blankly as she approached and began inspecting his left arm. “…Wait… did I actually…?”

“Lose your arm? Yup, you sure did.”

Austin looked back to the door, through which another three women entered. He didn’t recognize the somewhat scrawny, pale-skinned, blond-haired woman who just spoke, but he did recognize the tall woman with a dark complexion behind her who was present during his arrest on Earth; the patch sewn into her black jacket just above her left breast pocket confirmed her name as “Hackett.” In the back was a young tan-skinned woman with long black hair, tied back in a ponytail. Her metallic right arm, black crop-top, and green waist cape easily identified her as Danielle Carver of the Eximius Vir.

Upon recognizing Hackett and Danielle, Austin tensed up, and his face darkened.

“Heh, I told you he’d recognize you,” the blond-haired woman commented with a smirk as she glanced back at Hackett.

Hackett simply grunted in response, leaning on the wall next to the door as Danielle and the blond woman approached Austin.

“’Ello! I’m Senior Researcher Sarah Tobias!” She thrust her hand toward Austin. “You can call me Sarah. Nice to meetcha!”

Austin stared at her hand warily for a couple moments before looking over at Twy.

“It’s fine,” Twy assured, “you have her and Danielle to thank for getting your arm back.”

“What?…” Austin questioned, confused. “How the hell—?”

I’m a Transtechnic, Danielle stated. When Austin gave her a blank stare she continued, you know… shape-shifting? She held up her right arm and transformed it into a normal human arm. See?

“…What’s that got to do with me gettin’ my arm back?”

“That’s ‘cause you’re a Simulator Psychotechnic,” Sarah declared. “We just had to get you close to Danielle and you shape-shifted yourself a new arm! Hmm, you must really have been out of it to not remember that. It was actually quite cool! I’ve never had a chance to see a Simulator up close before!”

“Alright, hold it, hold it…” Austin held up his hands as if gesturing for Sarah to slow down. “…The hell are you goin’ on about? Just what happened?”

“Almost immediately after you passed out from losing your arm, Spike and Sky arrived,” Twy explained. “With their help, we were able to destroy the robot. Its laser blast cauterized at least part of your wound, so you lasted long enough for Spike to carry you to the infirmary. That was when Sarah suggested bringing in Danielle to fix your arm.”

“Okay…” Austin nodded slowly, and then turned toward Danielle. “So… you fixed my arm?”

“No no no.” Sarah shook her head. “You fixed your arm. You’re a Simulator Psychotechnic, okay? That means you can copy the powers and abilities of other people near you. So if a Transtechnic like Danielle is near you, then you gain the ability to shape-shift yourself, and that’s what you did to get a new arm.”

“…I’m a… Simulator Psychotechnic…?” Austin frowned. “…How do you know?”

“At first, it was just a hunch. When you and your friends got arrested, you were able to resist Mote’s lightning attack like you were an Electrotechnic. And then, according to Mark and your friends, when that robot attacked you the first time, you stood up to it — as if you were a Forcetechnic. But then, the second time you were attacked — with the laser that blew your arm — you didn’t have any sign of the increased durability that Forcetechnics have… because you weren’t near any Forcetechnics.”

“Oh…”

“What really sealed the deal was watching you shape-shift yourself a new arm. You didn’t do it until Danielle approached, but once she did, you did it immediately and subconsciously — which is exactly how Transtechnics react to taking mortal damage.”

“That doesn’t explain how he was able to immobilize Emerson,” Hackett interjected.

“Mm, it isn’t uncommon for Psychotechnics to be dual-types.” Sarah shrugged. “He’s probably also an Imperator-type. Imperator and Simulator. Not a bad combo.”

“What’s… ‘Imperator’?” Austin questioned.

“You can assert temporary physical control over any object you touch,” Sarah replied. “As I understand it, it takes a lot of effort to get the hang of, but once you do, it’s quite powerful.”

“…Right…” Austin’s brow furrowed as he took in all of the information he had just received. As he thought back over the past week and a half, Sarah’s claims began to make sense. There were a handful of times that he had spontaneously demonstrated some skill or ability that he had never actually learned; if he truly possessed the powers that Sarah claimed he did, then that could explain it all. “…So I’m a Psychotechnic, then…? That just makes it sound like I’m crazy.”

“Wouldn’t be entirely false,” Twy joked.

“Even if you aren’t sure what Chaotic type you are now, there’ll be plenty of time to figure it out in the near future,” Hackett declared as she stepped away from the wall and approached the foot of the bed.

“…No…” Austin frowned, growing wary as Twy’s face darkened as well. “Is this about that conscription bullshit?”

“It is,” Hackett responded sternly. “You and your friends are to start full Chaotic training beginning Monday.”

“What?! You can’t do that!” Austin countered, jumping out of the bed in order to face Hackett fully. He drew back slightly when he realized that she was just as tall as him, but he remained otherwise steadfast. “Show me the law that lets you conscript people. Show me!”

Hackett narrowed her eyes and then glanced away. She sighed impatiently before responding, “the Colonel and I have already been over this with your friends. You are going to join SERRCom, and that’s that. Every other nation in the galaxy would do the same.”

“That doesn’t make it right!”

“Mmm…” Hackett grunted, and then shrugged. “It is what it is. I almost doubt you’re an Earthian anyway, and in that case—”

“Don’t go down that road, Major,” Sarah interjected. “Besides, DNA tests say that they’re all Earthian. No aliens here.”

Hackett gave Sarah a wary glance before turning back to Austin and Twy.

“…If you know what’s best for you,” Hackett continued, “you’ll shut up and listen. I know you’re angry. But in this world we live in, there’s no other choice.”

“Hell of a rationale,” Austin retorted.

The Major didn’t respond verbally. Instead she closed her eyes, sighed again, and turned toward the exit. “…Your friend can lead you to your quarters. If you have any questions, Lieutenant Cox or Captain Travis should be around to answer. But don’t try anything fishy. This station has cameras everywhere.”

She then left before Austin could argue further.

“…You’ll have to excuse the Major,” Sarah spoke up after a moment of silence, “she really is a good person. She wouldn’t do this if she didn’t have to.”

“What, because of ‘orders?’” Austin spat, “so, what, can the guy in charge just make any damn order he wants and the whole of everyone just rolls over for him ‘cause he said so?”

For a moment, Sarah gave Austin a pained expression, but she quickly replaced it with a polite smile. “Ah, what I wouldn’t give to be young and idealistic again…”

Aren’t you only 24? Danielle questioned.

“…Anyways!” Sarah quickly made for the door. “I have work that I should really get to. If you have any questions about anything related to Chaos Energy or Chaotics, I’m your lass! Assuming I’m not busy, that is. Which is most of the time. But, uh.” She stopped for a moment to give a casual salute. “See you later!”

As she disappeared through the door, Austin gradually relaxed. He realized that he had become incredibly tense while arguing with Major Hackett, and must have looked more like a scared child than an adult making a reasonable argument.

…What’s wrong with conscription?

“Huh?” Austin turned toward Danielle, who was still in the room. She had her hands clasped behind her back, her right arm once again taking the appearance of a metal prosthetic as she gave Austin and Twy her full attention.

“Are you…” Austin glanced at Twy incredulously, but Twy simply returned the glance. “…Are you being serious?”

Uh… Danielle’s expression turned sheepish. Sorry, did I say something stupid…?

“You could say that,” Twy responded with a sigh.

“Conscription means bein’ forced into somethin’ against your will.” Austin crossed his arms. “It’s always wrong to force someone to do somethin’ against their will.”

Hmm… Danielle looked down, her brow furrowed in thought. …I guess that makes sense. Hmm.

“…What, did you join SERRCom voluntarily?”

Not really… Danielle shook her head slowly. But, then again… I don’t really think we had any other options.

“…Huh?”

Ah, sorry. I’m not really good at this kind of deep thinking stuff. You’d be better off asking Mark, or Mote. Maybe even Kate. Her face lit up. Oh, Kate wanted me to do something— ah, I gotta go! Sorry!

“What…?” Austin stared after Danielle as she rushed out of the room. “…The hell?”

“Yeah…” Twy sighed warily. “I wasn’t too impressed when I first met her, either.”

“Between her and that Mote guy…” Austin shook his head and sat down on the infirmary bed. “…The Eximius Vir really aren’t what I was expecting.”

“They aren’t perfect heroes, that’s for sure.”

“Mark seems like a reasonable dude, at least, but… still won’t do anything to stop this conscription bullshit.”

“And what do you want him to do? Just turn on the entirety of SERRCom for a handful of people he doesn’t know?”

Austin passed Twy an irate glance. “So that’s it? You’re fine just takin’ this lyin’ down?”

“Well, no,” she countered, her bow furrowed. “Trust me… if I thought we could fight our way out of this, I’d lead the charge. But we have to be realistic…”

“Is that what they’re callin’ it now?”

“Don’t you get mad at me,” Twy retorted. “We’re in the same situation. But SERRCom is a huge organization! We could resist, sure, but would you really prefer the zero freedom of a jail cell to whatever small freedom we’ll have doing whatever it is they’ll have us doing?”

Austin simply grunted in response and looked away. “…Where’re Spike and Sky?”

“…I’m not sure. Last I saw them, they were with Mark, trying out their powers.”

“So they’ve just accepted this, too?”

Twy sighed again as she turned away from Austin and toward the display of Earth below. “…Just what do you want me to tell you? What is it that you want to hear, that you think will suddenly make everything better?”

“I’m not…” Austin pursed his lips in frustration. “…This is wrong. I don’t wanna join the fucking military! I never asked for this goddamn Psycho-whatever bullshit. Nothing about this situation is normal, how can you be so calm about this?!”

“I’ve had about a day longer than you to think about it.” Twy turned back to face Austin. “But just because I’m acting calm doesn’t mean that I am calm. I’m just as mad as you are… but there’s nothing we can do. Me, you, Spike and Sky — none of us really know how to take advantage of our powers. We can barely fight as is, there isn’t a chance in hell that we could take on SERRCom and survive! Hell, Mote took all of us out all on his own, without even trying!”

“…”

“I agree that it isn’t right… but it’s what’s happening to us right now. Might as well make the best of it. Besides… there must be some reason we all suddenly got powers, right?”

Austin made a face at her. “Don’t go sayin’ you’ve found Jesus or somethin’…”

Twy narrowed her eyes. “You know what I meant.”

“Uh huh, sure. Next you’ll be tellin’ me that we’re the goddamned chosen ones of prophecy.”

“Austin…”

“Hmph…” Austin grunted in response. “…This whole thing sucks. My life sucks.”

“It’s not just you,” Twy countered. “Don’t forget me. Or Sky, or Spike. We’re in this together. Trust me, they don’t like this situation either… but there’s no use just moping about it. Might as well make something out of it. If nothing else, it’d be nice to get back at that impostor of yours, wouldn’t it?”

“…Yeah…” Austin nodded slowly. “…Guess so.”

Twy smiled broadly. “Glad you agree. Now… we should probably go see Sky and Spike. I’m sure they’ll want to know that you’re okay.”

“…Alright, sure.” Austin sighed loftily as he stood up and stretched. “…Guess we should get used to the sights around here, huh? Well… lead the way.”

Chapter 13 – Boot Camp

– Monday, September 12, AD 2129 –

Rrr-Rrr-Rrr-Rrr—

“Ngh…” Austin grunted and rolled over, slamming his hand down on top of the nearby alarm clock. He groaned and slightly opened one eye to catch a glimpse of the time.

…Four o’clock? In the morning? Who the hell set this thing so early… He scowled, but felt too groggy to react further. Instead he rolled over again, facing the wall and clamping his eyes shut. The tiny bed and stiff pillow didn’t make for good sleep, but Austin firmly believed that any sleep was better than no sleep. As he began drifting off again, however, a thought crossed his mind: …isn’t something important happening today…?

“WAKE UP!”

“Wagh—!” Austin jolted awake, startled out of slumber by a loud noise in his ear. He reflexively squinted; the room’s lights were on now. Who the hell—? he began to think, but froze when he looked over and saw Colonel Saito standing over him, his hands on his hips.

“Sleeping in, are we?” Saito growled, “awfully audacious of you. Care to explain yourself?”

Austin glanced at the clock next to his bed — it now read six o’clock. Shit, I must’ve dozed off—

“Eyes up, soldier!”

“Wha-what?!” Austin spluttered, “sol-soldier?!”

“Hmph. You’re right. You aren’t a soldier yet,” Saito spat, “even the lowly rank of Private is still out of your grasp. You could barely fight my grandma like you are now, you pathetic runt! On the floor and give me fifty!”

“Fifty?!” Austin stared at Saito, dumbfounded. “Fif-fifty what? Push-ups?!”

“Oi, less back-talk! Get out of the damned bed and get to work!” Saito grabbed Austin by his shoulder and shoved him to the floor. “I said fifty! Now give me fifty, or I’ll give you an ass-whippin’ the likes of which you’ve never seen before! And don’t think me knowing your uncle will make me go any softer on you!”

“Ah—ah—right.” Austin reflexively nodded, still too half-asleep to try and argue with the Colonel. As he planted his hands on the floor, lowered himself into the first push-up, and felt his arms straining already, he began to dread the upcoming day. This was only the beginning, after all.

The beginning of boot camp.

*     *     *

5 Hours Later

“C’mon! Hurry it up! I don’t think I’ve seen a more pathetic performance in my entire life, Travis! Even the twins’ve got you beat, and they’re practically half your size! Get your ass in gear!”

“Hngh… yes… sir…” Austin groaned, barely able to keep upright with his sore legs. He stumbled past Colonel Saito at a truly pitiful pace, only just now finishing his third lap around the track while the next slowest — Twy — was well over halfway through her fourth.

“Nine minutes! That’s nine minutes, Travis! My mum could run faster than you, and she’s got one foot in the grave!”

“Nrgh…” Austin grumbled something unintelligible in response; his mind was spinning as he attempted to focus on continually placing one foot in front of the other. He wanted to be angry with Saito for his belligerent mocking, but he couldn’t help but direct some of that anger at himself. He knew that he was far from physically fit… but to be running the pace of a twelve-minute mile?

“C’mon bro, you can do this. Don’t worry.”

“Huh…?” With what felt like monumental effort, Austin pulled his head up and glanced to the side, where his uncle was now jogging alongside him.

“You’re not gonna let the Colonel get the best of you, are you?” Luke elbowed his nephew playfully.

“Kinda… already… have…” Austin panted out as he glanced back at the starting line. Spike and Sky were standing next to the Colonel, having already finished their mile.

“Don’t let it get to you,” Luke replied, his own breathing and speech completely unaffected by their slow pace. “It’s the first day, of course you’re gonna suck. Just don’t give up, and you’ll get better!”

“Can’t… give up…” Austin shot Luke a tired glare. “…SERRCom… won’t… let me…”

“…Well, yeah…” Luke glanced away uneasily before returning his attention forward. “But it’s an attitude thing, too. You gotta stay with it, mentally, or there’s no way you’ll be able to keep up with it, physically.”

“Easier… said… than… done…”

“It always is. But if you don’t say it, you won’t know it needs to be done.”

“But… so much… effort…”

“Bah, complaining about effort again? Look, buddy, everything needs effort. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t put any effort into it. Would you really be fine with just sittin’ on your ass all day long?”

“…Yes.”

“Sounds like a great way to get left in the dust by everyone around you.”

Austin glanced conspicuously toward the finish line, which Twy had just crossed. “…Already… have…”

“I didn’t mean literally.” Luke slapped Austin across the back, causing him to stumble before eventually recovering his gait.

“Neither… did I…”

“…Well, you can think of this whole situation as a fresh start, then. Maybe this time you can keep up.”

Austin gave his uncle a sidelong glance. “…How… do you… justify this… to yourself…?”

Luke sighed loftily, and then hardened his expression. “…You aren’t gonna stop goin’ on about this until you get an answer that satisfies you, are you?”

“Doubt… I ever… will…”

“…There’s a lot of evil in this galaxy, you know.”

“Ha. Right… ‘evil’…”

“I’m serious. You have to have heard of the Drakkars, right? And the Riaxen? As a civilian, you may not realize just how dangerous they actually are, but I’ve seen it first hand. If not for the CSA or the Syraus, Earth would be overrun faster than you could say ‘alien invasion,’ and we can’t rely on them forever. As a nation, as a race… we Earthians need to find ways to fend for ourselves and decrease our dependence on our allies.”

“And that’s… enough… to justify… ripping me… out of my own life?”

“We need Chaotics. But, until recently, we thought it was straight-up impossible for Earthians to be Chaotics. And even now, there’s only a grand total of eight Earthian Chaotics, including you and your friends. We need all the help we can get.”

“What… difference… could we… make…?”

