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…”
“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!