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  • Ruins of Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina; October 2014.

Constructed inside a valley surrounded by five mountains, Sarajevo had once been a beautiful place. A perfect mix of small, pastoral houses and tall modern buildings, the city had housed events such as the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, survived the Yugoslavian wars, and thrived in the aftermath.

But that was long ago.

Today, Sarajevo was a vision of hell. A steel graveyard ruled by a madman, its skies dark even during the brightest days.

Only decaying ruins remained of the old city, consumed by a noxious purple cloud. The other buildings were factories, weapon-development facilities, turrets, and fearsome towers of black steel. The tallest structure was Mechron’s fortress located in Sarajevo’s center, an infinity symbol-shaped fusion between a military base and a particle accelerator. Finally, pylons on the valley’s mountains projected a red forcefield around the city, one powerful enough to shrug off NATO’s ICBMs.

This miasma covering the city was a bioplague created to kill humans, leaving only machines unharmed. Robots prowled the streets, from futuristic automated tanks to humanoid, two-meters tall cyclops, while flying drones occupied the skies. Some of these machines were cyborgs, half-rotten corpses partly reanimated with tech when Mechron ran out of rare ore. The machine army stood there, organized into defensive formations, waiting for the battle to start without wasting any ounce of energy. Even the river Miljacka which once crossed the city had been dried up.

When he looked at this tragedy from the heavens above, Leonard Hargraves could only feel sadness. The Genome Wars had started here nine years ago; and one way or another, they would end today.

Even long after he caused the end of the world, Mechron remained a mystery. Pythia pieced together that he was a survivor of the Bosnian genocide and the Siege of Sarajevo in the mid-nineties, an electric engineer by trade. His first act upon gaining his Elixir had been a terrorist attack against the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for its perceived softness on war criminals, before escalating to waging war on Serbia. Things quickly erupted into a European conflict, and then finally a nuclear exchange.

Mechron had spent the entirety of the Genome Wars bunkering in Sarajevo, letting his machines and Genome allies fight for him. The Anti-Mechron Front had slowly destroyed his major bases and killed his lieutenants over the last six years, and today, they finally gathered enough heroes to end the conflict once and for all.

“We’re ready?” Leo spoke.

“Yes.” The voice of Alice Martel, alias Pythia, answered through telepathy. “Shining Knight and Nidhogg’s groups are in position.”

While he was proud to fight alongside the Shining Knight, Nidhogg’s involvement left a sour taste in Leo’s mouth. Though he kept to his territory and didn’t cause troubles unless provoked, that man was a villain, plain and simple. His followers had taken over a large part of Denmark and allowed their Geniuses to run some questionable medical experiments there.

Unfortunately, the Anti-Mechron Front couldn’t take Sarajevo without assistance, and the war had called for moral compromises. Nidhogg was willing to help when so many wouldn’t, even crossing half a continent to offer support. While he acted out of self-preservation, this Green Genome understood Mechron was an existential threat to all of mankind, and that he had to be stopped at all costs.

So while they might end up enemies one day, Leo would cut him some slack and they would part ways amicably.

The living sun gave one last glance at the iron city from his current high altitude before flying back to base at the speed of a fighter-jet. Leonard’s human body had been transmuted into a living star, a mass of solar plasma only held together by a heart core and his own gravitational forces. Though he didn’t age in his sun form, the Genome usually returned to his human self while not on missions, as he felt less like himself the longer he stayed transformed. His thoughts changed from human to that of a star, wishing to burn bright and illuminate the cosmos. It was a constant mental effort for Leo to contain his radiance and avoid burning everything around him. Sometimes, he felt like he lived in a world of matchboxes.

Today would be a rare opportunity to go all-out. Maybe his last one.

In total, more than five hundred Genomes had gathered in three camps around Sarajevo. Normal humans couldn’t survive Mechron’s bio-plague, nor stand against his machines, and so did not apply.

