I put myself in the defensive position that did so much to protect me from prior attacks, despite having no hope that it would save me. I struggled to think of some last words that might be meaningful; perhaps to make Phoebe or Shannon feel better. First mission, and I get killed after breaking every rule drilled into me from Basic on forward. My epitaph should read ‘don’t do what this dumb-ass did’.
The shockwave hit, followed by a dozen new alarms screaming at me. Shoulder dislocated, spine compression, hip dislocated, hip joint warped, tibia bent at a seven degree angle. Most of the damage had occurred on my left side, because I’d reflexively attempted to shield myself. If the exo-armor hadn’t absorbed the brunt of the damage, I would have been dead. As it stood, a second blast like that would be fatal.
Static buzzed in the back of my head, and the mapping program flickered off. Guess the electronics took a beating, too. I forced my head to move despite the pain, to get my bearings. My armor was warped and cracked from the hit, and most of my equipment was destroyed. By some small miracle, the flashbangs didn’t detonate when they shattered and the satchel was still intact.
My musculature struggled to pull itself together while I sank to the ocean floor. The Imbued I’d decided to call Skeletor appeared above me, watching me from empty eye sockets.
One of his legs was missing, having broken off near the hip bone. The remaining bit of bone shifted back and forth, as if attempting to kick in the water. More pieces flaked off, the consequence of his power. At least he dies with me.
It wasn’t any act of mine which would defeat him, but his own power that was already well on its way to consuming him whole. That was the nature of a Class Five event: an incredible boost of power, at the cost of the Imbued’s life. More often than not, they were spectacularly violent, and took everyone nearby with them.
I felt a tug at the back of my mind, the possibility of greater strength for myself just within my grasp, at the cost of unnamed sacrifices. I touched the force, exercising my previously unknown ability with a natural ease I didn’t have with my cybernetics. It’s not enough, whatever power I might get will not be enough to survive this scenario. I pushed harder, to see if I could do what he did and accept suicide for a strength to rival his. The force went silent, my window of opportunity gone.
Whatever it was that granted Skeletor access to such power didn’t extend to me. In a way, it was liberating to know there was nothing I could do, and therefore nothing I had to do.
He pointed down at me, aiming the shot that would finish me; if the blast itself didn’t do the job, then slamming into the ocean floor would. I could hear the power concentrating in his hand as a high pitched whine through the water. Then, it just stopped. Skeletor’s arm separated at the shoulder, then vanished into shadows too dark for me to see.
Lynx! Her body moved out of the shadows between me and Skeletor, allowing me to see her only as an obstruction in his glow. She pointed at the mausoleum below, a silent gesture reminiscent of the rather famous Christmas Carol scene. I clenched my jaw in anticipation of pain as I twisted around to kick off toward the enemy base. As much as it pained me, I had to trust Lynx’s judgment.
A shockwave hit me from behind, propelling me toward the building. More pain, more alarms, but nothing severe. Pinched nerve in the neck, right arm partially paralyzed, bruised kidney. I pushed myself to keep swimming; if Shannon had any hope of beating a Class Five, then my presence would only slow her down. The speed boost tech, what little I had of it, somehow managed to avoid destruction in the battle. The next shockwave was much gentler, giving me a nudge but not inflicting any further damage.
Only after hitting the ground did I allow myself to look back at the battle, but from this far away I couldn’t see anything. Another shockwave washed over me, but from this distance it was like a brief gust of wind.
<Warren? Warren! Oh thank god you’re okay!> Phoebe started sobbing in the background.
<Mister Cross?> Professor Abernathy’s voice was stressed, but she was still in control of her emotions. <Integral’s managed to cobble together a working com through secondary systems, at least for the time being. Are you conscious? Can you hear us? Can you provide a status report?>
<Reporting in, alive and… I’m alive, at any rate. Took a few ugly hits, but Lynx is up there distracting Skeletor. I’m heading to the presumed location of our primary mission objective.>
I resumed my pained limp toward the entrance of the building. More of a hop, to be honest, making use of my one good leg and water buoyancy to do the work for me. They’ll have to replace my leg this time. I hope losing limbs doesn’t become a pattern. <Right, sorry. I needed a name for the Imbued guy, and it seemed appropriate.>
<Do you think Lynx is capable of dealing with him?>
I pushed down the guilt of leaving her behind. <All I know for certain is even at full strength I’m no match, and I am far from full strength right now. At best, I’d be a minor distraction to him, and at worse I’d be a fatal distraction to her. In either scenario, I can do more good by rescuing Vine.> At least, that’s what I tried to tell myself so I didn’t have to admit I was a coward.
<Understood,> Abernathy said. <We have medical crews waiting at the teleportation chamber.>
<We’ll get Vine out, and then you. I promise,> Phoebe added.
The fact that I could assemble the ‘coffin’ and escape right now was not lost on anyone, but it went unspoken. I stopped near the entrance, where one Thassan stood holding a spear bag. He was in bad shape, with his leg severed near the knee and several other ugly wounds across his torso. A gunk my scanners identified as some blend of volcanic rock and hagfish mucus had been coated over the wound, which staunched his bleeding. That’s pretty clever, bet the eggheads will love hearing about it.
