With a Little Help From My Friends
The news was calling it a comet, but Engelbert knew better. He imagined most people knew better but didn’t want to think what happened last year might happen again. If it did, most people felt secure in the notion that there was a line of defense between them and annihilation. Engelbert was determined to prove he knew better on that account as well.
“There will always be the weak minded, ready to rationalize anything away,” he once said in a lecture to his A.I. and Ethics students, “That’s how Holocausts happen.”
These days Engelbert wasn’t lecturing anyone about anything, save for his cat who received the occasional admonition to not shit outside the box. His former student, Cheryl Ellers, had him ousted from academia years prior for misappropriating his Ph.D. candidates’ work. Every day since then he’s burned with hot rage and planned his revenge on his old protege. After tricking her, last year, into upgrading the Tabula Rasa protocol, he had almost all the pieces he needed to carry out his plot. Getting her to save the life of her arch nemesis, Simon Vyx, was just an extra insult to the injury.
He just needed to tie up some loose ends. Cheryl had a posse. They would need to be neutralized. For that he found himself trudging through poison ivy and thorn bushes in the middle of nowhere at three in the morning.
The beam of his flashlight swung through the dark and misty air in the dense woods off of the interstate. He knew the ‘comet’ had landed here. He was expecting it. He had invited it. His short, round body waddled through the underbrush, grunting and swearing with every step until he came upon a faint glow a bit deeper in. As he approached the glow, he noticed a small spacecraft parked and covered in hasty camouflage. It was crude cover, but sufficient enough this deep into the forest. Kneeling before a small glowing orb on a carpet of fallen leaves was a lithe figure, clad in leather, holding its hand before her in a way that Engelbert read as ceremonial or meditative. The figure seemed transfixed by the moon, as it stared up, unblinking.
“Devana the Mage Hunter?” Englebert croaked.
Without changing position, the figure pulled a laser pistol and shot just past Engelbert’s ear.
“Do not interrupt me,” the figure hissed in a female voice.
After a long period of silence, the woman stood and placed a wide-brimmed hat on her head, pulling it down to conceal her solid white eyes. Long crimson hair flowed to her feet, in stark contrast to the green tint of her skin. Her lips were dark red not from any form of cosmetics, but rather from being repeatedly stained with blood. She stood at least a foot over Engelbert’s squat frame, looking down. Her snug leather suit was studded with weapons and gadgets. She reminded Engelbert of the two space ninjas that came to the Menagerie’s aid last year.
“Are you Engelbert?” she said.
“Yes,” he stammered out his reply. “If you would come with me I’d like to…”
“Where is the mage?”
Engelbert produced a candid picture of Sophie Fischer that looked like it had been taken from a traffic camera. Devana snatched the picture, studied it, stuffed it in a pocket, and began walking away.
“Wait,” Engelbert called, “You’ll need help. I’m forming a team.”
“I work alone.”
“Your quarry has a team.”
“I don’t care.”
“You will when you meet them.”
“Did you summon me here to insult my abilities?”
“The team defeated Yaldabaoth the Demiurge. The accursed Menagerie.”
“I could have done that by myself,” she appeared amused by the notion and continued on.
“You know where I am,” Engelbert called to her. “I’ll be waiting.”
Sophie and Hunter pursued two masked miscreants into a small city park. The one wearing the Spock mask turned and fired shots at them. Hunter deflected the bullets and Sophie let an arrow fly, piercing Spock through the shoulder and pinning him to a tree.
“Go after Kirk,” Sophie said, “I’ll take care of Spock.”
Hunter darted off after Captain Kirk who had fled into the dark city streets. Sophie approached Spock and waved her hand like she was swatting a fly. Her arrow fizzled and drifted off as sparks in the air. Spock clutched his shoulder and aimed his gun. Sophie batted it away with her bow.
“Bitch, I’ll kill you,” Spock’s shouting was muffled by cheap latex.
“I’ve been getting that a lot, lately,” she put her hand on his head. “Let’s see what’s going on in here.” She started to giggle. “I’ve been getting a lot of this lately too.”
A pinpoint of purple light formed and tore open. It contracted and left behind copies of the Menagerie in full splash page poses.
“This has been so much easier for us since you guys started doing the work for us. Godkiller was a great addition to our resume,” Sophie dashed off toward the sound of clanking steel. As she approached the edge of the park a laser bolt struck the ground beside her, spraying her with rock and dirt. Sophie turned and found a female Seraph pointing a rifle at her.
“I fought an ancestor of yours,” Devana presented the scar on her cheek, “She gave me this.”
“And you’re mad at me?”
“I don’t hold grudges, just money. My patron, on the other hand. I wasn’t going to take the job, but then he told me who you were.”
“And who am I?”
“A Rosenkreuz. I’m not surprised you slipped my attention so long. Your breed rarely flies so far under the radar, but honestly, you’re a washout. He thinks you’re worth the cash, though, and who am I to argue with a paycheck?”
“Um, godkiller,” Sophie fired a round of arrows. They exploded within inches of Devana.
“Aw, magic arrows,” Devana grinned.
Sophie twisted her fingers and waved her hand. Nothing happened.
Sophie bent the light from the surrounding area, focusing it on Devana.
“Light manipulation? You’re all over the map with your theme.”
“I’m the High Priestess,” she shot an arrow into a tree branch above Devana’s head, snapping it. It fell to the ground and she stepped back. Sophie ran.
Devana leapt over the branch and tailed her, firing a hail of laser fire. The shots went wide and destroyed a parked car. Devana continued her barrage, pelting the sidewalk with laser bolts, just short of striking the fleeing pedestrians. Sophie spun around and put her hands up. Devana’s laser bolts hung crackling in the air in front of her.
