Chapter 9 – Hidden From the Few

— Wednesday, September 7, AD 2129 —

«…To start with, some of you may have heard that the SERRCom office in Austin, Texas was attacked a short time ago. Both this attack and the attack on the Denver office a night or so ago were committed by the robot forces of yours truly…»

A skinny, tan-skinned man idly watched the news broadcast on the lone screen in his small apartment living room. The message being delivered by the scruffy-haired man on the screen seemed important, but as far as the tan-skinned man was concerned, the message was simply blocking him from playing games. He simply slouched back even further on his couch, idly sweeping his long brunette bangs out of his face and adjusting his long ponytail to not get caught between his back and the couch cushions. Combined with his plain gray t-shirt and black shorts, he gave off an excessively casual aura — and with the complete lack of facial hair, he looked more like a high schooler playing hooky than the college student that he actually was.

«…Well, I’m here to expose SERRCom for the shabby house of cards that it is, and once they’re done, I’ll take over…»

The tan-skinned man yawned, opening his mouth wide and making no attempt to cover it or complete the yawn quietly. He then looked down at his right hand; his hand promptly disappeared, with his arm seeming to fade into nothing at the wrist. A moment later, his hand reappeared. His brow momentarily furrowed as he looked his hand over, as if inspecting it.

Knock knock knock

A banging noise drew the man’s attention to one of the room’s windows. The blinds were closed, so he couldn’t see what was making the noise — but his apartment was on the second floor, so it likely wasn’t anything important. Just as he turned his gaze back to the screen, however, another series of knocks emanated from the closed window. After a moment’s pause, the man slowly extricated himself from his chair and sauntered over to the window, at which point he raised the blinds. Outside, he saw nothing but clear blue skies, green trees and grass, and the other apartments in the complex; at almost ten in the morning on a weekday, the place was rather quiet, as most people had already left for their jobs or other daily activities. He spent several seconds simply looking at the environment before preparing to close the blinds again, but just before he did, the dirty blond-haired head of another young man suddenly popped up from below the windowsill and grinned.

“Ack!” The tan-skinned man jumped back in surprise, his entire body — and clothes, as well — disappearing into thin air. The blond-haired man outside the window replaced his grin with a confounded expression as he began scanning the interior of the apartment in confusion; a moment later, the window seemed to open on its own.

“Uh… Conrad…?” the blond-haired man questioned warily.

“Dude, Pierce, what the hell, man? What are you doing?”

“Conrad…?” Pierce stared up at the open window incredulously from his perch on a tree branch just outside. “Where’d you go?”

“Just get inside already!”

“Okay…” Pierce waited a moment as the window screen inexplicably removed itself from the window; as soon as the opening was clear, he leaped through it and landed inside the apartment with a roll. The window screen immediately replaced itself, followed by the window slamming shut, the blinds closing, and then the tan-skinned man reappearing just beside the blinds.

“Dude…” The man sighed wearily. “You really startled me, there…”

“Damn, Conrad, you were never so easy to spook before,” Pierce retorted with a smirk. “Looks like you got new powers too, though. Gotta say, they really suit you, man.”

“Yeah… I guess so,” Conrad muttered, looking down at his hand again as he momentarily turned it invisible. “Look, man, could you keep this a secret? I already told Kestrel, but…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Pierce rolled his eyes. “Shit, dude, Phoenix was already all over my ass about this, I don’t need you adding to that.”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

“You aren’t the only one who got superpowers, you know,” Pierce replied. “Me and Phoenix got powers, too! I can run super fucking fast, it’s hella cool.”

“Really? How fast?”

“Well, it took me less than an hour and a half to get to your apartment here in Berkeley from New York. That has to be Mach 3, at a minimum!”

“Shit, that’s hella fast, man.” Conrad then looked over Pierce from head to toe. “…Huh, you look fine.”

“Of course I look fine. I always look fine.” Pierce regarded Conrad with an incredulous expression. “Why? What would make you think I wouldn’t be?”

“I mean… c’mon, dude. You were supposed to be home a week ago, but then a fucking galaxy-wide disaster happened. This is literally the first I’ve heard from you since the beginning of that.”

“Oh. …Yeah, I guess I didn’t really check in after the Quake ended…”

“No kidding. Your mom has been calling me nonstop, worried her ass off about you. Did you at least call her?”

Pierce glanced away. “Ah, I just got back to Earth earlier today, man.”

“Dude, you said it yourself, you have superspeed. It would take you two seconds to go home and tell her that you’re okay, so she can stop fucking calling me so much.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. I’ll do that later. What about your powers? So you can turn invisible?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah, pretty much.” Conrad shrugged. “I can mute sounds, too. Pretty handy during boring classes.”

Pierce smirked. “For a slouch like you, those sound like the perfect powers.”

“I guess. Apparently Kestrel got powers too, though. Something about controlling air, or wind.”

“I would’ve thought a giant like her would get superstrength, or something.”

“Giant? That’s kinda rude, man.”

“Dude, she’s taller than me! That makes her over six feet tall. That’s tall for even a man, for a woman it’s hella crazy.”

“I guess… still, though…”

“Alright, alright, sheesh.” Pierce rolled his eyes.

“And what about Phoenix?” Conrad questioned, “you said she got powers, too?”

“Yeah, some weird Chaos Energy bullshit that makes her voice sound all weird. She’s gotten real self-conscious about saying the word ‘chaos’ because of it, it’s kinda funny.”

“Not wanting to get caught isn’t funny…”

“Man, again with this? You and Phoenix both need to take a fucking chill pill.” Pierce sighed. “I only came here to try and spook you, and now you’re lecturing me. C’mon, dude.”

“Alright, whatever.” Conrad simply shrugged in response. “Though, maybe we should call up Phoenix and Kestrel, you know, get all of us on the same page. If all four of us have powers, it could be useful.”

“Get on the same page? What are we, a fucking superhero group?” Pierce’s expression suddenly lit up as he held a thoughtful hand to his chin. “Actually, that’s a cool idea…”

“I somehow doubt Phoenix or Kestrel would agree…”

“Well there’s no way to know but to ask!” Pierce shoved past Conrad toward the lone computer in the room, its monitor no longer hijacked by a mysterious video. “Let’s see what they have to say about this.”

Conrad sighed in response, but made no attempt to stop Pierce. Instead, he sauntered over to his computer and watched as Pierce initiated contact with their two other friends; within moments, the audio connection was up and ringing.

The first to join the connection was Kestrel; after the computer indicated that she had joined, only silence followed.

“Hey, Kestrel,” Conrad commented casually.

«…Hey,» came the quiet response.

“Yo,” Pierce added in. “How’s it going? I heard you can control wind or some shit!”

«…Yes…»

“Way to just jump in head-fucking first,” Conrad remarked. “C’mon man, let’s at least wait for Phoenix a bit.”

«No need. I’m here. What’s going on?»

“Oh. Hey,” Pierce commented, just now noticing that Phoenix had joined the call as well. “Damn, you picked up fast!”

«I’m sitting bored at an airport, what else am I supposed to do?» Phoenix questioned; Pierce could hear a hint of irritation hidden in her voice. «Though it looks like Kestrel’s on the line? Are you there, Kestrel?»

«Yeah.»

«Oh, it’s so nice to hear your voice after so long! I really missed you, you know!»

«Yeah. Same.»

“Hey, Conrad’s here, too. You not going to say you missed him?” Pierce remarked cheekily.

Conrad simply sighed and shook his head as Phoenix responded, «it sounds like you’ve already done my job for me, seeing as you and him are talking from the same place. How the hell did you even manage that? We only just got back to Earth, what, two hours ago?»

“I ran. Duh.”

«You—! Damn it, Pierce, what did I tell you about being careful? And about keeping secret?!»

“Relax. Conrad and Kestrel got powers, too!”

«Wait. Really?!»

“Yup,” Conrad replied. “I can turn invisible. It’s pretty cool. And Kestrel can control the wind.”

«Really? Kestrel, what do you think about this?»

«…It’s okay,» Kestrel responded.

“It’s way more than just ‘okay’, if you ask me,” Pierce declared. “Can you imagine the stuff we could do?”

«I’m going to intentionally not,» Phoenix retorted, her voice low. «Not while I’m in a public fucking airport, at least. And certainly not after the recent news.»

“What recent news?”

“Oh, are you talking about that weird video?” Conrad questioned. “With that guy with the messy hair?”

«If you mean terrorist who attacked SERRCom, then yes, I do. It has everyone on edge… and that’s not it. There are rumors cropping up all over the Internet about SERRCom showing up for an arrest down in Texas shortly after the video aired.»

“Sounds like the problem’s been dealt with, then,” Pierce remarked.

“Wait, didn’t the video only just air a few minutes ago?” Conrad frowned. “How did SERRCom already find the guy?”

«Who knows. The idiot did blatantly declare his name in the video, and he clearly showed his face, too. He probably wasn’t hard to track down.»

“That’s still pretty fast…”

“Not as fast as me, though,” Pierce interjected.

«Pierce, you can’t keep this up,» Phoenix insisted. «If these rumors are true, they prove that SERRCom means business. We can’t risk attracting their attention, alright?»

“You keep saying that, but I’m sure we’ll be fine. Just don’t do anything illegal, and we won’t get arrested. Easy.”

An audible sigh could be heard over the call before Phoenix continued, «Conrad, Kestrel, what about the two of you? What do you think? Should we be trying to… avoid attention?»

“Doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me,” Conrad commented, drawing an annoyed glance from Pierce. “Though I’m not really sure why SERRCom is so scary.”

«It’s less about SERRCom itself and more that Chaotic conscription is a universal policy across the entire galaxy. Would you really want to bet your life that SERRCom will buck that trend?»

“SERRCom has nothing to do with the rest of the galaxy, you know,” Pierce interjected.

«And that’s where you’re wrong. SERRCom has been incredibly transparent in its attempts to get noticed by the rest of the galaxy, and its attempts to get Earth involved with the galactic community. Just what the hell do you think was the point of us going to Ainminthalus?»

“…I’ll concede that point.”

“When you put it like that, I guess it does sound pretty bad,” Conrad said.

«Exactly. What about you, Kestrel? What do you think?»

«…Should be cautious,» replied Kestrel.

Pierce snorted. “Figures you guys would all out-vote me.”

«If you actually took a second to set aside your ego and think about this, you’d see that we have a point,» Phoenix countered.

“What the hell does my ego have to do with this?”

«Don’t try to pretend you never said those things you said, back on the roof in Alus.»

“Oh please, that was a joke.”

«Knowing you, it was only half a joke. But that’s not the only reason I’m concerned about you.»

“I don’t need your concern.”

«That attitude is exactly why you do need it. Look, of all of our new… abilities, yours is the one most likely to accidentally trigger. Especially since you’re on a track team!»

“Is that what this is about? C’mon. I can keep track of my speed.”

«You say that, but I know how you get when you get competitive.»

“As if you don’t get exactly the same way.”

«This is what I’m talking about—»

“Alright, alright…” Conrad interjected, placing a hand on Pierce’s shoulder. “Didn’t you guys just get back to Earth? Let’s put the arguments on hold for at least a little bit.”

«Agreed,» commented Kestrel.

«…You’re right. Sorry about that.»

“I guess that’s just how things go, huh?” Pierce commented with a smirk.

«I do think we should discuss our options further, though. Maybe we should all meet up in person.»

“What?” Pierce stared at the monitor in front of him incredulously, though Phoenix had no means of actually seeing his expression. “Where? And when? The two of you are clear across the country from us, you know that?”

«Maybe… but I also just want to see you guys, and visit home. I haven’t had a chance to see my parents since before we left for Ainminthalus.»

“Oh. Right,” Pierce responded curtly, ignoring a side glance from Conrad.

Conrad then turned toward the monitor. “I should be able to get you and Kestrel back here,” he said, “assuming you’re both fine with that, of course.”

«When?» Kestrel questioned.

“Hmm… good question. Probably not until next month. Any sooner, and you’d have to find your own way back.”

«You know we can’t afford that,» Phoenix countered. «I guess we’ll wait, then. Try not to get into trouble before then, alright, Pierce?»

“Sure thing, mom,” Pierce retorted.

“It’s nice to see that even a galactic disaster won’t change how much you guys bicker,” Conrad remarked.

«Oh! Right!» Phoenix exclaimed, «we haven’t even had the chance to tell you about our time off-world, have we?»

“I mean, we did keep in contact over the Relaynet for most of the past few months. It’s just the last couple weeks that I don’t know about.”

Pierce snorted. “And what a few weeks those were.”

«I still have some time before my flight leaves,» Phoenix commented.

“If it’s an interesting story, I’ve got time,” Conrad replied airily. “My only classes today are in the afternoon.”

«And you, Kestrel?»

«Mmhmm. Tell us.»

«Alright! Well, then. Pierce, should you or I do the telling?»

“Man, there was a lot of shit that happened,” Pierce remarked with a sigh. “You start, if you get something wrong I’ll just correct you.”

«I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opportunities to do that.»

“Depends on how shitty your memory is.”

«Just keep your interruptions to a minimum. Anyways, when was the last time I messaged you on the Relaynet, Kestrel?»

«…Two weeks ago.»

«Really? Ah, right, we were talking about our upcoming exam. Well a lot happened after that, as you may have guessed. See, on the day after we last talked, Pierce and I…»

The four friends continued to while away the time as Phoenix and Pierce recounted their final weeks away from Earth, pleased to finally have someone with which to share all of their new powers, discoveries, and activities.

Chapter 10 – Homecoming

“Ah, what a night…”

Perched on the edge of a tall apartment building roof, Pierce looked down contentedly at the city bathed in nighttime darkness below and mused over his day. The call with Phoenix and Kestrel lasted for about half an hour as Pierce and Phoenix switched between recounting the previous week and bantering, with Conrad occasionally butting in to restore the peace or comment on the events that occurred on Ainminthalus. Eventually, Phoenix had to leave to board her flight, at which point Kestrel left the call as well, leaving Pierce and Conrad to hang out on their own — which they proceeded to do for the entire afternoon, despite Conrad’s scheduled classes. Pierce knew that hanging out with Conrad usually meant sitting on a couch and playing video games, and today had been no different; Pierce was content with the arrangement, in part due to the fact that trying to get Conrad to do more than play games or take lethargic walks was like pulling teeth, but he was prone to grow restless after more than a couple hours of sitting around. When Conrad kicked him out around sunset, Pierce gladly took the opportunity to stretch his legs… and also try out his superspeed.

Taking advantage of the low light of twilight and dusk, Pierce decided to test some of the limits of his powers. He knew well what he was capable of in dire situations, thanks to dealing with the skyfall on Ainminthalus — but now, he wanted to see what he could do with a more subdued usage of his speed. Before long, he found himself crossing the city by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, the raw power afforded to his legs by his superspeed also allowing for a variety of jumping and leaping-based movement options. In fact, when crossing relatively short distances, he found it far easier to simply leap the distance instead of trying to run it — as his speed produced awkwardly large strides that made it difficult to actually run at high speeds for short distances. Not that it mattered; even his leaps were easily supersonic.

After one such leap, Pierce found himself perched atop one of the many apartment buildings that dotted the city of Oakland. For just a moment, he ceased testing his superspeed and stopped to watch the lamp-lit streets from on high, and the variety of car and pedestrian traffic that passed by a mere six floors below him — none of whom seemed to even consider looking skyward as they went about their evening business. I’d heard that people don’t usually look up, but… damn. I don’t think a single person has seen me.

At the thought of ‘looking up’, Pierce glanced skyward himself, just in time to spot the lights of a passing aircraft. He eyed it for a moment before tracing its expected path through the air to the south, in the direction of the Oakland airport. The airport wasn’t an exceptionally large facility, though Pierce had heard that it was once an international airport. Rising sea levels, combined with a hard-hitting earthquake forty years ago, had almost completely destroyed the original airport — just as it had destroyed much of the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area. He passed an idle glance out to the west, at the San Francisco peninsula; though the skies were dark, he could still see the hills across the bay, and the waters that ran right up to them. From what he was told, large swaths of the peninsula had been permanently flooded or otherwise destroyed during the disastrous year of 2088; he found it hard to believe that there were once major thoroughfares east of highway 280, and yet both of his parents insisted it was true.

As he was looking out west, he noticed another set of distant lights, these ones arranged in a flat horizontal line over the mouth of the bay. The lights belonged to a massive, under-construction dam, officially known as the “San Francisco Bay Area Reclamation Project”, or simply “BARP”, as the locals called it. The project was an attempt to drain the bay back to its early twenty-first century water levels, which would allow thousands of acres of land to be reclaimed. Additionally, the dam was supposed to supply hydrodynamic power to the entire Bay Area, even post-land reclamation. Pierce himself felt ambivalent about the project; its proponents claimed that it would allow the bay to claw its way back into financial and cultural relevancy, but as far as Pierce was concerned, it was already far too late for that. All of the good jobs had long since fled to other parts of the country, and it seemed silly to try to bring them back with a massive dam that could end up just harming the environment instead.

However, what interested Pierce the most about the BARP — damn, I fucking hate that name — was the fact that the project was setup, funded, and run by none other than SERRCom. He hadn’t the slightest idea why SERRCom would bother wasting time and resources to help out a city in a country that barely liked them, and yet, here they were, doing just that. What do they hope to gain out of this? They’re a fucking interstellar military, it doesn’t make any sense for them to put a bunch of money into building a dam. Hmm…

After a glance downward at the streets below, Pierce shook his head to clear his thoughts. Pondering SERRCom’s motivations could wait for another day; for now, he decided that it was finally time for him to return to the one place he had yet to visit since leaving for Ainminthalus three months ago: home. He had technically dropped by briefly earlier in the day to stash his suitcase, but at the time, no one was present or awake to greet him. Now that sunset was long past, he was certain that someone was home.

“Though if I’m lucky, not everyone will be…” he muttered to himself. His gaze drifted to an apartment building barely two blocks away from the one he was standing on — his family’s apartment was on the third floor, of five. With a sigh, he prepared to jump down from the top of the six-story building he currently stood on top of, but just before he did, something caught his eye a little bit to the east. He narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see what was going on… and then snorted in irritation. It looked like a handful of people had gotten into a fight just off of the street; judging by their sizes, they couldn’t have been any older than high schoolers. Fucking idiots. I guess I’ll have to step in and save the day, huh? What’s even going on? It looks like… shit, a two-on-one? Wait, is that—?!

An annoyed scowl found its way onto Pierce’s face as he jumped down to the ground, landing quietly on his feet. He then jogged toward the fight, quickly taking account of everyone present. Off to the side was a small young girl, cowering away from the fight; the fight itself consisted of two lanky boys, neither of them appearing all that athletic as they tried to fend off a young girl with short dirty blond hair. All four of them appeared to be around 16 years old, but only one of them was recognizable to Pierce. “Damn it, Riley…” he muttered under his breath, and then raised his voice into an angry shout. “Hey! HEY!”