“…I can understand the skepticism. But if only you’d seen what the Eximius Vir can do… I’ve seen Mote take out entire battalions, all on his own. I’m not exaggerating, either. Hundreds of Drakkars down, in a single battle. And that’s just him! Mark can be thrown at a planet from orbit and walk it off, Danielle can transform into a fucking Frigate if she wants to, and Kate — man, Kate has probably single-handedly advanced SERRCom’s technology by a century, maybe more! Even if you and your friends can only do a fraction of any of that, you’d be incredibly useful to not just SERRCom, but all of Earth!”

“…So… we have to… give up our lives… for the… ‘greater good’…?”

“That’s what the General believes.”

“…And you?”

Luke sighed again as he and Austin approached the finish line. “…Look… we’ll talk about this later, okay?”

Austin simply grunted in response, his attention focused forward.

Seconds later, he finally completed his mile.

*     *     *

1 Hour Later

“Alright, listen up! The real thing starts now!”

This morning didn’t count…? Austin thought warily, but didn’t dare speak it aloud. He glanced around at his surroundings; Colonel Saito and Luke had brought Austin and his friends to a forested area nearby the base. In front of them were many pieces of wooden or metal equipment, all consisting of rails at varying heights and widths. After thinking that one of the pieces of equipment looked much like monkey bars, Austin realized what he was looking at, and felt his muscles preemptively grow sore. Or are they still sore from this morning…

“I’m sure you lot have realized what this is by now.” Saito turned toward everyone present.

“…An obstacle course?” Sky questioned.

“Why yes, how astute of you,” Saito drawled.

“Fuck…” Austin swore under his breath.

“This morning was just an evaluation,” the Colonel continued, “to allow me to see just how much like trash you are. Some of you performed… rather well, if I’m honest. Others, however…” He glanced conspicuously toward Austin, who looked away uneasily. “…But the real training starts now. You will each run this course from start to finish — timed, of course. And just like this morning, this area is covered in CENT fields. Any of you runts remember what that means?”

“’CENT’ stands for ‘Chaos Energy Negation Technology,’” Twy promptly replied. “It means that all Chaos Energy in the immediate area has been effectively negated, and since Chaotics need Chaos Energy for their powers to work—”

“Oi, oi! I didn’t ask for a textbook!” Saito cut her off harshly. “When someone asks you ‘what does that mean,’ you give them an answer that’s short ‘n sweet! In a combat situation, time is of the essence, so the fewer words, the better!”

“Er, right…” Twy pursed her lips and glanced away.

“But at the end of the day, she’s right,” Saito continued as he turned his attention to everyone else. “CENT fields mean you can’t use your powers. We don’t accept handicaps here! You’ll have to get by with raw physical ability alone.”

“Is there a target time?” Spike asked.

“There is.” Saito smirked knowingly. “But you won’t know what it is until you’ve beat it.”

A groan escaped from Austin’s throat. Saito immediately pointed at him.

“One minute penalty,” he declared.

“Aw, what—?” Austin began, but was cut off.

“Another minute.” Saito crossed his arms. “I can do this all day, Travis. Don’t tempt me.”

Austin pursed his lips in irritation, but didn’t speak another word. As he turned away, he momentarily caught Twy’s eye; she offered him a reassuring smile, but he simply snorted and turned away impatiently.

“Now that that’s out of the way…” The Colonel raised his arm into the air. “Get ready to show me what you’re worth! Three! Two! One!” He dropped his arm. “GO!”

“Ungh…” Austin groaned as he forced himself into a jog, falling into line just behind Twy. He looked forward, watching Spike with contempt as he effortlessly cleared the first hurdle and then leaped up to grab some monkey bars. Shortly after him was Sky, and after her, Twy.

“Fuck…” Austin muttered to himself as he stumbled across the hurdle in his way. He approached the monkey bars in a limp jog and looked up at them apprehensively.

“What’re you waiting for, Travis?!” Saito shouted after him, “stop standing around like some poor damsel in distress and get your ass in gear!”

Austin clamped his eyes shut in mild irritation before snapping them open. Alright, Austin, you can do this… Reaching up, he grabbed the first bar with both hands and managed to pull his body into the air. Tentatively, he reached forward to grab the next bar, at which point he let go of the first — and promptly winced as the pain of strain shot through his one arm currently holding him up. He reflexively grabbed the bar with both hands, hanging above a gravel pit below as he clenched his eyes shut and tried to focus on not letting go.

“Austin! Come on, you can do it!”

“Huh…?” He opened one eye to find Twy waving at him from the far end of the bars.

“Oi, Chao!” Saito barked, “this isn’t a team exercise! Get going!”

“Sorry!”

“That’s ‘sorry, sir!’”

“…Sorry, sir!” Twy responded. She offered Austin one final glance before turning her back and running off toward the next obstacle.

Austin stared after her for a moment. …Yeah. I can do this. If she believes I can, then I totally can! Determined, he shoved the pain in his fingers to the back of his mind and released the bar with one hand, reaching toward the next—

—and promptly falling as his grip finally gave way.

“Ow—!” He winced and grit his teeth as he barely caught himself on the gravel below. Sharp pain shot through his left knee; he didn’t even need to check the torn pant leg to know that he had skinned it, and he was largely distracted by clenching his hands anyways as he attempted to work out the strain from holding up his entire body weight with his fingers alone. Shit, I’m barely 170 pounds, and I can’t even hold myself up—!

“Travis! Don’t make me tell you again to get off your ass!”

“…Yes, sir…” Austin managed to groan out. He swallowed forcefully and trotted up the pit ramp to level ground, wincing each time his knee rubbed against his pants.

The next set of equipment he encountered looked like a series of chest-high hurdles, all connected at each end by a long railing. Unsure of what to do, he looked forward, where Twy had just cleared the final rung by climbing over it. That simple, huh…? He took a deep breath and grabbed the first rung with both hands. With a jump, he lifted himself into the air, holding up his weight with his arms as he leaned forward and tried to lift his leg up and over. A second later he was straddling the rung, but as he began to lift his left leg, his knee rubbed against his pants again and caused him to wince. His focus shattered, he began leaning uncontrollably to his right. He quickly realized what was happening, but lost complete control of the lean, causing him to reflexively flail around with his arms as his head rapidly approached the next rung.

“Ow! Fuck—!” he exclaimed through gritted teeth, managing to shield his head with his arms. But he still slipped off of the metal rung and collapsed to the ground in a painful heap, his body hurting all over. He sprawled out across the ground and stared up at the cloudless sky, taking a moment to catch his breath before sitting up and inspecting his body.

Nothing’s broken… I think… He grunted in pain as he forced himself back to his feet. He took a deep breath and lightly massaged his lower back before turning to the right and feeling his heart drop. There were another fifteen rungs, as far as he could tell — and beyond that were a large number of wooden, metal, or netted contraptions, all built to be climbed over or around or under. And here he was, still stuck on the second.

“…Fuck…” he muttered under his breath as he prepared to climb over the next rung. “…My life is the worst…”

1 Hour Later

“Hah… hah… I… made it…”

Austin collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. He rolled over and glared at the sky through squinted eyes; his face was covered in sweat, and attempting to open his eyes any further would simply drown them in the liquid manifestation of his exhaustion.

“Well well well, Travis.” Saito approached and stared down at Austin, his hands on his hips. “…You managed to take over an hour to complete the course. That may well be the absolute worst performance I have ever seen. Congratulations.”

“…Thanks…?” Austin croaked.

“Wrong response.” Saito kicked his leg. “Get up. You’re doing it again.”

“Wha-what?! A-again?!”

“Yup. You missed your target time. Badly. Even after I adjusted it to account for your abysmal showing this morning. So you’re gonna do the course again, until either you meet your target time, or the sun sets.” He glanced up; the bright sun was still high in the sky, its summer light beating down mercilessly on everyone and everything around. “…And as far as I can tell, sunset is quite a ways off.”

“Nnngh…” Austin groaned as he clenched his eyes shut and struggled back to his feet. “This… is ridiculous…”

Saito chuckled and slapped Austin on the back, directing him to the start of the course. “Yup. Welcome to boot camp.”

*     *     *

7 Hours Later

“Hey, Austin! Finally finished, huh?”

Austin cast a half-lidded glance toward Spike as he trudged over to the cafeteria table, a tray of food in hand. He dropped it unceremoniously on the tabletop and lifted his leaden legs over the bench to take a seat.

“Did you beat your target time?” Twy asked, her tone hopeful. When Austin shot her an impatient glare, she smiled uneasily. “…Better luck next time?”

“Nnnngh…” Austin groaned in response and began spooning food into his mouth.

“Wow.” Sky whistled. “I knew you were out of shape, but seeing it today… even Twy beat her time!”

“On the third try,” Twy quickly interjected.

“Yeah, but you still beat it,” Sky insisted.

“Thanks for the encouragement,” Austin deadpanned.

“Ah, you’ll make it eventually,” Spike declared. “The Colonel was bein’ intentionally hard on you; that’s how boot camp works. Don’t worry about it. Chances are, tomorrow’ll be a li’l bit easier.”

Mm, I’m not so sure, Mark spoke up. Mote’s in charge tomorrow. Don’t expect him to go easy on you.

“Huh—?” Austin froze for a moment, his attention focused on Mark. He then glanced to his side, where Danielle was sitting with her chin in her hands and her elbows on the table. “…When did you guys get here?”

We’ve been here the whole time, Mark replied.

Spike snorted as he attempted to suppress a chuckle. “…The Colonel was really hard on you, huh?”

“Ha ha, laugh it up,” Austin drawled.

“…What’s this about Mote being in charge?” Twy turned to Mark.

Exactly how it sounds, Mark responded. The Colonel wanted to gauge your raw ability today. Now Mote’s going to gauge your Chaotic ability tomorrow.

“Oooh.” Sky rubbed her hands together eagerly. “This’ll be fun!”

Knowing Mote, I wouldn’t count on it…

Twy glanced between Mark and Danielle. “How long have you known Mote? And each other?”

Since the beginning, I guess. Danielle shrugged. We grew up together. I don’t think there’s been a time when we weren’t together.

“So… are you friends, or what…?”

Heh… Mark chuckled. Yeah, I suppose we are. You’d never hear that from Mote or Kate, though.

“I get the impression I wouldn’t like Mote,” Sky commented.

“I can guarantee you won’t,” Austin replied crossly.

Yeah… Mark sighed loftily. He’s… …he doesn’t really have any interest in making friends beyond those he already has. He means well, though.

“He knocked us all out and arrested us,” Austin countered.

…He’s also a stickler for rules and regulations, Mark admitted. If the General or the Colonel tells him to do something… then he’ll do it.

“Doesn’t sound like a very stand-up guy to me.”

You’re presupposing that he’d follow immoral or unethical orders, and I’m sure he wouldn’t. Besides, General Lead and Colonel Saito would never issue orders like that without good reason in the first place.

“Without good reason…” Austin scoffed. “You mean like they’re doin’ now with us?”

Mark furrowed his brow in frustration. He sighed again, but before he could speak, Twy interjected to redirect the conversation.

“So you’ve known each other since you were kids, right?” She forced a smile. “So have we! So we have something in common.”

We’re all Chaotics, too! Danielle added cheerfully, so that’s two things!

“When’d y’all learn you were Chaotics?” Austin questioned.

Oh, the usual time for most Chaotics, Danielle responded lightly. You know, seven or eight years old, I think? You guys are kinda weird there, getting your powers so late.

“Seven or eight?” Sky cocked her head in confusion. “But you guys weren’t in the news until you joined SERRCom a few years ago. Why didn’t we hear anything about you before then?”

Danielle stared blankly at Sky for several moments. She then snapped her attention to Mark, a panicked look on her face, as Mark held a hand to his forehead.

…It’s a story for another day, Mark eventually declared.

“When’d you join SERRCom?” Austin pressed.

…Four years ago, Mark replied, when we were eighteen.

“Oh? Why the pause?”

“Austin,” Twy cut in, “it’s pretty clear they don’t want to talk about this…”

“Why?” Austin passed Twy a glance before turning back to Mark. “It’s directly related to SERRCom, and it’s immediately relevant to us.”

“You’re being pretty rude about it.”

No, it’s… fine. Mark sighed again as he rubbed his temples. …I can understand why he’d be suspicious. He glanced over at his squadmate. Danielle isn’t exactly great at keeping facts straight.

Hey, my memory’s really good! Better than yours! she countered.

When you want it to be. Mark smirked. Sure, you can remember your last twenty forms and exact timetables and planetary coordinates down to the millimeter, but you can barely remember your own birthday!

July sixteenth.

Eighteenth.

…Meh, close enough.

“Aren’t you a shape-shifter?” Spike questioned, “don’t you need a good memory? How else do you remember how to transform into different stuff?”

I don’t actually need to memorize anything, Danielle replied. Transtechnics usually have good memories, yeah, but we don’t have to memorize every detail of the things we transform into. I mean, I haven’t talked to many others, but at least in my case I can just kinda think of something and bam! Successful transformation.

“Even fictional stuff?”

Yeah. It’s pretty great!

“Have you ever transformed into a dragon?” Austin asked, his eyes wide open with interest.

…No, she pouted. …The Colonel never lets me. ‘Dragons aren’t as useful as guns,’ he says.

I mean… they aren’t, Mark commented.

Hmph. One day, when I’m saving you, I’ll be a dragon. And it’ll be SO COOL! I swear it’ll happen.

I’m sure it will. Mark patted her head. I’m sure it will.

“So… what are the limits on your transformations?” Twy questioned.

Eh… Danielle cocked her head in thought. I can’t really transform into anything bigger than a Frigate, or maybe a Destroyer. And nothing smaller than an insect. Otherwise… pretty much anything goes.

“Where’s all the extra mass come from? Or where does it go?”

Danielle shrugged. You’d have to ask Sarah or Kate about all that science-y stuff. I don’t really understand it.

“Does it have anything to do with why you haven’t eaten anything?” Sky asked.

Oh, yeah. Danielle patted her stomach in self-satisfaction, unintentionally drawing everyone’s attention to her toned abs. I don’t need to eat. Or sleep! I can just transform into a slightly different version of myself that ‘just ate’ or ‘just slept.’

“…Are you fucking serious?” Austin deadpanned.

Yeah! It’s really great, isn’t it?!

“…Are those muscles fake, then?” Spike questioned.

Huh? Oh, right. Danielle glanced down at herself. She had a lithe build, but between her arms and her exposed midriff it was clear that she had an impressive musculature. Well, they’re real, but if you’re asking if I ‘earned’ them, then no. I mean, c’mon! If you could shape-shift, then you’d give yourself your ideal body, right? Not like it takes any effort.

Austin reflexively glanced down at her modest chest. Then why’re your boobs so small? he thought to himself, but knew better than to ask aloud. A second later, pain shot through his shin, as if someone had kicked it; when he looked over, he caught Twy giving him an irritated glare. He smiled sheepishly in response.

“Actually, that reminds me.” Spike turned to Austin. “You’re a Simulator Psycho… …thing… …you can copy powers, right?”

“That’s what I’ve been told…”

“Then what’s stoppin’ you from copyin’ Danielle’s shape-shiftin’ and givin’ yourself a body that’s actually fit?”

“…Holy shit.” Austin stared at his friend in amazement. “…How the hell didn’t I think of that?!”

Well you won’t be able to right now, Mark commented. The active CENT fields should stop you. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Even then… Danielle frowned uneasily. …The Colonel told me not to let you do that…

“Bah, of course he did…” Austin scowled.

“Ah, there you are!”

Everyone seated at the table turned toward the entrance to the cafeteria, where Luke currently stood. He paused for a moment, seemingly to catch his breath, and then approached.

Is something wrong…? Mark questioned as he stood up in apprehension.

“You could say that.” Luke scowled as he tossed a tablet onto the table. “Austin’s impostor just sent out another message.”

Austin glared at the tablet. “Another one?”

“Yep…” Luke reached over and tapped the tablet. “See for yourself.”

The video started with a static-ridden feed, seemingly from a security camera. Alarm lights flashed constantly, though the shown hallway was empty. Then, a couple seconds later, Austin and Twy rushed past. Their conversation couldn’t be heard — the video didn’t have any accompanying audio — but once they reached the end of the hallway and opened the doors, they immediately shut them and backed away.

“Is this from the attack a few days ago?” Twy looked up at Luke. “Why aren’t you in the video…?”

He nodded toward the tablet. “Just watch.”

The video continued as a robot charged into the hallway, its appearance significantly altered from what Austin remembered. As it took aim, the video showed Austin jumping forward and assuming a defensive stance; a moment later, his left arm exploded off at the shoulder in a fantastic display of light and blood.

“Holy— what the fuck!” Austin exclaimed, instinctively looking away. “Fuck, man, a gore warning would’ve been nice!”

“Yeah, that was…” Twy grimaced. “…I really would’ve rather never seen that again.”

“Shhh, just watch,” Luke insisted. Austin made to argue, but before he could, the video cut and his impostor appeared.

