Dragonslayer, Part II


asi3_icon.gif avi_icon.gif colette4_icon.gif cyrus_icon.gif dearing_icon.gif devon2_icon.gif francis_icon.gif

hull_icon.gif huruma_icon.gif lucille3_icon.gif reed_icon.gif rue3_icon.gif scott_icon.gif yi-min_icon.gif

Scene Title Dragonslayer, Part II
Synopsis Wolfhound heads to Praxia to disrupt Adam Monroe's operation ahead of a US Military strike on the area.
Date February 28, 2020

Sea birds cry out over the treetops of redwoods towering over the rolling hills.

The air is crisp and damp in the deep forest, each breath a person takes visible as a little puff of steam. Yet for the chill in the air, it’s still remarkably warmer than New York this time of year. Not far away, the sleek black outline of the Tlanuwa can be seen between the trees where they break apart into a forested clearing.

“How long d’you think it’ll take to make contact?” Avi Epstein has been nervous all day. Nervous about the operation, nervous about the timing, nervous about any single person on the team making it out alive — let alone without being locked up in some Chinese prison if this goes wrong. There’s not concern for Cyrus Karr in his voice when he poses that question, but concern for his crew.

Cyrus isn’t Wolfhound, but for all his worth he’s always considered them allies. “Don’t know, depends on how much protocol they’re following out here. We have some dead drops at the hydroelectric dam not far from here, I’m gonna start there and see if Hull can help remotely.”

“She actually gonna help on this?” Avi asks, glancing through the trees, then back to Cyrus. “The fact that she no-showed wheels up isn’t really inspiring a lot of fucking confidence.”

Cyrus shakes his head, stepping closer to Avi. “She said she had a promise t’keep, and I trust her. She’ll do whatever it is she has to do, and she’ll be here for us remotely. Trust me, old man.” Cyrus claps a hand on Avi’s shoulder, and the old man just angles a perturbed look down at it.

“Yeah, well,” Avi says, shrugging the hand off his shoulder, “don’t go getting your head shot off out there, Karr. And make sure you find April.”

Avi’s directive is met with a feigned salute from Cyrus, who gives Avi an overly enthusiastic and sarcastic, “Aye, aye, sir!

Up near the clearing, out of earshot of Avi’s farewell to Cyrus, Colette Demsky sits on what remains of an old wooden fence post framing in the overgrown trails that wind through what was once a national park. She tears a bite off of a protein bar, looking across the trail to Lucille, concern painted across her face as deeply as the emotion that hit her the night before. Knowing about Berlin — about Nathalie — has hit her hard. It’s honed an edge on her that hasn’t been sharp for years. Being here, out in the wilderness, surrounded by her old squad… it’s brought back a lot of painful memories.

“Kid,” Scott Harkness says, stepping up next to Colette. “Francis needs you inside; launch prep.” He says with a motion to the nearby Tlanuwa. Scott knows Colette like he does his own family, he’d been the caretaker of the first Ferry safehouse she’d ever stayed in, watched her grow up into a rebellious freedom-fighter-come-soldier. He knows when she gets in her own head she needs a distraction, needs a job.

Colette gives Scott a wordless nod in response, managing a forced smile to Lucille, before she tears another bite off of her protein bar and leans away from the railing to march up the path toward the Tlanuwa. Scott turns to Lucille, sighing softly, and giving her a sympathetic smile. It’s never easy to be the bearer of bad news. He knows that role too well.

At the back of the Tlanuwa, James Dearing is armoring up. He works the straps of his AEGIS armor with familiarity and precision, carefully accounting for plate placement and weight. A pair of extra battery packs for the armor are tucked into munition pouches at his waist. An orange hair tie is wound around his wrist.

Colette passes Dearing by on the way into the Tlanuwa, tapping a hand on the kevlar-weave pauldron on his shoulder while going past. A rap of her knuckles for good luck. Old times call for old traditions. Dearing’s gaze follows her, then settles over on Rue nearby.

Inside the Tlanuwa, much of the interior space is occupied by the thick body of the Katsch, Wolfhound’s armored assault vehicle. Colette turns sideways and squeezes past the vehicle, slipping into the cockpit with Francis. “Hey,” Francis says with a look up to the control console, toggling a switch and going over diagnostics. Neither of them need to do a manual flight prep, not with Asi Tetsuyama around. But Francis is nervous too.

“Hey,” Colette says back, sitting down in the copilot seat. “You run through avionics yet?” She asks, turning a console monitor toward herself and angling the screen properly.

“No, I’m doing fuel line review,” Francis says distractedly. Though in spite of that, he looks up to Colette and flashes her a smile. “Thanks for your help,” he says with no hint of his usual sarcasm. Colette nods wordlessly back and flips two switches on the console in front of her, causing the wing’s flaps to pivot into an upward angle locked position.

“No problem,” Colette says with a distant smile.

Muir Woods National Monument
Mill Valley, California

Eight Miles North of the California Safe Zone

February 28th
6:17 am Local Time

Rue has not yet donned her armor, but she’s about to. Currently, she’s stretching her long limbs after being crammed in like sardines around the Katsch in the back of the Tlanuwa. First one arm languidly reaching toward the ceiling, then the other to join it. Her head rocks to one side, a quiet pop and an even quieter little nn sound accompanying the motion, then to the other. Then it’s her right leg lifted off the floor and stretched behind her with a hand grasping her ankle, followed by the left, bending forward slightly.

Her eyes finally meet Dearing’s as she’s gathering her long red mane of curls in her hands, first at the back of her neck, then smoothing up and up, one hand taking over for the other and dragging the opposite side further up until she’s ready to tie the whole thing into a ponytail on top of her head. An identical orange hair tie is pulled off her own wrist and wound twice around the bundle of it. There’s a lot she’d like to say, and a lot she knows she can’t. Or won’t. The outcome is the same.

Adjusting the shoulders and the neckline of her tank top, she glances outside like she might consider a stroll before suiting up, but thinks better of it. “Sleep alright?” she asks conversationally. She could have asked that literally any other time before this, but she’s restless and she needs conversation as she starts to pull on and strap into her armored suit.

It must be time to get up and get moving, since the sweet, sweet sounds of Willie Nelson's voice crooning about traveling has returned to Devon's head. His teammates making their return to the Tlanuwa has little to do with drawing his attention from the sequined and bedazzled band around his wrist. From where he's sitting, just inside the cargo entry of the hold, he looks up to watch Colette return to the craft. He shifts, swapping the stretch of his legs from right over left to left over right. As she disappears past the Katsch, he withdraws his attention, with passing looks to Rue and Dearing.

A finger traces through the sequins banded around his wrist. They flip from brilliant multicolored scales to simple silver then back again. Except for his helmet and gloves, he's already set to move, so he takes the extra minute to play with the fascinating bauble.

Just because it's meant to mark him as Wolfhound doesn't mean he can't have fun. He's already shared a few rude messages written in rainbow colored sequin.

It's also a distraction, as much as the music filling his head through crappy earbuds. It keeps Devon’s mind from wandering to home, to unanswered texts, and to the what if's the team is about to face. Hushed clicks mark each time a tiny disk is turned over, at moments in time with the rhythm with good ol’ Willie’s singing and, at other times, entirely at random.

Asi Tetsuyama sticks close to the Tlanuwa like she's tethered to it, like the sight of all this natural splendor is less comfortable than the trappings of technology found at her back. Regardless, she sits on top of a large rock, knees bridged, a cigarette brought to her mouth while she breathes in the otherwise fresh air and observes the scenery. She closes her eyes as she holds in the smoke, letting it pass from her without letting them open again. Adjusting her posture, she pulls one leg closer while letting the other knee fall, sitting in a more relaxed posture.

Aside from when it's necessary, she's spoken little, focused on what lies ahead. The chestplate of her armor lies on the rock with her, the last piece of it needing fastened to her person. If anything, she looks comfortable in the gear, used to its burden. Flight tests with the Tlanuwa before they'd done their final load-up ensured that she felt a similar way about the sophisticated metal bird. And apart from that, she's kept to herself.

She looks over her shoulder back at those stretching, unhurried with finishing her smoke to join them. The strains of conversation reach her all in their own way, Avi's conversation with Cyrus below as much as the others behind her. Her expression keeps deadpan through it, her own counsel kept.

At Avi's comment about Hull's absence, Asi flicks the ash off the end of her cigarette with a particularly rough brush of her thumb.

Lucille had walked off to do some meditating, soothing the ache of the use of her ability a few days ago and trying to get her emotions in line from seeing her father. As she walked back quietly drinking from a bottle of water she catches Colette's eye and dips her head a fraction, a sad smile crosses her lips and she takes another sip of her water to give herself something to do. It was bittersweet to have her here but without Nat and as Colette walks back inside the dark haired woman screws the cap back on the bottle and hangs her head in Scott's direction, strands of hair falling into light blue eyes. "Do you ever get tired?"

