Sera walked through the darkened streets with half-lidded eyes. Her hair hung around her face as she shambled forwards, not quite looking where she was going but knowing exactly how far away her destination was all the same.
Fiddling with a coin in her hands, she flipped it up high into the air.
“Heads,” she mumbled to herself before even catching the spinning metal.
She snatched it out of the air and slapped it to her wrist. Looking was redundant as she already knew she was right. Still, she glanced anyway. There was always the possibility of surprise.
Three hexagons arranged in a triangle. The symbol of the Zima Corporation.
Also the heads side of this particular coin. The flip side had a highly detailed emboss of the Zima Tower.
The coin was a casino token she had borrowed after testing a few things at the Zima Riverfront Casino. She hadn’t told anyone she would be taking it. And yet, she doubted anyone would mind. It was the single highest value coin that one could win. Even if the coin itself was made out of the highest quality metal and plated in fine gold, it likely still cost less than the payout.
Which, to be fair, she had considered taking. However, she was currently employed as a nurse’s assistant. More than enough to make ends meet. Especially considering recent optimizations to her financial spending.
A sound from up ahead finally pulled her eyes upwards to actually see where she was headed.
It wasn’t a surprising sound. She knew what it was before she even looked. However, there were some things that she simply couldn’t glean from sound alone.
Like the puddle of water the car was speeding towards. It was left over from the rain earlier in the evening, blocked from entering the drains by a gaggle of fall leaves.
Would that the driver be human and they might have had the compassion to move further away from the sidewalk. While the occupant could override the on-board driver, there were hefty fines for doing so without good reason. Inconveniencing a pedestrian was not a good reason.
In fact, there were so few good reasons that most simply avoided looking outside, choosing instead to occupy the travel time with leisurely pursuits.
Nine of ten vehicular incidents within the city were the cause of the manual override being engaged. People worried that the computers wouldn’t stop in time, or might hit something that the computer was both aware of and not about to hit. Yet because of their lack of experience in driving, the people would frequently cause accidents of their own.
Hence the fine.
As such, Sera could tell that the car would not stop. The computer wouldn’t register a few drops of water splashed around as a danger to her or to itself and wouldn’t bother avoiding it.
Without breaking her stride, Sera stepped behind one of the many light posts that dotted the sidewalk in regular increments. The wide base only reached up to her waist before it started narrowing into a proper pole. She could have ducked, but that would have required too much effort.
Instead, she just slowed her walk by eight percent.
The car’s tires ran through the puddle. Water exploded up into the air.
Sera continued forwards. The pole created a narrow triangle of air between two sheets of water. A triangle that Sera stayed perfectly in the center of.
She still got wet, of course. Water misting into the air like that would have been impossible to stay completely dry in even if she had a large umbrella. She was dry enough that she really didn’t care. The warm fall air would dry her off in less than two minutes anyway.
But that seemed like the story of her life these days—whatever it was, she just didn’t care.
Everything came so easy to her now. She could take one look at something, break down everything about it, and put it all back together. Just as she did with that car and the puddle.
But it wasn’t fun. It took an instant with no real thought of her own behind her analysis. She stared at the car for less than a second—the rest of the environment filled in peripherally—and found a way to dodge ninety-five percent of the water.
She hadn’t always been this way. Smart, yes. She had to be to take the Occulo level citizenship exams. Her dream had been to get a research job with the Zima Corporation. But she had not been superhumanly aware of her surroundings and hadn’t possessed the agility to to act on that knowledge.
There were rumors—conspiracy theories more like—on the net about the Zima Corporation running experiments to alter many of the citizens in the city. Stories of people showing up with enhanced cellular regeneration able to cure any cut or even broken bones in an instant, only to die in a hospital with much of their body having turned into one giant tumor. Or someone who could turn their skin blue at will.
Supposedly, they were dumping chemicals into the water supply.
That was absolutely incorrect. She hadn’t really questioned it before, but now she could look at all the theories and absolutely reject the water supply as a vector for transmission.
It would be too widespread, too unpredictable. Worst of all, whoever was running the experiment would have to drink purified water for the rest of forever. They could have some antidote. Not likely though. Too much risk. Not to mention the fact that they wouldn’t be able to bring anyone untainted into the experiment should they need additional researchers.