The Thassan gestured at me, but my translator seemed to be broken. <What does it mean if a Thassan holds his hand out using his index and middle finger to form a ‘v’?> I stood there for a moment, waiting for my answer.
<If the palm is facing you, then it means peace. It’s a gesture they borrowed from the surface as part of their trade language. It’s how they signal to ships that they’re interested in speaking to the sailors. Make the same gesture back with your right hand, then place your left index finger in front of the finger tips. It means you’re peaceful, but don’t know their language.>
As damaged as I was, I had to struggle to follow Abernathy’s instructions, but it seemed to mollify the man. He nodded at me, then gestured toward the entrance of the building with his spear. I nodded back, hoping it meant what I thought it meant. I stepped forward, ready to enter the enemy lair, but the Thassan had already moved ahead of me.
Trade language? I wonder how that works. After a moment’s thought, it made sense; someone purchased those harpoons, which required some form of communication across many different languages. I just wished I could explain that my armor protected me, so it would be better if I went first. I hoped that wouldn’t bite us in the ass, but there wasn’t anything I could do except keep an eye out and hope the warrior could take care of himself.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Inside the building could only be described as a charnel house. Blood drifted thick in the water, turning the light of glowing stones in the wall crimson. In addition to the old corpses which confirmed this place as a burial site, there were several fresh dead, often dismembered or with their throats ripped out.
I reached out, picking an arm from where it dangled off a spike that I was pretty sure was once the tooth of a huge shark. The limb had already started to necrotize, despite being so fresh that blood still leaked from the stump. Lynx did this. She killed all of them. Based on the looks of horror and pain on the few faces left recognizable, she hadn’t been quick about it, either.
So much for thinking Shannon doesn’t have a killer instinct.
<She might not,> Doctor Patil responded. <She views her power as a separate entity, which may allow her to commit this level of violence without believing it’s her fault. Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt.>
<No, it’s good information to have.> Whether I was speaking about insight into Shannon’s mind, or knowledge that the link was even more buggy than usual, I hadn’t yet decided. <There is no such thing as having too much actionable intel.>
<Speaking of,> Abernathy said. <What are you seeing in there?>
I described everything I’d seen thus far, as well as the rest of the terrain as I moved forward. The decorations were mostly of engravings of skulls, as well as what I assumed were Thassan symbols of death like jellyfish and sharks. Regardless, the architecture was designed to be intimidating even without fresh corpses floating in the water, but ultimately a primitive design I could ignore. I suppose it helps that the only creatures nearby are harmless scavengers.
I pushed forward until my scanners caught sight of something human; two humans, in fact. One was probably Vine, but the other was an unknown. <Possible hostage scenario. A standard firearm will be more than enough, or perhaps tranquilizer darts. They’ll have to be in air if they have Vine alive.>
<On it,> Abernathy said. I’d trust her to give me something suitable.
The path of the building led forward, in a lazy serpentine fashion, but the direction to the only detectable life was almost a sharp ninety degree turn to the left at this point. I kept my eyes open until I found an odd shadow in the wall. My Thassan ally kept going forward, while I investigated until I found a passage carved in the stone.
This is recent, perhaps only weeks old. Dark enough that my enhanced vision only extended a couple feet ahead of me, and I was grateful for even that much. I kept going, able to see a light source ahead, near where the two humans waited. I reached into the satchel, finding the familiar comfort of a handgun waiting for me amidst the broken flashbang canisters. I pulled it out, then went for the light.
A steep incline awaited me, and from below I could see the shimmer of light on the water’s surface. So they made a room for air breathers. One leg still too banged up for use, I pulled myself to the surface rather than exhausting myself with an attempt at swimming. A third lifesign registered, made from the same biomonster stuff used to make the Vine replicant.
<Please tell me these are blue steel jackets.> This time, I would aim to kill on the first shot; I wasn’t in a position to play around like we had with the last one.
<They are. Do be careful.>
I didn’t answer, instead putting all my focus on what was about to come. Behind me, the Thassan had realized where I vanished and was navigating his own way down the tunnel. If I didn’t act right now, he might get caught in the crossfire. Pain shot through me as I kicked up a boost of power which allowed me to pull myself onto shore and into a crouching position on the shore. I trained my firearm directly on the biomonster, using my sensors to guide my aim before I could rely upon my sight. Three more alerts flashed at me about rupturing blood vessels and exacerbating other injuries.
I was too busy paying attention to the scene before me. Both women, well woman and girl, were nude. The woman was human, with a rubenesque figure and light brown hair, with skin so pale as to be nearly white. The woman fit the basic profile of the Vine-replicant that Shannon had called Claire.
“Don’t shoot!” She jumped in front of the child, grabbing the girl in her arms and presenting her back to me, attempting to shield her with her own body. Her head turned to face me. “You’re Lynx’s friend, right? Don’t hurt her, she’s just a child.”
A child who, even if I ‘generously’ assumed Thassans had figures like East Asians and this one was malnourished, could not have been more than fourteen years old. Her development more closely resembled an American ten year old. My gun was trained on the large bulge of her stomach, which belonged on a woman six months pregnant.
I lowered the gun so it pointed at the ground. “Christ Almighty.”