Shaking her leg out behind her and tossing the bottle in the air before snatching it back. Lucille wasn't tired, not yet but she wondered why she didn't feel as Colette once did. As her father had for a time. Why did she keep going?

The silver locket she often wore, moreso now than ever, is gently taken and dropped underneath her shirt, patting the surface before looking back over at the older man.

Stonefaced most of the trip out, Huruma's already lack of small talk becomes ever more apparent when she's face-forward in a jet full of bodies. One hand around a wall grip, she isn't there much until they land to get their bearings.

Huruma took the chance to get away for a few moments of- - relative- - silence. Stepped off in the opposite wind of where Lucille had, and just as likely to not prompt concern for her reappearance. She hasn't the time for skating off on her own. Later. Maybe.


The empath returns in due course, time enough to have started the process of going through the assembly of her AEGIS armor outside of the Tlanuwa, lurking in its shadow and idly watching the others in both mind and body. The armor- - and her assessments- - became as ritual as can be, as so few things can. Colette and Francis. Rue, Dearing. Devon. Avi, Karr. Lucille, Harkness. Asi. Yi-Min. Some of them are new, but they get the same treatment from the tentative, invisible threads that get a taste of their emotional panels.

Huruma has most of her kit on when she props an arm against the jet, a moment stolen to watch the rest of the crew rather than simply listen. Her presence vacates her expression as it did on the way out, wandering inside of itself. If she had the choice, none of them would have to be here. If she'd made better decisions, perhaps. No mulligans now, unless Hiro Nakamura falls out of the sky into her lap. It's just her feet and the road forward, again.

“Lucy,” Scott says with a faint smile, “I’m always tired.” He gently rests a hand on one of her shoulders, then starts to walk ahead of her and lets it fall away. “But like my old man used to say, tired means you’ve done it right.” He doesn’t look like he entirely agrees with the sentiment, but yet it still holds some weight to him.

Lucille remembers things her father had said before. She remembers all of his advice, his stories, the times he carried her to bed after she’d fallen asleep on the couch when she was a little girl. Her mind reels, trying to juxtapose that with the memory of him on the rooftop, of Vor, of the apology in his eyes before he vanished. Her stomach turns, wondering if that might be the last time she ever sees him.

Avi comes marching up the overgrown trail, flinging the stub of a cigar down as he walks. “Alright, pack it in. We’re wheels up in ten minutes!” He shouts, one hand circling over his head in the air.

This was it.

No turning back.

A Short Time Later

The Tlanuwa
Somewhere West of Ocean Beach
California Safe Zone

Engines roar as the Tlanuwa moves up to engagement speed, low enough to the ocean that the jet kicks up a wake of water. “Alright,” Avi says from the copilot seat, Yi-Min having moved back to the operations console behind him for lack of a better place to sit at the moment. “That’s visual range,” he indicates, pointing at the rapidly approaching strip of land on the horizon.

For Asi, flying the Tlanuwa was like being able to fly. The vehicle feels like an extension of her body, subprocesses in the jet are connected to not only vital systems, but sensors that extend her ability to perceive the world beyond human capability. Wind shear, temperature, vibration, and infra-red sensors make the aircraft feel like it is a part of her body. She can feel the wind whipping over the hull, she can feel the chill of the air, she can see in spectrums of light human eyes weren’t meant to perceive.

Demsky!” Avi says, grabbing a pair of goggles from beside his seat, tugging them down over his eyes. Unlike Asi, he won’t be able to see when this hits. “Fly blind!

Standing in the doorway behind the cockpit, Colette closes her eyes and furrows her brows as the Tlanuwa is thrust into pitch blackness when a photokinetic barrier bends all light around the vessel. Asi is able to negotiate back on the stick, lifting the aircraft up from water-level, preventing the wake from being visible now.

“Ground team!” Avi calls over his headset, his voice echoing inside the Katsch where Devon, Dearing, Rue, and Scott are already in their respective seats and ready to go. “Once we get in position get your boy ready to roll. You’re gonna have heat on you immediately. We’ll rendezvous once inside. Radio contact can remain clear and free.”

«Yeah I’ve got you!» comes a boy’s voice crackling over the comms. «This is uh, Transceiver, by the way! This is so primal. I uh— right— I have radio transmissions for your headsets live-encrypted straight through my noggin, so you won’t be overheard.»

Another voice, more familiar, chirps up over the comms after.

«Easy there Tiger,» is Hull’s electronic voice. «I’ve got a clear lock on your transponder, satellite feeds are showing a massive installation of artillery up ahead. I’m also seeing some shit I can’t identify on the airfield, they look like recent constructions, some kind of dishes. Too much obstruction to be radar. I’ll get on it.»

«Just a warning, I’m picking up some weird secondary radio transmissions over analog waves. It’s data flow, but I can’t figure out what the hell it is and I’m uh, I can’t do anything with analog signals. Just— uh— be careful?»

Avi sighs in the dark. “Thanks.” Then, in the dark he says, “It’s all on you Tetsuyama. Bring us around to the highway to drop off the kids at the pool.”

Inside the Katsch, Rue’s eyes shut before Colette can drop the shroud of darkness over everything. If she’s the one blotting out the visual stimuli, she can pretend that she’s not blind. Dark enclosed spaces still set her on edge after all these years. The Katsch is a familiar friend at this point, but only with illumination. Without it, it’s just another tomb in the making.

“Keelut-1 copies, Transceiver,” Rue chimes in over the radio, a confirmation that the occupants of the Katsch are reading the transmission loud and clear. “Thanks for the assist.” Then, she mulls over Hull’s information, fingers curling into a loose fist, keenly missing her best friend now. If Noa were here, they might have a hope of figuring out what’s going out over the analogue channels.

The instant following the sudden blindness is staggering, even while sitting down. Devon knows a second of vertigo that passes with his next breath. It's a sensation he'll never become used to. Once the disorienting feeling has gone, he reaches through the darkness, past the back of Rue’s seat to give her shoulder a supportive squeeze.

He frowns slightly, thoughtful, as he withdraws his arm. “This is Amarok-3,” he states into the radio. Dev sits back, makes himself relax for the remainder of the ride. At least in the physical sense. His mind is still working, puzzling over the new intel. “Hull, have you tried aligning to shortwave frequencies? Analog is pretty archaic but it still uses radio waves, just not on frequencies we commonly see.”

This isn't a case of it's so easy, I could do it with my eyes closed, but the additional senses lent to Asi by the Tlanuwa make it at least easier when things go dark. The nose of the plane lifts up, the stream of disturbed water behind them and beneath them stilling to the usual ocean chop as they lift away from it. The ascent is subtle, the craft still kept low.

Beyond wanting to go easy on the Katsch's suspension in the dropoff, there's humans, after all, in that tin can a dozen feet behind her. They'd probably appreciate not being dropped out at speed from too high a height.

ON-1 bringing us around now,>" Asi announces over the comms as the wings invisibly tip in a steady bank to bring them on course with the length of the highway. In the dark, her head shakes just slightly at hearing the other chatter on the comms. "«Scylla, be advised Monroe invested a significant amount of money into solar research, radio transmission, and satellite placement. Expect the dishes to play a role in whatever the hell his goals were there. If you can do something about them from your end, go ahead. If not…»

Well, maybe there would be time and room for a small detour.

"Here we go," she says to herself, the sound of it carrying perhaps to Avi alone, given their proximity. Her eyes flit back and forth under eyelids like one might when they're dreaming, using her extra senses to set about beginning a small, careful dip closer to the highway once they're aligned over it. The speed of the craft is eased back, the ramp of the Tlanuwa rumbling as it begins to engage.

It's showtime.

You're getting a running start, ground team— make the most of it. Air team, hold tight once they're free.»"

They hadn't practiced this part before.

Lucille snorts at the use of the slang by Transceiver, he must have run into some of the future kids or the LHK. Or the slang was actually spreading across the country like wildfire now. As the jet is plunged into total darkness the Ryans woman continues to breathe easily with the blowback she's received of overusing her ability and being inside Colette's field of influence many a time when vision was reduced to nothing, this was something she could navigate through with relative ease. The dark haired woman takes the chance to nudge her ability to life with Radar feeling the vital signs of her comrades around her one more time, checking to make sure everyone is okay before they go in.

Now closing her eyes Lucille focuses on each Hound. The electricity that runs through every person blooms into her vision, red lines for arteries. The major organs a bright white. It was always beautiful to see and something she did not always appreciate.

The chatter on comms elicits an eyebrow raise and a tilt of her head. What she wouldn't give for Noa to be with them now. Their numbers had been reduced so much in the last two years. At one point she had felt they may truly disband but there is a fire in the group. Something unspoken and unseen but Luce can feel that from the others. "Remember the safeguards against technopaths Transceiver," a light warning to the young woman. She was a kid, Lucille worried a little less with her not having actually come with them but the dangers were still clear for Hull. "If you can hear or perceive them, can you at least pinpoint where the analog signals are coming from?" Perhaps the general location of the signals could tell them more.

