Chapter 7 – Obscured Meanings
– Tuesday, September 6, AD 2129 –
“Breaking news: tensions across the nation are rising after a mysterious attack on the Denver SERRCom office last night…”
“Shit.” Spike scowled, watching the news from his seat at the table as he slowly worked through his breakfast. “SERRCom was attacked? On Earth?”
“Where else would you attack them?” Austin retorted. He adjusted his position on the couch to face the TV directly before adding, “the bigger question is, why Denver?”
“Bigger than that is who,” Spike countered. “Is this a local thing? Or is it aliens?”
“What a world we live in, that that’s a legitimate question.”
“Shut up. This is serious shit. SERRCom’s never been attacked before, not like this.”
Austin grunted in response, his attention focused on the news as the newscaster continued on.
“…Particularly, the offenders in last night’s attack appear to not be human — rather, they’re robots.”
“…No…” Austin froze as images of the offending robots appeared on the screen. “…Spike… is that…?”
“That’s the same kinda robot we saw yesterday at the park, and at the dojo…” Spike’s brow furrowed. “Shit. So those things are walkin’ around town? We needa tell SERRCom—!”
Spike stopped himself as the newscaster answered his question. “There have been reports of similar robots appearing in cities all over the globe yesterday. SERRCom issued a statement early this morning that they are aware of these sightings and have launched a full investigation into the robots’ capabilities, locations, and above all, their handler.”
“How do we know they have a handler?” Austin frowned. “For all we know, these things are AIs!”
“I doubt it,” Spike refuted, “no one’s been able to figure out full AI yet, not even the CSA. If someone made AI, they’d be makin’ way better use of it than attackin’ a SERRCom base on li’l ol’ Earth.”
“Bah, you don’t need true AI for combat ‘bots.”
“Yeah, but if they ain’t true AI then someone’s gotta be controllin’ ‘em, right?”
“…Understandably, the attack on the Denver office has made many uneasy,” the news report continued, “General Matthew Lead of SERRCom issued a statement himself shortly after SERRCom’s official press release.”
The video changed to a recording of a large, light-skinned, graying man with a conservative, dignified mustache. He was sitting behind a large desk; on the desk’s front was the shield emblem of SERRCom, while behind the man was an image of Earth itself, as though from a satellite in orbit. “The attack last night came as a surprise to all,” he declared, “but the fact that it was a surprise is a hint as to its size and scope. This attack was nothing more than a haphazard small-scale strike that failed to claim any lives and was, in fact, repelled quickly and easily by the brave men and women serving within our ranks. Everyone in SERRCom, myself included, are working our hardest to locate the source of this disruption, and we will stop at nothing to ensure that Earth’s long-standing peace remains unbroken. After all, we all survived through last week’s Chaos Energy Quake; in comparison, these robots are hardly a threat. Please, allow your minds to rest easy. The danger to you is insignificant.”
“…Some statement,” Austin snorted as the recording ended and the newscaster reappeared on screen.
“Yeah…” Spike nodded. “Shit like that is what makes you worry more.”
“So now there’s just a bunch of killer robots walkin’ around, huh? How the hell is it safe to go outside?”
“I mean, you saw the thing. They’re as big as I am, at least. They can’t really sneak around.”
“Just sounds to me like you’re underestimating fuckin’ killer robots.”
“Hmph,” Spike grunted in response. He and Austin fell silent for several moments until Spike’s phone went off.
“What’s goin’ on?” Austin questioned as Spike picked up the device and scanned through his new message.
“…It’s Sensei. Apparently the cops dropped by the dojo to ask about the ‘bot. He wants me to swing by to help answer questions.”
“You gonna be okay out there?”
“I should be the one askin’ you that,” Spike retorted. He grabbed his now empty bowl and dropped it off in the sink before going to retrieve his shoes. “In all seriousness, I’m sure it’s fine. If there was actually a threat of death by killer robot, I’m sure someone would’ve said so.”
“Damn well better.”
“…Well, I’m off.” Spike opened the door and stepped outside. He paused for a moment to shout back inside. “Don’t forget your classes today!”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. See ya later.”
“Aight. See ya.”
* * *
Several Hours Later
Austin sighed warily as he stared listlessly out the car window. Rapidly passing buildings masked the empty sky and low sun; sunset was less than an hour away. A sort of serene silence filled the car’s interior, giving Austin a calm environment to simply relax and reflect on his day… if he weren’t so busy brooding.
“Stupid late afternoon classes,” he grumbled, “I didn’t get outta high school and go to college for this shit. Hmph.”
He glared down at his phone and began scrolling through the assignments he had just received. Homework on the first goddamn day, he thought miserably, maybe I should just drop out. That universal income shit oughtta be enough to keep up with video games. Probably…
After entertaining the thought for several moments he shook his head vigorously. Accepting the universal income in lieu of a job would mean either moving back in with his parents to save money or forever living in a cheap, run-down apartment — neither of which he wanted to do. Programming wasn’t exactly his primary interest, but as far as he could tell, it was the easiest path to lots of consistent money. If that meant he had to soldier through years of annoying classes, he would do it. Probably.
