Closing The Loop, Part I


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Scene Title Closing the Loop, Part I
Synopsis The serpent opens its mouth…
Date January 12, 2019

New Mexico is beautiful in January.

While the terrain is arid, it isn’t hot, especially not in the pine forested foothills east of the ruins of Alamogordo. At this elevation it feels like a New York springtime, a crisp high thirty degrees. It’s cold enough to see each exhalation of breath, but warm enough in the sun to be able to appreciate the cloudless blue skies and the turquoise and pink curtains of the aurora shining in them.

Out of the dense pine forest, two dozen vehicles are parked in the otherwise vacant lot in front of the Sunspot Solar Observatory. Brown grass grows up between the fissures in the concrete, vegetation has started to encroach on the grounds, with sapline pines and scrub vegetation. Much of that is trampled right now, though. The vehicles parked here are all government issue, black SUVs utilized by the SLC-Expressive Services Agency — SESA — and emblazoned with their brown and gold seal bearing an eagle in flight. Most of the SESA agents are inside the observatory, however.

The remaining vehicles are rugged pickup trucks driven in from the small airstrip in the town Cloudcroft a few miles northeast. These vehicles have a simple black and red crest on them, one that hasn’t seen much use since before the war.

Redbird Security Solutions.

Two dozen men and women work at setting up field triage tents outside of the observatory. Though they are preparing emergency medical facilities for guests, they’re not dressed like medical professionals. These people are soldiers, part of the small private security force normally contained at Raytech Industries’ Detroit headquarters. The matte black of their AEGIS armor stands out against the burgundy red of the uniforms they wear beneath.

Other members of the security force are setting up collapsible carbon fiber barricades around the facility, one of a handful of security precautions put in place by Luther Bellamy. Raytech had its enemies, but what they were about to attempt to do here in New Mexico could bring more than just the enemies of the past…

…if the last time was any indication.


White Sands, New Mexico

January 12th

3:27 pm

White Sands national monument is a gleaming blur in the afternoon hours. On the western side of the Sacramento Mountains, with the crumbling ruins of Alamogordo approaching in the east, the flat expanse of sun-bleached desert looks dead from high up.

«Bring it down, three hundred feet.»

The rough chop of helicopter blades cuts through the air. The matte black Agusta-Westland AW109 utility helicopter isn’t a military vehicle, but it’s been repurposed into one. Climbing forward from a bench seat, Joshua Lang reaches out to slide open the helicopter’s side door, bringing in a rush of warm air and a view of the rapidly approaching desert below. As the pilot brings the helicopter down below radar altitude, he gives a thumbs-up with a mechanized hand, contained within the carbon-fiber polymers of his ANCILLA armor, ripped from the hands of Pinehearst operatives a literal world apart.

Reaching up to the rather mundane headset at his ear, Lang pulls it off and taps a button on his collar, causing a collapsing helmet of folding metal plates to seamlessly snap together atop his head, six glowing orange eyes flaring to life. As the heads-up display flares to life in front of his eyes, ocular motion engages the quantum communication array.

«Little bird, I’m six minutes from the ivory tower.» As he relays his position, Lang grabs a hold of a pull rail beside the door, swinging a mounted firearm out across inset runners. He pops the top of the machine gun open, clapping belted ammunition inside.

«You tell me when to light the candles on this here cake.»


Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:29 pm

In the shadow of pine trees, a small team can easily find themselves inserted into enemy territory. Booted feet crunch down pine boughs, keep their strides in the shadows, following the call of birds in the trees.

Kara Prince stops, letting the others move ahead of her, listening to the sound of hydraulics and battery hum come from the suit of frightening black armor encasing a woman smaller than she, but who stands five times as tall when she raises her chin just so.

In the distance a stark white tower cuts between the pines, backlit by a shimmering aurora.


Sunspot Solar Observatory

Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:31 pm

Stepping through the door to the observatory, Mara Angier looks out of place amid the rustic and the roughnecks. Pressed slacks and wingtip shoes don’t do well in the mountains, her white button down and suspenders seems likewise anachronistic. Procuring a lighter from her pocket, she flips it open and ignites a cigarette, looking up to the aurora in the sky with tension at the corners of her eyes.

She exhales a lungful of smoke, two coils from her nostrils, and worries of what is to come. Eve Mas saw the answer, months ago. History has been inexorably moving toward this moment ever since.

Pacing back and forth like a restless caged animal is Niki Zimmerman. Clad in the same AEGIS armor as the Redbird force, she still isn't one of them. Not for a long, long time. She'd fought against the idea of joining this expedition in her own mind. She was out of this game, wasn't she? Saving the world was strictly supposed to be taking place at the civic level for her from now on.

But here she is, itching for a fight.

After the warning she received from Eve Mas, turning down Richard's summons seemed willfully shortsighted. Stopping where her helmet rests on the ground, the blonde stoops to a crouch to pick it up ,not for the first time. Rotating it slowly in her hands, she mutters something under her breath and casts a look over her shoulder to the building they're here to protect.

Standing not far from Niki, Warren is fiddling with his arm as he does some last minute adjustments. He seems more than comfortable to keep his helmet on at all times. Those who aren't familiar with his past might be confused about why Warren Ray, the genius engineer of Raytech, is out here in power armor ready to fight.

Richard may or may not actually know he's out here.

His AEGIS armor is modified. The entire right arm of it is removed, with the armor instead integrated into a mechanical arm constructed out of carbon fiber that nicely flows with the AEGIS armor itself. But this arm stands out, as it's not some sort of streamlined pretty thing meant for soldiers or to sell to some board of directors, this thing is almost a monstrocity stripped down to its bare essentials for the purposes of weight distribution. The fingers are thick and clearly meant for smashing and grabbing. And there's a large hole in the palm that leads deep into the forearm, as if it's meant to fire something out of it.

He had a red tentacle design placed over the front of his helmet, almost like a realistic tattoo of octopus tentacles.

When he's done fiddling with his arm, he suddenly tilts his head, staring at Niki, then walks closer to her. "I remember you! I forgot why. Maybe it was with Lola, or Elle. Are you one of Chel's friends? I don't know, brain stuff is hard sometimes. How are you?"

Alia looks ill at ease in body posture. What’s perhaps even more unusual is the woman is, for once, wearing one of the AEGIS body armor suits. The fact she -has- one at all might surprise most people, particularly as yes, her helmet has a marker: A red bishop, next to a white escape key. What surprises nobody that knows her, is the fact that while she has a banshee hanging from a holster, it looks to be her second choice of weapon. Her first would be the rapier set for a much easier draw on the same belt. The Technopath though isn’t very talkative. The fact that she sent a dozen doughnuts and a thermos of coffee with Richard is somewhat of an in joke, perhaps, but that doesn’t make her feel much better as she watches her surroundings with a nervousness.

The fact that she’s actually watching from -two- sets of eyes, one concealed out in the forest that she hopes gets to -stay- out there, isn’t exactly making her mood much better, or her prone to verbalizing much.

Luther Bellamy doesn’t have a stand out marker on his AEGIS armored suit. What he has is the height and presence of a Chief of Security, taking on the role of heading up the security force from Raytech gathered together to defend the tower. He’s busy with positioning last minute (so to speak) barricades, directing teams of three setting up the barricades in the cardinal directions with a focus placed on using natural barriers to form choke points on the ground where enemy intruders will need to pass a gauntlet.

“… And for god’s sake, don’t forget to look up,” he adds to the teams defending those barriers. Surely they know their potential foe controls birds, too. But there are other hazards to consider as well. Once the teams are in place, he’ll worry about those. Checks and re-checks of ammunition and firearms are made, battery packs and comm links too.

And after that, it’s a lot of hurry up and wait.

But what harm can a bluebird do?

It’s just a flicker of vibrant colour in Luther’s periphery until it scissors directly into view and alights atop of one of his newly erect barriers.

Bellamy, says a voice in his head. Prim. English. Unmistakably belonging to the woman his employer warned him about both in person and in the memo that’s been circulating Raytech headquarters.

I want to talk.


Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:34 pm

The weather and the terrain is at least favorable, the sun at their backs as they make their way down the slope. It's good. Still, that the aurora lights can be seen this far south bothers Kara.

It makes it impossible to lose sight of why they're here at least. The unnatural stakes at play.

The plated armor clinging to her is lighter than she expected for the protection it provides, letting her move with confidence. And it wasn't much further now.

"Do you really think that will actually work?" Kara asks, glancing to Eileen as she continues forward.

Ahead of Kara, the tall, armor clad figure belonging to Finn Shepherd trudges along, sharp-eyed gaze sweeping the wilderness they move through, looking for anything out of place or keeping with the terrain. He glances over his shoulder at Kara’s question, then turns his face back up at the tower, his green eyes narrowing just a little.

“Anybody else getting serious Minas Tirith vibes from that thing?” he asks, looking around. Anyone? Anyone? No? Just him, then.

Having outed himself as a geek, he sighs. “This better not secretly be over some jewelry,” he says, the jovial and jocular nature of the armored man much at odds with the serious firepower he holds in his hands.

There’s something disconcerting about helmets that Eileen doesn’t like. It might be that it’s because her armor’s design separates her face and eyes from the open sky, which is why she wears hers down — at least for the moment.

At first, she gives no indication that she’s heard either Kara or Finn; her expression seems distant, and her movements have a strange, ethereal quality to them as her legs float her through the pines.

It’s almost as though she’s someplace else entirely.

“We hold our positions at fifty meters,” she eventually answers, and like her physicality there’s something off about her voice. They’ve both spent enough time around her to know this means she isn’t fully with them. Her consciousness is split between this body and another: a bird’s. “No one dies today who doesn’t have to.”

«Copy big bird,» comes Lang’s voice over Eileen’s quantum communication system. «I'll keep my bird low and my butt clenched, circling the ruins. You let me know when it's all good to raise some damnation.>

Hopefully, that time won't come. But knowing how her life has gone up until this point…

…the odds aren't in peace’s favor.


Sunspot Solar Observatory

Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:35 pm

Mara, taking another drag off of her cigarette, turns to her right and noticed the slip of a woman in body armor that seems to be weighing her down. Furrowing her brows, Mara takes a step over to Alia and into her field of view, proffering out the cigarette.

“I'd offer you a drink but Mateo wouldn't let me bring my flask,” Mara says with a crooked smile. “Don't know if you smoke, but…” she pinches the cigarette between two fingers for Alia’s ease of grasping. “Honestly? Weird shit like this’ll probably kill you first.”

Niki slowly lifts her head to look at Warren when he addresses her. "I used to work for Richard," is her explanation for how Warren recognizes her. If he's having trouble with distinguishing what's reality… Her gaze narrows faintly, expression wary. She'll try to keep him and that weaponized arm of his in front of her.

"Oh! I remember. Well, I remember a different face, but I remember you!" Warren nods, opening and closing his large robotic fingers. "Getting the weight distribution of this thing correct was tricky. If you don't offset it in some way, it'll put too much strain on the body and cause you to run unevenly, or get back problems! I had to choose my materials wisely as well."

"These armors would be much better if they'd let me design them to people's individual needs, but they always say that it isn't in the budget, and it's 'not conducive to to mass production'." He rolls his eyes. "Power armor is much better if you make it tailored to the individual! My individual need is having a robot arm and a shotgun, so my arm is a robotic appendage and a shotgun. It's perfect."

"Richard doesn't know I'm here by the way, but since I'm an executive no one can say no! There's no point in me being up there, and I haven't gotten to do any real combat stuff since I used to take control of the enemy drones in the war!" He smiles at that, as if it was the best time. "I can't believe that they kept my backdoor in the core design! Well, my backdoor was the core design, computer nerds don't know anything about analog and clockwork!"

He's quiet for a few seconds, and then randomly states, "I hope Harper died in a fire."

Alia frowns at the mention of analog back doors. This is really not an opportune time to be learning about these, for reasons she’s so not explaining outloud right now. So instead, she addresses the offer of a smoke by shaking her head to the negative, but smiling. “Oh, already survived being sensibly removed from own body twice.” Alia offers. “And stopping nukes, twice.” She pauses… then makes a hmmm sound.

“Try not to make it a third time for either?”

"Warren," rumbles Luther with the tone of a teacher overhearing an unfocused student. "Try not remind me of the fact that the company board is practically all here. Valerie will have my hide if you all don't go home after this." At least, Luther believes it.

Then there's the flash of blue, and it's Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

Luther turns his attention to the bluebird on the barricade, a frown hidden by the helmet over his head. The tension is evident in the curl of his fingers into a fist at his side, but he works it out, a slow uncurling of his digits into a looser fist turns into a motion for the guardians around that section of barricade to part. He steps up to the bird, present, silent and waiting for however this message bearer intends to relay it.

More people have already died than the two Richard thinks he’ll save by bringing home, the voice says. Are the lives of your men outside, or all those in there worth less than Harrison’s or Varlane’s?

The bluebird springs back into flight and wings across the short distance between them. I tried to help them too, Eileen confesses. We both did.

There’s something about her tone, disembodied though it is, that doubles as a promise.

Let me show you, she means.

And the bluebird lands on Luther’s hand.

He sees only flashes: a clearing on a crisp autumn day, sun ablaze from the west, throwing shadows sharp and strange through black trees. Eileen is there. Elisabeth and Mateo, too. A portal yawns open, Gabriel Gray’s hand outstretched.

There is a sort of energy in the air. Yearning. Anticipation. Hope. Everything Luther has come to expect before it all goes horribly wrong.

Electricity crackles over skin and the portal seems to swallow up all the light in the clearing. He thinks he can hear Elisabeth screaming— someone screaming. Metal churns. Through Eileen’s memory, Luther tastes blood in his mouth and can only watch helplessly as Gabriel’s body transforms into ash in his hands— in Eileen’s hands.

He’s jolted back to the present in the next instant.

This clearing is not so different from the other, even if it’s literally an entire world away.

With or without me, she tells him. People will die today if that portal opens.

As if on cue, a shriek echoes across the hills. Not from an animal, not from a robot, or a person, but from a building. A sound unlike any other on earth begins to rise from the white spire of the observatory, scattering birds not under Eileen’s control to the skies. The entire tower is vibrating like a massive tuning fork, sending an echoing and otherworldly scream across the hills.

As if the universe itself is crying out.


Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:37 pm

The sound echoes over the hills, scares squirrels from their perches to leap to further trees. Overhead, the sky warps and distorts, the auroral light shimmering in a curtain begins to dimple inward and then slowly starts to form a spiral over the top of the white tower nearby in the distance.

«What the fuck was that?» Lang chimes in over Eileen’s quantum comm.

The sound stops Finn in his tracks and he stares up at the tower, at the twist and twirl of light doing things that skies frankly shouldn’t do.

“That is fifty shades of fucked up, friends,” he mutters, pointing his weapon at the tower as if that’s going to do much good at this point. One of those squirrels scuttles by on the bark of the tree closest to him, and he jumps a little, aiming assault rifle at tiny rodent, before he takes a breath, and looks back to the tower.

His green eyes alight on Eileen, waiting for her direction — her faithful Samwise, to go with his earlier allusion.

Kara isn't one to swear without good cause, but the sound that comes from the tower is unsettling. When the sky begins to move, pulling in on itself right above that tower, her eyes start to widen. Now that didn't bode well at all. Were they too late?

Her pace down the hill quickens, bringing her into the middle of the pack instead of at its rear now. The threat of being set upon from behind now felt low. "Getting more Tower of Sauron vibes from that thing, Finn." Kara mutters at him. Her weapon is lifted, focused forward. She glances at Eileen as she comes past her, eyes quickly looking ahead and checking the the lights that have begun to pinwheel together in the skies. "We don't have time to fuck around," she insists quietly, waiting for the official word to move. "We should bring it down now."

“Hold,” Eileen emphasizes, and although her answer is addressed to Kara, Lang will hear her voice crackle over his headset as well. “We don’t know what bringing it down now might do. If Bellamy gives us access to the tower’s interior, we’ll have less collateral damage on both sides.

