Jazz’s voice was high-pitched, almost shrill. “I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Where are we? What happened to Paul?! What was that thing that took his place?! And who the fuck was that woman that popped out of Columbus?!” By the end, she was waving her arms wildly while practically hyperventilating.
“And most importantly,” the dark-skinned girl demanded finally while spinning toward Roxa, “are you okay?!” Punctuating the question with a lunge that way, Jazz embraced her old roommate.
While Roxa grunted in surprise at the sudden hug and staggered back a step, Sands suddenly spoke up, interrupting as she raised her hand to point. “Uh, guys? I really hate to interrupt the happy reunion and all the really, really good questions, but we’ve kinda got company.”
She was right, I realized. The enormous, brightly lit room that we were standing in suddenly wasn’t nearly as empty as it had been just a few seconds earlier. There were a dozen figures in there with us. Most of them wore some kind of black body armor with a face-obscuring helmet. They also carried weapons, half of them some kind of electrified pike thing, while the other half carried futuristic rifles that hummed with energy as much as the pikes did.
The soldiers, or whatever they happened to be, were accompanied by two other figures in what looked a lot like scientist lab coats. They stood a bit behind the others, one of them holding some kind of flat screen computer pad in one hand. All of them stopped short almost as soon as they appeared. Clearly, whatever they had been expecting to see in here, we weren’t it. Most likely because they weren’t expecting us to be upright, conscious, armed, and ready for a fight.
Tabbris, I thought inwardly, we are where I think we are, aren’t we? If there was the slightest chance that I was wrong and we weren’t as completely screwed as I thought we were, I wanted to know about it.
I th-think so, came the response. I d-don’t know, I’ve never been here before. Or I was too little. Th-those are Seosten people though. I mean, the scientists are. The troops are probably something else. They use, um, other races for their grunt troops. She sounded about as nervous as I felt, probably because she knew that we were both in deep trouble if these guys caught us.
The guns had already snapped up up to point in our direction, while one of the scientist-figures (the one without the computer), called out, “Human-children, put your weapons on the ground and you will not be harmed! Do so immediately, or face the consequences of your disobedience.”
Gordon, who had been silent up until that point, lifted his chin. “I assume,” he started, clearly addressing me even if his attention was on those guys, “that surrendering is a bad idea.”
“Very bad,” I confirmed flatly. “You know that bitch that came out of Columbus? She was possessing him. She’s been puppeting him for months, enslaving him, making him work against us. And that’s what these guys want to do to us. They want to turn us all into their puppets.”
“This is your last warning,” the scientist announced, while the guards that were armed with the pikes raised them threateningly. All ten of the soldiers looked like they were about half a second away from opening up on us right then and there. Clearly, coming in expecting to pick up a bunch of helpless bodies and running into us instead had thrown them off. I had no doubt that they were already calling in for help. It might be just ten now, but it would be a lot more soon.
“Well, I for one,” Isaac put in then, “don’t feel like letting a bunch of weird freaks jam their hands up my ass and wiggle their fingers. Especially when they haven’t even bought me a drink yet.”
“Shut up, Isaac.” Jazz’s retort seemed automatic, like she wasn’t even thinking about it. Then she looked over to me pointedly. “When we get out of this, you owe us answers. A lot of them.”
Before I could do more than give the briefest nod, the soldiers made their move. From each of the five rifles, a wide blue beam emerged, shooting across the room toward us. All five of the beams collided with the stone wall that Sands created with her mace, though they didn’t seem to do any actual damage to it. Probably something meant to knock us out, a stun beam.
The brown-haired girl reinforced the wall quickly, adding an angled roof overhead before her head shook. “It’ll hold against those stun beams, but not against everything they throw at it.”
Holding both of his hands up in front of his eyes like he was looking through invisible binoculars, Gordon took a second before grimacing. “There’s more of them already. They’re coming.”
“And they’re going to keep coming,” I replied. “This is their home turf, we need to go. If we stand here and fight, they’ll take us down eventually. And trust me, we do not want to be taken down.”
The black boy gave a single nod at that before looking down, still keeping his hands cupped around his eyes to use his x-ray vision power. “Jasmine,” he started simply, “it’s clear below us. Can you–”
“Yeah, I can get us out of here!” Jazz snapped while ducking under a shot that was angled up over the wall, “But it’ll take a bit, and I can’t do it if they’re shooting at me! It’s–” She swallowed. “It’s harder under stress. And I don’t know what this floor is made out of, but…” Pointedly, she waved her hand over it, and I saw a little bit start to shimmer before it faded. That continued, the bit of floor going back and forth from normal to shimmery and back again before Jazz muttered with obvious annoyance, “It’s resisting my power. I need a minute.”
