Through the scope of his rifle, Colt saw the creature turn to look directly at him, as if the distance made no difference. He didn’t hesitate to continue firing, but Stoker was moving far too quickly to track with the zoom on the lens, so Colt stood up from his rooftop perch and prepared for its arrival.
It didn’t take long.
Colt unloaded his handgun, and even at close range, Stoker dodged every last bullet and tackled Colt through a brick chimney. They rolled off the roof together, Stoker biting bloodily into Colt’s arm. The pain was non-existent of course, so he tried to bash the thing’s skull in with the butt of his gun, but that too proved fruitless. Stoker’s head bobbed out of the way of each strike, returning only to rip another chunk of flesh out of Colt’s neck or shoulder or chin. And Colt soon grew irritated enough to change tactics.
He resorted to a grapple hold, repositioning himself to its side and wrapping his half-eaten arm around its neck. The enhanced strength coursed through his body, and Colt yanked. But Stoker’s neck resisted and, in fact, turned the other direction to look at Colt. It gnashed at him, perhaps trying to bite his nose off. Colt buried a thumb into Stoker’s eye socket, jamming and twisting enough to make blood spurt out.
Liquid hydrogen replaced the creature’s face, and Colt’s hand froze instantly. Stoker bit into the icy flesh and shattered it, and Colt could see Stoker’s skull through missing flesh and eyes. No doubt, it had blinded itself, but its hand still found Colt’s cranium. He could feel the force of its grip beginning to crack his own skull.
Metal gathered over Stoker’s face and body, courtesy of a still-distant Hector. Stoker thrashed free of the iron, but it had been slowed enough for Colt to land a quick punch, throwing the beast off of him.
Colt wanted to ask who this guy was, or perhaps what, but it didn’t seem like the best time. Stoker’s eyes were quick to regenerate, and they fell upon Bohwanox next. The creature’s body was still in tatters, but that didn’t stop it from pressing after the reaper. Bohwanox flew back as Colt and Hector both intercepted.
Hector swung an iron fist, which was of course avoided, and Colt just tried to grab hold of the monster, but Stoker simply rocketed away from his grip at the last moment.
“Slow him down for me,” said Colt, “and I’ll kill him.”
Hector nodded. A flurry of metal gathered around Stoker’s regenerating skin. Iron dust left a trailing path as it zagged across the open road, slowing him hardly at all, but then the metal walls started shooting up all around it. The sudden obstacle course forced Stoker to adjust and gave the metal coating precious time to accumulate. The coating broke almost as soon as it formed, but Hector just kept at it, and Colt was able to close the distance.
He just needed one punch. One good, concentrated punch. To land it, though, Colt knew he would have to suppress the opponent’s movement, so he tackled Stoker to the ground first. Stoker thrashed, nearly throwing him off, but Hector’s metal clapped around the thing’s head and arms. And that was the moment he needed.
Colt focused the ability into his hand, the spatial destruction power adding to his already enhanced muscle strength. And when his fist hit the metal around Stoker’s head, it went right through the iron and obliterated everything. Blood, bone, and brain matter all splattered across the road.
His eyes widened, and he blinked at his red-soaked knuckles. He hadn’t expected it to be quite so effective as that.
He could see a deep impression in the bloody asphalt and, after a moment, realized that it had a particular shape to it. A clear rhombus, it was. And a very strange sight, he felt, but he supposed now he knew what the shape of his path was.
Hector joined Colt by his side, and they both lingered on the sight of Stoker’s headless body.
“He’s really dead, right?” asked Colt as the reapers floated over to them. “I never can tell anymore.”
‘Yeah,’ said Garovel. ‘You can tell because the body has stopped regenerating.’
Colt stood up from his messy work, wiping the blood on his pants. “Who was this guy, even?” He started for the nearby alley where he’d parked the car.
Hector followed, annihilating his helmet and frowning at Garovel. “Ah… we never learned his name…”
‘We only know he was fighting with Karkash.’
“He did say he was Vanguard,” Hector added.
‘He was probably lying,’ said Garovel.
Hector raised an eyebrow. “What makes you think that?”
‘When Abolish and the Vanguard clash, it’s a big deal. One-on-one fights are extremely rare. I’m guessing he told us that because he figured we’d be more likely to help him.’