“He has thirty more seconds to make up his mind.”

«Copy. I— »

Lang’s voice cuts out on the quantum comm in Eileen’s helmet. There's a brief crackle of static, a sound she's never heard over their communications before. Then—

« — Fox-2, Fox-2, Tango-3. Spotted three Hunters headed west from the Outer District. All Resistance in the area, mobilize back.» It comes over the communication lines with a warble like a warped record. «Be advised Jersey, DoEA bots inbound.»

It’s bleeding over, like words on the other side of grease-stained newsprint.


Sunspot Solar Observatory

Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:38 pm

The aurora continues to bend in the air, the corkscrew overhead tightening into a narrower spiral pattern. Looking down to Alia, Mara has dropped her cigarette to the ground, fingers relaxed. Her hand has come up to the side of her head, brows furrowed, pained.

“That— sounds,” Mara grates the words out through clenched teeth. “I— ” She shakes her head and staggers, “what's— ” and her entire body briefly flickers like an out of tune cathode ray tube television screen, then stabilizes.

"Don't worry, Luther, I've killed hundreds of robots! No, wait… no, yes, that's right in two memories!" Warren stares at Mara as she flickers, his silvery eyes looking her over with curiosity. Then he looks up at the tower, and down to his robotic arm.

He's very silent for a moment, watching intently as tiny parts in his complex design rapidly vibrate. His eyes narrow, staring up at the aurora, then down at his arm, then up at the aurora again. "Synchronization of frequencies!"

The gloved biological arm is pointed at Mara. "The universe is unstable, we're having an existential crisis! Everyone take a moment to savor it, we might all stop existing at any moment and experience mental and physical ego death simultaneously!"

He stares down at his arm again, paying very close attention, then he holds his arm up and starts to wave it around a few times, letting it drop a few times. "The weight of my arm is slightly off. There's also a slight instability in the response times despite the electromagnetic safeties in place."

He stops to really think a bit longer. "Yup, they have to fix that or we're all probably gonna die maybe! I can't do much about it." He shrugs.

"Why does this portal thing always get me killed. I hate fate!" he observes, possibly speaking nonsense, who knows. "I have so much to live for! Getting my golden Desert Eagles back from the police, shooting Harper if he's still alive, also I think I have a wife I forgot."

Niki has had enough. Everything balances precariously on Richard's calculations being correct, and they expect opposition at any moment. Especially now that whatever needs to happen has clearly begun. With a growl of frustration, she jams her helmet on. "Ray!" she snaps, grabbing him roughly by the shoulders. "If you don't shut the fuck up, I'm going to put you through the fucking wall."

Alia remains quiet. Her attention is split in two at the moment the tower does it’s tuning fork impersonation. The raised eyebrow at Mara’s… flicker is perhaps interesting. Meanwhile, out in the forested area, something is not moving, but instead is just lurking. There’s at least one hunter in those woods, with solar panels flared out to catch what it can as it watches a small patch of the approaches to the tower…

Alia hopes that he’ll get to remain a sleeping giant, even as that loud noise reverberates, and unvoiced worries cross her face. She has nothing more she can do, other than hope her blessings and groundwork both were enough.

If Luther had heard Warren's supposed reassurance, he doesn't show it by responding. His helmeted visage may be partially masked from view from the way he's turned away from the others, but nothing hides the tension drawn tightly in the lines down his shoulders and back. The man's brow furrows coupled with the distinct downturn of his mouth corners, and a steely grey stare levels at the blue bird perched delicately on the security chief's gloved hand.

The others don't see the inner conflict churning within, a result of the flashes of a vision he's subjected to by the avian messenger. In the span of seconds counting away, Luther almost looks struck still and speechless. Then, the RayTech chief lifts his faintly burdened hand up so he can bring the bird up to an eye-to-eye level.

"Was it trying to help when your guys killed Davignon? When you conspired with pirates to threaten RayTech under disguise? When you shot Mateo Ruiz?" The hand beneath the bird's thin talons tightens into a curled fist. "Were you still trying to help when you kidnapped Manuel Ruiz and held him and other children hostage?" His growing growl is lost to the sudden scream from the tower behind him.

But, Luther's attention is still on the bird.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Ms. Gray," he says with a shake of his head. "But your words - even if they are well-intentioned - come too little, too late. I can't trust you not to try and harm my friends inside." He bends to shed the bird on his hand back to the barricade, to give it the chance to fly from this forsaken spot in the Southwest. His gaze lifts to the spiralling skies, and with a reach up to activate the helmet visor's seal. His other hand shifts to the rifle slung over his shoulder. Luther's next command roars out loudly over the radio comm and nearby air for the security team.

"Hold. The. Line."

The songbird effortlessly lifts off Luther’s hand and spirals away, disappearing against the stark blue of the winter’s sky.

I’m sorry too, he hears Eileen say— or at least thinks it. Her words are not a voice as much as they are an implied apology, her own remorse reflected in Luther’s mind like her silhouette in water.

He must do what he must do. Eileen understands — if only because so does she.


Sunspot, New Mexico

January 12th

3:39 pm


Eileen lets out the breath she’d been holding. Her hand goes to her collar, and a moment later her armor’s helmet is closing around her head to conceal the subtle but not insignificant shift in her face’s expression.

Her mouth hardens. She swallows, hard.

«Minimanilize casualties if you can,» she instructs their forces on the ground and on the air. «Start from the top down: Take Bellamy out first. They’ll splinter faster without a leader to rally behind.»

If they could might be too much to ask for. From their position descending the slope, Kara can see the red-shirted security team taking up arms, setting up behind their barricades. She glances down at the rifle she carries in her hands, fingers flexing around the stock. There had been worse firefights she'd been involved in in the past — at least this one was for a cause she was committed to.

And as an added bonus, she's much more armored now than she was then. She can feel the idle hum of the AEGIS suit's battery pack, affirming that fact to her silently.

"Bellamy first," Kara echoes back to acknowledge Eileen, stepping to one side to see more clearly through what remains of the treeline and hoisting the weapon to her shoulder. Down the sight of the SR-25, the Raytech Security Chief looks like he's close enough to hold a conversation with. She takes a moment to nose the barrel of the weapon toward his center of mass, her finger curling around the trigger as the shot is aligned. "Ready on your mark."

Finn’s known Eileen long enough to know that expression. They’re doing this. He nods, his own expression easily readable in his frank features — there’s no fear there, but resignation and a touch of sympathy for her. It’s her cause he’s thrown in with, for better or worse, and he doesn’t know Bellamy to feel bad for him.

If he knew Luther — or any of the others assembled in opposition to the team from Providence — perhaps he’d feel some pang of guilt, some twinge of conscience. But he doesn’t, and so it’s without either that he finds the man in his scope and focuses. “Hold a moment,” he murmurs — he’s the sort to act with spontaneity, so when he doesn’t, it’s an indication he’s calling on the strange forces that can be summarily called “luck” in his life, to give his shot a greater likelihood of hitting his target.


Lining up his shot, Finn aims not for head but for battery pack and after several seconds of concentration, pulls the trigger.

Of all the fucking luck.

With Luther turned to address the Redbird security forces, the sudden crack of rifle fire hitting him not once but twice is enough to launch him off of his feet. The first round unerringly hits the cellphone sized battery pack at the small of Luther’s back, fragmenting the round and leaving scars on the momentarily hardened plates of his armor. The battery pack explodes in a shower of white-by lithium, spraying down onto the scrub grass underfoot.

The second round strikes the back right side of Luther's helmet, reverberating through his head like a blow with a lead pipe. The round ricochets off of the helmet, leaving a fist-sized indent that dimples the inner padding and spares Luther from a sudden and unseen death.

But Luther goes down nonetheless. He's flipped head-over-heels by the shots, landing on his side behind one of the concrete barricades. His armor goes flaccid, but he can't feel it through the adrenaline spike and the ringing in his ears. He's disoriented, head swimming, eyes up at the aurora surging overhead.