The two boys glanced his way, but just as they did, the blond girl decked one of them across the face and sent him sprawling into the street. The second boy turned toward the girl in fury and prepared to hit back, but Pierce quickly inserted himself between the two, his hands out. “Cut it out!” he demanded, as he glanced between the girl and the boy. “Seriously, guys? The hell is this?”

“They started it!” the girl snapped.

“You threw the first punch, bitch!” the boy shot back, as the one who had been hit in the face scrambled to his feet and began fronting on Pierce.

“And who the fuck are you, huh?” the boy spat, in what was clearly an attempt to be intimidating — but Pierce couldn’t help but chuckle. Both boys were nearly a match for him in height, but between their skinny builds and wholly unimpressive teenaged voices, Pierce found it impossible to take them seriously.

And now I have superpowers, too, he mused, …though I guess using them here would be a bad idea. Not to mention overkill.

“What do you got to say, huh?!”

“Damn, you two are annoying,” Pierce countered airily. “Look, if you run now, I won’t have to kick your asses, alright?”

The two boys glared at him, with one of them seeming to get ready to throw a punch, but then Pierce noticed their attention shift slightly to his right — where, out the corner of his eye, he could see the blond girl standing next to him with her arms crossed.

“We… we’ll be back, you bitch!” One of the boys spat at the girl as they both turned around and ran off.

“Yeah, you’ll pay for this!” the other shouted over his shoulder.

Pierce simply pursed his lips and shook his head as he watched the two disappear around a building corner. He then glanced down at the girl beside him, and then at the other girl who hadn’t been involved in the fight. Now that he was closer to her, he could see that her eyes were red, and her cheeks were slightly damp.

“So you really are still alive, huh?”

Pierce returned his attention to the girl beside him, who stared up at him with an unamused expression. At this close distance, it was easy for him to see that she was bruised all over. “And I see you’ve still got attitude,” he replied. “Seriously, Riley, what the hell happened here?”

The girl, Riley, snorted in response before turning around and approaching the other girl. “Are you okay?” she questioned softly as she gently placed her hand on her shoulder.

“…Y-yeah… for now,” the other girl responded quietly in between sniffles. “…Thanks, Riley… but…” Pierce noticed the girl’s gaze fall on him as she shied away. “…Who…?”

“Oh, don’t mind him,” Riley responded; her back was to Pierce, but he could tell just from the tone of her voice alone that she was rolling her eyes. “That’s just my good-for-nothing brother.”

“And who was it who stopped the fight just now?” Pierce interjected incredulously.

“Listen,” Riley continued, ignoring Pierce as she addressed the other girl, “if those dumbasses bother you again, come straight to me, okay? I’ll make sure they regret it!”

“Ah… okay…” The girl nodded.

“Do you need me to walk you home? You don’t live far from here, right?”

“Just next door…” The girl took a deep breath before nodding again. “I’ll, I’ll be fine. Thanks, Riley.”

“Yeah, no problem,” Riley responded as the girl turned around and approached the apartment building just next door. Riley and Pierce both watched until the girl entered the building, at which point Pierce stepped up alongside his sister.

“Still trying to play the schoolyard hero, huh?” he quipped.

Someone has to,” she retorted.

“Sure, but you still need to be careful. You didn’t honestly expect to win a two-on-one fight, did you?”

“Oh c’mon, like you can lecture me about fighting. You literally run away as a sport!”

“Track isn’t about running away, dumbass.”

“Sure it isn’t.”

“What are you even doing out, right now?” Pierce questioned as he looked around at the lamp-lit street. “Isn’t it kinda late to be out? Especially on a school night.”

“Yeah, like you were always home at 9 when you were in high school,” Riley shot back.

“What about Mom and Dad? Do they know you’re out?”

“Mom’s asleep and Dad’s at work, just like always. Don’t tell me you already forgot.”

“Don’t snap at me. I was just hoping things had gotten better since I moved out.”

“Oh yeah? Well maybe you should call home more often, if you’re that concerned.”

“…Fair point.” Pierce looked up at the apartment building that the other girl had disappeared into before turning around. “We probably should head home now, though.”

Riley passed him an incredulous glance. “Wow, I can’t believe you just suggested that. I guess it really is the end of the world.”

“Oh shut the hell up.” Pierce then passed her a questioning look as they began walking down the block toward their apartment building. “Wait, end of the world? I thought nothing happened here last week.”

“Not here, no. But there’s all kinds of news on the Relaynet about shit that happened in the galaxy last week.”

“What? Since when did you care about the rest of the galaxy?”

“…That’s none of your business,” Riley retorted, though Pierce couldn’t help but notice that she looked away as she did so.

“Aw, you were worried about your big brother, weren’t you?” he pressed, with a giant, self-satisfied smirk plastered across his face.

“…I just wanted to see if I could finally get rid of all the shit you left behind, is all,” Riley muttered, and then turned to give Pierce an accusatory glare. “Mom’s been really worried about you, though. Like, really worried.”

“Worried like she always gets when I was late getting home after a track meet? Or worried like she was when I broke my leg?”

“Worried like that time a serial killer was on the news and we both just happened to be late getting home from school.”

“Oh…” Pierce grimaced. “Well, shit.”

“Yeah.” Riley shook her head and returned her attention forward. “Now that you’re here, you should really talk to her.”

“Uh huh. Or, I can just pack my shit, crash at Conrad’s place, and then call her later, when she can’t sob all over me.”

“And leave me to keep dealing with that? Hell no! If you aren’t going to talk to her now then I’ll go tell her that you’re home myself.”

“…Don’t you have homework to do, or something?”

“I already did it, since I’m a responsible person. Unlike a certain someone I know.”

“Whatever you say,” Pierce retorted as they stepped into the small, run-down lobby of their apartment building. He glanced around briefly to take in the dim lighting, the deflated couch, the cracked floor tiles, and the walls that smelled of cigarette smoke.

“I bet your dorm doesn’t look like this, huh?”

Pierce glanced down at his sister, who returned the glance with a blank expression. He then sighed and shook his head as he approached the stairs. “It smells, uh… stronger, than when I was last here.”

“Probably just ‘cause you don’t live with it everyday,” Riley replied. “Lucky you.”

Pierce simply grunted in response. A mere few moments later, he found himself standing in front of the door to their apartment. The short hallway they currently stood in was just as dimly lit as the lobby, and smelled just as much of smoke.

“Mom, we’re home!”

His attention snapped to the now-open doorway as Riley strode into the apartment and announced their presence. With a sigh, he stepped in after her and closed the door before stopping for a moment to look over the apartment. It wasn’t large — in fact it had nearly the same layout as the apartment he shared with Phoenix on Ainminthalus, with a living room, a small kitchen and dining area, and only two bedrooms. That was where the similarities ended, however, as the apartment Pierce now stood in felt exceedingly crowded. A large, old couch filled the tiny living room, with what space was left being filled by a tiny desk topped by a computer and a monitor. Beside the desk was an empty dog kennel, and strewn across the floor were dirty clothes and books of all kinds. Pierce didn’t need to look into his parents’ bedroom to know that it looked much the same; the bedroom that he had once shared with Riley had been their only respite from the mess while he still lived there, and with most of his stuff now packed in storage, he was certain that his sister’s bedroom was picture-perfect.

As Riley disappeared into her bedroom, a quick bark brought Pierce’s attention to the closed door to his parents’ bedroom, followed by the sound of paws scraping against the door and muffled whining. He could hear a groggy female voice as well, but couldn’t quite tell what was being said. Sounds like Mom’s awake, then—

His thought was cut short as the door opened and a beagle bounded out of the room and leaped over the floor debris before stopping at Pierce’s feet. It stared up at him and barked once.

“Aw, hey there, Cooper.” Pierce knelt down to scratch the dog’s head, only to recoil as it began trying to lick his face. “Whoa, hold it, buddy! Not the face, not the face!”

“Cooper, settle down! Where did you—?”

As Pierce continued playing with the dog, he glanced toward the entrance to his parents’ bedroom, where an older woman now stood. Her posture was slightly slouched over and her short blond hair was unkempt, as though she had just climbed out of bed. The clothes she wore supported that conclusion, as loose, dark-colored pajamas covered her short and mildly overweight body.

She stared at Pierce for a second, her eyes slowly growing wide. “…Pierce?”

“Hey, Mom,” he replied with a smirk. “How’s it—?”

“Oh, Pierce! You’re home!!” His mother rushed up and virtually collapsed into a hug around him, barely giving Cooper time to jump out of the way. “You’re— you’re alive!!”

“Uh… yeah, Mom, I’m fine,” he responded uneasily. He awkwardly pat his mother’s back as she continued to hold him. “You didn’t think I was dead, did you?”

“I… I had no way of knowing!” She pulled away to look at his face, at which point Pierce noticed that her eyes were welling with tears. “I just, I heard that a new Chaos Quake had happened, and then— and then we couldn’t contact you, for a whole week, and then, when it ended— there was news of, of falling debris on the planet where you were staying! And, when we didn’t hear from you, I, I thought…!”

Pierce’s expression hardened for a second, his thoughts turning momentarily to the past week’s events. A dull throbbing sensation passed through his torso, but he quickly forced the feeling out of his mind. “It’s… it’s okay, Mom. As you can see, I’m as good as ever,” he eventually replied, doing his best to muster up a confident smile while also extricating himself from his mother’s grasp. “So, you know, you don’t need to cry over me, okay? I’m fine!”

“I know!” His mom pulled him into another hug, her face practically buried in his shoulder. “I’m just, I’m so happy, I could cry!”

“That’s… you really don’t need to, though. Don’t cry, okay? Don’t— don’t cry on me, please—” Pierce looked down as his mother began sobbing into his shoulder. “…Well. Okay then.” He simply sat there awkwardly, and then looked over at Cooper as the dog dropped a tennis ball by his side and looked up at him expectantly. With a sigh, Pierce grabbed the ball and tossed it across the living room, watching Cooper leap over the couch to chase it as his mother continued hugging him. I guess there really is no place like home…

Chapter 11 – Hidden Bravado

6 Days Later

— Tuesday, September 13, AD 2129 —

 

“Alright, just a couple more blocks and we can stop for a break! Keep it up, guys!”

Pierce offered naught but a glance at the runners keeping pace behind him as he jogged through the streets of Oakland under a clear morning sky. He carefully paced his breath and his stride, steadily putting foot before foot while doing his best to ignore the already rising temperatures. The time was not yet past 8 in the morning, but September was one of the warmest months of the year in the Bay Area, and Pierce wasn’t a fan. Though I guess it can get even warmer than this down in Pasadena, he thought idly. Good thing classes don’t start for another few weeks. Should be decently cool by then.

He momentarily glanced behind himself, where three other runners followed closely. All three were students at the California Institute of Technology, just as he was, and were even on the track and field team as well. There was Raj, the dark-haired and straitlaced upcoming senior; Nikki, the short and tenacious upcoming junior; and Kieran, the tall, lanky, and eager upcoming sophomore. They all lived at different locations along the east bay, but occasionally would meet up during breaks in the school year for morning or evening runs. The whole thing had started last year, initially at Raj’s behest — “it’s easier to train when you have others doing it with you”, he had said — though before long, Pierce had essentially taken charge of the group runs, thanks in no small part to his superior speed and endurance.

Speed and endurance that have probably atrophied, Pierce thought in irritation. During the business of his three-month stay on Ainminthalus, his typical training regimen had slipped up. Even having Phoenix and Trenon around, both of whom were runners themselves, didn’t help him to keep his regimen — the touristy allure of an alien planet, combined with the surprisingly frequent long days in space aboard Brikén’s spacecraft, were simply too much of a blow to his former habits. Now that he was back on Earth, though, he was adamant to reform them and get into proper shape for the next year’s track season. He had records to beat, after all.

A small smirk crossed his face as it occurred to him that his newfound superspeed would make it utterly trivial to defeat any already existing track record; he simply had to be careful with how he presented his speed in order to not draw suspicion. This thought, however, combined with a dull throbbing in his torso, led to his expression darkening. It had now been over two weeks since the death of the Trenon, and Pierce still wasn’t sure what to think. Every time the Nimalian Velocitechnic came to mind, Pierce tried his best to push the thoughts down and move forward — there was no use in crying over the past, after all, as it was impossible to change. Yet even so, Pierce couldn’t help but notice a small, nagging thought in the back of his mind; an echo of what the NSD soldier had said to him the day after the accident:

 

“If not for you, Rakos would still be alive! If he hadn’t been forced to protect you, then he would’ve been at 100% for the final strike. There’s no way he would have died otherwise!”

 

In the moment of the accusation, it had been Pierce’s gut reaction to refute the claim. Trenon’s death could clearly be attributed to a berserk Chaotic, after all — if not for the berserker, the entire situation simply would not have happened. But upon gaining his own superspeed, his mind would sometimes drift back to that fateful night, and upon doing so… Pierce could only conclude that Trenon jumping in front of Pierce to save his life had caused him injury, injuries that certainly contributed to his death. If only Pierce had developed his superspeed powers one day sooner, or if he had been quicker to act on Brikén’s advice to take off his belt, then maybe…

The dull throbbing increased into a sharp pain, causing Pierce to wince and clutch at his torso. He quickly took a deep breath to calm himself, managing to not break his running stride as he attempted to suppress the pain; a moment later, it subsided. With an annoyed scowl, he shook off his previous thoughts — the past was the past, after all. It couldn’t be changed, so there was no use dwelling on it. Pierce had only two things to take away from the event: he needed to be alert enough to never put someone else in Trenon’s place again, and if he ever found himself in Trenon’s place, then he needed to be even faster to resolve the situation with no casualties. Ultimately, both desires boiled down to a need to practice and improve his powers, which he figured he could do in similar ways to regular running training — hence his desire to get back into his old regimen.

“Pierce… slow down, man…!”

“Huh?” Pierce glanced behind himself again, only to find the three runners beginning to lag. Kieran and Nikki both looked particularly ragged, though even Raj — who had an additional year of experience over Pierce and Nikki — seemed to have some difficulty keeping up. “…Heh.” A smirk spread across Pierce’s face. “I thought I had been slipping up, but, man, you guys really let it go over the summer, huh?”

“Let it go… my ass…” Nikki shot back between tired breaths. “More like… you became… fucking inhuman…!”

Pierce opened his mouth to retort, but stopped himself when he realized that she wasn’t entirely incorrect. …Well, shit. I guess I need to keep more of an eye on my speed…

“How about a… a break?” Raj suggested, though he nevertheless managed to maintain his pace behind Pierce.

“Yeah… right. Sorry, guys,” Pierce apologized as he adjusted course, taking the group down a side street and to a small park. “Didn’t mean to be so hard on you from the start.”

“Well isn’t that… an odd sound,” Nikki replied between breaths as she slowed to a stop near a park bench. “An apology!… From Pierce!… What a day!”

“You should be catching your breath, not wasting it to insult me,” Pierce shot back. “This is a break, not the end of our run.”

“Not even out of… out of breath,” Kieran remarked, leaning over with his hands on his knees. “That’s… that’s the star of the team, for ya!”

“Oh please, like Pierce needs the ego boost,” Nikki drawled.

“Why thank you, Kieran,” Pierce commented as he passed Nikki a smug glance. “I’m glad that someone on this team recognizes my ability.”

“You really shouldn’t let it get to your head, though,” Raj declared. “You can never get complacent. If you do, you’ll just end up falling behind.”

“Ha! Like I could get complacent! I’ve got a whole career to make out of this!”

“A career? From running?” Nikki snorted. “You went to the wrong school for that, bud.”

“Hey, I know what I’m doing. The degree’s for the money. And with that money, I can fund a whole running career!”

“Good luck doing that from behind a desk at a typical engineering job.”

“Not all engineers are losers, you know. I’ll make it work. You just watch!”

“I’d really rather not.”

“Alright, alright…” Raj stepped between Pierce and Nikki with his hands out. “Let’s try not to tear each other apart before the school year has even started.”

“This is lookin’ to be a weird year, though,” Kieran commented, now having caught his breath enough to return to an upright posture. “A lot of weird stuff has happened over the past few weeks.”

“Don’t remind me,” Nikki muttered. “All this nonsense with SERRCom and this Austin guy is… ridiculous. What a farce.”

“It didn’t seem like much of a farce to me,” Raj responded, his expression grim. “That video that came out last night… I’m not sure what to make of it.”

“Wait, hold up, what?” Pierce glanced between the three in confusion. “Who’s Austin? And what video are you talking about?”

Raj regarded Pierce with surprise. “You don’t know? These videos have been hijacking devices across the whole planet. It’s been all over the news!”

“I don’t get much in the way of news at home…”

Nikki snorted. “You’d have to be living under a rock to’ve not heard about any of this.”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “Just tell me what’s going on already.”

“It’ll be easiest to show you,” Kieran remarked as he grasped his watch, touched a few buttons, and then held it up. A moment later, the watch projected a hologram of a screen into thin air, just in front of the four runners. On the screen appeared to be a static-ridden video feed from a security camera, staring down an empty hallway. “This is from last night,” he stated, and then let the video play. What followed was a brief video of a man and a woman — both around Pierce’s age, as far as he could tell — as they rushed down the hallway. They ran up to the doors at the end of the hallway, opened them, and then retreated back into the hallway; a second later, a large bipedal robot charged through the doors. The man promptly jumped in front of the woman in an attempt to shield her — and then, with little warning, the man’s left arm exploded off at the shoulder in a fantastic display of light and blood.

Pierce flinched away from the video before passing Kieran a disgusted look. “What the hell, dude?”

“Just keep watching,” Kieran insisted, jerking his head toward the holographic display as the video stopped and the man appeared again, this time facing the camera directly.

«Unbelievable…» The man shook his head, his dark, unkempt hair flopping around as he did so. «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—»

“Alright, I think he gets the picture,” Nikki interjected, reaching over to tap Kieran’s watch and pause the video. “We don’t need to watch the whole damn thing.”

“Who the hell is this guy?” Pierce questioned incredulously, “what’s even going on here?”

“…Are you really that out of the loop?”

“Shut up. Just answer the question.”

“The short of it is that this guy launched a bunch of robot attacks on SERRCom bases,” Raj explained. “Then, independently of that, it seems… SERRCom found some, er, ‘Chaotics’, I think they’re called, here on Earth, and arrested them. Now this guy claims that he’s fighting to free those Chaotics, and that SERRCom is bad for Earth.”

“SERRCom arrested Chaotics…?” Pierce echoed warily. Shit. Is this what Phoenix was talking about last week? I guess she was right about SERRCom after all

“That’s what the guy says.” Nikki snorted in derision. “Personally, I think this is all just a stupid hoax. You’re telling me that Earth is suddenly host to superhumans and robot attacks? Get the fuck outta here.”

