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.