“Sands, can you cover Jazz while the rest of us keep these guys busy for as long as it takes?” I asked, even as a wince escaped me at the sound of a lot more feet pounding into the room.
She gave a quick nod. “Yeah, I got it.” Pausing, she looked to me seriously. “Be careful, Flick.”
“Why would I start now?” I asked with a shrug before turning to the others. “Okay, let them make the exit. The rest of us… these guys are playing for keeps, okay? It’s not a game, and we don’t have Gaia, Professor Dare, or anyone else watching our backs to make sure it’s not too dangerous. This is real. Absolutely, completely real. I know asking if you’re ready is stupid at this point, but…”
Roxa straightened, lifting her chin. “We can do this. Right, Gidget?” As the mechanical cougar gave a growl of agreement, she winked at me. “Just another fun day around Felicity Chambers.”
“You sure?” I pressed, gesturing to her injured arm. “Your…”
“I’m fine,” the other girl insisted, touching the spot where she had torn a bit of her shirt to create a makeshift bandage to tie around the wound. “Heretic regeneration.”
Right, the werewolf healing might not do much to the silver, but that wasn’t the only healing ability that Roxa had. Plus, she had those redundant organs from the Jekern. When it came down to it, Roxa Pittman was now incredibly difficult to kill.
“Little help?” Gordon, who was still using his tommy gun to spray down covering fire over the top of the wall while using his other hand to watch through it, prompted in his simple, unexcited voice. He sprayed again, grimacing. “Too close.”
Roxa gave a quick nod at that. “Right, let’s do this. Remember, what doesn’t kill us… we kill first so we can Highlander its soul.”
That might as well have been our battle cry, because it was the last thing that any of us said before we were suddenly in the thick of things. I spun around the left side of the wall that Sands had created just in time to practically come face to face with one of the pike-wielding soldiers. His helmet had a flat black visor covering his face that made his expression impossible to read, though from his body language, he seemed surprised to see me. Abruptly, that pike of his snapped up, and I barely had the chance to spin out of the way, letting it jab past me. My arm dropped to hook around the shaft of the weapon, catching it as I continued to pivot. I felt him try to keep his grip on the thing, but I was stronger. The pike was torn from his grip, and I released the thing to let it clatter to the floor. At the same time, I turned my spin into a leap, kicking the man across his helmet in a blow that knocked him stumbling sideways, now weaponless.
There was another guy right behind that one. He had his gun raised, but I took a quick hop step forward while kicking out. My toes barely caught the shaft of the fallen pike, launching the thing up into the man’s helmet just hard enough that he reflexively jerked backward. His stun shot went wide. Then I was there. Pivoting, I caught the rebounding pike with my left hand while turning in a full circle. My own staff, held tight in my right hand, collided with the gunman’s chest before I triggered the kinetic blast that I’d been charging up. He was sent flying across the room.
At the same time, as I pivoted, my other hand reared back and released the pike that I’d caught. The electrified blade part took the first man in the back before he could finish recovering from that kick. There was a sudden crack of energy, and the man screamed before collapsing to the floor like a sack of bricks. Clearly, the pikes could knock us out as easily as those stun lasers, or whatever they were. Either way, we definitely didn’t want to get hit by them. It would be… bad.
Across the way, I could see Gordon. The boy had split his gun apart into its sword and shield mode, catching an incoming pike-swing from one of the soldiers with the blade while simultaneously using the shield to deflect a couple of stun-blasts. A second later, he spun and dropped to one knee while swinging his shield-arm to the left and back, driving the edge of the shield into the stomach of the man whose blade he had deflected. The blow made the soldier double over, and Gordon pirouetted back to his feet while giving a quick slice with his sword that took the man’s head off, sending it bouncing along the floor as the boy’s green aura flared up.
Meanwhile, a little bit past him, Isaac had somehow gotten hold of one of the enemy’s stun rifles and was using it to take potshots at them while the three spiked balls from his flail all hovered around him in their separate, floating drone forms. The drones were taking shots here and there as well, but mostly they acted as shields. Any time a shot came near the boy, one of his drones darted into its path to intercept, creating a shimmering blue forcefield around itself for an instant.
Hey, partner, I thought inwardly while using a short burst from my staff to knock myself away from a couple of stun shots. They were still trying to knock us out, even now. These guys were trying really hard not to kill us. I could only imagine what their Seosten masters would do to them if they ruined a set of perfectly good Heretic bodies that could have been possessed.