"Outside militia or other rebel groups?" The question asked of the others inside with her. The Guardians may be the largest and most infamous on the West Coast but they weren't the only fringe group out here. The soon to be departing ground team does not get a verbal goodbye, that always feels like bad luck to Lucille, instead she dips her head and says a small prayer to her mother, watch over them. Watch over us.

Calloused hands drift over her person, checking her gear with deft tones on hilts, grips, handles and pouches.

There are a dozen senses going at once on the Tlanuwa, Huruma's included. She uses her distant gaze as time to secure what readings she can get from the others. She already knows almost all by heart, but it helps. Those tethers and webs.

Asi's aura seems to be a comfort, of a kind; Hana always had a certainty here, in the jet, the seat practically made for her. Some of that echoes in their current pilot too. Cut from the same color of cloth. The dark of her figure checks once over the security of her tack and drop belts, head angling down to where the Tlanuwa opens to air.

"Have fun, Katsch." Huruma finally speaks up in earnest, voice a purr in the ear. Maybe she can be a familiarity too, as Asi for her. "You especially, Deadeye."

The Tlanuwa’s engines whine as Asi brings the jet fully up to speed and approaches the west coast of the California Safe Zone. She can perceive the world in an array of multi-dimensional senses, seeing the horizon in rippling bands of hot white and gray against an infinite void of black through the infrared sensors.

Ocean Beach buzzes below the aircraft with just fifteen feet of clearance from the Tlanuwa’s underbelly to the sand. With nothing but a thought Asi pulls the nose up and the vehicle climbs. Everyone in the aircraft can feel the g-force lurch as the jet screams over the rooftops of buildings in the Sunset District.

«Clear sailing,» Hull calls over the comms. «I found the RADAR stations at the Alameda Airfield and have forced the power substations into a thirty minute cycling process, that should buy us plenty of time to keep moving.»

Up over Forest Hill, the highest point of land in what was once San Francisco, Asi can perceive hot spots within the infrared scanners. Rows of legged tanks, helical railguns pointed out toward the Praxia Pyramid, lined up like artillery batteries between half-finished houses. They aren’t moving, don’t seem to be aware of the Tlanuwa’s presence as she brings the ship down to a cruising speed on approach to the freeway.

«Hey. He~ey!» Transceiver jumps in on the comms. «Those waves aren’t radio! Microwave spectrum but it’s not radio! It’s uh— it’s uh» he stammers, momentarily panicked by his discovery.

Spit it out, kid!” Avi growls into his headset, gripping the arms of the co-pilot seat for dear life.

«It’s infrared, I don’t know what that—»

Avi jolts forward in his seat. “Fuck, fuck.” He turns toward the pilot’s seat in the dark. “IR paintbrush!” He bellows. “Missile targeting!”

In the same moment Asi detects movement in the hills as the ZZ-7 autonomous tanks begin to spin up and onboard missile launchers fire in sequential rows. The Tlanuwa’s target lock sensors come alive, alarms sound inside the aircraft, red lights flash in Asi’s periphery as a dozen surface-to-air guided missiles scream into the sky!

"Of course," Asi glowers to herself, Avi's lack of calm with the latest developments rolling off of her. The jet engine roars as the Tlanuwa is pushed to speed again, the ramp pausing in its lowering in case of shift in cargo. Subprocesses juggle what one mind alone could not in terms of assessments, and her brow furrows in the dark as the craft maneuvers back closer to the ground again. Only after that bunny-hop of speed to gain them needed distance does she let the ramp finish out its drop.

Ground team, you're going to have to find an on-ramp to the highway. Need to drop you to deal with our new friends. Disengage your brake and roll back now.»"

In total darkness, is the unstated addition to that. Exhaling a breath shuddering with adrenaline jitters, Dearing keeps one foot depressed on the brake and disengages the emergency brake with his right hand as he hears Asi’s call and feels the swing of g-forces in his stomach as the Tlanuwa banks and dips. It’s like being on a rollercoaster with your eyes shut.

“Dropping.” Dearing says clearly into his headset before throwing the Katsch into neutral and easing his foot off the brake, letting inertia to everything else for him. As the Tlanuwa accelerates the Katsch rolls back across the interior of its hull. The vehicle lurches in the total darkness, then the back of the vehicle drops downward in a sudden lurch, followed by a terror-inducing moment of free fall in total darkness before they drop out of Colette’s photokinetic bubble.

“Shit, shit, shit!” Dearing shouts as the Katsch drops from a much higher altitude than he’d planned, falling close to twenty feet from the Tlanuwa down onto the street. The vehicle’s high suspension bottoms out when it hits the asphalt with a grinding crash. As the shocks push the vehicle back up from that tremendous jolt, Dearing kicks the vehicle into drive without really even thinking and slams on the gas.

As the Katsch begins to roar down the freeway, out the left side windows the verdant hills of what was once San Francisco come into clear view, dotted with modern-looking Swedish-inspired concrete form houses. Dozens of enormous black tanks with quadrupedal legs and stationed on those hills, trails of smoke issuing from them and their missile launch.

“Rue! Light those tanks up!” Dearing shouts, trying to get his bearings on the highway, the signs being half in English and half in Chinese. Up through the hatch, Rue can see the long trail of belt-fed ammunition, each round as long as her forearm. Scott’s choice for today: the KPV 14.5 mm heavy machine gun.

Rue’s language is just a touch stronger than Dearing’s as they rock back out of the Tlanuwa and descend to the road below. Stronger, but not terribly creative, and what she doesn’t do is scream. “Fuck,” she utters one last time as the shocks kick in, drawing in a deep breath and steadying herself. Grateful now that she has sight back, she straightens up her spine and settles in with her hands on the controls. “Hello, beautiful,” she murmurs to her weapon.

It takes a second to get oriented, swiveling and lining up, she waits to get a feel for how fast the Katsch is moving, and the impact that’s going to have on her aim. “No,” Rue sasses, “I thought I’d sit back and watch the fuckin’ scenery.

If Dearing bothers to respond, Rue:

A) Does not actually give a fuck
B) Is drowning him out with gunfire

She squeezes her fist around the firing mechanism and scowls with concentration behind her helmet. The KPV kicks like a mule, but Rue’s prepared for it. This is like a meeting with an old friend. Or riding a bike that wants to throw you on your ass. Whatever.

Devon’s hands tighten on the edge of his seat when he feels the Katsch gravity shift. And then shift. And finally land painfully. This, boys and girls, is why you wear your fucking seat belt. The human body was not made to endure such abuse and whatever you can do to mitigate damage needs to be a priority. He cringes throughout the maneuver, grunting in sympathy when the shocks give and flex.

“Note that in the briefing.” Dev pulls his hands free, rolls his shoulders to ease the shock out of his joints. “The bird needs to be lower before we drop.” It's said in jest, and probably would have included a cheap shot at the older guys on the team some other time. As it is, he turns to analyze read outs, check equipment so they can roll as soon as they reach the entry point.

Free of the weight of the Katsch, the Tlanuwa feels like a paper plane rather than a heavy rock now, and rockets forward. "Using these buildings as cover," Asi shouts as warning to those in the back, and that's the most they get before the invisible aircraft begins to weave away from the road. Her hand hovers, ready to deploy chaff only as a last resort.

Eyebrows rise as they are alerted to IR scanners and missiles. Moments later the Katsch and her friends are being dropped off and it's in the midst of this unwelcome surprise that Lucille wishes she had called out to them.

Gripping the edge of her seat and steadying herself the only thing to do right now is wait. Lucille's knees brace as they go swaying and weaving around.

Huruma keeps her senses on the Katsch as it drops, and as the Tlanuwa spins away. She mutters something under her breath before steadying herself with one hand around a wall brace. A few scenarios flicker through her head — more than one requiring Colette to drop the cloak.

"Can you circle enough to lead them to one another?" Huruma's frame jostles, thankfully at the end of the row where she is able to plant a boot on righting herself.

"We'd only need one to blow, right? Wouldn't they follow?!" She's not exactly a pilot, or an engineer, but she tries. If it works it might buy some time? Which they need.

Avi isn’t saying much, gripping the arms of his seat and clenching his jaw as he listens to the beep of missile proximity sensors come in shorter and more urgent intervals. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he whispers under his breath as the jet banks sharp to the right and then dips down, nearly hitting the street as it uses unfinished residential buildings as cover.

Down on the street, the Katsch crew can see three of the six missiles screaming overhead plow straight into the side of a building. There’s a massive ball of fire from the explosion and debris from the blast spreads out in the road, causing Dearing to swerve to avoid it. Three more missiles continue on over the now-burning building, continuing to follow the Tlanuwa.

