Doom Comes To Providence


byrne_icon.gif carver_icon.gif chris_icon.gif dumortier_icon.gif finn_icon.gif hull_icon.gif kara_icon.gif lang2_icon.gif ollie_icon.gif rory_icon.gif roxie_icon.gif bf_rue2_icon.gif

Scene Title Doom Comes to Providence
Synopsis The residents of Providence gather to stave off the advance of the Ohio River Fire and come to face an even greater threat.
Date January 29, 2021

A flock of starlings cut like a knife through a billowing curtain of smoke and flickering embers. It is Hell on Earth.

The settlement of Providence looks like a dirty reflection of a Christmas diorama. Chalky white-gray ash covers the town in a thick carpet. Buildings are cast as dark silhouettes against a westerly glow that has the color of a roaring furnace. A churning wall of black smoke blots out the western horizon and has turned the sky blood red. The sun looks like a giant ruby hanging high overhead, and the land is cast into darkness.

A trio of gun-toting men in body armor emerge from a farmhouse carrying a military crate. They load it into the back of a pickup truck and fold the tailgate up. One makes a circular motion with his hand while the others move to get in the vehicle. Shouts erupt from down the street and a young man in a winter coat and jeans comes running down the dirt road toward the truck.

“Hey!” He shouts. “Hey! That’s my fucking truck!” He pulls off his knit hat, waving it at the armed men. One of them turns, raises his rifle and trains his eyes down the iron sights. The young man stops dead in his tracks, then with the crack of the rifle is just dead even before his body hits the ground.

From the nearby farmhouse, Gregory Sharrow emerges with a stoic look of disappointment on his face. He looks at the young man laying dead in the street, then to the soldiers who have finished loading the vehicle up.

“Go,” Greg says with a look to the hellish glow on the western horizon. “I need to find my sister…”

“…before it’s too late.”

One Hour Later

The Sunken Factory
Providence, the Pine Barrens
New Jersey

January 29th
2:12 pm

“Alright everybody listen up!”

Joshua Lang has to shout to address the crowd gathered out front of the Sunken Factory. Volunteers both from the settlement and from around the region, strangers, but help nonetheless. Lang is exhausted; dark circles around his eyes and ash smudged across his face. He’s spent the last few days organizing attempts at diverting the flow of the fire to no avail.

“Now some of y’all may’ve heard a rumor that Hector and Iago ran off. Now I was gonna tell ya that ain’t true but…” Lang’s eyes drift to a nearby bird loitering on a nearby tree outside of the factory, “but I ain’t gonna lie no more. They’ve gone and abandoned us, so if we’re gonna save this community of ours we’re gonna have t’do it ourselves!”

“Government’s got emergency response tryin’ t’help out! That chopper’s gonna be comin’ back with more water, but we can’t rely on it!” Lang’s voice cracks, his jaw steadies. This was his home, and he wasn’t going to let it slip through his fingers. “We gotta finish clear-cutting the west side of the town! Takin’ trees down, knockin’ down that old barn and movin’ the debris! The fire break we got folks diggin’ won’t do us a hill of shit if there’s kindlin’ on the other side!”

Pacing back and forth in the crowd, Clover Hull looks sick to her stomach. With a paper mask over her face and ash in her hair, she looks like she’s struggling to maintain her composure. With her sleight build and small height, Hull disappears into the crowd at times. She isn’t sure why she hasn’t retreated with the other residents. Maybe it’s some attachment to this place… or maybe it’s just someone in it.

If Kara were in a better state of mind, it'd be her up on that soapbox. Leading harder, from the front line. If there were a moment to do it, a moment she was needed, it's this one.

Right now it's hard to say if it's her heart, her head, or just her body that's here. She's passionate about helping do what's necessary in that she's relentless, even against the smoke. Not a single breath has been deep or clear, but she's hardly rested. It's easier for her to lean into believing it's the fire making each one hurt.

That her head's swimming because of the air.

Her chin lifts when Lang says everyone needs to band together to fight for Providence. Our community, he calls it, and the smoke in her eyes clears as she looks upon him. She finds her voice, one that sounds odd to her thanks to the gas mask strapped to her face, distorting the sound of her call. "We don't have much time, so it's time to work smarter, not harder. If you've got experience, if you've got an ability that can help with the clearing, now's the time to step forward!"

Marlene isn’t a leader, and she honestly doesn’t look like much more than a match waiting to go up, all stick-thin limbs and red hair, her face wrapped in a red scarf that was meant for fashion, not filtration. All the same, Providence has become her home over the last year. The other timeline-displaced members of the community are her family.

The smoke and ash make her blue eyes water. The right one is a sight to behold, blood vessels having burst recently, leaving more red visible than white. Her ability’s no good to anyone in this situation, least of all to herself. But even the postcognitive can see what’s going to happen here if they don’t act quickly.

"Get this on or you're gonna turn into an ashtray." Dumortier's voice is amidst the murmur of others, and his presence becomes clearer when he shoulders his way through, one arm holding a sling bag as he slaps a couple of more substantial masks into personal bubbles.

"Hey—" Hull gets one, by virtue of her own being, no pun intended, paper thin. "If you're not leaving," Rene extends the mask and presses it gently against her sternum, "Don't choke." The eye contact and manner he exudes is on-edge, even if his voice is filtered by his own mask. Blonde hair braided down one shoulder and under the fabric of his coat is tinged an ashen brown despite its shelter; his irises are the clearest part of him, as if untouched and unreal. "You should stick to the back-end…" One gloved hand gestures passively to the hubbub around the factory, and the people preparing to act as support.

For just a spell, Dumortier tugs down his mask, freshly sharpening features nonetheless smudged with coal. "You cannot help at the front line. So don't even try."

If he had the choice, perhaps he wouldn't either.

But he doesn't really— have a choice, does he? Not when trees need moved and barns need razed.

The burning sky, the heat on his skin, the smoke hanging heavy, the ashes dusting down — it brings Dr. Harrison Carver back to old, old memories. It's not Vietnam — there's no cloying humidity, no notes of the ever-present smell of rotting vegetation or napalm beneath the smells of burning — but it calls those memories back all the same. There have been other fires, other infernos, of course, but it always seems to be 'Nam that's the strongest.

Carver's wearing a mask and goggles that are probably both older than a number of people here; his coat and gloves are newer artifacts, but still old. One thing he's damn sure got with him today is his medkit, though, in a sturdy backpack — along with a few bottles of water and a rather smaller, unlabeled bottle of pick-me-ups that the government is just fine without knowing about.

That bottle is a little lighter today; there hasn't been much time for rest. Carver's been pushing hard these past few, and he can feel it in every muscle, can feel it in the tightness in his chest that may or may not just be the smoke and the heat.

Maybe today's the day the lump of gristle that passes for his heart finally decides it hates him enough to tell him to fuck off and die. If it is, that's fine. Everyone dies sooner or later, and if he's given the choice Carver would prefer to go down fighting to save someone, something.

Carver looks to Kara and offers a nod. She has an idea of his abilities, and knows something of his experience; he'll do what he can to help, wherever he might be needed.

A lot of those who showed up as volunteers didn’t come with proper equipment or attire, but Rory Karrington did. Dressed in the same thick clothes he would use in construction and a mask and goggles to filter out the smoke and protect his eyes, he looks like someone who’s definitely ready to work. The tool he carries for that rests against his shoulder is unlike anything that anyone else in the area has, though— almost like a chisel in shape, but it’s made of crystal? Or perhaps glass. Or some kind of quartz maybe. Either way, it definitely attracts some attention as he holds it against his shoulder like it weights nothing and waits for the word on where they want him to start working.

He’s already made clear what he can do and how he does it, at least to the man in charge. Moving earth, reshaping earth, solidifying earth, liquifying earth. A terrakinetic. He hadn’t shared any of this in the short time he’d stayed in Providence when him and Nathalie had been hiding out two years ago, but times were different. They had allowed Nathalie a place to lay low. She would have wanted to help.

Which was why he was here.

Because she would have been.

“More hands make less work.” Chris Ayer’s voice still has a familiar ring to it despite a raw and hoarse cut to it. Rumor had it that he's been in the area for days, one of the earliest volunteers working the front lines in the fight to stay ahead of the fire — he may spend more time in the big city, but this was still his home. He hasn't been seen properly in the settlement until today. But proof of his labors is with him in spades.

Soot and grime make his face nearly unrecognizable except where goggles and masks have kept his eyes, nose and mouth less dirty. The sturdy jacket and jeans he's wearing show a decade’s worth of age already, and might never be properly clean again. He smells of sweat and smoke — not the homely and welcoming woodsmoke of a comfortable fire but the acrid stench of an all-consuming blaze.

His addition to Kara’s comment comes from within the crowd, just over the munitions chaplain’s shoulder. He stands, arms crossed over his chest, goggles pushed up onto his forehead in spite of the sting in the air that leaves his eyes red and watery. Exhaustion slackens his face but his eyes are sharp as they skirt over the familiar and unfamiliar.

There is a growl and a sneeze nearby, followed by a string of soft curses. Roxie is only half listening to Lang and the others, too busy trying to get the pair of small dogs near her to stop fidgeting. Currently, she was trying to get a corgi to let her put booties on, handed to her by some of those canine rescuers being tasked, along with the masks made specifically for dogs that work in these conditions.

“Bonnie,” Roxies hisses through her mask at the corgi, snagging her paw again, “Will you fucking sit still these will protect your fucking feet.” The dog’s large ears flip back in her irritation, but she finally sits still, forlornly looking up at whoever is nearby as her dignity was stripped from her. Her own muzzle was already covered in a mask.

I don’t like it! Which others only hear as a frustrated growl from the redder of two pups, Goober, as he tries to dislodge the mask from around his snout, with both paws almost impossible with his own booties on.

Stop that.” snaps Roxie in a half whisper, the lash of her ability finally gets him to stop with a huff. Laying on the ground, he rests his head on his paws and pouts. Roxie watches him for a second before going back to Bonnie’s booties. “We’re going to help…”

Help!?! Both heads turn to her, ears forward. She can even feel that tremor of excitement run through them.

“Fuck, did I stutter? Yes help…” Roxie had put off coming out to Providence to retrieve the rest of her belongings from the broken down shack, until now. Little did she know, she’d find a crisis. Even though no one there really knew her very well, she felt like she owed them. Why? She didn’t fucking know.

Agent Byrne, no longer Special Agent Byrne, weaves his way toward the front of the crowd. His clothing is practically untouched by the pervasive smoke and ash, having only just arrived. His military style backpack of emergency supplies is slung over one shoulder. Velcro patches stand out against the black, one a red medic’s cross, one a bright white SESA. His medical kit, and his medical training, aren’t as comprehensive as an EMT, but there aren’t many of those in this red and gray hellscape.

He’s packed a lot of water, most in a bladder fitted into his backpack, but also a couple plastic bottles. Some of it is for drinking of course, but it’s also got great thermal conductivity. He has more supplies in the SUV he drove here in, but these are the supplies he doesn’t want out of arm’s reach.

His gas mask is military-issue, and thankfully the voice amplifier functions well enough to make himself heard in the busy environment. He’s not part of the command structure of this operation, but his ability might be helpful here. With the not-insignificant chance that there will be injuries, burns, and heat stress to deal with, it’s good to not sound like he’s talking to someone from behind a closed door.

When Lang pauses, Byrne steps forward, clicking his voice amplifier on. “I’m Agent Zachariah Byrne with SESA. Just got in but let me know where you need me. I’m a Kinetic, thermal conduction, and I’m trained in emergency medicine. You need anything made less hot you let me know. That also applies to heat stroke.” He pauses, before adding, “Also handy with a shovel.” He sure as shit isn’t planning to staff a water table today.

Lang stands backlit by the headlights of his pickup truck, staring at Byrne with a crease in his brows so deep it looks like his head’s about to split in two. Right hand curling into a fist, Lang is silent and a moment of visible tension comes over the Providence loyalists gathered beside him, many of them visibly armed in spite of the crisis situation.

Eventually, Lang works his jaw from side to side and unflexes his hand. He exhales sharply through his nose, the tension drains out of his posture. He’s learned. He’s changed. “We can use all’a the help we can get Mr. Agent,” Lang says with a flick of his tongue across his teeth. “It’s gonna get real hot out by where we’re diggin’ the trench. You wanna keep people from passin’ out that’d be aces in my book.”

“Prince, Ayers,” Lang says with a drawl, “make sure this fella gets where he needs t’be. The rest’a you all need t’break into three groups.” Lang holds up three fingers as he says this. “Group one’s gonna take care of the trees what need clearcutting ‘fore the fire gets here. You all go rally up by Rene.” He points toward the thin blonde.

“Group two’s gonna help take down the barn and get the wood hauled as far as fuck away from the fire as we can get it.” Lang explains, lowering another finger. “You all can pig-pile into the back of my truck. We’ll drive out to the barn and get this goin’. We got a couple more trucks out there!”

Then Lang closes his last finger into a fist. “Rest of you? You’re with Rory, gonna dig that fire break as much as we can!” Lang points Rory out in the crowd so others who aren’t locals know who to look for. “The rest of this town’s fuckin’ leadership may’ve high-tailed it outta’ here, but this is my home. I ain’t gonna let it go unless I get fuckin’ dragged out! Now figure out where y’all belong and lets get goin!”

As the crowd starts to churn on Lang’s order, Hull turns to look up at Dumortier. “You are not seriously going t’go back out there are you? It’s suicide. There’s no saving this place,” she says, reaching up to curl a hand at Dumortier’s sleeve. “Let’s just go. Now. Please.”

Lang's isn't the only head that turns when Byrne offers up his government affiliation as a means of introduction. Kara doesn't unfix her stare even when Lang makes the call to trust him, still studying the Agent for what he's worth. Her eyes narrow behind the gas mask she's wearing, and after orders are given, she strays from the line with Chris to make introductions.

Sort of.

"We head out with … Rory." It's a face not as familiar to her, but Kara turns the direction of the expat to nod his way. Then she just as promptly looks back to Byrne. "Are there any more of yours coming, or is it just you?" she asks tersely.

To any eyes turned toward Chris, they'll note a familiar twist of his mouth. He's about to give his opinion of and to Byrne, regardless of Lang’s grudging acceptance. “There are two kinds of assholes in this world,” he explains to anyone listening. Which probably isn't anyone, but that's never stopped him before. “Number one, you have the assholes who show up late to an emergency and only get in the way. And number B.”

Eyes settle on Byrne as he falls in with Kara. To shake hands. “Is the asshole who shows up late to an emergency dressed like he's compensating for something.” Not that he extends a hand in friendship or even reluctant greeting. He's staring at the government man with the same flavor of distrust as most of the local folk have shared.

Finally finished with equipping her companions, Roxie goes up on her tip-toes to see what Lang is saying. She looks at each person mentioned, but… Rory… That is a familiar name. Not to mention digging is pretty much a job that her and her pups were made for.

So it’s a no brainer really.

Still it wasn’t totally up to her. Shifting the gear on her back, Roxie looks at the dogs at her feet, they look at her expectantly. Whatever she says to them, the pair of canines start to bark with excitement, the sound muffled by their muzzles. There is a short nod, before she winds her way through the group to get closer to Rory.

Chris’ comment reaches her ears about then and Roxie has to stifle a bark of laughter behind her already grimey hands.

Kara breaks in the severity of her look toward Byrne to regard Chris out of the corner of her eye instead. Her mouth can't be seen, but the slight narrowing of her eyes lends to the frown she's likely wearing. She doesn't rebuke him verbally, though, turning back to Byrne for his response. Was he the only boots on the ground they could expect from SESA?

Byrne follows Kara’s gesture toward the leader of the trench crew. He turns back, about to answer her question when Chris volunteers his opinion. He pauses, but decides he’s not on firm enough ground to tell the kid off, and returns his attention to Kara.

“Just me,” he says. “Though that could change. The agency thought with my ability and history I’d be able to lend assistance. I came straight away with as much water and emergency supplies as I could muster.” He gestures back at the unmarked SUV he arrived in, only now beginning to collect ash on the windshield like snow.

“I understand there’s a lot of tension here pre-dating my tenure with the agency.” Tension carries a tone that conveys his understanding that it’s a lot more complicated than that. He clicks off his voice module, leaving his voice as muffled by his mask as Kara’s is. “A co-worker, Miller, recommended I reach out to one Clara Kent, any chance you can help me with that?” This recommendation clearly isn’t a formal directive from his superiors.

A man carrying a heavy backpack of supplies over to Byrne catches what he’s saying and barks out a laugh, waving one hand at Kara. “You lookin’ for Clara Kent?” He smiles toothily, adjusting his backpack. “You agent types sure got some good investigative skills. That is Clara Kent.” He keeps on walking over to Lang’s truck, amusement in his eyes.

Portions of people divvy up into groups as instructed, which doesn't leave much spare time for addressing the merits of fighting the fire. The hand at his sleeve is not an unwelcome weight— not physically. Rene replaces his mask with a stifled sound, without a pinpointed meaning thanks to the covering. He takes tempered glasses from their perch on his pocket, flicking them on at the same time he eases his arm away from Hull's grip.

"'S not about here." Dumortier's brows meet, determined, not angry. Not yet, in any case. She isn't arguing, but he's about to. "A lot of these people are my people. If push comes to shove I'll leave." Though he's pulled his arm back, he hasn't pulled away.

"Trust me, I'd rather pick my boots up and get out of the way of this— but trying is the fucking least I can do." And the least she can do is hang back here and help. They've accepted her, haven't they? Turning his head to scan the collection of people who are coming to follow his lead, Dumortier lets his tension and dread show for a moment before turning back and cutting it off with a forced smile through plastic and rubber. "Axes have nothing on me, Clover." He purposefully navigates her chosen name with a soothing pause afterward, a gentle tip of his head to the support system set up some distance back. Providence, and the last pieces of the Remnant. "You'll be safe with them."

Hull looks up at Dumortier, eyes searching from side to side and brows knit together. She hates what he’s saying, hates that she believes he’s right. Like a striking viper she’s up on her toes, hands to either side of Dumortier’s as she dives in for a kiss. It lingers just a moment longer than is necessary, and as Hull pulls away she shakes her head in wordless warning. Don’t you dare die out there.

In the distance, a low thrum can be heard. Looking to the clearer portion of the sky not blotted out by soot, ash, and smoke, a bright yellow helicopter can be seen. From this far away, it looks like a toy or drone in size.

Many of the Providence residents will recognize it as the Black Hawk helicopter Finn Shepherd affectionately calls the Yellowjacket — or at least one like it. While the former Providence man usually drives to the Barrens on his visits these days, the brightly colored chopper has made a couple of visits when he’s stopped en route to the Ohio River Fire during his work in these past several weeks.

Others may simply see it as a sign of help and hope, whether they know it or the man within personally.

Carver's eyes go to Byrne with the rest of them… but unlike many of the others, they don't linger there, instead looking over the people of Providence — Lang, in specific. He watches for a moment as Lang wrestles with his sudden tension, and wonders again just what skeletons lie buried here in the Sunken Factory.

