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.”
“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.