“Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
“For once I’d like something that isn’t rampaging down a crowded street,” Sophie sighed, looking through binoculars, from a rooftop, at Video Drone’s trail of destruction.
The street was crusted in twinkling glass shards and blown with litter. Storefront mannequins were scattered and twisted, among the groaning wounded, making for an eerie parody of a war zone.
“It does seem like chaos for chaos’ sake,” Ian replied.
He and Hunter waded through the debris. First responders were attending to the wounded, who formed a choir of agonized groans as they clutched, wincing at their wounds.
“Doesn’t look like there’s been any deaths,” Ian held his hand to his ear.
“That’s just one block,” Sophie’s thin, tinny voice crackled back through the speaker on Ian’s communicator, “The trail goes all the way down Chestnut Street as far as I can see. He may have made it all the way to Front by now.”
“Thirteen blocks,” Hunter sighed. “How’s your cardio?”
“Miss Fischer, if I may?” a voice zapped in and out over the comms.
“Bart?” Sophie responded.
“The news helicopters have visual on Video Drone doubling back down Walnut.”
“Why am I on the roof if we can just watch the news?”
“We’ll try to cut it off,” Ian’s voice pressed through the static.
“For alien tech, these communicators are pretty junky,” Sophie said.
“What are you expecting from millennia-old technology?” replied Ian, shrouded in white noise.
“Star Wars, at least.”
“God, it stinks out here,” Cheryl said into the crook of her elbow, muffled by her coat sleeve. She gagged as she pulled an armful of detritus and muck from an engine’s exhaust.
“Well, you can add another interesting smell to your bouquet,” Wolf laughed.
“Good. I can smell like shit and death.”
“Well, that does sound intimidating,” Luna said with a conciliatory smile, emerging from the top hatch, the lift wheezing.
“This thing has been here for a day and buried like an ancient temple in the Amazon,” said Cheryl.
“Holly camouflaged it after the shifter took off,” Wolf replied.
“She buried it for future generations.”
“Most of it went under the muck.”
“Good news is,” Luna wiped soot from her hands, “The damage to the drive is minimal. We can get her off the ground. Bad news is whatever repairs we can make will be a jury rig at best. Definitely wouldn’t go off world with it.”
“If we can get it back to Carl’s, we can do a more thorough job.”
“Problem is some of the parts are alien tech that hasn’t been invented yet. And whatever we make due with in this time frame isn’t not going to be available on Earth.”
“What about the Saturn outpost?”
“The Satellite of Love?” Wolf interjected.
“We’re not calling it that,” Luna sighed.
“You’re the only one who calls it that.”
“Because that’s what it’s called.”
“We are not…”
“Joneses,” Cheryl clapped. “Couples therapy later, disabled ship now. If we can get you back to the Love Shack...”
“Don’t you start,” Luna pointed a disciplinary finger at Cheryl.
“The Saturn Outpost…”
“But we can do better than ‘Saturn Outpost’.”
Cheryl put her palms to her forehead and groaned, “What is wrong with the two of you?”
“Now you’re going to have schmutz all over your face,” Wolf said.
Cheryl fixed a blank stare on Wolf who was waving his finger over his forehead. She sucked her lips in and bit down.
“One problem at a time,” she said with unsettling placidity. “Let’s get the ship back to Carl’s and you guys can argue about all the bullshit you want when we’re not standing hip deep in a fucking swamp.
“Technically it’s a marsh,” Wolf snorted.
“Stop it,” Luna yelped through a barely stifled giggle and slapped Wolf on the arm.
“Miss Ellers,” Holly said emerging from the hatch. “I could use a hand if you’re available.”
Cheryl drummed up a look of as much dignity as can be conveyed through a face covered in swamp mire, “I would love to.” she disappeared down into the ship with Holly.
“Were we giving her too much of a hard time?” Luna asked.
“She’s just not used to being waist deep in shit,” Wolf replied. “I don’t think she gets she’s at war yet.”
Holly led Cheryl into her quarters and handed her a stack of towels and opened the door to the bathroom.
“The shower is working,” Holly said. “Hot water is iffy. There’s a change of clothes on the bed. When you’re done, meet me back by the drives.” Holly began walking out, then turned back. “Sorry about my parents.”
“What are they amped up on this time?”
“This is my parents, stone cold sober.”
“You must have had a bizarre childhood.”
