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The Prototype silently warped in between enemy corpses and machine parts, his tentacles fully retracting on landing. The afterglow of his aura faded completely and his markings and eye sockets returned to normal. Now there were just two glowing, complex pupils visible under the hood, which he quickly pulled down to reveal a fairly unremarkable and ageless cyborg face.

“Everyone all right?” he asked.

“You dropped in just in time!” smiled Isabelle.

“Good,” he grunted.

He caught the gaze of the human soldier who instinctively saluted him, held the icy stare for a moment, then turned away to walk toward the entrance leading into the outpost.

“Did I do something out of line?” the soldier asked, looking at Isabelle in befuddlement.

“You’re fine,” sighed Isabelle. “Now, if you excuse me, I need to go deal with my problem child.”

###

Isabelle, the Prototype, and the outpost’s leaders sat around a table in the secure conference room typically used for high-level meetings. This one was not going well. Tempers were on the verge of flaring as the cyborgs stonewalled any attempt to learn anything more about them and their mission. And while they weren’t exactly hostile, they were becoming less patient as the debate dragged on.

Gauging their exact thoughts on the subject was difficult, however, since Isabelle was doing all the talking. The tired, sullen Prototype didn’t utter a single word. He simply bowed before taking his seat and studied the humans with his red, piercing eyes which subtly flashed at odd intervals, after which he’d sometimes wordlessly check in with Isabelle.

“What do you mean you’ll be leaving as soon as cleanup is completed?!” growled Ingrid. “No, you owe us an explanation!”

“Why?” asked Isabelle.

“Dear God, where do I start?” chimed in the Chief of Security.

“Well, unfortunately, we don’t always get all our questions answered,” shrugged Isabelle.

“How do we know these creatures won’t come back?” demanded Ingrid. “How do we know you won’t come back?”

“There are no guarantees, but if we can help it, you should be able to continue your operations like nothing happened. As for whether we’ll come back, that’s up to Earth.”

“And what if we decide we don’t want you to leave for now?”

Isabelle snorted with suppressed laughter.

“Do you really think you’d last more than ten minutes if you tried to actually stop us?” she smirked.

Ingrid sighed and stared into her tablet. There it was. Those cyborg fangs finally coming out. Unfortunately, she was right. Their weapons were similar to the city’s occupants, they could even work together effectively in combat, but that was like saying that high-tech arrows could complement railguns.

“I may be out of line, but is no one else going to ask about the one-man army with the glowing tentacles sitting in this room?” Steve suddenly piped up.

“If you’re going to refer to Alex, please be so kind as to use his name,” shot back Isabelle.

The Prototype merely scoffed and dismissively waved his hand, but Ingrid immediately took notice. The commander was genuinely upset at the thought of someone disrespecting her weapon and didn’t bother hiding it.

“Look, um... Alex, we’re all very, very grateful for what you did today,” said Christine. “We are. But you also have to understand that what happened was pretty fucking terrifying and we’re really rattled. So please excuse us for the occasional rudeness, but there are just things we need to know.”

“There’s no need to thank me,” replied Alex, finally breaking his silence. “We can try to make sure you’re left alone, but if you keep asking, we can’t guarantee your safety. This is not a threat. It’s just that the planet will become too interesting to some outside observers not to poke their noses here.”

He began to stand up, Isabelle following his cue.

“Sorry I cracked your front gate,” he added, respectfully bowing on his way out.

“Wait! Just a minute,” interjected Christine.

Both cyborgs turned back, their eyes fixed on her. Last chance to solve the mystery of Earth. This better work, she thought.

“I’m sure you’re pretty wiped out and Jake told me you eat and drink just like us to recover,” she said. “Before you go, would you be willing to accept something tasty as a thank you?”

“Such as?” asked Alex, his eyebrows shooting up.

Deespite having faces made of artificial materials, the cyborgs seemed very expressive and communicated non-verbally as much as any flesh and blood human, Steve noted to himself. That pop of Alex’s brows appeared to be reflexive rather than performative.

“Whatever you’d like,” warmly smiled Ingrid. “After all, you did save a city with millions of very grateful people. Feeding you properly is the least we can do.”

“You know, I could go for a cup of coffee and a snack,” mused Alex as he shot Isabelle a sideways glance. “I’ve had nothing but meal bars for a week.”

“Want to join him, Commander Da Silva?” asked Ingrid, hoping that she was’t pushing her luck a little too far.

Isabelle let out a defeated sigh. Finally, a crack in the armor appeared. Treating the cyborgs as any other human traveler did what an hour of arguing couldn’t. Their faces softened, maybe even relaxed.

“Just call me Izzy,” finally said Isabelle. “Yeah, sure. Why not? Not like I can go anywhere without him right now.”

###

A large squad of cyborg ships warped into orbit around a gas giant in the Sigma Draconis 691 system. Its outwardly bluish, calm atmosphere was reminiscent of Neptune and the sun shone on its brilliant icy rings as an aurora danced around its south pole. A dark moon passed in the distance.

On the command ship’s bridge, Jason reviewed his tablet in his chair, deep in thought.