Leonard flew over the camp, where everyone was gearing up for war. The plague doctor Stitch finished inoculating the soldiers with additional protections against bio-plagues; the Cossack had put on his white, knight-themed power armor, a cannon mounted on his right shoulder and a forcefield shield on the other; Kresnik and Kudlak, the werewolf siblings, had transformed into giant humanoid wolves the size of polar bears, one white, the other black. A Violet summoned warbeasts from alien planets to serve as shock troops, while Orange Genomes transformed into beings of metal and stone.

Alice was networking people near the camp’s center, with Sidekick standing nearby to boost her power. A beautiful blonde woman with blue eyes, Alice was a powerful seer with the ability to create telepathic links between people upon touching them; those she ‘networked’ worked intuitively together like a hive mind, much like Mechron’s robot army formed a superorganism spread through countless bodies.

Besides increasing teamwork, Pythia’s power could also be used for precognitive purposes; the more people she networked with, the more she could anticipate the future. In many ways, she had been the driving force behind this alliance. Today’s battle would be the culmination of her chess match with Mechron, and the heroes would be her pieces.

Sidekick, meanwhile, was an average-looking youth with brown hair and amber eyes. He belonged to Shining Knight’s group, being a White enhancing the power of other Genomes so long as they remained within ten meters of his person. The trio would soon be rejoined by Calculator, a Genius with the ability to calculate probabilities to the point of precognition.

Pythia, Calculator, and many other Blue Genomes had debated the plan of attack; from nuking Sarajevo to a guerilla battle, everything had been considered. Leo didn’t know what made them decide on a conventional invasion, besides mentions of a ‘dead hand system,’ but he trusted their judgment.

Some, like Pythia, were members of Leo’s Carnival. Others were hero warbands or vigilantes like the Cossack, who answered the call to war. Dynamis hadn’t sent anyone, though they did provide equipment.

They were too busy dealing with Augustus in Italy.

The mere thought of his nemesis infuriated Leonard, reminding him of that dreadful day he returned to the Costa farm, only to find all its inhabitants murdered. He had sworn to bring their killer to justice, and once Mechron was dealt with, he would do exactly that.

The living sun—though he disliked that nickname—landed near Alice, toning down his body heat to prevent her from catching fire. “Leonard,” she said with a warm smile. Unlike the Genomes making up the army, she dressed casually. “Ready?”

“Like the day I was born.” Even before the apocalypse, Leonard had been a full-time firefighter in the London Fire Brigade; quite ironic considering his main power. He liked to think he still put out fires threatening the innocents, even if some could shoot lightning from their eyes. “How much time do we have?”

“Enough for one last speech, if you’re up for it.”

She tried humor, but Leonard didn’t hide his concern for his old ally. “You’re sure you want to do this?” he asked her. “You have never networked so many people at once, even with help from Sidekick.”

“We can’t out-think a combat AI without the use of powers,” Pythia replied. “Mechron’s armies are so effective because they fight as one. They have us outnumbered more than one thousand to one; even if we have superpowers on our side, we need all advantages possible.”

“I’m just saying the risks are great.” She often suffered from dangerous headaches when she directed a large group, and never one this big. “Unlike me, you still have a husband and son at home.”

“It’s precisely for them that I’m willing to risk everything.”

Leonard couldn’t argue with that.

As if on cue, the various fighters gathered around them. Most were veterans of a dozen battles, others were new recruits. Leonard noticed a few of his other teammates among them. The teleporter Ace, a freckled young woman with long auburn hair, dressed like a rogue with high boots, a red coat, and feathered hat; and Mr. Wave, a creature of pure energy wavelengths held together in a fancy purple suit.

Every set of eyes was on Leo.

“I’m not one for speeches,” the Red Genome declared. Shining Knight and Nidhogg were probably speaking with their troops, miles away. “So I will be short and to the point. This is it. This is the final battle. Mechron is exhausted. His facilities, those which we could locate, have been destroyed. His last Genome lieutenant, Asmodeus, has been slain. He’s low on troops, low on weapons, low on options. This is his last stand, and he knows it. The news should be a relief, for all of us have lost something to this madman. Family. Friends. Home. But as they say, a cornered rat—”

“Will bite a cat,” Ace mused, a few people chuckling among the audience. “We know, you say that all the time.”