No. It was far more likely that the distribution of their experiments came through something with far more scrutiny. Perhaps prescription medicine, given the Zima Corporation ran all the hospitals in the city.
While she could be wrong, Sera really doubted it.
Flipping the coin into the air again, her eyes tracked over the starting position, how much force she put into the flip, and where she anticipated catching it.
As usual, she was right.
Sera sighed as she entered the grocery store.
She made a beeline straight for the over-the-counter drugs section, not even bothering to wave back at the door greeter.
So far, she hadn’t really found any downsides to her analytical abilities. At least, nothing so horrible as waking up full of tumors. Analyzing what she couldn’t see wasn’t possible and Sera didn’t have access to any sort of internal scan. It was possible that she had some, but not likely.
Sleep was troublesome to come by. Every time she closed her eyes, she had thoughts about anything and everything. Better ways to do things. Better ways to sleep. How much she could avoid sleep by changing her died and exercise routines. And so on and so forth. Including plenty of thoughts not related to sleeping.
Sera stopped once she noticed the man already in the aisle, casually browsing the drugs. He had his hand to his chin where he stroked a thin few hairs that more generous people might call a beard. Reaching down to the shelf, he hovered his hand over a pack of allergy medicine, hesitated, then returned his hand to his chin.
Normally, Sera would have moved on about her business. People were just people. Just because she might notice a few odd quirks about someone didn’t bother her too much. Though she had reported a potential child molester to the Sterilizers.
But those were people. This… thing in front of her was not.
The first clue was his shoes. More specifically, his socks molded into his shoes just below the lip. Not something people would notice, but Sera did. His tee-shirt was odd as well. Skin tight, which made it all the more obvious when he breathed. The fabric didn’t stretch the way fabric should. It acted more like skin, not really stretching between the fibers but just tightening around his ribcage.
Whatever had been done to her brain quickly put those two hardly noticeable things together to reach a single conclusion.
He was a vex.
Sera was just about to back away and run to call the Sterilizers when he turned to face her.
And smiled at her.
Sera smiled back with a greeting nod of her head, brain operating her body almost on autopilot.
“I’m sorry, did you need something from the shelf here? I didn’t see you there.”
“Oh no,” Sera said, moving up the aisle. She grabbed a bottle from the shelf. “Just need a sleep aid. Been having trouble sleeping lately.”
Best not to lie. He could have been anyone she had met before—though not anyone in the last three weeks or she would have noticed. If she started lying and had told him something previously in a different disguise and then told him a different thing now, he would notice.
People lied all the time. But best not give him a reason to wonder why.
Again, she was about to walk away when he spoke again.
“Ah, I try not to use too much. Of any drug, really. But allergies this time a year aren’t that kind to me.”
“Allergies in the fall?” she asked, simultaneously surprised at how calm she was sounding and mentally cursing her brain for continuing the small talk instead of just running away like she should be doing. Why did it have to be small talk?
Couldn’t he have just nodded, maybe asked how she was to which she would have replied with nothing more than ‘fine’ before asking him the same question only to receive the same response?
No. Of course not. That was what normal people did. He was a vex. Probably didn’t know how to properly act around humans.
“Ragweed,” he said with a shrug of his shoulders. As if that explained everything. Did vex even get allergies? They should be able to just rearrange their body into configurations where allergens didn’t harm them. Especially not ragweed.
Just install a filter over your nose and throat already and be done with it.
Unless it was all a cover. Whoever the poor guy was who had his life stolen had allergies. Suddenly not buying medicine would make him look suspicious to anyone who knew the original guy well enough. A wife, children, and even coworkers might notice his sudden lack of anti-allergens. This vex would probably just dump some down the toilet to make it look like he was taking them.
Despite her thoughts, Sera just smiled. “Ah, yeah. My mom has ragweed allergies. I seem to have lucked out.”
“Ah, you should take care. I never used to be bothered by seasonal allergies. As you get older, things change. This ragweed thing only cropped up recently.”
I’ll bet, Sera thought without breaking her smile. Whatever his old disguise was had probably been clean of medical problems.