“I have nothing with which to compare that against.”
“That’s pretty weird,” Cheryl pointed at the poster bearing her image peering through a prism.
Holly’s eyes widened as fell into a vexed groan, “I forgot to take that down.”
“It’s okay. It won’t affect my future. That’s always been my future.”
“With what’s happened the last few days, preserving the timeline seems like a futile endeavor.”
“Maybe this is how it always happened.”
“You’re suggesting we’re stuck in a causality loop. Not the most comforting alternative.”
“No, not really,” Cheryl looked long at the poster, scrunching her nose. “I can’t imagine getting to point in my life where I would think that would be a cool picture.”
They both laughed and Holly continued on.
Hunter and Ian trekked the long blocks down Walnut hoping to finally meet Video Drone in person. Signs of panic and chaos were growing ahead, some people fleeing others lingering with their phones out, taking portrait aspected videos of the marauding ant and its attendant apparitions.
“Sir?” Ian said jogging over to a social media documentarian, who was tottering backwards while trying to get a close-up Video Drone. “I'm going to have to ask you to vacate the area.”
“No way, bro,” he replied. “I’m getting mad likes on this live feed.”
“Sir, it’s for your own safety.”
“Back off, bro,” he puffed himself and stepped toward Ian, arms out, “Why don’t you take your little flutes and step the fu…”
Video Drone snatched his cell phone from his hand with its mandibles and licked at it with a probing tongue, sparking with static electricity.
“Yo, give me back my phone!” The erstwhile war correspondent jerked toward Video Drone.
The ant’s antennae sparked together like Tesla coils. A flickering beam of light formed between them and the glowing image of an elderly woman formed.
“Mee maw?” the streamer whimpered.
Mee Maw wound up and struck him on the chin, and he dropped to the street. Ian bashed Mee Maw on the head and she disappeared in a color test pattern. Video Drone dropped the phone on the ground and appeared to be regarding Ian, who remained still. After a moment of looking at each other, he slowly crouched beside the streamer’s unconscious body and rolled him over. His chin appeared sunburned: thin, peeling skin pulling away from red and blistered flesh. Video Drone wandered over to another dropped phone and picked it up in its mandibles, again licking it with a cracking tongue. Ian picked up the streamer’s phone. It was dead.
“How many likes for getting decked by Mee Maw?” Hunter said, standing over Ian.
“Look,” Ian pointed to the irritated flesh. “Radiation burns. The apparitions would seem to be formed from electromagnetic radiation.”
Video Drone approached Ian and Hunter. Hunter began to draw his sword but Ian stayed his hand.
“I have a theory,” Ian said.
Video Drone walked by as if Ian and Hunter weren’t there.
“How’s your theory holding up?”
“Good so far. I think the apparitions are a form of self-defense. They only exist in a perimeter around him. That’s why we never see them where he’s long gone. The apparitions are brittle and don’t last very long even if they are in his proximity. I think they’re an evolved survival mechanism. We didn’t pose a threat so he didn’t bother with us. He just moved on looking for sustenance. Which in his case is electromagnetism.”
“Alright, he gets to play the dumb animal card, but he’s still a nuisance,” Sophie said into the comms. All she got was static in return. “Guys? Guys? Piece of crap.”
“Is everything okay, Miss Fischer?” Bart’s voice buzzed through.
“I can hear you. Something must be wrong with Hunter and Ian’s comms.”
“If I had to guess, I’d say EM interference from Video Drone.”
Sophie looked down from her rooftop perch and saw hundreds of grainy facsimiles of the Three Stooges filing out of the shattered window of an electronics boutique. She fired light arrows three at a time, taking care to eliminate the Curly Joes first.
“I’m going down there, they need backup.”
She swung open the rooftop access door and was met with a cross looking man holding a baseball bat.
“What are you doing on my roof?” he shouted and raised the bat.
“Oh boy, I’m really sorry about this,” Sophie bent and twisted her hands and a decomposing little girl appeared behind the paunchy, balding flannel shirt.
“Daddy,” the girl whined, “Why did you leave me and mommy to die?”
The scrunched up baseball cap gasped in horror and fell out onto the tar roof, backing away from the approaching, accusing little wight.