“But this time, the rat may very well kill the cat,” Leo rolled with the metaphor.

At Pythia’s behest, a light-manipulating Genome projected the image of two massive war machines behind Leonard. Enormous satellites equipped with solar sails and enormous laser cannons.

“These are the Kujata and the Bahamut, orbital satellites with the power to devastate entire countries,” Leonard explained. “Mechron’s previous orbital weapons remained in low Earth orbit, where they could be destroyed. The new ones, though, will fly deep into space, and even I won’t be able to reach them. In a few hours, maybe minutes, Mechron will attempt to launch them and wipe us all out.”

Whispers spread through the crowd, as the grim reality of the situation settled among them.

“I know some of you, myself included, were a bit apprehensive with the help we enlisted to wage this war. But this is not a battle between nations, or between heroes and villains. This is a battle between life and death. And more than ever, this is a battle against time. Our goals are twofold: to destroy these satellites before they can be activated, and to defeat Mechron once and for all. Over the past few months, we have methodically cut off his escape routes. Today, we fight to the death.”

“Good,” Cossack said, his tone dangerous. “Mechron’s death.”

“Yes,” Leonard agreed. “Mechron surrendered his humanity long ago. He desires to destroy all that makes us human; to replace our hearts with metal, and our souls with technology. He is a despot who believes men should be his slaves because he only sees the worst in us. But he is wrong.”

The living sun raised his hand, the satellites beyond him collapsing in a flash of bright light.

“Humans are not slaves!” he shouted. “Mechron chose to see the worst, but we chose to see the best! That humans are capable of compassion! Of art and kindness! Of greatness! And together, we shall end this decade-long nightmare once and for all! Today, we take back our planet!”

His declaration was met with a cacophony of shouts and war cries.

Immediately afterward, Leonard flew across the skies, followed by dozens of flyers. The Cossack’s armor activated the powerful propellers in its back; a chrome humanoid flew by his will alone. The ground forces moved towards the shield aboard assault vehicles or carried by teleporters.

“Now, the moment of truth.” Leonard flew above the clouds, facing the shield. He built up the energy inside his core, preparing to go supernova.

And then, he set the world ablaze.

His heart core unleashed a focused ray of light that burnt the skies. The ionized laser hit the crimson forcefield and the mountain supporting one of the pylons, melting the stone. The forcefield undulated like water as it took the blast, an unstoppable force facing an immovable object.

And then… one of them gave up.

The forcefield around Sarajevo shorted out, and Leo’s beam vaporized the pylon supporting it. The blast continued its course towards the city, setting an entire street ablaze in a cataclysmic detonation.

The shield collapsed all around the city, and Mechron’s army woke up.

Spherical drones instantly spread across the skies like a bug swarm, opening fire on the heroes with lasers. Holes opened all over the metal towers, revealing hundreds of beam turrets, while the robots and vehicles on the ground opened with an artillery bombardment.

Leo’s flying allies moved to intercept the drone swarm, while the fire Genome recovered from his effort. While he could draw on an enormous power reserve, it needed time to replenish itself.

With the shield down, the other groups moved to action. A flash of green light illuminated the darkness to the east, Nidhogg undergoing his transformation. The Green Genome metamorphosed into a colossal, kilometers long serpent with human skulls for scales; the monster slithered towards the city, his venom melting stone while his own forces followed. Purple blinking lights popped up all over Sarajevo, as Ace teleported small groups across the city.

Explosions shook Sarajevo to the west, the Shining Knight having entered the city. While no heavy hitter, the charismatic leader of men led her troops personally in battle, her heavy green armor shrugging lasers while she cut robots with her bright energy sword. Her contingent was by far the largest, providing almost half of the Genomes participating; most were the defenders of a democratic state rising from Germany’s ashes, the New Republic of Bavaria.

Mechron had destroyed their home once, and now they would see justice done.

Having recovered, Leo flew into the city, followed by the Cossack and some caped fellow. Their allies had cleared a path ahead, engaging the drone swarms, but faced heavy resistance. The towers unleashed hundreds of lasers in all directions, cutting Genomes and buildings alike, while artillery bombardments from the defensive turrets destroyed almost every ruined building still standing.