“But enjoy your youth while you can,” he continued. “Childhood is a fleeting thing.”
That actually did have Sera frowning. Did she really look so young? It was true that she was a bit on the small side. She always had been. But she wasn’t dressed like a child. And she was buying sleep aids. The store wouldn’t even open its doors to let her out were she a minor carrying such drugs.
Before she could complain, she heard a light scraping of metal against metal.
Sera was already moving before the gunmetal grey cylinder hit the ground. Liquid sloshed against a glass window. Gas? Acid? Likely the later. They were growing popular recently and Sera couldn’t see any sort of nozzle to dispense the gas.
Her arms knocked against the shelves as she dove to the ground. Anything to put more stuff between her body and whatever payload the grenade had to deliver.
Lacking her nearly supernatural awareness, the vex stood where he was, blinking in confusion as he stared down at the cylinder.
The sight of the poor vex was the last thing Sera saw before her hands obscured the view to protect her head.
Everything went white.
— — —
“Warning. Socio-hazard level three detected in City Sector Seven Alpha. Sterilization team inbound—Code Pacify. Citizen curfew level: Pneumo.”
“Johanna,” Nikolai said, speaking loud to be heard over the alarms and the mechanical voice of the city announcement system, “check the target.”
“Artem, watch the door and call in our mission status. Oleg, you’re with me.”
Receiving a nod from each of his team, Nikolai advanced behind Johanna. He kept his eyes moving, tracking any bit of movement down every aisle. There were a few customers. All civilians. Most disoriented from the grenade.
None were threats so he kept moving.
Attention please. Discretionary capital prosecution now in effect in City Sector Seven Alpha. Socio-hazard level raised to seven. Citizen curfew level: Cerebro.
“Oh, seven?” Oleg said with a chuckle. “Don’t think we’ve ever warranted a seven before.”
Nikolai glanced to his side, frowning at the unprofessional chatter.
But he had to agree. While Wilson Moreau was one of Zima’s researchers, he shouldn’t have been such a priority target. The grenade had been small and mostly contained. One civilian had been caught in the blast, which was unfortunate yet not something that would warrant such a high rating. They shouldn’t have been assigned anything higher than a four.
Unless Moreau wasn’t the reason for the rating. It was entirely possible that Viktor Zima was tiring of their actions and wanted to end them specifically.
And discretionary capital prosecution? He had never heard that announcement before. It sent chills up his spine.
If things went wrong, he had a feeling that not even using the civilians as shields would get them out.
“Double time, Johanna,” Nikolai said. “We need to be gone before the cleaners get here.”
She jumped slightly at being addressed. Not much. Enough to make Nikolai frown just a little bit more.
It was fine to be nervous on her first mission. Nikolai was nervous on his first mission. But when she jumped, her grip on her pistol tightened. Despite numerous warnings about keeping her finger off the trigger when she wasn’t aiming at something, she moved her between the trigger and the guard.
Technically off the trigger.
Nikolai did not like technically correct answers.
She might need the lesson beat into her after exfil.
“Oleg,” he said, choosing not to show discord by berating Johanna, “watch the back. No surprises.”
The soldier gave a brief nod of his head before heading towards the back of the grocers in a light jog.
Splitting up the team was not Nikolai’s first choice. He wished that they could have brought along another dozen personnel, people to watch the backs of Oleg and Artem. If he had his way, they would all be gone as soon as they put a bullet through Moreau’s head.
Unfortunately, taking out the target was only one part of their mission. A more opportunistic part.
The real mission was to serve as a distraction.
With a rating of seven, their distraction might be more of a Zima assisted suicide.
They came up to the ruined and partially melted metal that once held pharmaceutical section of the store. Acid grenades were not kind to anything. Even a portion of the ceiling had collapsed, the metal beams having been weakened enough to fail under the weight of the roof.
As such, when he rounded the aisle to find two relatively uninjured people, Nikolai couldn’t help but express his surprise.
The first, their target, was writhing back and forth on the ground. He clutched his hands to his face even as the acid ate its way into his arms. His clothes were little more than tattered scraps of cloth revealing raw flesh beneath.
Johanna moved right up next to him. She drew her sidearm and fired two shots. One into his heart and the other into his brain.