“Think of this as an opportunity to make peace with some demons,” Sophie slipped through the door and slammed it shut. She held up her mirror and a narrow beam of light melted the latch to the frame. She flew down thirteen floors, perhaps touching five steps and out into the street just in time to see Hunter cartwheeling through the air and into the side of a building. Ian was trying to placate an alien who was on the ground on all fours flanked by two human bodies that looked dressed for a renaissance fair. The alien drew a gun and fired on Video Drone, incapacitating him. The alien slung the humans over his shoulders and flew off.
“Bart?” Sophie peeped into the comms. “Can you get in touch with the Joneses? I think Ray is here.”
“Not sure about the look,” Cheryl said, tugging at the clothes Holly had given her.
She was wearing a long billowing white coat that looked like the hybrid of an artist’s smock and lab coat, over a sheer, glistening, black jumpsuit. Around her waist was a gold belt with several hidden compartments and a place that looked like it was made to fit a sidearm.
“It’s your look,” Holly laughed. “You invented it.”
“What the hell happened to me?”
Holly pulled the panel off the wall, revealing the blinking machinery within. A grooved cylinder with strips of blue light racing around the barrel was mounted onto something that looked like a rotisserie mount. It hummed as it turned. Light studded stripes ran along the interior walls of the access port, all leading into the cylinder mount. Some were bright and shined solid, while other blinked and others still sat dark.
“This is the drive.”
Cheryl stuck her head in for a moment and pulled out a despondent face.
“Just when I thought I was going to be useful,” she groused.
“I didn’t ask you to come in to make you feel worse. I thought you could use a break from my parents roasting the rookie.”
“Just imagine being out there, but instead of some dirty water its blood, entrails, limbs, broken bodies. That was their life for years. Sent into warzone after warzone to mop up. They know a lot about war and they just want to make sure you and your friends are ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“When you challenge Yaldabaoth, you go to war. That guy doesn’t do anything small. I don’t think he understands the concept of disproportionate retaliation. This is likely going to get a lot worse than getting muddy in a swamp. You don’t just need to be ready for you. You need to be ready for your team. They look to you.”
“This is moving a lot faster than I prepared for, I guess.”
“War has its own unique tempo.”
“Hey, guys?” Wolf came jogging in, “How much longer, we have to get airborne.”
Holly snapped the panel back in place. “Ready now. Just be gentle.”
Wolf slapped his hand to his ear, “Grammy Sophie, this is Airwolf, you got your ears on good buddy?”
“Please don’t call me ‘grammy’,” Sophie replied.
“Get someplace high, we’re coming to pick you up. There’s somebody we’re just dying for you to meet.”
Ray laid Cletus and Abby down on the roof of a downtown apartment, on chaise lounges he had pilfered from a balcony a few floors below. The owner of the absconded lounges protested through the glass doors, too terrified to confront the floating demon directly. He contacted the local authorities who assured the frightened citizen they were already well on the case.
Abby was the first to stir, blinking slowly back into consciousness, her focus resolving on the news helicopters wheeling overhead.
“Where are we?” she shot to her feet.
“I don’t know,” Ray replied.
“What are those things?”
“My guess is some sort of primitive hovercraft.”
“Primitive?” Abby looked at him askance.
Abby stepped to the lip of the roof, looked out and gasped. “It’s a city of towers.”
“Yeah, it’s great. I can get great air, here. I can practically fly.”
“Are we still on Earth?” Abby goggled at Ray.
“I can only assume. The two inhabitants I saw looked human, but then there was this big bug and these screaming, electromagnetic constructs.”
Three police helicopters roared in and hovered low around the rooftop.
“Get on your knees and place your hands behind your head,” one of the choppers shouted.
“What’s all this racket,” Cletus grumbled in his sleep.
“Grandpa,” Abby knelt down. “Get up, something's happening.”
“Get on your knees and place your hands behind your heads, now, or we will open fire.” the chopper shouted louder.
Ray rolled his eyes, “C’mon. We’re at ‘open fire’ already?”
“This is your final warning.”
“Fine,” Ray shot his hands out toward the chopper and it began to wobble and then dropped like a brick that recalled it was a brick.
The chopper crashed to the street and burst into flames that licked up the side of the building.
“Oh shit,” Ray muttered.
