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After climbing out of the mass of rats, Danny scanned his surroundings. The other enhanced rats and their leader had disappeared. He took a moment to distance himself from the bloody scene and breathed deeply. Air didn’t just enter and exit through his nostrils but the palm-mouths as well. Blood dripped from Danny’s left arm, but he ignored it. Snacks awaited him in the training rooms. The wounds would heal once he fed.

“Are you alright, Danny?” Becca’s voice spoke in his ear.

“Winded,” he answered, focusing on getting his heart rate down. “They’ve got new recruits. Master. Commands rats.” He glanced at the still shrinking specimens around him. “Enhances them, too.”

“My workshops.” Beta groaned.

“Estimated might?” Becca asked.

“O or below. The double enhanced specimens are high-end Fs.”

“Ignore them. Their purpose is to slow you down. Get to the repair workshop. The cameras detected Malfunction there before going down.”

“Yes, chef—Becca.”

 

Danny took off at a sprint, resolving to always keep snacks in his coat’s pockets. His shoulders and torso ached. Droplets of blood trickled along his forearm and collected inside his coat around the knee. He noted they only dripped to the floor if he let the arm hang.

Floating arrows appeared in the augmented vision produced by the HoloLens, guiding him towards the repair workshop.

“I don’t know if I can take Mindpunch, Roach, and Malfunction on all by myself,” Danny said, sending one eye ahead. It peaked around the corners and spotted Roach disappearing down the hallway to the left. However, the arrows pointed towards the right.

“My children have engaged Mindpunch. He’s holding his own.”

“I think Roach is en route to help him.”

“I’ll let them know. You focus on stopping Malfunction. I don’t care so much about the actual devices, but if he gets his hands on the databanks, my clients’ security might be in danger.”

“Any clue regarding their entry point yet?”

“Working on it!” Beta replied

The rat man appeared in Danny’s path once again. His minions didn’t react as the eye floated closer. Instead, their attention remained focused on the walls as they ripped at panels and power sockets.

“There has to be a way out.” The man’s whispers sounded loud to Danny, despite the distance. “Keeping looking, Squeak.”

As a super with the Stalker designation, Danny needed to master stealth approaches. He had attempted nothing of the kind since his preteen years during playground games. Despite the armour and metal tips, the boots made a little sound during his approach. Danny’s heart pounded in his chest. He worried the rats’ ears would detect him, despite the quietness. Much to his relief, they appeared in a trance as they focused on the given task.

The rat man’s snout and whiskers twitched as Danny crept towards him. Meanwhile, the ears remained focused on the largest of the rats as it pried open the air vent. None of them noticed Danny as he weaved through the dozen giant rats.

“The swarm must live. The swarm must live. The swarm must live.”

The near unintelligible mutterings confused Danny. He wondered whether everything was fine in the rat-man’s head. His glazed over beady eyes and rocking unnerved Danny. Once close enough, he leapt on his opponent. A high-pitched screech filled the corridor as Danny got him in a headlock and dragged him away from his pets. He stopped once sure there was nothing but the wall behind him.

“Let me go! Let me go!” The rat-man kicked and shrieked as Danny lifted him off the ground. He felt fingers claw at his already scratched and bleeding forearm, and tightened the grip.

“Only after you’ve shrunk your rats,” Danny whispered.

“I don’t know how! Let me go!” The rats abandoned their tasks in unison and gathered around the pair. The closest of them gained size and deformities. Black bodily fluids and blood spread from their backs as spines and bone-plating covered them. “Just let me go.”

An elbow flew at Danny’s head, and time slowed again. He avoided the blow with ease and tightened his grip further, hoping the panic would force his opponent to shut down. One rat lunged forward. Its leader tucked its legs up and the creature swung giant claws into Danny’s shin. They bent the armour plating and dug through the boots, but the last layer of protection—the stab-proof trousers—proved too tough to penetrate. He kicked the rat in the snout and it retreated, squeaking angrily.

It wasn’t long before the rat-man’s kicking slowed. His voice grew weak and then he went limp. The rat’s hides bubbled and several threw up white or yellow foam as they shrunk. Once they were half as big, Danny released the young man and let him fall on his face. His exposed skin felt slimy, and he could smell sewage through his mask. He called up his HoloScreen, took a photograph of his defeated opponent, and continued following the arrows to the repair workshop.

While running, he called up the super database and submitted the rat-man’s images and a concise description of his abilities. When the extension asked him for a name, he titled the villain Ratling.

“I disabled the Master,” he said into the HoloLens after regaining his composure. “Send someone to my last location for capture.”

“Not happening,” Becca said. “Mindpunch and Roach have my children on the back foot. Pulling away resources can result in casualties.”

“Well, then send Beta down with weapons to take care of him or make new golems. Ratling was ripping the panels and wires out of the walls. If he wakes up, Beta’s workshop will not last. I think he’s looking for a way out.”

“Nothing we can do about it right now. Get to the repair workshop. Malfunction has disabled all the sensors in the area. We don’t know what he’s doing there, and that terrifies me.”

The aches and pains wracking his body threatened to drive Danny to his knees. The muscles in his forearm hollows throbbed. They had less than half a dozen sonic blasts left in them. He could feel them. Afterwards, he hoped to talk to Beta about adding a counter app to the HoloScreen, which would help him keep track.

A shock wave pulsed through the floor and the trembling drove Danny to his knees. When he tried to rise, the worst headache he’d ever experienced ripped through his skull. It felt like someone had taken a hot chisel and hammer to his skull. The eyes in his skull burned, and he felt the discomfort in his teeth, too. His eyes watered and ears rang, too. The pain faded just as suddenly as it had started.

Danny’s fingers fumbled with his mouth guard and the panels covering his mouth popped open. He retched, throwing up chunks of fruit and stomach acids. His throat and nose burned.

“Did you feel that?” Becca asked.

“What?” Danny coughed, realising it was more than exhaustion.

“Psychic assault. Mindpunch just had a breakdown and then disappeared. It’s just Roach now.”

“How far am I from the workshop?”

“You’re almost there. It’s just around the corner.”

Danny stumbled to his feet and took off once again. He wished he had a bottle of water and a snack. The pain and the burning were far too much. However, to make it through discomforts Danny needed to power through such discomforts. Martial skill and discipline weren’t enough.

The sound of screeching metal and beeping machinery reached his ears long before reaching the workshop. He heard the buzz and sizzle of malfunctioning materials, too. Danny had never faced a Fabricator before and didn’t know what to expect. However, he’d studied them enough to know that sneaking up on Malfunction would be impossible while machinery surrounded him.

As soon as Danny reached the doorway, feather shaped shards of metal flew at him. He slid under them, entering the room. Malfunction stood in the middle of the workshop in his usual scrap armour. Metal wings spread out on either side of him, and glowing claws grew out of his boots.

That’s Talon’s gear.

His heart dropped. Defeating his opponent would not be easy.

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J Pal

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