Meanwhile, the loud chop of Rue firing the heavy machine gun is practically deafening. Every other round is a white-hot tracer that leaves a streak in the air, allowing Rue to track her shots and bring them up to the ZZ-7 tanks. The first volley of concentrated fire on a ZZ-7 causes the tank to wheel backwards on its threaded legs, putting a building for cover between it and the Katsch. Two adjacent tanks turn their attention down to the Katsch, but before they can fire, the highway curves, putting rows of houses and office buildings between them. They had been placed to attack aerial threats, not ground ones.

In the Tlanuwa, the proximity warning is a rapid-fire beat of danger. Three missiles twist and streak between buildings, gaining on the sleek, black jet as

trumpets play?

Brass horns blare over all the internal comms both onboard the Tlanuwa and in the ear-pieces of the ground team. Scott flinches when the noise starts, nearly taking out his earbud before he hears

Love is a burning thing

Johnny Cash.

and it makes a fiery ring

Music pumps over the speakers, followed by the three missiles behind the Tlanuwa immediately wobbling out of control and crossing paths with one-another as their infrared sensors seem to malfunction. The missiles collide with one-another in a huge ball of fire.

Bound by wild desire

The ZZ-7s pivot their turrets and three more tanks launch a volley of six missiles into the air. Two spin right around like it was tethered to the tank and explodes immediately, destroying the ZZ-7 artillery installation. The others take wobbling and drunk paths through the air.

I fell into a ring of fire

“Son of a bitch,” Avi says breathlessly over the comms.

I fell into a burning ring of fire!


I went down, down, down, and the flames went higher!


“Ring of Fire” stops and suddenly, the familiar-to-most voice breaks through on the comms.

“This version of ‘What’s your jam’ coming to you across the airwaves courtesy of WTF, and I’m your host, Noa Gitelman.” The former Wolfhound’s inner radio voice is crystal clear, emulating the over-the-top enunciation and intonations of radio deejays of old.

“Oh, right. On the topic of jams and airwaves, I’ve taken care of your nasty little robot problem for you.”

What can I say except

‘“You’re Welcome!”

Noa may not be able to send anyone a meme through the airwaves — she’ll leave that to Colette — but this is close.

“Did you miss me, boys and girls?”

With her target having taken cover, and the Katsch following the curve of the road, taking them further out of sight, Rue doesn’t waste time throwing her weight into swiveling the massive gun anchored against her narrow shoulders. It occurs to her that she might be able to take out one of the three remaining missiles, and that it might be enough to cause a chain reaction to take out the other two. Protecting the Tlanuwa takes priority right now. The tanks can hardly touch them in this terrain.

But then the horns blare in her ears and Rue instinctively recoils, hand loosening on the controls, lest her shots be wasted ones. (Scott’s good — better than good — but even his supply of ammunition isn’t infinite.) Through the reticule, she watches the missiles waver in the air, veer off course and into each other in a fashion that is both spectacular and beautiful.

Fuck yes!

Rue’s response to Noa’s question is immediate. Fuck yes, she missed her bestie.





It isn’t like Rue to engage in excessive comm chatter on an op, but for this? She’ll make an exception. “You beautiful fucking bitch!” she crows, thrilled by and proud of Noa’s handiwork all at once. “You taking requests, Notorious N.O.A?”

Missiles screaming, gunfire, even explosions are all expected. It's all part of combat. But trumpets? And those are followed by Johnny fucking Cash. Devon twists in his seat, leans forward and down to get a look out the window just as Noa’s voice comes clear over the comms. He can't help but grin his relief at the familiar jockeying over the radio.

“You're late,” he points out, teasing. Dev slides from his seat to take up the position behind Rue’s seat as second gunner. The next belt of ammunition is readied to hand off, and he looks up at the lieutenant for that signal. “Everyone remembers what happens when someone’s late, right? Don't go cheap on us, Noa. Hot pockets and bologna don't count as dinner this time.”

The music can keep playing if the propagator of it continues to wreak havoc on those targeting systems. Another Gitelman? Asi can spend time later being surprised about this development, and wonder about it when there's less going on. Right now, there's ground to not crash into.

But ON1's not without her manners. "«Thanks for the assist, Deejay.»"

Another pull of g-forces drag at the Tlanuwa's occupants as the craft is brought upright again in the dark, continuing to sail like the world's least-predictable indoor roller coaster. At least this transition is smoother than the rough bank that had taken out the missiles. "«Tlanuwa's recovering and rerouting now. Transceiver, Scylla, how are our Guardian friends doing?»" There's something like ease in Asi's voice as she brings the ship back around, navigating sightlessly through the instruments.

She's getting the hang of this, and what a ride it is. "You might have a hard time getting me to let go of this thing when we're done, Epstein," Asi asides to him.


Lucille's head lifts from side to side and a smile plays across her lips, "Don't ever fucking leave again." Breaking the emotional seal she's tried to keep in place. The gang reuniting in this way was nothing short of epic and it swells from her belly.

A silent thank you to her mother, maybe her prayers were answered. Lucille grips her knees as they sail through the air. A thought strikes her and she blinks, she's not here alone is she? A burp of joy comes from the woman as she leans in and and eyes close again. Asi's voice causes the woman to turn her head slightly and she grins openly. "You'd have to deal with more than just the old man over this baby," Fingers tighten on her knees as they sway a bit.

"Or you could make things simple and come work with us."

One hand still wrapped around a seat handle, Huruma leans into the banks as Asi takes them for a quite literal ride. The Tlanuwa can handle the maneuvers and push, if Asi can too— Huruma's faith only quavers at the vibration of explosions against the hulls. Any concern that fell on her turns into confusion at the sound of a brass section blaring into the comms.

"I don't speak trumpet—" Huruma's protesting cuts out when the song keeps on, her eyes lifting up from the concentration used on staying seated. She laughs softly, at first, and it turns into a familiar cackle, punctuated by a triumphant stamp of boot against the floor.

"Bahati yetu— welcome to the party, love." Huruma isn't so presumptive as to say welcome back, but her crowing about Noa's appearance is not halfhearted.

“God damn,” Avi says breathlessly, still gripping the arms of the copilot’s seat, “you don’t answer voicemail, Gitelman!” But then, with a nervous laugh he adds. “But you sure have your mother’s sense of timing.”

Noa!” Colette chirps over the comms. “Holy shit did you stop the missiles? Oh my god am I glad you’re here.”

«Sorry to break up the family reunion but we have signals lighting up all across the ground!» Hull chimes in. «I’m picking up automated alerts and weapons platform deployment notifications over cell channels. They know we’re coming.»

«Guardians are almost in position, we should be in position for you all to land once they’re starting the light show.»

“Fabulous,” Avi says through his teeth. “Ground team knows the protocol. Asi, get our asses to the Ziggurat!”

Down below, the ground team can see the Tlanuwa bank up from below roof level now that the missiles are distracted, then take a sharp right and begin crossing the San Francisco bay toward the black silhouette of the Ziggurat.

Dearing, drumming his hands on the steering wheel nervously, hunches forward to watch the Tlanuwa soar off. “Alright, we have some ground to cover!” He shouts, leaning over to turn on the positioning system, pulling up a map of the freeway system. “We’re almost two miles off course, but I think we’re out of the thick of it!”

Before anyone in the Katsch can call Dearing out for jinxing them like that, there is an explosion of concrete and glass as a building adjacent to the freeway explodes from within as something crashes through the wall. A massive, hulking black shape the same size of the Katsch leaps from the hills to the overpass, crashing through a guardrail and a concrete divider.

Sparks shower from three foot long claws that scrape against the asphalt. Steam blasts out of a massive pair of metallic jaws, and four bright red eyes stare down the retreating back of the vehicle. The machine is both familiar and unfamiliar at once, boxy and black and indisputably mechanical, vaguely ursine in shape. But as it starts to gallop forward, the machine begins to pick up speed at pace with the armored truck.

“Rue,” Dearing says too quietly to be heard over the engine, staring at the machine closing in on the back of the Katsch in his rear-view mirror, “Rue!

Up in the turret, Rue can see the galloping machine bearing down on the Katsch, she can also see that there is an articulated gun turret mounted on the thing’s fucking back. The pinyin stenciled in block print on the machine’s head reads 妖怪 or Yaoguai — Monster.

“Well, fuck me sideways,” is Rue’s response to Hull’s warning. “Thanks for the heads up, Scylla. We’ll take it from here.” There’s a quiet sigh that she does not let carry over the comms. “Stay safe up there, Aviators. Rumor out.”

While she doesn’t have Huruma’s ability, Rue can practically feel Dearing’s anxiety from her seat. She turns away from the gun for a moment with the intent to say something reassuring. To agree with him about the fact that they shouldn’t have too much difficulty making up ground from here.

