If I were going to kill Targa before, I was going to kill her at least ten times as hard now. It was hard to keep my breathing under control, hard to even consider the lives of the guards I was cutting mercilessly short with every room and hallway I stomped through the building.
"Left here," AEGIS said. I could hear the worry in her voice. We had lots to worry about right now but I wasn't sure what exactly it was that was doing it for her specifically. I know she wasn't a fan of me charging into a suicide mission, was probably feeling pretty bad about both Karu and Saga, and had the imminent threat of the XPCA. If she were feeling vindictive towards Targa at all for the virus which had been threatening her life for the last couple of months, she didn't show it.
Maybe I was showing enough vindictiveness for both of us.
"Umm, hold on here," she said. "There's tripwire mines deployed...they have IR lasers I can see. There, and there...can you take them out from range?"
That was another thing probably, I thought, as I flicked bulbs into the two devices, which popped and sizzled. If she was able to see IR right now, that meant she was using her beyond-human abilities, which latently stressed her out.
"Then through these offices and...into the hangar, I guess?" she said.
We didn't get that far. The offices was a long room, wide enough for four cubicles on each side, with smaller offices for more important people -- but not important enough to warrant sitting away from the chaff -- all along one side. Room for maybe a hundred people, all told.
And there were maybe a hundred waiting for us when we reached the doorway, behind desks and cubicle dividers, all through the room. AEGIS pulled me bodily from the door nearly the second we saw the room, her limbs roaring and flaring, and threw us both bodily to the ground. An instant later, flames washed over us and I felt the telltale pressure of a shockwave as my ears rang.
"--kay?" I heard AEGIS shout right in my ear. I nodded which made things spin a little bit but I had been spared the brunt of the blast by her. She rolled off me and I sat up, dizzy, but fine, to face a barrage of gunfire slamming my shield.
Drones scurried at us, deployed by the soldiers inside, about the size of my palm. Remembering how a much larger cousin of theirs had blown off my leg back in the day, I took special care to disable each of them with a carefully-aimed zap before they got too close. Someone in the crowd fired a laser at me which my shield chased down and exploded the offender.
I wondered why they were still wasting time throwing grunts at us. It's not like they were going to stop me from reaching her that way, when suddenly AEGIS yelled a half-comprehensible warning and I jumped out of reflex.
There was a gleam as a blade passed by my neck and then the attacker skittered away on all fours, turning transparent again as he left. I swung my swords in his direction but didn't feel like I hit anything.
"What the fuck was that?" AEGIS yelled over the gunfire, her eyes darting all over the hallway where he'd disappeared.
"Don't really know," I said, keeping my swords moving. "Blackett mentioned to me once that the grunts of the XPCA were just there to waste time and draw attention while Exhumans were in their window. The real killing he said was done by shadow ops units."
In the moments I'd seen the thing, I knew it was a shadow ops. It moved too similarly to the recon ops units I'd seen before, skittering around nimbly on all fours with special stilts built into their suits, and packed with equipment. It was totally reasonable to expect would-be assassins to have optical camouflage and to be on-hand at New Eden.
"I know all about the shadow ops," AEGIS said. "Just never thought I'd meet one. My optics aren't good enough to see him." She swore. "He's not showing up in thermal, UV, sonar, anything."
"Yeah, those guys are basically less-publically-known hunters, by combat potential," I estimated. "Imagine if Karu spent her allowance on stealth instead of flying."
"Well she certainly fucking disappeared like she had."
I knew where she was coming from, and privately agreed but still. Ouch.
I didn't want to get pinned down here and leave ourselves open to the shadow-ops again, but also needed to stay calm enough to keep my sixth sense open, though I could only really use it in the rare moments when nobody was blasting my shield. But the risk of Targa getting away and us standing and fighting here forever was real, so I grabbed AEGIS' hand and we continued forward, pressing into the offices amidst a hail of gunfire.
At least in here, weaving through the desks, we were close enough to the threat that there wouldn't be any more explosions. That didn't mean there weren't grenades, and I had to go out of my way to get a couple to impact on my shield, or pop them out of the air or on the ground before they went off.
One grenade I popped and it exploded white foam everywhere, still belching and expanding out of the grenade's carcass like a leaky sewage pipe. The foam washed over our feet instantly, and that's when our troubles really began.
It was an adhesive, possibly not mixed correctly because I'd ruptured the grenade, but still sticky as hell. It took almost all my strength to tear one foot from it, and when I did, the effort of doing so almost threw me off balance and made me step right back in it, not even a full step forward. And that was my good leg, which hadn't been stabbed with a sword twice recently.
AEGIS' engines were burning and she was having better luck, but was still obviously in trouble.
"We can't get seperated, I need to stay in your shield," she yelled at me.
"Hang on!" I shouted. She started to cling to me, but that wasn't what I meant. I pushed her halfway down and swung my swords through the air above her, sending the shadow ops skittering away again with a mechanical hiss.
"Holy shit, he was right there!" she yelled.
"We need to keep going!"