“Bellamy! Bellamy!

Disembodied voices call out for him, echoes of gunshots not fired rattle behind his eyes. For a moment Luther is in three places: the battlefields of the Civil War, the battlefields of a wasteland he never knew, and here in the moment.

As that gunfire rings out, Redbird security spins into action. Two security officers drag Luther more fully behind the barricade and drop into a crouch, trying to ascertain his well being. Two more try to radio about the attack, but all they get is a squeal of interference over the comms. Four more post up behind the concrete barricades, their HK416 assault rifles readied and braced against the concrete.

Mara jolts at the gunfire, dropping to the ground and scrambling behind a barricade. Her expression only grows more concerned as the distant crow of birds rises up from the forest in haunting cacophony. A white raven slips out from the trees, soaring high overhead before disappearing back into the tree line. “Where’d that shot come from?” The noise of birds grows louder from within the pine forest.

A handful of fighters from Providence, former US military that once fought on the same side of the war as Luther Bellamy fan out and use the trees as cover. They indicate with hand signs numbers and locations of Redbird personnel, then with the opening of a fist the fire call is given.

Seconds after Luther was shot a volley of gunfire erupts from the treeline and two Redbird security officers are struck, AEGIS armor buzzing to life to deaden the impact of the rounds as they crumple from the force of the blows, winded but alive.

Two rounds whizz past Alia and Niki to ricochet off of the observatory walls, too close and too precise to be anything other than warning shots. Whoever is firing from in the treeline isn't shooting to kill. Which might be undercutting their goals.

The white raven thinks so.

This has become a fool’s errand, the rasping voice of Kazimir Volken bleeds into Eileen’s mind. Withdraw or fight and do not hold back. There is no middle ground, Munin. There is no compromise.

"You'll have to kill me later!" Warren says as the fighting finally begins, squirming carefully from her grip as a shot is fired at her. "They're coming!"

He uses something he used to use with his old gang, the Locos, which is a speaker he built into his helmet. Pressing a pressure point on the neck of his armor, he shouts out, amplified, apparently not taking Niki's advice to shut up. "Redbird Security! Luther is down, they're going to kill you, but they can't aim! Go after them, hit them hard, don't hold back, don't show any mercy, because they won't show you any! Demoralize your enemy, don't die, and I'll give you all a Valentine's Day bonus!"

It's no mistake that this is loud enough for the enemy to hear.

After that announcement, he immediately goes to one of SESA"s SUV's, forcing open the hood with his mechanical shotgun claw arm. Then with his regular arm, he starts messing around with little tools, working very quickly before he drags a wire out to stick into the gas tank.

Yanking the door of the SUV open, it takes him seconds to hot wire the thing, a few more seconds to do something as he crosses a few other wires, and then he just hits the goddamned gas.

The engine makes some sort of roaring sound, like a hellish beast that's both in pain and on a rampage. Smoke is already spewing from it across the field as he aims it in the general direction of the treeline the fire seems to be coming from, and then he bails.

He dives from the SUV, rolling across the grass to allow it to slam directly into a tree, and then explode.

"In the Wasteland, under the Sea, in a sterile lab! Everything is a weapon!" he shouts through his speakers, at the tree line, pulling a gas canister from his back to toss into the ground. "Come out and die!!! Richard isn't here to save you, and Warren, me, won't feel bad when you're all burning alive!!!"

Niki begins to go after Warren when a bullet narrowly misses her. Unlike the mad scientist, she doesn't misinterpret warning as lack of skill. "You idiot!" she calls out after him, diving for cover. "These are professionals! You're going to get yourself killed!"

But he's off and— God, she hopes he's taking cover behind that vehicle. Niki doesn't have the luxury of keeping track of him when she has her rifle to ready. It's only once the SUV goes rolling toward the treeline and Warren starts his maniacal shouting again that she realizes what he's up to. "Oh, fu—"

Ducking down the explosion is felt more than seen. Now with smoke rising, that might hopefully obscure her position somewhat, but it makes it harder for her to pick out targets as well. Zimmerman sucks in a deep breath and holds it, scanning the treeline. When she finds a shot, she doesn't hesitate to squeeze the trigger.

As the group comes under fire, Alia ducks behind a barricade… and lashes out, not with a weapon, but her ability. This has three rather immediate side effects. AEGIS armors within a good 200 meters of her in the line of travel towards where the shot came from are going to be shorting out in a glorious display of what can go wrong when you bring a smart system against the technopath who programmed it in the first place, the -other- armor system is likely going to find itself not working quite as it should and at reduced capacity… and the helmet vision systems? Are randomly rotating through all three vision modes in a rapid strobe effect.

Apparently Alia is for intimidation in other forms then direct lethal threat?

Flame licks the trees, reducing pine needles to ash and filling the air with smoke that billows from the smoldering remains of the vehicle. Eileen’s silhouette appears through the backlit smog; broken glass crunches under her armored feet, and she steps over a twisted chunk of debris, undeterred by the blistering heat.

I am not you, she reminds the raven soaring overhead. And yet—

Kazimir is of her.

The birds filtering out of the forest gather in throngs – wild doves, crows, and a plethora of smaller specimens riding on the wake of their larger, more distant cousins, which include hawks with broad, flat wings that would black out the sun if Warren’s handiwork hadn’t accomplished that already.

Eileen imbues them with the conduit’s energy, letting it flow from her heart through her limbs and the tips of her fingers. Darkness seems to empty itself into the flock and fill the space between the birds, but rather than strip them of their skin and feathers, it transforms them into a maelstrom of wings and claws that flash obsidian even in the dark. Gone are their high, shrill voices, replaced instead by the conduit’s otherworldly howl.

She raises a hand.

Points it at the huddled bodies hunkering down behind the barricade.

Friends and enemies alike have oft described Luther Bellamy as a man with a hardheadedness rivalling stone. That character description isn't likely to go away, thanks to the AEGIS armor helmet. They don't have to say as much at his eulogy yet, though, as the man appears for all intents and purposes, alive.

The team's voices and even more distant ones echoing in his mind don't get a response from the dazed security chief as his blank, grey eyes stare up through his cracked visor at the swirling energies overhead. Energy that has been for months pressing steadily upon him, squeezing at his ability like a drenched sponge, aching to be taken in, longing to be let out.

To be heeded.

Beneath all the noise and chaos, gunfire, shouting, the crackling of a busted radio comm, comes a voice. Not like the faint tinnitus ringing in his ears, but a different voice, an even softer tone. One that whispers to him.


Luther blinks twice, consciousness wavering for crucial seconds. Somewhere in the deep back bowels of his mind is the vague notion of the voice's possible origin… Trish?

Yours is a chariot that can carry the sun on its back.

His gloved hand twitches, limp fingers curling, a feeling of pain not entirely physical blossoming from a point caught between broken but still beating heart and a burning emotional fire consuming his ability to speak. Luther shuts his eyes tightly, tears squeezed between lids. But the darkness of shut eyes only heightens the vision of the aurora that burns even brighter. Insisting.

All the heavens bow to you, if only you would raise your head high enough for them to see.

The quiet whisper fades, replaced by the present. Luther's eyes snap back open, the man jolted awake by the boom of an exploding vehicle. Suddenly the world is once more a cacophony of noise and activity. Reaching up, he paws at the button on his helmet, pushing the visor release.

The shattered piece drops. His boot stomps it further into the ground. The RayTech security chief rises back up to a knee, waves of heat emanating from the man as he looks around at the new fire-riddled battlefield.

And then like a dam finally broken at the gates, the fire comes pouring out as if a Hell dragon opened its maw in the form of Luther Bellamy. Blasting flames manifest and shoot upwards at the attacking flock of birds, sweeping back to the ground, then back up again.

Where Luther looks, the raging fire follows.

Until again, an eerie voice filters through the busted radio in his damaged helm.

Kill him.

Through the smoke and fire licking up in the skies, Luther looks up to the shimmering spiral of lights, the source of everything pouring through his own body as if it were an open conduit in itself.