And of course, Mr. Wave couldn’t help but brag. The show-off had moved in the middle of a robot-crowded street, hands raised. “Can you feel fear, robots?” The robots had opened fire midspeech, but lasers and bullets harmlessly phased through the Red Genome. “Because Mr. Wave feeds on tears!”

Mr. Wave vanished, his wavelength body turning into a deadly laser moving at lightspeed. Before Leo knew it, his teammate had carved a path through the robots, cutting the machines in half merely by moving through them. Meanwhile, the werewolf siblings were busy tearing apart a tank with their bare claws, leading a pack of monsters.

The caped fellow charged at one of the metal towers and brought it down by going through it. The other flyers spread to support the ground forces, while Leonard and Cossack moved towards Mechron’s fortress.

The enormous base’s walls opened, waves of jetpack-powered robots flying towards them armed with heavy rifles. They immediately fired a volley of black projectiles at the duo, forcing them to spread out. Though they moved slowly, the robots’ bullets powered through any matter, absorbing anything close to them.

Gravity rifles. Leonard had faced a few in previous engagements, and one had almost torn his core apart. He suspected Mechron had specifically designed the weapon to kill energy-based Genomes like him.

Leonard retaliated with plasma beams, while the Cossack hit the machines with his shoulder-cannon. Both sides aimed with deadly accuracy and moved around with grace; the machines dodged with inhuman dexterity and reflexes, while the Genomes had speed on their side.

Guided by Pythia’s network, Leonard entered some kind of trance, his body moving on its own. It was as if a primal instinct had taken over, shutting down his conscious mind and leaving only a battle program. He became no different than the machines he fought.

No, Leo realized. He was different from these machines. Pythia’s network let each individual keep their free-will, yet allowed people from different backgrounds and who had nothing in common, to cooperate for a common cause. Their army was united in its diversity, while Mechron’s machines were mindless copies; soulless slaves to a despot who considered free will as a disease, rather than something to be cherished.

And at some point, Pythia’s network began to outperform Mechron’s robotic hive mind. Leonard hit one robot, then two, then three. The numbers kept climbing, but the Genome’s view had been reduced to blasts, black bullets, and burning metal.

Fifty, seventy…

“When will they learn?” the Cossack asked, bombarding drones with his shoulder-cannon. Leo assisted him with plasma blasts, the two wingmates coordinating their assault with perfect synchronization; Pythia’s network even allowed them to hear each other over the explosions, as astonishing as it sounded.

And yet, in spite of their impressive resistance, more robots kept coming.

There was something terrifying in fighting these machines. Humans and animals could feel fear, fleeing lost battles, often hesitating before attacking, or attempted to communicate. But not Mechron’s robots. They felt no remorse, didn’t make a sound and never retreated.

Leo fought an unrelenting tide of steel that just wanted him dead.

Still, the battle seemed to be going well for them. The Shining Knight’s troops held the line on the western side, while Nidhogg had reached the city, toppling buildings and crushing a laser tower under his sheer weight. The corpses of Mechron’s undead cyborgs were absorbed by the giant reptile on contact, regenerating his biomass lost to the enemies’ energy weaponry.

Once transformed, Nidhogg was almost unstoppable. A juggernaut fueled by death. His troops followed in his wake, Genomes modified with cybernetic or biological implants; like remoras supporting a larger shark, they mostly stuck to defending their leader from smaller drones threatening to swarm him.

The plan was to have the reptilian titan destroy the defensive towers and then breach Mechron’s fortress with his acid spit, though the rogue Genius might have a trick up his sleeve.

As it turned out, he had two.

The Red Genome noticed movement near Mechron’s fortress, holes opening inside the two circles making up the base’s infinity shape. Two enormous rockets the size of skyscrapers emerged from the ground, flying towards the heavens at incredible speed.

The Kujata and the Bahamut had been launched.

Leo immediately raced after them, unleashing a plasma beam at the Kujata. A force-field around the rocket negated his attack, and though it briefly shorted out, the two orbital weapons continued their ascent.