Another explosion went off, right in our path, resolving into a frozen starburst of ice. I began hacking my way through it, melting and carving out chunks as I forced one foot in front of the other through the thin coating of molasses.
I tried not to think about the last time I'd carved through ice with my swords. How the frost hung in my breath, how the cold had filled my body, chilling me from the inside, frozen flesh indistinguishable from ice…
"Athan!" AEGIS shouted and pushed me down. A blade passed through the air where I'd just been, and AEGIS stopped it with her palm.
"Ow, fuck!" she screamed, but closed her hand around the blade. The shadow ops slit it free, slicing even deeper into the metal under AEGIS' skin, but he wasn't fast enough. She'd pulled a foot free and hooked him around the neck with an ankle, and with a quarter turn, threw him face-first into the ground where he wriggled but couldn't move from the adhesive.
I was stuck on hands and knees from AEGIS shoving me down, but she bent over and tore me loose, no worse for wear but for the skin on my palms. I looked at hers and saw the cut went almost all the way through one hand, the delicate machinery in her clearly visible in the deep cut, and her fingers didn't look like they moved anymore.
"It's fine," she said. "But I think we're running out of time. They're getting the exotic ordinance online and we can't get through."
I wanted to argue but suddenly something hissed near me, and then two somethings and then three. Orange-yellow plumes of smoke erupted from canisters on the ground, rapidly filling the air around us.
AEGIS wrapped herself around me and held shut my eyes and nose. I began to panic as something closed over my mouth as well, and then I realized it was her lips, a sensation familiar but completely different from always. She blew hot air into me and then sucked it back out, trying to match my rhythm. While she did, her joints thrummed and glowed.
I didn't understand everything but what I did get was that she was giving me air. I could still see somewhat with my senses, but we couldn't move, locked in an embrace as we were, and even if we could, I didn't know which way to go anymore or what hazards would, or had already popped up in our path.
I could do nothing but kiss AEGIS, slash out at anything which came close, wait, and pray.
And for what felt like minutes, that is exactly what we did. My shield and swords encompassed her, and her air flowed through me. By sound alone, I thought the number of enemies and their aggression was increasing. It wouldn't be too long before they deployed a drone or another grenade went off and we were done for. AEGIS tried moving forward, ripping her feet from the ground and pulling me along, but I couldn't find the leverage to get my own feet unstuck while she was pressed against my face.
The burning in my eyes aside, as far as ways to die went...this wasn't really that bad. Kissing the woman I loved, holding her in my arms, protecting her for as long as I had life. It was more than I could ask for really.
I just wish it had lasted a little longer.
I heard a boom under us, and then another larger one. It sounded like something huge getting closer to us. Something huge and mechanical maybe? I could hear engines like that of a VTOL now, so loud it seemed like it was all around us.
There was another explosion and fragments of the wall blasted into the room and disintegrated on my shield. I heard yelling and gunfire, but not aimed at me. Suddenly, something grabbed me, something strong, something alive. I was going to strike at it, but it was pulling me free from the floor and from the gas. If it wound up being a threat, I could handle it once we were free.
It didn't come to that. Once clear of the gas and adhesive, AEGIS unfurled herself off me and took off running, dragging me along. I couldn't see, my eyes still watered and burned, but I could hear, and what I heard was the VTOL engine with a little more clarity.
"It's Karu?" I choked.
Nobody answered me, but I already knew. AEGIS pulled me further forward until I tripped over something and landed on sandy dirt. She pulled me to the side and sat me down, and after a moment of rustling around, handed me her thermos.
"Wash out your eyes," she said, and I did, not sure if the tepid water was worth having my eyes painfully open. But within a few moments my vision was returning and I was stunned by what I saw.
Exhumans...everywhere. On the walls of New Eden, pouring out of its gates, fighting in the parking lot. Several were going in the annex through the hole in the wall where we'd just come out.
And fighting. Exhuman against Exhuman, Exhuman against XPCA, resistance against XPCA. In the thick of it, I saw Karu flitting around for brief flashes, firing off a handful of ordinance here or there.
And the powers. The earth shook and twisted, flames were on everything. Beams of light straight from the heavens like lightning flashed out. I couldn't believe what I was seeing, or hearing, or living.
"He's alright then? Not like I care," I heard a familiar voice and turned. It was Trish, holding a spear made of shadows in each hand, and behind her, her now very nervous-looking boyfriend.
"Yes, thank you. I was losing oxygen pretty fast," AEGIS said.
"Looked to me like you were too busy kissing to care," Trish replied with a too-casual toss of her hair. "I thought you were with the armor bitch?"
"You saved us?" I asked, blinking at her painfully.
"Not me. Him," she said, thumbing at her boyfriend. What was his power again? I tried to remember. He had...right when we met, he stretched out his arm and pulled aside the heavy manhole cover like it was nothing. Was he what pulled us from the building?
"Thank you so much. We owe you our lives," I said, giving him the most sincere bow I could from sitting.
"Oh. Hey. Well," he said, looking embarrassed. "Trish would have been upset if she didn't kill you herself, is all."
"Too true," said Trish.
"So what the fuck is all this?" AEGIS asked.