He relaxes a bit once Lang makes his call on the SESA agent; it makes sense. It also means that the trench team's going to have someone with a degree of medical training on hand… which means that Carver's going to be needed on one of the other teams. Of the two remaining teams, the barn team seems like the place he could do the most good; once he's settled that, he doesn't hesitate, but starts towards Lang's pickup.

When Kara says she’s heading out to dig the trench, Marlene’s heart sinks. She’d been standing back, so as not to be confused for anyone trying to show authority here, but now she can’t help herself. Now she steps forward, eyes watering now for more than just the smoke. Are you sure? she wants to ask, but she knows Kara Prince. Kara is certain, and they need her. They need her grit and her bravery. It doesn’t matter that Marlene needs Kara, too.

Prying eyes be damned, Marlene throws her arms around Kara in a tight hug, her own slight body jolting just once from a sob of fear that threatens to break through her exterior. The February Marlene Lancaster that came to this world with Kara Prince isn’t the hardened person that the Rue Lancaster of this world is. She doesn’t have it in her to stare down a harrowing situation without flinching.

Marlene is terrified, but she doesn’t cling to Kara forever. With her hands still on her shoulders when she leans back, she nods her head quickly, like she’s trying to convince herself that she’s okay with this. The danger. Splitting up. “I’ll stick with Doctor Carver,” is both a declaration of her commitment to help as well as an assurance to Kara that she’ll be with someone who’ll look out for her in return.

As his group starts to form, Rory pulls his mask down enough to speak, not even bothering to mask his accent that shows he’s a refugee from the United Kingdom anymore, “Once we reach the area I will sense the immediate area and choose the best locations for you to dig. I’ll take the roughest areas. Everyone should stay a decent distance back from me in case of a sinkhole caused by the sudden shifting of the earth. Rest when you need to, stay hydrated, but wear your masks when you’re not drinking or needing to ask questions clearly.”

He’s spent years working in construction, even if he’s usually not a manager— he knows that giving instructions before work starts is always the key, so he wants to make sure they know what he’s going to do. And then adds one last warning, “And keep an eye on your surroundings. If you spot fire, send word down the line.”

Almost no one here he actually knows, but he does recognize Roxie, who gets a small thin smile, a hint of a nod before he pulls the mask back down before he starts coughing. The smoke doesn’t bother him quite as much as others, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need the masks.

Lang’s eyes follow the track of the Yellowjacket through the air, tension evident in his expression, jaw tight. Others begin dividing up to assist, splitting into the pressing groups that Lang has denoted. His thoughts wander to his daughter, sent away with Magnes to avoid the worst of the fire, to his stubborn partner still in the town waiting for him to return home safe to her.

“Get your asses in gear!” Lang shouts, waving people up into his truck. “Zheung and Moser are gonna take the last truckload of kids out!” He waves a few people off to the side. “Hey, go find Rainier, make sure he’s in that truck with those kids.” The young man he’s tasked with that gives Lang a sharp nod and breaks off into a run.

It’s then that a barn owl lands on the truck’s tailgate, looking up to Lang with wide eyes. “Go on, get.” Lang says under his breath, making a shooing motion to the bird. “Make sure Moser doesn’t get lost.” There’s a deep tension in Lang’s expression when he tells the bird to go. “I’ll take care of the homestead.” He offers with a wink.

The barn owl stays a moment more and then alights into the crimson, smoke-filled sky. For those who know what the bird’s flight means, it is an ominous portent.

Signs of change.

Not Long Later

Beyond the Fire Break
Providence Outskirts

On the furthest outskirts, a mile from the heart of Providence and a half mile from the fire break digging crew, Dumortier and Chris arrive by horseback with their supply packs and the tools necessary to complete the cut down of the trees. But out here, closer to the fire, the air is dry and shockingly hot. The wind is strong, blowing in Providence’s direction and carrying with it glowing embers amid billowing clouds of smoke.

Through their respirator masks, Chris and Dumortier can see someone else has beaten them to the treeline. A team that must have been working in shifts, roughly ten or so with chainsaws cutting through the trees. But one—a skinny young woman with willowy limbs—is taking down trees all on her own.


Camilla Ball raises two hands, tearing a tree up from the ground root and stem. Some of the laborers around back away as the tree twists recklessly through the air and then crashes to the ground not far from where Chris and Dumortier arrive on Jester.

Camilla turns, sweat clinging to her brow, construction goggles and a cheap paper mask covering her mouth. Her shoulders heave with deep breaths. The stubborn girl refused to give up her home.

Jester sidles on quick steps as the tree crashes down, drawn by rein and his own instinct. He snorts, ears laid back at the nearness of the felled tree and the closeness of the fire. His rider isn’t too happy either. “Hey!” Chris’ voice is practically a bark, and he twists in the saddle to get a look at the folk already working the line. “Don’t just throw that shit anywhere. Could fucking put someone’s eye out and we need all of the eyes we got!”

The paint stamps a tight circle, guided by knees and reins, until he’s stopped with his back to the wind. It offers some respite from the heat and smoke, but Jester still tosses his head and scrapes at the ground to show his unease.

“I’ll start unloading here,” Chris says as he turns in the saddle to look at Dumortier, “You do your thing with checking the lines. I’ll follow with tools and water.” He holds out an arm to help Dumortier down. He kicks a leg over the saddle and follows, once the other man is cleared. He claps a hand against the horse’s shoulder, then works his way down to unload packs and supplies.

"My kingdom for an air manipulator." Only Chris can hear Dumortier's distaste as they get closer to the arid, smoky front lines. They haven't even come close to dismounting when the display ahead makes Chris bark out. Rene has nothing to say over the din— he'll save it.

Do his thing. Chris gets obscured visibility of a smile, sharptoothed and energetic; he's ready. Sliding off the horse and giving Ayers a nod, Rene gathers what gear he's brought and heads for Camilla, one hand up to hail her attention proper.

"Millie, work smarter, not harder!" It's Dumortier's own way of telling her to stand down, at least for a moment. Breathe, girl. Insofar as one can here. He can already feel his skin dampening, especially so under the edges of his mask and goggles as he pries the last spare mask from his own gear. It was his backup, but— "Take this, for God's sake."

"There's a plain just north of here that needs uprooted faster. Should flood over once it's cleared." The least they can do is use the wetlands and floodplain to their advantage.

Camilla, wide-eyed, ducks her head down in apology and takes the mask offered by Dumortier and straps it on to her head in replacement of the construction goggles and paper mask she was wearing. She nods in approval and thanks, then turns her focus over to the felled tree, dragging it across the ground with her mind, snapping the tree in half, and then loading it into the back of an awaiting truck.

In the near distance, the horizon is choked black with ash and at once bright with flames. The fire is approaching, slowly burning through the spotty wetlands, making an incendiary path through the forest. Two workers spotting Chris and Dumortier’s arrival break away from the teams they were with and come to greet them.

“Hey, we’re running into a serious time shortage here!” One of them shouts to be heard over the sound of chainsaws. “That fire’s almost on top of us! We got maybe another hour, tops, before we gotta get the fuck out of here and fast. Are you two all we got to spare from back in town?”

Normally, the question would queue up a litany of smart ass replies. After all, it's an easy shot to question the worker’s abilities if they're worried about the lack of warm bodies. But this time Chris keeps his mouth shut about it, which possibly says more about the worsening conditions than what they can actually know.

One of the bags he's already removed from the saddle is opened, and a couple of canteens of water are taken out. “Ration it with your crew,” he gruffs at the pair after tossing the containers one at a time to them. The bag is then slung over a shoulder to carry with him. “Then get back to work.”

Digging into a pack behind the saddle, he drags out clips trailed by lengths rope. Anyone who's worked on a farm knows there's chain fused to those lengths of rope and at the ends of the chain are hooks to clip to the chain, all together meant for hauling.

Chris clips the rope end to rings set into the straps that run across Jester’s chest and shoulders, so he can lead the horse down the line, clear out the smaller pieces so Camilla can focus on the large ones.

Making sure that Camilla has caught up with her frenzy, Dumortier turns to address the linemen shouting over the din.

"For now!" It's less of an explanation than he'd like, but time is valuable. "Once they finish with that tinderbox of a barn they should be able to split." Still, Rene sounds unsure. A terrible time for that. "Get back to it!" Dumortier gives one more look to Chris as he sets the horse to work.

"Alright," One hand pats Camilla's arm as Dumortier strafes past her, a signal to follow once she's put down the tree trunks. "Stick with me, love. I'll rot out the scrub and taproots and we can fell the trees together. Should make it way easier between the two of us."

Camilla looks down at Dumortier’s hand, then back up and over to the trees. The other workers have split off and turned back to the treeline. Smoke rolls in as a billowing curtain, the wind picks up and burning embers drift on the air.

They were running out of time.

*Meanwhile, a Half Mile Away**

The Firebreak

“Go! Fucking move it! I Move it!

Disaster has struck.

A blood-curdling scream fills the air down in the two foot deep depression of the fire break. Shouts and yelling reverberates over the idling sound of a truck’s engine. Dozens of workers have set down their shovels, picks, and other digging tools. A nearby tractor has stopped and the operator is running over as fast as he can.

Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” A man screams, his leg pinned beneath the back wheel of a pickup truck. The vehicle drove too close to the soft shoulder edge of the firebreak, slid down the embankment and knocked one of the workers over, pinning his leg beneath the wall of the tire and judging from the angle it is bent at, snapped his leg like a twig as well.

This is the chaotic scene that herald the arrivals of a new shift of volunteers walking up the road from Providence. Rory Karrington and Ollie Anderson are already on scene of the accident when Kara, Agent Byrne, and Roxie come up the trail with Roxie’s dogs following behind. They could hear the screams on approach.

“Fucking come on! Fuck!” The man pinned under the truck howls. Another worker who had been helping dig the trench is kneeling by the pinned man’s side, eyes wide and expression drained of color.

“Hey hey, hey, you gotta stay calm. We’re gonna get you out.” David Cardinal isn’t known by his surname around here, he’s just Dave. A handyman good with machines who is able to tune up a truck as easily as he can fix a broken lawn mower. Right now though, he’s in territory he’s less suited for.

Byrne sets down a shovel and an unopened office water cooler jug and rushes to the edge of the trench. He clicks on his voice amplifier and waves to the approaching tractor driver. “Get that tractor over here! Chain this up and move it!” He gestures from the tractor to the pickup truck in case what he’s saying isn’t perfectly obvious. Even if there’s a better solution by the time the tractor gets here there’s no time to waste.

He hops into the trench and kneels beside the pinned worker, looking at the leg and how it’s pinned. If there’s any chance they can collectively lift the truck enough to pull the man out they can worry about removing the truck later. If there are handholds, there might be enough people here to deadlift it at least a few inches.

“Hold tight,” he says, “We’ll get you out.” He hopes his confidence settles the man at least until the shock sets in. In the meanwhile, he calls to Dave. “Find some straight branches and get some belts so we can splint this when he’s out. Break a shovel in half if you need to, I brought more.”

Jumping down into the trench as he pulls off his thick gloves, Rory kneels down to touch the disturbed earth— “I’ll get the truck off him,” he says through the filters of the mask, but it doesn’t really come out much over the sound of the panicked man, and he can’t really blame him. He was injured, he was in pain, and there was a bloody truck pinning him down. As his hand touches the earth, though, the soft soil changes, shifts, hardens into a pillar of dirt and debris that pushes up against the truck, taking the weight off the man and lifting it up into the air.

His other hand braces against the wall of the tunnel, reinforcing it with his ability, his face contorting under the mask. He was used to using his ability a lot for industrial use, he had been working with his ability for years, for hours and hours every day, but this was still a different kind of work than he was used to.

It was tiring. But he also knew it could be saving lives.

The short drive over in Byrne's vehicle had been an unexpected reprieve. Kara had kept one of the dogs in her lap in the front in the crammed SUV filled with supplies, and she'd found herself less tense on the ride over for it. She'd adjusted the little mask over the the dog's snout, buried her fingers in its fur. She felt the stress shift in her, becoming slightly easier to bear.

What a very good dog Bonnie was.

Then they were back in hell the moments the door opened, one worsening. She grabs multiple shovels from the back of the car, heading up the trail quickly after. When they come up on the scene, a softly breathed swear doesn't even leave Kara's mask, her shoulders sagging.

They didn't have time for this. Her eyes lift to the colors changing in the sky, and she stabs each shovel she's brought with her into the ground one by one while those down in the ditch do their part to help free the man pinned. Standing on the edge at the top, she waves her freed hands. "Help get him up to me here," Kara urges once that critical moment of opportunity arises.

"Byrne, I need your car," she adds with a tense glance down to him.

He clicks off his voice module, leaving his voice as muffled by his mask as Kara’s is. “A co-worker, Miller, recommended I reach out to one Clara Kent, any chance you can help me with that?” This recommendation clearly isn’t a formal directive from his superiors.

At this close a distance, it's easier to see the blinks the woman across from him performs while she processes, looking away and back. She takes a step forward to place her hand on his shoulder. "If you need to get my attention out here, call me Kara." This close, even with her face obscured, there's something about the mixture of the name and the face together— Kara Prince— that sits odd in his memory.

But there's no time to properly address that now.

"We can't treat him here. If you splint him, I'll run him back to the factory." It'd be a stroke of luck Carver might still be there with how everyone was scattering, but those hanging back were better suited to deal with an injury than those busting ass at the firebreak. Maybe Johannes Moser or Reena Zheung would still be there, loading up.

It's a lot of maybes, but it's better than him being here.

Had it been any other day, Ollie's eyes might have narrowed at the sight of the people coming their way because strangers. As it is, he's a little too busy shouldering the truck. The heat coming off the nearby fire caused him to strip his button down shirt long ago and right now, that shirt is being used as a tourniquet on one of the man's legs. As the weight of the vehicle is eased off his shoulders, the stout man kneels next to the injured man for only a moment. "You gonna be jus' fine," the simple reassurance, which is probably a lie, are the only words the other man receives before Ollie is up and off again.

There's enough nurses around and with the fire getting closer, he's not sure that everyone should be crowded around the accident. Scooping up a dirty messenger bag, he hefts it over his shoulder and heads to the soft wall. He leans back against it, eyes closed. He almost seems to be taking a break after the excitement, except for the slight movement in the mud around him. After a span of a few minutes, he pulls his (now bald) head away. The soft embankment he was leaning against is as reinforced as it can be with a net of tangled brown dreadlocks.

The pack on Roxie’s back looks so bulky on her smaller frame, but she moves along without any complaints. In fact, the young woman who normally has no problem expressing herself has been strangely subdued.

Both dogs seem super interested in everything, darting in and out of the bushes around them, snacking on this or that, but they stay close on the heels of the small woman.

The shouts quickly pull the attention of all three, Bonnie giving a whining woof of worry.

It’s a quick sprint to the edge of the trench, where Roxie is shocked at what’s happening and quickly drops down into the ditch, ordering the dogs to keep back. Last thing she needed was for one of them to get crushed. Hooking arms under the injured man, Roxies uses her weight to pull. She might not be able to get him up the bank without other’s help, but she’s got enough weight between her and the pack to pull him free.

When she starts pulling, Goober hops forward - ignoring the order >:| - and starts trying to help… trying to snag a coattail and completely forgetting his masks. Bonnie follows his act of defiance and tries to join him. They are no help for Roxie like this… and she can feel their frustration.

“Fucking mutts! Get out of the fucking way!” Roxie says through gritted teeth at the bark in encouragement.

Keep going! You’re strong!
Keep going! Keep going! You’re strong!

The man pinned under the truck screams when it comes off of him and Dave hooks one arm around him and with Roxie’s help drags him a short distance away from the vehicle and up a few feet to Kara on the edge of the trench.

The broken leg is a mess, shin split like a V with blood soaked through his pant leg. “Jesus Christ,” Dave says with a shake of his head, wide blue eyes focused over at Roxie… then past her to Agent Byrne, and down to the SESA patch on his jacket, then a quick flick back up to far less steady eye contact.

Dave doesn’t react beyond that momentary look of panic, and quickly reorients his attention to the injured man. “What do we need? What do I do? I’ve never—splinted?” He asks in a huff, at first reaching to take his own jacket off, then stopping and starting and searching his pockets for something. He doesn’t look like he knows the first thing about first aid.

With the truck lifted by Rory’s terrakinesis, the driver hops back in and pulls it away from the ditch, bringing it to a stop a few feet away from the ditch edge. He hops back out. “The fuck’re we doing with Cliff!?” He shouts, looking down at the wounded man’s broken leg. “His leg’s fucked!

Cliff, as it turns out the injured man is called, contributes only agonized cries as he clutches his shattered leg.

Ah, good, Byrne thinks, Anarchy. He tosses his keys to Kara and pulls himself up out of the ditch. Reviewing the bloody wound, Byrne takes a moment to tighten the improvised shirt tourniquet. He works without flinching at Cliff’s screams, who’s definitely not going to like this part. Byrne pulls the lower leg down enough to get the broken appendage in a more or less straight line.

Byrne stands and grabs a shovel from the pair Kara had discarded, and places it against an uprooted stone, snapping the head off with a powerful kick before repeating the process at the middle of the wooden handle. He hurries back to Cliff and lines the two sticks on either side of the mangled leg. He whips off his belt, and sinches it around the two poles to start the splint just below the knee. Dave is of no help, but thankfully another worker pulls his own belt free and hands it off. This one is tied around the ankle.

This done, Byrne whips off his bag, setting it on the ground. He pulls off a smaller bag connected to the front with the red cross patch. In a moment he has procured a generous palmful of ibuprofen and a water bottle.

Kara comes to her feet while that's taken care of, looking across the line. The disruption really did threaten to make things chaotic from here.

She needs to be heard, so she pulls at the straps of her mask, yanks it off her head, bites the glove she's wearing off to shove her fingers into her mouth, whistling hard and sharp across the din to catch the attention of all these startled geese.

"We're getting Cliff out. The rest of you, heed Rory and Ollie. They're in charge now. If you start to feel sick from the heat, you come find our new medic here." She gestures a hand over Byrne while he works. See, all? He knows what he's doing. And more importantly: "He can help sap some of the heat from you. All right?"

"Keep going. Everyone's counting on us!"

Kara begins the process of replacing her gloves and mask, hating the feeling of the sweat and rubber on her skin. Hating how this feels familiar. Hating how it's winter, and there's a fucking fire coming straight at them. The world likes to play sick jokes on them, though. The war was one. This will prove to be another, if they don't do enough to deter it.

Sweeping her hair back, she looks down to Byrne and Roxie, crouching to pat Bonnie on the back as much as get ready to help hoist. "Dave and I can haul him to the car," she volunteers them both through the mask. "I'll leave the water behind, be back in ten to fifteen."

"If that SESA patch comes off, you might want to shove it somewhere," Kara suggests in an aside to Byrne. If not, it's not the end of the world, but maybe everyone will stop giving him the evil eye on first approach. She glances to Dave in both reassurance and to make sure she has his attention. "Come on, let's get moving."

Roxie has long scrambled away as people move into action, getting out from underfoot. SHe gives a nod to Kara as Bonnie joins her and Goober. The two dogs decide to try and dig at the freshly turned dirt, snorting and pushing their masked noses through the dirt. Goober even flops over to roll around in the damp soil getting himself pretty dirty.