Except that quickly becomes completely untrue when the adjacent structure erupts in a brutal shower of tempered glass and cement. Rue doesn’t hold in the gasp that accompanies the sudden violent disruption. “Yeah!” she calls back to Dearing, voice pitching high with panic that she hasn’t forced back down her goddamn throat yet. She swivels the gun around to the rear and stares through the crosshair at what’s in pursuit. “I fucking see it!

Shit, shit, shit.

But already, she’s pushing it all down. Scott, Devon, and Dearing are relying on her to keep them all safe. The Tlanuwa is relying on them in turn to carve a path inward. And she has her hands wrapped around the trigger off a big fuck off gun. Rue narrows her gaze and lines up her sights. “Go for the eyes, Rue,” she mutters to herself, and fires.

Turning with the turret, Devon maintains a steady feed of ammunition. Something of oh shit in everyone's voice splits his focus from watching the belts to take a quick look at Dearing first, then out the rear window. Fuck me sideways doesn't begin to describe the loathing and terrible anxiety welling up from his bowels.

He backs up a step, because that puts a whole lot more distance between himself and the quadrupedal monstrosity outside the tin can the ground team is riding in. It's an instinctual thing. Experience has taught him that those robots, no matter what timeline they're from, are bad fucking news.

“Go faster.” Devon wears his fear of those robots on his sleeve. “Dearing. Drive faster, Dearing. Must go faster…”

A steady stream of heavy machine gun fire hoses down the front of that galloping behemoth of a robot. A burning haze of sparks sprays across its front, head down and back hunched toward the gunfire. The mechanical bear jukes to the side and charges the back of the Katsch, shrugging off the heavy artillery like it was nerf darts.

The machine collides with the right rear corner of the truck, knocking it up on three wheels for a moment and sending Rue pitching to the side in the turret. “Fuck! Hold on!” Dearing shouts, hand-over-hand across the steering wheel, trying to keep the vehicle from tipping over. Devon can see the beast’s massive silhouette through the slatted rear windows, thundering alongside the truck, even as Rue continues to fire down at it.

Fuck!” Dearing shouts. “Fuck it’s fast!” He jerks the wheel to the left, then to the right and cuts in front of the bear as two automated semi trucks hauling construction equipment come screaming down the highway from the opposite direction. Dearing weaves between the two trucks, clipping off one of the side-view mirrors in the process. The AI-driven tractor-trailer trucks continue on and Rue watches as one is body checked by the mechanical bear, sending it on two wheels and then on its side, skidding down the highway with a shower of sparks.

Dearing sees the bear in the rear view mirror, leap atop the trailer, and then back down onto the ground and keep running. It’s Rue who notices the body-mounted heavy machine gun on the bear pivot into position and begin spinning up to fire.

Here!” Harkness calls out, holding out his empty hands to Devon, only to have a cylinder of blue-white latticework gleam into existence, then solidify into the length of an RPG launcher. “While we have distance!” He shouts, conjuring two rocket-propelled grenades in his off hand, handing those out too.

Rue has to ease her grip on the turret to avoid spraying bullets where-the-fuck-ever as she rocks hard to one side. That her bullets are pinging off the armored plating of the damn thing is more than just a little dismaying, to put that mildly. But the gunner grits her teeth, readjusts her position, and fires another stream of bullets. Something has to give with enough effort on her part. It always does.

“Dearing?” she calls toward the driver at her back, without turning herself. “Dearing!” Forget the eyes. Rue changes her aim and starts focusing on that machine gun, hoping to either blow it up or at least knock it loose from its mountings so as to make it useless without a driver able to manually adjust its targeting.

“Yogi’s about to declare open fucking season on us!” Rue shouts the warning. “We need some evasive maneuvers pronto!” Not that they have a whole lot of area to work with, given the restrictions of the highway. And the automated trucks they clipped past earlier may as well have been made of paper for all the distraction they were able to provide.

Without looking to what her other two teammates in the Katsch are doing, Rue holds fire long enough to readjust her sights and shout without being drowned out by the noise of it. “If you’ve got a Hail Mary you can pull out of your ass, Hark, now’s a great fucking time! I need you to hit that machine gun with whatever you can, Dev!”

“Do something!” Devon’s tone pitches with frustration and fear. It's useful, somehow, reiterating their need to get the fuck away and now. He grabs hold of something to keep from slamming into the floor as the Katsch tips precariously, braces against the corner he's been occupying. And then…

Dearing actually does something.

“I'm not even going to ask how long you were planning on keeping that in your ass of holding,” he calls as he takes RPG launcher and grenades. Devon tips a nod to the older man, a silent keep her steady, then takes the two quick steps to the back of the vehicle. He slams the back of a fist into the button to open the pair of doors, then yells up to the woman in the gunner’s seat. “Give me cover, Rue!”

It's all that Devon asks as he takes a knee, loads a grenade, and lines up a shot.

The machine is rapidly closing in on the Katsch when Devon takes a knee, and realizes he has to change positions. Devon has no choice but to stand up on the back bumper and lay the rear of the RPG launcher on the roof to avoid blasting Dearing and Scott with the blowback. It makes aiming for the top of the robot almost impossible. But, there’s other alternatives.

There’s a cacophonous foomp as a blast of white smoke and fire ejects out of the back of the launcher and the rocket-propelled grenade screams through the air and looks to impact the ground directly in front of the machine. There’s a massive ball of fire and an eruption of concrete dust as one of the robot’s legs is shorn off by the explosion. It tumbles head over heels, smashing into the street. The machine rolls end over end, pieces of metal flying off of it like a car wreck as it bounces, skids and scrapes along.

The continued gunfire tears into the armored hulk as it skids to a stop, smoke and flames issuing out of its chassis. The robot makes one aborted attempt to get up before crashing back down onto the street, soon becoming a billowing plume of black smoke and flames in Dearing’s rear view mirror.

“Good work!” Harkness shouts, watching the burning hulk of the robot fading into the distance.

“We’re coming up on the offramp, we’re back on track!” Dearing calls out, checking the positioning system on the dashboard. “Looks like we’re out of the line of fire of the tanks!”

From the gunner’s seat, Rue cheers as she watches the bot go down and not get back up. All the same, she doesn’t take her sights off it until she’s sure that they’re going to outrun. It doesn’t have to be able to move to be able to fire on them, after all. But when Dearing announces that they’re in good shape again, she finally allows herself to relax.

“Let’s get the back closed up again and take this fight to them.” Rue turns in her seat and flashes a grin that might be hidden behind her helmet, but comes through in her voice. “Nice driving, partner.” See? She told him they make a great team. (Devon and Scott are great too.)

For a second following the explosion, Devon holds his position, holds his breath. He's got one more shot if it's needed, but if the first doesn't work is it going to be worth sending a second? Finally, a whooped laugh joins the chorus of his teammates cheers when the smoke and dust clears enough that he can clearly see that fucker isn’t getting up again.

The launcher lowers, Devon straps the remaining grenade to his vest. With the flat of his hand, he slaps the controls to close up the back again. “You heard her, Dearing. Take us in.”


Alameda Point Airfield

“Get these aircraft off the ground!”

Alarms sound across Alameda Point, in the looming shadow of the Praxis Heavy Industries Ziggurat. Dozens of soldiers within Praxis’ own corporate army scramble across the tarmac while short-range vector-thrust aircrame prime and ready for launch. From inside hangars, numerous ZZ-7 automated tanks roll out and prepare for an assault.

Among those standing to defend Praxia is a dark-haired man in the gray and black uniform of Praxis Heavy Industries private military, holding a helmet under one arm, watching pilots hurry to complete launch preparations. Praxia had been left largely defenseless when Adam left with the majority of their automated forces in tow.

Lieutenant Sanderson,” comes a crisp British voice from behind. The Lieutenant turns, watching as Adam Monroe approaches with an expectant look on his face. “I’m hearing that there is an inbound ground assault, how soon is our air defense able to mobilize?”


Josiah Sanderson salutes Adam in a quick snap of his free hand and immediately drops to an at-ease posture. “Director, just a couple of minutes. We’re waiting on an all-clear from Air Command that the enemy aircraft isn’t still in the area.”

Why?” Adam asks, continuing his approach with haste until he’s up in Josiah’s face. “Launch the aircraft.

“Sir, with all due respect, if there’s some sort of — cloaked vessel out there…” Josiah can barely believe he’s saying those words. “If we launch those pilots are sitting d— ”

“I said launch them.” Adam barks in Josiah’s face. “Now.

Lieutenant Sanderson’s back straightens, jaw sets, and his hands curl into tight fists. He swallows down a retort, then nods and faces his ultimate acceptance. “Yes, Sir.” Josiah says with a tightness in his voice.

And a weight on his conscience.


Praxia, Petroleum Production Facility

A small digital timer beeps softly and begins counting down from


“Let’s go.”