“Unbelievable…” He shook his head wearily. “Can you believe what just happened? SERRCom’s captives attempt to flee, and how do they respond? With deadly force! Incredible! Not a single question asked, just, bam! Tear your arm off. Which is incredibly traumatic, I might add.” He then held up his left arm, revealing a metallic prosthetic.

“Wait a fuckin’ minute…” Austin’s eyes narrowed. “Is this motherfucker doin’ what I think he’s doin’?”

The man in the video clenched his left fist, demonstrating the robotic nature of his prosthetic. He then turned back to the camera, speaking, “now, I’m sure many of you may be of the opinion that I deserved this. I did effectively declare war on SERRCom, after all. But I would still like you to think about this particular incident. I was attempting to rescue one of the individuals SERRCom so callously arrested without warrant. They hardly deserve to be kept captive, after all. And then, instead of negotiating, or responding with appropriate force, SERRCom just shoots my arm off — while, I should note, an innocent person was standing right behind me! What if that robot had missed? And why did it aim for my arm, of all things? There are only two answers to this: SERRCom is incompetent, or they’re sadists, and neither answer is appropriate for an organization touting themselves as the protectors of Earth.” He clasped his hands in front of him. “Even if you don’t agree with my actions, you surely shouldn’t agree with SERRCom’s. Just allow this incident to sink in. Think it over, and decide for yourselves. Is SERRCom really what Earth wants?” He smiled at the camera. “…Is it really what Earth needs?

And then the video stopped.

Austin scowled. “…This motherfucker…”

“Is that…” Sky glanced between Austin and Twy uneasily. “…Is that what actually happened? Is that how Austin lost his arm…?”

“Yes, but… no,” Twy answered slowly. “…During the actual attack, Luke was there with us, but… he was edited out of the video. The robot looked a lot different, too. And the real Austin was with me the entire time, I’m sure of that.”

If he’s using doctored video, then why don’t we just discredit him by releasing the original? Mark looked to Luke.

“That’s what I suggested.” Luke shrugged. “But the way it was explained to me is that no one would have any reason to believe that our videos are more true than the impostor’s. Editing a video like this isn’t exactly hard these days. We can claim that his is doctored, sure, but since he got his version out first… people will be more inclined to believe him over us, even if only subconsciously.”

“This is ridiculous…” Austin held his head in frustration. “…Who the hell is this guy? Why is he pretending to be me? What the hell does he plan to get out of it?”

He was pretty clear with his last video, Mark pointed out.

“That doesn’t explain why he’s impersonating Austin,” Twy countered. “If his goal is really to dethrone SERRCom, then surely there are more effective people he could have chosen to impersonate?”

“It’s a mystery, for sure…” Luke scratched his head and reclaimed the tablet. “All this weird stuff happenin’ at once… I wonder if him showin’ up has anything to do with y’all getting your powers?”

“Why not have Austin do some kind of live broadcast thing?” Sky suggested, “there are a bunch of ways to verify that a live broadcast is untampered with, aren’t there? Wouldn’t that discredit the impostor?”

“It’s possible…” Luke glanced toward Austin uneasily. “…But I have a feeling the higher-ups aren’t willing to put Austin in front of a live camera.”

“Why?” Austin snorted derisively. “They afraid I’m gonna say somethin’ about this conscription bullshit?”

“You have to admit, you’ve given them pretty good reason to think that…”

“Oh yeah, how dare I complain about bein’ illegally conscripted. The nerve!”

Luke furrowed his brow in frustration. He then looked around the table, taking note as everyone present stared at him expectantly. “…I take it you all agree with Austin?”

You don’t? Mark questioned, his tone carrying a hint of accusation.

“Hey now, I didn’t say that,” Luke countered. “…But I’ve already told you all this, there’s nothing I can do. And… I can see where the General’s reasoning is coming from. I don’t entirely disagree with his decision.”

“So if you were the General…” Twy leaned forward to hold her forehead in her hand. “…You’d do the same? You’d conscript us?”

“…From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it’s the best decision.”

“It’s an illegal decision,” Austin insisted.

“Look, I’m not arguing that. I’m not sayin’ that I think you actually should be conscripted—”

“Isn’t that what you literally just said?”

“Damn it,” Luke growled, “don’t get mad at me over something I had no control over. You have no idea how bad you would’ve had it if Saito and I hadn’t stepped up to argue the point with the General. The current situation is as good as it’s gonna get.”

“Hardly an excuse…”

“Yeah,” Sky added, “what could be worse than being arrested against our will and forced into military service?”

Luke gave her a pointed stare for a moment. He glanced over at Spike, and then stated, “SERRCom has anti-fraternization regs.”

“…You wouldn’t.” Spike narrowed his eyes as Sky scooted closer to his side.

“And we aren’t,” Luke replied. “But originally, the General wanted to split the four of you up and send you to the far corners of the Earth. It was all I could do to get him to let y’all stay together. I even convinced him to overlook your relationship, so long as you keep the PDA in check.”

“…Thanks… I guess…?” Sky responded uneasily.

“Everyone is well aware that y’all didn’t choose to be here,” Luke continued, looking each of the four in the eyes, “and no one wants to make y’all feel unwelcome. But at the end of the day, for better or for worse, most people believe that conscripting y’all was the right move. Especially now, with this nonsense about Austin’s impostor. Y’all can fight it if you want, I won’t stop you. But you won’t get far; if anything, you’ll only hurt yourselves.”

“Sounds like a thinly veiled threat,” Austin retorted.

Luke sighed in irritation. “You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Do I? I don’t think I’ve spoken with the Uncle Luke I know a single time this past week. The hell happened to bein’ chill and takin’ it easy and stayin’ the hell away from SERRCom?”

Luke pursed his lips and hung his head. He then looked up and said, “it’s getting late. Y’all should be gettin’ to bed.”

“Not even gonna answer me, huh?”

“No, he’s right,” Twy cut in, startling Austin. “It’s late. Nothing productive will come from continuing this conversation.”

Tomorrow’s not going to be easy, either, Mark interjected, remember, Mote’s in charge. He won’t go easy on you.

“…Yeah. Right…” Austin exhaled irately and grabbed his food tray. As everyone else stood up and began to leave, he carried his tray over to the dirty dishes area and unceremoniously dropped it on top of the handful of trays that were already stacked. He yawned, stretched, and made for the exit, where his uncle was waiting.

“…I’m sorry,” Luke muttered quietly.

Austin narrowed his eyes and then passed him by, offering naught but a snort in response.

Chapter 14 – Fight and Flight

– Tuesday, September 13, AD 2129 –

Austin absentmindedly rubbed his eye and sluggishly glanced around at his surroundings. Just like yesterday, he had been victim to a rude awakening — except this time, it was Mote who woke him up. And with an electric shock, no less. He scowled and rubbed his shoulder tenderly; the shock didn’t leave behind a mark or any lingering pain, but he could still easily recall the unpleasant sting.

Immediately after waking up, changing into his grey jumpsuit trainee uniform, and eating a small breakfast, he and his friends were rounded up by Mote and shuffled to the E.S.C. Deception, one of SERRCom’s Frigates. They now sat in a small central room adjacent to the airlock, waiting to see what activities the day would bring them.

“Tired?”

“Mm…?” Austin slowly glanced over at Twy. “…That obvious?”

“Ha!” Spike snorted. “You didn’t even look this half dead on the first day of classes!”

“Ngh…” Austin grunted in response. “Well, bein’ woken up at fuckin’ six in the mornin’ by electric shock will do that to you…”

Stop bitching. We both know you can handle it.

Austin, Spike, Twy, and Sky all looked over to see Mote approach. His hands on his hips and his face stern, he continued, you’re a Simulator Psychotechnic. If that shock didn’t hurt me, then it certainly didn’t hurt you.

“You say that, but I can pretty vividly remember pain…”

If you’re going to complain about something as utterly insignificant as that, then your potential here is truly abysmal indeed.

“Hey—!”

No backtalk. I’m in charge today; that means I’m your commanding officer. And you always listen to your CO.

“…Except when given illegal orders,” Twy commented quietly.

Mote gave her a pained glance. …Yes, except when given illegal orders, he eventually stated. But there will be nothing illegal happening today.

Aside from putting a bunch of unwilling conscripts through boot camp, Austin thought to himself.

“So, what are we doing today?” Sky questioned.

That’s, ‘what are you doing today, sir,’ Mote corrected.

Sky grimaced. “O…kay…?”

Say it again. The correct way.

“What? No. You’re only a year or two older than me, I’m not saying ‘sir’ to you.”

Mote drew back, apparently surprised. He then narrowed his eyes and furrowed his brow. Well… if that’s how it’s going to be, he huffed, I originally planned to start with life jackets, but now I’m just going to throw you into the deep end of the pool unaided.

“Oooh, clever,” Austin replied — and immediately yelped in pain as Mote shocked him.

That will be enough backtalk, Mote snapped. This isn’t fun and games. SERRCom is a military, a respectable military, and we. He stepped toward Austin. Do not. He stepped closer again, this time shoving his face into Austin’s. Screw around. Understood?

“…I think so?” Austin managed to squeak out.

Hmph… The irate Electrotechnic backed away and glanced over at the others. …Well, we should get started. Let’s see — a Formtechnic, a Pyrotechnic, a Hydrotechnic, and a Psychotechnic… that means at least two of you can fly.

“Wha—?!”

Austin made to protest, but before his exclamation fully escaped his mouth, his surroundings changed. The cramped, dull gray Frigate interior gave way to a bright light, prompting Austin to shield his eyes. A moment later, the air around him chilled and started rushing past; as he lowered his hands, he took note of a blue, cloudless sky…

…and a flat plain several thousand meters below.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa whoa whoa whoa!!! Ahagh!!!” He began flailing around, reflexively reaching out to grab something, anything, and stabilize himself — but his hands grasped nothing but air. His breath caught in his throat and his heart nearly leaped out of his chest, his eyes wide as one thought dominated his mind:

I’m going to die!

“Austin! Snap out of it!”

“What…?” The rushing air made it difficult for Austin to hear his surroundings, and the ever-approaching ground remained at the forefront of his mind. But he managed to slowly crane his head to the side, where Spike was carefully managing his own descent to match Austin’s.

“Spread eagle!” Spike shouted.

Austin responded with a confused stare. “What?!”

“Spread eagle, damn it!”

“…Right!” The reasoning behind Spike’s demand finally clicked — in a free fall like this, the best course of action is to slow down as much as possible, and spreading out would achieve just that. Austin spread out his body as much as he could, but didn’t feel a significant decrease in speed. Is that ‘cause I actually haven’t slowed down, or ‘cause I’m just really bad at skydiving? Wait, this isn’t skydiving! We don’t have parachutes! Fuck! What the fuck!! “What do we do?!” Austin screeched, his attention again focused on the ground. “Spike, what do we—?!”

“Settle down!” Spike barked, “damn it, panickin’ll just get you killed! Stop flailin’ around, and trust in the twins!”

“What?!” Austin cried in disbelief. Below, the homogeneous green field had resolved into plants — some kind of crop, it looked like. The fact that he could even make this out simply sent him into a further panic. “To hell with panic, the fuckin’ ground is gonna get us killed—!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake—!” Spike reached out and grabbed Austin’s right leg, yanking him in close. He carefully spun around in the air so that his back was facing the ground and Austin was just above him, at which point he summoned a massive circular shield to use as a cushion. “Brace for impact!”

“Gack—!” Austin felt his whole body go rigid, the tension causing him physical pain. And then an incredible shock ran through his body as the shield cushion slammed into something — but it continued to fall. Several seconds and multiple more shocks passed as Austin attempted to reconcile the situation with his expectation of a single impact followed by death. A moment later, he felt a cold splash against his chest, tearing him out of his stupor. “…Water?”

“Woooo… oh ha ha ha ha ha!” Spike let out an adrenaline-fueled guffaw. “I told you to trust in the twins!”

“Wha…?” Austin glanced around warily — just in time for one final impact. He grimaced in pain as he was thrown to the side, off of Spike’s shield and tumbling across the ground. He stopped rolling some distance away and groaned in pain. “Ungh… what the hell…”

“Austin! Are you alright?!”

He glanced up, his eyes widening in surprise. Twy slowly descended toward him, her body surrounded up to her waist in a massive bubble of water. Once she was only about a meter above the ground, the bubble dispersed, releasing her to tumble to the ground. “Owww…”

Austin climbed to his feet and stumbled over to her side, where he helped her up. He then glanced around at the flattened crops and the abundant signs of water damage. “…Did you do this? Break our fall with cushions of water?…”

“Don’t know who else would’ve,” she retorted. “You certainly weren’t going to save yourself.”

“Hmph…” Austin pursed his lips in annoyance. “…What about Sky?”

Twy jerked her head to the side, where Sky was tending to Spike.

“…So we’re all safe, then…”

“Yeah…” Twy frowned. “For now, we are. But that was incredibly irresponsible of Mote… we could have died—! What—?”

A bright flash of light engulfed them; a moment later, the water damaged field was replaced by the dull gray metal walls of the Frigate Deception. Austin and Twy glanced around in confusion, momentarily locking eyes with Spike and Sky before noticing Mote in the center of the room, his arms crossed.

Well that was an abysmal performance. He shook his head in disappointment. I’ve seen better showings of power from ten-year-olds. Literally.

“The hell was that about?!” Sky exclaimed as she stomped over to face Mote. While she wore on her face the fury of someone who had just gone through a near-death experience, the one foot height difference between her and Mote made her appear to be little more than an angry child.

That was a conventional test, Mote responded, moving nary an inch as he stared down Sky. I had the four of you beamed over a field somewhere in the midwest United States. I wanted to see how you would react, and if you would save yourselves. Which you barely did, I might add.

“A conventional test?! We almost died!

Ha! Is that what this is about? Mote snorted. You were never at risk of dying. We would have beamed you back up before you hit the ground if there was any danger of a fatal or serious collision.

“Is that what that bright light was?” Austin questioned, “the… us being ‘beamed?’”

Huh, so you aren’t completely stupid after all.

“Tch…”

But back to the topic at hand. Mote uncrossed his arms and placed them on his hips. That was a D-rated performance, at best.

“’D?!’” Twy exclaimed, “But I—!”

I know that you saved everyone, I was watching. Mote glanced at her impatiently. Individually, you, specifically, didn’t do too bad. For your first time, that is. He then turned toward Spike. Sutna, you didn’t do too bad either. Kept a level head, and used your power to make a shield. Even tried to save Mr. Utter-uselessness over here!

“…What about me?” Sky asked tentatively.

D minus, Mote declared.

“Aw, what—?!”

You should be able to fly. Pyrotechnics can fly. When I said at least two of you can fly, I was referring to you and your sister.

“Wait… what? …How?!”

That’s up for you to figure out.

“You can’t be serious!”

I am always serious, Mote responded, deadpan. He then turned toward Austin and let out an audible sigh. …You, though… you really are hopeless.

“Fantastic advice,” Austin retorted.

What did I say about backtalk?

“…Ngh…”

You really are the worst of the lot. You’re a Simulator and an Imperator Psychotechnic, aren’t you? You could’ve used any of the other’s powers to save yourself, or even your own, but all you did was panic and flail around!

“…”

Luckily… Mote looked back at the others. I’m going to give you all another chance.

“You mean you’re just going to dump us in the air again?” Sky scowled. She then yelped in pain as Mote shocked her.

Don’t make me repeat myself about backtalk, he growled.

Sky glared at him, but didn’t verbally respond.

Now… Mote turned around and grabbed four headsets from a seat behind him. He began passing them out, saying, these will allow you to communicate with each other and with me. Now that I’ve seen what you can do on your own… He passed a sideward glance at Austin. …I’m going to offer tips and instructions on the way down. If you have even an ounce of sense, you’ll listen to me. Now brace yourselves… He stepped back and crossed his arms again. Danielle!

A bright flash of light filled Austin’s vision, and he once again found himself high in the sky. His heart jumped and his breath caught again, but he managed to rein in the initial panic and focus on getting a bearing on his surroundings. He slowly spread his arms and legs in an attempt to stabilize himself, but mere moments later he felt a sensation of cold wetness wash over him. Water? …Must be Twy’s doing…

Now submerged within a bubble of water floating high in the sky, Austin began searching for his friends. He promptly abandoned the search when he realized that he still needed to breathe; he flailed around to try and right himself and then managed to swim to the top of the bubble, popping his head out to take a deep breath.

“Are you okay?”

“Ugh… yeah.” Austin glanced toward Twy as she hovered next to him in her own water bubble. As he did so, his attention was drawn to the ground below them — the ground that remained several thousand meters away. He grimaced and jerked his head upwards in an attempt to keep the ground out of sight.

“Well… I think that’s everyone.”

Against his better judgment, Austin returned his attention to Twy, thereby bringing the horizon into his peripheral vision. He then glanced to her side, where Spike and Sky were both floating in water bubbles as well.