"Don't know," Trish said. "Resistance just went nuts for some reason, started tearing down everything XPCA, all at once, just a few minutes ago. They were doing a pretty good job of it too, then Targa came over the PA and ordered all Exhumans of New Eden to aid in its defense and apprehend the resistance. I thought that was a laugh...and then I realized...a bunch of 'em were doing it."
"No…" I said, watching the Exhumans killing each other out there. "The redeveloped ones."
"You think?" she asked, looking way too detached for what was unfolding. "Well ain't that some shit."
"I appreciate you saving us, but what the hell, Trish? People are fighting and dying over there."
She shrugged exaggeratedly. "Fighting is kinda my life, Lightning. You don't freak out because your life is happening. You freak out when it stops. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few fights to go pick," she said with a lazy wave and began heading back into the thick of it.
"You have weird friends," AEGIS said. "Still, I'm super glad she saved us. Or he did."
"Karu blew that hole in the wall though," I said. "I'm sure of it."
"I think she's fighting against the resistance," AEGIS said. "But the XPCA are attacking her too...what a mess."
"All that matters is finding Targa," I said. "We stop her, we remove the control over the redeveloped, and suddenly it's three-hundred Exhumans all on the same side."
"Plus, nice perk I notice, is that you get to kill Targa."
"That was the original plan."
"But…" AEGIS played with her hair. "Is that the best plan? We can leave now. We can slip away and be safe and put this all behind us. I can keep us off the grid, all we have to do is run."
"And leave Saga behind? And leave all these Exhumans behind? And what about your virus?"
AEGIS frowned. "I...no. I'm sorry. You're right. That was just...selfish of me." She smiled apologetically. "I'm just...not used to having you. I want to keep you, no matter what."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"You totally were, though. For all your big talk about never dying or letting me down, we almost just died back there, for reals."
"But we didn't."
"Only because random freaky Exhumans came out of nowhere to save your ass!"
"It was fine. All part of the plan."
She shook her head and rolled her eyes so hard it threatened the Earth's normal rotation. "OMG such bullshit."
"It's still a strategy though. Karu says you don't need to plan everything, if you improve yourself so you're ready for more situations, that counts as planning."
"So it makes sense that if I make friends with some 'freaky Exhumans' as you called them, then yeah, of course that'll work out. That counts as planning."
She shook her head again but helped me to my feet. I could now go longer than a second without blinking again and we had a base administrator's ass to kick.
We started towards the hangar, taking the outside route this time and encountering only scattered XPCA resistance when suddenly the hangar doors began to open with a deep rumbling which shook the earth.
"Think they're opening the doors for us?" I asked.
"Shit, Athan, why does Targa have to be in there?"
"Why? What's in there?"
"You're about to see," AEGIS said, looking concerned. "Maybe we shouldn't be running this way just yet…"
"Whatever it is, it can't be...that…"
I trailed off as the thing emerged from the hangar. Emerged was not the right word, more like unfurled, or unfolded.
It was like DOG had fucked a skyscraper and this was their unholy progeny. Four legs, each as tall as a house held up a central torso that was human in shape the same way a steroid-laden bull was. Two long whiplike appendages trailed on the ground with electricity crackling off of them, and embedded into what looked like every inch of the torso, shoulders, head, and groin of the thing were guns of every possible shape and size.
Treads on the undersides of the legs carried the behemoth out of the hangar where it rose and stood on its four feet, the torso and guns pivoting autonomously as it powered up and swept for targets. Being the closest Exhumans, the thing's massive torso turned towards us as it hummed to life.
"Yeah," I said, stunned by how much metal was moving towards us. "Run...away, maybe. Run far away...right now." My feet began to move just moments before the biggest, longest, deadliest-looking cannon put a crater in the ground behind us. "AEGIS! What the hell is this thing!"
"They're called fortress armor!" she yelled back. "They're completely top-top-secret. Broken out by the shadow ops for when an Exhuman is too strong for them to take down in any other kind of fight. These are the guys that deploy when an Exhuman is strong enough to level entire cities."
"So what, they weaponize the cities and have them fight back? Because that's what it looks like!"
"Athan look out!"
Missiles fell from the heavens all in front of us, slamming into the ground but not exploding. Instead, each one opened with a harsh metallic crash and pulsing green globules rolled out of them, scattering across the ground.
"It's a minefield?" I asked. "What are those?" I slashed at one and it quivered angrily like it was alive, but didn't explode or anything.
"Mines, I guess. Let's not find out."
It had blocked off our path and erected the minefield between the fight and the front of the annex. Unable to go forward, our only paths were back towards the fortress armor or back into New Eden and the center of the fighting.
"So which way?" AEGIS asked, also only seeing the two options.
I flinched and dodged as a cone of shrapnel flew through my shield, formerly a single very-huge round from the fortress armor.
"I don't think he's going to leave us alone," I said.
"Maybe not," AEGIS fretted, and we both moved as artillery streaked through the air towards us from the monster's back.
"Then I guess our path is clear," I said. "We go to where Targa's waiting for us. And we go through him."