As I landed, Tabbris responded, clearly waiting until I had my feet under me and wasn’t under immediate attack. Yes, she answered without wasting the time to make me voice what she already knew I was going to ask by reading my thoughts, I can, um, tell you what you got from killing that stu–um, Charmeine. You can, um possess people. Like Seosten do. Like I do.
Now see? I sent back, even as I darted forward to catch the pike from one of the soldiers and knocked it aside. I knew you’d be really useful to have around, now that you’re talking to me. But– I went silent briefly, focusing on spinning my staff around to parry the next thrust from the man. As his pike was knocked aside once more, I finished, think you can take over for a second and make it happen? I’m not sure what I’m doing.
My eyes were on the quite frankly alarmingly number of soldiers coming through what I could now see was a door at the other end of the room. These guys may not have been expecting us to be ready to fight, but they were adjusting quickly. We’d had a bit of early success at fending them off, but sooner or later, they’d overwhelm us. Unless, of course, we could get out of here before they brought in too many guys for us to deal with. Time was decidedly not on our side.
The surprise in Tabbris’s voice was obvious. Y-you want me to… to control you? But I–I mean, you trust…
I grimaced, taking a quick step back as the man swung that pike at me again. You could have taken over any time you wanted to, I pointed out simply. The fact that you haven’t, and after everything you’ve done… yeah, I’d say I can trust you. C’mon, partner, take this guy over.
By that point, the soldier had gotten tired of me evading all of his attacks. I heard a dark growl of frustration escape him, and he swung the pike up and around violently. I was pretty sure that he didn’t care if he hurt me more than he was supposed to. He wanted me on the ground already.
My instinct was to dodge away from the swing. But abruptly, my body didn’t respond to my thoughts. It was incredibly disorienting. The closest thing I could compare it to was when you’re climbing stairs and you expect there to be one more step than there actually is, so you raise your foot really high and then come awkwardly. It was kind of a mental version of that.
My body wasn’t responding to me, but it was moving. My arm lashed out and down, parrying the pike out of the way with my staff. Then my other hand snapped up while my feet moved to carry me forward. I caught hold of the soldier’s armored faceplate, pressing my fingers against it.
And then… well, then my view suddenly snapped around so that I was looking at the spot where I had just been standing. It was a disorienting vision switch that kind of felt like going around a sharp curve in a roller coaster. My stomach was doing flip flops. Or maybe his stomach was, and I was just feeling it. Or maybe–never mind, it was entirely too complicated by that point.
Not only was I seeing through the man’s eyes, I could also feel his muscles. I could feel his… wow, I could feel his exhaustion and his fear. Not of us, I realized belatedly, but of failing. The man was thinking about what would happen if he failed to contain us, of what the Seosten would do. And–okay, the images that filled his mind would not make it easier for me to sleep at night.
The man’s name, he was… he was called Riolu Ylet. He had been alive for what his planet called fourteen ossils, which I was pretty sure translated to years. And since he’d never been to Earth, there was no way of knowing how long that actually was. My best guess was that he would’ve been considered roughly twenty-eight. A young guy, as far as all that went. And he–
Flick, Tabbris’s voice prompted in my head, you can move him, just like moving yourself.
Oh. Oh. Right, stop reading into the man’s entire life story, Flick. His thoughts, memories, and feelings had just started flooding into my mind as soon as I had the slightest inkling of curiosity. In the background of my mind, I felt him shouting at me, demanding that I leave his body.
Sorry, I thought at him, I just need to borrow this for a second. To be fair, you were gonna help your masters enslave all my friends and play Operation on me. So I think we’re pretty even.
Moving felt awkward. My body was all wrong. Or rather, his was, in relation to what I was accustomed to. He was taller than I was, he moved a little slower than I did, his arms were longer, it was all different. I turned, and as I took in the sight of the rest of the room, something else happened. Wherever the other soldiers and the scientists were, there was a faint green outline. And wherever Roxa and the others were, there was a faint red outline. The helmets had Identify Friend/Foe capability. Probably among other things that I didn’t have time to focus on in that moment.
Instead, I focused on the one thing that I actually did need to know right then, dragging the memory up out of Riolu’s thoughts while he tried to keep it hidden from me. Then I had it.
“Desedene!” I made the man’s lips shout, screaming it as loud as he could while running away from the group. His arms flailed, and I made him shout again, “Desedene!”
Hearing that word, all of the soldiers and the scientists dove to the floor. They covered their heads and hugged the ground.
Bomb. I had taken the word for the most dangerous (yet still believable) bomb that Riolu could think of, the worst bomb that we could possibly have smuggled in on our little trip. It was enough to make them dive for the floor, buying us a little time.