Colt checked on the twins in the backseat of the car. Stephanie was standing at the window with her little hands pressed to the glass, and he opened the door to meet her. Thomas was sat contentedly on the other side, and they both looked at Colt, just as calm as earlier. He patted their heads and bellies, tickling them while he double-checked for anything to be worried about. They giggled at him, babbling a few half-words but nothing more.
Hector and Garovel were still occupied with their conversation. “I wish we could have helped him… Because that was just… agh…”
‘Yeah. Assuming he was being hunted down because he and his reaper were traitors to Abolish, then I’m sure he would’ve been able to provide us with valuable information.’
“I don’t understand why, um… well, I mean… if they really were Abolish, then I get why Karkash was after them, but… I don’t get why Karkash just kinda… left. Why didn’t he come after us, too?”
‘That’s what makes me think they were traitors,’ said Garovel. ‘That fight wasn’t about trying to eliminate all opposition. If it was, then Karkash definitely would have stayed to continue fighting us. But he didn’t. And given his advantageous position at the time, the only way that decision makes sense is if he had already achieved his goal. Or, I suppose, if he received new orders that instructed him to leave, but I didn’t see any evidence of that.’
“But still… I mean… not that I’m complaining, but… it was kinda sloppy to leave without killing us, too, wasn’t it? Somehow, I doubt he was just being merciful…”
‘Actually, leaving was tactically the wisest decision.’
“H-how do you mean?” said Hector.
‘There was no guarantee that he would’ve been able to win against you. Continuing the fight meant running the risk of allowing you to achieve emergence as well–or otherwise turning the tide of battle back in your favor. So unless the objective was specifically to kill us, then fighting you was an unnecessary risk. Karkash understood that. Or his reaper did.’
‘Clearly, they don’t have the same bloodlust as some of our previous enemies. Which might sound like a good thing, but in a way, it’s worse, because it means they’ll make more intelligent decisions. They’re less likely to go on random killing sprees, but at the same time, they’ll be smarter when it comes to real strategy. Against us, that is.’
“Ugh… but I guess that’s… kinda good. I’d prefer that to the other way around, at least.”
Colt sensed the opportunity to interject. “We should probably leave now.”
Hector looked at him. “Oh! What about the civilians? Is there anyone who still needs help?”
‘They’re receiving it,’ said Bohwanox. ‘We saw an entourage of emergency vehicles arriving from the north of town. Sescoria sent lots of people.’
Garovel flew up a few meters to look over the town. ‘Ah. I see flashing lights all over the place.’
“That’s good, but, uh… er, we might still be able to help a little, right?”
Garovel floated back down. ‘I know your heart’s in the right place, but we’re a little too famous right now. With all the police around, we’d probably just create chaos if we tried to get involved any further.’
“Agreed,” said Colt. He opened the driver’s side door and stuck one foot inside. “C’mon, Hector. We’ve done all we can.”
Hector glanced over everyone, then gave a nod and took a seat in the back with the twins. The car’s seatbelts didn’t fit the kids properly, so Hector had gotten into the habit of keeping his arms around them. They didn’t seem to mind terribly, though Stephanie occasionally tried to pick his nose for him.
It wouldn’t be a very long trip back to the motel in Maxwell, but Colt saw Hector pull out his phone. It only had to ring once, and Hector put it on speaker for everyone.
<“So you’re on the news again,”> said Gina. <“They’re already blaming the Darksteel Soldier for what happened.”>
Hector took a heavy breath. “Seriously? How did they even… I mean, so soon?”
<“Eye witnesses, so far. I saw one guy defending you, but the reporter just kinda dismissed him. They’re also saying they’ve got footage of you from someone’s camera phone, but they haven’t shown it yet.”>
“No mention of Karkash?” Hector asked.
<“Oh, they’re talking about him, too. I’m assuming he’s the ‘flying lightning man’ they’re referring to, yeah?”>
<“He’s gotten some attention, but they don’t know who he is, so they’re focusing on you. In fact, they’re speculating right now that he was trying to stop you from hurting people.”>
Hector shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “You gotta be kidding me…”
Colt just kind of snickered, and when he saw Hector giving him a look in the rearview mirror, he returned a blithe shrug.
‘That might be to our advantage, actually,’ said Garovel.