The young woman doesn’t say a word as orders are given, just waits impatiently for people to get a move on it. Turning her attention to the direction of the fire, she presses her lips together behind her mask.

The Yellowjacket’s approach can be heard getting louder and louder, until the whirr of blades can be felt as if it’s reverberating in the chest as the yellow helicopter hovers above. This close, they can see the Jacket has been equipped not with the typical “Bambi” water bucket, but instead state-of-the-art water and foam cannons along the front of the aircraft. With just one chopper at this point, though, it’s probably just enough to dampen the closest hot spots before he needs to refill it at headquarters.

Need a lift?” Finn Shepherd’s familiar voice can be heard through the helicopter’s loudspeaker, and even amplified to the point he sounds a bit like Charlie Brown’s teacher, those who know him can still hear the smirk he’s no doubt wearing at the pun. He’s a dad, he’s got dad jokes.

I can set down and get him back to the Factory. Got some water and first-aid equipment in here too,” his booming voice adds.

When other people look his way at the masked woman’s behest, Ollie shifts uncomfortably then growls toward the nearest onlooker. He is not a leader. Turning his back on his fellow man, he plods through the trench. The hand not occupied with shoveling food from the messenger bag to his face twitches at his side. Then thick, black claws sprout from the tips of his fingers and slowly grow to a length of four inches.

He is strong and so are they. He uses them like small spades to cut into the clay and the hard packed soil, throwing it above the dirt ridge into more loose piles.

Someone might want to attend to those before another accident happens.

Shielding their eyes from the downdraft and squinting against the windswept dirt, the other firebreak workers watch the helicopter with a mixture of relief and worry.

This was only going to get harder.

Meanwhile, a Half Mile Away

A Ruined Farm

“The fuck is going on in here. I told them to get started!”

Slamming the door to his truck, Lang angrily steps out of the driver’s side and begins a hasty approach of a crooked barn adjacent to a tumble-down ruin of a farmhouse. “For God’s sake if you ain’t dead…” he mutters as he starts chewing up the ground in long-legged strides toward the wide open barn doors.

In the passenger seat of Lang’s truck, Carver hasn’t quite gotten out yet. The door is cracked open, mask over his nose and mouth, but something about the silence in the air sets wrong with him. There’s two dirt bikes parked nearby from the young men who’d come here ahead of Lang, they were supposed to have already knocked down the barn so the rest of the work was just loading the debris in the truck and doing runs.

Marlene was relegated to riding in the back of the truck with the spare tarps, gloves, and jugs of water. The air stings her eyes, smoke in the air thick enough she can smell it even through her mask. As she twists to regard Lang’s approach to the barn, she catches sight of something in the driver’s side view mirror, but it’s nothing she’s concerned with.

“Where the fuck are they!?” Lang shouts from inside the barn. “Are you assholes here!? I swear to Christ if you’re drunk…”

Something's wrong. Two dirtbikes; where the hell were the riders? Why hadn't they called out? Why the hell had they left the bikes in the middle of what's about to be a goddamn inferno? If they were gonna leave, they'd have fled earlier; anyone who'd stayed this long had strong reasons.

Fifth stratagem: loot a burning house. An old lesson, but one Carver's never forgotten. There's fuckery afoot; he can smell it, mask or no.

Assume hostiles until proven otherwise; limited visibility and hostile environment would've served to mask our approach somewhat, even driving Lang's old bastard of a truck. They would've had limited time to assume ambush positions. Right; that they haven't shot yet means either they aren't there, or that they aren't ready to engage. What are the most advantageous positions they could ambush us from that are within easy reach of the barn? He takes a moment to slide down in his seat, scanning the surroundings… but he doesn't have much time. Ambush predators are, by the very nature of their chosen style of hunt, skittish beasts; if they think someone's on to them, that could force them into action. Better to seize half of an advantage than wait and have to face an opponent forewarned.

He makes the best use of that moment he can, scanning the surroundings, surreptitiously checking his gun and his knife… then it's showtime. Carefully, he cracks the door and opens up, sliding out and setting boots on the ground.

None of this sits well with Marlene either. She doesn’t have the instincts of her counterpart from this timeline, but even she can smell a trap over the acrid, choking stink of smoke.

The redhead vaults over the side of the truck bed. Rather than land with all the grace she knows she’s capable of, Marlene drops to the ground on her knees as though she were a dead weight that her ankles had been incapable of supporting. She groans and lifts her head, staring off at some indeterminate point ahead of her while she appears to gather her wits again.

“I’m fine,” she insists. “If you couldn’t stay with Kara,” Marlene further reasons, “then we need to find them.” One slender arm reaches up, her palm slapping against the truck just above the wheel well. “Come on! Get going!” It serves as a good enough point of leverage to help her get back to her feet. Without the initial shock of that impact, she seems to have no trouble remaining upright.

“I’m going after Lang!” Marlene calls over to Carver from the driver’s side. He knows better what to look for than she does, but she can take orders just fine. As much as she’d rather not, she also takes out the pistol she carries with her. Kara’s taught her to be far more comfortable with it over the last year than she was before. She’s supposed to be holding clipboards, licking the tip of her pen for show and making checks in boxes while she watches men in suits thirty years her senior sweat like socially awkward boys on prom night, knowing their continued livelihoods are dictated by the scratch of her orange 0.38mm pen. Not… this.

Marlene closes her eyes, letting the welled up tears slightly alleviate the sting. It takes a lot longer to blink her vision clear again in its wake and she growls to herself for it. Those blurry tears are a drop in the bucket compared to what’s going to happen if they don’t get this barn down and the debris cleared, however.

Taking off at a run toward the open doors, Marlene calls ahead of herself. “Joshua!”

When Marlene catches up to Lang she finds him taking a knee in the middle of the barn. There’s broken pieces of wood scattered across the floor. Land’s fingertips sweep through something on the old, dark hardwood floorboards and come up brownish red. She can see the concern in his eyes when he looks up to her. “Shell casings,” Lang says motioning to three that are on the ground near his feet, then shows her blood on his fingertips. “Somethin’s fucky.”

The broken wood pieces around Lang look newly split, the interior wood brighter than the grayed exterior. But the walls of the listing barn don’t look damaged. There’s a couple of holes in the roof, though.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Marlene insists when she squints at the casings. “Where— Who—” Were their people set up? Or did their people set someone else up?

Who even qualifies as their people at this point? Lifting her head, she tries to reconcile what this all means.

As Carver is making his way toward the barn at a slower and more deliberate pace than Marlene, he notices something in the soft earth that the others overlooked. The ground is all sorts of chewed up from the dirt bikes and foot traffic and the soil is soft from the previous day’s rain. But there’s a divot in the earth, probably a foot across and at least a foot deep, like someone plugged a fence post in the ground and then pulled it out; like a toothpick in the top of a sandwich. About a hundred feet away Carver sees another.

Back in the barn, Marlene receives a warning all her own.

Run for your life.

Even with her face behind her mask and the light choked out in the sky, Lang can see the blood drain from Marlene’s face as she stares at something just above and past his crouched form. She doesn’t waste any time, but simply shoves her gun into its holster, grabs Lang by the shoulders and starts to drag him toward her and to his feet again.

“We gotta go!” she cries in a panic, voice pitched shrill. “Run!” She may not be the most level-headed of creatures at all times — he’s seen her get panicked and flighty before, but there’s always been a context for it. With her hand clutched around him tightly, she screams again, this time for Carver’s benefit, her voice cracking:


Carver's eyes narrow as he sees the… divot. For a second, he just stares, trying to make sense of it. Trying to figure out what could make a divot like that.

Some kind of excavation equipment, maybe. Something like…

…like a robot, maybe.

The scream from the barn comes a split second later; Carver doesn't need to be prompted twice. He whirls and takes off, sprinting for the truck with every ounce of speed he can muster. Every second counts; he's seen what one of those things can do. If something like that is around, then they've got to get out of here; he needs to have the truck running so they can start moving the second Lang and Marlene are back on board.

Thirty-sixth stratagem: if all else fails… retreat.

Carver is scrambling back to the truck when everyone hears the sound. Splintering wood, the sound of a distant tree falling. Carver can see the treetops moving, swaying from side to side, but Marlene doesn’t until she and Lang are out of the barn door. Lang isn’t hesitating to run, he’s survived enough stupid things by following the pack when the panic starts.

When the barn explodes behind them, Lang’s faith in Marlene’s warning is rewarded. Wood is flying in every direction and the sound of grinding metal like a vehicle flipping end over end on a NASCAR track is galloping closer. Through the blasted wreckage of the barn something massive emerges. Carver is in the driver’s seat when he first sets eyes on it. Marlene and Lang can only hear it approaching without stopping to look over their shoulder.

The sedan-sized machine gallops on eight mechanical tentacles like some sort of massive octopus. It's all black armor and steel frame, pieces missing and scars of other encounters pock-marking its chassis. Arcs of electricity dance within its single, glowing red eye that focuses down on Lang and Marlene. More sparks erupt from the crackling triangle of white light below its eye. The nightmarish machine lets loose a horrifying braying sound of horn and grinding steel.

The machine has a mouth, a circular saw of spinning grinders like a lamprey mouth and a woodchipper had a child. The machine's mouth is caked in gore and tattered shreds of clothing. Carver sees—above its red eye—a stenciled red emblem:



One Mile Away

Beyond the Fire Break

Across the divide of the firebreak, Dumortier and Chris have taken in the situation with the clearcutting. Camilla is back to uprooting trees by force, sending them crashing down on the ground to be later stacked within the truck, but at least she’s being careful about it now. A few more workers with chainsaws are carefully cutting the area closest to the fire, working their way backwards.

Jester is doing his work, dragging the lighter pieces of the trees away with the harness Chris had set up. For the moment things seemed like they might be going fine, until one of the clearcutters working the back half of the area call out over the roar of the chainsaws. The shout draws attention from all around, it’s the same sharp cry someone might give when an injury happened on a work-site. Except it’s not quite that.

Two clearcutters are hustling back toward where Chris and Dumortier are, dragging someone whose head is hung forward and arms are draped over the workers’ shoulders. Only as they approach do Chris and Dumortier recognize the blonde hair and tall boots.


Elisa’s hair is spotted with blood, her clothes torn. “She just came running out of the woods back that way!” One of the clearcutters says with a jerk of a gloved hand over his shoulder. “She collapsed when she saw us!”

Jester has been a reluctant ass — in Chris’ words — about being used for hauling. And it's an undeniable fact that the horse has shown a strong desire to be away from the heat and the noise, sometimes even tugging at the lead in Chris’ hands. But progress has been made, with a lot of coaxing and swearing that all comes to an end when the cry comes up.

The horse yells a reply to the announcement of danger, ears laying back and eyes rolling. Only the practiced hold on the halter keeps Jester from rearing and kicking.

Chris turns to the sound once he's got his horse under control. He scowls against the ash filming his goggles at the clearcutters, then at the person they're carrying between them. It only takes him a beat to recognize Elisa.

Twisting around, he shoots a look over to Dumortier, then past to the rest of the line. “Bring a first aid kit!” Chris shouts. Then, to Rene and the workers, he jerks a nod toward the ground. “Get her some water, check her injuries. If it's bad, I'll take her on Jest so we don't lose much time here. She say anything when she showed up or’d she just pass out after seeing you ugly fucks?”

Each tree that Camilla pulls from the earth comes out in a trail of rot, shriveled roots, and old peat. She and Dumortier are just as covered in dirt as they are ash and smoke; he sticks out by virtue of the knots of roots on his arms and the sprawl of tendrils down his back. As the shout pierces the air near the cutting teams, the agrokinetic breaks from his latest sapping of tree roots to turn his attention away.

"Where?" Rene can't make out the words but he can see the gesturing, one hand lifted to give Camilla his own, dictating her to take a moment to recalibrate while he slips closer to the arriving trio and Chris. Elisa? Where is right. By all accounts she may be in the wrong place, but Dumortier doesn't dwell for long.

"Elisa, ay," Getting the woman set down to tend to her is the easy part; he waves awkwardly at the clearcutter nearest him to give him a canteen. His own seems to be MIA. Rene tilts the woman's chin up and pap-paps at her cheek with a gloved hand, "D'you hear me? The hell happened?"

Elisa is unresponsive, head limp and unresponsive. She’s breathing but she seems to be unconscious. “I dunno man maybe it was the smoke, she don’t have a mask on!” One of the clearcutters says as he looks at Elisa with wide eyes. “The fuck’s she doing out here?”

As Dumortier inspects Elisa for injuries, he doesn’t seen anything immediately obvious, not until he gets down to her right leg. There’s a puncture wound about six inches below her hip that goes straight through her jeans, about the circumference of a pencil. It’s bleeding, though not terribly so. It’s certainly not a gunshot wound. The two men who found Elisa have to keep her held up lest she just collapse into a limp heap.

One of the men Chris yelled at is running back with a first aid kit when all hell breaks loose. A shape darts out of the treeline as fast as a galloping horse, but smaller. It pounces through the air and tackles the man with the first aid kit to the ground. Chris and Dumortier see a nightmare come to life open jaws and drive a foot long syringe needle into the man’s neck and then rip it out.

It’s a machine with the silhouette of a hunting cat, mostly mechanical though its head is shaped like a cat’s skull with a pair of gleaming red eyes inside. A massive syringe extends from its open jaws, slick with blood. The thing is riddled with bullet holes, caked with mud, and crawling with moss and creeping ivy. It looks like it was buried in the forest.

They haven’t seen something like this since the war.

It’s a Hunter bot.

“For fuck’s…” Dropping his hand from the horse’s halter, Chris takes a couple of steps closer. He’s still got Jester by the lead, though the horse tosses his head and tugs at it. His free hand drags the mask off his face and hands it down to one of the men holding up Elisa. In its place, to mitigate his own smoke inhalation, he drags a kerchief up from his neck. He’ll douse it with water when he’s got a hot minute.

As he gets the doubled-over cotton fabric fitted over his mouth and nose, he looks back to see where the fuck that first aid kit is. He sees the man running toward them with the pack of supplies one second

and he sees that same man get trounced upon by some machine out of a Tim Burton movie. He’d swear later that it was a scene from a Tim Burton movie, even though it’s clearly fucking happening right there some fifty or something yards away.

Chris’ jaw drops slightly, mouth half open. Any second, he’d piss and moan about it being Elisa coming by to slow things up, her fault or not — and let’s be honest, he’s probably still going to piss and moan about it anyway — but Jester’s had just about enough of these bullshit shenanigans. It’s bad enough being out in the woods near fire with only the vague promise of apples and sugar cubes later, but now he’s smelling blood. The paint balks, front hooves raising to stamp against the ground. Only the leather wrapped around the rider’s hand keeps him from bolting.

The motion of it draws Chris out of his disbelief. The lead is shortened, fingers curling into halter and hair so he can hoist himself into the saddle. His weight, combined with knees and reins, controls the horse better than the lead alone. “Fucking great time for Zuul and Gozer to show up.” He holds an arm out to drag Gozer Elisa up onto Jester’s shoulders. “Dumortier, let’s clear out before Stay Puft shows up.”

Pawing at Elisa looking for some hints of her wounds lastly gets Dumortier a look at the site of that perplexing sting; he puzzles over it in those few seconds that linger between hustling bodies and the shrieks of terror. Blue eyes widen in a more soundless terror behind Rene's equipment, and the fog of his breath masks the inside when his breathing hitches. Jester's animal shrieks against the human ones brings Rene back to the present, and Chris hauling Elisa up onto the horse.

"Millie's still back there," It's a half shout over the increasing noise of the fellow linemen and the spread of what's happening down the line. Hair loose on the frame of his face, Dumortier's wariness shows in the tense lines of his body rather than features. His words come with the briefest of looks up to Chris on the horse. "Get her out of here, nerd." Because no directive is complete without a loving commentary.

"I'll be right behind, I gotta get the kid out of here too." Rene rasps against a breath of hot air in his chest, eyes not on Chris and Jester but ahead, on the surveying Hunter, and the state of it. Was it woken up by the fire? Do they even have sleep modes? Apparently so, if the grimy old state of it was any indication.

The Hunter locks eyes on Dumortier, lowering in a hunch and ready to pounce. The machine seems wholly ignorant of Jester’s whinnying and braying. But the Hunter’s appearance has the other linemen scattering, some brandishing their chainsaws in front of themselves. The Hunter digs its claws in, lunges forward and up into the air—

—and up, and up, and then it twists in the middle and snaps in half, one half thrown into a tree that splinters in two, the other driven into the ground like a spiked football. That’s when Dumortier sees Camilla hunched over with her fingers curled in the air, sweat beading on her brow, blood staining the bottom of her filter mask. But what she doesn’t see is what’s behind her.

Three more pairs of red eyes in the smoke.


A Half Mile Away

The Firebreak

Byrne squints against the dust kicked up by the Yellowjacket’s downdraft as he helps Kara move Cliff to the helicopter as it lands. The side bay doors are already open by the time it touches down, and with their combined effort and the help of a handful of others, they’re able to team lift Cliff into the helicopter. It’s there that Finn is able to see the damage done to Cliff’s leg, the blood pooling inside his pants and the spot where a jagged bit of bone has punched through the denim. Cliff isn’t screaming anymore, he’s in shock.

Most of the trench diggers are hanging on the periphery of the helicopter, watching Cliff be loaded in. Dave has stepped aside, realizing his own awkwardness and lacking utility in a crisis situation. Instead, he wipes at the sweat on his brow and looks in the direction of the orange glow on the black horizon, squinting. Dave’s upper lip twists, head tilted to the side before he looks up at the helicopter’s rotors, then starts to walk further away from the aircraft, back down into the trench on slow footing, head angling to the side again like he’s looking for something.

Back at the ditch, Rory runs his bare hands along the dirt edges, shoring up the sides and strengthening the packing of the dirt so that hopefully it won’t collapse under the weight of vehicles again. It feels like it should be slow going, but it doesn’t take nearly as long as he expects, with much of it just a small push with his ability to pack the dirt together more thoroughly. As he works, he spots Dave looking around and lowers his mask enough to ask, “Did you drop something? If it got buried I might be able to locate it.” Assuming it wasn’t also made of dirt, at least.

He’d already told the others where to keep digging, and that he would join them at the end of the ditch as soon as he stabilized this side, but the look on the other man’s face makes him wonder if maybe something important had been dropped.

The back interior of the Yellowjacket includes a cot and a pair of passenger seats, along with some medical equipment, serving as an air ambulance as a secondary station in life. The supplies Finn had spoken of take up most of the available floor space, but there’s room for Cliff and others who want a quicker trip back to the Sunken Factory.

Finn doesn’t get out just yet, not wanting to waste the time before he can fly Cliff to others who can help with better skills than his first aid training supplies him, but glances over his shoulder, worry drawing his brows together as he takes in the damage.

“Hey,” he shouts to Byrne and Kara. “In that bin there’s a tactical tourniquet. Red and black, looks kinda like a belt with a stick on it? You know how to use one? You need to apply it about two inches above the top of the break. Can you do that?”