Cyrus Karr straightens from a crouch, backing away from the brick of C4 placed at the base of a massive gasoline processing tank inside of the chemical plant. Behind him, Joss kicks up a brow and runs a hand through her hair, stepping over the corpse of a security guard while wiping the blade of her knife off on her thigh.


“Candice should be inside by now,” Joss says with a jerk of her head in the direction of the nearby Ziggurat’s massive silhouette. “Any word from April?”

“Yeah, she’s headed to the airfield,” Cyrus says as he adjusts an earpiece radio. “The Hounds are just landing on the roof I think. So we gotta get these fireworks going.


Joss and Cyrus make their way out of the chemical plant through the open rear entrance they’d slipped in from. As they move, Joss switches out her knife for her sidearm and ducks by the door. “Girl gang,” she says of her copied selves, “say the coast is clear.”


Fantastic,” Cyrus says with a crooked smile, ducking out of the doorway and back into the industrial park.


California Safe Zone

It’s been clear sailing since the robot was destroyed. Dearing was able to turn the Katsch onto the correct freeway offramp and roar down the highway at top speeds, weaving in and out of automated traffic of building manufacturing robots and self-driving transport trucks. The hillside anti-aircraft artillery has come into view in quick glimpses, but mostly the partially complete highrise buildings have kept the Katsch obscured.


By the time the coastline comes into view, this team is nearly done with the ground approach. In the distance, the Praxis Ziggurat looms as a massive metallic silhouette across the San Francisco bay. “We’re gonna be hitting the bridge in a couple minutes!” Dearing calls back into the truck.


Scott gives an affirmative gesture and pulls out a collection of assault rifles and sidearms from his pocket dimension, each one appearing in a latticework of light, manifesting on the spacious floor. “Everybody make sure you’ve got what you need.”


Rue!” Dearing calls back to her, “probably gonna have some resistance on the bridge or across it. Might need you to clear a path!”


The Katsch roars along an elevated freeway five stories above the street, threaded between partially completed skyscrapers covered in billowing tarps. Up ahead, the straight shot of the San Francisco - Oakland Bay Bridge comes into view. Though new signage over the freeway indicates its name has changed to the CSZ - Praxia Bay Bridge.


Across the bridge the view of Praxia comes clearer into view. Single-seater vector-thrust aircraft are beginning to launch from the Alameda Point Airport, hovering over the tarmac like swarms of bees. Dearing lets out a sharp whistle, checking the positioning system in the dash to check their distance.


The bridge is a wide open stretch of freeway with only the occasional self-driving truck of construction supplies in the opposite lane. The Katsch is a massive sitting duck out in the open.


Alameda Point Airfield

“Air Guard, Air Guard,” Lieutenant Sanderson calls over his comms, striding across the tarmac to one of the waiting ships, “we have authorization to launch. Repeat, authorization to launch. Intercept enemy ground vehicle and neutralize.”


Sanderson climbs in the open door of the aircraft as the turbine engines whine and spin up, beginning to bring it off the ground. “We have full-fire authorization.” He instructs as he takes his seat, putting on his helmet.


As the aircraft begins to alight from the ground, Josiah looks out over Praxia in the distance of the Ziggurat. “Be advised enemy aircraft’s position is still unknown.” A faint, dark shape moving off of the roof of the Ziggurat catches the Lieutenant’s attention, and he sits forward in his seat. When the sunlight gleams off of a cockpit Josiah’s breath hitches in the back of his throat. “Air Guard I have— ”


CSZ - Praxia Bay Bridge
California Safe Zone

Given the straightaway nature of the bridge, Rue was anticipating needing to provide fire to cover their approach. There’s no way Praxia wouldn’t be prepared to scramble opposition by the time of their arrival. That ship sailed several miles back. The gunner’s eyes go wide as she starts to count just how many craft appear to be ready to come right for them. Mental math says she can probably take a good chunk of them out — because she does have confidence in her skill with the KPV combined with her faith in Dearing’s ability to be evasive — but there’s only so much space to work with and only so much time. The calculations are not looking favorable from where Lancaster’s sitting.

A massive series of explosions rocks the island of Praxia. From the Katsch it looks like a bombing run, except the Tlanuwa isn’t anywhere in sight at first. One by one, chemical plants and refineries begin erupting in massive balls of flame and smoke. The thunderous shockwave of the explosion sends shrapnel from the buildings arcing high into the sky over the island across the bay.

Holy shit!” Dearing shouts, recoiling a little from the fireworks.

Aircraft that were taking off from Alameda are struck not only by the repeated shockwaves of multiple close explosions, but also the shrapnel from them. One by one the aircraft collide with each other and the ground, resulting in numerous other small explosions across the tarmac. “Woo! The Guardians sure know how to say hello!

Once the initial shock and expectation that this was just the opening volley subsides, Rue begins laughing in disbelief as the explosions begin. Eyes wide with awe at the beautiful fucking spectacle of it. “Transceiver,” Rue crows into the comms, “tell your friends we say fuckin’ thanks! We are en route and unharried. Keelut-1 out.”

With her concerns scattering like the shrapnel in the wake of the explosion, Rue drums her hands against the sides of her gun controls, positively giddy. “Let’s fuckin’ rock!

As the explosions, intentional and collateral, crash and boom and light up everything, Devon braces himself between the foremost seats. He cranes for a look skyward, only to be drawn back to the ground level as things flash and blow up brighter than New Years. «That's a glorious sight,» he asides to whoever might be listening. «Thanks for turning the lights on for us.»

«Y-yeah, thanks! I’m not sure if it was, uh, supposed to be that big? Of an explosion? B-but wow, I mean, I could see it from space!» Transceiver crackles over the radio.

Dearing cocks an eyebrow and looks at the explosion in the rear-view mirror.

«Because I’m hijacking a satellite. I’m not actually in sp—»

«We get it.» Hull chimes in. «But heads up, Ground Hounds,» she says with a laugh at her own wordplay, «you’ve got an armed blockade coming up. Nothing we can do here. You’re gonna have to shoot your way through. Take the offramp for Praxia Restricted Motorway you’ll see just after the checkpoint.»

“Fuck,” Dearing sputters as he looks ahead at the end of the bridge. Hull was right. There’s an armored checkpoint; metal barricade, gunner station, two sniper perches in lookout towers. “Rue!” Dearing calls back, slapping the roof. “Spray and pray!”

Scott shakes his head and conjures up two more rocket-propelled grenades, offering them out to Devon. “Hit the barricade, probably will need both to loosen it up for a ram!”

Heedless to the approaching checkpoint, Dearing lays on the gas and barrels down the straight stretch of bridge toward the rapidly approaching security. Gunfire is already popping off, light assault rifle fire plonking and plinking off of the front of the katsch, buzzing rounds ricocheting around the turret.

“Please,” Rue scoffs as she swivels her seat around and starts assessing her targets, “I’m a fucking atheist.

Being as how she’s a sniper herself, that’s where her priorities line up. If the Praxis soldiers are anywhere as good as she is — and it’s probable they are — then they need to be dealt with in short order. Raising her sights, Rue opens fire on the first tower, then shifts to the second. The last thing she wants is one of them getting a bead on Dearing while they’re straight lining for the barrier.

Well, “Shit.” Devon twists around to grab the launcher again, as he swipes the grenades from Scott. “It's never easy,” he grumbles, but at the same time recalling the last time anything was remotely easy. The quietness of Sunstone Manor should have been a foreshadowing at the very least. At least this time, they're able to see the enemy.

With a shoulder, he pushes open a side window. Shoulders first, then a hip to balance on, and Dev gets himself a prime seat for launching explosives. «Don't you fucking crush me,» he quips into the comms. He's only 90-percent serious about that — Dearing seems a pretty capable driver so far. A grenade is loaded, and the launcher is seated on his shoulder. It's just a matter of seconds before he fires on the checkpoint.

As bullets ricochet off of the front of the Katsch, Rue’s concentrated heavy army fire demolishes both sniper perches leaving shredded metal behind where the perch walls once stood. Soldiers scatter out of the way as Dearing shows no sign of slowing on approach to the checkpoint, and when Devon launches that rocket, it soars ahead of the vehicle and explodes at the checkpoint gate.

Metal flies up into the air along with concrete dust and debris seconds before the Katsch plows through the demolished barricade. A Praxis security officer is hit by the speeding truck, dragged under the wheels and crushed as the Hounds make a direct run at the tunnel beyond the checkpoint.

As the Katsch blasts past the checkpoint and into the tunnel, they’re cut off from external radio transmissions. “We’re almost there, everyone get ready to disembark!” Dearing shouts, swerving into the rightmost lane as signage indicates Praxia Restricted Motorway, Next Right.

Scott slides out of his seat, calling up boxes of ammunition onto the floor in rippling surges of light. At the same time, Dearing takes the offramp toward the tunnel, moving the Katsch down a slope into an underground offshoot tunnel that passes below the San Francisco Bay.