Spike whistled in admiration. “Not bad, Twy. Not bad!”

“Yeah…” Austin nodded slowly. “…How do you even do this? How’s the water just floating?”

“I guess that’s just something I can do…?” Twy shrugged. “Er, I guess it’s just something that Hydrotechnics can do. It isn’t hard, really…”

“Show off,” Sky pouted. She then started wriggling helplessly. “C’mon, let me go! I wanna figure out how to fly!”

“Probably just some rocket engine bullshit,” Spike suggested.

“What? That doesn’t make any sense! Rockets aren’t propelled by fire, you know! It’s explosions and fuel and mass ejection and all that!”

“Can’t Pyrotechnics do explosions?”

“…Maybe?”

“We could ask Mote,” Twy piped in.

“Hmph.” Sky scowled. “I wouldn’t ask that bastard the time of day.”

“Careful,” Austin snorted, “he said he can hear you through these headsets.”

“Well he hasn’t said anything.” Sky crossed her arms defiantly. “Ha ha! Is he too chicken to face me?”

“No…” Twy began looking around warily. “…Something doesn’t seem right about this. He should have said something to us by now, or at least beamed us up again.”

“Maybe this is another of his stupid tests.”

“…No, Twy’s right,” Spike spoke up, his eyes narrowed, as though trying to spot something in the distance. “Somethin’… is comin’ this way…!”

“Huh…?” Austin glanced in the direction Spike was facing — just in time to spot a robot come careening out of nowhere and crash into Spike, launching him out of his water bubble.

Spike!!” Sky shouted after him. She then snapped her attention to the robot, which had stopped itself on the other side of Spike’s water bubble. It looked a lot like the robots that attacked the SERRCom bases, but appeared to be thinner and more lithe. It’s angular construction and bluish tint gave it a rugged look; combined with its lack of a head and the glowing red orb planted in its upper chest, it appeared rather menacing.

It slowly turned to face Sky as it spread its mechanical wings. They flapped slowly and glowed — they were surely just for show. Something else was allowing the robot to hover in the air… but thinking about the mechanism behind its flight was thrust from Austin’s mind as it raised its right arm toward Spike’s receding form and brandished a massive gun.

“You—! RAGH!!!” Sky quickly spread her arms to her sides, letting off a massive blast of heat that vaporized all of the water surrounding her. She immediately followed by thrusting her hands forward, launching a wave of flames toward the robot. It took the flames head-on and turned to face the Pyrotechnic as she began falling.

“Shit…” Twy scowled as she glanced between her sister and Spike, who was growing small with distance. “…I need to let you go, Austin!”

“O-kaaaaayyy?!” Austin’s response extended into an uncontrolled scream as the water bubble around him dissipated, leaving him to tumble back into free fall. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed Twy dive past him — and beyond her, a stream of flames extended through the sky toward the attacking robot.

Great… Austin sighed out of a mixture of apprehension and annoyance. Twy should be able to keep us all from going splat, I think, I hope… I’ll leave that to her. But this robot? How the hell are we supposed to fight a robot with a gun?!

A flash of light shook Austin out of his thoughts and drew his attention to the robot — which had just fired at Sky. The bullet missed — as did the next. But while Sky was distracted by trying to not get shot, the robot lowered its gun, extended a long blade out of its other arm, and thrust itself toward her.

“Look out!!” Austin shouted.

She glanced his way for a moment and then at the robot. Her expression was obscured by distance, but just before the robot’s blade reached her she thrust her left hand to the side and fired off a blast of fire, launching her sideways. The robot’s momentum carried it past, missing Sky, but it swung up and around to perform another dive. Sky dodged again in exactly the same manner, this time following up by firing two jets of flame at the passing robot. It seemed to stagger slightly, but after giving Sky what looked like a glance it continued diving.

Shit, it’s going after Twy and Spike! Austin scowled. In the brief time Sky had spent exchanging blows with the robot, Twy and Spike had fallen far enough past Austin to look like mere specks. His own downward momentum was rapidly closing the distance, but even if he moved into a full-on dive himself, there was no way he could warn Twy or Spike in time — let alone keep up with a robot with its own propulsion system.

“Woohooooo!!”

“What—?” Austin glanced upward just in time to spot Sky rocketing past him, a giant grin plastered across her face as she explosively ignited the air behind her, propelling her downward. …Is she having fun? Did she forget that thing knocked Spike out of the sky?!

The thought brought Austin’s attention back to the ground, which was growing ever closer. He could see a water bubble in the distance — it seemed like Twy had successfully caught Spike. Beyond that, however, he couldn’t tell what they were doing, only that the robot was quickly approaching.

Quickly approaching Austin, that is.

“What the—!” He reflexively held his arms out in front of himself as the robot crashed into him, sending the both of them tumbling through the air. Austin latched onto the robot’s arm in an attempt to steady himself, his grip instinctively tightening and his eyes clenched shut as the robot began attempting to shake him off. Once its thrashing ceased, Austin slowly opened an eye to see what was going on… only to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“Austin! Let go!!”

He barely had time to glance to his side before a blast of flame washed over the robot’s gun arm, knocking its gun off course just as it fired — thereby missing Austin. He promptly released his grip on the robot as Sky turned up the heat, succeeding in melting the barrel of the gun before the robot thrust itself backward and further up into the air.

Austin failed to catch its next action, however, as he soon found himself encased in a bubble of water. He spluttered, breathing in half a mouthful of water due to being caught off-guard; immediately he spiraled into a panic, and just as quickly the bubble broke across solid ground. Falling to all fours, he launched into a fierce coughing fit. “Ow… fuck…”

“Austin! Are you okay?!”

“Ngh…” He glanced up as Twy rushed over to his side. “Think I breathed in some…” he trailed off, his attention drifting upward past Twy and to the robot that had just fired two rockets in their direction. His eyes widened in fear. “Uh, Twy—!”

“HAAAHH!”

Spike charged forward, roaring with exertion as he launched a small shield through the air like a frisbee. It slammed into one of the rockets, causing it to detonate midair and rain shrapnel down on the ground; the second rocket promptly fell prey to one of Sky’s fire blasts. The premature detonations left no casualties, but the resulting smoke clouded the air and obscured the robot’s location… until it burst through the smoke, its arm blade held forward as it rushed toward Austin. Just before it reached him, Spike leaped in front of it, summoned a large rectangular shield, braced it against his left arm, and planted his feet securely on the ground, managing to block the robot with the shield and then completely stop its momentum where he stood. He pushed the robot back with the shield and then threw his right fist forward, smashing the armor across the robot’s chest. It staggered, allowing Spike to toss away his shield and hit it with a left hook, sending it tumbling across the ground. Before it could recover, Twy completely encased it in water, leaving it to flounder around helplessly.

“Sky!” she shouted up at her sister, “make a steam explosion!”

“…Ha! Roger!” Sky grinned and offered a casual salute in acknowledgment. She then turned toward the robot, raising both of her hands into the air and creating a massive fireball. “Take this!!” she shouted, making a throwing motion with her arms as the fireball rocketed down at the water-trapped robot. A second later, it impacted the ground; immediately the water bubble erupted into a white cloud, obscuring the robot and the fireball both as boiling-hot droplets of water rained on the surrounding terrain. Twy shielded herself and the others with a thin layer of water, preventing Austin and Spike from suffering any burns.

Sky dropped to the ground next to her sister as the steam began to clear. As it did, it revealed a mangled, somewhat humanoid mess of metal… that nonetheless was struggling back to its feet. It slowly spread its wings, which began to glow, but just as it lifted off Spike barreled into it, grabbing its right arm and swinging it around and into the ground. He then slammed his fist into its prone form, puncturing its armor as though it were wet paper and obliterating most of the machinery inside. As he withdrew his hand, the robot’s internals let off some dangerous sparks, but it still attempted to stand; Spike pushed it back down and ripped off its arm before using the limb as a club to demolish the robot’s front-mounted sensor and then disable its wings. This time, it remained still.

“…Did that do it?” Twy asked as she approached uneasily.

“Probably not a good idea to get close,” Austin called after her.

“Ah, it’s fine.” Sky waved off his concern. “C’mon, I mean, just think about it! Our first fight, and we won! On the second day of training, too!”

“I’d rather we didn’t have to fight at all,” Spike responded gruffly. He glared at the wreck of the robot and stomped its leg joints in irritation. “…Where the hell did this thing come from? Who owns it? Why did it attack us?”

“And why didn’t Mote come help us?” Twy frowned. “…You don’t think he sent this after us, do you?”

“That’d be just like him, wouldn’t it?” Sky scowled and crossed her arms in a huff. “Trying to kill us on our second day. The nerve!”

“No…” Austin pursed his lips as he slowly approached, his attention focused on the remains of the robot. “…This ‘bot looks kinda like the ones that attacked SERRCom.”

“…I guess it does,” Spike said after taking a moment to inspect the scrap heap further. “…What, do you think that impostor of yours sent this after us?”

“Who else could it be—?!”

Halfway through Austin’s statement, a hole appeared in the sky. It looked to be a literal hole, torn through space itself, as though a portal to some weird gray dimension — and out of it shot an enormous craft, its engines drowning the environment in a deafening noise not unlike an electric motor. As soon as it exited the portal, the hole in the sky closed, leaving behind only the ship itself. It rocketed forward, passing over Austin and the others at barely half a kilometer in the air as it flew off into the distance. Between clasping his ears to shield them from damage and being caught completely off guard by the ship’s appearance, Austin was barely able to discern that it looked like a spacecraft, a little less than half a kilometer in length.

Moments later, the ship faded with distance — and with it, the noise from its engines.

“…Ow…” Sky whimpered as she tenderly rubbed her ears. “…What the hell was that…?”

“Was it… some kind of Cruiser…?” Twy questioned. “I couldn’t really tell anything more than its size…”

“Wait, there’s another ship.” Spike pointed skyward, in the opposite direction from the unknown ship. “…Is that…?”

“Looks like Mote’s ship.” Austin scowled. “’Bout damn time he got here.”

The four watched the Frigate rapidly approach. The 80-meter long craft slowed to a stop above them and slowly descended as a hatch on its underbelly opened up and extended a ramp down to the ground. Before it had completely touched the ground, Mote dashed down the ramp and rushed over.

Oh, good, you’re all okay. He slowed to a walk once he realized that all four were uninjured. Whew…

“What happened?” Twy questioned, “what’s going on?”

“What was that ship?!” Sky exclaimed.

…We don’t know, Mote replied, his brow furrowed with frustration. It’s the size of a Cruiser, but its profile doesn’t match anything we’ve seen. It came out of Subspace so close to the ground, too… I don’t know of any computers that could handle a jump with such accuracy.

“It have anything to do with us bein’ attacked by a robot?” Spike asked, jerking his thumb toward the remains of their aggressor.

“And with why you didn’t come help us?” Austin added in an accusing tone.

Mote passed Austin a reproachful glare before turning toward Spike. …I don’t know. I don’t know where that robot came from, but it was accompanied by a beam-jamming field. That’s why we weren’t able to beam you back.

“I thought you said what we were doin’ was perfectly safe!”

And it should’ve been, Mote growled. That someone had beam-jamming tech out in the middle of no where, as well as a flying robot, of all things… damn. There was no way to expect this.

“…Well, what do we do now…?” Twy asked uneasily.

Good question. Mote sighed. …Obviously, this takes precedence over your training for today. That Cruiser was headed straight for SERRCom Planetside Headquarters. Which is located near the UN Headquarters in New York City…

“Uh oh,” Sky responded meekly.

…Pretty much. Now hurry up aboard. Mote turned back toward the Frigate and gestured for the others to follow. We need to get going. Now.

Chapter 15 – Negotiations

…We’re about half an hour outside of New York. No hostiles in sight… we’re clear to contact HQ, Mote.

Mote sighed warily. He pulled himself to his feet and stretched before replying, thanks, Danielle. Setup the holocoms in here, please.

Got it.

Sky looked between Mote and the ceiling, at the intercom speaker. “…Is Danielle piloting this thing?”

Mote gave her a sidelong glance. …Yeah. Let’s say that.

“What’s that mean?” Austin questioned.

It doesn’t matter, not now. Mote shook his head as a holographic projector appeared in the ground toward the front of the small room. Apparently, the General wants to speak with the four of you; something about that Cruiser we just saw.

“The General?” Twy frowned. “As in… General Matthew Lead? The head of SERRCom?”

The one and only. And that’s why you need to be on your best behavior. Mote stared pointedly at Austin. The General won’t tolerate bullshit. You don’t want to make him angry.

Danielle’s voice came over the intercom again. Transmission incoming, Mote.

Patch it in.

A moment passed. Then, the hologram projector sprung to life, spawning millions upon millions of virtual particles in the air. The particles rapidly coalesced into a humanoid form, and before long, the large stature of General Lead became apparent. The image before everyone may have been only a hologram, but between Lead’s large frame, strong jawline, full mustache, and sharp, attentive eyes, he appeared every bit as intimidating as he would have in person. As the General’s eyes slowly swept over Austin and his friends, Austin couldn’t help but gulp. Any urge to behave irreverently had been completely snuffed.

General! Mote saluted.

Lead turned his attention toward him and nodded. “Lieutenant. At ease.” He then looked back at the others. “So these are our rookie Chaotics?”

Yes sir.

“…Hmm…” The General continued staring at them for a moment. “…I understand that this has been a rough couple days.”

“Understatement of the century…” Austin muttered under his breath.

“Um… sir…?” Twy spoke up tentatively, ignoring Mote as he suddenly glared at her, “I don’t mean to be rude, but… don’t we have something more important to discuss than small talk?”

“…Heh.” Lead slowly chuckled. “You’re right. This is about the Cruiser, and recent events. The owner has identified himself — it’s EA.”

“EA…?” Sky echoed questioningly.

“Yes. It’s an abbreviated manner of referring to Austin Travis’s apparent doppelganger.”

“Oh, no…” Austin scowled. “Don’t tell me it stands for ‘Evil Austin’…”

The General looked pointedly at Austin. “Do you disagree?”

“Uh… well, not entirely,” he responded uncomfortably, “but, uh… it’s a… little on the nose, don’t you think?”

“Heh. Well let’s put this discussion off for now; we have more meaningful things to discuss. Namely, EA’s latest demand.”

He’s actually made a demand? Mote questioned in surprise.

“Yes…” Lead nodded slowly. “…He demanded that the rookies go free.”

A wary silence fell over the group. Austin glanced uneasily toward Spike, who returned the look. Is this a test, or something? Austin thought to himself, …the General isn’t going to go through with that, is he? Just like that? There’s gotta be a catch…

“He’s given us six hours to respond, before he, quote, ‘obliterates New York like it’s Pompeii.’ So we have time… but not much.”

“Do you think he’d really do that?…” Sky asked.

Can he do that? Mote crossed his arms and cocked his head in thought. All he has is the one Cruiser. He could do some damage, sure, but wiping out the whole city?

“The fact that he has a Cruiser in and of itself was a surprise,” Lead countered. “I’m not willing to bet against him having more, wherever the hell they came from.”

“Why not just blow the damned thing up?” Spike suggested.

Not an option… Mote responded, Cruisers are too maneuverable. Any shot from orbit that misses the ship, hits the city. And by the time any of our ships could maneuver such that their firing arcs don’t intersect Earth, well… he’d be long gone by then, I’m sure. Even if we took out the Cruiser, the resulting debris would rain down on the city and cause just as much, if not more damage than what he could do by opening fire.

“All valid points, but I didn’t engage this discussion to talk about military action,” the General cut in. Mote promptly stiffened up, his expression pained, as though he had just been caught misbehaving. Lead simply ignored him as he turned his attention toward Austin. “I want to know what you think of EA.”

“…Me?” Austin pointed at himself warily. When the General nodded, Austin continued, “well… um… hmm. …To be honest, I kinda agree with him here. I want out.”

“That’s certainly in line with what Saito’s told me about you.”

“Eheheh…” Austin couldn’t help but laugh nervously. He’s actually heard about my complaining? I’ve got a bad feeling about this…

The General then turned toward Spike, Sky, and Twy. “What about the rest of you? What do you think of EA, and of this whole situation?”

“I’m with Austin.” Spike jerked his head toward his friend. “If I can get out, I want out.”

“I don’t know…” Twy commented warily, “EA’s method here is… questionable. He’s holding a whole city hostage, basically.” She glanced between Spike and Austin. “Are the two of you okay with that?”

“What? No, of course not.” Austin scowled. “I can agree with his words without likin’ his actions. In fact, I kinda think I hate him. I mean, c’mon, he stole my name, and my face! The whole world probably thinks that he’s the real me! Not to mention he’s the reason for our fucked up arrest in the first place. So yeah, he’s kind of a dick.”

He’s a dick because he inconvenienced you? Mote deadpanned, not because he attacked innocent people? Or because he’s currently threatening to wipe out an entire city?