“Commander Ulrich, we’re now orbiting Sigma Draconis 691 F as per your instructions. You know who is ready.”

Jason leaned forward with a sinister smirk. He’d do this very carefully and by the book. No one at EXCOM could object when he’d be done since every action to come would be justified by legally binding, albeit classified orders.

“Perfect. Begin,” he nodded.

“Aye Commander.”

The warships prepared to move once again.

###

Alex slid an empty tray onto a large stack of other empty trays and took a deep sip from a steaming pear-shaped mug without handles. His previously stern expression melted away into an almost friendly smile.

“Oof. Thank you, I needed that,” he sighed contently.

Meanwhile, Steve huddled with the Chief of Security in a nook as they put their mugs in the coffeemaker.

“I guess all you need to do to get your living thermonuclear warhead in a good mood is feed him and give him black coffee, huh?” he observed in hushed tones.

“I know, right?” laughed the Chief of Security just as quietly.

“Antimatter warhead,” Alex corrected from the mess hall.

“Beg your pardon?” asked Steve.

“My primary energy source is antimatter. And yes, I can hear you.”

Steve and the Chief of Security cringed at each other, and as the latter ran off, Steve joined Alex, Izzy, Christine, and Ingrid with his cup in hand and his tail between his legs.

“I really put my foot in my mouth on that one, huh?” he said, shaking his head.

“Don’t worry about it,” chuckled Alex, waving him off. “That was actually pretty funny.”

“So, antimatter, huh? Is that how you took down that flying alien and that armored bug stampede?”

“That’s right. A positron burst.”

He showed the humans his palm, pointing to the making that began as a line from his wrist crease and spiraled around the middle of the thenar.

“This magnetic muzzle isn’t as precise as I’d like so it has the side-effect of setting a bit of the atmosphere around it on fire. A little wasteful but I had enough for the day by that point and was a little worried I’d be too drained to use it, but I found that sometimes being xenocidally hangry gives you that extra edge.”

He took a long drink from his cup and stretched his legs. He could feel his energy returning after a meal large enough to feed ten normal humans for a full day. But then again, fighting two alien monsters took a lot of calories, 18,653 in this case. Far from objecting, the humans insisted on bringing him as much food as he could eat while amazed at the quantity he managed to put down before finally throwing in the towel.

“You were on another mission, huh?” asked Izzy.

“Mm-hmm,” he nodded. “We had just wrapped up and I was on my way back home.”

“Home as in Earth?” asked Christine.

Alex and Izzy exchanged amused glances.

“Oh no, no,” he smiled. “Not Earth. I haven’t been back there for a very long time.”

Jackpot, Christine beamed. He’d been on Earth and given what Naenia told her, he had to have been there in at least the last century. Every moment she was getting a little closer.

“Do you know what it’s like these days?” she managed to get out in her excitement. “Pretty much all of us have some sort of bet on what it’s like to live on Earth today and if you were up to it, you could help us settle them. I mean, we haven’t heard anything from them for centuries...”

“Wanna take this one Izzy?” asked Alex. “You were the last to leave if I remember correctly.”

“Whatever bets you made, unless you had something like Alex and me on your board, you lost,” she smiled.

Steve grabbed his phone and started swiping to puzzled looks from everyone else at the table. Suddenly, he threw his hands up in the air in celebration.

“Yeah! That’s right! Pay up!” he cheered.

“Oh for fuck’s sake...” muttered Christine, her face buried in her hands.

They were just about to find out what happened to Earth, why they stopped talking to their outposts, and confirmed that both their guests have been there recently enough to answer these burning questions, and here he was, treating it like a game.

“Yeah, baby!” Steve continued his celebration. “I am on a roll today!

Alex quizzically glanced at Izzy. She very subtly shrugged. Both cyborgs‘ eyes quickly flashed.

“Humans...” they said to each other in unison, using a link that allowed them to quite literally share thoughts without anyone overhearing.

###

Jason’s squadron warped into orbit opposite the current cyborg forces. The warships didn’t unlock their guns but launched several fighters and a triangular spaceplane. The fighters aligned to protect the plane. Their arrival was not undetected, and the technicians in the control room already had their craft displayed on the main screen. By this point, another group of interstellar warships was hardly cause to raise a brow.

“Looks like they brought more friends,” said Katja.

“Hmm... These ships have a very different insignia,” noted Kepa. “The ones in orbit now have a flame. These have a fanged skull.”

“Anyone here read their cipher?” asked Sandra.

“The ones in orbit already read ‘fortitudine vincimus,’” replied Kepa.

“What does that mean?” asked Edwin.

“Computer says it’s in a 14,000-year-old language called Latin. Means ‘through endurance we conquer.’”

“And the new ships’ motto?” asked Sandra.

“Ab ardene libertas. From order, freedom.”

“That’s... interesting,” Sandra furrowed her brow.

Meanwhile, in the mess hall, Alex and Izzy’s phones, which sat on the table next to each other began to vibrate with an urgent pulse pattern. The cyborgs’ eyes flashed and they exchanged an alarmed look while the confused humans tried to figure out what was happening with their guests this time.