“Regarding light manipulation,” Sophie said, “It just occurred to me what lasers are made of,” Sophie pushed her hands out and the laser bolts returned to Devana, striking her. Her energy shield glowed under the assault, weakening it. Sophie gathered light from the glowing neon signs in the storefront behind her and focused it into a tight beam, aimed at Devana. She stood against the blast and trudged her way toward Sophie. The warm, orange glow of her energy shield began to fade to a pale yellow, like old parchment.
As Devana inched closer the shield gave way and Sophie’s neon laser hit her in the chest, knocking her back. She raised her hand and the laser blinked out. Sophie charged forward and struck her on her jaw with her bow. Devana grabbed her by the ankle and Sophie kept pummeling her on the side of the head with her bow where the limb met the riser. Devana loosened her grip and rolled away. She threw a smoke bomb at Sophie and leapt onto the hood of a car, holding her head. Sophie fired blindly through the smoke. One of her arrows grazed Devana in the thigh. She leapt at Sophie, landing behind her and putting her into a choke hold.
“I’ll give you this,” Devana said, “This wasn’t quite as easy as I imagined.”
“Watch your six,” Sophie gasped.
“What?” Devana felt a sharp pain on the back of her head. She howled and spun away, releasing Sophie.
“You didn’t notice him there?” Sophie said, “Too focused on me to notice there was no light reflecting over there?”
“Sneak attack? Cowardly,” Devana said.
“I said ‘watch your six’.”
“I have no idea what ‘watch your six’ means,” Devana said.
“Right. Seraph tell time differently. Oops.”
“You think you earned that arrogance?”
“You didn’t kill Yalda. You just locked him another prison. He’s good at getting out of prisons.”
“Is that who sent you?”
“No. He’s still drooling on himself. But he recognizes when his nurse is going to let him pet a kitten. So I guess that’s progress.”
“Who’s paying you?”
Devana pulled a blade and smacked Hunter’s sword. Hunter swung back and she parried. Sophie struck her on the jaw with her bow, staggering her. She fell back and Hunter poked her in the clavicle with his blade. Sophie cracked her again and she slid to the ground and flopped on her face.
“Who’s this now?” Hunter said.
“No idea,” Sophie said, rummaging through Devana’s pockets, “But she knows me.”
Devana awoke face down in the garbage. She groped at a pouch on her hip but found it empty. She sat up and wiped foul-smelling liquid from her face.
“Having trouble?” a voice said from behind her.
“She was aided by some sort of warrior in tattered garb,” Devana said. “I’ll be ready for both of them next time.”
“Maybe, but there’s more where he came from.”
“Who is he? He wasn’t a mage, but he wasn’t human either. He moved too swiftly.”
“That was Psamurai and he's human. He acquires preternatural reflexes and awareness through the ingestion of copious amounts of psilocybin.” He handed her a file folder. “His friends are just as confounding in their own ways.”
“Tell me. I don’t read your primitive language,” she swatted the folder.
“So, you’ve met Psamurai and the High Priestess. And was defeated.” He flipped the pages, “This is Ian Roland, the Piper. Sound-induced hypnosis and a formidable fighter. This one is James Carl Black. A human freight train made all the worse by a mechanical exoskeleton. Finally, we have Cheryl Ellers, the de facto leader of this menagerie. A brilliant coder and hacker, with a penchant for artificial intelligence and adaptive learning systems. Thanks to a serious miscalculation by your dear friend Yaldabaoth she can generate devastating levels of electrical energy in vivo. I’ve studied them for the last year, as they clashed with the Demiurge. I know their habits.”
“That’s it? You find these misfits a challenge? Do I need your help or do you need mine?”
“I believe the need is mutual.”
“Underestimate me again, little, round man,” Devana held a blade to his chins, “And I’ll drink the blood from your arteries.”
“It’s you who underestimates them, as Yaldabaoth did.”
Devana looked hard at Engelbert and he returned the stare.
“You’re either brave or stupid,” she said.
“Or I’m telling you the truth. The Menagerie is formidable.”
“And you’re going to tell me your team is more so?”
“Indeed I am. I have carefully assembled a group of extraordinary people who serve as perfect counterparts to the Menagerie. For the Psamurai’s steel, a boy who can transform his flesh into a substance harder than any known to science. For the hypnotist, a man who bends sound to his will. For the brute, a woman who can repel kinetic energy. For the hacker, my superior intellect with a healthy dash of insulation and grounding. And for the mage, the galaxy's deadliest mage hunter,” he gestured to Devana.
Devana remained silent.
“You don’t want to be on this planet any more than I would normally want you here, but if we were to join our forces, well, you’d have to admit, it would go a lot more swiftly.”
“Why do you care about these people?”
“I don’t. My only concern is Miss Ellers. The rest are just in the way. As far as she’s concerned, it will suffice, for now, to say, ‘it’s personal’.”
“Revenge? You would take my sacred duty and trivialize it with revenge?” she pressed the blade hard against his bulbous neck.
“How sacred can it be? You do it for money.”
“A girl’s gotta eat,” she sheathed her blade.
“You don’t have to concern yourself with my motivations toward my enemies. You’re just here to deal with the sorceress.”
“I’ll deal with your mage. Just don’t give me orders and don’t get in my way, and you can call us a team or whatever you like. As soon as the mage has been eliminated, I’m leaving this shithole and you to your petty vendetta.”
“Perfect. It seems we’ve reached a satisfactory accord.”