For once the man has no quips or jokes, and the look he shares with Kara shows his concern.

Down at the end of the ditch, Roxie is just up top with her canines. Crouching, with her shove to help her balance, she’s having a silent conversation with the two pups. It’s a challenge to keep them focused, with the helicopter down the way. Especially Bonnie who whines about the noise with ears pulled back.

Roxie motions for them to look at her. Both heads tilt as she starts telling them how they will help. We have to dig more. But to the sides. She motions to the sides where the dirt is piled up.

Dig to the sides. Goober repeats carefully as if trying to understand, but not quite.
Dig dig dig!!! Is the only thing Bonnie is latching onto.

Roxie’s head hangs for a moment, before she hands up. Just watch me. The young woman without qualms or hesitations, starts to dig. One shovelful at a time, throwing it to the side. Both dogs watch for a moment then start digging into the softened ground at the edges of her hole, quite a feat with the booties, but they’re trying.

While Goober tries to push and kick the dirt to the side, Bonnie is just going for it sending dirt every which way, stopping occasionally to stuff her masked nose into the hole and snorts.

Fun! Bonnie declares happily when she looks up at her person.

At the helicopter, Kara meets Finn's look with a worried one of her own through the gas mask she has on, then makes room for Byrne to do his thing. "How bad is it up there, Finn? How long you think we have left?"

He had the closest line on that information, after all. And she was getting concerned about how much time they'd have before they needed to just step back and see what came next.

Byrne points a thumb at himself to say I got it, and grabs the medical kit. He sets about applying the tourniquet efficiently, if not gracefully. Or painlessly. He slaps Cliff on the arm and gives the dazed man a thumbs up.

Once complete he stows the kit and backs away, leaving Kara to finish the conversation with Finn while he sets down his backpack and stows his SESA patch inside. He keeps an eye on the workers reconverging on their tasks, and that omnipresent orange glow of danger.

As Rory makes the attempt to spark up a conversation with Dave, a small handful of dirt hits him in the chest. "Hey! You two! Pitter patter!" Ollie doesn't seem to care about lost things, "Fire's comin'!"

He's still using his claw free hand to hold the apple he's been eating. The flesh and skin are all but gone and the oblique shape of the core is considered for just a moment before he pops it too into his mouth. It mustn't taste too good, because the stout man makes a face as he chows through the stem, husks, and seeds, finally swallowing it with a slight shiver.

Then his other hand sprouts a matching set of claws and he sets back to work. "C'mon everyone! We got ditches to connect!"

Dave walks past Roxie and her dogs, his brows furrowed. His pace is a slow one, eyes searching from side to side. It’s only a moment after that both Goober and Bonnie pause their digging and look up, ears perked forward in the same direction Dave is looking. He doesn’t say anything and for a moment, neither do the dogs.

Slowly, Dave blinks and looks back over his shoulder to Rory. “You don’t hear that?” He asks with concern, as if he might be going crazy. But it’s hard to hear anything over the roar of the Yellowjacket’s rotors.

Back at the Yellowjacket, Cliff is howling in pain again. Application of the tourniquet brough the throbbing ache of his split leg back into blinding focus and he continues to lose some blood. A handful of workers still gathered by the helicopter, probably Cliff’s friends, watch on in wide-eyed horror and concern.

“No?” Rory responds, frowning, not even seeming to notice the extra dirt on his heavy work clothes as he glances toward the loud helicopter and then back at the group with a frown before yelling toward the young woman he’d met before this. From what he’d gathered watching her, she wasn’t just working with those dogs. “Oi Roxie— your dogs hear anything strange?”

Even as he asks, though, he presses a hand into the ground, reaching out with his senses into the earth to try and make sure there was nothing odd going on. Was there another landslide threatening to happen, perhaps? A sinkhole? Something worse?

He knew his senses couldn’t go too deep, only fifty meters in all directions, but it should be able to map out the terrain a bit better. He’d meant to do this at some point anyway, to figure out where all he would need to push the dirty to finish the ditch if they needed to do so quickly.

There is barely a glance at David as he passes by as Roxie is pretty engrossed with what she’s doing. Shovelfuls of dirt flying to the side as she works to prove she’s just as hard working as all the bigger folks… and men. At least, until the dogs stop digging and go on high alert. “What the fuck’s—”

She hears her name and looks back where the others are. The dogs? She turns back and looks down at the dogs.

Bonnie stomps a foot and huffs an uncertain woof, her radar sized ears turned towards whatever she was hearing. Goober echos that woof of warning, but then gives a soft whine. All of it muffled behind those masks. Both take steps backward, with Goober pressed up against Roxie’s leg. Bonnie barks and Goober follows suit, each getting louder, feeding off each other's uncertainty and steadily growing fear.

For her part, Roxie squints out in the direction Dave is. Not unlike the dogs barking at her feet, her head tilts to one side. She finally orders them to stop, though not outloud, so it might be odd when the dogs just stop and look up at Roxie.

“Screaming,” Roxie looks at Dave as if looking for confirmation. Still she takes a step or two in that direct, hesitating, before turning back to Rory, “Fuck, we need to go help, they hear screaming, lots of fucking screaming. The kind when people are really fucking scared.” Her eyes unfocus and she nods suddenly turning as if she’s going to go find out what’s wrong, though her companions seem rooted in place.


One last fistful of dirt had been throw at the lollygaggers before Roxie's words had registered in Ollie's noggin. "What? But…" he looks to the incomplete firebreak and then between Dave, Rory, Roxie, and the dogs. A low grumble, could be a grown man's whine, ekes our of his throat. Oh well, it's not like it's the first time he's left an important task incomplete in Providence and it's likely not going to be the last.

Instead of digging, he uses his Sandshrew claws to propel himself out of the ditch and then straightens at the top of the wall. "Which way?"

Finn’s expression, between Kara’s question and Cliff’s screaming, speaks as loudly as the deafening whirr of rotor blades.

“It’s moving fast. Pretty soon we’ll have to retreat,” he says, serious for the moment as he flips a switch or two to prepare to lift off again. “I’ll have a better idea once I get out there to dump my load — not a euphemism.”

He’s still able to joke a little, but soon that time may pass, too.

After a wave of his hand to get everyone clear of the helicopter, unaware of whatever Dave’s looking for, Finn glances back at Cliff. “Let’s get you to someone with some drugs, pal.” That’s more likely to bolster the man than any assurances he’ll be all right, Finn figures, as the Yellowjacket lifts off of the ground and ascends skyward, then toward the south.

Stepping back and away from the helicopter and lifting a hand to shield her facemask from any stray dirt spun up by the ascending craft, Kara turns her head partly to Byrne. "Let's get back to it." She's halfway turned back to the ditch line when the barking of the dogs is noted. It could be written off if Bonnie and Goober were barking more obviously at the large metal contraption hovering higher in the sky, but they're not looking that way. The other bodies looking the same direction are noted next.

Kara stops then, her brow starting to furrow.

Byrne stands, shouldering his backpack. He glances over his shoulder as the helicopter lifts off, and joins Kara as she returns toward the trench. The posture of the people talking between here and the trench makes him pause. He slows to a stop, looking in the direction everyone else is. He clips his backpack across his chest and runs through a mental inventory of his resources, then holds his hand out to Kara. “I’m guessing you won’t be needing the car.”


A Half Mile Away

A Ruined Farm





Shattered pieces of wood rain down all around Carver, bouncing off the cabin of the truck. The engine fails to turn over once, twice, three times. He turns the key in the ignition, gently pumps the gas, curses in every language he knows how to curse in as a hulking, tentacled monstrosity of steel comes windmilling out of the collapsing wreckage of the barn.

The machine is hot on Lang and Marlene’s heels, each octopedal limb slamming into the ground and hauling its body forward with the galloping gait of a many-legged horse. The machine’s tremendous mass causes it to overshoot its mark when the two fleeing from it turn toward the truck. The Seeker skids in the wet earth, tears up the ground. Many-flailing limbs swing wildly, slamming into the ground, digging in for purchase and traction as its central mass continues on in the wrong direction.

“Go, go, go, go!” Lang screams as he runs toward the truck. The Seeker finishes its skid, rights itself and sends lashing limbs forward, pursuing the two fleeing targets with all of the speed of a bloodhound. Its monocular red eye narrows down to a pinpoint as it moves.




The engine turns over with a roar and a sputter from the exhaust. Lang dives into the bed in the back, cutting his arm on something as he does and not even realizing it. He rolls onto his back, gets up onto a knee and offers a hand out to Marlene to help pull her into the bed with him. The machine is right behind her.

Carver doesn't need to be told twice.

Actually he doesn't even need to be told once, but he's not going to begrudge Lang for wasting breath on that one; in Lang's shoes, he'd probably be yelling pretty damn loud himself. But he's got other things to worry about now, like getting the hell out of here.

So he does. One hand hits the gearshift, one foot hits the clutch while the other firmly presses down on the gas. He doesn't look in the rearview to see if Lang and Marlene are in; he hopes they are, but there isn't time to wait even if they aren't. He's got to open distance, now.

“<Ah, fuck.»” Finn’s curse is amplified as he still has the loudspeaker on, but there’s no one below to hear it as he flies from the ditches toward the Factory. “«I see Robopus is back to make life more difficult in the worst mash-up of man vs. nature and man vs. machine ever.»”

He glances over his shoulder at Cliff. “«Sorry, pal, gotta go play cat and mouse, or whatever the fuck octopi eat. Hang in there.»”

The Yellowjacket turns toward the barn and seems to fly straight for the mechanical beast. “«I’ll try to distract it. Get the hell out of there, boys and girls,»” he says, as if he’s speaking to himself, still unaware the speakers are on.

He edges the helicopter closer, lowering his altitude until the Yellowjacket is hovering in front of it, hoping to get its attention — and hoping his luck holds true. One hand reaches for the mounted rifle’s controls to aim it at the robot, glancing down at the display to align it with where he wants it to hit.

Marlene doesn’t dare look to see if the metal behemoth has closed in upon her as much as she fears it has. She just pours on an extra burst of speed as they near the truck that’s seemed so impossibly far away. She won’t even waste her precious oxygen on the scream that’s ringing in her own ears. Or maybe she is screaming and just doesn’t realize it.

While Marlene’s skillset is far different from that of her counterpart’s from this world, they do have some significant overlap. One thing she does know well is how to reach and grasp to be pulled into a lift, and how to harvest her own momentum to carry her forward into it so that it appears an effortless thing.

This, however, is not a dance. While the skill applies and means it isn’t a wild clamor into the bed of the truck with Lang, it’s not with any particular grace that she lands half on top of and half next to him. One arm stays clinging to him while the other arm comes up over her head to protect herself preemptively. As if that would be enough if that thing catches up and makes a grab for her.

And she knows she is the reason they’re all being chased.

“What the fuck happened to the fence!?” Lang shouts in the back of the truck as he turns to look back at the machine, his voice drowned out over the roar of the helicopter’s rotors and the screaming truck engine. The rear of the truck fishtails as tires spin in the wet ground, leaves a few precious seconds between gas and propulsion and leaves a spraying tail of mud in the wake as the truck starts to pull away from the barn.

The tentacled machine pivots when struck by a slow-firing slug from the helicopter, one designed to break windows in burning buildings, and its monocular red eye narrows down on the vehicle and its pilot. The Seeker lashes out with one articulated tentacle limb, but Finn is lucky enough to have kept the Yellowjacket just out of the thing’s reach in that first strike. When it moves closer, he pulls back on the stick and ascends some.

A pair of servos on the top of the Seeker pivot toward the helicopter, tiny firing mechanisms impotently flicking back and forth where they would manipulate mounted artillery if this thing had ever been finished in its timeline. Instead, the Seeker gallops forward again and then pushes itself up on four of its eight limbs and reaches out with two others. Finn is able to pull away from one in time—even though it should have had him dead to rights, it fell just shy—but can’t dodge the second grasping limb.

In the rear view mirror, Carver can see the Seeker grab a hold of the runner on the bottom of the Yellowjacket, its lower limbs dragging in the mud as it tries to pull the helicopter out of the sky. A spray of flame suppressing foam across the Seeker’s eye causes it to relinquish its grip and fall backwards onto the ground, tentacled limbs trashing as it tries to clear its sensor.

Reaching speed, Carver pulls out from the direction of the barn and plows straight through the post-and-beam fence partitioning off the farmland from the road. Chickenwire crashes against the windshield, scrapes over the hood and then goes flying over the cab. Lang and Marlene duck as the whirling tangle of wire and wood soars past the bed of the truck, bounces off the tailgate and then is left in the road.

For the moment they’re out of sight of the Seeker, until it suddenly explodes through the pine trees framing the road, having given up on the Yellowjacket. The Seeker crashes into the road and begins galloping ahead like a many-limbed horse, its central mouth of grinding gears and blades spinning wildly, making a whining sound not unlike some sort of bestial cry.

The Yellowjacket comes up over the treeline a moment later, one of its landing runners dangling off and broken but not yet deterred.

“«And stay off!»” growls the irritated Shepherd as he rises up now to the rear of the beast. He swipes at a few switches, gaze darting here and there on the panel as various alarms and whistles chime at him to tell him the helicopter’s been compromised. Better it than him, though, and he knows that he’s pushing his luck — and unfortunately Cliff’s as he pesters the robot much like the insect his helicopter is named for.

He has choices to make, though, and not a lot of time to make them. Glancing over his shoulder at Cliff, he grimaces at the bloody mess of the man’s leg. He needs to get to safety, but it’s also likely that if this robot isn’t taken care of, there won’t be any safety to get to.

“«Hold tight!»” he yells to Cliff, though the loudspeaker announces that to the truck ahead — whether they take it as a pep talk or not is up to them. Probably not.

Concentrating a bit, he envisions his luck encompassing the whole of the helicopter’s interior, to include Cliff in any of his lucky aura. “«Here goes nothing»,” he mutters as he tries to stay high enough and far enough away from the robot while still running interference. He reaches for the control to the rifle and shoots again, looking to disable that eye more permanently than the foam that’s likely to drip off of it.

Marlene flings an arm out to gesture toward everything going on that isn’t the fucking robot actively trying to murder them. What happened to the fence?! Maybe all of that?! Her brain is screaming — mostly in primal languages of fear she can’t even comprehend — and her lungs feel like they’re going to explode. She isn’t sure her heart can even handle as much fear as she’s feeling right now. Speculating beyond wild gesticulations when she’s powerless to make the truck start moving are all she’s got right now.

And when it does lurch forward finally, she tips the rest of the way back against the truck’s bed, with a grunt that isn’t heard over everything else going on around them, which means she’s staring up when the Seeker reaches for Finn’s chopper. “Oh no.” Even she isn’t sure how loud she actually managed to voice that. But she is aware of how she grips at Lang’s sleeve, terrified for the pilot and anyone else he has on board. Afraid that it might just be pulled down on top of them as the flaming cherry on this already collapsing sundae.

Or… it’s the Seeker that could collapse. That’s pretty great. Behind her mask, Marlene wears a stunned little smile at Finn’s luck and the distance they’re now able to put between themselves and the death machine. It’s short-lived as she turns to Lang with her strange sort of intuition and directs him, “Down.” She ducks down, covering her head just before they crash through the fence along the side of the road and the chickenwire comes over the top of the cab and to where they had been sitting up moments ago. Without looking out the front of the vehicle, she had no way of knowing that was coming.

It doesn’t take a fortune teller to know the ‘bot won’t give up on them that easily, either. Marlene can’t pull her horrified gaze away from the whirling maw of blades. Is there an escape?

Carver doesn't flinch when he hits the fence, and he doesn't slow down when the robot falls out of sight behind them; he's done a chase or two in his day, and he's learned well that you don't take the pedal off the floor until you're home free. Sure enough, the godforsaken landsquid comes lurching back and after them again.

The helicopter's still up there, though, which brings the situation from hopeless to… not entirely so. There's the hope of reinforcements, at least, or maybe they've got something onboard heavy enough to put Satan's Calamari down for the count.

Carver sticks a hand out the window and raises a fist for a moment — an acknowledgement of what's coming over the loudspeaker. He doesn't have time enough to take his hands off the wheel for too long, though — he's got to keep driving. If he can open up distance, that'll open up options. His eyes flicker to the gas gauge — hopefully Lang's not the type to put off filling his vehicle up.

The reverberating report of the Yellowjacket’s slow-firing rifle is drowned out over screams, engine roar, and mechanical collision. Two shots from the helicopter manage to somehow unerringly strike the Seeker square in its monocular eye, but the red-lit lens barely seems scratched by the impact. Finn isn’t just a good shot, he’s a lucky shot. He also knows when he’s outgunned. The groaning cry of confusion from the wounded man in the back of the Yellowjacket isn’t helping.

In the rear view mirror, Carver can see the Seeker galloping closer but not enough to gain ground. He can also see Lang coming up onto his knees, forcing open the rear cab window and grabbing the AK-47 from the gunrack behind the bench seat. Lang racks a round into the gun, braces one foot against the bed of the truck, and sprays a burst of automatic gunfire at the Seeker. The rounds ricochet off of the machine’s armored carapace like they were nerf darts.

“Fuck, fuck!” Lang hollars, continuing to fire for lack of a better thing to do. In the side view mirror, Carver sees the mass of lashing tentacles and spinning grinders. The bottom of the mirror helpfully reminds him:

Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.


One Mile Away

Beyond the Fire Break

People are screaming.

Linemen that were cutting the trees are fleeing in every direction, running back toward the fire break as fast as they can. Camilla turns as she sees the sleek but janky silhouette of one hunter bot emerging from a billowing cloud of smoke, circular eyes gleaming red against the orange cast of the sky. Jester rears back in fright, whinnying loudly and stamping his hooves in the dirt, barely held back by Chris’ hand. The unruly horse nearly throws the unconscious Elisa off his back.

The three new Hunters stalk out of the treeline like the panthers they were designed after, engines humming loudly. One fixes its eyes on Chris, another on Camilla, and the third on Dumortier. Those red eyes narrow to pinpoints, syringes stab out of open skeletal mouths primed for injection. Though whatever’s been sitting in them, exposed to the elements for years after the war ended, is likely now more dangerous than simply negation drugs.

There is barely time to appreciate the artistry that is Camilla's ability in action. Rene's focus was getting away, and the shredding noise and buckle of metal has him scanning over a shoulder for the cat and its fate. His eyes fail to linger long, instead refocusing on the ground ahead

and more eyes beyond that, curdling his blood as he is running for Camilla. Behind the equipment his head throbs and sweat seems to pulse out of him, fear butting heads with the stubbornness in him. It is not a small, tame battle. Panic, however, doesn't win this time, of all times. Survival instinct claws at the back of Dumortier's mind even as he chooses to press on, a stark warning against doing something incredibly stupid.

One hand moves up to tear away the barrier of the plastic mask on his face, and it falls hanging and bouncing against his chest.

"Fuck, fuck, fuckfuckfuck— Mill! Move your ass!" His voice isn't the bellow of Lang's, but its intent is sharp and clear, a bell against the blood in his own ears. What Dumortier lacks in strength he makes up for in the rest, surefooted and fleet. When the eyes of the mechs seem to orient on the others proper, he pulls his breath in through his teeth, nostrils flaring. A trail of wetland grass sprawls alive in his wake; ahead, a surge of anything caught in his path, lurching alongside and writhing under the topsoil. Rene's frame is half carried along, his pace taking him past Camilla like a runaway wagon.