Nikolai watched the body twitch several times before finally falling still. A small pool of blood began to spread out beneath the body. One objective complete at the very least.
It touched up against Johanna’s boots as she turned around.
“What about her?” she asked, not holstering her pistol.
Nikolai grit his teeth, turning his back on his comrade as he looked over at the girl. She hadn’t done a single thing wrong. He would have waited. He tried to wait. But she just sat there talking with Moreau. Their distraction was on a time limit.
He couldn’t have waited.
But looking down at the girl, he found himself surprised once again. He had barely given her a glance in his haste to see their mission through.
She was hardly injured. One of her arms had clearly taken a bit of acid. Her pants were slightly damaged and her shoes were almost entirely eaten away along with large red sores on her exposed feet. If it wasn’t for the steel beam sticking out of her stomach, she might have been able to crawl away with only her feet being the casualty.
Amazingly enough, she was still alive. And conscious. Her hate-filled eyes bored into Nikolai. She tried to say something, but wound up coughing. Instead of trying again, one of her acid-burned fingers stretched out above the others.
He couldn’t say that he didn’t deserve her anger.
The beam was probably pinching blood vessels, keeping her from bleeding out. In that state, she could be alive for a while yet.
Turning back to Johanna, he shook his head. “We don’t kill civs. Zima’s a bastard, but he has the medical facilities to fix her if she’s got the insurance. We’ll leave it…”
He trailed off, looking around.
A trail of blood led out of the pool of blood. It swept around the barely-intact shelves, leading a trail where a body might have been dragged along.
Nikolai snapped his rifle around, scanning the area.
Johanna jumped, eyes wide at his sudden movement. “Wha–”
Her head whipped towards where Moreau had so recently been killed. She moved so quickly that her helmet actually jolted to the side, requiring her to take a hand off of her weapon to straighten it.
“I shot him,” she said. “Twice. Heart and head. There’s no way he could still be alive.”
Nikolai did not dignify that with a response. Obviously he was dead.
Somebody slipped in during the few seconds they had been distracted with the civ and pulled away the body. Why? Nikolai couldn’t help but ask. They had both foolishly had their backs turned. They could have been killed, but instead somebody stole the body of a dead man.
“Doesn’t matter if he is missing. He’s dead. Prepare for phase t–”
The high pitched two-tone alert signal sounded over the city’s announcement speakers, cutting him off.
Another announcement followed.
“Alert. Variable Emulation Xenoform detected in City Sector Seven Alpha. A Cerebro level quarantine has been issued for City Sector Seven Alpha. Autoclave inbound—Code Extirpate. All citizens must submit to mandatory V.E.X. screening as directed by Autoclave. Failure to comply will result in immediate termination.”
Nikolai always hated that voice.
Not just because the city’s announcement system was a constant reminder of how much control Zima had over every little event that went on. No. He hated its tone. Too happy. Too chipper. At the same time, it managed to be so dead. As if Zima hired someone to record every word in the dictionary one by one. No individual word had any real feeling behind it.
But this one time, he might just forgive it.
Before the announcer finished her first sentence, Nikolai already had his gun aimed straight for the civ. His finger tightened over the trigger.
Her eyes widened ever so slightly before she broke down into what Nikolai imagined was laughter filled coughs.
He froze. It couldn’t be the girl. He had been sitting there staring at her before the announcement. The alert would have sounded just a few seconds after Zima’s system detected a vex.
Assuming the missing Moreau had been the vex, he would have been completely behind Nikolai.
And Johanna had been standing in his blood.
Nikolai’s eyes widened as he spun around once again to face his comrade.
And in doing so, just barely missed a fleshy tendril moving past his throat.
Nikolai dove to the side. He flipping over the civ and the steel beam pinning her to the ground. She would be dead soon; he didn’t have time to move her. Not even Zima’s medical technicians could save her after being consumed by a vex.
Twisting his body, he landed on his back with his rifle up and ready. A squeeze of his finger sent three rounds right into his former comrade’s unprotected face.
The vex wearing her skin didn’t let out a single sound as its eye exploded in a fine mist of viscera. Two matching holes appeared on its forehead.