“If they get too far...” Leonard couldn’t finish his sentence, blasting a path through the flying robots. They weren’t even fighting to win, but to delay.

“If,” the Cossack replied with laconic wit, flying after the Kujata at full speed. The g-force involved would have crushed any normal pilot, but the vigilante powered through, catching up to the satellite. He was a man who believed in actions over words.

Leonard pursued the Bahamut, intending to crash into it and bypass its force-field, when a roar echoed from behind him.

The Red Genome turned around, as a monster emerged from the fortress.

The creature looked like some kind of biomechanical European dragon. The ten meters tall reptile had wings similar to solar sails, its red scales mixed with black machinery covering the chest, the head, and the claws. Its yellow, reptilian eyes glared at the Red Genome, betraying a hint of intellect.

What the hell was that, a biomechanical war machine? Leonard didn’t have time to fight it, or the Bahamut may escape Earth’s orbit.

As if to answer his thoughts, the dragon pointed at Leonard with both its hands, the claws shining with crimson energy.

A crushing force took over the living sun and forced him down. Much to his surprise, Leonard ended up crashing towards the ground, an invisible hand dragging him away from the Bahamut.

Though he was more skilled with plasma and fire, Leonard could manipulate his own gravity. While he mostly used it to fly, he had learned a few other tricks. Manipulating his gravity-field, he managed to collapse the effect bringing him down, returning to the fight.

“What was that?” Leonard asked out loud, pursuing the dragon. “A gravity well?”

“Gravity-control,” Pythia said as the dragon roared back. “It’s a Red.”

Leonard thought he had misheard for a moment. “What? But only humans—”

“Until now.”

Mechron’s power covered multi-agent systems, from artificial intelligences to nanotech constructs. His MO was to create AI dedicated to the creation of new technologies, allowing him to make breakthroughs in specialties outside his own. Mechron was the most dangerous kind of Genius; the one who could make more.

But to think he had uncovered the secret of Elixirs…

The rogue Genius couldn’t be allowed to escape. No matter what.

Gathering up plasma in his core, Leonard fired a deadly beam at the creature. Though it moved at supersonic speed, the monster couldn’t outspeed light.

But as it turned out, it didn’t need to. Instead, it turned its own gravity crush ability on empty air, creating a miniature black hole the size of a fist. The phenomenon absorbed the dragon into itself before disappearing, the ion beam hitting nothing but air.

Damn, did it use gravity to create a wormhole or something?

Whatever the case, it had fulfilled its mission in delaying Leonard. The Cossack had somehow managed to bring down the Kujata, the satellite’s wreckage crashing on Sarajevo’s streets, but the Bahamut had become a faint light point in the skies.

“Shit!”

“Seventy-three percent chance that the Bahamut opens fire on Sarajevo once online, according to Calculator,” Pythia warned. “Increasing by one point every ten minutes.”

Had Mechron grown desperate enough to fire at his own base?

It wasn’t about winning anymore.

Leonard turned towards the heavens, ready to pursue the satellite even into the dark reaches of space if needed when Pythia’s voice interrupted him. “No, don’t. Hit the fortress and reach Mechron. Kill him before he pulls the switch. The odds are better.”

“But the satellite will—”

“Something worse is coming.”

Leonard froze. “What do you mean?”

“If his fortress isn’t annihilated soon, Mechron will somehow kill everyone in Sarajevo,” Pythia said, her composure breaking into genuine fear. “Destroy the bunker at all costs.”

“What’s waiting for me inside?”

“I don’t know.” Her words turned haunting. “I only see black. It’s all black.”

Leo braced himself for battle and flew at mach-speed through the fortress’ metal walls.

Mechron was waiting, deep down.

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A note from Void Herald

This interlude was chosen by my patrons on Patreon. There may be a few alternate versions of my other works' characters in there ;) The second half will be published on Saturday. 

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Void Herald

Bio: I'm Maxime Julien Durand ([email protected]), a European warlock living in the distant realm known as France, spending half my time writing and the other half managing magical websites.

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