“I mean, we already had the Eximius Vir,” Kieran pointed out. “They’re basically superheroes, right? That was the whole point of their reveal a few years ago, that we actually can be Chaotics!”

“I’m not sure I buy that, either. Those guys could just be aliens, for all we know. We ‘Earthians’ don’t have superpowers, we never have. Why the hell would we suddenly get them now? Sounds just a little too convenient to me.”

I wonder what she’d say if I told her I’m a Chaotic now, Pierce mused.

“I don’t think that the entire situation is ‘bullshit’,” Raj countered. “If you look at the SERRCom statements after each Austin video, you’ll see that they don’t actually deny everything. So if we assume that SERRCom is telling the truth, then these videos are at least partly true. And if that’s true… then things don’t look great for SERRCom. The Chaotic arrest alone is damning, especially since it’s a gross overreach of their power. SERRCom doesn’t have the authority to make arrests on Earth, not without going through the sovereign governments.”

“That’s actually the part I have the least issue with,” Nikki replied. “‘Chaotics’ are basically walking weapons. Keep ‘em off the street, I say.”

“What? How can you say that after seeing what the Eximius Vir have done?” Kieran questioned, “they’ve helped out a lot. Disaster relief, stopping high-profile crime and conflict… you remember the news a year ago, about how they single-handedly diffused the brewing war between India and China?”

“Diffused? Ha! More like stuffed under a blanket. Besides, that’s SERRCom soft power, not the Eximius Vir.”

“Hmm, now that I think about it…” Raj turned toward Pierce. “You went to a different planet this summer, didn’t you? Did you meet any Chaotics there?”

“Uh…” Pierce diverted his gaze uneasily as his torso wound throbbed once more.

 

“If… if you ever see Liask… tell her… tell her that I… …that I…”

 

“…Pierce?”

“Huh?” He snapped his attention to Nikki, who was giving him an odd look. “…Uh, right. Yeah. I met a Chaotic. …He was a pretty cool guy.”

“High praise, coming from you,” Nikki remarked.

“Yeah, well… he deserves it.”

“The way you’re talking…” Raj frowned. “Did something happen to him?”

Pierce passed Raj a wary glance before looking away and shaking his head. He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly as he began to stretch, declaring, “alright, guys, I think that’s enough chatter for now. Time to hit the streets again—”

“Holy shit, look at this!”

Pierce looked over at Kieran, who had brought up an image on his watch’s holographic display. On the image was a city skyline — Pierce guessed that it was New York — and hovering just above the skyline was a large spacecraft, with an angular construction and a paint scheme dominated by blue and gray.

“…What are we looking at?” Nikki questioned.

“It’s an unidentified Cruiser over New York City!” Kieran exclaimed, “it just appeared a few minutes ago!”

“What the…?” Raj’s brow furrowed. “Could this… could this be Austin’s doing?”

“No way, it has to be something else,” Nikki countered. “I mean, for fuck’s sake, attacking New York? How much more cliched can you get? This can’t be real!”

“All of the news reports disagree with you,” Kieran replied. “We just got an official message, too. This is that Austin guy.”

“What? No fucking way! I call bullshit!”

An attack on New York? Pierce stared at the image contemplatively. Huh… I could be there in under two hours…

“Dude, Pierce, are you okay?”

“Huh?” He snapped his attention to Kieran and Nikki, who were both now staring at him. “…What?”

“You’ve been spacing out a lot, today,” Raj commented. “…We can call it a day, if you want.”

“Oh. No, I’m fine.” Pierce shook his head, and then adopted a self-assured smirk. “I was just thinking about how easily I could kick that idiot’s ass in a fight, that’s all.”

“Tch. Leave it to you to boast about things you can’t do,” Nikki retorted.

“Well if any of us could do it, I bet it would be Pierce,” Kieran said.

Nikki passed him an incredulous glance. “Dude, you really need to get off his dick already.”

“What?! That’s not—!”

“Alright, come on, guys,” Raj interrupted, and gestured toward the street. “We can talk about this after we’ve finished our run.”

“You want to keep running in the middle of a terrorist attack?!” Kieran exclaimed.

“There’s not really much else for us to do. We’re all the way across the country, anyways. Now let’s get back to running.”

“Actually, guys…” Pierce interjected, “I, uh… just remembered that there’s something I need to take care of back home. You guys finish the route, I’ll meet back up with you later.”

“Well that’s some suspiciously convenient timing,” Nikki remarked.

“Yeah, you aren’t… you aren’t seriously going to try and fight this guy, are you?” Kieran questioned incredulously.

Pierce snorted. “Oh, please. It would take me hours to get to New York. SERRCom would’ve chased him off before then.”

“I hope so…”

“But really… keep with the running. I’ve gotta go. See ya!” Pierce then began jogging back the way they came, leaving the other three runners to leave in the opposite direction. He kept jogging for around a block before ducking into an alleyway and peeking around the corner; once he was able to confirm that the other three were out of sight, he crouched down and then leaped up to the top of the building he was next to. Once on the roof, he took a moment to figure out what direction was east, and then launched himself through the air. Alright! He smirked to himself as wind blasted past his face. New York, here I come!

Chapter 12 – Hidden Chaos

1.5 Hours Later

Damn, that’s a big ship…

Pierce perched atop a building roof along the outskirts of New York City, his gaze directed upward. Hanging in the sky like a metal cloud over New York’s tallest building was a massive spacecraft — the same as the one he had seen in the photos earlier that morning. Even in the photos, it had looked rather large, but now that Pierce could see the craft in person and hovering directly over the city, it appeared even larger still. Must be half a kilometer long, at least. Damn… well, let’s get closer and see what I can do.

He momentarily tugged at the dark balaclava he was now wearing, having swiped it from a department store during his run to New York; he didn’t want anyone to identify him, after all. Once he was sure that the balaclava had stayed on straight during his journey, he launched himself through the air, covering several hundred meters in that single leap before touching down atop a building and launching himself forward again. It didn’t take long for him to reach the roof of a building adjacent to the One World Trade Center, at which point he paused for a moment to look down at the streets below. Despite being almost noon, the streets immediately around him were completely empty, with police and military barricades blocking the roads in every direction. Even from dozens of stories in the air, Pierce could spot the crowds gathering behind the barricades, filled with people staring up at the hostile spacecraft in awe.

He smirked to himself. A massive crowd. Just perfect for my heroic debut! He then turned his attention back up to the Cruiser, and the top of the skyscraper over which it hovered. Time to bring down a spacecraft! Looks like I’ll be putting that mentorship knowledge to use sooner than I thought!

Pierce narrowed his eyes as he stared up at the Cruiser in an attempt to locate any potential hand-holds or loading bays that he could use to board the craft. It didn’t take long for him to spot a potential boarding location on the underbelly of the craft, where there appeared to be a closed loading ramp. After taking a brief moment to adjust his stance, Pierce leaped vertically, easily clearing the distance between his position on the lower building and the Cruiser itself. As he approached the loading ramp, he reached out with his hands to grab some of the railings that lined its underside, and then firmly held tight, leaving himself to hang as though from monkey bars.

Alright, how big is this ramp He carefully inspected the craft’s underside, tracing the lines in the bulkheads with his eyes to figure out where the end of the ramp actually was. Upon doing so, he determined that the ramp wasn’t too large — likely only big enough to support a tank, by his estimation. If the locks on this ramp are anything like the locks on the ramp that Brikén’s ship had, then there should be a bunch of metal inserts along each side of the ramp. If I can destroy those, then it’ll fall open, and I can board. Easy.

The sounds of shouting reached his ears, muffled by wind and distance. His interest piqued, he glanced downward, at the top of the One World Trade Center. There, he caught sight of five individuals, though it was difficult to make out many defining features from how high he was. One thing that did stick out to him, however, was the presence of the man he had seen in the recording Kieran showed him earlier that morning — his dark, wild, unkempt hair was simply that recognizable. But as Pierce looked closer, he realized that there actually seemed to be two versions of the same man, standing opposite each other. What the hell? …Don’t tell me this is supposed to be a new hairstyle fad or something. It looks like he just got out of bed! What a stupid style—

His thoughts were cut short as a robot flew in from no where and knocked one of the five individuals off the top of the building. Pierce’s eyes grew wide and he immediately prepared to kick off of the ship in an effort to catch the man, but just before he did, he noticed a plume of fire and a pillar of water emerge from two of the other people on the roof, as though they were attacking one of the two men with unkempt hair. Oh. These guys are those Chaotics that SERRCom arrested, huh? They should be able to take care of that guy on their own, then. I’ll just focus on this ship—

Pierce paused with confusion as he witnessed one of the men with unkempt hair summon a scythe out of thin air and then plunge its blade into the torso of the other man, only for the second man to disappear in a mist of blue particles. Barely a moment after that, the man with the scythe disappeared in a flash of white light. What the hell was that? Where’d they go? …Shit, time to board!

He immediately swung his right foot upward with incredible force, slamming it into the metal underside of the Cruiser and producing a massive dent. …Damn, I barely even felt that. I mean, I suspected that I had some kind of increased durability, since my innards don’t immediately liquefy each time I go from 0 to Mach 2 in under a second, but still. Damn, this is hella useful! With a gleeful grin, he swung his torso back in preparation to kick the underside of the ship again, but just before he could launch the kick, an intense rumbling reverberated along the hull of the spacecraft. A loud electrical hum filled the air as the Cruiser began moving through the New York skies, and then — barely a second later — the entire hull of the Cruiser faded away, almost as though the ship had disappeared entirely. Pierce stared up at it in confusion; his hands were still clearly grabbing on to something, so it was clear that the Cruiser was still physically present. It was now simply invisible. Well that’s… weird. But if it’s still there, I can still break in — and if I can kick as hard as that last dent, then I don’t even need to break the locks. I can just bust a hole through the bulkhead itself! Alright! He swung his legs back again, and then launched his right foot into a high-speed kick aimed at where he thought was the dent he had created earlier. Just as he expected his foot to connect, however, a flash of white light momentarily filled his vision — and once it disappeared, he found that his surrounding environment had changed entirely. No longer could he see the midday skies, or the New York skyline, or the streets below; now he found himself inside of a dimly lit room, with metal flooring and walls. In fact, it looked a lot like a loading bay.

Pierce’s inspection of his surroundings momentarily stopped as he crashed to the floor just beneath him. Ow… fuck! Damn. Whatever the hell that was, I guess I ended up in the air in the same horizontal position I was in while mid-kick… well that’s annoying. Now… where the hell am I?

“Who the hell are you?”

Pierce looked up from his position laying on the ground to find a man with unkempt hair standing several meters away. He stared at the man for a moment before leaping to his feet and turning to face him directly.

“Hey, answer the question!” the man demanded, a confused scowl painted across his face. “Who are you? And just what the hell do you think you’re doin’?”

…This must be that guy who sent the videos, Pierce mused as he inspected the other man. On a closer look, he could tell that the man also had a small goatee, and wore a gray t-shirt, jeans, and a navy blue vest. Furthermore, his left arm appeared to have been replaced by a cybernetic prosthetic. …Yep, this is definitely the guy. What was his name? Austin? …Shit, he looks like a total loser. Taking him down won’t look cool at all.

“Oi, can you even talk?” The man crossed his arms and began tapping his foot impatiently. “Helloooo? Can you understand me—?”

With no warning, Pierce blasted toward the man, crossing the distance between them in the blink of an eye. He then slammed his foot into the ground just in front of the man to arrest himself of his forward momentum, and transferred the remaining energy into swinging his right arm around to grab the back of the man’s shirt and force him down to the ground. Once on the floor, he quickly grabbed the man’s wrists and pinned him. “Ha!” Pierce snorted in derision. “Well, that was easy.”

“What the—?!” The man scowled. “I should’ve known you were a Chaotic!”

“Yeah, you probably should’ve, huh?”

“Tch. Damn it! Beta, get him off me!”

“Beta—?” Pierce echoed incredulously, looking up to inspect the room. Just as he did so, he spotted a robot flying through the air directly at him. Startled, he reflexively released the man with unkempt hair and jumped back, successfully dodging the robot’s charge — only for it to suddenly lash out with its hand and grab him by his shirt collar. In the same moment that it grabbed hold of him, it blasted downward, smashing clean through the floor and dragging Pierce along with it.

“Fuck! Get off me!” Pierce ripped his shirt out of the robot’s grasp and kicked away from it before taking a moment to take stock of his surroundings. Once again, he found himself surrounded by the clear outdoor skies, but now he was falling over the undeveloped land far outside of New York City — and the Cruiser was no where to be seen. Ah, shit, that damn invisibility system! Where the hell did the ship go?!

A moment later, he hit the ground, rolling unceremoniously across the dirt for several meters before leaping back to his feet unharmed. He glared down at himself, and at his now dirt-caked running shoes, pants, and shirt. He then turned his attention toward the robot that had come down with him, that was hovering in the air some distance away. It possessed a vaguely humanoid silhouette, in that it had two arms and two legs, but it lacked a head and also had a pair of mechanical wings attached to its back, that moved much like a bird’s. Its large frame appeared to be lithe and streamlined, though also had an angular, rugged appearance that evoked the sense that it was a military robot. Slate blue metal plating covered its entire body, save for its shoulder joints, and a red orb was situated in the upper center of its torso.

Pierce simply scowled as he beheld the robot, and the gun that it brought to bear. That damn robot! What, did it crash us through the underside of the Cruiser, just to get me away from that loser? Damn! …Well, if I can’t stop the loser, then I can at least obliterate his stupid robot. I’ll show you to mess with me!

Immediately, he crouched down and then sprung forward; just as he did, the ground where he had just been standing exploded spectacularly. Without sparing a thought for what just happened, Pierce focused on throwing his foot forward to deliver a fierce supersonic kick to the hovering robot. The area where the kick connected brightly glowed with energy and the robot itself didn’t seem to take any damage, but the pure kinetic energy of the kick still forced it backward.

What the…? Is this what energy shielding looks like? Guess I’ll just have to bust through that first—! Just as Pierce landed on the ground after rebounding from his kick, a burst of energy exploded across his chest, flinging him backwards. He tumbled across the ground painfully before managing to jump back to his feet and leap out of the way of another blast of energy, his teeth grit in pain the entire time. What the hell is this? he thought irately as he kept moving across the ground, evading another two bursts of energy in the process — and noting that each time a burst occurred, the robot’s gun was pointed directly at that spot. …Ah, shit. That’s a laser gun? Why couldn’t it just be a regular gun? I want to outrun some bullets, damn it! Oh well, at least I know what to look out for now!

With that, Pierce lunged at the robot again, his focus now entirely on the robot’s weapon. In a split second, his foot connected with the gun, only for the gun to be covered by a plane of glowing, golden energy — just as with his earlier attack on the robot. Pierce expected it this time, however, and immediately latched onto the robot’s arm with both of his hands before slamming his foot into the gun over and over with incredibly high frequency, like a jackhammer, in an attempt to rapidly deplete the protective shielding. But the robot simply grabbed the back of his shirt with its free hand, yanked him off, and chucked him at the ground, at which point it spread its metallic wings and blasted off into the air.

Ha! Pierce smirked to himself as he eyed the robot gaining altitude and then stopping to hover a few hundred meters above him. Like that’ll stop me! He promptly jumped to the side — a precaution, in case the robot was preparing to fire its laser at him — and then crouched down before leaping high into the sky, much like he had done against the satellite debris on Ainminthalus. Just before his foot came into contact with the robot, however, it ducked to the side, leaving him to helplessly sail through the air.

…Guess I should’ve expected that, Pierce mused bitterly as he began to fall back to the earth. He turned his attention to the robot hovering in the air, and grimaced as he noticed it bringing its gun to bear. Well… this is going to hurt.

His thought was punctuated by a blast of energy exploding against his hip, sending him tumbling violently through the air. Pain shot through his body as his head began spinning — he was at least able to determine that his body was still intact before another laser blast sent him spinning in another direction. He barely had any time to regain his bearings before finally slamming into the ground in a painful heap.

“Ow… fuck…” he muttered, staring up at the clear sky in a daze. A moment passed before he was able to shake himself out of it and jump back to his feet, at which point he quickly inspected himself. Remarkably, he seemed to have escaped with only a couple minor burns — but his clothes were shot and riddled with burn marks and holes. Shit. Now I need a whole new set of running gear. How the hell am I going to explain this—?

A piece of the ground exploded just near him, reminding him that his opponent was still intact and after him. Quickly, he scanned his surroundings in search of anything he could use as a weapon, but to his dismay, the only objects around were some plants and trees. With a brief sigh, he launched himself toward the flora. At least I can use them for cover

A second later found Pierce hiding behind a tree in an effort to catch his breath, though the moment’s respite was all he was able to achieve as a blast of energy obliterated the base of the tree trunk and sent him sprawling. He quickly jumped back to his feet and dashed behind another tree, only for it to be obliterated in much the same manner. Shit! How the hell am I supposed to fight this thing? I don’t have any way to engage at range, and I can’t fly… is there really nothing I can do?!

The next several seconds passed with Pierce constantly trying to hide behind various pieces of flora, and the robot simply annihilating them with its laser cannon from on high. As this went on, Pierce grew more and more irate, finding himself unable to come up with any way to counter. Before long, he had run out of trees to hide behind in the immediate area — and with them, any further opportunities to prolong the fight. It was now win or go home, and Pierce knew well which option he’d rather pick. So, as his final piece of cover exploded under laser fire, he made one final move in frustrated desperation: he spun around and dealt a fierce kick to one of the chunks of tree that was flung away from the laser blast, his kick trajectory carefully calculated to launch the tree chunk at the flying robot. Immediately, his foot connected, and a moment later… the piece of tree debris slammed into the robot, stunning it. Without wasting a single moment, Pierce leaped into the air after the tree, taking advantage of the robot’s momentary incapacitation to wind up a kick in preparation to spike it down to the ground. He sailed through the air, rapidly closing the distance between himself and the robot as it recovered from the initial blow, his own foot raised into the air, ready to slam down on it — only for something to catch Pierce’s attention in the corner of his eye. Wait, is that… another ship—?

The moment of distraction was just enough for Pierce to miss his window, allowing the robot to whip around, snatch him out of the air, and chuck him at the ground again. He managed to land on his feet this time, but he then turned his attention to the ship he spotted in the sky — the ship that seemed to be rushing straight toward his position. It looks kinda small… ah, shit. His expression darkened with apprehension. It looks like a SERRCom ship. Damn it! He turned to glare up at the robot, which had also seemed to spot the approaching ship. His fists clenched, and his lips pursed; he had been so close to landing a blow on the robot, only to be distracted. Every fiber of his being urged him to try once more, to do his best to eek out a victory against the mechanical opponent before him… but as the SERRCom Frigate rapidly approached, the voice of reason in the back of his head won out.

A moment later, he spun on his heel and launched himself to the west, starting his long journey home.