The remaining two helicopters began firing on them. Abby hurled a fireball that impacted the chopper's tail, severing it. The chopper spun, collided with the other and they fell toward the rooftop. Ray sheltered Cletus and Abby as he braced for an impact that never came. The choppers were helplessly suspended above them. The chopper crews looked at Ray, faces twisted in confusion. Ray shrugged back and shook his head. The choppers drifted aside and alighted gently on the ground below. Above them hovered the Starcrossed.
“Let’s hear it for Luna’s tractor beam technique,” Wolf’s voice blasted from the PA, “Director Raphael.”
“Director?” Ray frowned.
“Not director. Just Raphael. Anyway, get up here. We’ll discuss things then.”
“Who are you?”
“Never heard of you.”
“You wouldn’t have yet.”
“Just get in.”
“And why should I trust you?”
“Well, there are about twenty three heavily armed members of the local human constabulary currently huffing and puffing their way up the steps. You trust them more?”
“I don’t trust either of you,” Ray grabbed ahold of Abby and Cletus and soared off the roof.
“Cut me some slack, man,” Wolf yelled through the PA.
The Starcrossed chased after Ray as he bobbed and weaved down the narrow corridors of the Center City streets, the wings of the ship coming inches from the buildings on either side.
“Do you know what the fuck you’re doing?” Cheryl pled from the passenger seat behind Wolf, clutching the cushion.
“Best pilot in the galaxy, m'aam,” Wolf replied.
“Sure you are.”
“I let him have that one,” Luna said. “I’m the best sniper though.”
“You wish,” Wolf stuck his tongue out at Luna. The ship grazed the stone facade of a skyscraper.
“Watch where you’re going,” Cheryl said to the back of Wolf’s seat.
“I got it,” Wolf said.
Sophie giggled at Cheryl.
“Just you wait, Fischer.”
“Ray?” Wolf said through the PA. “If you don’t trust me, I think we know someone you will. Sophie, introduce yourself.”
“If he doesn’t recognize you, why would he recognize me?” Sophie asked.
“Because he stalks your family,” Wolf replied and stabbed his finger at the PA mic.
“Oh, uh, hi Ray,” Sophie stammered. “My name is Sophie Fischer…”
Ray sheared to the left and made a U-turn.
Wolf yanked the stick and the Starcross shot straight up and rotated 180 degrees, then shot back down another urban canyon.
“I think he needs a visual. Luna, dear” Wolf sang. “Take Grammy Sophie topside?”
“What? Topside?” Sophie yowled.
“C’mon, Soph,” Luna said warmly. “It’s easy. You just have to get used to the mag boots.”
“We’re still moving, really fast,” Sophie protested as Luna took her to the lift.
Cheryl giggled at Sophie.
Luna and Sophie emerged on the top of the vessel taking stiff, tentative steps as the mag boots snapped to the surface. Sophie held her arms out and stepped away from Luna.
“This isn’t that bad,” Sophie shouted over the rushing air, her black hair whipping over her face. “Really windy though.”
“Just be careful,” Luna hollered back. “It might get bumpy.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Get his attention.”
Sophie nocked her bow and fired a light arrow between Ray’s wings.
“We’re not duck hunting.”
“You said get his attention.”
“Not in a way that could lead to accidental death.”
“I’m a pretty good shot myself.”
She let another arrow fly that sailed through Ray’s line of sight, inches from his face. He wheeled back around and Abby fired off a volley of fireballs at Sophie and Luna.
“Oh, what now?” Wolf grumbled as the vessel shook from the impacts.
“The girl dangling from his right claw is throwing fire at us,” Cheryl replied.
“Fire, huh?” Wolf squinted through the glass at the red-haired girl, throwing fire as she swung from Ray’s talon, “Curious.”
Wolf stood and began walking out of the cabin.
“Where the hell are you going?” Cheryl yelled, wildly gesticulating toward the flight controls.
“This has got to end before someone gets killed. Take the stick, Cher. ”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“Yeah,” Wolf snorted, “The computer has helm control. Computer, try to get under Director Raphael.”
Wolf grabbed a rifle from the gun locker and ascended the lift.
The Starcrossed flew low, inches above the roofs of the cars in traffic below. It swooped under Ray, Wolf took aim and fired. A dull, low pop was heard and Ray fell to the surface of the Starcrossed.
“Wolf, what did you do?” Luna darted to Wolf as fast as mag boots would allow.
“Concussion bolt,” Wolf replied. “Let’s get them inside and restrained before they wake up pissed off.”