I braced myself for the Thassan to claw at my armor until his retractable talons broke off, but his target was his own throat. I blocked his right arm with my left before my conscious mind realized what was going on, but I didn’t have time to stop the other.
The shower of blood hit me while my computer flashed a dozen different warnings, explaining in exhaustive detail how he severed his carotid artery, esophagus, and various other parts. The repair tech could have fixed it, if I hadn’t swapped it out for a more offensive setting. The only thing the current equipment could do for me was explain in no uncertain terms that his wounds were fatal.
In the control room, Doctor Patil uttered something that may or may not have been a prayer in Hindi. Phoebe gasped, then muttered something too soft and fast for the microphone to make out any individual words, but obviously distressed. Professor Abernathy’s voice sounded like she was next to Phoebe, saying something soothing to the girl. In my peripheral vision Lynx’s shadows curled around her like a thousand angry serpents ready to strike. Each one’s reactions made it clear enough who had seen death in person before.
As a soldier, I thought I’d seen all the varieties violent death had to offer: shock, pain, rage, regret, and even a lucky handful whose brains never had time to let them know the bad news, but today was the first time I’d ever seen someone die with a smile on his face. As if he though he’d won the encounter in those few seconds before he lost consciousness.
In a way, perhaps he had; this display unnerved me, as it had everyone else on our team. Few people were psychologically equipped to deal with fanatics. How unfortunate for them that I was one of those few.
I set his body into the shallow tide pool even as I talked to Shannon and my command center. “How does your power work, exactly?” <I need you to put a couple swords into the duffel bag. As well as any weapons that’ll work well underwater. Don’t suppose Thassans have special weaknesses we can exploit?>
<F-flashbangs,> Phoebe sniffed. <They have really sensitive sight and hearing. It-it’ll hurt, but won’t kill.>
“Wait. What does that matter?” Shannon’s suspicion was obvious, even with Lynx cloaking her voice.
“I know your power isn’t shadow manipulation. It’s not even a forcefield by any standard definition. You can see absolute darkness, and maybe don’t need to breathe.” I tended to the dead as I spoke. I wasn’t familiar with Thassan burial rituals, but if they left their elders to die alone then perhaps they didn’t have such practices. I laid the man out, then set a couple stones on him, just to ensure the body stayed submerged once the tides came in. “I need to know if you can survive down there, or if I’m going in alone.”
<You’re going down there!?> Abernathy shouted while I was talking to Shannon. I hoped she didn’t consider it rude that I kept talking over her. <The shore was bad enough, but crossing into their territory is… the United States has enough black marks on recent foreign policy without us adding a debacle like this one.>
“You mean you can…” Shannon stopped herself, then shook her head. “Of course. Why wouldn’t you be able to breathe water and track Thassans in the ocean? It’s less absurd than all your other powers. Still, are you really planning to go down there? I understand why I have to go, to save my friend from… that…” Shannon gestured at the biosludge remains. “But you’re an outsider, not even from the same country. Why are you helping?”
<Of course he’s going,> Phoebe said. <He’s the hero, and there’s a damsel to save.>
Despite myself, I almost smiled; it was good to know someone had your back when the chips were down. “I’ve seen fanatics before. If we don’t go in and end this now, they’ll spread. They’ve made at least two duplicates of Vine already, who’s to say they can’t do the same with other Imbued?”
<Our whole operation is built on the back of plausible deniability. We’re not government, they just pay us.> I made certain to transmit back to base while I spoke, but I kept my eyes trained on Shannon. “We have to stop them right now, and to do that I need to know the resources I have at my disposal.” <Think about it. What happens if these psychos start producing Lynx clones?>
“The Lynx is…” Shannon paused for a second while her costume folded away from her face. “All you see from this side is its mouth. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a gateway leading to Nowhere, with a capital ‘N’. I can enter, even take objects inside with me, but it kills any other living thing. From inside, I can move the gate, and choose what does and doesn’t enter. Well, up until you, that is. You hurt it, force it away. You might even be able to kill it with me.”
The last sentence was… a plea, perhaps. As if she hoped I’d volunteer to end her. I pretended not to notice and hoped I was wrong.
<Weaponized Hammerspace, with near-perfect defense and offense.> Phoebe’s voice was barely audible. <Her power is so completely, incredibly… lonely.> I couldn’t help but agree. <You have to do it with her, now. It wouldn’t be right if you don’t.>
And then she says something like that. <Let’s just focus on the task at hand.> With any luck, the others wouldn’t ask what Phoebe meant. Of all the conversations I expected to avoid in life, I never anticipated my borderline stalker encouraging me to pity-fuck another woman to make the list. <Drop a sensor suite in the bag, while you’re at it.>
I took a couple steps toward Shannon, touched her with the clean part of my hand; arterial spray from point blank didn’t leave a lot of clean spots behind. “Shannon. You’re faster than me, especially in this terrain. I left a bag back in your truck. It has some things we’re going to need. Please, don’t open it before you get back.”
Shannon look down, to where the shadows were forced away from her arm. “Okay. I’ll be back in a minute.” She looked up at me, a half-grin warring with other emotions on her face. “You’d better not be planning to run off on a solo mission before I get back.”
