“Did you know there were Thassans in the area?” I transmitted the question as I spoke it; the more info I had, the better.
“They aren’t…” Shannon hesitated for a second, while her power lashed out at me with expected results. “This is supposed to be sacred ground to them; a necropolis where their elderly go to die alone. They shouldn’t be here.” Her voice shook with rage; given that she just watched a friend she thought dead crawl out of the ocean with Thassan guards, I couldn’t say I blamed her.
“Fucking typical,” she continued. “They demand we respect all their cultural laws, but refuse to respect ours. Then they break their own rules and throw tantrums if we don’t bend over backward for them.”
I need to find out more about this woman’s story.
<There are three Thassan tribes in the area, but they are several miles away from your location. The water this far inland is too cold for them to live in comfortably.> Patil sounded like he was reading off a list.
<Are you certain they’re Thassan?> Doctor Abernathy’s voice came over the com.
<Can’t rule out someone using powers to imitate Thassans. Otherwise, yes. Besides, this explains why the Canadians wanted us involved. Plausible. Fucking. Deniability.>
I moved a bit closer to the edge, looking down at cliff; without my movement boosting equipment, I couldn’t jump the way I did at the hospital. There was a roughly 80 degree slope into the ocean thirty meters below. It won’t be pleasant if I screw up, but I’ve walked away from worse in the service.
<What do we do?> Patil was back in whiny panic mode. As much as I liked him as a person, he was not a leader. He was no doubt planning scrap the mission right now, which would have been the smart move. Followed by explaining in lurid detail all the anatomically impossible things the client could go do to themselves. What we were going to do was quite the opposite of the smart decision.
I avoided looking at Shannon; control would see if I did. Instead, I listened to her heart hammer and felt the Lynx attempting to skin me alive one strip at a time. Whatever I do, she’ll be in full attack mode. I wasn’t certain how she stayed calm this long. <Call the client. Tell them the price just tripled again. If they try to negotiate, you hang up the phone and wait for them to call you back.>
I stood, right by the edge of the cliff. Now I gave myself permission to look back at Shannon, who had cloaked in shadows. “You can come with, but I need you to stay completely hidden, even from Thassan quality vision.”
<What are you doing?> Abernathy asked while Shannon climbed to her feet.
“What’s the plan?” Shannon’s voice was unrecognizable, warped by her emotions and the effect the Lynx had on sound around her. As casual as I was with her, this was a reminder that if she went at me with the intent to kill, there was little, if anything, I could do to stop her.
“Some good ol’ fashioned American diplomacy.” To emphasize my point, I pulled a gun from one of the compartments in my armor, then hopped off the side of the cliff. With my abilities it only took a little effort to slide down the side of the cliff; far more dignified than the alternative of rolling down the side like a stray boulder. Lynx vanished from my senses, no doubt taking her own route to the beach.
Dignified or not, my approach was anything but stealthy. Small plants clinging to the side of the cliff burst into impossible growths that reached out to grab me. Once they made contact with my armor, they remembered the laws of physics and the weight of a grown man was enough to rip out their flimsy root systems.
Once in the water, stronger plants wrapped around my legs from below, intent on keeping me underwater while a cage of tree roots started forming around me. <Vine’s adapting. She realized her power doesn’t work in direct contact with me, so she’s using indirect approaches.>
<That’s a good clue!> Phoebe responded with childlike eagerness. <It suggests she retains conscious decision making. But I can’t draw real conclusions until your biomed scanners get better details. You only have to get a little closer.>
Yeah, get within touch range of a high end telekinetic, that’s all I need to do. I allowed myself to be pulled to the bottom of the tide pool, some four meters below the surface, simply so I could get the leverage to move. From there, walking was simple; nothing Vine’s power could harness was strong enough to pin me down save for the ever growing root systems. Once encased, I could use the forcefield options to kill the trees, then break through.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. A familiar blip on my motion trackers led my eyes to a nigh-invisible shadow in the water, and the plants died where it passed. That was all the opening I needed to break through the worst of it and find myself back in shallow water. I carefully avoided thinking about how impressive Lynx was, in case Phoebe overheard.