A moment later, his phone vibrated. He glanced down; Twy had sent him a message. “…‘Meet me by the pond,’” he read aloud. “Eh, I guess she wants to show off her—…” He stopped himself from finishing his thought out loud. He was currently riding in a publicly-owned self-driving car, after all. Who knew who could be listening in?
Austin glanced back at his phone as it vibrated again. He realized that Twy must have sent her message to Spike and Sky as well, since the newest message was a response from Sky: “Sorry, Spike and I got tied up helping at the dojo. Can’t make it.”
…That means it’d just be me and Twy… Austin mused. He checked the location pin Twy had attached to her message; the pond in question wasn’t too far from his current position. He quickly input the new location into the car’s console and then replied to Twy’s text, stating that he’d be over soon. Just as he did so, the car passed a number of military vehicles, all displaying the emblem of SERRCom: an image of part of the Earth with the moon above it and then three stars above that, all on the face of a shield.
“I guess the General wasn’t kidding,” he mumbled as he craned his neck to watch the vehicles shrink with distance. Those weren’t the first signs of SERRCom activity he had seen today — he saw several of their vehicles and personnel on his way to class earlier, and he had even heard rumors that the Eximius Vir had appeared in town. Austin had doubts as to the veracity of those rumors; he may live in the capital city of Texas, and there was indeed a small SERRCom office in the city, but there were still a number of far more important SERRCom bases and offices scattered across the world. Why would the Eximius Vir choose to visit the city of Austin, when cities like Tokyo, New York, or London would be far more attractive targets to outside threats?
Austin snorted in mild amusement as his car passed a peculiar, but not uncommon billboard: an image of Mote Emerson, the leader of the Eximius Vir, standing stoically in front of SERRCom’s shield emblem and next to some pithy message of public assurance. Such billboards were a common site across the planet, but several more had popped up since the beginning of the Chaos Quake the previous week. I bet SERRCom themselves started that rumor of the Eximius Vir bein’ around, Austin mused, probably supposed to ‘put the public at ease’ or some shit. Then, as his car passed by another SERRCom checkpoint, a second thought came to his mind: if SERRCom was trying to push the public security angle, then why would they set up checkpoints or attempt to monitor civilian activities? All of the reported threats were robotic in nature, after all, and said robots weren’t exactly small or easy to hide. It could indeed be possible that SERRCom’s show of force was merely intended to convey a sense of security, but as Austin thought about the issue further, he only grew more anxious. SERRCom didn’t hold any authority on Earth’s surface, not unless they believed there was a credible threat to the Earthian Territories as a whole. So why didn’t they simply coordinate with local officials? His run-in with the EIIC agents at the pool last week came to mind — clearly, SERRCom was looking for something, and it probably had something to do with the Chaos Quake. But what could they hope to find on Earth?
The thoughts racing through Austin’s mind distracted him so thoroughly that he didn’t realize that the car had stopped for nearly a minute. He glanced down at his phone; sure enough, he had arrived at his destination. He promptly hopped out of the car and squinted into the late afternoon sunlight in search of Twy. Where could she be…?
As the car zoomed off, Austin could feel the quiet surround him. It wasn’t complete silence — rather, a sort of serene combination of rustling leaves and infrequent bird cawing that melted into the background. He exhaled deeply as he slowly meandered towards the pond a short distance from the road; he didn’t get out often, but this sort of natural quiet with no one around was exactly what he imagined to be a good excuse to leave home.
“Ack!!” Austin jumped back a solid two feet in surprise, his eyes wide beyond compare. He snapped his attention to the source of the sound — and promptly let out a sigh of irritation. “Oi, don’t sneak up on me like that!”
“Then don’t make it so easy,” Twy replied with a smirk, her hands on her hips.
“Hmph.” Austin then looked around at their quiet surroundings. “…So, uh, why did you want to meet here, exactly…?”
“Well, I wanted to show everyone something…” Twy sighed and glanced toward the road. “…But I guess you’re the only one who could make it, huh?”
Austin held up his hands and shrugged. “Sorry to disappoint.”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Twy spun around, her hands clasped behind her back as she began walking toward the pond. “Maybe even for the better…”
“For the better…?”
“Yeah. Less witnesses.”
Austin stopped mid-exclamation as Twy turned toward him, grinning broadly. “Don’t worry, I won’t kill you or anything,” she teased.
“Oh no, I’m so scared, please oh please won’t someone help me,” Austin replied, deadpan.
“Figures you’d beg for help. Can’t even take me on in a fight, huh?”
“Bah, I’ve got a good ten inches on you, of course I could take you.”