Gina interrupted before anyone could ask what he meant. <“So what really happened?”>
“Uh, well… a lot happened, so, uh… I’m not sure what you wanna know…”
<“You got into a fight, didn’t you? Is everyone okay? What was the fight even about?”>
And suddenly, Colt found himself listening to Hector stumble his way through an explanation of events. To say that it took longer than necessary would be an understatement, but after several agonizing minutes, Gina was up to speed. More or less.
<“Okay. So. The guy who was fighting Karkash is dead, and you don’t know who he was?”>
“Y-yeah. But we think that, um… that he, uh… was, ah… er, well, uh–”
“Hector, I swear by the goddess’s tits, if you don’t finish that sentence in the next five seconds, I’m gonna drive this car into a fucking tree.”
Shockingly, that didn’t seem to do much for Hector’s composure. He merely flushed red and fell painfully silent.
Colt instantly felt like a piece of shit. That was decidedly not the reaction from Hector he had been going for.
Garovel floated in front of the windshield and glared at him. The reaper’s face wasn’t visible, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter.
‘Great,’ said Bohwanox privately. ‘Amazingly helpful, Colt. Not like the kid’s been through anything traumatic lately. Not like he’s helped us out at all or could use any kind of encouragement from perhaps his only living friend in the entire world right now. I’m sure there’s nothing you could–’
‘I get it! Fuck!’ He looked at Hector in the mirror, who was nowhere close to making eye contact again. “Look, um. I didn’t mean to, um. Uh. I’m–mm. S-sorry, I wasn’t…”
‘You’re killing me with this irony right now,’ said Bohwanox.
‘Aw, fuck! I’m an asshole!’
‘At least you acknowledge it.’
<“Hello?”> said Gina. <“Uh. You still there?”>
Colt decided to just fill in for Hector. “Yeah, we’re here. The guy from earlier, we suspect he was a member of Abolish. A traitor.”
<“Ah, well, if he was a traitor, then I’ll probably be hearing more about it. I know Desmond wasn’t happy to see Karkash on the news.”>
“Let us know if you find anything out,” said Colt.
<“Of course. But what are you guys going to do in the meantime?”>
Colt eyed the reapers briefly. “We’ll probably just lay low for a while.”
<“Hmm. You sure I can’t help with that? I know what you said before, but I don’t mind making a few calls.”>
“No offense, but I’d rather not trust some random friend of yours unless I have to.”
<“Fair enough.”> There was a pause, and then she said, <“Well, if that’s all, then I’ll leave you to it.”>
‘Ask her about a new motorcycle,’ said Garovel.
“Can you help us find some new transportation? Hector could do with a new bike, and a car with fresh license plates wouldn’t hurt, either.”
<“Aha. That, I can do. Master Roman has a few different garages you can use.”>
Colt raised an eyebrow. “Just how rich is this Roman guy, anyway?”
<“I’m not sure he would want me to answer that.”>
“Right. Where’s the closest one, then?”
<“Let’s see, um. You’re somewhere around Maxwell, right?”>
<“Then go to Walton. There are three there, but you probably want the one that’s just east of the city limits. Let me know when you get close and I’ll give you the exact coordinates.”>
“Will do. Thanks.”
<“Sure. Anything else you need?”>
Colt stared at the winding road ahead as he thought, watching the frequent curves among the grassy foothills. “There’s one other thing,” he said, “but it might be difficult to find.”
<“What is it?”>
“I’d like to consult a doctor. And obviously, I can’t go to a hospital.”
<“I can find you a very discreet doctor easily enough, but why would you need to see one? You don’t get hurt, right?”>
“Not that kind of doctor,” said Colt. “I wanna see one who specializes in child care.”
There came another pause, longer this time. <“…You have a child with you?”>
“I have two,” said Colt. “Twins. Little over a year old.”
<“You didn’t… kidnap them, did you?”>
“What? No! They’re my children!”
<“That was going to be my second guess.”>
Colt shook his head. “Kidnap… what kind of people do you think we are?”
<“Well, y’know. Kidnap, rescue–who can tell the differences these days?”>
“I’m pretty sure I can.”
<“Anyways, why do you want a doctor? Is something wrong with them?”>
“I’m not sure. And that’s the problem.”