Once on the beach, I met much heavier resistance. The vines were so thick it was impossible to see into the center. I found myself wishing for the flowmetal, if only because I could use a machete at the moment. I need to be more careful about what equipment I pick between missions. On the plus side, the tracking tech worked despite the plantlife. <You’re certain Vine isn’t in there?>
Phoebe hesitated for a moment. <Well, ninety percent. Powers are weird.>
In other words, aim for something nonfatal. I drew a second, far more deadly weapon from my armor and fired right through the mass of plants into Vine’s armor.
The gun was what my old commander would call a ‘masterpiece of death’, using plastic explosives rather than gunpowder to propel a depleted uranium slug encased in a blue steel jacket. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn each bullet cost five dollars. The recoil was powerful enough to break a normal human hand, but the round punched through everything in its way and took a chunk out of the plant matter Vine used to build her armor.
More important, it shattered her knee. If she screamed beneath her bioarmor, I couldn’t hear it over the chaos of the plants reacting to her pain. Vegetation rushed toward her, creating a defensive ball of bark and vines with her hidden inside like a cocoon. I wondered if this was a desperation ploy, or if it served a greater purpose.
I ran closer, using the gap in Vine’s concentration to get through the writhing plants unmolested. Both Thassans took position in front of the imitation superhuman, their spears at the ready. I holstered the hand-cannon, leaving me with the mercy gun in my right hand. The briefest flicker of a hand signal was all the warning I had before the pair rushed me.
That was the first time I had ever met a Thassan; they were a curiosity of much the same sort as rain dances and amazonian tribal societies, of little concern to the bulk of society. Some people even claimed they were a hoax, though those same people claimed the moon landing was faked and the government uses fluorine as a mind control drug.
What little reliable information I had on them agreed that they weren’t any stronger than normal humans. What that failed to convey is that normal humans can be damn scary when they need to be. Especially humans who spend their whole lives swimming and living as nomad hunters.
The one to my left swept his spear as if a long ranged uppercut, while the one on the right was ready to trip me. I almost felt bad when, instead of avoiding the serrated tip of the spear, I grabbed it with my bare hand. The analysis tech informed me that it was a high quality steel alloy meant to survive in salt water. It also sacrificed a lot of steel’s resilience for that feature. The metal groaned in protest as I used my thumb to bend the metal until it folded at a ninety degree angle.
Righty whirled his weapon like an expert staff fighter, bringing it up into my elbow hard enough to shatter bone; I barely felt it. Still, I released my grip on his partner’s weapon in order to step closer to Righty and nail him with a left hook. I made sure my superhuman strength was off, so I didn’t break the man’s neck. Thassans were living people, not some plant-monster I could blow apart without remorse.
I had to admit, they had proverbial balls, fighting a man who could bend steel in his bare hands. My opinion of their brains wasn’t high, but they had balls. Speaking of, I tried to spare the sensibilities of the ladies in the control center by not looking at the pair’s footwork any more than necessary.
I spun to face Lefty, who used his spear as a guard when he charged forward. I caught the spear with my right hand, rested my left atop the bar, pointed my second gun right in the Thassan’s face and pulled the trigger. His eyes widened at the worst possible moment.
I don’t know what he knew about guns; perhaps he expected his head to explode in a shower of gore much like Vine’s armor had. Perhaps, as he lay there screaming in pain from the pepper-ball which exploded in his face, he imagined he was in hell. Those are just some questions I never got to ask him.
Now holding Lefty’s spear, I twirled and used it to block Righty’s next blow. He took a more cautious stance, now regarding the weapon in my left hand with the respect a firearm deserved. The offensive was now mine to take, and with a step forward I brought the weapon down as one might a sword, forcing the Thassan to block the strike. He grimaced in pain as his arms absorbed far more impact force than bone was meant to withstand.
The spear hit the ground, leaving him unarmed. He turned to run while I dropped my spear and pulled a third gun, much smaller than the other two. Despite its size, it was perhaps the most important weapon in my arsenal right now. I took aim, and the little projectile hit the Thassan square in the center of the back. Through the adrenaline and pain, I doubt he even felt the tracer dart now embedded beneath his skin.
I know I made the pair look bad, but I could only admire them; their skills were masterful even to the eyes of a soldier like myself. They could have earned a nice living as combat instructors for any military branch they wanted. They did the best they could, but they were only human, and sometimes human just isn’t good enough.