 

*     *     *

2 Hours Later

“Pierce? What are you doing here—?”

“Just shut up and let me in.” Pierce scowled as he pushed past Conrad and stormed into his apartment.

“…Uh, okay.” Conrad shrugged and closed the door after Pierce. He turned around and followed his friend into the main living area, which Pierce stopped in the middle of, planted his hands on his hips, and began glancing around with a frustrated look on his face, as though he were looking for something to kick.

“…You okay, dude?” Conrad questioned warily as he slotted his hands into his pockets and leaned against the wall.

“Am I okay? Am I okay?!” Pierce glared at Conrad, only to rip his gaze away and take a deep breath. “…Sorry. Didn’t mean to snap at you.”

“It’s cool. Did something happen?”

“You could say that…” Pierce grabbed his shirt and lifted it, revealing the laser burn marks on his lower chest

Conrad’s eyes widened in alarm. “What the hell? Dude, what happened?”

“I went to New York to try and stop that Austin guy…” Pierce shook his head and then collapsed into a slouch on Conrad’s sofa. “I got on his ship, somehow, but then he sicced a robot on me.”

“…So those burns are from the robot?”

“Yeah. It had a laser gun. It shot up my old track outfit, so I had to… uh… ‘acquire’ a new one on my way back home.”

“Huh… wait, hold on a sec. You’re saying you went to New York to stop the attack? As in, the attack earlier today?

Pierce smirked bitterly. “Superspeed, yo.”

“Oh. Right.” Conrad frowned. “Didn’t Phoenix say—?”

“Who cares what Phoenix said, alright? Just don’t tell her I did this and everything will be fine.”

“If you say so. But, did something bad happen? You don’t look very happy.”

“‘Did something bad happen.’ Hmph.”

“…Did you lose against the robot?”

“I didn’t lose,” Pierce shot back, “I just… didn’t succeed in destroying it. A SERRCom ship showed up, so the fight ended in a draw.”

“Is that so…”

“Don’t patronize me. If I had more time, I totally could’ve destroyed that fucking machine.”

“I’m not saying that I doubt you. Although…” Conrad began moving over to his living room computer. “If you spent the past couple hours running back from New York, then I guess you haven’t heard the latest news about this EA guy, huh?”

Pierce stared at Conrad in confusion. “EA?”

Conrad nodded as he began interacting with the computer. “Yeah. It turns out, the ‘Austin’ that was putting out all those videos was an impostor, or a clone, or something. There was a whole bunch of footage from New York that showed him facing off with an exact copy of himself, and SERRCom is saying now that the real Austin has been with them the whole time. They’re calling the one we saw ‘EA’.”

Pierce snorted. “You’re telling me we’re dealing with fucking evil clones now?”

“Hey, I’m not the one who broke the news,” Conrad countered, and then moved away from his computer monitor to allow Pierce to see it. “But that’s not everything. Here, check this out.”

Playing on the computer screen was a video, shot as though from a helicopter. Below was a large suburban neighborhood, filled with idyllic two-story houses — and in the middle of the neighborhood, several of those houses laid in absolute ruin. As the video got closer, a house exploded spectacularly, followed closely by the sudden appearance of a massive cloud in the middle of the street. Pierce stared at the video in confusion as it slowly swept across the battlefield, and then settled on a large, mechanical beast standing in the center of a cul-de-sac. The four-legged mech looked vaguely like a yellow bug, and seemed to be firing lasers at the surrounding houses. Then, just as the video approached closely enough to see that the mech was standing with one of its legs on top of a single man, another man suddenly flew in from behind the mech and slapped a third man who was sitting in the cockpit with the canopy opened. Pierce’s expression settled into a scowl when he realized an important physical detail of the latter two men: they both possessed terribly unkempt hair.

“That’s the fucker I tried to stop!” Pierce turned toward Conrad. “What the hell is this?”

“This is video of a fight that just happened down in Texas, near Dallas,” Conrad replied. “And when I say ‘just happened’, I mean, like, this footage is from less than half an hour ago.”

“What? But I just saw those assholes in New York two hours ago! How’d they get to Dallas with enough time to start a fight and destroy a neighborhood?”

“SERRCom future tech? I dunno man, I’m just telling you the news.”

“Did they at least stop him? This EA dude?”

Conrad shrugged. “There’s been no official word, but there’s some video footage of EA disappearing in a bright white light. Rumor on the Internet is that he was beamed away, but no one knows by who.”

“Hmph…” Pierce returned his attention to the video, which had stopped on a shot of the devastated neighborhood and the partially destroyed mech. I can’t even stop one robot, but these assholes destroyed a whole mech? …Must be because the mech couldn’t fly. Yeah. If the robot I was fighting had been grounded, I could’ve destroyed it easily…

“It’s a lotta damage, huh?”

“Huh? Oh. Yeah…” Pierce nodded. “…What losers these guys must be, causing that much collateral damage. I might not have destroyed the robot I was fighting, but at least I didn’t rip up a whole damn neighborhood while I was at it.”

“Uh, right…”

“And how many casualties did they cause? I bet it was a lot.”

“The fight only just happened, it’s too early to tell…” Conrad frowned. “But there’s a bigger problem.”

“What? Didn’t this fight happen in Texas? What does that have to do with us?”

“The fact that we’re Chaotics is what it has to do with us. The Internet’s gone nuts about this fight, you know. People are citing all the damage as reasons in favor of officially instating a Chaotic conscription rule…”

“What?” Pierce scowled. “You can’t be serious.”

“I wish I wasn’t. The fact that every other nation in the galaxy does it isn’t helping, either.” Conrad sighed. “It’s starting to look like, if we ever get caught using our powers…”

“…Then SERRCom will fucking draft us. Damn.” Pierce crossed his arms and slouched back into the sofa again. “I guess Phoenix really was right, after all.”

Conrad eyed his friend warily. “This means you should be more careful about doing stuff like running across the country to fight bad guys, you know.”

“Shut up, I can take care of myself.”

“Hey, I’m just warning you…”

“I’ll be fine.” Pierce stood up from the sofa and stormed toward the front door. “I’m going for a run.”

“Uh, okay, then. See you—?” Conrad started, but by the time he looked back at his door, it had already closed, leaving him alone in his apartment.

Chapter 13 – Realizations

4 Days Later

— Saturday, September 17, AD 2129 —

“I can’t believe I’m stuck with you…”

“And I can’t believe that I still need to be stuck with you,” Pierce shot back. “Suck it up. That little stunt you pulled a week and a half ago is what put you in this position.”

“Why am I getting punished for stepping in to stop a bullying?!” Riley exclaimed irately, “didn’t you do the same thing?!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t get bruised all over for it. You had to’ve known how Mom would react to that.”

“Ngh…”

Pierce smirked as his sister turned away from him, frustration writ across her face. Early morning sunlight shone down upon them as they walked the streets of Oakland, en route to the local BART station. Pierce himself hadn’t any desire to use the trains — he could just run to any destination, after all — but his sister wanted to hang out with a friend elsewhere in the bay, and ever since she had returned home covered in bruises ten days ago, their mother had insisted that Pierce act as her chaperone. Neither sibling was pleased by the demand, but Pierce couldn’t help but feel a little worried for Riley’s safety after interrupting the fight she had gotten herself into. He refused to say as much out loud, choosing instead to project his standard impatient demeanor, but he worried for her all the same.

Accompanying Pierce and Riley on their walk were two others: Cooper, whose leash Pierce held onto as the beagle eagerly trotted down the sidewalk; and the same young girl he had seen Riley defending the previous week. Pierce now knew her name to be Sera, but he knew little else about her — she appeared to be incredibly shy, and altogether reluctant to engage in conversation with him. He himself wasn’t overly interested in getting to know her, either; he and Riley had always maintained separate friend groups, and he had little intention of changing that now. Still… as small and as quiet as she is, it’s not hard to see why she was getting bullied. Good on Riley for stepping in, but if I hadn’t shown up… Pierce passed his sister a surreptitious glance as she engaged in conversation with Sera, and then turned his attention forward again to watch Cooper, giving the leash a brief yank to stop the beagle from peeing on a fire hydrant. …Let’s just hope they don’t get into any more trouble.

“Hey, asshole.”

“What?” Pierce looked over at Riley again. “The hell do you want?”

She jerked her head toward her friend. “Sera wants to know what it was like to live on a different planet.”

Pierce turned his gaze toward Sera, who seemed to shrink away from him, but maintained eye contact all the same. His mouth turned up into a small smile as he replied, “well, it was pretty amazing, but also not. The day-to-day shit on Ainminthalus was almost exactly the same as here, you know. Wake up, wash up, go to work, go home. Get groceries on the weekend. Hit up a bar every now and then…”

“You’re not old enough for that,” Riley countered.

“On Ainminthalus I was,” Pierce shot back with a smirk. “I turned 21 a month ago, anyways. But, that aside… the really interesting parts of Ainminthalus were the rings, and the spaceport. The rings were amazing, but kinda hard to describe. You’d really have to be there to appreciate just how much of the sky they took up. And the spaceport… it wasn’t super busy, only a few dozen landings and take-offs each day, but man, is it weird to see commercialized space travel on that level.”

“Sounds nice…” Sera replied quietly.

“Heh.” Pierce grinned. “That’s not even the best part. I got to fly one of those spaceships.”

Sera’s eyes widened in curiosity, but Riley simply regarded her brother with an incredulous look. “I thought you were only studying the thing, not flying it,” she questioned.

“And flying it is a part of studying it, duh,” Pierce shot back. Though it’s true that I never really flew the ship outside of a small preset path… but they don’t have to know that.

“H-how much do you know about spaceships?” Sera asked.

“Now?” Pierce smirked and made a show of casually shrugging. “I mean, I can’t build one from scratch, but you could say that I know a thing or three.”

“Could… could you tell me about them?”

“Hmm… that could take some time, and we’re almost at the station. Maybe another time.”

“Oh…” Sera cast her eyes downward. “…Okay…”

Pierce narrowed his eyes slightly as he noticed her reaction. Before he could think any further, however, Riley had sidled up to him with an irritated expression on her face.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she hissed, her voice low so as to not be overheard by anyone else.

“The hell are you talking about?” Pierce responded in kind.

“Don’t hit on my friends, you asshole.”

“What? Get the hell out of here. You seriously think I’m interested in high schoolers?”

“Then what was that line about ‘maybe another time’?”

“If you think that counts as ‘hitting on’ someone then you need to get out more, ‘cause that’s literally the opposite of what I was doing.”

Riley glared at him for another couple moments before slowly pulling away. “…If you say so,” she muttered.

“Of course I say so,” Pierce shot back. “I have over four years of life experience over you, don’t forget that.”

She rolled her eyes. “As long as you’re around, I’m sure I never well.”

“Is… is everything okay?” Sera questioned.

“Everything’s fine,” Pierce replied flatly, and then nodded forward. “We’re here, though.”

The three stopped walking just in front of the train station’s entrance area, which was teeming with weekend morning activity. Out the corner of his eye, Pierce noticed Sera inching closer to Riley, but then he was distracted by trying to keep Cooper from peeing on a nearby lamppost. “This damn dog…” he muttered to himself, and then crouched down to look Cooper in the face. “Look, buddy, I might’ve volunteered to walk you, but don’t push your luck.”

The beagle simply barked once and licked him in the face, leaving him to purse his lips in mild disgust.

“Hey, asshole! We’re leaving now!”

“Stop calling me ‘asshole’,” Pierce retorted as he glanced back at at his sister. “You’re meeting up with another friend here, right?”

“And what about it?” Riley shot back.

“Wow, bitchy much?” Pierce snorted. “Just promise not to get into trouble again. I won’t be around to bail you out today, after all.”

“I can handle myself.”

“That fight last week says otherwise. Just be careful, alright?”

“Wow, concern, from you. The world really is ending.”

“Oh shut the hell up, just leave already so I can do my own shit.”

Riley flipped Pierce the bird before turning around and guiding Sera into the station. Pierce simply made a face at her retreating form before looking down at Cooper and turning down the street. “Alright, buddy, let’s go,” he declared as he began pulling on the leash. “Let’s get you home so I can go hang with Conrad.”

Cooper offered two yaps in response before turning around and dashing off down the street, yanking at the leash in the process. Pierce remained unfazed as he easily braced against the yank; he had spent nearly half his life growing up alongside Cooper, after all, and was by now well familiar with the beagle’s tendencies. With an amused sigh, he began walking down the street after Cooper, his attention now free to focus on the dog or any random thoughts that crossed his mind.

 

“If… if you ever see Liask… tell her… tell her that I… …that I…”

 

“Tch…” Pierce scowled, doing his level best to ignore the dull throbbing that once again passed through his lower torso. Every damn time I think of Ainminthalus, I can’t help but remember what happened to… damn it. This is… fuck. He began sweeping his gaze across his urban surroundings in search of something to distract himself, to take his mind off of the death that had apparently been burned into his memory. …Why is this even hitting me so hard? I only knew Trenon for, what, three months? That’s nothing…

“Hey! HEY!! Get back here!!”

“Huh?” Pierce looked up, distracted by a woman’s shout. Down the block, he could see a woman chasing after two hooded figures — one of whom appeared to be holding a purse. They promptly jumped into an old, idling car and then drove off down the street so fast that they left skid marks. A purse-snatching? In broad daylight? Are you fucking kidding me? Pierce stared after the car incredulously. …Wait! This is a perfect opportunity for me! Now I—! He stopped himself and glanced down at Cooper, who himself seemed to be looking between the car and the woman curiously. …Shit. I can’t just leave Cooper alone. Uh… uh… got it!

He spun on his heel and began running toward the woman who had just lost her purse, yanking on Cooper’s leash to get the beagle to follow. The woman appeared to be dialing her phone, but just as she held the device up to her ears, Pierce approached and thrust Cooper’s leash into her free hand.

“Hold this,” Pierce ordered, “I’ll get your purse back faster than you can call for help!”

“Wait, what? No, hold on—!” the woman began to respond, but Pierce had already whipped around and dashed off — though he maintained a reasonable, human speed until he found an alley to duck into.

The moment he did, he leaped up to the roof of the building and then began hopping from roof to roof across the city, in search of the car the purse-snatchers had fled in. The vehicle had since turned down a street, so Pierce wasn’t exactly sure where it had gone, but he began scanning the streets as he leaped through the city all the same. It looked like a manned car. An old one — well, ALL manned cars are old, but this one especially so. They’re pretty rare, too, so it should be easy enough to find. Heh. Dumbass criminals.

He then stopped atop a building and glanced to his right; standing just in front of him was the apartment building in which his family lived. After a moment of hesitation, he jumped over to the building and looked for the window to his and Riley’s room, which he had left open for just an occasion as this. Quietly, he jumped through the window and dug through his clothing, eventually pulling out the balaclava he had acquired a week ago. Within moments, he had put the item on and leaped out the window to resume his hunt.

Now where the hell did they go he mused as he searched the streets. They can’t have gone too far, there’s no way a junker like that car would belong to anyone who lived in the better parts of the city… He stopped for a second atop another apartment building to take a closer look at the streets around him. The vast majority of automotive transportation was automated nowadays, and only the rich, car enthusiasts, or inheritors owned their own cars anymore. As such, cars were rarely parked on the side of the street, as most of them were owned by the government or by private taxi companies. Which means that any cars that ARE parked must not be automated, Pierce reasoned, and then smirked to himself. And just what do we have here, huh?

He jumped down to the street, just in front of an alleyway — an alleyway in which two cars were parked. Both were covered, but the two men standing near them looked exactly like the two who had performed the earlier purse-snatching — and they hadn’t yet seemed to have noticed Pierce. Confidant, he began to approach down the alleyway. “Hey!”

The two men whipped around to stare at Pierce, who continued to casually approach. “Hey, who the hell are you?” one of them demanded.

“I’m just a… friendly neighborhood conflict resolver,” Pierce retorted, stopping just a handful of meters from the other two men. The two backed into defensive stances; Pierce could see one of them hovering his hand over his hip. Does he have a gun? Pierce questioned mentally, …heh, just try and shoot me, you idiot. I dare you.

“I don’t know who you are,” the other man growled out, “but if you wanna live to see another day, then you better leave now.”

“I’ll leave after a couple questions,” Pierce shot back, and then nodded at the two covered vehicles behind the men. “Mind if I take a look at those?”

“We don’t have to show you shit,” the first man snapped, as the second pulled out a pistol from under his jacket. “This is your last chance, buddy. Leave. Now.”

“Ah, well.” Pierce sighed and shrugged. “I tried.”

“Alright, that’s—!” the second man started, but before he could finish his thought, Pierce had disappeared from where he stood and reappeared just beside the man. In a flash, he disarmed the man and threw the gun to the side, at which point he grabbed the man’s arms, pulled them behind his back, and then forced him to the ground.

“This is your last chance!” Pierce shouted, “give back the purse you stole, and I’ll leave you alone!”

“The hell—? You bastard!” the man on the ground spat, “Rod, take ‘im down!”

“Oh for fuck’s sake— ah!” Pierce jumped as he felt something poke him in the back. Reflexively, he released the man on the ground and jumped away — at which point he realized that the first man had been standing behind him, with a knife out. Worried, Pierce quickly reached around and began feeling his back; he immediately found an incision in his shirt, but his skin was unbroken, and he certainly wasn’t feeling any pain.

The man with the knife stared at Pierce, his eyes wide and his hands seemingly frozen in place. “Who… what the hell are you?!”

“…Heh.” Pierce chuckled to himself before crouching down and blasting off toward the two men again. In a split second, he had thrown them both to the ground and grabbed the knife off of them, which he then used to slice up the car covers into long, thin strips. Before either man could even begin to stand up, Pierce grabbed two of the strips and used them to tie up the hands and feet of the two muggers, and then stood back with his arms crossed to admire his handiwork.

“What the?!” the first man exclaimed, his head jerking back and forth as he snapped his attention between his own bonds, those of his friend, and Pierce. “What the fuck just happened?!”

“Are you… are you one of those Eximius Vir guys?” the second man questioned, a deep scowl upon his face. “What the hell are you doin’ here?!”

“No, I’m on my own,” Piece replied as he glanced to the side. The two cars were now exposed to the air, and one of them was an exact match for the escape vehicle he had been chasing. Ha! I knew it. You dumbasses.

“But if you’re not with them, then who the hell are you?” the man pressed, “and why are you all up in our shit, huh? What’d we do to you?!”