“Well, yeah, that too…”

“Look, is there somethin’ you’re tryin’ to get at here?” Spike turned back toward the General. “What’s the point of askin’ these questions—?”

Mote interrupted him with a brief shock. Watch your tone, he growled, this is the General of the Space Forces you’re talking to.

“No need to be so rough, Lieutenant,” Lead commented. “If all goes well, these past few days won’t matter at all.”

All five Chaotics gave the General a confused look. “What’s that mean…?” Austin questioned uneasily.

“Let me put this simply…” Lead clasped his hands in front of him. “EA is more valuable to SERRCom than the four of you are.”

Sky drew back in surprise. “Excuse me?”

“Yeah, what?” Austin frowned. “Are we fuckin’ worthless now?”

“Not per se, but my statement should be obvious,” Lead continued, “the four of you are novice Chaotics. That is certainly interesting, given that virtually no Earthians are Chaotics. However, EA has demonstrated an ability to construct a fleet of robots that can operate entirely on their own, and has even gotten his hands on a Cruiser of completely unknown profile and technological ability. If we can figure out how he did this, then it could serve as another technological surge for SERRCom, much like the appearance of the Battlecruiser Genesis twenty years ago. I’m sure you can see how valuable an opportunity this is.”

“I’m not sure I like where this is going…” Twy muttered.

“There is also the matter of EA’s broadcasts leading to decreased public opinion of SERRCom, which we cannot afford. We need to discredit him, and at the same time, capture him.”

“Let me guess…” Spike smirked despite himself. “…You want us to capture him?”

The General nodded. “And in exchange, I’ll reverse the conscription order and allow you to return home.”

General! Mote exclaimed, you can’t—! You can’t seriously be thinking of letting novice Chaotics run around in public!

“Lieutenant.” Lead cast a reproachful glare toward Mote, who immediately withered. “I know well what I’m doing, and what’s at stake.” He then turned back to Austin and his friends. “Well? Do you agree to these terms?”

“How, exactly, do you expect us to capture him?” Twy asked.

“The plan is simple. He is awaiting your release atop the One World Trade Center; you need only to approach with your ship and disembark. Speak with him briefly, just long enough to confirm that he is indeed a separate individual from Austin, and then capture him with your powers. It’s four against one; surely, even novices such as yourselves can handle that.”

The four exchanged uneasy glances with each other.

“…Worth a try, I guess,” Spike eventually replied with a shrug.

“I’d like a public apology for recruitin’ us against our will, though,” Austin interjected.

The General chuckled briefly. “We’ll talk once EA is in our custody. Good luck with your mission. General Lead, out.” The hologram dispersed into millions of virtual particles, which then faded away into nothing.

…Well, this is fantastic, Mote muttered. He then turned to face the four novice Chaotics, his expression irate. Well, you heard him. Sounds like you’ve already got your first mission. Don’t fuck this up.

“Given what’s at stake,” Austin responded, “I wouldn’t count on it.”

…Hmph, Mote snorted, and then directed his attention upward. Danielle! Set a course for the roof of the One World Trade Center in New York City. We have a mission to complete…

*     *     *

We’re in the city. Approaching the tower.

Alright. Mote turned toward Austin and his friends. The five Chaotics were standing in the Frigate’s loading bay, just in front of the loading ramp. …I can’t believe the General is entrusting you with this.

“Inspiring words,” Austin deadpanned.

Mote shot him a glare before continuing, this… impostor will be expecting the four of you to be leaving SERRCom, so Danielle and I can’t stick around. Once you’re off the ramp, we’ll fly off and then circle the tower in camera range. We’ll be filming the whole thing from afar to discredit EA, as the General said. But if things go south, well… He looked over at Twy and Sky. The two of you figured out how to fly, sort of. So just get back to the Frigate as fast as you can.

“Won’t he find it suspicious that you’re just circling?” Twy questioned.

He shouldn’t take it for more than us keeping an eye on him, to make sure he doesn’t open fire on the city, Mote explained. If he does show suspicion… well, that’s on you guys to sort out.

“Fantastic,” Austin drawled.

This guy is your impostor, isn’t he? You should know best how to deal with him.

“Assuming he didn’t just edit all those videos to look and sound like me,” Austin countered. “Who knows what he actually looks like?”

A loud mechanical clank reverberated throughout the Frigate’s hull as the loading ramp locks disengaged. …Well… Mote watched the ramp slowly lower. You’re about to find out. Don’t mess this up.

Uneasy silence fell over the group as the ramp continued to lower. The dark Frigate interior was quickly overwhelmed by the bright environment outside; a few seconds passed before Austin could see the blue sky, as opposed to blinding white light. There wasn’t much else to see, however — this was the top of the tallest building in New York, after all. But as the loading ramp made contact with the roof and Austin began tentatively walking down, his attention was drawn upwards to the massive ship obscuring part of the sky. It had already looked huge when it suddenly appeared earlier in the day, but it was even closer now — its underside seemed to barely scrape the spire atop the skyscraper. And this is just a Cruiser? Austin thought to himself warily, finding himself having to turn his head from shoulder to shoulder just to see the front and back ends. Shit, this looks way bigger than even an aircraft carrier! How big are other spacecraft, then? They must all be ginormous!

“Austin.”

“Huh…?” He glanced back at Spike, and then at the Frigate, which was slowly lifting off behind them. He then looked in the direction Spike was pointing… and froze in shock.

Approaching from several meters away was a tall, lanky, pale-skinned man, with dark unkempt hair that flopped over his forehead. He wore a tuft of hair on his chin, enough to give him a mature, yet still young appearance — reinforced by his simple manner of dress, with only a gray t-shirt, jeans, and a navy blue vest. Austin felt his jaw drop; it was like looking into a mirror, down to even the wardrobe style. The only physical difference between Austin and the impostor was the man’s left arm, which was replaced with a cybernetic prosthetic.

“Well, well, well.” The man stopped a couple meters short of the four friends, his hands on his hips. “You actually showed up! I’m a little surprised, to be honest.”

“Who are you?” Twy demanded.

“Huh? That’s kind of a weird question, ain’t it?” he replied, “I’m Austin. Austin Travis. You know me!”

The impostor’s words finally shook Austin out of his stupor. “No you aren’t! I’m Austin. You’re an impostor!”

“Well that’s fuckin’ rude,” the impostor responded with a frown. “For all I know, you’re the fake.”

“Cut the shit,” Spike growled. “There’s no chance of that. Austin — the real Austin — was with me the whole time your robots attacked the SERRCom base in Texas. And he was arrested, like the rest of us. There was no time or chance for him to’ve done any of the shit that you did!”

“…I have to admit, that accusation kinda hurts…” The impostor sighed. “…But, can’t say I didn’t expect it. As is, the cards are stacked against me pretty heavily. Even I can see that convincin’ y’all that I’m the real Austin would be fightin’ a losing battle…”

“Huh…?” Austin stared at his impostor incredulously. He had been expecting some kind of physical altercation, or a long drawn-out argument over who was the ‘real’ him. But for his impostor to give up the argument so easily?

“What are you after?” Twy questioned, voicing the thought at the forefront of Austin’s mind. “All that anti-SERRCom propaganda where you took so much care to edit Austin out of it, so you could pretend you were him… and you give it all up so easily?”

“Eh, sort of.” The impostor shrugged. “I was mostly just forcin’ SERRCom’s hand, you know. Tryin’ to get them to let y’all go. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Right?” He looked to Austin expectantly.

“Uh… yeah…?” Austin answered uneasily, his mind still spinning.

“We wanted out of SERRCom, sure,” Spike cut in, “but the way you did it…”

“Yeah!” Sky exclaimed, “you attacked innocent people! Hell, you’re holding a whole city hostage!”

“Oh, c’mon.” The impostor waved her off. “Y’all know me! As if I would actually fire on a city. I’m kinda offended that you’d think I would.”

You’re the one who parked a Cruiser over New York,” Twy shot back. “What did you expect us to think?”

“Not to mention sittin’ over the One World Trade Center, of all buildings,” Spike added.

The impostor stared blankly at Spike for a few moments. “…Now that you mention, that’s an… unfortunate bit of symbolism there, huh.” He then averted his eyes, looking down at the ground and then up at the sky. “But even so, I’d hoped that you’d see this for the bluff that it is. I’d hoped you’d see through me…”

“Why?”

“Why? ‘Cause I’m one of your best friends, that’s why!”

“Bullshit,” Spike spat, “just ‘cause you look like Austin, doesn’t mean you are him.”

“You can’t know that!” the impostor snapped. He then pursed his lips as he glanced at each of Twy, Spike, and Sky before continuing, “I look like Austin, I think like Austin, my memories’ are Austin’s! The only reason you side with that guy over me is ‘cause he’s the one who lucked into stickin’ around. But at the core of it, we’re the same person!”

“Since when was I able to build robots and Cruisers?” Austin finally spoke up. “Stop makin’ excuses! You aren’t me!”

“That… that just isn’t true.” The impostor took a step toward Austin, his palms at his sides and facing forward, as if to demonstrate that he wasn’t armed. “I am you… but under different circumstances. You’re a Chaotic, right? Well, so am I. Except, I’m an Intellitechnic. That means superintelligence, as in, I am literally supernaturally intelligent!” He then spread his arms wide, gesturing up at the Cruiser above them. “Everything that I’ve done, is stuff that you would do, if only you had been an Intellitechnic instead of a Psychotechnic.”

“That… that doesn’t sound right…” Austin frowned as he eyed the ship uneasily. “Even if I was really smart… that doesn’t mean I’d suddenly build a bunch of robots, or use them to attack SERRCom!”

“You would if you knew what I know.”

“Huh? What do you know?”

The impostor glanced to the side. In the distance, Mote’s Frigate was slowly circling. “…If you come with me…” He turned his attention back to Austin. “…Then I’ll tell you.”

“No way!” Spike stepped forward, placing himself in between Austin and his impostor. “The hell is your goal, here? You said you wanted to help us get outta SERRCom, and now you wanna drag us off again?”

Impatience and frustration flashed across the impostor’s face before he pursed his lips into a pained smile. “Look, I can’t tell you here. And I can’t tell you why I can’t. There’s too much at stake. C’mon, why can’t you trust me? After you’ve known me for so long—!”

“We’ve known Austin for that long,” Twy interrupted. “But you? You keep saying that you’re Austin, but you sure as hell don’t act like it…”

Austin stared at Spike and Twy, startled by their quick responses. He knew, in his head, that they were right — by facts alone, he must be the real Austin, and this impostor was just that: an impostor. And in his heart, Austin was glad that his friends were so quick to spring to his defense, even when he himself could barely process what was going on. But in his gut… he couldn’t help but feel an uncomfortable wrenching. What if everything the impostor was saying was correct? What if he really was just an exact copy of Austin, but with a different Chaotic ability and an important secret? Austin had no idea how he would have come to possess such a secret in the first place, but putting himself in his impostor’s shoes felt like a punch to the gut. He was being rejected by people who he thought were close friends, simply because his ‘real’ self was already with them. If that were Austin… what would he do?

“…Hmph. I had a feeling it would come down to this.”

“Huh…?” Austin looked back to his impostor — just in time to see a robot swoop down from above and slam into Spike, sending them both flying off the edge of the tower.

“Shit, not again—!” Sky scowled, starting toward the rooftop edge but stopping as Austin’s impostor made a move. He dashed toward Austin, his right arm outstretched; a moment later, a giant scythe wreathed in magnificent silver, gold, black, and white designs materialized out of thin air. Austin’s eyes grew wide as the scythe’s edge swung toward his torso — out the corner of his eye he could see Twy forming a water bubble and Sky launching twin blasts of flame at the impostor, but he simply charged through the flames, the points of contact lighting up like a wall of energy as the scythe finally plunged into and completely through Austin. He reflexively looked down, bracing himself for blood, gore, and pain, only to find his body rapidly dissolving into thousands of tiny blue particles—

—and then everything went black.

Chapter 16 – Villain and Savior

“Ngh…”

Austin gradually came to, his eyelids slowly opening to reveal somewhat blurred vision. He groggily lifted his head, allowing his vision to return to normal before investigating his surroundings: a twin-sized bed shoved against the wall, covered in navy blue sheets; a computer desk across the room, blanketed in dust; a powered-down fan near the room’s window; posters of all kinds on the walls, depicting a variety of video games and anime…

This is… my room back home… Austin’s heart skipped a beat as a wave of unease crashed over him. What am I doing here? How did I get here? He attempted to stand, but stumbled when his arms refused to move. What the—? My hands are bound? The hell—?

“Oh, you’re finally up.”

Austin’s attention jumped to his closet, where he met eyes with a mirror image of himself. The fog that previously obscured his mind immediately cleared, with the events of the day jumping to the forefront of his mind — particularly, when he was attacked with a scythe. He immediately looked down at his torso, but there was no blood or injury to be seen or felt.

“It’s called Subspatial Storage. Neat, huh?”

“…What…?” Austin responded cluelessly.

“How I got you here,” the impostor stated, and then summoned the gold and black scythe from before. Austin reflexively winced away, prompting a chuckle from the impostor. “Yeah, pretty cool, huh?”

Despite not wanting to, Austin couldn’t help but agree. Summoning weapons out of thin air? That’d be way more useful than these stupid powers that I have. Simulator something or other? Fuckin’ stupid… “…What’s that got to do with this… ‘Subspatial Storage,’ though?”

“If I attack something with this scythe, then instead of slicin’ it up, I can store the object in Subspace,” the impostor explained, “then, I can pull it out later, exactly as it was when I stored it. Pretty fuckin’ convenient, if I do say so myself.”

“But… I wasn’t tied up when you attacked me.”

“That’s right, but when I unstored you here I just knocked you out immediately. Probably why you don’t remember it.”

“…So you’re sayin’ you gave me a concussion?”

“Bah, I know what I’m doin’. You’re perfectly fine.”

“Knowin’ me, and since you’re supposedly me, I’m not too confident in that assessment.”

“Heh. Can’t really fault you there.”

“So, uh…” Austin tugged at his bonds. “…Why am I tied up?”

“’Cause you’re a hostage.” The impostor shrugged. “Why the hell else?”

Austin scowled. “What the hell are you planning?”

“Should be obvious enough…” He gestured toward Austin. “Notice anythin’ different about your outfit?”

Looking down again, Austin noticed that his clothes had been changed. The SERRCom jumpsuit uniform he had been provided for training was replaced with a gray t-shirt, jeans, and a navy blue vest — prompting Austin to immediately snap his attention back to the impostor. Not only was he wearing Austin’s uniform, but his left arm — which previously had a metallic sheen — now looked like a normal, flesh-and-blood appendage.

The impostor smirked. “Finally noticed, huh?”

Austin began struggling in an attempt to free himself from his bounds; unfortunately, the impostor seemed to have tied his wrists together rather securely. “…Damn it, you can’t replace me…!”

“I beg to differ,” the impostor replied as he took a seat at the computer chair next to Austin’s desk. “There’s nothin’ different between the two of us, physically. Long as I come out first, with you tied up, they’ll believe that I’m you.”

“That’s ridiculous…” Austin scowled. “What about your arm? And— and your lack of powers?”

The impostor snorted. “I can hide my prosthetic well enough with a hologram. As for my powers, well…” He shrugged. “I’m no Psychotechnic, but that shouldn’t matter. With how useless you’ve been over the past few days, I should be able to get along fine. Better, even. I doubt SERRCom will question anything once they realize how much more useful superintelligence is than anything you’ve done.”

“You… you can’t be serious.”

“Oh, I am, believe me. You’re me, after all; you should know how I think.”

“Bullshit! I wouldn’t do somethin’ like this, I wouldn’t— I wouldn’t doom someone else to, to, to who knows what fate just so I could fit in!”

“Isn’t that what you’re doin’ now, by rejecting me? Isn’t that what Spike and Twy did?”

“…That’s not the same. You, you’ve already done bad stuff. You’ve already proved that you aren’t the real me!”

“Mmm, kinda. Sure, I’ve pretty heavily damaged the persona I put up. But if I trade places with you, then you’re that persona, and I’m just regular ol’ Austin Travis. Then you’ll be the fake Austin, Fakie. Heh… ‘Fakie.’ I kinda like that.”

“Fuck…” Austin tugged at his bounds again, to no avail. “…Fuck. The General really was right, huh? Right to call you EA…”

The impostor cocked his head in confusion. “EA?”

“Evil Austin.”

“…Bit on the nose, don’t you think?”

“It’s startin’ to sound awfully accurate about now.”

“Oh please. Takin’ the identity that rightfully belongs to me is hardly evil.”

“It is when you doom someone else by doing so!”

“Maybe. But why do you deserve your life any more than I do? We’re the same person, after all. Same memories, same personality…”

“I’ve yet to see any actual proof of that.”