Kill the red bird

A flash of white plumage from the albino raven soaring overhead catches the light of the smoke and flames, a point of color in a sea of darkness. The red bird.


The air surrounding the barricades cracks with snaps of lightning as Luther's power shifts and internet ensifies with the thrall of rage and anguish unleashed from within the man.


The whispered command overtakes his senses, throwing him into a nigh berserk rage. The howl of the flock above meets a defiant roar of the man below.

All the energy he can pull in gathers into Luther.

He stares into the darkness, but all he sees is a flash of blonde hair disappearing into the shadow.


Then, the squeeze.

Finn’s rifle slides to track Warren and the SUV. “He’s gonna blow that thing,” he mutters to the others, backing up a bit, putting himself in the way of the others on the Providence team.

“«Do the thing, Lang!»” is neither military code nor very specific, nor is it up to him to give the Horseman the order. Finn is pretty damn sure Lang knows what he means, and pretty sure Eileen agrees it’s time to do the thing. Even if she’s too busy harnessing conduit and bird energies into a fowl apocalypse of feathery doom.

When Warren tumbles away from the SUV, Finn lines up his shot once again seeking the other man’s suit’s battery pack, like he had with Luther’s, knowing a hit just-so should negate the armor’s protection, making Warren vulnerable to the next. It’s just as Finn’s finger pulls the trigger that Alia casts her own brand of magic, hexing the suits they wear to do the same.

“What the — Jesus H. Salt! This thing needs to come with an epilepsy warning!” he sputters out as his armor locks him into place, slamming his lids closed to the strobing lights of his malfunctioning helmet, until he can move his arm again enough to tear it off so that he can see — even as the world seems to turn into an inferno, all hellfire and burn.

Dealing with a car careening into the treeline hadn't been expected, and it's something that sends Kara strafing away from the vehicle and tree it struck both. Finn's boldness is something he might manage, but she prefers safety. One that hopefully soon includes covering fire provided by Lang, to prevent the maniac with the car from closing the gap any further. It looked like he had a cannon strapped to his arm, after all.

She takes a moment to find a tree for cover, rifle butt still held into her shoulder as she waits for any telltale whizz of bullets that might have been meant for her. Jaw set, she lifts her weapon again and turns back around to face the security forces, in time to see the man she'd just shot in the head rising back up. Her brow slowly knits, finger on the trigger again.

"What the…" she breathes to herself, mindful of Finn's shout as he pulls his helm free. She can hear the whine of her battery pack somewhere under the squall of the birds, indicating something might be happening to her own suit, but she's preoccupied pressing her bare face into the scope of the SR-25, watching the avatar of heat and energy Luther Bellamy has turned into.

"Well, that's unexpected," she murmurs, like the development was as simple and harmless as finding an unanticipated seasoning in her meal. Kara narrows her eyes as Luther lays down fire, quickly lining up another shot for his center of mass before the opportunity is lost in the haze. As soon as her hands steady, she taps the trigger with a silent prayer, one with more weight than her spoken comment.

The round from Kara’s rifle hits Luther center-mass and sends a shockwave of kinetic energy out from him and then down into the ground, rippling the fire around his body as he converts some of the kinetic energy into heat. Luther, like a man possessed, turns burning gold eyes on Kara.

In the carnage beginning to ensue, under the roar of flames and the shrieking cry of birds, Alia Chavez moves through the technological devices used by the Horsemen. The AEGIS armor breaks easily enough, and Kara’s battery pack overloads with a flash and explosion of lithium as if she too had been shot in it. But it's when she sees the unfamiliar black, orange-eyed suit worn by Eileen that something is amiss.

Alia feels something both hauntingly familiar and unsettlingly alien when she's scouring the armor for vulnerabilities. She scrapes bits of information from external non-critical systems that seem to be reaching out to broadcast to somewhere, but all seem disabled. The armor is named ANCILLA. But trying to get into the system, to disable them, to fight them… feels like something is fighting back.

Alia feels a fragment of a mind, an echo of a technopath inside of the armor, or perhaps an imprint of one like the ALIA system the institute designed. But this isn't her, this is something else otherwise, something with a swarm design full of microprocesses that actively work to deny her access. Alia causes the ANCILLA’s leg servos to seize up, locking Eileen in place, then they release. She attacks the visor system, stuttering a strobe in the conduit-bearer's eyes, and is pushed out. If this weren't a fire-fight it would be easier, she could brute force her way through. But—

An errant round strikes Alia while her attention is drawn away, her armor hardens and absorbs the blow and it only manages to knock her forward and take the wind out of her. But she feels the distraction of the battlefield, its flames, and its gunfire. A direct approach against the ANCILLA might not work here.

But there's more going on than just the conflict in a digital space. As Alia focuses on the physical world more completely, she sees Luther for what he's become; a living pillar of flame marching across the fiery battlefield between the rear of the observatory building and the now fire-engulfed treeline. Hands raised over his head, Luther launches a tornado of fire up through the air, sending screaming and smoking birds raining from the sky. Among them is the flock’s ringleader, one of the paired white ravens that are Eileen’s prisoner-counsel.

The incincerated bird carcasses fall like fiery teardrops from the sky, but the flock seems to only grow erratic. Their dive toward the Redbird Security team breaks apart like a wave crashing on a stone, and the swarm of birds for a moment seem unguided, until they collide with the tower of the observatory. Hundreds of birds, driven mad by a psychic connection, throw themselves at the tower. Red marks spatter across the white surface, the hollow bong of each bird’s deathstroke reverberates through the air along with an undercurrent of desperation and panic, a psychic shockwave that feels like a chill up a tingling spine.

The Providence strike team brought to this fight has broke up as the forest caught on fire. The five men moving with Kara and Finn scatter apart from one another as burning pine boughs fall from up above and cinders of birds rain down from the sky. “Get a clear shot! For fuck’s sake where’s air support!? Hold your positions!"

The answer to one of the soldiers' questions comes chopping over the hills. Flying low, the black helicopter that has been in a holding pattern over the mountain rises up into view over a nearby ridgeline. Redbird security soldiers turn, training firearms up at the sky and begin shooting on the helicopter’s approach.

As Lang comes in, the soldier leans out of the door on the gyroscopic-mounted arm, angling a heavy machine gun down to the ground. There's a sudden explosion of automatic weapons fire peppering the ground, trailing plumes of erupting dirt between Niki and Warren as Lang comes in to drive the Redbird forces back. Eileen’s call for minimal casualties has him laying down suppressing fire as best as he can, trying to spook but not slaughter.

Alia feels the helicopter overhead, dipping in and out of her range. She feels the computerized components used for stabilization and mobility. She can feel the systems open to her like an unlocked door. She can feel opportunity present itself.

Down on the ground, Mara runs from a trail of machine gun fire, coming up behind Warren and hauling him back and away from Luther and the gunfire coming from the air. “You've set the whole fucking forest on fire!” Mara screams, black smoke belching up from rapidly burning trees. “Can you— ”

Mara’s words are cut off by a scream that erupts from both she and involuntarily from Warren. A prickling, cold, dead pain lances through their bodies. It's enough to cause Mara to flicker away like a cut reel of film, appearing several feet away from Warren as the light begins to dim everywhere. The chorus of birds changes from panicked caws to screams, a wailing howl of agony that rises from the trees as more bird — birds wreathed in flames — soar toward the battlefield, dimming all light around them as they do, with a single white raven at their head.

But something is horribly wrong.

“Tango, move to my six!” One of the Providence soldiers calls out, making a hand signal through the smoke. Then the birds come through the treeline and his call turns into a scream. The fiery birds whip past him, kicking up cinders and ashes and smoke, leaving behind a desiccated and ashen corpse where once a soldier stood.

When beggars die

A voice rasps through the trees, through the swarm.

There are no comets seen

The swarm loops up into the air and comes crashing down on a pair of Redbird security firing into the woods, rendering them ashes and bone within their crimson and black armor.

The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

It's Kazimir Volken’s voice.

Warren is doubled over in pain when Mara moves away, armor battery destroyed, and surrounded by death birds and a telekinetic voice.