“Oh shut the hell up, you criminal idiots,” Pierce shot back, gagging the two men with another two cloth strips in the process. He wiped his hands together casually before approaching the escape vehicle, smashing in the window with his elbow, and grabbing the stolen purse from the inside. As he did so, he noticed a variety of other bags stashed away in the car, and a handful of electronics stored in the other. Damn, these guys have really been at it, huh? But how the hell did they get away with storing all this shit in two manned cars, on a surface alleyway, in broad daylight? Shit, the police really are fucking useless. Pierce glanced back at the two subdued men, who were both struggling against their bonds — with little success. Still… trying to find out who all this stuff belongs to would be a pain in the ass. I guess I can put up a note in the community center or something. Too bad people won’t know that I’m the one who found this… hmm, now that I think about it…

With the purse in hand, Pierce casually approached the two subdued men and crouched down next to them. “I’m going to leave the two of you here for now,” he declared, “but I’ll send someone to come find you. And when they do find you, tell them… tell them that it was the Speed Demon who brought you down.” He then stood up, a broad smirk across his face. “And with that, I really gotta get back to my dog. See ya!”

Without waiting for a response, Pierce leaped up to the roof of the adjacent building and began leaping across the city, back to where he had left Cooper with the woman who lost her purse. The whole way there, he couldn’t help but grin to himself. Ha! My first real attempt at crime-stopping, and a successful one, at that! Fuckin’ sweet! And with this balaclava, no one will see my face, and with my speed, no one will be able to catch me. I can stop crime and save people with impunity, without attracting attention from SERRCom! Take that, Phoenix! Ha ha!

His mental self-congratulations continued on, as he crossed the city to return the purse.

Chapter 14 – Fledgling Heroism

5 Days Later

Damn… this is harder than I expected.

From his perch atop one of the many apartment buildings in the city, Pierce stared down at the streets below, bathed as they were in the darkness of night. Sunset had only passed a couple hours ago, though activity was still low — it was a weeknight, after all.

Pierce slowly swept his eyes across the quiet side streets, his brow furrowed as he attempted to find any signs of nefarious activity. After several minutes of intense staring, his search returned unsuccessful; with an irritated grunt, he leaped to another building down the block and began watching over a different set of streets. This wasn’t his first night out, clad in black and wearing a balaclava — in fact, he had spent every night since Saturday out and about, searching for any signs of crime that he could stop. And just as with all of those previous nights, tonight he simply could not find anything worth mentioning.

I want to fucking DO something already, he thought irately, but you can’t stop crime if you can’t find it in the first place. A sigh escaped his lips as he continued scanning the streets below. …I guess the fact that I can’t find any crime is a good sign, all things considered. Or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places. Or the wrong times…

He glanced down at his watch, noting that it read just past 9 o’clock PM. Evenings weren’t exactly his favorite time of day; in fact, he preferred to be asleep by 10 or 11, so as to rise with or just before the sun — mornings were his favorite time to go for runs. But when it came to his attempts to find and stop crime, he figured that it would be far easier to move around the city unseen under the cover of night.  Though it’ll be hard to keep that up soon, huh, since I move back to Caltech in a few days… and classes start in a week and a half. Damn, my summer really just flew past, didn’t it? A lot of shit happened, so that would explain it, I guess. A smirk gradually found its way onto his face. I have a lot of fodder for stories, now, though. Pretty sure I’m the only techer who got to go off-world this summer, so I’m going to be the talk of the campus, aren’t I? Ha!

As he continued looking out for crime in the city below, Pierce’s thoughts began to turn back to the outreach program that had brought him to Ainminthalus. The program had been a joint effort between Earth’s SERRCom and the Nimalian Union to give regular citizens of both cultures the opportunity to meet and learn from each other. To that end, SERRCom had opened up applications to college students all across Earth, with an advertised one thousand slots to fill. Pierce and Phoenix had been quick to jump at the opportunity, and both successfully made it through several rounds of applications — academic and physical, combined. The two had also encouraged their other friends, particularly Conrad and Kestrel, to apply, but ultimately Pierce and Phoenix were the only members of their friend groups to be selected.

Both of them SHOULD have been able to make it, if Phoenix and I did, Pierce mused. I bet Conrad just didn’t try hard enough, the lazy bastard. Kestrel, though… maybe she just didn’t have a compatible degree, or something. What degree IS she going for, again? I know she goes to Harvard… which is mostly known for law. I guess intergalactic space-law isn’t a thing? That doesn’t sound right… hey, wait a minute. If Kestrel’s going for a law degree, then she ought to know something about criminal activity, right? Ha! Finally, a lead!

Pierce quickly whipped out his phone and dialed Kestrel, at which point he held the device up to his ear and impatiently waited for her to pick up.

Several seconds later, he heard the familiar sound of his call connecting — followed by silence. “Yo, Kestrel, you there?” he questioned.

«…Yes,» came the the soft-spoken reply.

“You got time for a quick chat? I just have a few questions.”

«Okay…»

Curt as ever, huh, he thought idly. “Alright, then. You go to Harvard, right? What do you know about criminal activity?”

«What…?»

“You know, like, when are criminals most active? What time of day, or even time of year. And how fast do police typically respond?”

«…Why would I know?»

“What? C’mon, you’re studying law, right?”

«No. Business.»

“Wait, what? You’re going for a bog-standard business degree?”

«Yes.»

“At Harvard?!”

«Yes…»

“You have to be kidding, right? There are easier schools to go to if you just want a business degree.”

«I know.»

“Why a business degree in the first place, anyways? You can do way better than that. You could certainly go for something more interesting, at least.”

«Mm…»

“But, still. You’re at Harvard, so you had to’ve picked up something about law and criminals just from osmosis. Can you tell me anything?”

«Why not look it up?»

“And have that shit forever tied to my profile? No thanks.”

«…You want secrecy?»

Yes, that’s the idea. That’s why I called you. Seeing as calls are encrypted nowadays, this ought to be more secure than just jumping on the fucking Internet.” Pierce sighed warily. “But if you don’t know anything, then I guess I don’t have much of a choice.”

«Are you… fighting crime?»

“…I’m not not doing that.”

«Are you using your… abilities?»

Pierce’s brow furrowed in apprehension. “…And if I am?” he eventually replied.

«Phoenix said—»

“Yes, I know what Phoenix said, but she doesn’t know what she’s talking about, so I’ve chosen to ignore her. I’ll be perfectly fine.”

«…Okay. Still…»

“Look, I’ve got this figured out. No one can tell that I’m me, and I only run at night. It’s a flawless plan!”

«…»

“Just, keep this conversation between us. If Phoenix finds out, then she’ll never stop riding my ass about it, and I think we both know how much that sucks.”

«Not really.»

“…Alright, look here—” Pierce started, his face scrounged up in a scowl, but then he jumped as the sound of a distant gunshot reached his ears. He whipped his head around and searched the block for any signs of a gunman… at which point he noticed two hooded figures, both somewhat hunched over, rush out of a convenience store down the block.

«…Pierce?»

“Sorry, gotta go!” Pierce shouted as he leaped down to the street below. “Remember, keep this between us!”

Without waiting for a response, he ended the call and shoved his phone back into his pocket. Finally! A crime to stop, he thought with a grin, and then dashed down the block at supersonic speeds. In less than a second, he arrived at the entrance to the convenience store, where he took a moment to peer through the windows. All of the shelves that he could see appeared to be undisturbed, and from what he could tell of the cashier area, nothing there seemed out of place, either. Just as he began to doubt that this was the correct store — or that he had misinterpreted what had just happened — he saw someone peak up from behind the cash register, make momentary eye contact with him, and then duck back behind the counter.

Doesn’t seem like normal cashier behavior to me, Pierce observed, better ask if everything’s okay. He quickly approached the door and rushed through it, keeping an eye on his surroundings at the same time. “Hey,” he called out to the person cowering behind the counter, “are you—?”

“We’re all out!” came a panicked response, “I, I already emptied the register! There’s nothing more to take!”

Pierce stared incredulously at the counter space where the voice was coming from. “What? I’m not—! Oh…” He reflexively reached up and touched his face — which was currently covered by a black balaclava. “…Hey, I’m not here to steal anything. I’m not a criminal,” he insisted, “you’ve misunderstood. I’m just checking if you’re okay!”

“If you want me to be okay, then get out of my store!”

“Hmph!” Pierce scowled. “I’ll just assume that you’re fine, then. But when I go catch those other guys who stole from you and return your shit, I expect a thanks!”

Without waiting for a response, Pierce spun on his heel and launched himself out of the store, smashing through the windowed door with his speed. Once outside, he took but a brief moment to scan the surrounding area before deciding to simply rush through the streets on foot — he did have superspeed, after all, and not much time had passed since he saw the two figures leave the store. They couldn’t have gotten far.

Immediately, he took off down the sidewalk and zig-zagged his way through the local intersections — and, sure enough, he soon found two hunched-over hooded figures running down an alleyway. Neither seemed to notice him as he rushed through the streets at over three times the speed of sound; with a smirk on his face, Pierce took advantage of that to appear in front of them, stopping nigh-instantly to make it seem as though he had appeared out of thin air. Not even all that far from the truth, really. Ha!

“What the—!” One of the hooded figures jumped in surprise as they noticed Pierce appear in front of them. “Where, where the hell did you come from?!”

Where I came from doesn’t matter,” Pierce countered, his arms crossed and his feet planted at shoulder-width as he puffed his chest out. “What does matter is that the two of you are going to drop everything that you stole. Right here, right now.”

“We didn’t steal jack shit,” the other hooded figure shot back. Between the dark of night and their hoods, Pierce couldn’t quite tell what the two looked like, but from the pitch and timber of their voices, he guessed that the first one who spoke was a woman, while the other was a man.

Pierce turned his attention away from analyzing their voices to focus on their words. “Didn’t steal jack shit, huh? I guess you just happen to be running down a quiet alley with hoods up, away from a store that was just stolen from, huh? What a coincidence!”

“We don’t have to answer to you,” the man snapped back. “Who the hell are you, anyways?”

“Looks like some kinda hero wannabe to me,” the woman remarked. Pierce couldn’t see her face, but from the tone of her voice, it seemed obvious to assume she was sneering.

“I may not be a hero just yet, but don’t call me a ‘wannabe’, either,” Pierce countered. “Regardless, you should know that you aren’t going any farther than this. Not without surrendering. After all, you can’t outrun a Speed Demon!”

“…This place is just gettin’ weirder and weirder,” the man muttered.

“And we don’t know what you’re talking about, anyways,” the woman replied as she pulled her hand out of her jacket, revealing that she was wielding a gun. “Now get out of our way,” she demanded as she pointed the gun at Pierce, “or you’ll be the one who drops.”

Pierce reflexively flinched away at the sight of the gun, but still managed to maintain his confident composure. “You know, because I’m a nice guy, I’m going to give you two one last chance,” he declared. “But if you fire that gun, then it’s over.”

The two hooded figures glanced at each other; they didn’t exchange any words, but a moment later, the woman shrugged — and then the muzzle of her gun flashed.

These idiots never listen, do they? Pierce pursed his lips in mild irritation as he easily sidestepped the bullet, allowing it to whiz by his head. He glanced behind himself to make sure the bullet didn’t hit anyone else, and then turned back to face the hooded figures, who both seemed frozen in surprise. Taking advantage of the opening, Pierce sped to the woman’s side and yanked the gun out of her hands, at which point he grabbed the weapon by its muzzle and clubbed her over the head with it. She immediately slumped to the ground.

“What?! You—!” the hooded man started, but Pierce interrupted his exclamation by whipping around and chucking the gun at him. An instant later, the gun slammed into the man’s arm — and to Pierce’s surprise, it did so with a sickening snap.

“AAAGH!!” The man roared in pain and clutched at his arm, collapsing to one knee as he did so. “Argh… fuck!”

“What…?” Pierce drew back in surprise, and then in disgust when he caught sight of the man’s arm, which was now hanging at an angle that seemed far from natural — and also seemed to have some kind of odd, sharp protrusion sticking out of it. What the? Did I— did I throw it too fast?!

“Fuck! Damn it,” the man growled out through clenched teeth, his chest heaving with ragged breaths. “What… what the fuck was that?!”

“That, uh…” Pierce stuttered out, fighting to maintain his composure as he reconciled his actions with the scene before him. This wasn’t the first time he had attempted to disable someone with his speed, but it was the first time his actions had resulted in visible injury. And if he had managed to accidentally throw a gun with enough force to break a man’s arm, then…

He stepped back and looked down at the woman he had knocked out. In the dark alley, it was difficult to tell what kind of shape she was in, but as she lay crumpled on the ground, her body still, Pierce couldn’t shake the feeling that he had witnessed a scene like this before. An accident caused by a Chaotic, the misuse of powers, and… What the…? Pierce looked down at his right arm. It feels sticky… like it’s covered in…!

A sharp pain shot through his chest, followed by a reflexive dry heave. Pierce momentarily dropped to his knees and clutched at his chest, his breathing ragged, his eyes clenched shut. What the hell? Damn it, get a hold of it, man! What’s even happening? This isn’t how it was supposed to go—!

A sudden blow to the side of his head ripped him out of his thoughts. He collapsed to the side, startled, but quickly jumped back to his feet and whipped around to face the man — who had managed to grab the gun with his good arm and was now holding it directly toward Pierce. The sound of a small metal object clambering to the cement at his feet was enough to tell Pierce what had just happened, and another flash emanating from the gun’s muzzle was all he needed to spring back into action. With ease, he evaded the next bullet and then grabbed the gun out of the man’s hands before chucking it at the ground, his arm moving through the throwing motion so fast that the gun completely shattered on impact. Then, without waiting for any kind of response, Pierce leaped up to the top of the adjacent building and then launched himself through the air down the block. He continued leaping several more times, covering several blocks of the city before finally stopping at the edge of a six-story apartment building. It was only then that he realized that he was hyperventilating, and placed a hand over his chest as he attempted to calm himself.

Several seconds later, after he had managed to slow his breathing to just faster than normal, he looked down at his right arm. Earlier, he could have sworn that he felt some sort of warm, wet, sticky sensation across it, but as he inspected his arm and his sleeve now — nothing about them seemed off. They looked completely clean. What the hell was all of that? His face scrounged up into a deep scowl. Was that a… panic attack? No. Me? Panic, like that? No way. That— the only reason everything went south was because of that damn gun. If they hadn’t had a gun, everything would’ve been fine, like those other two guys I took down last Saturday. Everything would’ve been fine…

He glanced over his shoulder, back toward where he had come from. A second later he shook his head and turned around, launching himself off of the building in the direction of home.

Chapter 15 – Friendly Worries

3 Days Later

A careful exhale, a slight twist of the foot.

Squared shoulders and bent knees; one fist in front of the other.

Another breath, in, and out.

A quick scan of the room — no one around.

Eyes forward again, focusing on the one thing before him: a large cylindrical bag, hanging from the ceiling by a chain.

Alright… let’s see what I can do.

First a jab, then a right hook. Pierce drew back slightly, watching the bag swing before glancing down at his fists. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and then returned his attention to the punching bag in front of him, at which point he began to step up the pace of his hits. A left punch, then a right; two more, three more, four. Each time, keeping careful control over the speed of his punches, and how hard he hit the bag.

A good twenty hits later, Pierce stopped to take a deep breath and step back. He wasn’t accustomed to using his arms in quite this manner — he was a track runner, after all. Most of his arm-based workouts were centered around building general strength, rather than fighting skill or punching ability. Yet three days ago, he had realized a crucial weakness of his: he had little ability to control his newfound superspeed when used outside of the normal context of running or jumping.

Maybe I should take a martial arts class, he mused as he squared up in front of the punching bag again. There’s supposed to be a Karate class during the fall term, isn’t there? I should see about adding it…

Pierce focused momentarily on the bag again, starting a new set of punches before his thoughts began again to drift. Since his run-in with the hooded burglars in an alley three days ago, he had moved back to his dorm at Caltech in preparation for the new academic year. Classes still wouldn’t start for another week, but various athlete and new-student orientations were already running, and upperclassmen were already returning to set up their dorm rooms and get to know the incoming freshmen. Pierce himself was curious to see if there were any interesting new students to meet, but before that, he wanted to get some training out of the way — and he wanted to do it without anyone watching him. So here he now stood, in one of the training rooms of the school’s athletics complex, punching a bag at 7 in the morning while no one was watching.

The odd sound of tearing leather snapped Pierce’s attention back to his surroundings, where he found his right fist embedded within the bag hanging in front of him. With lips pursed in irritation, he carefully withdrew his hand; he opened and closed his fist a few times, checking that his hand was fine, and then looked at the punching bag’s new hole. …Well, shit. Guess I should leave before someone sees that. He sighed wearily and looked down at his hands again. It’s no surprise that I can ‘simulate’ superstrength with superspeed, when it comes to striking power at least. Force is just mass times acceleration, after all, and I have tons of acceleration. But to see it like this… I really need to be more careful. Damn, is this what all superspeed Chaotics have to deal with? Is this what Trenon had to deal with…?

“Oh, wow, did— did you do that?”

“Huh?!” Pierce jumped and spun around, his eyes wide with surprise. Standing across the room in the entrance was a young woman with blond hair, tied back in a ponytail. She appeared to be around average height for a woman, and the workout clothes she was wearing made it clearly evident that she had an athletic build — not too unlike a runner’s, in fact. Huh, is she aiming to try out for the track team? …She’s certainly cute. Not a bad ass, either. Looks kinda familiar, too. …Wait, shit, she saw me, didn’t she—?

“Hey, are you…” The woman squinted at Pierce for a moment before her eyes lit up, as though with recognition. “You’re… Pierce Bradley, aren’t you? The star of the track team, as they say?”

“…Why, yes, I am,” Pierce replied, as he adjusted his posture to straighten his back, broaden his shoulders, and plant his feet at shoulder width. He crossed his arms and nodded toward the woman with a confident smirk. “‘Star’ might be a bit much, really, but, hey. I just try my best, is all.”

The woman giggled. “Wow, modesty? I have to admit, that’s not quite what I expected from what I’ve heard about you.”

“You can’t always trust the rumors, you know,” Pierce replied. “Sometimes, the truth is a little different.”

“Maybe, but I could understand either way. I mean, I could hardly blame you for having a bit of an ego when you can do the 100 meter dash in just under ten seconds.”

Pierce chuckled. “Oh c’mon, I don’t have an ego, per se. I prefer to think of it as a… massive reservoir of self-confidence.”

The woman giggled again, and then approached with her hand out. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Andra.”

“Andra? Nice name,” Pierce remarked as he firmly grasped her hand and shook it. “…Sounds vaguely familiar, actually. Have we met?”

“Uh, no, not really,” Andra replied bashfully. “I have a few friends on the track team, but I doubt they talk about me much.”

“A few friends on the team?” Pierce took the opportunity to look her over head-to-toe again. “With a build like that, I say you ought to be on the team yourself.”

“Oh! Thanks!” She grinned broadly. “I recently decided to start training for it, so I can join when the season starts. I’m glad to hear you approve!”

“…Oh, I think I recognize you now!” Pierce snapped his fingers and pointed at her, his eyes lit up in recognition. “You’re one of Kieran’s buddies, aren’t you? I think I’ve seen the two of you hanging out together around campus. Now that I think about it, he did mention something about trying to convince one of his friends to join the team. I take it that’s you?”