The impostor pursed his lips. “…This all started when we went to that one museum a couple weeks ago. I remember Sky comin’ over, piling into the car with her and Spike, runnin’ into Twy at the exhibit… I remember talkin’ with her about the Chaos Energy Quake… and then, I remember seein’ a silver sphere on the ground. I thought it was the Master Ayas replica, but when I touched it, I saw, well… visions.” He raised an eyebrow. “Sound familiar?”

Austin scowled. “That— you could’ve just hacked the security cameras, or somethin’. And I told the EIIC Director that I had a vision, if she wrote that down somewhere then— then you could’ve hacked it or somethin’, I dunno.”

“Maybe, maybe. But you didn’t tell anyone about what was in those visions, did you? About the insane blond guy, or the army of metallic bugs? Or the dark-skinned monsters with no mouths? Or the fact that you saw Earth burning, and then some weird, mysterious sphere of blue energy? And that’s not even everything, is it?”

Austin’s scowl transformed into an uneasy frown as he continued to stare at the impostor. He couldn’t come up with many explanations for how the impostor knew about the contents of his vision several weeks ago; he certainly didn’t remember telling anyone about the full contents, at least. Is he… is he really telling the truth, then? He has my memories, and my face… is he really me…?

“Seems like I’m finally gettin’ through to you,” the impostor remarked. “It does feel pretty bad to be throwin’ someone under the bus like this, especially when that person is me. But in the grand scheme of things, I’ll be able to do far more good as ‘Austin Travis’ than you could. I mean, c’mon, Fakie, just think—”

“You are not goin’ to start callin’ me that stupid nickname,” Austin snarled.

The impostor smirked. “Ha! Well you’ve just cemented it now, Fakie!”

“And here I was just startin’ to sympathize with you.” Austin’s frown turned back into an irritated scowl. “Fuck you, EA.”

“Now that one ain’t so bad. ‘EA.’ I kinda like it, actually. Just tweak it a little bit, make it…” He spread his arms out, as though beholding a new art masterpiece. “…’Elite Austin.’” He clapped his hands triumphantly and pumped his fists. “Bam! EA! That’s great! I’ll be takin’ that, thanks.”

Austin’s scowl simply deepened. As angry as he was at the whole situation… he couldn’t help but agree on this one instance. EA had certainly made out with the better nickname. …Maybe we actually are the same person, he mused, but quickly rid himself of the thought.

“That said, if this gambit goes accordin’ to plan…” EA glanced up at the clock on the wall. “…I won’t be needin’ that moniker. I’ll just be ‘Austin,’ and a far more useful one than you could be, at that. I mean, as I was sayin’ — you’ve done absolutely nothing of value so far. In fact, you’re so useless, it hurts! Yesterday, you failed that obstacle course… how many times? Ten? More? I dunno, I stopped keepin’ count after a while. Even Twy managed to finish after a go or two. C’mon, man, that’s just pathetic.”

“Were…” Austin’s eyes narrowed. “…Were you watching…? How?!”

“Heh heh,” EA chuckled. “That’s a secret. By the way, I was watchin’ today, too. I mean, you had to’ve known that that flying robot was mine, right?”

Austin simply growled in response.

“Figured. But even today, you were fuckin’ useless. Twy figured out that water bubble trick, and saved y’all not once, but twice! And Sky figured out the basics of Pyrotechnic flight, and she was the one who did most of the damage to my robot. And then Spike, of course, thought fast enough to both save you and get in some shots on his own. But you? You did nothing! Absolutely nothing! How fuckin’ useless can you be?!”

“I—I— I mean…” Austin stuttered out, “…c’mon, I haven’t had any practice at all! Like… my power is to fucking copy other people, how the hell do I even do that?!”

“The hell do you mean, ‘how do I do that?’ God damn, Fakie, I mean, I knew we were bad at this whole independence thing, but can you really not think for yourself? Did you really never think to just try and fucking copy your friends?!”

“W-well… you know… suddenly appearing in the sky and bein’ attacked by a robot can be pretty stressful…”

“Bullshit. Everyone else reacted just fine! You’re the only one who did nothing!”

“Well what was I supposed to do?!”

Anything! Literally anything! Hell, you aren’t even considerin’ your second Chaotic type, here! Don’t tell me you forgot!”

“…Uh…” Austin stared blankly at EA. “…No…?”

“God damn.” EA facepalmed. “Imperator Psychotechnism! Didn’t that scientist chick tell you that? Do you not remember that?!”

“…Vaguely…”

“Even without your Simulator powers, you can still do lots of shit with your Imperator ones! I mean c’mon, it’s the power to seize direct control of literally anything you touch. That’s OP as fuck, dude!”

“Direct control of anything I touch…?”

“Doesn’t even have to be with your hands. Long as your skin touches some object, bam, you get to control it. Damn, SERRCom ain’t told you shit, have they?”

“Not really…”

“Hmm. Maybe I can help change that. I’m guessin’ that they weren’t takin’ you and your friends seriously before; I should be able to change that…”

Austin gave EA a confused stare. “…Just what the hell is your plan? Did you plan this from the start?”

“Mmm…” EA shrugged. “Yes and no.”

“If you wanna help SERRCom that bad, then why the hell did you attack them? Did you do all this just to take my place in SERRCom? Well you’re still fuckin’ conscripted, so now what? And even then, you can’t honestly expect to keep up the charade for long! They’ll figure this all out eventually!”

“Eh, maybe, maybe not. But even so, there’s more than one way to help.”

Austin rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like attacking them?”

“Exactly.”

Austin stared at EA with a mixture of disbelief and confusion. “You can’t be serious. I was joking!”

“And I’m not.” EA clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair. “…Well, admittedly, this ain’t completely out of a desire to help. I could, potentially, straight-up take over the Earthian Territories myself. Then we wouldn’t need SERRCom in the first place.”

“One man, running the entire Territories?” Austin glared at EA. “Don’t tell me you’ve turned into some generic supervillain.”

“Ha!” EA snorted. “My motives are a little more nuanced than that. See, I’m at least willin’ to give SERRCom a chance. Hence why I’m tryin’ to replace you, instead of just bombin’ their headquarters to kingdom come. Well…” He glanced aside uneasily, before shaking his head and regaining his arrogant demeanor. “Anyways, I’m willing to give SERRCom a chance, but only so much of one. If they don’t get their shit together soon, then… well, I’m not a very patient man. You know that; you’re me.”

“So… what? If SERRCom doesn’t achieve some undefined goal within an indeterminate period of time… you’ll just attack and take over?”

“Mmm… more or less.”

“You… are fucking stupid.”

“Hey, I’m you, and you’re me. If I’m stupid…”

“Cut the shit,” Austin spat, “we may look the same, but we ain’t the same person. I’m the real Austin. You’re just some… deranged lunatic who happens to have my face!”

“You couldn’t be further from the truth.” EA got up from his chair and approached one of the room’s windows, at which point he peeked out of the blinds. “…But all this arguin’ between us is pretty pointless, wouldn’t you say? Why don’t we let everyone else decide who the real Austin is.”

“Yeah, after you’ve stacked the deck against me?”

“Heh…” EA approached Austin as he produced another piece of rope from his pocket. “…Just consider it SERRCom’s first test. Now open up!”

“Wha—!” Austin drew back reflexively, but EA moved swiftly and pressed the rope across his mouth. He quickly tied it off behind Austin’s head, gagging him.

“Agh! Gah! Ugh!…” Austin began thrashing, attempting to throw EA off of him and make some distance — but his clone simply kicked him in the stomach, sending him reeling in pain.

“Don’t make this hard.” EA grabbed Austin by the cuff of his shirt and yanked him to his feet. “I really don’t wanna hurt you more than this, but if you force my hand, I will.”

“…Ngh…”

“Good. Now get goin’. This is our house after all, you should know the way to the front door. Lead on!”

Shit… Austin began shuffling toward his room’s exit. Shit… how do I get out of this…? …How did I even get into this? I guess Mom and Dad are at work, and Madison’s at school… but still, how the hell did EA get in here? And why here? He glanced back at his impostor, who was following him through the house at arm’s length. He’s keeping his distance?… …Oh! Of course!

Austin stopped in the middle of the living room and thrust himself backward. Caught by surprise, EA was barely able to dodge out of the way, and stumbled into the nearby entertainment center. Not to be deterred, Austin charged into EA, knocking him flat and then attempting to body-slam him, his exposed arms directed downward. EA quickly rolled out of the way, jumped to his feet, and summoned a massive scythe — the same one that he had used to store Austin. He swung it through the air, producing a small mass of blue particles that rapidly coalesced into a pistol that EA grabbed. He then aimed directly at Austin’s chest as he dismissed the scythe.

“…Not bad, Fakie,” he panted out, “…tryin’ to actually use that Imperator ability, huh?”

Austin glared at EA. He had been completely seen through, and now found himself staring down the barrel of a gun.

“Like I said, I don’t wanna hurt you…” EA gestured toward the front door, which was now in sight. “…But if you try somethin’ like that again, I will shoot you.”

“Ngghhh…” Austin growled, but timidly backed away. Shit… damn it, Austin, why can’t you pull off even the smallest thing… he mentally berated himself as he approached the door. EA carefully walked around him to open it, and then gestured for him to walk through. …Fuck. I can’t believe this! Fuck! I am not about to get outplayed by some fake god-damned evil twin!

He reflexively winced as he stepped outside, the bright summer sun temporarily blinding him. As his eyes slowly adjusted, he caught sight of a number of military vehicles all along the street. At least five soldiers stood on the sidewalk in front of Austin’s house, their guns trained on the front door as Colonel Saito tentatively stepped forward.

“…Travis…?” he called out, uncertain.

“Right here!” EA responded, carefully stepping around Austin and holding his hands up. “Whoa, what’s goin’ on?!”

“You tell me,” Saito replied, his hands on his hips. “You’re the one who called in the report on your impostor.” He glanced over at Austin. “Can’t say I expected you to actually capture him…”

“Yeah… he tried to pull some shit on me, but I won out in the end. Fake can’t beat the real deal and all that.”

As EA and Saito continued conversing, Austin’s attention drifted to beyond the imminent danger of the soldiers in front of him. Several of the military vehicles had mounted machine guns, and most of them were manned. SERRCom’s not takin’ any chances, huh… He glanced to the left, and then the right; he couldn’t see any of his neighbors, or any other civilians, for that matter. The only exception were his friends — Spike, Twy, and Sky stood across the street, barred from approaching any further by Mote and Danielle. …Damn. They’re here, too? This is the worst…! Damn it, how do I get out of this? Think, Austin, think! I could try to control someone with my Impera-whatever, maybe that’d prove that I’m me? Or maybe they’d just think that EA has the same powers as me? Shit. If only I could talk, say something, anything, but the longer I wait, the less likely they are to believe me! I gotta do something now! But how the hell do I get this gag off me? If EA’s right, then I just need to touch something, and then I can control it… so what around here can I touch to cut the gag, or my wrist bind? His eyes widened as a realization dawned on his mind:

The binds themselves were in contact with his skin.

After a furtive glance toward EA and the Colonel to make sure they weren’t paying attention to him, Austin began focusing on his wrist binding. He had used his Imperator ability once before, when he immobilized Mote during his arrest several days ago. At the time, it wasn’t intentional, but it was enough for him to know that he was capable of it. But as he attempted to manipulate his binds, he realized just how difficult a task he had just embarked on. The binding’s knot was tight; he couldn’t simply slide it off of his wrist. He would have to somehow undo the knot, which was a practically impossible task given that his wrists were tied behind him — and thus the knot was impossible for him to see. Damn. If only I knew what kind of knot it was, maybe I’d be able to undo it. But I don’t even know how to tie knots in the first place! Except for shoelaces, I guess… He glanced toward EA again. …Well… worth a shot…

As he began attempting to free himself, he could hear EA and Saito’s conversation coming to a resolution.

“…So… yeah.” EA shrugged. “I captured my impostor.”

“I see.” Saito stared at EA for a moment, glancing briefly at Austin before returning his attention to EA.

“…Somethin’ wrong?” EA questioned as he looked back at the soldiers flanking Saito. They had yet to lower their guns. “…I got EA right here. What’s goin’ on?”

“It’s nothing.” Saito shook his head. “…This is just my first time seeing your impostor in person. Can’t say I expected him to look so similar. Identical, even. Don’t suppose you got his origin story out of him?”

“Unfortunately, no…” EA sighed. “He was pretty uptight about that stuff. Didn’t have much time to ask him, anyways.”

“Mm.” Saito grunted. He then raised his right hand and made a gesturing motion, at which point Spike, Sky, and Twy rushed across the street to his side. The Colonel lowered his arm and initiated a quiet conversation with the three; Austin could see them glance his way occasionally, accompanied by a rather significant amount of nodding and head shaking. They must be trying to figure out which one of us is the real me… Austin glanced over at EA, briefly meeting eyes with him. Good. They’ll see through EA in no time—!

“Alright, Austin, c’mon over. We’ll take care of the rest from here.”

“Finally.” EA sighed in relief as he began approaching the Colonel. “’Bout time!”

Oh for fuck’s sake! Austin glared at EA, and then at Twy, when he realized that she was glaring back at him. They honestly think I’m EA?! Bah, fuck this! Just one more second…! There! His wrist binding fell to the ground behind him, its knot undone. Sure enough, EA had used a simple double shoelace knot — the only knot Austin had any amount of familiarity with. Guess we might actually be the same person, Austin mused as he reached up and quickly undid his gag with his hands. As the piece of rope fell from his mouth, he began shouting after EA and the Colonel. “Oi! You’ve got the wrong one—?!”

He stopped halfway through his sentence as Saito’s attention snapped to him, and the soldiers to his side renewed their focus. But a second later their sights were drawn elsewhere, as EA spun around on his heel, summoned his scythe again, and lunged toward Austin. Startled and caught off guard, Austin had no time to dodge out of the way of the blade — so he did the next best thing, instead.

Focusing on EA, Austin held out his hands and tried his best to use his Simulator powers to copy EA’s weapon. For a brief moment, as the scythe’s blade inched ever closer, nothing happened… and then, with a flash of light, a claymore materialized in his hands. Austin was momentarily distracted by the perfect blade, blue and golden crossguard, and a small pale blue glowing orb seated in the middle of the intersection of the blade, crossguard, and black hilt. He hadn’t expected to summon a sword when trying to copy a scythe, but he spent no further time contemplating the matter as he tightly grasped the claymore’s hilt with both hands and snapped the blade downward to intercept EA’s scythe. The two blades clashed with a metallic shriek as Austin’s sword slid down the inside of the scythe’s blade; the moment the claymore caught against the scythe’s shaft, Austin yanked the blade up, moving his weapon like a lever to throw EA’s scythe up and over his head. EA himself immediately jumped back and brandished his weapon defensively.

“Well, well…” EA smirked, but for a fleeting moment, Austin thought he spotted a flash of forlorn resignation in his impostor’s eyes. “…That’s all the proof I need. Well done, Fakie!”

“The hell—?!” Saito exclaimed as he glanced between EA and Austin in surprise. “…Damn it, capture them—!”

Mid-sentence, the Colonel was engulfed in a brief flash of light and disappeared. As did the soldiers beside him, and Austin’s friends, and Mote and Danielle across the street — every single person on the block spontaneously vanished, leaving behind only empty vehicles.

“What the…?” Austin glanced about himself frantically. “…What happened? Where’d they go—aggghh!?”

A massive object smashed into the street from above, crushing all of the cars beneath it and launching dirt, concrete, and debris in every direction. Austin reflexively flinched away, crouching to try and make himself a smaller target. By the time he looked back toward the street, EA had dismissed his scythe and vaulted into the pilot seat of the giant four-legged yellow and blue mech that had just slammed into the ground. Austin felt his jaw drop as the canopy closed after EA, at which point the mech roared to life, stomping the ground underneath with its bug-like legs and swishing its tail behind it.

“Well done, indeed!” EA continued, his voice being projected over some kind of loudspeaker. “I didn’t expect you to grow a spine so quickly. So how ‘bout I test its strength?”

“…You’re the one who made everyone disappear, aren’t you?!” Austin shouted back, “where’d they go? What’d you do with ‘em?!”

“Relax, Fakie, they’re perfectly fine,” EA responded smugly, “albeit… a bit scattered across the city. I’m sure they’ll rush back to help you out. But can you last that long?” The metallic pincers attached to the mech’s cockpit unit gnashed eagerly. “Meet my first manned creation: the Bug Crawler! I’m sure you’ll probably recognize the design from some LEGOs you threw together as a kid. Except now it’s real! And very, very deadly!”