I moved closer to the ball of vegetation. <Got any clues for me?> The bioscan was pulling up all kinds of data now, none of which held any meaning to my untrained eyes.
<There’s human DNA in there, consistent with a Caucasian female of German ancestry,> Phoebe distractedly replied. <As well as Thassan genetics, and several species of aquatic life. It’s like they used Vine’s power, but on animal tissue instead of plant. It’s not Vine. Whatever this is, it was never human in the first place. There must be some sort of Breaker power at work allowing it to access Vine’s powers and skills.>
As Phoebe spoke, Lynx appeared out of the ground. She reached into the armor, and the shadows started carving their way through the mass of rapidly dying plantlife. I found myself wondering if Lynx could do that much damage to tissue, or Vine’s plants were just more vulnerable than most. Either way, she clawed to the core in under a minute.
“Vine? Claire? Are you there? Can you hear me?” Shannon’s voice shook with desperation, fear, and hope. “Please, please hold on.”
“Sh- Shannon?” I blinked in surprise. Vine’s doppleganger can speak. “Oh god, Shannon!”
She reached for the other woman, who stepped back before contact was made. A lackluster swipe by the Lynx caused faux-Vine to draw her hand back. “You have to help me! They-” Whatever else she might have said was cut off when her body fell apart. I mean that in the most literal way possible; one moment, she was a normal, if unhealthy looking woman. Seconds later, her body looked like the inedible refuse from a butcher’s shop.
Shannon stumbled back, her hands covering her mouth.
<I need answers. Yesterday.>
<I… I think it’s part of the interface.> Phoebe scrambled to explain what we witnessed. <In order to use Vine’s power, the simulacrum has to be linked to her somehow, that much makes sense. I guess something in that link is two way. Maybe when it was damaged, that let her take control? Or maybe the Thassans were controlling the body before you defeated them? Powers are impossible to predict, so it all comes down to whatever’s convenient for the narrative.>
Despite her delusion, Phoebe was right that you could only explain so much once powers got involved. I gave up hope for more concrete explanations.
“Lynx? Lynx!” I put my hands on her shoulders, dispelling much of the shadow-creature. “Listen to me. That wasn’t the real Vine, and if you want to help her, I need you to focus.”
She looked up at me, the missing portions of mask revealed her tear soaked cheeks. “Y-” She paused, then stepped away from me so her armor could encase her again. “You’re right. We have a job to do.”
No wonder Phoebe feels threatened by her. God I hope she didn’t hear that. “That was some sort of duplicate. I’m guessing created by some Imbued Thassan.” I turned to the still-writhing warrior. I couldn’t imagine how pepper spray felt for him; it was bad enough for those of us whose skin didn’t double as part of our respiratory system. I wasn’t feeling sympathetic to his plight.
All guns holstered, I grabbed the man by the arm and lifted him to his feet; what little telekinesis my shield could perform kept me from breaking anything. I pulled a small canister from my armor, then sprayed him in the face with it. The chemicals went to work immediately, breaking the irritants down into something far more mild.
“I don’t suppose you’re going to make this real easy on us and just happen to know English?” If he does, I’ll have to suspect Phoebe’s right about narrative convenience.
He glared at me, then spit out some blend of syllables and gestures that I doubt were appropriate for children. The translation programs informed me that they were, indeed, a rude suggestion involving dolphin feces.
“Well, damn.” I let the translation program explain how to speak to the Thassan. The difficult aspect of Thassan language was that most of it didn’t involve words; few sounds humans could make would carry well underwater, so they relied upon a complicated form of full body sign language. The closest thing I could compare it to was interpretive dance. Over the course of a minute, I managed to pantomime a short sentence. “You lost. Now talk.”
Shannon watched from the sideline, staring at me in utter disbelief. If I spend much more time around her, we’ll have to recruit her just to plug the security leak.
The warrior hissed at me, though his vocal cords were human so it failed to intimidate much. He brought up his taloned fingers, which I didn’t think of as much of a threat; even if he dipped them in poisons as some Thassans did, they were no threat to my armor. I didn’t realize I wasn’t the target until it was too late.