“We’re a mile out,” Dearing says over the noise of the truck roaring down the tunnel. “If that creepy doctor’s intel was any good, we’re gonna hit heavy resistance at the blast doors. I’ll take the turret gun and we’ll use the Katsch as cover on our way in, we’ll bring her with us as far as we can.”

As they blow past the checkpoint, Rue turns the gun again and fires behind them to make sure there won’t be any opposition at their rear. Only once it’s clear they aren’t going to have heavy ordinance on them does she ease up and allow herself to accept a moment of triumph for another obstacle overcome.

“Shotgun for backup?” Rue asks, starting to consider her options for heading inside. If he’s going to take the turret gun until he can’t, the least she can do is make sure he’s got what he needs when that’s no longer feasible. “I’m gonna need Airmail.” She cants a look over to Scott.

She’d rather have had Wilby, but she probably won’t get her hands on her mentor’s weapon until its current holder is— Well, people don’t always get what they want.

“Let’s go for the Strayer, too.” The .45ACP rounds should have the impact she wants when quarters are a bit too tight to use her rifle. And if it’s good enough for the likes of Noah Bennet, well… Rue slides out of the gunner’s seat. “And thanks.” Because when someone does you a favor, you thank them. So, thanks for being a walking armory, Harkness.

“Speed bump,” Devon grunts when the Kastch rolls over whatever fool had gotten in the way. He'd shimmied back into the vehicle after firing his shot, but stood nearby the open window still ready to lean out and send another warning shot.

He checks his personal weaponry a third time. The sidearm is new, compared to the one he'd lost just over a year ago. The grip hasn't worn to fit his hand yet, and it has a slightly different pull than the other. He hates it nearly as much, though. Even after all the years, all of the fights and battles. He can't get rid of it yet.

“Just the usual for me.” Devon’s tone has taken a sort of somber tone when he addresses Scott. It always does, when the wave shifts. But he trusts his usual array of explosives and rifle. C4 has too many uses to be neglected, and the M4 is one of the few firearms he's carried that can take a beating and keep functioning like it was new.

In the rear of the Katsch, Scott unloads the ordinance for the Hounds preparing for the assault, lining up the weapons against the back seat with barrels to the ceiling. “We’re gonna be comms dark from here on out, too deep underground for radio connection.” Scott says as he sets aside the last weapon, then checks his own sidearm and knife in holster and sheath.

“Coming up on the door!” Dearing shouts, passing under a series of automatic sensors that would read an RFID code off of passing vehicles, opening the subterranean entrance of the Ziggurat for authorized transport. Red lights flash CLEARANCE NOT AUTHORIZED in block print as the Katsch blows past.

Up ahead, a massive pair of steel doors recessed into the concrete wall are marked with the triangular Praxis Heavy Industries symbol in white stencil. There is no security checkpoint here, just dome cameras and doors designed to stop a forced intrusion. Dearing pulls the Katsch up and rolls to a stop, then throws open the driver-side door and whips a keycard on a beaded chain to Rue.

“Open Sesame, Lancaster!” Dearing shouts, climbing up the side of the Katsch to unfasten the bolts holding the turret gun in place. As Rue catches the ID card she sees Yi-Min Yeh staring back at her. If everything goes according to plan, the card reader beside the door should accept Yi-Min’s credentials and allow the Hounds access to the Ziggurat’s basement levels.

Rue snatches the ID tag out of the air one-handed, quickly looping the chain over her helmet to settle around her neck. The Strayer Voigt is holstered at her side and the rifle’s strap is slung across her body, while Dearing’s back-up is slung over one shoulder so as to be handed off easily when it’s needed. “Let’s roll,” she tells the others as she piles out of the Katsch and runs for the panel beside the door.

“Speak friend and enter,” the redheaded Hound mutters as she swipes the card hanging from her neck through the reader. While she waits for the doors to respond (or not), she brings her rifle to the ready.

Devon follows, slowing as he crosses the threshold from vehicle to roadway to slap a hand against the upper frame of the door. A figurative high-five for the vehicle. Once on solid ground he jogs into position, staggered behind Rue’s, watching the opening currently closed off by steel doors. He settles onto a knee, rifle tucked into his shoulder, finger resting against the trigger guard. Ready to fire or move.

There’s a soft series of chimes from the keycard reader that reverberate in the concrete tunnel. A moment later a loud sound of hydraulics working within the door and below the concrete accompanies the smooth hiss of the gigantic blast doors beginning to move. Lights above the door flash orange, an alarm buzzer sounds suggesting people stay clear of the doors.

Atop the Katsch, Dearing finishes detaching the KPV machine gun from the turret, slinging it over his shoulder along with the dangling belt of ammunition as he hops down to the street with a clap of his boots on asphalt. Scott moves in behind Dearing, stopping at the right rear corner of the Katsch, using the truck for cover as the doors start to open.

This isn’t the first hardened facility Wolfhound has hit. By now it’s practically routine. As the doors open Dearing remains front-and-center behind the Katsch with the KPV braced against a pad on his hip, ready to fire. Rue and Devon have moved to either side of the door to provide a kill-box for whatever’s waiting on the other side.

As the doors part enough to see what’s on the other side, and the bulky frames of Praxis Heavy Industries robots come into view, Wolfhound doesn’t even need a verbal cue to open fire. The same robots that attacked them at Sunstone greet the team on the ground, a dozen armored and armed bipedal machines with boxy heads. For all the panic response it triggers in Devon’s chest, the firefight lasts roughly fifteen seconds. Not long enough to matter.

The roar and howl of gunfire is something of apocalyptic proportions, between the heavy chatter of the KPV Dearing fires from the hip to the single crack of Airmail taking off limbs, it all concludes in an eruption of white-hot pyrotechnics as the anti-retrieval protocol in the machines reduces then to a burning heap of smoking slag. Dearing checks the remaining belt of ammo, then holds out a hand to Scott, who produces more in a wide rope around his arm in a quick flash of light.

“Fuck ‘bots,” Dearing says with a spit in his tone.

Beyond the blast doors there is a cargo loading area with cavernously high ceilings. Hexagonal metal shipping containers marked with serial numbers and pinyin are stacked fifteen feet high on the sides of the room. Burning wreckage of robotic security lays smoldering on the ground.

But something doesn’t sit right with Dearing. “These fucks didn’t fire a single shot.” He says on approach, noticing the distinct lack of shell casings on the floor, not recalling a single ricocheted round bounced off the Katsch.

This would be the time where Rue would radio that in. Given the tunnels are cutting off communications, that isn’t an option. Neither is backtracking until she can get a signal through. So she takes point and starts to make her way forward, weaving her way through robot slag while misgivings form a cold mass in the pit of her stomach. Last time, those things nearly killed her. Why would they be stationed here and not acting in defense? The alarm had sounded at the Katsch’s unauthorized approach. Surely Yi-Min’s badge access wouldn’t have signaled a ceasefire.

Rue’s chin lifts as she follows the stacks of crates up, up, up. “Anybody else intensely curious about what’s in those things?” If she had to hazard a guess, she’d say more fucking robots. Maybe tanks or heavy armaments. Whatever it is, she suspects everyone is going to be better off if they blow it all to kingdom come.

“This is fucky.” Behind her helmet, Rue’s lips purse tight. There’s no way they’re being allowed to waltz right in to Praxia unimpeded. This is a trap. It’s all now just a matter of discovering what sort.

Recognition and subsequent panic causes a second’s long delay before Devon lends his own attack. The memory that comes with seeing those robots again is sharp and merciless. But the dread that follows, as Dearing and Rue point out the robots’ lack of counterattack, is chilling. He draws in a breath in an effort to loosen the knot that's formed in his chest.

“Welcome to Praxia,” he says in aside to Rue, a very weak attempt at a joke for her observation. Fucky doesn't begin to describe the way he's feeling about this part of the operation.

Devon takes up the rear. Anxiety drapes over his neck and shoulders like a scarf and whispers encouragement to his misgivings. He tries to take count of the cases, memorize the pinyin writing on the sides. “I don't like any of this.”

A gun slides across the floor, spinning end over end, and comes to a stop in the middle of the doorway. “I surrender!” Comes a very human voice from out of sight inside the cargo-filled hall. “I’m coming out.” Dearing leans back, braces the massive machine gun on his hip, and waits with a furrow of tension in his brows at the sudden noise.

A man emerges from behind one of the containers, hands raised in the air. His uniform is drab gray paramilitary affair, tactical gear, all of his holsters are empty. The Praxis Heavy Industries logo is affixed on a patch to his chest along with the words PHI Secure Response. He looks about Francis’ age; brown hair and blue eyes, stubbled chin.

“Lieutenant Josiah Sanderson,” he says while slowly moving down onto his knees, “formerly US Military, 104th Training Division.” There’s a clear tension in Lieutenant Sanderson’s eyes. “You’re Wolfhound,” he says with certainty. “I won’t fight you.”