For a moment, the vex remained standing. The long tendril attached to its hand that had been centimeters away from skewering Nikolai drooped, losing strength and falling to the floor. The vex quickly followed.
Nikolai stayed where he was, not removing the barrel of his gun from the vex. It was down, but not out. In fact, it might not even be down, just pretending—waiting for him to turn his head or blink. Vex were near impossible to kill. He certainly wouldn’t be able to manage with the equipment he had on hand. His gear had been selected to fight off Sterilization teams.
Somewhere behind him, he could hear heavy footsteps and the rustling of gear. Oleg and Artem. They would have heard both the announcement and the gunfire.
Both arrived at his side within seconds of each other. Both hissed curses under their breaths upon seeing Johanna lying face down roughly where Moreau had originally been, vex tendril stretched out from under her body halfway between them.
“Moreau,” Nikolai said as both his men leveled their weapons at the body of Johanna, allowing him time to get to his feet. “I turned my back for ten seconds and it had her.”
“Did Zima know?” Oleg hissed. “Did he have a vex working for him?”
“We’ll find out if the Autoclave actually kills it or lets it go,” Artem snarled as he put two more rounds into the vex’s body.
Nikolai shook his head. “We’re aborting.” He held up a hand, forestalling the inevitable outrage at losing one of their own only to turn tail and abandon the mission. “Now.”
He backed away, slowly at first to give his men a moment to process the order. A few steps more had him out of sight of the vex. Turning, he ran.
Oleg and Artem followed his example without question.
At least, they held off their questions until they made it out of the grocers and down a back alley.
“We ran away?”
“We’re not equipped to hand vex or Autoclave. More, the mission is already a failure. Sterilizers would have been redirected away. And we need to be gone before the Autoclave gets here. Their fusion pikes will tear through our armor like butter.” Nikolai paused, reaching for his radio.
“Station, Warrior-one reporting vex in mission area. Mission aborting.”
He released the transmission button and waited for a reply.
“Station, Warrior-one repeats mission aborted. Warrior-two must not engage. Please affirm.”
“They’re jamming us,” Oleg said with a hiss.
“Because of the vex?” Artem asked. “Or because we hit hazard level seven?”
“Does it matter? We’re not distracting anything but an Autoclave. Warrior-two is going to have extra Sterilizers tearing them apart. We need to get out–”
Oleg’s voice cut off with a wet squelch as a blood-covered spike of flesh erupted from his throat. He didn’t even have a chance to look surprised before his body started melting. It started at his neck. The tendril puncturing through him spread outwards like the roots of a tree. Everywhere it touched, his face just came apart, absorbed into the tendril.
His clothes, gear, and weapon all clattered to the ground as his body was sucked out of his uniform.
“That hurt commander,” Johanna’s voice taunted from just behind Oleg’s falling uniform. She—no, it came into view a moment later with one hand cupped over its face.
As the tendril withdrew, forming back into a finger, the vex dropped its other hand giving Nikolai a perfect view of the eye building itself back up. At the same time, its body was growing. Oleg’s bulk added to its mass, splitting the seams of the tactical vest.
Flicking his finger to switch from burst fire to fully automatic, Nikolai aimed and held down the trigger. Artem started firing at roughly the same time. They both started backing up while still holding down their fire.
The vex’s body rocked back and forth, shrinking slightly with every bullet that made it past the armor.
All too soon, Nikolai’s rifle ran empty.
The vex stood still, bullet holes closing. It turned its head to the side and spat out a few copper bullets.
Nikolai was only halfway through replacing his magazine when ‘Johanna’ turned back to him with a toothy grin.
“Cyka,” Artem hissed, foregoing reloading in favor of his sidearm. He fired off three shots, one smashing through the vex’s teeth. The other two missed wildly. “Let’s run.”
“That won’t help you~”
Nikolai didn’t argue.
He clipped the magazine in, turned, and ran, firing off a few blind shots as he sprinted down the alley. He didn’t know if any of them hit. Frankly, he didn’t care anymore. With Oleg, Johanna, the civ, and Moreau’s biomass, the thing could regenerate too easily now.
Artem tripped, falling flat on his face.
Nikolai turned, ready to help him to his feet.