“Ha ha, probably.” Andra’s smile broadened further, as though she were glad that Pierce recognized her. “…Ah, but Kieran and I are just friends, you know? We aren’t, like… together.”

Pierce raised a knowing eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“Uh, yep!” She nodded; as she did so, Pierce couldn’t help but notice that her cheeks were flushed.

Well, now he mused, a smirk crossing his face, this seems like it could be an interesting year

“A-anyways!” she continued, “I just thought I’d, you know, introduce myself. I didn’t really expect to see many people around here this morning… especially not the star of the track team putting holes in punching bags.”

“Ah, well, you know…” Pierce chuckled uneasily as he glanced back at the bag. “I just decided to, you know, check out the sports equipment. It’s a new year, after all, gotta make sure everything’s still up to snuff.”

Andra smiled and nodded toward the bag. “I guess that one didn’t pass, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s a real shame…” Pierce stepped back toward the bag and gave it a slight kick, at which point some of the filling began falling out of the hole. “I guess this bag was just, uh, old and rotting, or something.”

“I mean, even if it is, it’s still pretty impressive to punch a hole in one.”

“Well, hey, I won’t deny that. Still, though…” Pierce glanced toward the room’s entrance; he could see the occasional person passing by, but it didn’t seem like anyone else had noticed the bag. “…Let’s keep this between the two of us, huh? I don’t want to steal all the attention, you know.”

Andra giggled. “If you say so!”

Pierce smirked in response. “Glad to hear it. Though, while you’re here — ah, hold on a sec.” He glanced down at his watch, which had just vibrated, signaling a new notification. After a quick swipe of his finger, his brow reflexively furrowed — the notification was a message from Phoenix. Oh, great. The hell does she want?

“…Is something wrong?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” Pierce shook his head and returned his attention to Andra. “It’s nothing important, just an… old annoyance. Anyways, as I was saying—”

Once again, he was interrupted by his watch buzzing, though this time it was a sustained series of loud vibrations. Annoyed, he glanced down at it and saw that a call was incoming. Is this Phoenix again? Of all the timing

“…I guess I should let you take that, huh?”

“Oh, no, it’s fine, it’s fine!” Pierce urged as he dismissed the call — only for his watch to begin buzzing again a second later.

“That’s an… interesting definition of ‘fine’,” Andra remarked, and began making for the room’s exit. “Sorry about my timing.”

“No, not at all,” Pierce replied. “But, uh… well, talk to you later!”

Andra smiled and waved back at him just as she stepped out of the room.

Pierce maintained a strained smirk until she was out of sight, at which point his expression rapidly collapsed into a scowl. “Damn it, Phoenix…” In a huff, he stomped over to his bag at the side of the room and yanked out his phone, irately pressing the ‘answer’ button as he did so. He then held the device up to his ear. “The fuck do you want?”

«That’s how you greet me? Seriously?!»

“Do you have any idea how utterly bad your timing is? I was in the middle of talking with this cute chick, you know that?!”

«You’re mad because I interrupted you flirting?!» Phoenix’s voice dripped with incredulity before switching to pure frustration. «Damn it, Pierce, I knew you couldn’t be trusted to keep your priorities straight!»

“The hell are you on about?”

«You’ve been using your abilities, haven’t you?»

Pierce’s brow furrowed in confusion. How the hell does she know? She’s way over in Boston. …Wait a fucking second. Kestrel ratted on me, didn’t she?!

«Answer the question!»

“I somehow doubt you’d believe me if I said ‘no’,” he retorted.

«Damn it, Pierce! Didn’t we all agree specifically to not use our powers? At least until we had a chance to meet up and talk about it?»

“All I remember agreeing to was not getting into trouble — and I haven’t, I’ll have you know.”

«Knowing you, it’s only a matter of time until you do, unless you stop now

“I didn’t know that you could order me around.”

«This is for your own good, Pierce! Can’t you see that?»

“My own good, my ass. You know what using my powers is good for? Saving other people!”

«Don’t try to fool me. You’re no altruist, we both know the only reason you want to save people is for the attention.»

“Oh fuck off. If you want to squander your newfound power, then fine, I don’t fucking care. But the way I see it — what’s the point of having this power if we don’t use it?”

«If you do use your power, you’re liable to get SERRCom on your ass. Hell, I bet the two of us are especially at risk of that, since we literally just got back from a SERRCom-sponsored program!»

“So?”

«Do you seriously not see what I’m saying here? You run the risk of getting drafted, Pierce! SERRCom’s already done it once, with those four Chaotics from Texas, so we know they’re willing to do it. And the way I see it, being forced to use my powers for a military purpose is worse than not using them at all.»

Or, you could just use them in a way that will never lead to SERRCom discovering who you are.”

«If you seriously think that you can do that, then I don’t know what to tell you. It only takes one slip up to lose everything, you know. And once SERRCom is after you, there’s no where you can hide. Surely you at least know that

“This is fucking stupid. Can you imagine if everyone thought the way you did? The only reason I’m still around right now is because of Trenon, you remember that?!”

A momentary lull passed as Phoenix failed to respond, during which Pierce realized that his heart rate had risen considerably. He took a deep breath and sat on the floor in an effort to calm himself and ignore the dull throbbing in his torso, and as he did, Phoenix finally responded.

«Look… I’m not trying to diminish what… what Trenon did, or what people like him do,» she stated, her voice calmer than before, though still tense. «But the fact of the matter is, if no one used their powers, then there wouldn’t have been a berserk Chaotic tearing up the city, either. Trenon would still be alive.»

“Bitch please, are you trying to say that me using my powers is going to get someone fucking killed?!”

«That’s not entirely my point, but it could! Don’t try to pretend that it couldn’t!»

“You—!” Pierce began to respond, but stopped as the image of an unconscious woman, slumped to the ground after he had knocked her out, crossed his mind. Phoenix didn’t know it, but Pierce’s own experiences had already proved her correct — though he would be loath to actually admit as much out loud. He scowled, his brow furrowed in irritation; he wanted to argue, but there was no ground for him to stand on. Unless… “…You know, people only die in accidents like that because other people get careless. Chaotics that use their powers responsibly don’t go berserk, I’m sure you know that.”

«You can’t honestly be saying that you’re using your powers responsibly.»

“You can’t know whether I am or not because you aren’t fucking here. But even if I’m not, I have to actually practice my powers if I want to get good enough to not put other people in danger. It’s just like track training.”

«‘Just like training’ my fucking ass! You can’t accidentally kill someone by running on a track!»

“No, but you can if you do stuff like shot-put or javelin throwing wrong. And guess which one of us does those events?”

«You…! I can’t believe you. Nothing gets through to you!»

“Sounds like you’re just mad I turned your argument around on you.”

«I’m mad because you won’t listen to reason, you stupid dumbass! Fucking… whatever. If you end up getting drafted, or even getting yourself fucking killed, I don’t care. Just don’t drag the rest of us down with you!»

Pierce opened his mouth to respond, but before he could, the sound of Phoenix hanging up reached his ears. An irritated sigh escaped his lips as he removed his phone from his ear and glared at it. That bitch thinks she can order me around, just because we’re old friends or something. Hmph! I’ll show her she’s wrong… He then tossed his phone into his bag, zipped it up, and heaved it up onto his shoulders. Though for now, I have more pressing matters to attend to. Like where Andra went. Shit, I don’t even know what house she’s in. I guess I can ask Kieran…

With that, he turned around and set out for the exit of the gym, prepared to face whatever else the day or upcoming week would throw at him.

Chapter 16 – Hidden Discoveries

3 Days Later

Alright. One more attempt… here we go!

Pierce kicked off of the building he was standing on, launching him across the block and to the roof of another building, where he again leaped through the air to begin his trek across the city. Dusk masked his surroundings as he continued to jump through the air over the San Francisco Bay Area, searching the roads and buildings as he passed for any signs of criminal activity.

I’ve had a few days to practice punching and throwing, he mused to himself while constantly scanning the ground beneath him, if I run into anyone else with a gun, well… I’m sure I can at least avoid a repeat of last week.

He returned his attention to the rapidly darkening evening environment around him as he sped through the air up the eastern side of the bay. Fremont, Union City, and Hayward all passed by underfoot, all of them receiving a cursory glance from Pierce but little more. It was only when he entered the outskirts of Oakland that he slowed his pace and began to look more closely for any signs of suspicious activity — Oakland was his home, after all, and as such he knew it far better than the rest of the bay.

Though I shouldn’t actually go home… He glanced in the direction of his apartment building before leaping in the opposite direction. As far as his family was concerned, he was still at Caltech, near Los Angeles. While his superspeed made the trek between LA and the Bay Area a trivial endeavor, the trip would normally take five or six hours by car — which would make his presence in the area on a weeknight difficult to explain. I have my balaclava on, so at least no one should recognize me, but just to play it safe… let’s stay away from home. Though I should really find a better mask than a fucking balaclava, I look way more like a bad guy than a hero with this…

For a moment, he stopped atop a tall apartment building in downtown Oakland and peered down at the streets below. Sunset had only just passed, so the streets were still busy with people going about their evening business, be it walking home from work or hanging out with friends at a restaurant. It might be too busy right now for anything to happen… I guess I can check some alleyways. Might’ve come up here too early, though.

Instead of immediately taking off, however, he paused for another few moments to watch the city. The dusky streets were illuminated by street light, allowing him to watch the car traffic and pedestrian activity despite the late time of day. Dozens of people passed by on the streets below, all of them absorbed in wherever their own lives were taking them, and none of them looking up at the crouched, masked man who watched over them all.

At the thought of ‘looking up’, Pierce glanced skyward himself, spotting at first nothing but rapidly darkening skies and scattered dark blue clouds. Just as he was about to return his attention to the ground, however, he noticed a peculiar arrangement of lights descending through the skies toward the northern peninsula. The lights certainly didn’t match that of a normal aircraft; based on how they appeared in the sky, with three pairs of lights arranged in two rows, Pierce figured that the craft was a SERRCom transport ship, likely making a landing at the massive dam under construction across the mouth of the bay. A transport ship, huh? What the hell are they dropping off at the dam this late in the day…?

He glanced at the ground, watching the passing pedestrians for another couple seconds. …No crime in sight. Alright, then. I have the speed, and the time — let’s go check out this dam. If SERRCom’s up to something, I’ll catch them red-handed!

A second later, Pierce launched himself to the northwest, toward the bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. Within seconds, he had reached the bridge, crossed it, and then sped across the husk of San Francisco. He finally brought himself to a stop on the northern shores of the peninsula; some distance to his right was the Golden Gate Bridge, now somewhat tarnished due to consistently delayed upkeep. And to his left, stretching from the most northwestern point of the peninsula north across the mouth of the bay, was the partially-complete shell of the BARP dam. The dam itself was nothing to write home about — it simply looked like a massive wall protruding out of the water, accompanied by a host of cranes and construction ships sidled up alongside the incomplete structure. Most of the southern dam appeared to be complete, though the northern part of the dam still had large holes where the superstructure had yet to be covered with exterior walls.

After taking a moment to survey the dam, Pierce leaped toward the southern edge, where the dam met with the peninsula — and around where the SERRCom transport craft had landed. It wasn’t long before he encountered a chain-linked fence, which he wasn’t surprised to see — what did give him pause, however, was the sight of an armed guard standing just outside one of the fence gates. Armed guards? Around a dam? Pierce crouched into the shadow of a nearby vehicle as he began scanning the fence line for more guards. What the… they’re all over the place. Since when did a fucking dam need this much security? What are they trying to hide? …Wait a fucking minute, is that…? He leaped out of cover, crossing dozens of meters of dark parking lot to get closer to one of the fence gates. Now closer, he could see that two guards had stepped forward and had their guns pointed at another individual, who had their hands up in surrender. The guards were shouting something; Pierce couldn’t quite hear what, but he could see the stature and build of the person they were arresting. With a lanky frame and short height, they didn’t look any older than high school-aged, and they seemed to have short, dirty-blond hair — around the same color as Pierce’s, in fact.

“For fuck’s sake…” He scowled deeply, but didn’t waste another moment before leaping out of cover and blasting off toward the gate. In a flash, he scooped the lone person into his arms and leaped away, fleeing the premises at supersonic speeds. He only stopped a few seconds later, once he stood atop one of the hills a few kilometers to the south; once he did, he carefully set down the person he had rescued, at which point he got a good look at their face and confirmed his suspicion of their identify:

It was his sister.

“What the? Who…?” She stumbled back, her eyes wide with surprise as she stared at Pierce.

“I can’t believe—!” he started, his tone irate, but then he stopped himself. Damn it, dude, be careful. I can’t let her know who I am, so I better act like I don’t know her…

“Uh… thanks for saving me…?”

“…Hmph.” Pierce crossed his arms as he glared down at Riley. “…Call me Speed Demon.”

“…Speed Demon?”

“Now what the hell were you doing down there?”

She frowned and looked away. “I just wanted to see what was going on over there, that’s all…”

“And so you decided to just walk up to the front gates of a fucking SERRCom site?”

“Look, I know it was hella stupid, alright? I just wanted to see if the rumors were true, that’s all. It was a dare, anyways…”

“Rumors?” Pierce shifted his hands to his hips as he regarded Riley with incredulity. “There are a hell of a lot of rumors about this stupid dam. Which ones did you think a high school girl could verify?”

She opened her mouth to respond, but then she paused and squinted her eyes. “…Do I know you? Your voice sounds familiar…”

“That’s— ahem!” Pierce cleared his throat and immediately attempted to speak with a deeper tone. “That’s not what I asked. Tell me about the rumors you were after.”

“…Something about SERRCom not being upfront with what they’re doing, that’s all. Something about the dam being too big. People think SERRCom’s up to no good.”

“And so you decided to just waltz on up to the fucking armed guards?!”

“I already said it was stupid, what more do you want from me?”

Pierce sighed and held a hand to his forehead in irritation. “You need to realize that being this hella stupid can get you killed. Do you know what would’ve happened if I hadn’t just happened to be there to save you?”

Riley averted her eyes and kicked at the ground in shame.

“I seriously can’t believe how much trouble you get yourself into…” Pierce shook his head. “Seriously, checking out a SERRCom construction site? All on your own? And on a weeknight, at that! What the hell are you doing all the way across the Bay on a weeknight? Do people know where you are?”

“What? How do you…?” Riley turned to make eye-contact with Pierce again, her expression confused. She then looked him over head to toe. “…Pierce? Is that you?”

“Wha-what?” Pierce spluttered, and then cleared his throat as he attempted to regain his composure. “Uh, no. Who’s Pierce? I don’t know anyone named Pierce…”

“I knew it, it is you, you dumbass!” Riley smirked. “Only you could come up with such a lame name as ‘Speed Demon’.”

“Shut up, it’s cool. And I already told you, I’m not Pierce. I don’t even know you.”

“Then how did you know I live ‘across the Bay’? Or that I get into trouble all the time?”

“That’s— that was, uh. …Because of my superspeed, of course! I’m hella fast, I can keep an eye on everyone in the Bay.”

“I doubt that. But if you really do, that’s hella creepy.”

“What?! I’m not—! Hmph. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure thing, Pierce.”

“I’m not Pierce, you deaf idiot.”

“If you aren’t, that’s a hella rude thing to call a stranger, you know?”

“Agh. Why are you always—?” Pierce stopped himself mid-sentence, but as he saw the sly grin grow on Riley’s face, he knew it was too late. “Alright, look, you irresponsible delinquent,” he began again, “you’re going to go home, now. Or else I’ll tell Mo— your mom what you were doing out here.”

“Sure, sure.” Riley nodded patronizingly. “If you tell her that, then I’ll tell her that you suddenly have superpowers.”

“That’s perfectly fine, because I’m not Pierce.”

“I didn’t say you were, that time.”

“You know what I meant, asshole.”

“…But seriously. When did you get superpowers? Can I get them?!”

“I don’t know, and I don’t know. You can’t handle them, anyways. It’s a lot of responsibility for an irresponsible person like you.”

“Now you’re not even trying to pretend that you aren’t you. You really need to work on that, if you want to make this ‘superhero’ thing work.”

“Oh shut up, I don’t need lectures from you. Look, just go home, and if someone asks, you ran into the Speed Demon tonight, not Pierce. Got it?”

“Sure, whatever, Speed Loser.”

“I swear, I’m—! Hmph. Just get out of here.”

“And what are you going to do?”

“What I’m going to do doesn’t matter to you, because I’m actually an adult who can take care of myself. Now get going before I fucking punt you across the hills!”

“And how am I supposed to do that, exactly? We’re way out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t even have any way of calling a car.”

“You…! Alright, fine.” Pierce scooped his sister back into his arms, at which point he launched himself over the hills and into the city of San Francisco proper. Within seconds, he appeared in front of a BART station, where he promptly dropped his sister onto a nearby bench. “Go home. Now!” he demanded; before she could respond, he disappeared from the scene, having just launched himself back toward the northwest with a new mission on his mind. His sister may have been careless, and the rumor she had supposedly been acting on seemed too general to be truly based on anything — yet, he couldn’t help but feel suspicious of SERRCom’s activities himself. After all, if they weren’t hiding anything, then why would they need so many armed guards?

And with my speed, I should be in and out before they can react, he mused, stopping for a moment in the parking lot that he had found just before rescuing Riley. Peeking out from behind a large vehicle, he took a close look at the guard activity around the fence — and found that several search lights had been activated, and there seemed to be more guards, all keeping a careful watch over the fence and surrounding area. …Well I guess that makes sense, they did just see Riley disappear into thin air. Let’s hope they haven’t locked down the dam itself, though!

He took several steps back and crouched down… and then he launched himself up and forward, practically flying over the guards, search lights, and fence line at Mach 1. A couple seconds later, he landed with a roll atop the dam itself, now almost a kilometer away from the point where the dam met land. The top of the dam wasn’t lit; there were a number of lights installed on both sides of the dam, so that naval ships could see it during the night, but the illumination from those lights didn’t reach the top. As such, Pierce found himself standing within a deep darkness, so he stopped for a few moments to let his eyes adjust and carefully take in his surroundings.

While standing around, a low electrical humming noise reached his ears. He glanced toward the source of the noise, to the south, where he found the transport craft he had spotted earlier — as it slowly hovered over the dam, sweeping its search lights across the top. Aw, shit. No time to stand around, huh?

Pierce whipped around and began running north along the top of the dam. As he had noticed earlier in the evening, the southern part of the dam seemed to be largely complete already; only the northern part of the dam had exposed structure, particularly around the massive unfinished locks that were intended to allow naval ships to still access the ports within the bay once the dam was complete. A few seconds later, Pierce came to the edge of the completed area of the dam. The top of the dam simply dropped off, exposing the massive steel skeleton of the structure below. Cranes and suspended scaffolding lined the dam on both sides, and hanging lights projected a minor amount of illumination within the structure — just enough for Pierce to get an idea of what it looked like. The rest of the dam remained shrouded in darkness.