<Toss a probe in now, and you can get all kinds of data on her power in action.> Now I felt dirty. “Wouldn’t dream of it.” The thought had crossed my mind, only to be dismissed as an excellent way to get us both killed. Shannon stepped back, then vanished into her shadow. <Itemized list of what I’ll need: two swords, like the one Lynx uses.> I knelt to pick up the undamaged spear that would serve as my weapon. <As many flashbangs as you can stuff in there. And pieces of metal which assemble into a box large enough to contain a human body. Roughly coffin sized is ideal.>
<You’re going to use the teleporter to evacuate Vine! That is so smart!>
<It will take time to design the box,> Patil said. <Sorry, but it’s a custom order, and we’ve never built anything like it before. Give us around fifteen minutes.>
Fifteen minutes to design and build custom metalworks. I know people who’d kill for service like that. <You have until I find her. While we’re on the subject, I’d like one of those designed for my use. I might need a portable escape hatch some day.> Today, as an example. Though if I had one of those, I’d never have talked to Shannon and I’d still be guessing at what to do next. Most likely, I’d have been forced to wait until the second Vine-clone attacked. <But that’s not a high priority for the moment.>
Now that I was alone and looking, I could signs of other plants having been warped by Vine, many of which were well into decomposition state. <I think they used this beach for training their replicants. Perhaps every night. Can we use that to get an idea of their timeline?>
<Maybe, give me a minute. This may feel weird.> I was just about to ask Phoebe what she was about to do, but then my sensors, as well as my eyes, were no longer under my control.
Several words came to mind to describe my feelings; weird wasn’t high on the list. The thought that anyone back at base could override my central nervous system and shut me down was terrifying to say the least. I didn’t hold it against them. After all, a weapon as powerful as they made me needed fail-safes. If I went rogue, or was victimized by an Infiltrator, then it was paramount that someone be able to put me down. The thought that someone could take control when I couldn’t control myself felt almost… comforting.
If those at the base caught any of those thoughts, they opted to say nothing. Phoebe eventually got back to me with her conclusions. <I’d say there’s a point six days ago where the usage stopped for three days, then started again. Which fits the timeline where Vine’s attack happened five days ago. Anything before then is hard to be certain about.>
<Does that mean they can only produce one clone at a time?> If so, we can end them. I was confident that I could beat most Imbued, and if I couldn’t then Shannon could, but I wasn’t willing to place a bet on us taking down an army of superhumans.
<It makes sense,> Phoebe agreed. <They’re linked into the original to use her powers. One clone at a time. Maybe multiple clones, but only one of each person. A threat too significant to ignore, but not so powerful as to be unbeatable. It’s the perfect baddie for you to defeat.>
I glanced back at the dead Thassan. Is he a clone? No, there was no breakdown into gunk. He was a real person. It was only then that I realized I had regained control of my body.
<Oh, Lynx is back. She’s been watching you in secret for the last thirty seconds.> Phoebe’s voice was conspiratorial, encouraging even. For someone who thought I was destined to be with her, she seems far too willing to play wingman for me. <Be sure to thank her for everything.>
I tried not to think too hard about it, but if Phoebe wanted me to thank Shannon. “Uh, thanks for trusting me. And bringing the bag.”
“How did you? Ugh. Never mind.” Shannon appeared out of nowhere, bag slung over her back. “What’s in here that’s so important? And so heavy? Feels like it’s full of bricks.” She slipped it off her shoulder, allowing arm to brush against mine when I took it from her, heedless of the blood drying on my clothes. I suppose when your power scoured away all life to touch you, you didn’t worry as much about sanitation.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to take Shannon up on her offer, but the word temptation implied negative consequences for losing control, and I couldn’t allow that to happen. <Okay, get the scanner out and the gear inside.>
I pulled away from Shannon, after enough time to imply I didn’t want to, then set the bag on the ground. “Everything you need for an illegal fishing trip.” I unzipped the bag, which was lined with some sort of tightly woven metal mesh just dense enough to allow a teleportation field inside. <Maybe instead of a coffin, a body bag?> “Big knives and dynamite.” I pulled the swords out, offering them to Shannon hilt-first.
“There is no way you had those earlier. How did you do that?”
“I have friends in high places.” 385,000 kilometers high, give or take. I pulled a couple flashbangs out for her. The helmet to my armor system sat beneath them, which reminded me of a question. “Have you ever been fishing with dynamite? Explosives are a lot more deadly underwater, expect these things to hit ten times harder than they would on land.” I wasn’t sure if my assumptions were accurate, but better safe than sorry. <Hey, am I tough enough to take a hit from one of these? Are the Thassans?>
<With the full armor, you should only experience minor bruising from a direct hit. Exposed? You’ll survive, but anywhere closer than three meters and the compression wave might destroy vulnerable organs such as eyes and ear canals.> Phoebe said, then after a moment of hesitation she whispered. <Also, testes. So wear protection.>
<Good information to have.> I looked up at Shannon. “Do not set these off closer than five meters of anyone. While we’re down there, we won’t be able to communicate verbally. We need a battle plan ready now, and we need to follow it exactly.”
Shannon knelt down next to me, grabbing some more grenades which she hid in the Nowhere her power accessed. “Lemme guess. I stay out of sight and do all the real damage while you walk in the front door like a suicidal moron to sponge up enemy fire?”
I smiled at her. “You’ve done this before.”
She smirked, tilted her head, and shrugged. “Maybe once or twice. Per month.”