In the control room, the main screen was suddenly scrambled, much to the technicians’ dismay.

“Oh no... Another virus?” cried Kepa.

“No, incoming transmission,” said Katja just as the outpost’s PA system came alive with a pleasant but firm and insistent ding.

“Attention occupants of Sigma Draconis 691 D,” rang out Jason’s voice. “This is Commander Jason Ulrich of Earth’s 10th Expeditionary Strike Fleet.”

In the mess hall, the humans and cyborgs tensely looked at the speakers, while humans in large, park-like common areas with massive floor-to-ceiling windows to the outside were now paying rapt attention. Finally, an official messenger from Earth. Even small children begging for attention were shushed as the city came to a complete halt.

“We are here to assist with cleanup operations both in orbit and on the surface,” Jason continued. “We mean you no harm. You were attacked by a hostile alien species codenamed the Rexx, a recently discovered menace to this and other Terra Firma outposts. Every possible precaution to ensure your safety will be taken. Thank you for your attention and cooperation.”

As Jason fell silent, Ingrid studied the cyborgs’ reaction and didn’t like what she saw. They seemed confused and unsettled, usually not a great sign after a surprise.

“Is Commander Ulrich a colleague of yours?” she asked.

“Technically yes, but why the hell are the 10th ships out here?” asked Alex. “This is way out of their territory.”

Izzy checked her phone with increasing dismay.

“Huh,” she scratched her head. “I’m trying to confirm that with EXCOM but the signal’s not going through for some reason. The phone is useless.”

“I think I know why...” said Alex, holding up his phone.

It displayed an image of the sleek, descending triangular spaceplane surrounded by fighter jets, annotated by legends in Pigpen. He swiftly headed for the exit as Christine and Steve darted after him, trying to get his attention.

“Wait! Alex!” called Cristine.

“Hold on just a minute!” yelled Steve. “That’s not enough information!”

The cyborg ignored them, walking briskly through the corridors as if he knew the entire city plan by heart. Of course, this was not the case. His mind simply downloaded the plans and let him know where to go when he wanted to go there. Nothing in his vision indicated direction or distance as not to obscure his field of view. The knowledge was simply there when he needed it, and he could trust it to be fairly accurate.

The humans finally caught up with Alex at the city gate, where he stood on the now cleared roof, looking out into the desert where the alien shards were still embedded into the ground. A group of five fighter jets flew overhead and fell into a spiral pattern, patrolling the airspace around the outpost. Steve and Christine, now in spacesuits, arrived just in time to see the glow of craft entering the atmosphere.

“Alex? What’s going to happen?” asked Christine.

“Nothing good,” he replied. “That’s a heavy dropship. It’s designed to get high-value weapons and tactical ops teams deep behind enemy lines under heavy fire. It’s also equipped with a heavy-duty comms jammer.”

The spaceplane and its escorts emerged out of the cloud cover and slowed down to hover menacingly near the outpost. Alex looked up at the dropship. His eyes quickly pulsed and an additional group of fighters and bombers almost immediately flashed back and joined those already patrolling the airspace around the outpost, surrounding the hovering craft while keeping a tense distance.

“Ulrich isn’t here to help,” Alex continued. “He’s borrowing ships from the 10th Fleet and using the Rexx attack as a cover for a weapons test.”

“What kind of weapon do you think he’s testing?” asked Steve.

“Probably one like me.”

Christine swallowed hard and took a careful step closer to the prototype.

“Alex, who exactly are you?”

“Me?” he smirked ominously. “Why, I’m one of Earth’s best worst-kept secrets.”

“Is Ulrich even a real commander? Are these ships stolen?”

“I don’t know that yet.”

He turned his back on the humans and cracked his knuckles. The sound was hollow and metallic.

“I appreciate the food and the camaraderie,” he said, “but you need to get to safety right now.”

“Not yet,” Steve insisted. “We’re being asked to get up to speed on a whole bunch of things very quickly, and there are a lot of guns pointing at us while we think. The sooner you fill us in, the sooner we can figure out what to do.”

Alex turned away and stepped toward the ship. The hood of his armor flew up over his head and stiffened.

“Fair enough,” he nodded. “We’ll buy you time to decide what you want to do.”

The humans heard a noise and turned towards the airlock to see a small team of armed cyborgs led by Jake funnel out onto the roof and assume defensive positions, their rifles at the ready. Behind them, four fully warmed-up Berserkers climbed onto the roof, their eyes quickly recalibrating for a new target. Steve could feel a shiver run down his spine.

###

Inside the pitch dark bay of the heavy dropship, a prototype wearing hooded armor grabbed a guidewire, preparing to jump out. Her claws deployed as her fingers closed and her grip on the wire tightened. Her eyes and face markings powered up with the same red light as the eyes of two Berserkers who came to life behind her. Under her hood, she smirked, baring a fang just like Alex, while letting out a quiet, sinister chuckle.

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About the author

neutronfish

Bio: Slightly irradiated ex-Soviet computer lobotomist who makes new technology by day and writes about weird science at night.

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