<“I see. Hmm. Admittedly, I don’t have a child doctor on standby. Not exactly the kind of personnel I was expecting to need. And I can’t imagine that black market pediatrics is a booming industry, either. I’ll look into it for you, though. Give me a couple days.”>
The conversation soon ended, and Colt hung up the phone. He abruptly realized that Hector hadn’t even said goodbye to Gina, and when he looked in the mirror again, he saw Hector sleeping while the twins prodded his face.
Colt was starting to feel his own enhancements wearing off as well, muscles growing stiff with sharp and aching pains alike. He could only imagine how bad it was for Hector. The kid had already been exhausted even before fighting Karkash.
Bohwanox hovered outside the driver’s side window, keeping pace with the car as it sped across the highway. ‘What makes you think something might be wrong with the twins?’
“I don’t know. They’re just very… calm, I guess.”
“Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe they’re just little weirdoes and it’s perfectly normal. I just want to consult someone who knows about this sort of thing.” He glanced between the two reapers. “Do either of you know anything about child development?”
‘Not really,’ said Garovel.
‘Sorry,’ said Bohwanox.
After a few more minutes, they arrived back at the motel. Garovel offered to wake Hector up, but Colt just made a second trip and carried him into the room, too.
By now, Colt was dead tired as well, but he couldn’t allow himself to pass out just yet. He changed the twins’ diapers, then laid a plastic sheet down before feeding them. As expected, they made a mess of their simple juice and hash meal. He cleaned up after them and left the television on for the reapers while he finally drifted off to sleep.
Bohwanox woke him up in the middle of the night.
“Ugh–what is it?” Colt rubbed his face and sat up. “Are we about to be attacked or something?”
‘Nah, we just wanted you to change the channel,’ said Garovel.
His face flattened. “What.”
‘We’re really sick of watching the news,’ said Bohwanox.
“Don’t–you–” It took him a moment of deliberation, but Colt decided against killing them. “What the hell did you do before television was invented?”
‘Follow people around,’ said Garovel. ‘Or read. If you’ve got any interesting books on you, then feel free to stay up all night and turn the pages for us.’
“Pass. Why don’t you do some scouting? Make sure we’re safe here?”
‘We did,’ said Bohwanox. ‘Five times. There’s nothing around here. This town is way too peaceful.’
“Share your life stories with each other, then.”
‘Shut up and change the channel,’ said Bohwanox.
“I’m tempted to refuse on principle alone.”
Bohwanox bobbed his head at him. ‘Okay. Then no sleep for you.’
‘You can stay up and entertain us.’
Colt grabbed the remote control and flipped through channels until the reapers stopped complaining. It took a while. There wasn’t much on at two in the morning. They settled on a program about the kilometers of underground caves near Gray Rock.
He checked on the kids again, but they were asleep as well, so he drifted off again.
In the morning, Colt was the first to wake. Still feeling yesterday’s soreness, he fetched some breakfast for everyone from the nearby gas station.
Garovel had to wake Hector up in order to eat and get changed. Colt watched the young black man shuffle stiltedly into the bathroom as if his limbs were made of wood.
Soon, they were in the car again. Hector went right back to sleep, and Colt stared at an open road as they headed for Walton. At length, Bohwanox had a few private words for him.
‘When I asked you before about how you intend to raise Stephanie and Thomas, you said you’d figure something out.’
‘We both know that’s not much of an answer. We have time, so I didn’t press you on it. But if this child doctor doesn’t have good news, then we might have to answer that question a lot sooner than we expected. You understand?’
Colt glanced at Hector and the twins in the mirror. ‘…Yeah. I understand.’
It was a snug fit, to be sure. There was barely room to move around, but Gina had everything she needed in this modest basement. She had a checker-print bed, a bathroom with a shower, a mini-fridge, an air conditioner, a heater, and even a kitchenette. Computer equipment took up most of the available floor space, and everywhere else lay scores of boxes, all filled with food that would last a very long time, if she needed it to. Hopefully, she wouldn’t need it to.
She figured that most people would hate having to live in a place like this for very long, but for her, it mostly just brought back memories. Nowadays, she preferred more fresh air and physical activity in her life, but she didn’t mind falling back into old habits. As long as she had internet access, she could survive just fine down here.
She gnawed on a stick of beef jerky with her hair in a half-combed tangle when, abruptly, her phone rang. She checked the number, but it wasn’t one she’d seen before. She answered it. “Hello?”
<“Hey, Gina,”> came Roman’s voice.