Only to find a tendril worming its way into Artem’s leg.
Ignoring Artem’s screams, Nikolai took aim and fired.
The tendril split halfway between Artem and the vex a few paces back.
But the damage was done. Artem’s shoe wasn’t on his foot anymore. Half of his leg was completely missing, evidenced by the way his pants sagged.
“Go,” Artem shouted through clenched teeth. “Get a message to Station. I’ll hold it here.”
Nikolai stared for one moment before nodding a shaky head. He took off running up an empty street—all the inhabitants would be hiding from the monster behind him.
Three pistol reports echoed behind him.
He never heard a forth.
The blades of a helicopter chopped through the air in the near distance. Zima’s autoclave no doubt. How long had it been since the alert? A minute? Two?
Whatever it was, it was too long.
He ran, hopping over property fences, running down streets, and taking alleys anytime they seemed like a good option. He took turns at random. Never turning enough to backtrack.
If the vex was smart, it wouldn’t be chasing him anymore. Instead it would try to find a way out of the quarantine before they could get the laser grid fully setup.
Nikolai had a feeling that it wasn’t that smart.
Every few turns, he could hear voice.
“Commander,” Oleg shouted out, “you left us behind!”
“Saving his own skin,” Artem quipped. “What else is new?”
“He shot me in the face. My face!”
Panting and sweating, Nikolai was slowing down. He didn’t want to, but even a trained soldier could only run with full gear for so long.
Where is that damn Autoclave?
He pulled the bandanna around his face down in an attempt to suck in more oxygen. The security cameras might catch his face. That wouldn’t matter in the slightest if he couldn’t get away.
The helicopters were getting louder. He could even see one overhead, sweeping a spotlight over the neighborhood.
Exhausted and slowing down far too much, Nikolai elected to hide. If the spotlight caught sight of him, it would be just as bad as if the vex caught him.
Well, not really. Nikolai couldn’t imagine a worse fate than being consumed by a vex.
Slipping around the side of a house, he hopped the fence and ran up to the garden shed, ducking down next to a wheelbarrow just in time for a spotlight to sweep over the yard.
The light stopped just on the other side of the fence.
A white beam of light split Nikolai’s vision in half, spreading light brighter than daylight throughout the yard. The beam was only pencil thin, but he felt the heat. Like being sunburned in an instant. The white plastic fence slagged instantly from the heat. Even the puddle of plastic melted away.
The vex was on the other side. Or what was left of it, anyway. Nothing remained of the main bulk. A few tendrils were snaking across the grass, separated and seared. A few tried to join together while the rest scattered.
Follow-up beams of light from the helicopter blazed through each one. The resulting light show was enough that Nikolai had to duck his head and close his eyes. Even with his eyes shut, he could still see the beams burned into his retinas.
Nikolai held his breath, half expecting one of those beams to incinerate him.
None ever did.
The heat died off along with the rhythmic beating of the helicopter. Blinking his eyes a few times, he found the searchlight continuing its sweep of the sector.
After they were satisfied that all vex threats had been eliminated, there would probably be another announcement.
Nikolai intended to be gone by then. Steeling himself, he stood. His team might be gone, but there was still a chance for Warrior-two. If he could get past the laser grid on the border of the city sector, he might be able to get a message out.
Author’s Note: First, have this. It is a YouTube link of a short thirty-ish second audio clip I spent waaaaaaaay too long on. Might be loud so headphones users beware. The voice isn’t quite what I imagined, but it is pretty close. I’m sure you’ve heard city announcement type things in games and movies similar to what I was going for. Not a very uncommon trope.
Second, I meant to have this out like two weeks ago. But I hit Nikolai’s segment and just struggled. I’m not sure that he can be a main character. Not without me finding a few good military novels to copy lines from. I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was that I was struggling with. I considered using real guns or AKA-47 type guns before settling on the generic rifle and pistol. Still not sure that was the correct decision.
This is actually the third attempt at writing something in this world. The first being some super early prototype that is super bad writing I did about ten years ago. The second I wrote recently involving Viktor Zima and his secretary Zofia that I might actually post. Don’t know if I would keep writing either of these character, maybe there will be another attempt.