Is that telekinesis? He can never tell.

He tries to stand, staring down at his hands as he feels such an odd pain. "Pain is the mindkiller… no, yes, no."

Reaching up for the helmet of his AEGIS armor, he entirely removes it, tossing it to the ground, as he stares up into the sky, eyes reflecting the darkness that surrounds him. "Are you a god?" he asks, as blood starts to trail from the sides of his mouth and tear ducts.

Then he pulls his modified 50. Desert Eagle from his waist, though doesn't fire it yet. He instead turns his head, staring at what he can see of Eileen. "Technology with no evolutionary path." is all he says, with an odd sort of recognition, before looking back up at the darkness. "I'm a messiah." he says to the darkness, as he feels his body slowly deteriorating. "Causing all of this death feels pretty good, doesn't it? But you should probably stop, because we're in a stable time loop, which means my brother is gonna succeed, and you might die if you keep it up."

He shrugs, coughing up more blood, then falls to his knees. "Gods should listen to messiahs."

A moment of elation at Luther's spectacular display of power turns to panic when it's answered in kind. Oh my god, we're going to die. Niki doesn't freeze, however. There's a sort of acceptance of the notion. How many times has she thrown herself into danger with a secret hope that it would all end? She knew death was a strong possibility. That doesn't mean she has to go quietly.

Throwing off her helmet, Niki stands her ground as the bullets kick up dirt at her feet. She raises her rifle and looks down the scope, aiming for the gunman in the helicopter.

Niki’s shot strikes true, hitting the gunman dead on in the chest. The round ricohcets off of his armor, punching into the heavy machine gun and demolishing the lower receiver. There’s a flash of sparks, a choking clatter of chewed up ammunition, followed by a slam of armored hands on the now ruined gun.

Like a startled shoal of deep sea fish, the flock of birds abruptly changes direction; it’s as though a strong gale of wind sweeps through the maelstrom, forcing it to break apart and then reform, feathered bodies ducking and zipping around both Raytech and enemy forces alike.

They can hear Kazimir’s voice, but also feel a roiling surge of conflicted emotions: Remorse. Fear. Anger. It belongs to a psychic signature that doesn’t match the low gravel of the conduit’s primary personality, yet feels intimately familiar to Lang in the air, and Kara and Finn on the ground.

Eileen is fighting his influence.

She drops, both hands and knees striking the scorched earth; through Lang’s headset, her scream sounds much closer than it actually is.

As host and conduit wrestle for control, more birds strike at the tower and anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in their path. The fire, too, carves destruction through the dry foliage, spreading from kindling to whatever is within reach and flammable, whether living flesh or the barricades themselves. It does not discriminate, as Kazimir would not discriminate — if he had things exactly his way.

Eileen’s preoccupation with keeping her own people safe has her reeling, desperate, distracted, and while the conduit might not be in a position to take advantage of this fractured mental state—

A lone sparrow flits in the opposite direction of the stream of other birds. It sings past the remaining raven, missing its claws by centimeters, and dives down… down… down with the speed and precision of a ceramic knife thrown by the late Zhang Wu-Long.

Wings tucked against its body, it simply drops.

Alia stares at the disaster. She doesn’t mind that she got thrown to the dirt, to be fair. But right now, there’s a hellaciously bigger problem than either side -really- likely intended to engage with going on. A single digital transmission gives an order to a remote unit. Disperse Threat, Evacuate Survivors. And in response, somewhere behind those who were shooting at her before and perhaps during this all becoming fire and doom birds, a feline figure rises, and retracts repaired solar panels. A smoothed over shoulder has been reworked where the old gun mount was. Insulated, armored hydraulic lines replacing the worn ones. Alia hasn’t been able to fix -everything-, but Shere Khan is in the best shape it’s been in since before the War’s End, and it’s been given a job that is, perhaps ironic given the status of it as a weapon of destruction. To get humans out of harm’s way.

With that short message sent, Alia instead focuses her attention on the other problem she can do something about. She reaches out with her ability and, with surprising care, nudges the helicopter closer to the ground, then closer, until it’s safely landed not far from her. Not that they want to likely be airborne in the storm of insane birds mixed with fire and lightning anyway… but it’s likely someone in charge enough to negotiate with will be on board, or so she reasons, as she starts trying to dash towards the spot she landed it on.

The bullet strike that momentarily staggers Luther turns his attention to its source. It's hard to say if the glowing golden irises in the man's livid features are from the surrounding golden-orange flames reflecting off grey eyes, or a transformation from within. No matter.

The security chief barely hears Mara and Warren's nearby screams under the wailing howl of birds striking at the tower and his team. The gunfire strafing down from the chopper and subsequent retaliation from Niki's position with the security team are a dull roar against the raging flames. Gold eyes focus towards the source of the voice that calls for the heavens to blaze.

So they shall.

Luther lifts a burning glove. His fist clenches and he wills a storm of fire and lightning down upon the white raven seeking to cloak itself.

And not satisfied to stop at striking merely once, the chief's progress across the battlefield starts slow, then increases in speed as he storms forth after the remaining forces, trailing fire and lightning as the energy pours in from the wildfire and the bullets shot at him, changes through him, and lashes out from him like the hand of a wrathful god enacted through its earth-bound avatar.

The no-longer functioning armor doesn’t seem to faze Finn, though he does back away from flames and hellfire, whether created by SUV bombs or Luther-o’Lanterns. “«I’m starting to think we’re a little outpowered here, boss,»” he murmurs into the comms, his eyes lifting to the sky as the helicopter moves downward — not the direction it should be moving.

He turns to look at the battlefield, looking for the source of such sorcery (well, to his mind, and to his comparisons to a certain epic trilogy). The movement of Alia toward the helicopter draws his green eyes her way, and he fires in her direction — still seeking to disable, not kill.

Like any good labrador (or shepherd), he follows his orders.

That done, he turns to shout at Luther — can he hear over the roar of stormfire he’s brewing? “Bro! Can we talk? These people you’re working with — they’re not worth this!”

"Not good." is the only reasonable thing Kara can think to say to herself when the round fired appears to have had no effect on Luther. She sees him turn in her direction and, hair on the back of her neck prickling, stands upright, weapon lowered. She's braces herself to run or dodge out of the way of some inferno sent specifically in her direction, but thankfully (for her sake, at least) the sky holds more pressing matters for him.

When Finn opens the commline, Kara can almost hear him, somewhere in the whispery indeterminable static that's overtaken most communication. It's enough to make her want to rip her earpiece out, in the middle of the rest of the cacophony going on. With the tragedy happening in the sky with the birds, she turns to look — and confirm — that things don't appear to be going well for the avian telepath.

"Morales!" she barks to a Providence resident nearby, garnering a wild, wide-eyed stare from him as he tears his attention from everything else going on. "Cover Eileen. I'm with you." And she turns in the direction of the downed Englishwoman, rifle pulled against her again as she aims at Warren, who is too close and armed.

Her finger slides off the trigger at seeing the blonde who comes to pull the crazed Ray back, the world by no means stopping, but Kara becoming deaf to it as she focuses on that woman with a startling intensity. She all but freezes in place, save for tracking the anachronism with her stare.

Price? Kara would stammer. No… impossible.

She blinks, fighting back the rise of ghosts of memories that she knows she can't succumb to, not now, ones that by no means should be valid in this moment —

And then Mara flickers out of existence, reappearing several feet from where she was last.

"How?" escapes her in a strained voice, sound rushing back in after she speaks. The fire is now accompanied by the screams of those in the path of the swarm, whose path she's noted has not only struck the enemy. The team from Providence can't suffer any more losses. They couldn't afford them in the first place. And now, Lang's helicopter, whose approach went unannounced in the comm failures, was being brought to the ground unnaturally.

Kara's eyes harden as she continues forward, taking up position near Eileen's side and opening fire at anyone foolish enough to lift their weapon toward the woman in the ANCILLA armor. Overhearing Warren try to speak to the birds is the last straw for her in regards to him. She's no idea what he's going on about, ultimately, but he's armed, and sounds arrogant. She tilts the barrel of her rifle in his direction and fires twice.