The contents of the ground come bursting upwards in eager escape, roots and thorny weeds coming between the two of them, and the danger beyond.

“Woah. Woah!” Chris' voice is a rough bark as he yells at his horse. One hand tugs hard at the reins to regain control, his free arm wraps around Elisa to keep her from being dumped. While Jester stamps and balks at being kept so near to danger, he twists and turns in the saddle to get eyes on the things coming out of the trees. He's never actually seen a functioning robot, not even during the war, but he's sure heard about them and heartily agrees with Dumortier's litany. He couldn't have said it better.

Jester bawls his own opinion, jerks his head and bolts a quick four steps before he's brought under rein again. His rider shortens the reins by another hand width, nearly curling his fingers into the horse's mane. The paint still sidles with gear, eyes rolling to white while the man on his back swings his gaze to the hunters.

No, to Dumortier running his fool ass right toward them. Fuck.

“New plan.” Chris gives Jester enough lead to sidle and stomp In a half circle while he bellows to the laborers. “Everyone get the fuck out of here! To the break line!” Enough of them are running anyway, but for those shell shocked into stillness… He lets the horse leap and run in short bursts, pulling him short to walk reluctantly. “Leave the fucking tools and get going!” His progression takes him, in fits and starts, toward Camilla and in Rene's wake. But it's with a purpose, every yard gained he's yelling, rounding up the stragglers so they'll follow the rest of the herd. “Let's go! Move your asses!”

The linemen are fleeing, screaming as they run from risen warmachines and the flames. The screams rise up into the air as the men charge into the woods. When Dumortier brings the wetlands alive with the snapping crackle of live wood and splitting earth, one of the machines reorients toward him.

The hunter crouches, then springs into the air, only to be ensnared by a lashing root that grasps at one shaking leg and drags the machine to the ground where it slams into the soil. The hunter thrashes like a gazelle in a crocodile’s maw, jaws snapping in the air. The other meets a similar fate, tangled in constricting flora. Camilla stumbles back a few steps, tears cleaning streaks down her ash-streaked face, and then breaks into a sprint away from Dumortier, running as fast as she can.

That’s when Dumortier feels a bullet whip over his shoulder in the same moment he hears the crack of a firearm. The narrow miss whizzes past him and strikes Jester square in the neck. The horse whinnies loudly and rears back, throwing Elisa to the ground before the horse collapses onto its side a few feet away making horrific sounds, thrashing wildly.

Something moves through the trees, a dark shape too tall to be a person lumbering through the woods. An old tree comes crashing down onto its side, kicking up embers, and then a jet of flame roars out from the smoke, spraying the ground with fire. Dumortier sees a single, gleaming red eye burning in the smoke, before another plume of flame launches out and lands like sticky napalm on the wet forest floor.

The third Hunter manages to slip through the tangle of Dumortier’s brambles, rushing toward where the now downed and dying Jester and his downed rider. It breaks into a sprint on shaky, narrow legs on a collision course for Chris.

Meanwhile, Dumortier can see more of whatever is emerging through the smoke. Many legs, bent like a spider, something thrashing around behind it, a curling tail. It’s a jumble of dark shapes and limbs, spewing flame ahead of its course.

Ensnaring the hunters peels back a layer of Dumortier's prickling doubts; the earth along his path and now the area around has drained of life, now being spent in the defense the agrokinetic raises. The desire to turn tail hasn't left him, between the desperation and the fear; he can't retreat until these hunters are fully trapped, the third still galloping onward out of sight. All that Rene can do is hope that whoever is still there can hold it off. Chris, Camilla— the rest—

Once those Hunters had hit the ground, the same forest debris which had covered them up in slumber now furrows and grows, both spore and root seeping into the tiniest spaces of joints, cabling, lights, the thorax of machinery and computerized components. Nature is hesitant to let go of what it reclaims, even in normal circumstances. Rather than control its movement after that first infestation, what Dumortier pushes now is just growth, plants eager to reach the surface creating sinkholes underneath of the hunters as they move.

The pressure of energy pounding in his ears with the bump of his heart is pierced by the sharp sound of a bullet's shriek. It yanks him back to a stark awareness, having dissociated in his fear. It's easier to do brave things when you don't think about it. Now instead of energy and rage all that Dumortier can hear is his own ragged breathing and blood rushing to his head, stars popping at the edges of his vision while he tries to focus on the shape in the fire and smoke.

He doesn't know this one. The mass of plants under his thrall moves in subconscious, thrashing mimic, a hydra's shadow in smoky air. The sky is crimson, and so is the blood on Rene's face, blue irises still gleaming through ruddy eyes.

Chris jumps from the saddle when it becomes clear that Jester isn’t just kicking and bawling out of fear or rebellion. It’s either that or the dead weight of Elisa’s unconscious body drags him out and they both get crushed under a few hundred pounds of horseflesh. As his feet hit the ground, he rolls, dragging the woman with and just escaping the press of his horse collapsing onto a flank and then side. Elisa is abandoned, left laying on the ground, once they’re both clear.

Fueled by Jester’s screams and thrashing, Chris bear-crawls the short distance to the horse. Horror and panic completely destroys his usual facade of casual detachment. “No. No, no no…” Knees pressing against the ground, his hands already filthy from dirt and smoke grope over a blood-slicked neck so he can cover the wound and stem the blood. “You’re alright,” he murmurs as his head sinks to rest on the horse’s shoulder. “You’re going to be fine. We’ll get you patched up and back home…”

The snap and crash of trees slices into his grief driven effort to save the animal. Chris’ head lifts slightly, catching the silhouette of the hunter approaching him in the fire from… everywhere.

With his horse dying, and his frenemy still in an unknown condition — all thanks to these fucking tin cans on legs — he snaps like a too-tightly wound spring. He moves from Jester, hands going to the ground to push himself to his feet. Under a palm he feels the worn handle of an axe, abandoned only seconds ago by one of the laborers.

With barely a glance at what he’s found, Chris’ fingers wrap around the axe handle he throws himself forward like a runner off a starting block. Enraged, he drives the axe from right to left, swinging in such an arc as might impress baseball legend Bobby Thomson.

The axe head connects with the Hunter’s head, sending a shower of shrapnel to the side along with a few glittering chrome teeth and pieces of broken syringe. When Chris does a backswing, he hits the other side of the machine’s head with the blunt end of the axe, shattering one of its eyes and knocking it over onto its side. The machine moves with a broken puppet’s grace, legs kicking and back arched as it tries to get to its feet.

The ensnared hunters continue to fight against their earthen imprisonment, snapping vines and roots with mechanical strength, only to have twice as many grow back in their place. Rene can feel a throbbing sensation in his head, a pounding ache behind his eyes and at the base of his skull. He’s never had to exert his power like this before.

Metal joints pop and snap as plants intrude between servos, work between armor plates, and foster growth of shingle moss and fungal bloom inside of both delicate and weathered chassis. The two entangled Hunters erupt from within with vegetation, torn apart from the inside out. But the thing coming out of the smoke is nothing like them, over twelve feet tall and moving like an arachnid with a swaying tail of a scorpion.

As it clears the worst of the smoke, spraying fire as it moves, Dumortier sees a nightmare that should not be. A spindly machine walking on four armor-plated legs. A fuel tank on its back is painted fire-engine red with yellow caution markings and fire emblems. Its tail sprays liquid fire in a crackling stream and its single monocular eye squares down on Dumortier. There is an old, faded symbol on this machine scuffed and scraped from a decade of wear and tear. A double helix on white.

The Commonwealth Institute.


A Half Mile Away

The Firebreak

Screams are now obvious as they erupt from the forest in the direction of the fire. Roxie and her dogs are the first to catch sight of line workers from the forest beyond the firebreak fleeing in their direction. Rory spots them a moment later, feels their heavy footfalls thudding against the soft earth as if it were a part of his own body. Then Ollie sees them. Then everyone.

Two dozen men and women smudged with dirt and ash run for their lives, some sobbing, others screaming. “Run!” They cry. “Run!

Byrne has his hand back for his keys, and Kara has them halfway palmed back to him when the screams prick her ears. When people run from danger, she's the first to lean into it. To assess, to protect, to make sure everyone gets out. Her feet lead her forward toward those who are running their way and will need to leap the firebreak.

Out of habit, after she hands back the keys, she reaches to her shoulder to bring forward a rifle that isn't even there. Being armed like she normally is was her absolute last thought under the circumstances.

And she has a hard suspicion whatever these people are running from, it's not from the fire. Whatever has them this afraid, she trusts them.

"Everyone fall back!" Kara barks gruffly. "Get back! Head back to the Factory!"

Ollie stumbles backward when the first of the line workers pass him. He pivots in the direction they're going but pauses, not quite sure exactly what to do. His linear thoughts pull him back in the direction of digging, giving his anxiety a palpable quality. He can't leave the ditch unfinished. If it's not connected in time, all the work would be for nothing.

The claws jutting from the ends of his fingers prevent him from forming a real fist, so he simply clicks their ends together in Edward Scissorhands fashion as he decides what to do. Kara's orders shrieks go unprocessed, at least for the moment.

It's not to Ollie's credit that he's never been a quick thinker.

Keys in hand, Byrne reels at the sudden swarm of panicking workers. His eyes try to make out what it is they’re running from, but with the smoke all he can imagine is that it’s not the fire.

He turns on his heel and sprints for the SUV. He might be able to empty it out to fit as many runners into it as possible. But he might also be able to drive it through whatever they’re all running from. He keeps an eye over his shoulder as he runs. He can make the decision when he has more to work with.

“Bloody hell,” Rory curses through the respirator at the sight of the people running and looks over at Kara with a nod, agreeing that— yes, that’s not the fire they are running from. Something worse must be on its way, and fast, even if they can not see it at this point— but then Ollie goes and does that “Sandshrew! Get your ass back here!” but if Kara wasn’t going to be listened to, he didn’t expect his British ass to be acknowledged either. “Rox, get yourself and the dogs out of here,” he says, before grabbing up his stone tool and moving towards the trench again, but he’s not going to finish it—

No, he buries the tool into the ground and starts to concentrate and the ground begins to move, shift. He’s trying to fill in some of the ditch, to make a temporary bridge for those who are running. It’s more than his ability should be able to handle, normally, it will take time and some will be scrambling before he finishes, but he will make sure not to get people caught up in what he’s moving, at the very least. If they’re running from something, something might be coming after them. Something that could take the very same bridge he’s starting to build.

And that’s exactly what he’s hoping, actually.

The rush of people has Roxie stopping in her tracks and dropping down to pick up the smaller of the two dogs, Goober. She holds him protectively while Bonnie presses against her leg as people pass by them. Hearing her name, her head twitches that way. Yeah… leaving might be the best thing. She doesn’t need to overthink that command because clearly something really bad was coming their way. Spinning on one foot she turns for her backpack and bow she’d left against one of the trees.

She only pauses long enough to deposit Goober in the bag - something they do when speed is needed - before it’s swung on her back. Bow is held in one of her hands, Roxie runs towards the others of her team - avoiding the trench since it seems Rory has a plan.

Bonnie quickly races ahead of her pack on short legs with an agility and speed that a dog her size shouldn’t have. Once she reaches Kara and other others, the tiny hound runs circles around the woman watching her human hurry to catch up.

The linemen who come running out of the smoke-filled woods don’t stop at the fire break. Two trip and fall and tumble through the loose earth, clawing at the ground to try and get back up. The dozen that don’t fall are like a stampede as they cross the fire break, running past Rory and Ollie with nothing more than panicked screams in their throats.

A murmuration of starlings churns overhead, taking on a black and dense amorphous shape before fading as they separate and make a sudden directional pivot back in the direction of Providence. Those aren't just birds, they’re someone’s eyes.

Dave watches the birds with a dumbfounded look on his face until one of the fleeing linemen collides with him and sends him back on his ass. He rolls onto his side and pulls himself to his feet, eyes darting around as he considers the smoke. “Fed,” he says with too quiet a voice, backing toward Byrne, “Fed?” There’s an urgency in Dave’s voice, and when he gets within arm’s reach slaps Byrne on the shoulder as the agent is opening the door to the SUV.

Something’s coming.” Dave says with wild eyes, and a moment later Byrne sees what Dave seems to have felt coming. Pairs of glowing red eyes start becoming visible in the smoke. Some low to the ground, others… not.

The first thing to come lumbering out of the smoke looks like the reanimated skeleton of a llama, its skull-like head of rusted metal rearing back and a blossoming maw of sinuous metallic tentacles extending out like the cilia of a barnacle. The horrific machine straightens its long neck and the tendrils of metal become rigid and hum softly. As close as Ollie and Rory are, they can see the thing is riddled with bullet impacts, is missing armor, and looks to have been repaired.

But anyone who fought in the war knows what one of the llamas heralds. They’re scouts, targeting drones that have a wider attenuation field for the COMPASS systems in each robot and act as a distributed network to—

A quadrupedal Hunter robot comes sprinting out of the smoke straight toward Ollie, glowing red eyes and a skeletal feline head, jaws open to reveal a broken syringe that is now just a lagged length of glass. It hits Ollie with the force of a speeding motorcycle, drives rubber-footed forelegs into his shoulders and knocks him down so hard he’s left breathless.

The Hunter snaps its jaws and what should have been a syringe jab to Ollie’s neck is instead a gruesome impalement with a jagged piece of broken glass. The Hunter stabs once, twice, enough for Ollie to feel the white-hot sting of pain and then the warm wetness of blood. He isn’t sure how bad the injury is yet but he can feel the collar of his jacket already swimming in blood.

A second Hunter comes barreling out of the smoke straight for one of the fleeing line workers who hadn’t yet made it to the fire break, tackling him face down in the dirt. A third comes bounding straight for Rory on a thundering path through the loose earth.

Of all the things Kara could have expected to see emerge from the fire, robots somehow had ranked last. It strikes her in a sudden, cold clarity that the fire's progression must have broken the safety the fence had provided them, even if the specifics on the location seem too surreal to be possible.

It didn't matter either way. They were here.

"Ollie!" she screams and breaks into a run for the ditch. The mere handgun she brought with her won't have the punch to do anything effective— she thinks— but it's all she has. Kara draws it quickly, aims for the mechanisms between its ribs and fires repeatedly into its body while it stabs Ollie. "No!"

Byrne looks over his shoulder, past Dave, to take in the inexplicable horror bearing down on them. Vehicular disassembly it is. The taller sentry though gives him a better idea. The patchwork done to get the thing operational must have been extensive. A decade of disuse couldn’t have been kind to it. What he knows for sure is that even in peak operating condition, that machine has an overheating problem.

Keys still in hand, he unlocks the passenger doors and pulls one open for Dave. “Get in the back and get me a jug of water.” He throws himself into the driver’s seat. The engine starts with a growl.

Uh,” is Dave’s useless response, but he also does exactly what is asked of him. Practically diving into the SUV, Dave scrambles into the back, looking out one of the tinted side windows at the approaching robots. “What the fuck?” Dave whispers. “What the fuck? What the fuck!

A few sloshing moments later, Dave turns around and crab-walks back up to the front of the SUV, bringing a plastic jug of water to rest on the empty passenger’s seat that he then grips for dear life. “The fuck’re you going to do?”

“What the fuck is that?!” Roxie can’t help but shout with a wide-eyed look in her eyes. Unlike a lot of the Providence folks, this is the first time she’s ever seen robots like that. When Ollie goes down, she’s a deer in the headlights.

Of course, as she reaches Kara, the woman goes towards the evil robots. The young woman has no intentions of following her and reacts as such. Grabbing up the bigger and heavier Bonnie, whose sharp barks follow after those running to aid Ollie.

It’s fear of the unknown that drives Roxie to run, even if it’s awkward with a dog in her arms and on her back. She flees back the way they had come, before hiding behind a tree. Crouched down with her shoulder against it, she clutches Bonnie and shushes both dogs.

Rory had been expecting panicked wildlife running from the fire. Possibly even hungry coyotes or bears disturbed woken from hibernation. But not— he knew some veterans from the refugee camps he’d stayed in before his asylum got approved, he’d heard the stories of the war and seen videos and pictures but it was different seeing it in person. Meters away. With only a stone shovel and loose earth standing between him and it.

But he’d had a plan for a hungry angry bear.

Focusing through the stone tool in his hand, he reaches into the ground under him, in front of him, between him and the Hunter— focusing on a single patch, a small square, he makes the ground between them more porous, weaker, unable to withstand the broken metal frame that bounded upon it in the direction of their intended prey.

Soil liquefaction. The location made this easier on him, the consistency of the marshlands they had been working in, but the speed and intensity of the work fill his nose with the iron smell of blood— it might be showing if it were not for the respirator.

At first, Ollie has no idea what hit him. He's dazed when the first stab hits his neck, but the sting of pain and the warmth of the liquid quickly brings him back to reality. At first, he scratches at the forelegs, trying to get some sort of grip on the machine. Then he grabs hold of what could be considered ankles and lifts.

The strain causes the blood to squirt as soon as the second puncture happens.

Prone, on the ground, all Ollie can do to fend off the hunter is to hold onto its paws and lift. At least if it's on him, it's not on anyone else. He flinches as hot metal ricochets off the mechanical beast, one of the projectiles ripping through the fabric of his pants. These were his favorite corduroys, the ones that didn't need suspenders to stay up. He'll have to ask the preacher later for a bit of forgiveness to his Sunday best.

Plunking handgun rounds rattle inside the Hunter bot’s chassis atop Ollie. Steam vent out of one hole, coolant drips down onto Ollie’s chest like blood. Hydraulic fluid sprays brown-red all over the place and the machine staggers to the side before collapsing in the softening earth.

The Hunter bearing down on Rory all but disappears into the mud on its next step. The ground sloshes up like brown water around the machine, sending its some fifteen-hundred pound body careening down below the morass of what might as well be quicksand. The back legs of the Hunter, still on somewhat stable ground, backpedal in an attempt to haul the machine’s upper half out of the mud. Air bubbles up in gurgling farts from the mire and the Hunter thrashes like a gazelle caught by a crocodile at the edge of a watering hole.

The third Hunter remains on the other side of the fire break, savaging one of the woodcutters who hadn’t made it across the trench. It looks up, its rusted steel cat skull face caked in blood and gore, red eyes gleaming in the dark while the lumbering llama-like machine continues to lurch ahead, sensor tendrils fluttering in the air and occasionally emitting a high-pitched shriek of machine noise and vented steam.

The sky has taken on a blood red hue from the smoke and the late afternoon sun.

It feels like the end of the world.


A Quarter Mile Away

A Dirt Road

“Someone fuckin’ do something!”

Lang screams from the bed of the truck over the clatter of automatic gunfire. But soon the noisy report of gunfire turns into a series of rapid clicks as he chews through the AK-47’s solitary magazine. The Seeker continues to rumble forward on many segmented, mechanical limbs, its grinding maw whirring loudly as it chases the truck at top speed down the dirt road.