Eject! I blurted inwardly. Tabbris, hit the eject!
My body was back. Or I was back in my body. Whichever, the point was, I was back behind the man that I had taken possession of. And as a bonus, he was already collapsing to the floor. Tabbris had knocked him out rather than give him a chance to say that everything was safe.
Spinning on my heel then, I shouted for the others. “Go, go, go!” All the while, I was already running back toward the wall that Sands had created.
Sliding my way around it, I blurted, “Tell me you’re ready, cuz there are way too many guys out there for us to deal with anymore.” Around me, the others came stumbling into view, most of them looking pretty ragged. It was time to go.
Jazz, kneeling on the floor with Sands standing over her (and a couple downed soldiers littering the floor around them), gave a short nod. “Got it, got it! I don’t know how long it’ll hold, but got it! Go, go, get through right now!” The floor in front of the girl was shimmering like water.
Looking back around the wall, I saw the soldiers just starting to pick themselves up. Since the bomb had never materialized, they were rising once more. Luckily, the fact that we had so much firepower on our side seemed to have given them pause. And I was sure they were confused about the guy who had yelled about the bomb. But still, there was no more time to waste. They were going to get over their hesitation really quick.
“Roxa, go!” I gestured, and the blonde girl hopped through the shimmering part of the floor. She was followed immediately by Isaac. Then Gordon went through. I nodded toward Sands, and she followed after him.
A quick glance around the wall revealed that all of the remaining soldiers were back on their feet by that point. Worse, there was another figure standing in the doorway of the room, just beyond them. He was a short man, standing only slightly taller than I was, with tousled, curly brown hair. He wore a dark green cloak over one shoulder that covered the right half of his body, leaving his right arm hidden. One of his legs was clearly mechanical, a bronze and red metallic limb with what looked like clockwork parts whirring and spinning as he lifted it to take a step.
Radueriel, Tabbris’s voice whispered in my head. When the Seosten were all playing gods on Earth, he was Hephaestus. M-Mama said his experiments are almost as b-brutal as the Fomorians. He’s the one who really made the Heretical Edge.
Okay, there was a lot of information to digest there, especially the part about all the Seosten playing gods and the fact that this guy had made the Heretical Edge, not Bosch. Which probably meant that he had been the one possessing Bosch, though I wasn’t positive on that.
The man stopped when he saw me peeking out at him, and I saw a small smile play over his face. When he lifted the arm that had been hidden beneath the cloak, I saw that it had the same clockwork cybernetics as well. He pointed the arm at us, and I saw the mechanical fingers retract before the hand reshaped itself into a cannon. He smiled again, and I jerked backward behind the wall just in time for a spinning ball of what looked like purple plasma or something go flying past where my head had just been.
Okay, okay, time to go. Past time to go. “Jazz,” I started, but the girl shook her head.
“I go through and it closes. Get through. But hey!” Her hand grabbed my arm, squeezing tight as the girl stared intently at me. “Don’t screw us over, Chambers. Got it?”
There was a lot that I could’ve said to that. But none of it would have been productive. Especially not with the sound of running footsteps approaching. Instead, I just replied, “We’re on the same side.”
Then I dropped through the shimmering part of the floor. It didn’t just look like water, it felt like it for that moment. Well, very thick water. It was like moving through somewhat thin jello.
Once my body was through the floor, I dropped the rest of the way. A couple hands caught me as I fell, steadying me for a moment. Isaac and Sands. The two of them released me once I had my balance.
I stepped quickly out of the way then, just before Jazz dropped through. The floor above returned to the way it had been, and we had a second to look around. We were in what looked like a utility tunnel beneath that room. It was fairly narrow, just wide enough for two of us two walk abreast, with dull gray walls and a single glowing white line along one of the walls that seemed to function as a light. And possibly a guide of some kind, I wasn’t sure.
“We have to move.” That was Gordon. The boy was looking up, cupping his hands to see through the ceiling above us. “They’re right there. They’ll figure out what we did in a minute. They’ll know where we are.”
“Who was that guy?” Jazz demanded. “The one with the steampunk robot limbs. What–”
My head shook. “We don’t have time. We have to get the hell out of here.”
“What do we do now?” Sands blurted. Her head was shaking. “We’re in Seosten space, aren’t we? We’re–they–those banishment things, like–”
“There isn’t time,” I repeated. “We can’t think about that now, we can’t talk about it. We have to get the hell out of here. There’s an entire army above us, and we’re stuck halfway across the universe, behind enemy lines, surrounded by monsters that want to turn us into their personal marionettes. There is no one else that’s gonna help us at the moment. We are on our own. So you wanna know what we do right now?