"Stay with us, Gray." Kara voices loudly over the other sounds, even though she's only feet us away.

Too late.

The sentiment is neither Eileen’s, nor Kazimir’s, but instead a densely layered amalgamation of the two, making it impossible to determine where one consciousness ends and the other begins.

The door is opened.

They’ve failed.

Her last thoughts are of crushing defeat, not at the hands of Luther, Kazimir, or even Richard Ray. She thinks of Gabriel in her final moments, of the voice echoing in the space between worlds, of eyes the colour of the sun in the instant it dips below the horizon.

The conduit’s energy ripples out from within her in one last surge: a candle flickering violently before it’s snuffed out for good. It passes over the sparrow as enters her periphery for the first time and implodes the little bird into a burst of ash that then transforms into brightly lit embers in the superheated air.

Inside the tower, Kaylee alone senses the change. Something outside is Different.

The conduit’s energy recedes, drawn back into its source, as effortless as a receding tide. Surviving birds scatter in every direction, fleeing the fire as their natural instincts are wont to do. Eileen— if it is Eileen releases her hold on them.

A shaky hand reaches up to retract the helmet around her head. Soot and tears reflect the glow of the flames on her skin’s surface. Her mouth hungrily gulps down air.

The birds voices have grown distant, quiet.

Kazimir’s voice, too, is absent in the air.

There are only far off screams and the crackle of the fire. Helicopter blades chugging. The blood in her ears, pounding.

«Fall back,» she croaks. The words are heavy in her mouth and difficult to say. It could be mistaken for a matter of pride.

The truth is that this Eileen hasn’t used her own voice or heard it come from her own lips for seven years.


«Fall back!»

Gunfire cracks and pops, shouts and screams fill the fire-choked air. Redbird Security forces are marching back toward the observatory, firing into the treeline, trying to drive back the attackers. Medical personnel on the other side of the observatory are hunkered down behind concrete barricades, some holding hands, some sobbing in fear.

The roar of a helicopter descending on the battlefield drowns out much of the gunfire. The downdraft from the blades pushes gusts of pyroclasmic wind into the forest, spreading the massive fire that now engulfs the ridgeline. Amid the flames, an orange and black painted machine bounds along on its orders. Shere Khan takes a firm hold of a wounded Redbird security personnel, beginning to drag him back with powerful jaws hooked into demolished AEGIS armor. Not far away, one of the Providence team — Morales — lays down suppressing fire blindly through the waves of flame. He marches ahead of Eileen, walking backwards, ensuring her escape. As he looks around, flames spreading through the forest, there’s a frightened glance flashed to Kara. He’s never seen anything like this before.

Through the fire and flames Alia is making long-striding progress to the helicopter when a high-velocity round clips her in the side. Her AEGIS hardens milliseconds before impact but the force of the blow from the side knocks her off of her feet and sends her sprawling to the ground below. Ribs crack under the force of the shot, vision blurs with reflexive tears, and Alia watches the birds scattering into the sky from the forest floor.

Inside the disabled helicopter, another fighter in ANCILLA armor steps out, gun cradled to chest and helmet snapping up and over his shaved head. Joshua Lang scrambles out of the vehicle, abandoning the door-mounted gun that Niki’s shots destroyed, and lays down suppressing fire at the remaining Redbird forces with a heavy sidearm as he hauls the helicopter’s pilot in the rear of the vehicle, bleeding from his leg where shrapnel from the demolished gun or possibly a ricochet wounded him.

Rounds ricochet off of Lang’s armor, but all of the power of the Bright Future’s most brilliant minds do not avail a victory on this day. Because in the sky, over the observatory, something is happening.

Luther can feel it in his limbs first before he sees it in the sky. There’s a tingling sensation in his extremities, a palpable wave of nausea, and then a violently pounding migraine. Warmth and wetness dribbles down Luther’’s upper lip and cheeks, and with a sweep of a hand his fingers come back red. Niki and Warren can see it with absolute clarity, that the whites of his eyes are just a deep crimson. Blood runs in rivulets down Luther’s cheeks, flows steadily from his nose and tracks a veined pattern out of his ears down the side of his neck.

A moment later, Luther can feel a wave of vertigo. He doesn’t remember falling over, doesn’t remember his own personal pyroclastic form fading, but when he lands on his back and stares up at the sky he can see that spiral aurora formed fully over the white needle of the Sunspot Solar Observatory’s tower…

…and at the center of the spiral, is a wavering gap in the heavens like a window or an eye, as black as night, glimmering with stars.

The shots slam directly into Warren's disabled armor, which causes him to fall over onto his back, staring at the sky.

He's exhausted, but also the battle is ending.

He's seen so many battles, long before the war. This could be said to just be another one, if not for the fact that this is one of few battles he's fighting for someone else. The newly found faith in his father's vision, the belief of his brother's inevitable success.

They just needed to hold them all off, and a god even showed up to give his blessing and rain down a display of celebratory death and destruction!

"I should have brought my robot controlling arm…" he coughs out, eyes shifting chromium as he just lays down there and stares at the display in the sky.

Celebration is cut short as the display in the sky causes Niki to stop and stare in a mixture of awe and terror. Whatever she expected to happen if Richard succeeded, it wasn't this. She only hopes that this actually does denote the plan's success, and not its catastrophic failure.

When Luther drops, Niki throws down her rifle and surges forward from her cover, charging across the field of battle with the intent of retrieving him and dragging him back toward the medical barricades. She only hopes this isn't a fatal mistake and that her foes will grant a little more of their mercy.

Alia slowly gets to her feet. Shere Khan is doing exactly what she asked of it. She’ll take the blame or credit as needed later. One problem at a time as she remotely turns the copter -off-, then limps back to the line, making a stopping hand motion at anyone still firing. “Trench. Dug up. Now. Get worst on that copter. This could go fireball fast.” Wait, is -Alia- volunteering to fly people -out- of this? Maybe. There’s enough other problems right now that dealing with the stars in the sky will be something she just has to wait to deal with.

For now: One problem at a time. That has always been her way: Find a problem, figure out how to address it.

She’ll worry about the problem of those armors later. Right now, there are people hurt, both her own and others, and -that- needs to be dealt with… and that fire is as much a threat as anything else.

Somehow, the cry from Finn Shepherd turns Luther's attention to the man. Wreathed in flame and sparks of lightning, Luther takes a few steps forward towards the other. He doesn't look like he's intending to talk it out.

However… the steps suddenly stop about the same time as the retreat of the conduit energy. The intense pain and nausea take over. Like a spent candle, the last of the fire in Luther goes out as he topples over.

In those moments on his back, staring up at the black eye of heaven, Luther finds a faint sense of comfort. A memory of a night shared, of stargazing. Tears dilute the blood running back into the bent and battered helm around his head. By the time Niki reaches him, the security chief has gone utterly silent, fading into unconsciousness and leaving the security team fully without their chief once more.

“Oh shi-” Finn murmurs, backing up despite the bravado he’d been showing to this point; his green eyes are wide, reflecting back the glow of Luther’s firegod form. It’s only when Luther collapses that Finn looks up, staring at the celestial phenomenon above him, before casting a glance to Eileen, frowning at the unfamiliar tone in the woman’s voice; he cannot feel it like Kaylee can, but he knows something’s different, somehow.

Probably because the Eileen he knows would never say to fall back, would fight to the bitter end.

He can’t say he blames her, though. And he personally would like to live and not be barbecued.

His rifle swings to point at Alia, and he shakes his head. “Sorry, sweetheart. That there’s our bird, and no one’s flying her out but me. Princess,” that’d be Kara Prince, “cover us.” Finn motions for those still standing to get into the helicopter, his own rifle trained on Alia and the rest of the Redbird force, ready to shoot. “Seems we’re at a stalemate and we’re planning to retreat. No one else needs to get hurt so long as you just let us.”