Lang drops the spent gun into the bed of the truck and twists around, shouting through the open window at Carver. “Where the fuck are we going?!”

"The Firebreak," Carver yells back, trying to get enough force behind his words to make them audible through the mask and over the hullabaloo. There are only two other options — the woods, which will eventually result in the truck stalling out and them getting mulched, or going into town proper and getting a bunch of civilians killed, which is worse.

At least at the Firebreak, maybe someone'll be able to do something about this great goddamn mess of robot seafood. "Unless you got any better ideas!"

“Can’t you do something?” Marlene shouts to the front seat. It isn’t Carver’s side she’s looking at. Going toward the firebreak sounds like a terrible idea, but she’s not the one in the driver’s seat, and she’s not the one with the valuable things like wisdom and experience.

The redhead bounces in the truck bed when they hit one of the bigger bumps in the road and she latches herself on to Lang’s arm to keep herself from feeling like she’s about to fall out. “Jesus Christ,” she hisses under her breath. “Somebody please tell me we can outrun that thing!” Marlene demands in a panicked shrill.

«Piece of shit rifle,» Finn’s voice announces to the countryside below, providing a narrative of his every thought. The weapon and its ammunition are simply too small to damage the robot despite the pilot’s best efforts. Unless…

Finn turns the helicopter, giving the metallic monster a wide berth, and those below may worry he’s abandoning them to its tentacles and craw. It takes time to arc around the beast’s perimeter while ensuring he stays out of the reach of the lengthy tentacles. But when he curves back to face the thing, he hovers in place and stares at it for a long moment.

«Luck be a lady tonight,» he mutters under his breath as he focuses, his eyes squinting as he considers angles and planes, one hand lifting from the controls to paint imaginary figures in the air of the cockpit, looking for all the world like mathlady.gif.

He nods at last, reaching for the controls for the rifle, lining up the shot; This time not at its eye and not at any joint, but instead at the horrifying woodchipper maw — at an angle, not shooting directly into it. «Choke on this, squid

The round goes straight into the whirling, superheated maw of the Seeker and ricochets around like a pinball game. In the bed of the truck, Lang and Rue hear a riotous clanging noise rising up from inside of the machine that sounds like a Coinstar trying to choke down a bucket of scrap metal.

The Seeker lurches forward a split second before a shower of smoke, flames, and sparks issues out of its mouth. There’s a grinding sound, a seizing noise of whining metal, and then a loud snap inside the machine as its many spinning grinders all lock up at once. In that exact same moment the Seeker reaches out with one grasping claw-ended tentacle and lunges at the back of the truck for Rue!

Lang interposes himself and strikes the tentacle with a shovel from the bed of the truck. He’s knocked to the side, grabbed by the arm and thrown into the air like a piece of popcorn, grabbed by another tentacle and then thrown into the Seeker’s maw. Rue has only a heartbeat to process what happened to Lang before another tentacle is reaching out for the truck when a blast of flame explodes out the back side of the seeker and smoke begins to violently erupt from that overloaded section of machinery.

A pair of grime-covered hands grab onto the stalled grinders of the Seeker’s mouth and Lang hauls himself up onto his knees, braced inside the thing’s grinder maw, shielding his face from the smoke bellowing up from within, looking for a way to get the fuck out in case the biomass processor kicks back on.

Up ahead, Carver can see a section of old post-and-beam fence that he knows is on the way to the firebreak. He can’t be more than a minute or two away, and that’s right about when he starts to hear the pop of gunfire coming from up the road. That’s about when Carver notices the glove box in the truck is just… hanging open.

It takes him a minute to recognize what’s rolling around inside, because no sane person keeps grenades in the glove compartment. Also, grenades don’t just spontaneously disappear into thin air.

But these two do.

He swears he sees something in the rear view mirror right around the same time, but when he looks there’s nothing there.

“«Ha!»” barks out Finn, the loudspeaker still broadcasting him to those below — one day he’ll realize he forgot to flip that switch back to off. But then Lang’s swooped up by the tentacles and tossed into the malfunctioning mouth and Finn’s own maw drops open. “«Holy shit, Lang!»”

There’s no way to get close enough to any of them without getting yanked into danger himself, no matter how lucky he is — or without getting his bird flung to the ground and causing more trouble for the people on the ground than they already have. “«Fuck»,” he grunts, and Cliff’s groans from behind him draw his attention that way for a moment.

His hands on the controls turn the helicopter again toward the Factory so he can drop off the injured man and maybe come back with reinforcements — someone with a weapon more capable of doing damage than the rifle that’s only meant to break glass.

Reaching to switch on the PA he finds it already tipped to the on position. Fair as he is, Finn’s glad no one is there (or paying attention, anyway) to see his ears turn red when he realizes he’s been broadcasting to all. “«Gonna get some reinforcements if I can. Hang in there?»”

That’s not comforting.

Marlene screams. In the moment, she panics and freezes, but Lang isn’t about to let her get snagged away that easily. Scrunched-up blue eyes open just in time to watch her savior get batted away and then thrown about to face certain doom. “Joshua!” Futilely, she reaches out in the direction of the Seeker, as though she could pull him back.

The truck bounces hard and Marlene has to grab the side of the bed to keep herself steady. “No,” she gasps out, bewildered and staring at the piece of machinery that will only continue to malfunction for so long. “It’s insane this much has worked.” Something on her left goes whizzing by and her head turns. Even though they’re long past whatever it was, she stays facing that direction for a long moment before her attention turns back to the Seeker again.

“Well…” The ginger’s head tilts, considering with lifted brows. Her voice quavers as she posits, “Just like cornhole back home, right?” Rue clasps her hands in front of her face and stares hard at their pursuer, where Lang sits like some kind of hostage. “C’mon,” she mutters, “get the fuck out of the way.”

"Shit!" Carver swears viciously into his mask, in time with Finn's own exclamation over the PA; Finn seems to have done some damage, at least, but the $5.99 Calamari Platter from Hell isn't giving up the chase… and worse, Lang's gone now.

But… there's nothing Carver can do about it. Lang's gone, and that's that. All he can do now is try to keep his last remaining passenger safe and pray that they're able to put an end to this thing.

If Finn's getting reinforcements, then the odds of that are going up, at least… and from the sound of it, they've already got the party started up there. Is there another Octofucker waiting up there?

That awful thought is enough to make Carver positively yearn for something with enough firepower to actually do something. Something like…

…grenades? Are those grenades in the glove box?

Apparently not.

Carver lets out a strained breath. He's been pushing himself too hard; hopefully he doesn't hallucinate any terrain. He's pretty sure he's heading in the right direction, at least. Nothing for it but to keep driving, try to keep his (remaining) passenger safe, and hope they're able to handle what he's bringing to the party at the Firebreak.

Rue hears a clatter as a grenade pin lands in the bed of the truck. Then another. And another.

A moment later, inside the mouth of the beast, Lang looks up and hears a clattering sound and looks back behind himself. He stalls, watching as the Yellowjacket goes whizzing in the opposite direction, then down into the maw where he sees—


“Oh sweet mother fucker!” Lang screams, throwing himself from the mouth of the Seeker. He lands on the ground hard, rolls across his side and then has to dive out of the way of a slamming octopedal leg that crushes down in pursuit of the truck. The Seeker doesn’t even seem to notice Lang fell out of its mouth, mostly because a moment later its entire mouth explodes as three grenades detonate inside.

The Seeker lurches to the side and skids across the ground, and in the rear-view mirror Carver can see it actually diminishing in the distance before it struggles back up onto trembling segmented limbs. As it starts to gallop ahead again, there’s a crackle of electricity around one of its limbs that blooms in the shape of a human silhouette, like something just passed through the machine’s legs and elicited a shower of sparks from the mechanisms within.

The Seeker turns, tracks the movement, and then slams six of its limbs down into the dirt, presumably hitting nothing but thin air. By now the machine is a black dot in Carver’s rear-view mirror, but up ahead is an entirely different sight.

He’s driving out of the frying pan… and into the fire.


One Mile Away

Beyond the Fire Break

Elisa’s eyes slowly flutter open, and she finds herself staring at the half-broken face of a Hunter bot thrashing on the ground as Chris continues to land axe blows on its head. After the fourth or fifth strike, the Hunter’s head comes clean off and its body sprays coolant, hydraulic fluid, and oil across the ground in pulsing bursts. Elisa takes a moment to rationalize what she’s seeing, screams, and scrambles back alerting Chris to the fact that she’s both conscious and alive.

Up ahead, Dumortier has dismantled the other two Hunters from the inside out with verdant bloom, but the spider-legged nightmare marching out of the forest is something else entirely. It sprays fire from the end of its segmented, scorpion-like tail, and then fixes a gleaming red eye on Dumortier. By now he’s noticed something else, the wind has been shifting for a while, growing in intensity, blowing south. Not directly at Providence, but enough to fan the flames.

The machine continues to advance, a towering behemoth of metal and flame.

Blood pounds in Chris’ head like an echo to the pulsating fluids evacuating the decapitated Hunter. His eyes stare at the body, axe half raised and ready to swing again.

The sound of fire jetting into the air — different than the crackle and roar of the flames that consume and creep nearer to the clear cutting line, draws his eyes up to the new creature. His fingers tighten around the axe handle, but Elisa’s scream stops him from just running ahead.

No!” He snaps, shredding the two letter word with his grief and anger. Something just killed his horse, so, “You don't get to scream.”

He doesn't look over his shoulder as he yells at Elisa, he simply, absolutely, expects her to listen. In fact, he doesn't even stop to explain what's happening. He just reaches back to haul the woman to her feet so she can keep up when he starts running for Dumortier. Whether or not she follows him is up to her, right now he really only gives enough fucks to care that she can carry herself now. He figures she's smart, she'll stick close.

Releasing Elisa to her own devices, Chris cuts a path roughly toward Rene. And toward the fucking death machine. He's sort of splitting the difference, but whatever, he's running hard and fast while he's doing it. As he gets closer, the axe-wielding arm winds up then pitches forward. His stride breaks slightly on release, and he yells to add power, but he throws that axe like it’s the fucking Highlander Games championship at the monster robot.

The axe whirls end over end at the machine and bounces off of it like a tennis ball off a brick wall.


The sound of axe clanging off of the robot's hide is the sound of Dumortier's fear suddenly falling through his stomach; the second wave of realness sets in like a ball bearing in a mixing bowl, the courage he'd summoned to help Camilla is dripping through a sieve. Smoke stings eyes and lungs with renewed vigor, blood cold despite the swelter. Rene looks more clearly to the metallic debris and stained ground, lifting his focus once more to the thing homing in. Now it's not a kid he needs to save- - now it's himself- - and he's out of options already.

"Hhh…?" Blonde hair windblown in its tieback, his head swivels to find Chris at the origin of the throw. "The fuck are you doing?!" Dumortier snaps, coughing on his own breath. Still, he holds onto the writhing roots underfoot even as the mech spiders along, sputtering flame. How much fuel does it even have? Too much.

Rene doesn't interrogate Chris further, aching muscles lifting quaking hands in front of himself. The fire feels like it's spawned into his limbs, exhaustion prickling like needles under his skin. Running now, a death sentence regardless. Why this way? The noise and heat and shock bring back what he has worked hard to push down since war's end.

This isn't… It's not how this was supposed to go.

The roots below his feet break the surface in a circle around him, rising in a clockwise turn, thickening with folds of bark and lignified foliage, spiraling into mud-caked stalagmites.

“Away! Away! We run away from the war machine!” Elisa screams as she hurries behind Chris, eyes wide. When Chris comes to a stop Elisa is grabbing him by the wrist and trying to tug him back. “We need to go!”

The massive scorpion-like machine pivots toward the cluster of Dumortier, Chris, and Elisa and a pair of turret mounted assault rifles on its shoulders pivot toward them and click with the impotence of spent ammunition. The nightmare machine then turns the full mass of its body toward the trio, tail rising up behind it dripping liquid fire, and its monocular red eye narrows down to a fine point.

It’s going to burn them all.

A laugh erupts from Chris. The sound is a choked and throaty thing, made possible by a moment of panic when the axe tangs off the carapace of the monster. It's the sound a man might make when he's realized he's out of options. The sound cuts abruptly when he's tugged by an arm.

For a second he looks at Elisa, like she's nearly lost her damn mind or something. Never mind that he's the one that ran toward the fucking jabberwocky from hell. Telltale grinding and clicks snap his attention and irritation back to the robot a beat later. Every muscle in his body goes tense, bracing for gunfire that never happens. Someone should point at laugh at the monstrosity’s misfortune.

Maybe they can do that as a group later, when there isn't fucking fire everywhere and a Decepticon trying to murder them all.

Dumortier!” Chris swings his free hand out to grab the other man by the shoulder. Elisa’s right — for once — and it's time to go. “Time to move!” He turns, hopefully dragging Dumortier along, preferably with getting all three asses, including his own, in gear and running.

"It'll just fucking chase us!" As Chris tugs on Dumortier's shoulder, the ground moves with him, the blonde's voice strained against smoky air. It's becoming difficult to tell if he is being stubborn, or just despaired. It will chase us— why bother? As the ground slides underfoot, the bog beneath the surface layer roils with it. "I can— just—"

Though Rene does not tear himself from Chris' grasp, there is a moment of resistance before he is tugged from the spooling branches. They lurch after him like a mutant tumbleweed, splitting the soil in his wake, a gnarled tiller. It becomes a creature of its own, almost, the way in which it claws after and rises in snakes and snarls as if filled with yeast. Long threads of flaky roots are still attached to the agrokinetic's frame, tethering it, only in a fashion.

Dumortier barks as he's pulled back, stumbling after Chris and Elisa, "I can get the tail! I just need to get past it! We have no idea how much fuel—"

Leave him!” Elisa screams, and now she’s the one grabbing Chris’ wrist as the mechanized abomination continues to march ahead. “We have to get out of here!

Leave him!


A Half Mile Away

The Firebreak

Ollie Anderson clutches his neck with one hand and dark blood pulses between his fingers. His mouth works open and closed like a fish on dry land, his teeth pink for the effort. As Kara and Roxie advance past the smoking hulk of the Hunter bot, she sees a dozen deep perforations in Ollie’s neck, ragged and rough cut by the broken syringe he was stabbed with. The ground beneath him is thick with his blood, soupy. Ollie looks ashen, pale.

The high-pitched mechanical trill of that mechanized, skull-headed llama machine creates an eerie backdrop to Kara’s approach. The long-legged machine strides past her and Ollie with sure-footed certainty, throwing off the heat of an old factory furnace. The fibrous tendrils of metal spooling out from its eye sockets continue to drift in the air like the cilia of a barnacle.

Nearby, another Hunter thrashes in the deep mud near Rory, jaws working open and closed as it continues to sink into the supernaturally softened earth. Steam and bubbles of air pop and plop up from the mud’s surface and the nightmare machine’s inner workings whine in protest as the mud hardens from the heat, gumming up its servos. Yet, still, it fights.

Nearby, Rory can see the third Hunter on the other side of the firebreak raise its blood-soaked muzzle from the lineman it was savaging, turning glowing red eyes down on Roxie.

Nearby, in Byrne’s truck, Dave hunches forward and braces himself between the two front seats. Hearing the engine revving with Byrne’s foot against the accelerator, Dave’s eyes snap wide and he throws himself back against the rear bench seat, scrambling for a seat belt.

But there is a growing sound getting louder, the roar of a truck approaching from the direction of Providence, and a sound—a mechanical thudding gallop—that sends an icewater chill down Kara’s spine. She knows what it means:

The Fence failed.

This all feels like a nightmare. Or a bad joke. Like the button she pressed to summon these things a year and a half ago had worked on a timed delay and they were finally responding to the call. The urge to laugh is a hollow resonance inside her, beaten down by years of experience in dealing with chaos like this.

"Come on Anderson," Kara encourages Ollie through her mask as she kicks aside the husk of the Hunter bot. She tears off one of the thin gloves she's wearing, because it's all she has to offer, and tries to press it into his hand for him to apply to his neck. "You gotta get up. Get moving. No time to dawdle."

He's so pale, though, she knows. Would he even have the strength to stand? She hopes so. She knows no less bull-headed party.

"Come on," she repeats again tersely, trying to help hoist him up should he move. Her head turns at the sound of the octobot approaching, the sound of its galloping inspiring a fresh wave of adrenaline and a desire for her feet to move.

They had to get out of here. They all had to move or they'd be done for before the fire even had its turn at them.

Over a year ago, before she had died, Nathalie had been teaching Rory self-defense. He’d never really learned much more than the basic schoolyard scuffle growing up because he’d never had to. Even when he’d left the country of his birth he hadn’t learned much beyond that. He had never really been pressed into that kind of situation before. This kind of situation. But then he met her.

He’s not sure what she could have done against these things, but he’s sure she would have had some weapons to take them down. She had been a two-headed wolf hiding in the Wolfhound pack, after all. She knew things. With his grip on the shovel, he tries to split his attention, trying to find a bolder, a rock, something of suitable size— but all he finds is dirt. A lot of dirt.

So that’s what he uses.

A hundred kilos of rock and mud lift out of the ground and into a swarm. “Rox, run! Get to the truck!” he yells to the girl, as he sends that grit toward the robot that has turned her attention on her.

The earth, stone, and mud crashes into the Hunter, knocking it backwards and snapping its right foreleg off at the shoulder. Gears, springs, servo components and hydraulic fluid spray across the ground. The machine struggles to try and wright itself, half-buried by the airborne avalanche.

Byrne doesn’t immediately answer Dave’s question, opting instead to focus on driving the SUV as fast as possible over the strip of land where the firebreak still needs to be connected. The vehicle roars over thick roots surrounding tree stumps, hopping and turning violently toward their target.

“I’m going to cook the sentry. I’ll need you to—” he stops as the SUV lurches over rock. “There goes the subframe. I’ll probably need a second jug.” His voice is calm, if loud to be heard over the engine and collisions. He heads straight for the sentry bot, and as they close in on the machine’s rear legs, it’s not clear if he plans on stopping to avoid it.

“A second—” Dave’s thought is cut short when he sees the tall sentry rapidly getting closer through the windshield. “Oh shit!

Byrne’s truck collides with the llama-shaped Sentry at speed. The robot is struck at the legs, which snap like branches at the knees, sending the entire chassis of the robot crashing down on the hood of the truck. The llamabot’s head crashes into the windshield, shattering it and causing it to sag in toward the cab. Steam, heat, and smoke begins to erupt through the fissures in the glass along with a high-pitched mechanical scream.

Sinuous tendrils of metal start snaking their way through the openings in the window until Byrne slams on the brakes and sends the entire machine careening off of the hood. It pulls what’s left of the windshield straight out of the frame leaving the entire front of the SUV open to the smoke and wind. The llamabot crashes down onto the wet ground, writhing in place on four broken legs and braying a mechanical cry into the air.

Nearby, Ollie is dying.

It's like peering through holes in an old fence. Back when he was young, before things went bad, he and his brothers used to sneak to the fence by the old drive in. Armed with nothing but bags of homemade popcorn, orange drink, and a small portable radio for sound, they would take turns watching the features through the clapboard fence. That’s what his vision is like now. Bright in the center and all dark around the edges, and the brightness is getting smaller, like someone is pulling him away from the hole.