Must be over a hundred meters tall Pierce mused as he glanced over the side of the dam. He couldn’t actually see where the dam met the water’s surface, but the lights farthest down seemed to be around a hundred meters away. That seems… excessively tall. I guess they need room for the dynamos… but there should be plenty of room as is, with how long the dam is. He looked over his shoulder at the transport craft that slowly approached behind him, and then stared down at the structure of the dam below him. It looked much like a half-lit web of steel, with no sight of the bottom; if Pierce didn’t know any better, he might’ve guessed that the whole structure was suspended over a bottomless pit.

With visibility this poor, jumping around will be incredibly dangerous… but I’ve come too far to walk away without finding anything. Let’s see… it looks like there’s scaffolding down there, on the inside of the structure. If I can get down there, then I can follow it inside the dam, to the completed parts — and then I can see if SERRCom’s hiding anything. Ha! Pierce began scanning the web of steel for a path of descent, keeping a careful eye out for joints in the structure and how well the various pieces of scaffolding were secured. …Well, time to put that Mech.E. knowledge to work. Here we go!

Carefully, Pierce crouched down and then launched himself forward, over the exposed interior of the dam. He soon fell below the dam’s top, plunging himself into the sparsely-illuminated interior; a moment later, he landed on a massive crossbeam. He jumped again, this time toward a piece of scaffolding almost ten meters down and against the far side of the dam. The scaffolding rattled under the force of his landing, but it didn’t give, allowing him to turn around and search for his next landing point. A second later, he was in the air again, aiming for a final piece of scaffolding attached to the completed area of the dam.

So far, so good—! Pierce started to think as he landed with a roll atop the scaffolding, but a loud metallic snap interrupted his thoughts. With an incredible wrenching sound, the scaffolding beneath his feet began to give way, prompting him to jump away in a panic — it was only once he was already airborne that he realized he didn’t know where he was going to land. A second later, the answer came to him, as he slammed into the metallic railing of a piece of scaffolding that sat outside of any lighting. He scrambled to grab any part of the railing that he could, clutching onto it for dear life as a distant splashing noise reached his ears. Tentatively, he glanced down, though all he could see was pitch black darkness. Well, uh… this is great. This is fine. This is… not fine at all. Why is this place so dark and dangerous, what the fuck? Does SERRCom not care about OSHA regs or something?!

A nearby creaking prompted him to glance back at the scaffolding he was clutching to. His eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness, so he could see vague outlines of the metal — as well as the fact that the part he was hanging onto was slowly coming loose. Oh, for fuck’s sake! Quickly, he turned his attention back to the rest of the interior in search of a new, safe landing space, but now that he was around fifty meters below the top of the dam, he couldn’t see much. Most of the illuminated scaffolding was above him, and he wasn’t confident that he could reach it from where he was — he would have to awkwardly kick off of a thin metal pole that was coming loose, so he didn’t have much confidence in the amount of force he could use to launch himself. Damn it, there must be somewhere to land, right? …Wait, up there!

He narrowed his eyes as he looked up at where the collapsed scaffolding once was. Whether he simply hadn’t noticed it before, or lights had only just come on, he wasn’t sure, but he could now see a faintly illuminated tarp over what he assumed to be a hole in the wall of the completed area. The hole seemed to be about the size of a normal hallway — meaning there should be plenty of room for him to fit.

A metallic twang echoed through the dam interior as Pierce felt the scaffolding he was latched to jolt. Without wasting any more time, he lifted his legs to plant his feet against the metal pole and then kicked off of it, launching himself up and at the illuminated tarp. He braced himself, prepared to impact a hard wall, but to his relief he simply sailed through the tarp and rolled to a stop on solid ground. Alright… I’m inside!

A quick look at his surroundings revealed a bare-bones appearance. The hallway in which he stood was surrounded by unpainted metal bulkheads, and was illuminated by a series of faint LEDs attached to the ceiling. The walls were unmarked, though there was a door just a few meters away, complete with a large metal wheel attached to it.

Before Pierce could begin approaching the door, a metallic snap echoed through the hallway from outside. He turned around and cautiously peeked past the tarp, just in time to see the piece of scaffolding he had kicked off of collapse into the darkness below. Man, SERRCom really needs better scaffolding. …Or maybe it just wasn’t built to withstand someone kicking off of it at Mach 1. That, uh… that actually makes more sense. Oops.

Without warning, a bright light illuminated the dam interior from above. Pierce flinched away, his eyes scrounged shut in discomfort, but he quickly took another look outside to see where the light was coming from — at which point he spotted the SERRCom transport craft, hovering just above the dam. Immediately, he retreated into the hallway and away from the tarp, hoping that he hadn’t been seen. As he stood there, his attention slowly turned to the hallway door behind him. …I’m already in this far… might as well keep going.

Tentatively, he approached the door and firmly grasped the wheel attached to it. He then began turning it counter-clockwise to open the lock, moving it as slowly as he could so as to not make any noise. Two full rotations later, a soft thunk echoed through the metal bulkheads, at which point Pierce yanked the door open, jumped through, and then closed it tight. He then backed away from the door and stared at it apprehensively for several moments, his entire body tense as he watched for any sign that the transport craft had spotted him; when none came, he finally released a pent-up sigh and turned around, at which point he froze again, and his jaw dropped in awe.

Before him was a massive, wide-open space, stretching from the top of the dam fifty meters above him, to far below him. He cautiously approached the metal railing of the small walkway on which he stood and looked over it in an effort to see the ground; by his estimation, parts of the open area extended over two hundred meters below the walkway. He felt a shudder involuntarily cross his body — he had stood atop far taller buildings before and felt perfectly fine, but something about the fact that he was inside a massive structure unsettled him.

The open space seemed to extend horizontally down the length of the dam for several hundred meters before stopping at another giant bulkhead. The intermediate space was filled with massive support columns and crossbeams, and all along the bottom, below the waterline, Pierce could see outlines of the platforms on which the dam’s water pumps and dynamos would likely be anchored. As he looked over the massive space, something else caught his eye — particularly, there were four large circular holes in the distant bulkhead, two on top and two on bottom, as though to allow a series of massive pipes through. These holes were far above the waterline, however, and seemed to run the length of the dam, as opposed to the width — which is the direction that water would actually be pumped.

That’s weird… Pierce narrowed his eyes as he began running down the walkway to get a closer look at the massive holes. What could that be? I’m no electrical engineer, so I don’t know a lot about power generation, but that doesn’t look anything like hydrodynamic power OR tubes for pumping water. It must be something else. At that point, he stopped running to take another look at the area below him. Now that I think about it, the mouth of the bay shouldn’t be much more than a hundred meters deep, but this cavity looks like it goes down another fifty-ish meters below that. Why the hell did they excavate that much space? There’s no way they need that much room for pumps, or generators, or even the foundation. It seems like something fishy really IS going on here…

He glanced around himself; the open area was faintly lit by hundreds of lights installed all over the structure, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of human activity. Warily, he turned around and sped over to the bulkhead with the circular holes, at which point he leaped up to one of the holes to inspect it. Once perched at the edge, he was able to see that the hole was indeed attached to a long tube. He couldn’t see very far down the tube, as it wasn’t illuminated, but the part that he could see seemed to be nearly ten meters in diameter, and was lined with metal plating interspersed with bundles of wires, running lengthwise down the tube. Wires? This definitely isn’t for water, then. But what is it? …I feel like I’ve seen something like this before. Hmm…

He whipped around and jumped back to the walkway, at which point he turned back to face the massive bulkhead. Each of the other holes had the same size and appearance as the one he had inspected, and on a closer look, they seemed to be evenly spaced apart, with just over twenty meters between hole edges, and over ten meters from any surrounding walls. Now that I look at it, it’s like the holes I can see are only the center parts of larger tubes. Hmm. If that’s true, and my estimation of the dimensions are right, then… each tube is really around ten meters thick, with a ten meter open space in the center. And they’re made of metal, with a lot of wires running their length. The only thing I can think of that would be made like that is some kind of electromagnet, but… wait, is that it? Pierce stared up at the holes with a mixture of realization and confusion. Are these… particle accelerators? Really? But why?

Creeeeaaak

Not even ten meters away from Pierce, along the walkway he was standing on, a door in the massive bulkhead slowly swung open. Reflexively, Pierce launched himself back into one of the massive bulkhead holes and pressed himself against the metal tubing in an effort to hide from view.

Barely a second later, the sound of hard boots on metal began echoing through the massive man-made cavern. Through the corner of his eye, Pierce could see a patch of light slowly sweep across the bulkhead walls, as though someone was scanning them with a flashlight.

“Do you see anything?”

Pierce pursed his lips as a man’s voice reached his ears. Well, shit

“…I don’t think so…” another man’s voice replied. “But this is a pretty big place. Could take a while to search.”

“You wanna call in some help?”

Well this is annoying Pierce eyed the bulkhead several hundred meters away, and the door he had used to first enter the dam. …I need to leave. But how the hell can I get over there without them seeing me…?

“I don’t know…” the second man eventually replied. Pierce couldn’t see where his flashlight was pointing, but he could tell that he seemed to have stopped on the walkway. “…I’m kinda skeptical that there’s anyone here in the first place.”

“You know we’re supposed to take all intrusion reports seriously.”

“Yeah, but there wasn’t actually an intrusion, just some idiot trying to make it through the front gates.”

Riley Pierce scowled. I really should’ve waited for another day to do this. Damn me and my impatience…

“It wasn’t just that, though,” the first man argued, “the gate guards claimed that the intruder just disappeared, into thin air!”

“Sounds like a load of bullshit to me, honestly.”

“It sounds like a Chaotic. And if it was, do you know what that could mean?”

“If the Chief honestly thought there was a Chaotic around here, then we’d be doing sensor sweeps on top of manual ones, and handing out portable CENT generators. But we aren’t. That means no Chaotics.”

“…Well, I guess…”

“Anyways, we’ve spent enough time here. Let’s check this section off and head back to the guardhouse.”

Finally Pierce released a sigh and began to approach the tube’s exit, only to stop and jump backward as a beam of light fell on the far side of the tube in which he hid and began to slowly sweep across it.

“Hey…” came the first man’s voice, “…you don’t think anyone’s hiding up there, do you?”

“Hiding? In those tubes? Ha!” The second man’s scoff was so loud that it echoed longer than the rest of his statement. “And how the hell would anyone even get up there?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time someone was trapped in there…”

“Oh please. Don’t tell me you buy into those stupid ghost stories? There’s nothing in those tubes but metal and wires, now let’s get going already. We’re going to be late enough for dinner, as is.”

The sound of footsteps began again to echo through the air, though the beam of light remained on the tube for several more seconds.

“Damn it, Akshay, let it go already!”

“Alright, alright…”

More footsteps reached Pierce’s ears — and the light finally disappeared. Even so, Pierce remained completely still for several more seconds as footsteps continued to echo through the massive open area. It was only when he heard the bang of the door closing that he began to move, and he did so quickly. Spinning on his heel, he launched himself back to the walkway and then sped over to the far bulkhead in a split-second, where he blasted the door open with a kick and threw himself outside. Once outside and next to the tarp, Pierce threw it aside and leaped directly upward, smashing through a weaker part of the dam top and then grabbing onto the ledge that remained. With a grunt of effort, he managed to pull himself up onto the top of the dam, at which point he wasted no time in blasting off to the south. Within seconds, he was clear of the dam.

“Shit…” he muttered under his breath as he came to a brief stop in the peninsula hills. Now free of immediate danger, he was able to begin catching his breath, and as he did so, he considered everything he had just seen. He may not have been an electrical engineer, but mechanical engineering was an adjacent discipline, and Pierce felt that he had learned enough so far to determine that the dam had to have some kind of ulterior purpose. What stuck out most to him were the odd tubes that he had found — could they truly be particle accelerators? And if they were, what was SERRCom hoping to accomplish by installing them inside the dam — and why would they feel the need to keep the accelerators’ presence a secret?

“Figures that SERRCom is up to no good,” Pierce muttered, and then turned toward the south and began running down the peninsula. He possessed many questions, but there was no way for him to get answers — not tonight. All that was left was to return to his dorm room, and continue preparing for the upcoming academic year.

Chapter 17 – A New Day, A New Year

5 Days Later

— Monday, October 3, AD 2129 —

“Damn it, late on the first day of classes… seriously. Me, late! I can’t believe this…”

Pierce grumbled to himself as he rushed up the stairs of Caltech’s engineering building. The clocks read just past eleven in the morning, and while he had awoken early — just like usual — he had vastly overestimated how much free time he actually had in the morning. Originally, he had planned to simply use his superspeed to reach his first class on time after spending the morning running and working out, but everywhere he walked that morning, there were other people around him. Using his superspeed when people could see him would obviously blow his cover, so he had begrudgingly limited himself to a normal walking pace — and thus, found himself late to class.

“At least it’s just a dumb elective…” he muttered as he reached the third floor and approached the door to the classroom. With an irritated sigh, he reached for the doorknob and quietly opened the door, at which point he stepped through and closed the door behind him as subtly as he could.

“Ah, Mr. Bradley! Just the man I was waiting for!”

“…Huh?” Pierce stopped in his tracks, eyes wide as he stared at the professor standing at the front of the room. Not much about the man stood out; he had an average height, a plain appearance, and a slightly pudgy build. Pierce knew the man was one of the engineering professors, but Pierce had yet to take any of his classes until today. So how does he know my name already…?

“Come on, sit, sit!” The professor tapped the table near him, in front of one of the room’s only empty seats. Tentatively, Pierce approached the seat and slowly sat down, at which point the professor turned toward the other twenty or so students in the class. “I’m sure you all already know Mr. Bradley, here. Luckily for you all, he has just acquired a wealth of new knowledge and experience that is certain to enrich our time in this class.”

“Uh, excuse me, Prof?” Pierce slowly raised his hand; when the professor glanced toward him, he continued, “I’m not really sure what you’re talking about. Are you sure you got the right guy?”

“Of course I am. …You did spend the summer on a different planet, didn’t you?”

Pierce momentarily glanced to the side as murmurs filled the room. “…Well, yeah,” he eventually responded, “but what does that have to do with the class?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what class you’ve signed up for. You remembered to show up, so surely you also remember that this is a class on future tech!”

“…Ooooh… right…” Pierce nodded as he finally recalled the class’s name in the class registry: “Future Tech: An Overview of Advanced Technology of Extraterrestrial Origins”. Well, shit. I signed up for this class since I figured it would be a walk in the park after going off-world myself, but I didn’t expect to be turned into a damn guest speaker. Prof better not try and make me a TA later on…

The professor smiled in response to Pierce’s apparent recognition. “I’m glad we’re on the same page, then. Now, Mr. Bradley, if you don’t mind, can you give us a quick overview of what you did while off-world?”

“Uh. Well…” Pierced shrugged noncommittally. “You know, I just studied a spacecraft, that’s all.”

“What kind of spacecraft?” asked a female voice from the side of the room opposite of Pierce.

“It was just, you know…” He began answering with a disinterested, flat tone, but then his ears perked up when he realized that the voice sounded familiar. A quick glance to the side confirmed his suspicion — sitting across the room from him was Andra, the girl he had run into in the gym a week ago. As soon as he made this discovery, he cleared his throat and straightened his posture before turning toward the other students in the classroom with a broad smirk on his face. “It was a civilian courier craft, complete with all of the standard spacecraft equipment. Energy shields, anti-grav, inertial dampeners, FTL tech, the whole works. And I got a chance to look at everything.”

“Which of those systems seemed most advanced to you?” The professor questioned, drawing Pierce’s attention back to him.

Most advanced? That’s hard to say, they’re all pretty incredible. I guess I’d go with the FTL tech — ah, FTL stands for ‘faster than light’, in case anyone didn’t know.” Pierce passed a smug glance toward the rest of the class before continuing, “the FTL tech I got to see was a Chaos Drive.”

“Ah, yes, Chaos Drives!” The professor clapped his hands as he turned toward the rest of the class. “A perfect segue into today’s topic: Chaos Energy, and what it means for engineers and new technology! Now, as I’m sure you all know, Chaos Energy is a sort of nebulous energy that allows for many kinds of physics-defying feats. Strictly speaking, it isn’t truly energy in the technical sense, but all the same, it can…”

At that point, Pierce began zoning out; nothing the professor was talking about was new to him, due to his time with Brikén aboard her ship. However, with his seating position at the front of the class and so near the professor, he couldn’t simply doze off, as he would typically do when a class began to bore him. Instead, the following hour passed at a snails pace, as Pierce’s focus snapped between trying not to fall asleep and occasionally answering the professor’s questions about his knowledge regarding Chaos Energy-based technology. The realization that he shared the classroom with Andra was motivation enough for him to weather the first half-hour of the class, but by the time the hour was up, his confident smirk had faded into a small smile, put on only to suppress the aura of boredom that would have otherwise overtaken him.

“…and with that, I’ll leave you all to continue on your days. Class dismissed.”

“Alright,” Pierce muttered, springing to his feet and turning toward the door in one fluid motion.

Before he could take a step, however, the professor had approached and placed a hand on his shoulder. “Mr. Bradley, if you don’t mind,” he began, an eager grin plastered across his face, “I’d like to hear more about what you’ve learned. You say you’ve had a first-hand look at not just a Chaos Drive, but also energy shield generators, and anti-gravity generators? Not to mention inertial dampeners? Those technologies are, quite simply, incredible, and I’d love to hear your insights about them!”

“Uh, well…” Pierce regarded the professor with an uneasy look. Ah, shit, how do I get out of this one? Wait Out the corner of his eye, he spotted Andra pass a surreptitious glance in his direction just before leaving the room. Immediately, he cleared his throat, shook off the Professor, and made for the room’s exit himself. “Sorry, Prof,” he shouted over his shoulder, “I’d love to chat, but I’m afraid I have something important to tend to. See ya!”

Without waiting to see or hear the professor’s response, Pierce charged out of the room and rapidly scanned the hallway he now stood in. A moment later, he spotted Andra’s retreating form, and began jogging after her. “Hey! Andra, right?”

“Hmm?” She stopped and glanced behind herself. “Oh, Pierce! Hi! Are you late for something…?”

“Oh, no, just… stretching my legs a bit.” Pierce made a brief running motion with his arms as he came to a stop in front of her. “All that sitting around can make you restless, you know?”

“Yeah, too true…” She sighed. “At least it’s only an hour.”

Pierce nodded in agreement. “You’re right, those longer classes really are the worst. But, hey, if you’re taking this class, that means you’re a Mech. E., right? That’s cool!”

“Ah, hehe,” she briefly giggled before responding, “well, I’m actually a Chem. E. But this class satisfies elective requirements for all of the engineering majors, so I figured, why not? Learning about this kind of otherworldly technology could be fun!”