The layered voice coming from everywhere and nowhere earns a silent curse as it announces they're too late. Given that pronouncement, the order to fall back is … unfortunately understandable. Even if it's one Kara disagrees with. With Bellamy down, why not press on? Why not ensure the machine was destroyed? Even if they'd failed to stop it today, why not ensure this wouldn't happen again in the future?

She's turned, weapon trained on Niki as she breaks cover to retrieve Luther… only to not fire after all. Kara's jaw sets and she lets out a note of frustration before she drops her steadying hand from her rifle to grab Eileen by her arm and help her come to her feet more quickly.

"Let's be quick about it, then," she says in an encouraging terseness, afterward looking to Lang and their wounded pilot. Then to the living alternative found in Finn, diplomat as he's trying to be. The technopath had single-handedly ensured the deaths of numbers of theirs by shorting battery packs and bringing down the helicopter — Kara would have settled for making the announcement to give them a wide berth after shooting that one in the head.

She makes her way toward the helicopter with her back to it the entire time, counting the remaining members of the Providence team as they clamber aboard. The sweep has ensured she's finally noticed the robot roaming the battlefield, its appearance setting off a special kind of loathing in her for these people. They weren't just willing to tear open the universe and potentially let through horrors, it looked like they embraced the use of them in the here in now.

If Kara had her way, she'd be doing a lot more with her gun than just pointing it. Instead, she takes up Finn's position to allow him to prep them for takeoff, rifle sweeping across the remaining Redbird forces. As happy as she would be to open fire, getting their people away safely was more important.

"Back down, or you won't be getting back up," Kara nonetheless warns Alia tersely, training her weapon on the technopath and minding for any outward signs she might use her power again. It wasn't about to be Providence's problem how violently the spewed hellfire would take across the trees or the observatory.

No. They were leaving.

Eileen leans into Kara for support, an arm slung loose over the taller woman’s shoulders. It takes all her strength and effort to put one foot in front of the other; her knees wobble, buckle, ungainly as a newborn fawn taking its first steps.

The analogy is more accurate than she’s ever going to admit.

Her vision swims. Even now, Finn’s voice sounds like it’s coming from the end of a long, dark tunnel. She flexes her fingers and allows a shudder to pass through her body, which is both strange and familiar at the same time.

Then there’s the small matter of the power source she feels coiled, snakelike, in the pit of her chest. Intuitively, she knows what it is. Does not, however, know what to do with it except focus on keeping it contained inside of her.

That hurts.

Her eyes squeeze shut; she tastes salt in her mouth. Either tears or someone else’s blood. It’s been so long that she doesn’t remember how to tell the difference.

“Adynomine,” she slurs under her breath at Kara. “Can’t hold them— The voices. Too many voices. Don’t want to hurt you.”

«Carney got hit by shrapnel,» Lang’s voice emits through his helmet’s speakers as he calls back to Kara, Eileen, and Morales as they approach. «The fuck happened back there?» That much is pointedly leveled at Kara more so than Eileen, given the latter’s state. Behind Lang, the roaring wall of flames — one like many others in the PSW Dead Zone — will possibly burn unimpeded for months to come.

In seeing the standoff between Alia and Finn, where the technopath and his fellow Providence mate are with one another, Lang takes a firm grip of his sidearm and looks back to the Redbird forces that are hesitating to fire because of Alia’s proximity.

Eileen had ordered the Providence team to minimize casualties. Eileen had sent those birds through the trees. Eileen had seemingly killed the Redbird Security forces and the Providence strike team indiscriminately. Lang raises his gun and trains it on Alia, glances back at Eileen who is in no condition to give orders.

Finn hears the gunshot over his shoulder, loud and ringing in his right ear. He sees Alia jerk back and hit the ground in what feels like the same second. «Assuming command,» Lang’s voice blasts over his comms. Alia is unmoving on the ground and Finn feels the armored hand on his shoulder an adamant grasp. With a sharp tug, Lang pulls Finn toward the helicopter, interposing himself between the lucky pilot as Redbird security resumes firing. Bullets ricochet off of Lang’s armor, even as the mechanical whirr-hiss of a machine draws nearer.

As Lang and Finn get into the helicopter, Lang detaches the broken door gun and throws it to the ground, sliding the door shut as bullets plink and plonk off of the light armor. Some punch straight through the door, leaving a fiery daylight hole and sending a buzzing round bouncing around the cabin. «Get us off the ground!» Lang commands, turning his orange-eyed visor toward Kara, then down to Eileen.

Outside the helicopter, now freed of a technopathic shackle to its stabilization systems, begins to spin up and create a cyclonic downdraft of thermal wind that pushes nearby flames back. Through the fire, Shere-Khan comes bounding across the terrain, digging taloned feet into the soil until it comes up beside Alia. The technopath remains motionless on the ground, a massive bleeding wound in the side of her neck, blood soaked dark into the soil beneath her. The repurposed Hunter robot grabs Alia by the shoulder-harness of her AEGIS and begins dragging her away from the helicopter toward horrified medical personnel hunkered down with the surviving security team; all four of them.

The sight of an illegal war drone sends a chill through the medical team, and they hesitate to approach as Alia’s prone form is dragged back. Niki hasn't seen one of these machines since before the war ended, and never one painted like a fucking tiger. It turns a green-eyed stare over to Niki and Warren, then breaks away from Alia and goes pouncing back and away from the concrete barricades the security team waits behind.

Overhead, the Horsemen’s helicopter rises straight up and parallel to the observatory tower before pulling back and away, trying to rise over the updraft of heat from the flames at the ground. Down below, the medical team hurried over to Alia, one medic slapping a firm grasp over the neck injury, watching as Alia’s eyelids flutter and flit, the dark eyes behind them flashing from side to side. Rapid blood loss leads to unconsciousness. At the same time, in the perimeter of the battlefield, Shere Khan’s eyes flicker for a moment, and it resumes its previous programmed activities.

Go a moment, it feels like a victory to the team on the ground. For a moment as that black helicopter rises up into the sky it feels like something has gone right.

But when is that ever the case?

«Prince,» Lang turns his flickering and fiery orange-eyes helm toward her, «I want a full report. Why did Ruskin turn on our people?» Morales, settling into a seat beside Lang looks like he also demands an explanation about that, even if his agreement is a wordless one.

Before Kara can muster an answer, however, there's a high-pitched warning beep that emits from the dashboard of the helicopter. Gyroscopes go haywire, compasses spin, and the automatic controls that help keep the helicopter balanced fail spectacularly. The vehicle begins to spin out of control, causing Lang to slam a hand on the inner wall to keep himself from falling.

On the ground the Sunspot Observatory’s needle-like tower emits a high-pitched shriek of sound, like a discordant vibration from a broken tuning fork. It is followed by a massive change in air pressure as the hole in the sky seems to become something tangible rather than coincidental. Air is sucked upwards in a tornado around the spire. Branches are pulled from the ground, Warren nearly is lost into the air until a security officer grabs him by his mechanical arm and tethers him to the ground.

As the air is sucked upward the thin clouds above the observatory start to churn and move into the same spiral formation as the aurora. Flames and burning pine needles are sucked up into a pyroclasmic tornado around the tower. The Horsemen’s helicopter crashes through the wall of flames and debris and disappears from sight. Niki can feel the breath being sucked from her lungs, medical team members grab on to concrete barricades and vehicles to stay grounded. One has to hold Alia down so her unconscious body doesn't cartwheel into the sky.

Just as fast as that vortex opened, it ends with a cacophonous thunderclap that closes the starry void and disperses the aurora like a candle flame blown out in the night. The blue and green lights vanish in a halo across the horizon, the massive wall of flames is now but a smoking field of burned trees and blackened branches. Those partly sucked into the air come crashing back down with the debris.

Niki’s skin feels like it's on fire. Prickling sensations tingle in her extremities. Then, nothing. No heat. No electromagnetic vibrations.

Her ability is gone.

Some of the medical technicians scramble around, pawing at themselves. One removes his gloves and looks at his hands, ice crusting over his fingers and palms as he screams for help. One of the Redbird Security team flickers, gutters like a candle, and then just winks out of existence with a pop of displaced air.

The aurora is gone.

And everything has changed.

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