This woman wasn't in them though, Ollie wonders why she's interrupting it now. They just got to the good part, the fire and the smoke are clearing to white. It's almost time.

Wordlessly, Ollie swats at Kara with one of his meaty hands, trying to move her away. He's gasping for air, but it's mixed with a coppery liquid and somewhere in the noodle mixture in his head, he knows it's blood. He struggles, a little, just to show some effort so she'll just go, but he's exhausted. He just wants to watch the feature but his turn at the hole is over. The words get up are repeated, why.

And more importantly…

Where is his popcorn?

A terrified Roxie continues to crouch behind the tree, her and both dogs trembling - they sense her fear. She holds onto Bonnie like a lifeline, faces buried in the thick fur as she tries to push away the fear. Goober licks her neck and whines with worry, making her jump. “G-g-good pups,” she murmurs.

But then someone is calling her name, Roxie looks at Rory with confusion. Against her better judgement, she leans to look around the tree. Seeing those two red dots coming for her, it’s like ice water pouring over her. As the world narrows down to focus on that metallic nightmare, a sound of fear escapes her and she turns to run, dropping the dog to run with her. Who knows if it’s towards the truck. All she cares is she gets away from that.

“What the fuck are those fucking things!?!” Roxie shrieks as she runs, pulling Goober off her back and looping her bag over the front of her. It puts her between it and her precious companion. Bonnie manages to keep up, pausing only long enough to bark a warning at that thing to stay back and catching back up to her person.

As Roxie runs, past where Byrne drove his SUV into the llamabot she is the first to see Lang’s truck come barreling out of the smoke from the south along the road. She is also the first to see the horrifying sight of a two story tall machine carried on octopedal legs galloping out of the smoke, belching fire and steam from a circular maw at the center of its body.

Harrison Carver finally sees what’s happening at the Fire Break through the smoke shrouding his windshield. He sees young Roxie first, then the carnage behind her, the SESA truck belching steam out of a crumpled front end. A mechanical llama flailing around on the ground screaming like sheet metal in a blender. Kara on her knees in the firebreak trench, people scrambling in every direction. It’s a fucking warzone.

Carver's best efforts to open distance had bought only a little time, and now he's at the end of the road; they've arrived at the Firebreak.

It appears that the goddamn robots have beaten him here, too, which is another layer on this shit sandwich of a day; instead of a well-organized front that he can rally, the Firebreak has devolved into an already chaotic warzone, which is just fucking fantastic. Saves him the trouble of explaining the situation, at least, cold comfort as that may be. He hits the brakes — keenly aware that each second he's not driving at full speed is a second the octobot is closing distance — turning the steering wheel to the left to miss Roxie, then back to the right to cruise up to the edge of the trench, rolling his window down with all the frantic speed he can muster.

"KARA!" he bellows; the mask muffles his voice, but his drill sergeant voice had been the stuff of greenies' nightmares back in the day. "SQUID ON OUR THREE, COMING IN FAST! IT GOT LANG!" He's got one foot on the brake, but the other is lightly pressing on the gas — he doesn't trust Lang's bastard truck and doesn't want to give it even a half-chance to try and die on him.

Carver prays she's got something up her sleeve, and prays she's got it together enough to do something… because nothing he's got right now is gonna do jack shit about this.

Given the way she’s been watching the ‘bot gaining on them, Rue doesn’t realize what Carver’s coming up on. The redhead is knocked off her balance and hits the back window of the truck with a cry of surprise and a thud! against the glass before she slides back into the truck bed again.

“We have to go back!” she squeaks frantically, pounding one palm on the window after she scrambles back to her crouched position. “We can’t just leave—” Whatever else she’d been about to say dies in her mouth when she catches sight of what’s happening at the firebreak. Why Carver stopped the truck.

Turning back toward the horror at their back rather than the fresh hell they’re faced with, she looks to see if she has any of those grenades left. “Come on,” she mutters to herself, glancing back up and watching for something. “Come on!”

Byrne throws the SUV into park and reaches back, wrenching the water jug out of David’s hands as he kicks open the door and slides out onto the ground. “Stay back from the steam blasts, throw me another if I call for it,” he shouts to the man in the back seat.

He charges across the short length of open ground before dropping to his knees beside the sentry’s mangled frame. He drops the jug onto the ground beside him and places one hand on it, the other reaching into the tangle of metal for something not directly connected to the machine’s heat sink.

Frost immediately begins to blossom inside the jug around where his hand rests on it as steam simultaneously rises from the sentry where its own coolant had collected on its exterior. He puts everything he has into the conduction, not feeling the cold of the outdoors or the heat rippling from his target. While he conducts heat from the water even a direct blast of steam would feel like a spring mist to him.

Roxie stops like a deer in the headlights when she sees the truck barreling down on her. With no time to move, she can only watch it swerve to miss her. The canine telepath follows the truck as it goes towards the ditch. “Hey!” What about her?

Meanwhile, Bonnie stands tight against her legs, muscles twitching, in a desire to chase… but the commands in her head stop her. That doesn’t stop her from suddenly erupting into sharp tones barking at something behind them.

A series of thuds behind her has Roxie whipping back around to look the direction the truck came from. Her head tilts back to look up at the giant robot she’s in the path of. There is no way that her eyes could get any wider when she notices the mouth of it.

That’s all she needed to see to get her moving, her arms tighten around Goober and she turns to run. Fleeing into the woods, hoping that she can lose it or slow it down… something.

Ollie bats Kara away from him, and with a tightened throat, she lets him fight her off. The roar of the SUV running across the firebreak line is encouragement enough. Blinking hard behind her mask, she turns one last look down at Ollie, a frustrated keen catching before being fully expelled, and then the sounds of the rest of the chaos filter back in all at once.

She hears— Carver?

He very nearly doesn't careen into the trench like the truck they'd had to rescue earlier, approaching quickly enough it jolts her back. She takes that step to use it as momentum enough to jump up out of the firebreak, her now-bared hand digging into the cold mud as she hoists herself up.

"I don't have a fucking gun!" Kara bellows loud enough Carver, Marlene, and whoever the fuck else is nearby can hear. "We gotta get it away from here." Scrambling into the truckbed even while the truck idles forward, with grit teeth she looks back to the approaching bot, wondering if the single ping on its radar in the back of the truck will be enough to keep its focus on them.

Single. Single and a half or a quarter or whatever she shows up as to that thing after what Rianna Price did to her.

"There's an unspoiled minefield around the Factory. If we get it to follow us, maybe we can get it to trip something. And if not, there's the big fuck-off gun we stole from Praxis in the armory." It might've been their promised reward, actually, and it was just the truck that carried it that she and Eileen stole, but that's semantics at this juncture.

"Come on, you sorry sack of shit, keep chasing us!" she snarls back at the octobot, waving her muddied hand in the air at it while holding on fiercely tight to the truck's frame with her gloved one. "You're a two-bit hand-blender, and I'll be damned if you're the last one of you we take apart today!"

The world's on fire in two or more directions and Kara's swearing left and right. Hell has come its way up to the surface.

There’s only so much that Rory can do. Instinct tells him to go for one of the vehicles and hope that they can out run it, or to dig himself a hole and hope to hide it out. But from what he had heard in the refugee camps, once those bots had your scent, there was no escape. That’s what some of the Expressives who had spoken to them had said. One had to hope a bigger target came along, or that there was something around to take it down…

As Roxie starts to run off towards the woods, he grits his teeth under the taste of metal. There’s another truck, fleeing—

Fleeing more. There was something worse that might be coming, something behind them. The dust and debris continues to move, this time swirling a little around him, becoming almost unconscious. As if the dust in the air were acting as a barrier. A warning. A warning he might need, because he’s now closing his eyes and relying entirely on his sense of the earth around him.

The dust in the air, the earth under his feet. The sediment, the ground, everything. He reaches out, even further than before. Not just outward, though, but down.

They were sent to dig a ditch to stop a fire. But if they couldn’t stop these robots, he would make sure they were buried along with that fire.

Over by the SUV, scalding steam and horrific mechanical cries erupt from the llamabot as the Sentry writhes under exposure to Byrne’s cryokinetic energy conversion. The superheated chassis of the machine buckles and bends under the sudden thermal shift, and a high-school science class lesson becomes a weapon of war in the hands of Agent Byrne.

David watches on from the front seat of the SUV, jug of water in hand as Byrne rapidly shifts the temperature of the Sentinel. He hands off the second jug when Byrne reaches out for it, and another blast of steam is this time accompanied by a gunshot-loud crack of the Sentinel’s central housing cracking straight down the middle from the change in temperature. Internal components collide with shrapnel and the machine rattles itself apart like a car with a seized engine.

Byrne watches the light in the Sentinel’s red eyes go out as its hair-fine tendrils fall limp in a single mass. But the machine-noises have not abated. As Byrne turns, looking to the new sound, he can see the nearly fifteen foot tall octopedal machine thundering across the road toward the Fire Break.

From the back of Carver’s truck, Kara could see no sign of the others who had gone off past the Fire Break. No sign of Dumortier, Chris, or close to a half dozen others. Bile rises up in the back of her throat.

“We gotta go,” Dave says to Byrne, taking a step back and phasing through the SUV as though it wasn’t even there until he gets to the other side, waving Byrne toward Carver’s truck. “C’mon before that thing catches up!”

In the back of Carver’s truck, Rue can see Roxie running off into the treeline, but what she can’t see is the ghostly silhouette that was fighting the machine during the chase.

Kara wasn’t the only one with bile in the back of their throat.


Several Miles Away

New Jersey Pine Barrens

There is no one on the ground as the Yellowjacket touches down in an expansive stretch of farmland behind the home of Johannes Moser, Providence’s veterinarian-come-medic. Cliff has gone silent behind Finn, his face ashen and blood pooling across the deck of the helicopter and pooling in the runners. The tourniquet looks to still be in place, but it’s hard to tell if its sufficient enough.

With the roots still winding down, the Yellowjacket’s downdraft has cleared some of the immediate smoke from around the aircraft. A handful of stubborn Providence residents have come running from the farm across the road to the helicopter, neither of whom have any medical training. With the settlement in the midst of evacuation, Finn wonders if there’ll be anyone to receive Cliff.

The teal-haired woman in the leather jacket rushing up to the helicopter is loosely familiar to Finn. Clover Hull, she hangs around with Dumortier, helps repair the solar panels when they go on the fritz. She’s with the local beekeeper, the elderly Antje Kallenbach.

The pilot hops out of his seat and stumbles to Cliff, assessing the situation and the lack of medical assistance. He regards Cliff helplessly — Finn’s own basic first aid is not enough for this sort of wound, though he does reach for the oxygen tank, fitting the mask over the man’s face gingerly, then pulls a blanket roll down from where it was hung on the wall of the helicopter. Elevation is a bit tricky without someone there to help — and he’s not sure if he’s offloading or not at the moment.

Finn turns to regard the two women running up to help. “He needs to get to the next closest town if he has any chance unless we got a healer in our pocket I didn’t know about,” he calls. “It’s a shit show out there, and the fire isn’t even the only star. Haven’t even had a chance to drop Yellowjacket’s load. You guys want a lift out?”

Antje looks at Cliff with visible worry creasing her features. Hull gives her a look, then Finn with equal concern. “There’s one last truck loading up right now, get him out of the helicopter and we can load him up but…”

“Johannes isn’t that far away.” Antje suddenly says, walking over to the helicopter to brush Cliff’s hair out of his face. “Fine,” she says sharply, then looks over her shoulder to Hull. “I will go. But only to make sure this one is okay. Then, I come back for my bees.”

It sounds like Finn arrived in the middle of a disagreement over evacuation.

“C’mon,” Hull says, crowding over by Antje. Nearby, a handful of other holdover residents of Providence are closing in, having seen the Yellowjacket’s arrival. Hull waves them over to help her get Cliff out of the vehicle.

“How bad is it?” Hull asks Finn, her eyes locked on him. “Have you seen Dumi?”

Finn runs his hands over his face, and he shakes his head. “Haven’t seen him,” he says, apologetically. “Been in a dance-off with Doc Ock meets Unicron out there, so honestly I haven’t seen that much of anyone, not even the fire. I left Carver and Lang and not-Rue behind after breaking its teeth — I hope, anyway — but this shit rifle can’t do much against that thing, and Cliff here wasn’t lookin’ too good so I turned back.”

Grimacing, the pilot’s clearly worried about this choice, as the words tumble out fast like an auctioneer’s, because time is of the essence.

“If you’ve got Cliff, I’ll go back and see what else I can do, aside from just dousing some flames like I was planning to before Squidworth threw a wrench in the works,” Finn says. “Anyone here has anything stronger than this piece of shit rifle, hop in and we can see if we can help take that piece of fin out.”

Hull’s eyes track to the damage on the Yellowjacket’s right runner, the twisting tears cut through the metal. Her brows pinch together, eyes angle back up to Finn. Doc Ock meets Unicron rattles around in her skull. Squidworth. The pit of her stomach sinks, but she’d never heard the stories, doesn’t know what it is that she’s hearing about. Dumortier told her to stay, and it takes everything Hull is to listen to that advice.

Antje presses a ring of keys into Hull’s hand, drawing her from her thoughts. “Trevor’s truck,” the old woman says of the keys. “Go get it started.”

Hull blinks twice, looks at the keys, then over to Finn. Her jaw sets, throat works up and down. “If you find him, you make sure he gets his scrawny ass back here safe.” She says before looking at Antje, then past her to the partly-visible silhouette of a pickup truck in the smoke. Hull breaks away in a sprint for it. Meanwhile, the small crowd that’s gathered has hauled Cliff out of the Yellowjacket.

It had already taken so long. Finn’s stomach twists at the thought of what must be going on back at the Fire Break.

He’s got to go back.


Several Miles Away

Beyond the Fire Break

Leave him!

Pointed legs of rusted steel split logs in their path. Thousands of pounds of military hardware advances at a marching pace, a monocular red eye gleaming amid the orange haze of flames, smoke, and embers that drift like fireflies in the air.

Elisa’s voice rings out again amid the sound of splitting wood, whining hydraulics, and dread. “Leave him!

Elisa screams, grabbing Chris’ wrist as the mechanized abomination continues to march ahead. “We have to get out of here!

“Dumortier! Let's go!” If there was ever a time to forego heroics, this would be it. And like fucking hell is Chris going run off and let the other man play hero. He tries to shake free of Elisa’s grip — damn woman is more clingy than flies on shit — and keep a hold of Dumortier’s shoulder at the same time.

Chris’ grip slips and he loses Dumortier. Elisa’s got some kind of death grip on his own arm, but it's the sudden break in oppositional pulling that really sends him back into the woman. There's probably some law of physics that better defines the outcome, but with all the screaming and fire and fucking robot, no one can think of what that law is right now. Basically, the abrupt split sends Chris stumbling backward into Elisa.

The moment Chris feels his fingers slip from Dumortier's shoulder, the smaller man darts even further out of grasp.

"It's not fucking getting to the fucking caravan!" Even if it wasn't supposed to be this way, they're here now. Even though all of this is wrong and unfair, they're here now. As much as he wants to go with Chris- - Dumortier's warbled tunnel-vision can only see fire and metal, and intrusive pictures of possibilities flash reel after reel in his head. The worst can only get worse, leaving only the taste and feel of greasy ash.

That roiling vegetative mass which had been lurching after Rene catches up and gathers around him once more. When their master steps forward, they follow, a loyal, spiraling funnel of limbs and thorns, ripping hunks of moss from the earth as it goes, wet soil churned as if from a tilling.

One thing about this mech he can rely on is that proven steady march, methodically predictable.

In the coming seconds, the cyclonic shape of roots and flora rears up and impacts with the scorpion; the sound is deep and crackling, almost like the sound of a car being flung from a hillside. While most of the plants supply this uppercut, Dumortier tucks and rolls underneath of the robot's belly. Vines still trailing in his wake meet the metal with invasive fervor. Spidery black and green webs up the tail's length, clawing to overtake the fiery weapon. Rene can feel the burning air in his lungs and the throb in his limbs, the blood in his mouth and dryness of his eyes.

It feels intimately like the memories of war-time bombs that always follow him around, fresher in the shade of danger. The blood and fire more than the rest. Screaming, somewhere at the back of one's hearing. Dumortier isn't registering Elisa's voice as hers. Just distance and noise. One more noise, amidst the shudder of mechanical legs and the buffet of one solid construct against another, whirring hums join the pound of heart in his ears.

Deep down he knows this was a bad idea.

Fortunately(?), his life is a vast series of bad ideas.

This, one of them.

The last thing Chris remembers seeing is Dumortier silhouette by the massive machine, before his world becomes a muted, gaussian blur. It’s like he suddenly lost his vision, as if vaseline had been smeared over his eyes. But the only thing he can see clearly is Elisa. She’s the only thing in focus. “This won’t last long,” Elisa says.

She’s doing this.

“We have to run!”

Dumortier does not see Chris and Elisa vanish into phased space. All he sees is the mechanical pincer arm of the horrific machine come down at him, grabbing at his torso. The machine lifts him up with this spidery arm, snapping roots and vines that had anchored Dumortier to the ground. When the robot tries to lunge with its other arm into Dumortier, it finds its limb restrained by more vegetation, blooming with brightly-colored flowers. More work their way inside the metal chassis, wind around its limbs, push between gears, intrude on servos and delicate circuitboards.

Thorns erupt from within the robot’s optical sensor, shattering the lens of its eye. The machine screams. In this same moment, Dumortier is wound around by creeping vines, twisting roots, and crawling moss. The verdant tsunami of his ability becomes a slow-acting lignification, like a medusa’s gaze turning a man to stone. The robot struggles against the intrusion of plant matter, its pincer arm squeezes around Dumortier’s torso. Ribs snap like branches.

The machine howls, a roaring and whining thing as smoke begins to issue forth from its chassis. Whining, straining, protesting mechanical parts fight against the plant matter inside and grind against one-another. Mushrooms bloom in flowering growths along the robot’s tail as it tries to lower it down. Dumortier can see it with his one good eye, the other covered by flaking bark and blossoming flowers.

The machine screams, its flamethrower ignites. A cone of roaring fire bathes over Dumortier, obliterating the flowers, rendering them into swirling motes of ember and ash. Bark peels away in strips, smoke billows off of his blackening body, and both he and the machine’s screams are joined as one.

Then, a thorn punctures the fuel line.


A Half Mile Away

The Firebreak

Sixty foot long tentacles of segmented carbon-fiber and steel whirl through the air like high tension cables snapped in a storm. Trees are uprooted from the ground, others split in half. The horrific monstrosity’s spinning circular grinder mouth showers with sparks, no longer functioning. But this nightmare of another dimension is relentless.

As Kara piles into the back of Carver’s truck with Rue, the DoEA Seeker pays her no heed. The concentration of SLC Expressives in that direction is insignificant to the number closer to the firebreak. A line worker caught between the seeker and its quarry is instantly trampled flat as he is struck by one of the tentacles and his broken body mashed into the soil.