Pierce snorted. “The Prof sure seems to agree.”

Andra frowned. “Do you not like talking about what you know…?”

“Oh, I do, just not in a stuffy classroom setting. I’d prefer chatting in a park, or on a walk in the city, or…” He paused as his stomach let off a low grumble.

“…Or over lunch?” Andra finished with an amused giggle.

“Well it is that time of day,” Pierce replied with a smirk. “Don’t suppose you’d like to go grab something from the cafe?”

“Sure!” she cheerfully responded. “I wanted to ask you more about your summer, actually. Uh, assuming you don’t mind, that is.”

“Of course not.” Pierce waved off her concern as the two began walking down the third floor steps of the engineering building. “Talking over lunch sounds like my idea of a good time. Especially if I get to talk to someone like you.”

“Aw… I’m not really sure I deserve that…”

“Oh c’mon, you seem like a hella cool person to me. You want to join the track team, that’s pretty cool. And you’re way ahead of me on taking electives, too. My first term s’more year was filled entirely with core. That was a real piece of work…”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that sophomore-level core isn’t very, uh… fun.

“It really isn’t. None of core is. But, hey, enough about boring classes, let’s talk about something more interesting.”

“More interesting, huh?” Andra echoed as the two stepped out of the engineering building to the outside world. Sunlight and clear skies blanketed the campus, which itself was host to groups of students, post-docs, and professors alike as everyone went about getting lunch. Pierce and Andra soon joined the flow, walking down the pathways towards the main campus cafeteria. “The campus seems a lot more lively than usual,” Andra eventually remarked.

“Yeah, it’s always like this on the first day of the year,” Pierce replied as he stretched his arms. “Same for the first day of winter or spring term, though a little less so. Everyone always feels fresh and recharged after a break.”

“That is true. I had a fun summer… though not as fun as yours, I’m sure.”

“Ha!” Pierce smirked in amusement. “That really depends.”

“What? Did you not like visiting an alien planet?”

“I never said that. It was surreal, getting to actually leave Earth and see fuckin’ aliens with my own eyes, and even talk with them. Hell, I spent the whole summer learning from an alien.”

“How does that even work? Did you have to learn their language?”

“Nope. SERRCom gave me RTA implants.” Pierce pointed at his ear. “They translate alien languages into English in real-time. It’s hella useful.”

“Wow, it certainly sounds like it,” Andra replied, her eyes wide with interest. “I’ve heard of RTA implants myself, but I heard they were crazy expensive. Did SERRCom pay for you to get some?”

“Yep! Pretty nice, huh?”

“Yeah! I didn’t know SERRCom could be so generous, though I guess they have to, if they wanted their outreach program to work. Still, though. That’s a thousand free sets of implants they had to have given out.”

“Sounds like you know a lot about the outreach program, huh?”

“Ah, ha ha, yeah. I applied for it myself, actually. Though I didn’t make it…”

“That’s totally fine. There were only a thousand slots, as you said; it was basically luck that I got picked.”

“I suppose…” Andra sighed before glancing over at Pierce again. “Still… I just can’t wrap my head around this whole program. It’s really nice, for sure, but, like… what does SERRCom get out of it?”

“I dunno. Exposure?” Pierce shrugged. “Who knows why SERRCom does what it does. I mean, have you heard about that whole Chaotic conscription business? That’s crazy, right?”

“Not as much as what happened in New York and Texas. You saw that news, right? About the big ship over New York? And then the fight in Texas?”

I didn’t just hear the news, I was there, Pierce mused, though I guess I can’t actually say that. Not that I would want to, anyways, since I didn’t even get to destroy that damn robot. Hmph.

“…Pierce?”

“Ah, sorry. Yeah, I saw those fights. Looked pretty cool to me.”

“I guess… but the fight in Texas destroyed a lot of homes, you know?”

“…Well… yeah…”

“I don’t know about you… but knowing that Chaotics can cause that much damage… that’s not exactly comforting.”

“Oh c’mon, did you actually watch the fight? Most of the damage was caused by that stupid EA guy and his robot. The idiots he was fighting didn’t cause nearly as much destruction as he did.”

“I guess. Maybe, that’s… no.” She shook her head and looked away. “Nevermind.”

Pierce passed her a curious glance. “What? Something wrong?”

“No, it’s just…” She returned his glance, though Pierce thought he could see unease in her eyes. “You had to go through SERRCom for the outreach program, right? What did you think of your interactions with them?”

“Huh? Uh, well… not a whole lot, really.” Pierce shrugged. “They were pretty hands-off about the whole thing. Maybe a little too hands-off, really, since there wasn’t a single SERRCom person on Ainminthalus with us. That was a real pain in the ass when the Quake hit.”

“Oh… you were on a different planet when that happened, huh? Was it bad?”

“…Yeah…”

“How bad? Not much happened here on Earth, but I heard things can get pretty bad elsewhere in the galaxy, where they actually use Chaos Energy-based technology everywhere.”

Pierce pursed his lips and turned his attention forward, softly clutching at the side of his torso as the two finally stepped through the front doors of the campus cafeteria and began navigating toward the long lunch lines. “…Let’s just say that it was bad, and leave it at that.”

“Oh… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine, you couldn’t have known. What’s with your question about SERRCom, though? It sounds like you don’t trust them.”

She passed an uneasy glance his way. “Do you?”

“They’re a giant interstellar military with minimal oversight, and can apparently get away with conscripting civilians without anyone complaining,” Pierce drawled. “Of course I don’t trust them.”

“That makes sense. I guess I agree with you there. But at the same time… it’s weird.” Andra paused for a moment to look up at the menu before continuing, “my mom has a job where she interacts with SERRCom a lot. She’s a project lead for one of the contractor companies that SERRCom hires to work on their domestic construction projects, and I hear a lot of… weird stuff.”

“Domestic projects? You mean like that dam up near San Fran?”

“Yeah! That’s actually her primary project. How did you know?”

“I didn’t, but I’m from the Bay Area, so I’m well aware of that damn… uh, dam. Heh. I’ve also heard some weird things about it, though they’re mostly rumors.” He turned to face her. “What do you know about the dam?”

“Not much, actually. My mom apparently had to sign an NDA about it.”

“An NDA? For a dam?”

“That’s what I thought! That’s weird, right?”

“Sure sounds weird to me, though you’re the daughter of a contractor, here. What else have you heard?”

“Well… sometimes my mom will complain about SERRCom leaving her in the dark about the purpose of certain project specs, or otherwise making her work around ‘black boxes’, so to speak.”

So they ARE hiding something, Pierce thought to himself as Andra looked away to put in her lunch order. I knew that stuff I found was weird. Though I didn’t expect to confirm this through Andra, of all people… He then stepped forward to order a burger for himself before turning back to Andra and questioning, “do you know what kind of tech your mom has to work around? Maybe, I dunno. Electromagnets, or something?”

“I don’t know the actual tech, myself, sorry. Are there really rumors about electromagnets…?”

Pierce shrugged. “Hey, they are rumors. Rumors can get pretty weird.”

“Yeah…”

“Anyways, it sure sounds to me like something nefarious is going on.”

“See, I don’t know if I’d go as far as ‘nefarious’,” Andra countered. “I agree that there’s probably some kind of ulterior motive, I don’t know why else SERRCom would be making it so hard to build a dam. But, even if there is an ulterior motive, the dam is still ultimately a project that’s good for the public. Right? And SERRCom is doing this all over the planet. Building sea walls, dams, anything to help the cities and countries that were impacted the most by the disasters of ‘88 and ‘89. Even if all of those projects have ulterior motives, they’re still good for the people. So as much as I don’t trust SERRCom, they are at least doing good here on Earth.”

“Mm… I guess so…”

“…Ah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to lecture you about this, I can shut up now.”

“No, no, it’s fine. This is pretty interesting stuff to hear about,” Pierce remarked. Especially since it can help me get to the bottom of that dam. With this information, I’ll be able to bust SERRCom’s secrets wide open. I just need to investigate a little more…

“Still, it’s probably boring to hear me speculate about this kind of stuff…”

“Hey, I disagree, but if you want to change the subject, I’m cool with that, too. Is there something else you wanted to talk about?”

“Well… I know you said you don’t want to talk about the Quake, but what about before that? What was it like, living on… what was the planet’s name? Ain…minlus?”

“Ainminthalus, and sure, I’d be happy to talk about that part. The main city I stayed in, Alus, was hella cool, with trees and greenery everywhere. Some of those skyscrapers looked like they were trees themselves. Oh, and the rings! You ever think about what it would be like to stand on a planet with rings? They’re like giant arches in the sky! It was hella fucking cool…”

Pierce then continued describing the scenery of Ainminthalus and his experiences on the planet as he and Andra paid for their lunch and began eating, whiling away the next hour with friendly conversation.

Chapter 18 – Student Life

5 Days Later

“Alright, let’s get this over with. Let’s see… fuck, this is a lot…”

Pierce glared at the laptop screen in front of him, which displayed the first couple questions of a problem set for a robotics class. The fall term may have only started that Monday, but classes didn’t slowly build in difficulty — they always started at full steam, and that included the homework. Already, Pierce had several homework sets to work on, and his prior two years of experience told him that each set could individually take a day to complete. Most students would wait until the night before a set was due to begin working on it, and since Caltech encouraged student collaboration, having some people wait to start on a set would often lead to most people waiting to start on the set. Pierce preferred to start work early, so as to quickly clear his schedule for more fun or interesting activities… but it also often meant that he worked alone.

It’s just as well… he mused bitterly, half the time when I work with someone, I just end up having to explain everything to them. Slows me down. Not too unlike actual running, heh.

He leaned back in his chair and idly glanced around; he currently sat at one of the dining tables in the dining hall of Fleming House, one of the several student dorms at Caltech. Morning sunlight shone through the hall’s windows, giving Pierce plenty of light to look out over the red brick-covered courtyard to his left, and the white walls of Fleming that surrounded it. All was quiet outside, save for the occasional bird chirp or rustling leaves; human activity seemed almost non-existent. Ten o’clock on a Saturday morning wasn’t exactly a popular time to be up and about amongst college students, after all.

Especially not after a night of drinking and partying… oof. I’m surprised I managed to wake up at my usual time… Pierce rubbed his temples warily as he thought back to the previous night. Friday nights were a popular time to drink and hang out to begin with, but yesterday had even greater significance: it was when all of the freshmen officially gained membership to one of the student Houses. As such, Pierce had spent much of the previous day hanging out and bantering with fellow housemates, both old and new, as well as taking advantage of his recent twenty-first birthday to buy alcohol for underclassmen. He enjoyed the experience, but he knew that it couldn’t last for forever — indeed, here he now was, working on homework.

…Alright, c’mon, dude. Suck it up and focus. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and returned his attention to his laptop. “Alright, problem one. Something… something… sensor coding. Great. So I have to write some code for a sensor I can’t access yet? That’s great. That’s fine. …Oof…”

“Yooo, look, it’s the track man!”

Pierce glanced to his side, at the dining hall doors leading out to the courtyard. Standing right in front of an open door were two men, both about average height, one with light skin, and the other with a dark complexion. The latter sauntered into the dining hall and offered a casual half-salute half-wave, to which Pierce responded in kind.

“Yo, Kai, Grant.” Pierce leaned back in his chair as he addressed them. “The hell are you guys doing up so early?”

“Says the guy who’s already all cleaned up and setup in the dining hall,” the man with light skin, Grant, retorted. “It’s a Saturday, man, what’re you doing?”

“Hey, I asked you first.”

“Nikki threw up in the bathroom…” The other man, Kai, sighed in resignation as he grabbed a chair near Pierce and sat down on it backwards, so that the back of the chair was in front of him. “Smelled up the whole place.”

“Shit, guys, I told you picking the room next to the restroom would be a terrible idea,” Pierce replied with an amused smirk.

“It would’ve been fine if she made it to the fucking toilet,” Grant muttered, and then held a hand to his forehead. “Ugh… fuck me. My head hurts…”

“If you throw up, too, I’m kickin’ your stupid ass outta our room for a week,” Kai threatened.

“Oh bullshit, dude. You drank more than I did, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I’m not a pussy-ass lightweight like you are.”

“Maybe neither of you should drink too much,” Pierce countered. “Every fucking time you do, you start arguing with each other like this. I don’t want to have to break up another stupid fight.”

“Shut up, dude, you drank more than both of us combined,” Grant shot back. “How the hell are you okay after that? And— wait a fuckin’ minute.” He moved over behind Pierce and stared down at the laptop screen. “You’re… doin’ a set? Now? It’s a fuckin’ Saturday morning, dude!”

“Really keepin’ on top of your shit, huh?” Kai questioned, amused.

“It’s better than scrambling to finish last-minute,” Pierce replied. “’Sides, if I finish early, that’s just more time for fun.”

“Or you can just have the fun early, and work on the sets with everyone else later,” Grant retorted.

Or, I can finish early before anyone even wakes up, have fun with them, and then drink and laugh at them later as they do the work that I already finished.”

“You’re still workin’ on the damn thing alone. Everyone knows that takes longer than workin’ with someone else.”

“Maybe for a brain-dead schmuck like you, but I’m actually on top of my shit. Besides, how many times have you come to me for help on your own sets, huh? You owe half your GPA to me!”

“He’s got ya there,” Kai remarked with a smirk as Grant drew back dejectedly.

“Yeah, well…” Grant shook his head before plopping down into a chair across the table from Kai. “It’s still really weird to work on a set this early. This early in the term, too. You fuckin’ goody two-shoes.”

“Ah, fuck you,” Pierce retorted. “Laugh all you want now, but I’ll be the one laughing when I ace all my classes and leave you in the dust. All while kicking ass at track, too. I singlehandedly put Caltech on the map for fuckin’ sports, you know, and I did it while getting great grades and having fun all at the same time. Get back to me when you can do that.”

“There it is! The track talk!” Kai let out a short laugh as he clapped his hands together. “That was like, what, three minutes?”

“Oh shut up, dude,” Pierce countered.

“Naw, man, I’m not makin’ fun,” Kai responded. “I’m not gonna bash you for your accomplishments, dude. That wouldn’t be very cool. You do talk about track a lot, though.”

“So? People talk about what they’re good at.”

“Kai’s pretty good at basketball, but you don’t see him bragging about it all the damn time,” Grant shot back.

“I’m no where near as good at basketball as Pierce is at track, though,” Kai immediately refuted, and then turned his attention back to Pierce. “Grant had a point earlier, though. This is the earliest I’ve ever seen you work on a set. What gives?”

“I have two things due on Monday, and obviously I can’t do both tomorrow night,” Pierce explained. “I have plans tonight, and, depending on how well tonight goes, tomorrow morning. So I need to work now if I don’t want to get behind.”

Grant snorted. “What, do you have a fuckin’ date?”

“Is it with that cute blond I’ve been seein’ you with this past week?” Kai questioned with a knowing smirk.

“It might be,” Pierce replied as he returned the expression. “Don’t tell me you’ve been spying on me, though.”

“Oh c’mon, like I need to spy on you to figure out something so obvious.”

“Obvious? Dude, I’ve been all over the campus this week, doing all kinds of shit.”

“Yeah, but since when did you hang out around Lloyd House, of all places?”

“…Okay, good point.”

“You’re dating a Lloydie?” Grant pulled a face. “Really, dude?”

Technically we’re not dating yet,” Pierce corrected. “Tonight’s the first one.”

“You mentioned tomorrow, too,” Kai pointed out. “You got any… overnight plans?”

“You know it, dude.” Pierce flashed a grin. “It’s going to be a great time.”

“Aw shit, dude, you gotta fill me in later.”

“No way, man. This isn’t just a fling, I think there’s some potential here.”

“Dude, you said that, like, five times last year. Don’t lie to yourself, you can’t hold down a relationship to save your life.”

“Then this is where I’ll prove you wrong,” Pierce shot back. “You just fucking watch, man. I’m going to have a perfect year — perfect grades, break all the track records, get a cute girlfriend, everything! No one can stop me now!”

“I’m pretty sure this attitude is exactly why nothin’ worked out for you last year.”

“Oh shut up, dude.”

I’m more surprised you managed to convince a girl to ignore the rumors about you,” Grant interjected. “Whoever this new chick is, you better keep her away from Nikki, or you’ll be cock-blocked in an instant.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Pierce replied. “Why do you think I’m going to her instead of getting her to come to me, huh?”

“Shit, dude, I was just warning you.”

“Yeah… yeah. Sorry, man. Why are we even arguing so much? Isn’t that supposed to be you and Kai’s thing?”

“Only when you aren’t around,” Kai replied with a mischievous grin.

“Oh, you son of a…!” Pierce smirked. “Alright, you bastard. I really do need to get to work though, so if the two of you could kindly fuck off, that’d be great.”

“Well, hold on a sec, what set are you even working on, huh?” Kai jumped up from his chair and moved around to behind Pierce, to get a better look at his laptop. “Is this 133?”

“It’s the first set and the lab prep work, yeah.” Pierce nodded. “You’re in this class, right?”

“Yep. If you’re workin’ on it already, then I might as well, too.”

“Fuckin’ engineers,” Grant muttered as he stood up himself. “I’m going to go do not-boring shit.”

“You’re a fucking math major, don’t even try that line on us,” Pierce shot back.

“Whatever, dude.” Grant pulled a face before walking around the table toward the doors.

Kai followed him out. “I’ll be right back,” he shouted over his shoulder at Pierce, “just gotta get my laptop.”

“I’ll be right here,” Pierce replied. He watched the two for a few moments through the hall’s windows before turning his attention back to his computer. Kai isn’t stupid, far from it, but working with him is still going to slow me down… oh well. It certainly is more fun to work with a buddy, at least. Anyways. Let’s see if I can get a head start…

The next handful of minutes passed quietly as Pierce focused on reading through all of the problems on the set and making notes of his initial thoughts, before going back to the first problem and trying to hash out an actual solution. It wasn’t long before Kai returned to the dining hall with laptop in hand, at which point he sat down in the chair he had previously been sitting.

“Ready to make some robots?” Kai questioned as he opened his laptop.

“We’re still a few weeks out from that,” Pierce retorted.

“Yeah, well. Hey, speaking of robots, you’ve heard about all that robot stuff with attacks on SERRCom, right? And that fight over in Texas?”

Pierce rolled his eyes. “How could I not?

“Ha! I guess it has been all over the Internet, huh?” Kai smirked in amusement, only to return his attention to his laptop and promptly replace his smirk with a concerned frown. “Uh… huh.”

Pierce glanced his way. “Something wrong?”

“Uh, sorta. Hey, you’re from San Francisco, right?”

“I’m from the area, yeah. What about it?”

“Well, some news just hit, and it sounds like those robots from last month are back…” Kai looked over at Pierce with concern. “Apparently, they’ve attacked that big dam near San Francisco.”