Austin scowled, his grip tightening on his claymore. It was just as EA said: the large, bug-like mech was incredibly reminiscent of some LEGO creations he had built as a kid. And if the mech before him possessed even a fraction of the power his child self had imagined… he shuddered. How was he supposed to fight against a mech all by himself? If EA was telling the truth about scattering the SERRCom forces across the city, then Austin only needed to last until his friends arrived to back him up, but even then… …Or maybe… He glanced side to side, taking note of the empty vehicles lining the street. …Maybe… I can do this myself…

“Alright, enough grandstanding!” EA whooped as he sent the Bug Crawler into a lunge. “Show me what you can do, Fakie!!”

Chapter 17 – Creeping Chaos

Austin blanched as the giant mech in front of him lurched forward. Without a second to spare he threw himself to the side, dropping his claymore and rolling unceremoniously across the lawn as the mech slammed into the front of his house. He quickly scrambled to his feet and bolted around the corner, taking refuge behind the side of the house. There he took a moment to catch his breath, attempting to psyche himself up for facing EA and his so-called “Bug Crawler.”

“Come on out, Fakie…”

Shit… Austin glanced to his side, toward the front of the house. He could hear the house-sized machine slowly stalking about. …If I could just touch it, then maybe I could control it… but does my power even work on something that big? And is getting close enough to touch it even a good idea?!

“There you are!”

“Ack—!” Austin yelped as the mech shoved its head into the space between the houses. The cockpit accounted for most of the head unit, and the canopy was transparent, so Austin managed to lock eyes with EA for a brief moment as he scrambled backwards and out of reach of the mech’s pincers. When he backed into the fence, he whipped around and tried to jump over it, but failed spectacularly and collapsed to the ground.

As he was recovering, the sounds of snapping wood and crumbling bricks reached his ears. Immediately he psychically ripped the fence out of the ground, taking advantage of his earlier touch to seize control of the fence and use it as a shield as the Bug Crawler’s tail crushed the house next door to Austin’s, sending all kinds of debris his way. With the fence now destroyed, Austin dashed into the backyard, flinging bits of debris at the mech the whole way. But instead of dealing any kind of damage, all of the debris simply bounced harmlessly off of the mech’s hull as each impact point shimmered brightly.

Looks like it’s protected by an energy shield… Austin scowled as he rushed around the back of his house and to the other side. Probably can’t control it by touching it, then, since I can’t actually touch it. I’ll have to beat it down first, by flinging stuff at it, I guess… but I can’t do that if I’m constantly on the run! Damn it! If only I could fly! He froze momentarily. Not even a minute ago, he had manipulated part of a fence to fly through the air — so “seizing absolute control” over an object seemed to include manipulating its position in space in ways that shouldn’t technically be possible. Which is par for the course when it comes to Chaotic abilities, but if he can make anything that he touches fly…

Austin’s thoughts were interrupted as the ground next to him lit up briefly — and then exploded. He reflexively shielded his face from debris as he scrambled away from the house and attempted to climb over the fence again, this time succeeding due to being on the side with the cross-supports. As he tumbled to the ground on the other side, the entire lawn erupted as EA’s mech crashed down into it, having jumped clear over the two-story house from the backyard. It whipped around toward Austin and reared up its head, revealing a small gun mounted on the underside. Without wasting any more time to stare down its barrel, Austin clapped his hands, focused… and then launched himself into the air just in time to evade being obliterated by a laser. He hung in the air over the mech for a moment, staring at his hands in awe as EA looked up at him.

“…Ha HA!” Austin whooped and pumped his fist triumphantly. “I can fly!

EA gave Austin little chance to revel in his newfound technique — several slots in the back of the Bug Crawler opened up, each launching a small self-guided rocket aimed at Austin. He promptly dived to the side, flying low to the ground as he rushed out to the street and away from his thoroughly-wrecked house. “Mom and Dad ain’t gonna be happy about this,” he muttered to himself as he managed to outmaneuver the rockets and cause them all to explode some distance away. However he had no experience with flight, and the effort required just to evade the rockets meant that he failed to accurately gauge just how close to the ground he was. He yelped painfully as he skid and then rolled across the pavement, but he quickly picked himself up and brushed himself off — just in time to dive out of the way as EA’s mech landed in the middle of the street, sending the sounds of crushed cars and pavement echoing down the block. The mech’s tail whipped up and exposed a laser cannon mounted to its end as it began firing at Austin, but he quickly clapped and lifted back up into the air, at which point he began trying to evade the gun. As the gun fired lasers, it was impossible to see where it was firing until its target erupted in an explosion of energy, so Austin was left to simply make himself too difficult to aim at — which itself proved rather difficult.

After several stray explosions, Austin launched himself over the mech and landed on the road behind it, where he slammed his fist into a vacant SERRCom truck. He winced from the impact, but quickly moved his attention back to the truck as he manipulated it into the air and then launched it at the Bug Crawler. It impacted with the loud screeching sound of crushing metal, causing the surface of the mech to light up brilliantly as its energy shield absorbed the incoming kinetic energy. Ah ha! This should do it! Austin smirked to himself as he backpeddled to another truck, slapped it, and threw it at the mech just like he had the first. As the second vehicle was flying through the air, the mech jumped and spun around, bringing its head back to face Austin and deflecting the truck with its tail. Not to be deterred, Austin launched a third truck at the mech… only for it to catch the vehicle in its pincers. It then tossed the crushed mass into the air and spiked it with its tail as though it were a volleyball, sending it careening toward Austin.

Watch out!!

“Eh—?” Austin stumbled backwards as a large, disk-shaped projectile flew through the air and crashed into the flying vehicle and knocked it back, clear of Austin. He barely had time to recover as a car zoomed past him, slamming into the mech — while at the same time, Spike came rolling to a stop by Austin’s side, having just jumped clear of said car.

“Spike!” Austin’s eyes lit up. “You’re alright!”

“Yeah… just suddenly showed up a few blocks over,” he responded as he stretched and cracked his knuckles. “Looks like I got here just in time. …Why does this thing look familiar?”

“We’ll have time to talk about that later— look out!!” Austin dove into Spike, knocking the both of them to the side as the Bug Crawler brought its tail laser to bear. The spot where they had stood barely a second early promptly exploded, sending the both of them tumbling along the ground. Spike recovered almost immediately, jumping back to his feet and summoning a massive shield to block the next laser blast. But the mech’s high-energy beam obliterated the shield, staggering Spike and leaving him open to attack — yet before EA could follow up, another truck smashed into the mech’s side. A second truck quickly followed, diverting EA’s attention away from Spike, who took advantage of the opening to wind up a punch and slam his fist into the mech’s front right leg. Its energy shield shimmered brilliantly, covering nearly the entire leg and protecting it from harm — but the sheer force from Spike’s punch still caused the leg to buckle, sending the mech stumbling to its side. Spike promptly grabbed the other front leg, encircling it with his arms as he attempted to pull it off, but a second later the mech simply flicked him away, sending him flying into a nearby house.

Austin watched Spike in alarm, but quickly shook off his concern. Spike was a Forcetechnic — he’d survived fiercer blows than that over the past week and a half. But as Austin turned his attention back to EA’s mech, he noticed EA refocusing on him, and with his supply of vacant trucks dwindling, Austin found himself in a tight spot. He quickly clapped his hands and then shot off into the air, narrowly avoiding another laser blast as he flew over to the wreckage of one of the trucks he had previously used as a projectile. He slapped it and began lifting it into the air; however, manipulating an object through the air required significant effort, and while he was moving a truck, he couldn’t move himself. So when he saw a salvo of rockets homing in on him right as he launched the truck wreck at the mech, he panicked and reflexively shielded his face with his arms instead of attempting to move out of the way.

But before the rockets came too close, a jet of water burst through the air and sliced each one in half, causing them all to prematurely detonate. The mech began turning to identify the source of the attack, but water promptly inundated the street, causing the mech to lose its footing and haphazardly fall to the ground again. Without wasting a second, Spike bounded across the lawn and leaped forward, spiking the cockpit with enough force to shatter the canopy through the energy shield and slam the whole unit into the street, creating a small crater. He was promptly knocked back by the mech’s tail, but landed feet-first and dashed forward to continue his assault.

“Austin! You’re okay!!”

“Twy! You’re back!” He glanced over as she rushed to his side, floating in a water bubble that was itself floating in the air.

“Where’s Sky?” Twy questioned as she kept a watchful eye on EA’s mech, “or the rest of the SERRCom forces?”

“Dunno. I think EA beamed ‘em all away, scattered them across the city or somethin’.”

“Why would he do that? If he can just beam us away on a whim, then…”

“Fuck if I know what’s goin’ through that bastard’s head. But we gotta beat up that mech he’s piloting, he’s already wrecked half the neighborhood—! Whoa—!”

Austin braced himself as Spike slammed into him, having been thrown back by the mech’s tail. The two tumbled to the ground again, Spike barely able to summon another shield to protect them from an incoming laser blast. A second blast blew the shield away, exposing them both, but before the laser could fire again Austin slapped himself on the arm and grabbed Spike by the collar of his shirt, throwing them both to the side. Spike landed on his feet and immediately charged at the mech, summoning another shield to protect himself as Twy began firing jets of water at the Bug Crawler’s hind legs. The mech’s shields flared up again, signaling that Twy was doing at least some amount of damage, but EA’s attention remained focused on Spike. The Crawler began stepping back, swinging the tip of its tail down and in front of the cockpit in an effort to swipe Spike away — then, a moment later, the unidentifiable wreckage of a truck swung through the air by Spike’s side and up at the tail, knocking it out of the way. Spike threw up a quick thumbs-up to acknowledge Austin before balling his fingers into a fist and slamming it into the mech’s leg, toppling it again. Austin immediately followed by slamming the truck wreck into the mech’s topside with such force that it completely collapsed; Twy then siphoned enough water out of the surrounding environment to completely encase the mech in a bubble of water. Then, her entire body tense in concentration, she began attempting to crush the giant machine with the water surrounding it — its entire surface promptly lit up as its energy shield fought against the pressure of the surrounding water. But the pressure wasn’t enough — one step at a time, the mech slowly turned toward Twy and brought its tail-mounted laser cannon to bear.

“Sis! Get back!!”

Twy barely had time to acknowledge the command before the giant water bubble exploded into steam, obscuring half the street in a white cloud and throwing boiling-hot water droplets across the entire block. Spike immediately summoned two shields, holding one over his head and throwing the other toward Austin, who managed to slap it in the air and then manipulate it to sit just over himself and Twy, shielding them both. Once the brief rainfall subsided, they looked back at the mech — and then at Sky, who had just burst onto the scene and was now launching waves of fire to clear out the steam. As the flames rolled over the mech, its surface flared up again, a sign that the energy shields were still active. But Sky remained undeterred, using sustained combustion underfoot to keep herself airborne as she continued lobbing fireballs at the giant machine. A moment later, the hatches on its back opened up, giving way to another salvo of rockets… which Sky spotted and immediately detonated with a blast of fire. Half of the rockets were only halfway through the mech’s shielding when they exploded, causing substantial damage to the launch bays — but more importantly than that, the mech’s entire surface briefly flashed a bright white before a sort of static effect swept across its armor. Austin took advantage of the opening to lob his shield at the mech, and when it hit, no light was produced.

“Alright! The shield’s down!!” he shouted at Spike and Sky, “one more good hit, and the whole thing’s down!”

“I don’t think so.”

Austin flinched, startled by EA’s first words since the beginning of the battle. But before he could respond, the mech jumped high in the air, clearing a distance of several houses before crashing back down to the street in the middle of a cul-de-sac. It then whipped around to face the four, extended two flaps of metal from its back, and lowered its tail to mount the tip against the flaps.

“You’ve done better than I expected!” EA shouted over the mech’s loudspeakers, “you managed to take down the energy shield. Good job! But I think it’s time to end this little game.”

“Shit, shit!” Austin immediately grabbed Twy’s arm and rushed toward the nearest house. “Everyone!” he yelled back toward the street, “take cover!!”

Sky glanced his way in confusion, but Spike reacted faster, grabbing her out of the air and tucking her under his arm as he made a mad dash for Austin and Twy. Austin peeked out of cover momentarily, just to keep an eye on EA’s mech — and then widened his eyes in horror as the house across the street exploded.

“What the hell?!” Sky exclaimed, “what was that?!”

“The mech has a laser…” Austin scowled. “EA must be pumpin’ more power into it than he was before—!”

Austin flinched as the house next door to the one they were hiding behind exploded in a burst of energy.

“…Let’s try something,” Spike muttered as he summoned another shield in his hand. He then tossed the shield out toward the street; it was annihilated before it even hit the ground.

“Well… shit,” Sky swore. “What do we do now?!”

“If only I could get close enough to touch it, then I could just flip it and smash it into the ground or somethin’…” Austin frowned. “But we’re too far away…”

“And the moment we go out there—” Spike paused momentarily as another house across the street ceased to exist. “…Well, that’ll happen.”

“So if we move at all, we’ll get shot by a massive laser?!” Sky rapidly glanced between Austin and Spike, her eyes wide with panic. “There— there has to be a way around this!”

“…There is,” Twy spoke up. “…I have an idea…”

Austin, Spike, and Sky listened attentively as Twy outlined her plan, punctuated by the continued sounds of houses being wiped off the face of the earth. A minute later, Spike and Austin exchanged uneasy glances as Sky grabbed her sister by her shoulders.

“You can’t seriously expect—!”

“No, she’s right,” Spike interjected. “…If we wait, the other SERRCom forces might show up and take out the mech for us, but we don’t know if we have that long. There are only so many houses on this street.”

“I hope they’re all empty,” Austin muttered. “It’s at least midday, but still…”

“All the more reason to hurry this up,” Twy urged as she shook Sky off of her. “We need to move now!”

“On it!” Spike whirled around and summoned a massive tower shield in each hand. He chucked one into the street, charging after it a second later as it was blown to smithereens. Almost immediately, he jumped and placed the remaining shield under his feet just as Sky ignited the air beneath him, causing an explosion that launched him into the air — and avoided the next laser shot. As he soared through the air, he began summoning and throwing shields at a rapid pace, launching each of them at the ground with enough force to lodge them in the street and create dozens of cover opportunities. He then created one more shield to protect himself as the mech’s tail flashed, prompting another laser blast that obliterated Spike’s shield and sent him flying backward, where he tumbled to the ground in a painful roll. But thanks to his Forcetechnic durability, he was able to immediately jump back to his feet and rush for the nearest shield as Sky and Twy rushed out to take cover behind other shields. Twy quickly began gathering together all of the water she had used to submerge the mech the first time, forming a massive water bubble in the middle of the street that also served to lessen the power of the incoming laser by diffracting it. The next blast exploded against one of the shields in the road, this time merely blowing it backwards instead of destroying it outright. Just as it tumbled past, Sky and Twy leaped out of cover and rushed forwards, pushing the water bubble ahead of them. A moment later, Twy doubled back as Sky rapidly superheated the water, causing another steam explosion that obscured the entire street.

The twins immediately took cover behind a nearby shield as Spike rushed forward, using the cover of steam to advance undetected. He grit his teeth as he entered the hot environment, stopping momentarily to summon two more shields and throw them out of the steam cloud in two different directions. As soon as he heard one of them explode, he burst out of the steam cloud, protecting himself with a third shield as he charged toward a house that had not yet been destroyed. He managed to evade two laser blasts as he moved, but the moment he took cover behind the house’s wall it was blown to smithereens, knocking him back. He tumbled along the ground, taking hits from all manner of hot and sharp debris but coming out with only scratches. “Shit, this whole passive durability thing might be more useful than the super strength itself,” he muttered as he picked himself up and shook himself off. He promptly hid behind a piece of wall that was still standing; peeking out, he could tell that EA and his mech were only two more houses down. He glanced across the street, noting the twins as they took cover across from him. With a curt nod, he summoned another shield and dashed out into the street again, prepared to take another laser blast—

—only for the Bug Crawler to lunge forward with incredible speed, knocking Spike’s shield away with its tail and then pinning him to the ground with its front leg. Sky immediately made to attack, but the tail whipped around toward her, prompting her to take cover again.

“Not bad, not bad…” EA offered Spike a pained smirk as he stared at him through the broken canopy of the cockpit. “I wasn’t sure if you’d pick up on the laser’s firing interval, or the fact that I needed a sight-line to attack… well, mostly. But since you did, it made my job a lot easier.”

Spike scowled. The mech wasn’t putting down enough pressure to actually crush him, but with his back to the ground and his arms pinned at his sides, it was impossible for him to get the leverage needed to lift the mech off of him.

EA cocked his head. “Got nothin’ to say?”

“Tch…” Spike snorted. “…Think you’re so smart, huh?”

“Well, yeah. I am an Intellitechnic.”

“Hah. …You’re missin’ somethin’… real obvious…”

“Huh…?” EA narrowed his eyes, and then snapped his attention toward where Twy and Sky were hiding. “…Shit, Fakie—!”

“Right here!”