A few hundred feet away, Roxie is still putting ground between her and the machine, but she can hear the panicked cries of those left behind over the braying of her dogs. Fear is a powerful motivator, as is empathy, and Roxie’s telepathic bond with her dogs feeds their fear into her.

Byrne can see the bulbous central body of the Seeker aloft in the air, carried on its octopedal limbs. Dave, grabbing at Byrne’s collar, mumbles something about, “Forget the truck,” and is trying to pull Byrne backwards toward the fire break, toward anywhere that mechanical nightmare isn’t.

Nearby, Rory stands in the blood-soaked ground beside Ollie’s corpse.

That’s when the forest explodes.

The Seeker’s monocular eye lifts up from Byrne, watching the plume of smoke and flames from a massive explosion just a half mile away. The blast hits a moment later, not strong enough to knock anyone over, but enough to kick up a cloud of dust and rattle the lungs. The Seeker, momentarily distracted by the massive explosion, narrows its eye to a pinpoint focus.

“Kara!” It takes just about everything Rue – Marlene – has not to throw her arms around her friend once she’s clamored into the bed of the truck as well. “We left Joshua behind!” she explains, arm outstretched and finger pointing the way they came, wagging for emphasis. “The ‘bot had him, but—” She makes one more check for any of those grenades rolling around. “He got free, but we just kept driving.”

It’s clear that the redhead believes they need to find a way to go back. They have to find Lang. It’s not that she can’t see or appreciate what’s happened here, but her personal concerns are elsewhere, selfishly. When the Seeker begins to turn away, Rue’s arm drops back to her side, staring with wide eyes and waiting for something to happen.

The explosion, which sees her screaming, ducking her head and covering with her arms, is not it. “What was that?!”

Kara's entire plan hinged on the robot monstrosity following them, and it's not. Her hand slams against the side of the truckbed. "Fuck." She's bowed her head, trying to think, when Marlene announces Lang wasn't got the way that Carver had seen it. There's not even time to consider it before the distance explodes.

The mask she wears over her face still makes it difficult to see, or properly read the expression of conflict she wears, eyes closing hard for a moment before she turns back to the cab of the truck. "New plan— get everyone we can into the truck to get as many people as we can out of here. You let me drive, and we'll take the clowncar to wherever there's safety."

Away from the fire. Away from the robots. Away, regrettably, from Providence.

Byrne has little time to appreciate the horror of the Seeker before being buffeted by the pressure wave of the explosion. While he can’t do anything about the Seeker, there’s still one Hunter left on the ground and there are people on this side of the firebreak. He lunges the few feet back to the SUV, throwing himself into the driver’s seat. He cuts the wheel hard and hits the gas, bouncing over the steaming Sentry.

Roxie has no idea what is going on behind her, but when things explode behind her, the feeling of concussion at her back makes her stumble a few steps. Tree bark is sharp against the palm of her hand, scraping it when she catches herself and comes to a stop. Bending over with a hand on her knee, she gasps heavily trying to catch her breath.

“Fuck… fuck… fuck…” That word passes Roxie’s lips with each heavy exhale of her breath.

Bonnie circles around the woman and the tree she leans a shoulder against, barking sharply like Come on! Meanwhile, Goobers decided he’s had enough of this shit and ducks down into the pack with a growled groan.

Looking behind her, Roxie watches the road and the chaos just beyond her with wide eyes. Honestly, she didn’t owe these people anything… well, except Rory… but he told her to run. It’s a dilemma… well at least until she sees a robot looking her way.

F u c k!” Wrapping an arm around the pup filled back and whistling for Bonnie, Roxie bolts in the opposite direction of the robot, not sure where she’s going or what’s waiting for her just ahead.

The explosion sends destabilizing shockwaves into the ground for miles. It may not knock anyone off their feet, but Rory can feel the small tremors in the ground. He can feel the places where the earth wants to buckle and falter, where the ground is too soft or too saturated. Where the dirt is disturbed and loose. The longer he stands there, sending his senses into the ground through the stone tool that he had been using to dig the firebreak, the more he feels, the deeper he feels.

He rides the waves of the explosion, feels the blood seeping into the earth at his feet, the dust shifting in the air around him, the debris blowing around.

He can even feel the metal creature struggling in the mud, trying to escape. Less the creature, more the mud that it struggles through. “Sorry, Nat,” he apologizes quietly to someone who part of him wants to believe can hear him somehow. Both his hands brace around the shovel’s stone haft— and he pushes it down—

Down into the earth. Where it sinks like a knife into butter.

All the actual dust in the air around him suddenly collapses down to the earth, about half of the debris dropping from the sky as if iron pulled by a magnet. Much of the ash remains, particles of burnt wood, but perhaps, that is the first warning, as he drops to his knees, the stone weapon sinking in until his gripped hands touch the ground.

Whatever it was that blew up over there, it's bought them a couple of seconds — time enough to change drivers, at least. A plan crystallizes in Carver's mind. He nods, and he pops the driver's side door open — a silent invitation to Kara.

Across the broken ground, Dave lunges for Byrne’s truck and throws himself at the closed passenger-side door and—

—passes straight through it.

Dave lands sideways in the passenger seat, eyes cooling from a brilliant gold back to their normal, paler hue as he solidifies. “Sorry!” Dave calls out. “Not—uh—eager to be left behind.” He rights himself in the driver seat, looking into the side view window at the massive tentacled robot angling a look their way. “Oh fuck, fuck, fuck,” he curses at the window, “this is insane. This can’t be happening.”

The Seeker pivots its massive body, tentacles grinding into the soil, monocular eye focused down on Byrne’s truck. But after a moment its attention drifts, angling back toward Carver’s as Byrne’s vehicle careens over the uneven ground. The Seeker starts to move, tentacles smashing across the soil.

Byrne’s SUV hits a berm and is launched a couple of feet into the air, soaring straight toward the remaining Hunter that has crossed the Fire Break toward the others. His vehicle collides with it at close to fifty miles per hour. The already damaged engine block erupts in an explosion of steam as the radiator is pulverized by the armored mass. One of the Hunter’s legs goes bouncing over the hood and collides with the already cracked windshield, punching through between where Byrne and Dave are seated. The foot is still twitching after punching through the glass.

The SUV bounces and skids another twenty feet before colliding with a tree and pinning the already mangled hunter between the radiator and tree. The impact sends Byrne lurching forward, seat-belt snapping taut. Dave, braced for the impact, doesn’t phase in time and smacks his head against the dashboard, then bounces to the side and knocks his head off of the passenger side window. There’s a small smudge of blood there after the fact.

The Hunter, still active, writhes and churns where it’s pinned. The machine’s skeletal jaws snap open and closed and hydraulic fluid spraying from its broken lines spatters like blood on the SUV’s hood.

Not far away, the Seeker begins to advance on Carver’s truck as the handful of surviving line workers pile in the back. But as it crosses Rory’s field of view, the machine sinks a good six feet into the ground, and its tentacles lash out around it, trying to grab a hold of something solid in the sudden sea of quicksand.

The Seeker writhes and twists, turning its glowing red eye at Rory as if it knows he’s responsible somehow. Tentacled limbs with clawed pincers on the end lash out toward him, digging deep into the earth as they fall short, but try nonetheless to haul its mass out of the quicksand.

Meanwhile, in the bed of Carver’s truck, Rue catches sight of something through the smoke. A shape, running through the smoke diagonally away from the Fire Break. Not Roxy, and with the direction, the size, it—

—could it be?

Shit,” Byrne says as he takes a moment to look over Dave, wincing, but decides to deal with the threat before triage. He hops out of the driver’s seat, rounding the mangled hood. He draws his pistol, squaring himself to the Hunter’s head before pulling the trigger until he’s satisfied it’s neutralized.

He turns to watch the Seeker thrash against the mire it’s found itself in before rounding the tree to open the passenger door. He’s careful not to let Dave move too much as he checks the severity of the man’s injury.

Dave is still groggily conscious, looking dazed from the impact. He turns bleary eyes toward Byrne and cough-laughs awkwardly at the agent. His head injury doesn’t look too bad, he’s only bleeding a little and the impact doesn’t appear to have been hard enough to give him a concussion; still, he’ll need to get looked at by someone.

“Forgot m’seatbelt,” Dave says with a groan, then turns toward the sound of whining hydraulics to look at the massive, flailing machine struggling in a swampy morass just outside the window.

“Oh,” Dave whispers. “Oh right.

Not far away, moving through a stand of trees, Roxie flinches at the sound of crunching metal behind her, but though she momentarily hesitates, Roxie doesn’t stop. There is no knowing what happened and she didn’t plan on risking Goober or Bonnie to go peek. Not to mention, for all any of them knew there were more out there.

Maybe that should have prompted her to turn back, since there was safety in numbers, but Roxie didn’t know if there was protection there. They could just throw her to the robots and run…. Of course, there was Rory… but he was one person. She didn’t know these people all that well. For so long she’s lived watching out for herself and Goober, it’s not hard for her to fall on those old instincts and keep moving. Away from the people, away from the fire, away from those motherfucking robots.

It’s a good thing Kara’s decided to drive the truck. It means she’s occupied when Rue has her moment of indecision. When anyone who would actually be watching her — which is currently approximately nobody, given the wealth of better points to focus on — would be able to see her muscles tensing, the way her body prepares to cash the check her poor instincts are currently writing.

It’s a horrible choice to make. She sits so close to a chance at safety. The Seeker is being actively fought against. They could feasibly outrun it, couldn’t they? This would be their chance. But what she’s seen…

…she can’t ignore.

“Sorry, Kara,” Rue mutters under her breath before she vaults out of the bed of the truck and goes running toward the smoke, following the whtie rabbit wherever it may lead her.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck." The dam is broken in Kara now, curses flowing like the salve that'll keep her together, even if it's done quietly. With the cabal of people now in the back of the truck, she can barely see out the rearview mirror, much less the side-mirror. She doesn't even know Marlene has taken off. She turns to Carver next to her to give him an uncertain look before the screech of the robot brings her hands to seize on the wheel.

She can see that out of the side-view just fine. "We're rolling!" Kara shouts her warning to those in the back, hearing and feeling the truck take more energy to begin moving again. She looks out the window in some kind of final headcount of those who weren't already running.

She wishes they had time to collect Ollie.

"Rory!" Kara screams out the window instead. She doesn't want to lose anyone else today. "Come on!"

Carver slides over to the passenger side, his hand reaching for the door… but wait. The All It Can Eat Calamari Challenge is focused on them again; there's hope after all. They might yet be able to kite the damnable landsquid into a claymore or six.

But now that Carver's no longer driving, he has time to check the side mirror; he catches a glimpse of Marlene staggering off into the apocalypse glow, and his eyes go wide behind his mask. For a second, he debates jumping out anyway. But…

What could he do, aside from get himself killed? Saving someone who doesn't want to be saved is always a nasty proposition, and here and now, under attack from a goddamn mobile siege weapon

…no. It's a fight he can't win. It's a fight he couldn't have won at his prime, and now… now he's far past that. He's been burning the candle at both ends, begging, stealing, and borrowing enough grit to keep going until the crisis was over… well, he's burned about all the candle he can burn. Still, he rolls the window down and makes an exaggerated come on gesture to Rory; he doesn't want to lose anyone else, either.


For the briefest moments, the young brit mistakes the voice for belonging to someone else entirely. Someone whose voice Rory very much knows it couldn’t be, but it’s enough to make him open his eyes and look up from where he had been focused, enough to look across everything to the vehicles and the squid moving in the ground and all the distance between them. The respirator, perhaps, will keep him from responding. At least out loud. But sometimes someone doesn’t need to say anything.

Sometimes they just need to shake their head.

He wasn’t going anywhere.

And neither were the robots.

His hands grip the stone shovel handle and this time he twists it, like a key being twisted in a door. It was an unnecessary movement, unrequired for what needed to occur— but he often preferred something tactile, something solid to focus on. The ground that had been opened up, made more porous and welcoming of the moisture that built in the swamp, suddenly found itself—

Changed even more. His vision darkening, Rory, and his shovel, sunk down.

Into the earth.

The noise is unlike anything on this earth. The sound of rumbling and the shaking of the ground, a localized tremor like an earthquake that shakes the trees, rattles windows, and sends what few birds hadn’t fled scattering into the sky. The Seeker is sucked down into a churning whirlpool of softened earth, tentacled limbs windmilling in the air, trying to get purchase on anything.

One limb lashes out, striking the hood of Byrne’s SUV. The noise causes Dave to let out a shriek and jolt upright. The clawed appendage grabs a hold of the hood, of the engine block beneath, and it begins dragging the truck into the abyss. Dave scrambles, hands pawing at Byrne, at the door, at anything. But then there’s a metallic snap as a huge piece of the hybrid electric motor comes off and the Seeker’s limb jerks back like a snapped high-tension cable.

Ollie’s body follows the flow of the slowly turning vortex of wet earth, dragged along by Rory’s sacrifice. Soon he disappears beneath the swirling sea of soil, lost amid the detritus of the land and the writhing panic of the Seeker trying to pull itself free. The wrecked carcass of the llama-like robot soon joins the churning mass, crushed further by the Seeker as it tries to avoid its fate.

Byrne’s SUV pitches forward, front tires caught in the edge of the sinkhole and the vehicle begins to slide down the embankment toward the Seeker. Dave, seeing this happening, grabs Byrne by the chest and kicks off the floorboard of the SUV, turning both he and Byrne intangible and sending the world into a gaussian blur of ghostly otherworldly light. Dave and Byrne, weightlessly, push through the roof of the SUV and resolidify in mid-air, crashing down at the edge of Rory’s sinkhole.

Dave rolls onto his back, bleeding from one of his glowing gold eyes. He coughs, which turns into laughter as he stares up at the orange, smoke-filled sky.

The last thing Kara and the others in the truck see is a single tentacle of the Seeker pulled down like a spaghetti noodle into the whirling maw of the sinkhole, but the rumble does not stop. Trees shake and shudder, the ground rumbles, and as Dave and Byrne crawl away from the sinkhole there is a brief moment of stillness.


an explosion.


Somewhere in the Woods

Rue Lancaster’s feet thunder on the dry, crunching soil underfoot. Burning embers dance through the air, flakes of ash collect on her skin, smudging dark gray patches against pale. The shadow she’d been chasing through the smoke is gone, and she can’t tell if the ghost she was chasing was real or a part of her imagination.

In the distance there is the sound of a thunderous explosion—another explosion—one that shakes the ground so hard it knocks her off of her feet, sends her tumbling to the ground and then down a sloping embankment. Rue bounces and tumbles down a leaf-strewn hill, collides with a small dead tree and breaks straight through it, is thrown up into the air, strikes a rock and continues to roll until she lands at the bottom of the hill, bleeding from several abrasions.

Chest rising and falling, respirator partway off her face, Rue’s body aches. It’s ached for months, though. But this ache is new. Struggling to sit up, Rue hears the crunching of leaves and the movement of someone outside of her field of view. All she can smell now is death and smoke.

A shadow emerges through the haze, but it is not the grim reaper many might anticipate in this neck of the woods. It isn’t the Jersey Devil as many called him.

It’s a girl.

“Marlene?” Camilla Ball looks terrified as she edges into Rue’s field of view, blood running from a cut on her forehead, dirt caked on her face and arms. She hurries over to Rue’s side, taking a knee and looking over the redhead’s injuries. They don’t seem serious. Camilla turns wide eyes toward where the explosion came from, then down to Rue. “It’s okay, I’m—I’ll get help.”

But just as Camilla says that, she hears the sound of approaching help.

Of approaching rescue.

An approaching helicopter.



The Fire Break

Wet earth is still falling from the sky.

From Byrne’s perspective, he can see the back half of his SUV and the back half alone. It’s been flipped onto its roof some sixty feet away from where the explosion erupted from the ground. The front half is scattered as a field of metal debris all around them. Dave is wide-eyed, ears ringing, watching the same scene.

The sound of a helicopter’s approach roars overhead, but the smoke is too thick to make the vehicle out, but it continues northeast past the fire break.

In Carver’s truck, the group that had been prepared to leave and draw the Seeker away no longer find themselves with a compelling reason to do so. The handful of line workers who were in the bed of the truck rise up and look around, stunned by what they’ve witnessed today. One of them shouts over the tinnitus whining in his ears, points past the Fire Break where a pair of shadows are emerging through the smoke.

Chris and Elisa stumble out of the smoke, covered in dirt and blood.

Dumortier is not with them.


Somewhere in the Woods

The dark shadow of a helicopter appears over head, slowly descending down through an opening in the treeline. Camilla doesn’t look surprised, and as Rue drifts in and out of consciousness, she lifts the redhead up with the air of her telekinesis and hooks one of her arms around her shoulder. Then, standing, starts hauling Rue toward the clearing where the helicopter is landing.

Four wheels touch down, twin rotors churn up a whirling hurricane of smoke. Through bleary, tunneled vision, Rue sees the shape of a gray military helicopter, not the Yellowjacket. Camilla continues to lead Rue toward the vehicle unimpeded, and Rue can hear the hydraulic whine of the large helicopter’s back ramp slowly opening. Cabin lights inside bloom bright, silhouettes of multiple figures cast against the gloom of the smoke.

Camilla squints, coughing into her respirator, and slowly lowers Rue to the ground as multiple men in body armor and respirator masks emerge from the back of the helicopter, assault rifles trained on the young woman. They speak a language neither Rue nor Camilla understand. They bear no flags, no symbols, no allegiance. Save for one.

A wolf’s head.

For a moment, Rue feels a pang of regret. The Hounds have found her. But something doesn’t fit. The pair of figures last to descend from the helicopter ramp don’t look like Devon and Avi come to collect their due, and as the smoke clears under the helicopter’s rotors, she realizes that something is terribly wrong.

“Where’s Elisa?” A man asks in the smoke. Camilla shakes her head and shrugs, helplessly.

“I don’t know. She might be dead. There was this huge—”

“Fine.” The man cuts Camilla off, and he steps into view with a gray-haired woman at his side, and both turn their attention down to Rue.

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“She’s more valuable anyway.”


A Half Mile Away

Beyond the Fire Break

Fire has consumed what was left of the forest.

Smoldering wreckage of a massive war machine lay scattered across the forest floor, twisted limbs, a shattered tail, broken pincers. The bodies of a dozen line workers lay amid the wreckage, derelict Hunter bots, trees blown into splinters by the fuel explosion.

The fire struggles to find purchase past this point.

Amid the swirling smoke, there is a blackened mass that was not completely destroyed by the blast. Roots, bark, moss, and flesh all charred into a mostly unrecognizable pillar. Like the people turned into pillars of salt by God’s wrath. Part of a face is visible forged of twisted wood knots and blackened flesh burned down to the bone.


Smoke winds up from a single empty eye socket, skin still sizzles where flames ripped across it. Wood smolders and pops, moss is blackened into a crunchy carpet of dead vegetation, and one of Dumortier’s arms, outstretched like a branch and covered in thick armor of bark and vines, ripples with heat.


And a sprig of green rises up from within, a single tenacious vine with a bud on the end.

One that blooms into an orange flower

with eight petals.

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