“Height and reach aren’t all that matters. You’ve gotta keep flexibility in mind, too.”
“Oh yeah, you were real flexible last night, eh?”
Twy pulled a face, but didn’t continue the conversation. The two had arrived at the water’s edge, and her attention appeared to be elsewhere.
“Wait… Are you gonna do what I think you’re—?!” Austin’s question was cut off as a giant mound of water suddenly sprung into the air. It reached a height of nearly ten meters before splitting into two water ribbons at the top, with the ribbons spiraling through the air and down to Twy’s position, where they began to swirl around her. She winked at Austin before leaping into the pond, bringing up another mass of water to meet her midair. The depths appeared to swallow her, the watery ribbons gone… until she burst out of the water’s surface a couple seconds later, a pillar of water beneath her feet.
“What do you think?” she shouted from on high.
Austin stared up at her for several moments, mouth agape, before finally coming back to his senses. He shook his head vigorously and gestured for Twy to come down. “That was cool and all, but what if someone sees you?!”
Twy responded with a moment of silence. She sighed before creating a ramp of water from the top of the pillar to the ground, which she slid down on her feet. Austin couldn’t help but feel impressed… until she stumbled at the bottom and faceplanted on the ground. It took all the effort he could muster to not break out into laughter; a few chortles managed to escape all the same.
“…Oh, sure, laugh at me,” Twy drawled as she picked herself up. “…Hmph. I suppose I should’ve expected you to be unappreciative.”
“What? No, no, that’s not what I—!” Austin pursed his lips as he took a moment to gather his thoughts. “…I thought what you did was pretty cool. I really did. But if someone else saw you—!”
“Yeah, yeah, something something SERRCom,” she replied with a roll of her eyes.
“Oh c’mon, it’s a very real concern! Do you really wanna get drafted?”
Twy huffed. “Of course not. I’m also not a dumbass, you know. I searched the area for cameras and the like before you got here, and found nothing. And there’s no one around but us! Trust me, no one saw me. Except you, of course.”
“Oh…” Austin scratched his head sheepishly. “I didn’t realize you’d already looked…”
“Honestly, I’m a little insulted that you think I’d be so careless, but I’ll let it slide this once.”
“How gracious of you.”
“You’re trying really hard to get on my bad side tonight, huh?”
Austin scowled. “I’m just tryin’ to look out for you.”
“I can look out for myself perfectly fine.”
The two glared at each other for several seconds before simultaneously sighing and looking away.
“…Kind of a stupid argument.” Austin smiled meekly. “…Sorry. The past week and a half have kinda put me on edge…”
“Yeah…” Twy sighed again. “…Apology accepted. You’re not wrong, about the whole SERRCom conscription thing. I just wish you’d loosen up a little, you know?”
“I’m just surprised you aren’t worried as much as I am,” Austin countered.
“Trust me, you do more than enough worrying for the both of us.”
“Pretty much all I can do for you at this point. The only thing I can do better than you is accidentally cheatin’ in Kendo duels.”
Twy raised an incredulous eyebrow. “’Accidentally?’”
Austin returned the expression. “Do you really think I knew what the hell I was doin’?”
“…Fair. You are pretty careless most of the time.”
“Bah, I ain’t no where near as bad as Sky.”
“But really. You didn’t know what you were doing?”
“What you did were longsword techniques, you know.”
“I do know, I was there when whatshisface said so. Honestly, those sound like stupid techniques. Grabbing the blade? Swingin’ the thing end-first like a bat? Sound like great ways to slice up your hands.”
“Take it up with medieval knights, not me. They’re the ones who pioneered the style.”
“Well I’ll be right on that, as soon as I find a time machine. Don’t suppose you know where to find one?”
“If I had a time machine, I sure as hell wouldn’t be sitting around here.”
“Glad to know you’d abandon me in the present in favor of the past.”
Twy shoved Austin playfully. “I was thinking of taking you with me, but after a remark like that, I think I’ll just take Sky instead.”
“I dunno, depending on where you are, go more than a couple centuries back and havin’ a spindly white dude with you would probably be more useful.”
“I’ll keep that in mind if I ever need a token white friend.”
“Now that’s a combination of words I didn’t think I’d ever hear.”
“Hehe,” Twy giggled in response before turning toward the western horizon. The sun was set, and even twilight had mostly given way to darkened skies. Chirping crickets now dominated the soundscape, completely masking the soft sound of leaves rustling in the wind and running water.
“Probably time to go home, huh,” Austin commented.
“Yeah…” Twy sighed. “…Wish I’d gotten to show you more. I’ve practiced a lot.”
“I could tell. Next time I’ll try to keep the chastising to a minimum.”
“I’ll hold you to that.” Twy began walking toward the road with Austin in tow. “…Thanks for coming.”
“Eh.” Austin shrugged nonchalantly. “It was nothin’.”