Austin dived toward EA from above and slammed his fist into the impostor’s face. Then, using his Imperator powers, Austin telekinetically ripped EA out of the Bug Crawler’s cockpit and threw him at the ground some distance away; following that, he slapped the mech’s exterior and began straining to lift it. He managed to raise it off of the ground enough for Spike to scuttle out from underneath, at which point Spike grabbed the leg, tore it off at the hinge, and then swung it down on the mech’s cockpit like a massive bat. The cockpit unit completely sheared off of the mech from the blow, causing the giant machine to crumple to the ground, lifeless.

Austin alighted on the ground next to Spike. They glanced at each other, grinned, and exchanged a firm fist-bump.

“Ha! What took you so damn long?”

“Hey, I was bein’ cautious. I can’t take lasers to the face and survive like you can.”

“Heh…” Spike snorted in amusement, and then turned back toward EA. Twy had immobilized him by trapping his hands and feet in water bubbles from which he couldn’t escape.

EA struggled briefly, though when he realized that the water shackles were surprisingly secure, he simply turned his attention toward Austin. “Where did you even come from?”

“Really didn’t see me comin’, eh?” Austin remarked triumphantly. “I was sneakin’ around the alleyways to get behind you. Spike, Twy, and Sky were just distractions!”

“Right…” EA glanced toward Twy. “So this was your idea, yeah?”

“Hey—!”

“It was,” Twy responded, ignoring Austin’s indignant outburst.

“Tch…” EA smirked spitefully. “Looks like I underestimated y’all.”

“Even more proof that you aren’t me.” Austin stepped forward to stare down at his physical counterpart. “I wouldn’t’ve been that careless.”

“The hell’re you talkin’ about?” Spike refuted, “you’re careless all the damn time.”

“Heh, guess you’re right…” EA sighed. “…Suppose I’ll have to work on that for next time.”

“There won’t be a ‘next time,’” Twy countered. “We have you pinned. Once SERRCom gets here, you’ll be locked up for good.”

“And then we can get on with our lives,” Austin added as he glanced around at the ruined neighborhood. “…Though… now that we’re done fighting… this looks really bad…”

“Yes, well, hate to break it to ya…” EA grinned. “But y’all are gonna have to hang on just a little while longer. I’m not done yet.”

“What?…” Austin snapped his attention back to EA as Spike and Sky backed away cautiously. “…The hell are you talkin’ about?”

“Just think, Fakie. I beamed away everyone else who was here so that we could fight. So why do you think I can’t beam away myself?”

The two stared at each other briefly — EA in triumph, and Austin in disbelief.

Austin then lunged for his impostor, his arm outstretched. “No—!”

“See y’all later!” EA chuckled before disappearing in a flash of light just before Austin dived into his former location.

Twy sighed impatiently as she allowed the now-empty water shackles to disperse. “Great. Just great.”

“He got away!” Sky exclaimed, “come on! How did he do that?! We had him!”

“I guess he ain’t workin’ alone…” Spike mused. “…That would explain a lot, actually.”

“That’s not the worst of it.” Austin scowled. “He got away. That means we failed to catch him! Do you know what that means?!”

“Yep…” Spike pursed his lips, glancing off to the side as Mote and Danielle dashed into view. “…Looks like we’ll be with SERRCom for a while longer…”

Chapter 18 – A New Future

2 Hours Later

“So that wasn’t you?”

“No, Dad, it wasn’t. C’mon, you didn’t really think it was, did you?”

“Well… I must admit, he certainly did seem much more competent than you’ve ever been.”

Austin sighed as he glanced absentmindedly around the room. Shortly after he and his friends finished off EA’s mech, the rest of the SERRCom forces arrived on the scene and promptly shunted them onto Mote’s Frigate, which rushed them back to SERRCom’s primary space station. Austin hadn’t had the chance to stick around and assess the damage to the neighborhood, or to even make sure that his family was okay — so the moment he had any downtime, he found a phone and called his father.

Startin’ to wonder if I should have even bothered, Austin thought impatiently. His father was hardly a mean person, but his constant jabs could get tiring.

“So you’re okay, then? And your friends?”

“I’m the one who should be askin’ you that,” Austin countered. “Our house got fuckin’ blown up! How aren’t you more concerned about that?!”

“Three words, son: Homeowners Insurance.”

“That’s two.”

“Is it? Ah, whatever. This is at least a good chance to take care of some remodeling. Maybe replace your room with a den…”

“…You aren’t takin’ this seriously at all…”

“I’m fine, Austin, really. So is your mother and your sister, we’re all fine. They’re a bit shaken up about it, of course, but… nothin’ we can’t handle.”

“That’s good…”

“I’m more worried about you. What the hell’s been goin’ on? Something about you havin’ superpowers and bein’ conscripted? And then fightin’ a giant mech in the middle of Plano?!”

“That’s… yeah, that’s basically it. Me, Spike, and the twins all suddenly got superpowers, then SERRCom decided to conscript us, and… well, the rest is history.”

“Is that legal?”

“That’s what I wanna know…”

“Damn. Have you seen Luke? What’s he got to say about this?”

“…He said he thought it was a good idea…”

“He did? Bah. That good-for-nothin’ bastard never had the spine to stand up to authority.”

“Isn’t he your brother?”

“He’s closer in age to you than to me. Given how much he liked to play with you and your friends, he always felt more like a son than a brother… why am I even telling you this?”

“Beats me.”

“Hmph. Next time you see him, tell him I’m gonna give him a proper ass-whuppin’ at the next reunion.”

“I’ll be sure to do that…”

“But, seriously…” His father’s tone grew solemn. “I’m with you son, I really am, and I’ll do everything I can to get you out of there. Your mother’ll make sure of that. But… I gotta be honest, trashin’ the neighborhood like you did ain’t gonna do you any favors.”

“That wasn’t my fault! It was my stupid impostor!”

“I know! I know. But we’ve already got the neighbors raisin’ a stink about this whole thing, and the city, too. Hell, the whole nation seems to be in an uproar. …You know, before today, people really seemed to be on your— er, your impostor’s side. Really wanted to stick it to SERRCom, if you know what I mean. But, boy, I don’t think I’ve seen a faster about-face of public opinion in my entire life. Your battle has people runnin’ scared, sayin’ they don’t want untrained Chaotics free on the streets…”

“…”

“…Ah, sorry. Shouldn’t’ve said that…”

“No… I think I might say the same, if I were in their shoes…”

“You’ll make it through this, I know you will. Your friends are there, right? Between them and Luke, you should be just fine.”

“Weren’t you just shit-talking him?”

“Bah. He’s a spineless little brat, but he’s still a good person at heart. I’m sure he’ll do everything he can to help y’all out… so long as it doesn’t go against his superiors. Ha.”

“I don’t know if that’s reassuring or not…”

“Well, hold tight. I’ll talk to my lawyer and see what I can do. You sure you’re okay?”

“Yes, Dad, I’m fine…” Austin sighed again, glancing to the side as his uncle entered the room. “…I think it’s time for me to go.”

“Are you bein’ punished? You better not be punished.”

“I’ll be fine, Dad, really. I’ll talk to you later.”

“You damn well better. Try to stay on long enough to talk to your mother and Maddie next time, okay?”

“Okay, okay, I will…”

“Love ya, son.”

“You too.” Austin put the phone down and exhaled deeply.

“…That was Chris?”

Austin looked back at Luke before standing up and stretching. “It was my Dad, yeah.”

“Oof…” Luke grimaced. “Did he say anything about me?”

“Yeah, he said that he’s going to ‘give you a proper ass-whuppin’ at the next reunion.’”

“I figured…” The Captain shook his head warily. “…This is about the conscription stuff, isn’t it…?”

“Of course.” Austin crossed his arms impatiently. “You’ll get no sympathy from me here.”

“Well, you’ll get another chance to talk to the General about it, at least.” Luke gestured toward the door. “He wants to see you.”

“Oh, great…” Austin followed his uncle out the room. “This’ll be fun…”

*     *     *

“…I think I can speak for everyone when I say that this situation did not resolve at all how we expected.”

“He was a slippery bastard, alright…” Colonel Saito sighed as he responded to General Lead. He then glanced to his right, where Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy all stood. “I don’t think there was any way to stop him from giving us the slip.”

“You may be right.” Lead clasped his hands on top of his desk, his gaze slowly sweeping across Austin and his friends. “I’d like to hear it from the four of you, though. Exactly what happened?” He turned to face Austin directly. “What happened between you and EA, while the two of you were alone?”

“Not a lot…” Austin frowned as he recalled the conversation between himself and his impostor. “He just said that he thought he was a better me than me, and that he was gonna try an’ take my place… somethin’ about bein’ able to better help SERRCom than me…”

“Help us my ass.” Saito snorted. “He attacked us, multiple times. And then leveled a neighborhood!”

“Look, I don’t know what’s goin’ through his head…”

“Isn’t he supposed to be you?”

Austin scowled. “He looks like me, but I don’t think he thinks like me. I don’t know how the hell he’s reached the conclusions that he has, or what the reasoning behind his plans are… but he did say that he’ll eventually attack SERRCom again if he doesn’t think you can do your job.”

The General pursed his lips. “That’s… concerning.”

“Yeah… then he gagged me and tried to pass off as me when you all got there.” Austin turned toward his friends, his eyes narrowing into an annoyed glare. “And y’all fuckin’ fell for it, too!”

“What?!” Twy exclaimed indignantly, “we did not—!”

“I knew it…” Saito sighed warily as he shook his head. “I told you guys he was too dense.”

“Huh?” Austin glanced between Saito and Twy in confusion. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

“We were only pretending that we thought EA was you,” Twy explained, “we thought it’d be the best way to get him into SERRCom custody…”

“Yeah! And then you went and blew it!” Sky added with an accusatory tone.

“Did you really think we thought EA was you?” Spike retorted with an amused smile. “We aren’t dumbasses. The fact that your arm looked normal instead of like a prosthetic was tellin’ all on its own.”

“Oh…” Austin glanced down at his exposed arm. Since EA had exchanged their outfits, Austin was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a vest, while EA had on Austin’s training uniform — which included a long-sleeved jacket. “…There’s a problem with that line of reasoning, though. EA can project some kinda hologram around his arm and make it look like a real one. He showed me.”

Twy’s face fell. “Oh…”

“Figures he’d have even more tricks up his sleeve…” Saito muttered.

“This seems to be a running theme with this individual,” General Lead commented. “Always one step ahead of us, in both plans and technology. It’s my understanding that he beamed away all of the SERRCom forces before engaging you in battle with his…” He took a moment to glance at a monitor on his desk. “…’Bug Crawler?’”

Austin nodded. “That’s what he called it…”

“Did he say anything to you between beaming everyone away and attacking you?”

“Uh… he said that he scattered everyone across the city. Not much else, though…”

“So he knew what he was doing after all?” Saito questioned incredulously.

“It certainly is very… convenient.” The General frowned, his brow furrowing in concern. “Very little of what EA does makes any sense. He demonstrated that he has access to a beaming system that can defeat our beam jammers, but all he did with it was prevent SERRCom forces from interfering in his battle with you. He could have just killed everyone with them, but he didn’t. Furthermore… he also beamed away all civilians in the area.”

“Wait, what?” Austin stared at the General in disbelief.

“Yes. No deaths or civilian casualties occurred as a result of your battle with EA.”

“That’s a relief…”

“Do you have any idea why he did any of what he did? On paper, this almost seems… childish. Like he just wanted to play around.”

Austin rubbed the back of his neck uneasily. “Uh, well, I kinda think that’s exactly what happened…”

The General breathed a lofty sigh. “This is worrying. An explicit enemy to SERRCom, with technology that surpasses our own…” He looked over at Colonel Saito. “Was the mech recovered?”

“Last I heard, it was,” Saito replied. “MacTavish said she could handle it. I wager her father will want to take a whack at it, too.”

“Hey, Austin.” Spike glanced over at his friend. “…Didn’t that thing look familiar?”

“Hmm? Is that true?” The General quickly turned his attention to Austin as well.

“Well… yeah,” Austin admitted. “It’s… it was one of the things I made as a kid with LEGOs. EA explicitly said that he designed the mech after that.”

“I don’t know about the rest of what he’s done,” Sky piped up, “but that certainly sounds like something you would do.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t go chargin’ around blowin’ up a neighborhood with it…”

“Are there any other such… designs that he might use against us?” the General questioned.

“Uh… I guess so. I mean, I played with LEGOs and other toys a lot, you can’t really expect me to remember and outline every last thing I made…”

“I’d still like you to report as much as you can. The more we know about EA, the better.”

“You want me to write a report…” Austin echoed, and made a face. “You’re gonna keep us around, then…?”

“…Ah, you mean the deal I made with you earlier.” The General leaned back in his chair and pulled his hands back to rest in his lap. “If you’ll recall, letting you go was contingent on you capturing EA.”

“Oh, c’mon!” Sky protested, “we did our best! We had him! It isn’t our fault that he could just magic himself away!”

“You aren’t wrong…” Lead sighed again. “…And under normal circumstances, I might be inclined to release you anyways. But these are far from normal circumstances.”

“Is having Chaotics really that important to you?” Twy questioned, “don’t you already have the Eximius Vir?”

“We do, but this isn’t about that. This is a matter of public safety and opinion.”

“Oh, no…” Austin muttered. His brief conversation with his father came to mind; he promptly braced himself for the worst.

“After seeing the damage wrought in your hometown, the public seems torn as to whether to blame SERRCom or EA… but there is one thing that they’re practically unanimous about: they don’t want untrained Chaotics on the streets. And frankly, I’m inclined to agree.”

“You can’t seriously be blamin’ us for what EA did,” Spike growled, “he’s the one who wrecked the neighborhood. Not us!”

“Yes, but a more competent group of Chaotics could have greatly minimized the damage. Any single member of the Eximius Vir could have defeated EA in a fraction of the time that you did.”

Sky scowled. “Bullshit. You… you’re lying.”

“No, he’s not…” Austin muttered. “…I was just talkin’ to my dad before this meeting, and he said the same thing. About public opinion turning on us, at least…”

“But, that’s… it hasn’t even been half a day!” Twy exclaimed, “that’s hardly enough time to make a decision like this!”

“When you’re in my position, with my experience… it is.” The General stood up, his hands on his desk as he looked each of Austin, Spike, Sky, and Twy in the eyes. “You will continue your training with CSF-1 and the Eximius Vir, and become officers in SERRCom.”

“No way—!”

“Or would you rather spend the time locked up in the brig?”

Austin scowled — the choice before him and his friends was hardly a choice at all, it was more like an ultimatum. It was clear that the General had no intention of letting them go free, and for that, Austin was furious. But then, his thoughts turned to EA. His impostor had caused immense stress for him, and attacked SERRCom, to boot. And then, when confronted, he was anything but remorseful. He even attempted to take Austin’s place, even if his attempt at doing so was somewhat half-baked. As Austin thought about these things, he felt his anger redirecting. EA was dangerous, but more than that, he had challenged Austin. Challenged his ability, challenged his skill, challenged his very sense of self. He insisted that he was the same as Austin, but as far as Austin could tell, they couldn’t be any more different… and for some reason, that made his blood boil. Austin needed to face EA again, even if only to remove his impostor from existence, but in order to do that…

“…Fine. I’ll do it.”

“Austin?” Twy glanced at him warily.

“The General’s right,” Austin responded, “we’re untrained Chaotics. If we want to get better, and get back at EA, well…”

“Ha!” Spike snorted. “Turn this into a revenge plot, huh?”

“You gotta admit, he did kinda destroy our homes,” Austin pointed out. “Sure, he didn’t kill our families, but he still hit us where it hurts.”

Our house is just fine,” Sky countered. “It’s only yours that got wrecked. Well, and everyone else on your street…”

“But if you’re willin’ to go along, then so am I!” Spike smashed his fists together eagerly. “If gettin’ back at EA is the name of the game, then I’ll do anything!”

“Then, me, too!” Sky quickly spun around to face the General. “Wherever Spike goes, I go!”

“…You’re sure about this, Austin?” Twy questioned, her attention focused on him.

“Well… as sure as I can be right now, at least.” Austin shrugged. “Might regret it later, but… hey, it ain’t everyday that you get superpowers.”

“…Then I suppose I’m in, too.” Twy turned back to the General and nodded resolutely.

“…I’m glad that you all have a newfound determination…” the General responded with a smirk, “…but you were going to be a part of SERRCom regardless.”

“Oh… right…” Austin deflated slightly.

“Regardless, this makes everything much easier. For now, you can set up in the short-term lodging on the station; Colonel, I want you to look into getting more permanent housing for our new enlistees.”

“Yes, sir.” Saito offered a quick salute.

“With that settled… hmm. Well, I believe that’s it for now.” The General straightened up and clasped his hands behind his back. “Welcome to SERRCom! I look forward to seeing what the four of you can achieve — and hopefully, I’ll never truly need to.” He nodded once. “Dismissed!”

The End of Chosen Few

To Be Continued in Chosen Ancestors

*     *     *

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