Rue’s attention snaps from the containers to the weapon skittering across the floor, then in the direction it came from, her rifle raised and ready. The word surrender was a wise one to throw out before emerging, to be sure. “You’re right,” she says of who they are while planting her boot on the discarded gun, kicking it back toward Scott to retrieve.

“First Lieutenant February Lancaster,” she identifies herself, flipping up her visor so Sanderson can have the benefit of her smirk and the twinkle in her blue eyes. “Former part-time model.” She’s amused. “You wanna tell us what the fuck is going on here?” She gestures to the robotic remains. There are serious doubts that he disabled all the sentries and let them walk in here just so he could surrender.

Devon takes a brief aim on the gun that comes sliding from somewhere. Then eyes and rifle snap to the disembodied voice. Practiced restraint keeps him from firing first.

As Rue takes control of the surrendered gun, and with Dearing seeming to have an eye on things, Dev allows his rifle to lower. It's pushed over his shoulder to hang and he approaches Josiah with something near to authority. And caution. With one hand, he reaches for the other man’s hands, to pin them against the back of his head so he can check for hidden weapons with the other.

Devon doesn’t find any hidden weapons, and Josiah seems familiar enough with being taken prisoner to follow nonverbal instructions carefully. His attention is focused on Rue, even as Dearing and Scott make their approach from behind the Katsch.

“I realized I was on the wrong side of the line, ma’am.” Josiah says clearly and succinctly. “I was stationed in Oregon when the bombs fell during the war. Met up with a unit consisting of a Ryans and Demsky, ma’am. They took me from the Dead Zone to Utah. I’d be dead without ‘em.”

Utah was a massacre. Colette and Lucille still had scars from their time in it. But they did save a great number of lives.

“It’s a longer story’n we have time for,” Josiah says with a nod of his chin to the slagged robots. “I deactivated them as soon as I saw your bird decloak on the Ziggurat roof. I sent my men into Oakland to protect civilians and stayed behind to see what I could do to help. Been having misgivings about my employment for some time. Apologies it took this long, ma’am. But whatever you’re here t’do, I know the Hounds don’t do work without cause.”

“That’s fucking convenient.” Dearing says with a roll of his eyes. “Zip-tie him to a fucking crate and let’s get moving. We don’t have time to play around with Tex here.”

“You’re not ranking officer,” Scott reminds Dearing with the nudge of reserve clips for his sidearm against his bicep. Directing that decision, Scott looks over to Rue. “Lieutenant. What’s the plan?”

Rue's gaze stays fixed on Josiah as Devon conducts his search and indicates he's unarmed. As Dearing makes clear what they should do with him. Maybe part of her agrees, even as Scott defers to her, suggesting that perhaps he doesn't support that particular course of action without saying so. Or just maybe that he suspects her feelings will be in opposition to Dearing's. The reminder to the other men in her unit that she is in charge is a welcome one.

In her chest, there's a tightness and a desire to prove wrong something her partner had said about her.

You're a softie at heart.

You don't have the range I do.

It makes her want to do just what he's suggested. Zip-tie this poor bastard and leave him to gnaw his own arm off to get out of here before the powder keg inevitability goes off. Just to prove she's tougher than she looks. That she's not soft.

But then she wouldn't be Rue Lancaster.

With an upward jerk of her chin, Rue recalls Devon to her back. Once he's made that move, she reaches for the non-lethal weapon at her hip, unholstering and lifting the Banshee in her free hand. “Two choices: Get the fuck out of here, or help dismantle this fucking place.” She's already anticipating what the answer will be, stretching her arm back to begin the underhand toss of the sonic weapon to their conscript.

For all intents and purposes, Devon doesn't acknowledge Dearing’s grumping or Scott’s reminders. He's waiting for Rue to decide which way to handle the situation, and as such he only maintains contact with Josiah. He's not rough about it, no need to strong arm someone who's not being belligerent, but he's not going to let the man get away with shenanigans.

On Rue’s signal, he releases the captive and steps back. The offer of options gives him more pause than not trying Josiah up and leaving him.

Devon frowns slightly, eyes skipping from the lieutenant to the Banshee. Maybe it's the disjointed, bass-like thrum of bad memories or the sickening crawl of dread he can't shake. But he doesn't drop back completely. He draws his rifle from his shoulder, turns aside to view the hold beyond Josiah’s position.

“Ma’am if you’d have my help I can tell you whatever you need to know, so long as you tell me what was really going on here.” Josiah says with a look around. “Ain’t nobody who needs this kind of weaponry to protect a city. You need it to— ”

A horrible sound of shearing metal cuts off Josiah, followed by a tremendously loud crash that echoes from down the tunnel. Dearing whips around, lifting up the machine gun while Scott quickly moves over to the Katsch and opens the driver’s side door. It’s there that he sees the source of the sound coming galloping down the tunnel.

“Oh God.” Scott says as thousands of pounds of smoking steel on three legs awkwardly charges down the corridor. A braying, horrible synthetic howl floods the tunnel and Josiah’s eyes go wide on hearing the noise.

It’s the fucking robot bear.

Scott leaps up into the Katsch and turns the engine over, revving the gas and driving the truck into the cargo room. Dearing moves to the door and hits close on the shutters, but there’s a loud electronic buzz from it. The keypad reads Authorization Declined.

Rue!” Dearing shouts, “The badge! Hurry!

The underhand toss is completed. Rue trusts Josiah can think fast and catch the Banshee when it’s lobbed at him. “Congratulations, Sanderson.” Once upon a time, she met James Dearing in nearly this same way. That gamble paid off, so maybe this one will, too. “You’ve been deputized.” As he looks around, so does she. He doesn’t know what all of it is for?

At the horrid sound of death coming to bear down on them1, Rue drops her rifle, letting it hang from her shoulder by its strap as she bolts back toward the controls for the door, getting her fist wrapped around the chain holding Yi-Min’s ID around her neck. It would take longer to disentangle it from her person, and if she were to toss it, she might miss. If she does it herself, she will not miss. “Go!” she orders, waving away from the doors and further into the tunnels. “Go, go, go! Get the fuck out of here!” The three of them standing around and watching while she disengages the lock won’t make the doors shut any faster. And if those doors don’t close fast enough, only one of them should be in immediate danger.

“Motherfuck!” The curse is shrill, but dances the edge between panicked and pissed off. Boots skid across the concrete floor, screeching and leaving a thin layer of rubber behind as she allows herself to collide with the wall while she runs the keycard through the reader and smashes the controls to close the door with her gloved fist. Rue knows that hitting the button repeatedly not only will not make it close faster, but might also cause the doors to stop their shuttering cycle and just re-open, so she’s left with staring down the ursine predator as it careens toward her.

Devon turns without haste. He knows that sound well enough that there's no need for him to rush in facing it. His eyes slide to Rue, to Dearing and Scott, and then to Josiah of all people. The last of them he has no connection to — that he's aware of — yet if the Lieutenant has initiated him into the party, then…

The howl brings him back immediately. The sound of it turns his stomach into ice and lava, for reasons unknown to anyone but him. Another time and place, another him, and those sounds were common but kept the fear alive and palpable. They do the same now, but they don't freeze him on the spot. They make him move.

Toward the sound.

Rifle raised, twin volleys of three are spent on the bear as Dev moves into a position to draw some focus off Rue. He doesn't aim for marksmanship but to buy the team time. Maybe that door will close before the bear gets through. His second volley is followed close by one of Harkness' conjured explosives. A fastball pitch sends it hurtling through the air at the robotic monster and he moves again, working the gap closed.

The brick of plastique is wedged in the charging machine’s right-front knee joint, ground into the mechanisms with each stride. Normally a brick like this would need a detonator, but this isn’t the first time Devon’s set up a fastball special.

“What the fuck is that!?” Josiah shouts as he raises his Banshee and—


“Where are the bullets!?” Josiah howls, promptly pushed out of the way by Dearing with one shoulder.

“Stand aside,” Dearing says, clicking off the safety on the machine gun meant to be fired from a hardpoint mount. His strength bears down on the weapon and Dearing fires with a rapid chatter of brass shells hitting the concrete floor between incredibly loud blasts of heavy gunfire.

The bear-machine continues to close in down the tunnel, the broken turret on its back flopping around like a head on a snapped neck, pieces flying off with each stride. Its heavily armored body deflects most of the ammunition, even most of the heavy machine gun rounds.

At roughly seven yards Rue has a clear sight of the plastique wedged into the robot’s right-front knee joint. The trick to the fastball special is sufficient mechanical energy and heat, of which a constantly grinding joint provides one, and a tracer round provides the other.

There’s a growl of frustration from Rue as the doors simply won’t close fast enough. Also at the fact that Devon is running toward the danger, and not away from it, like she’d given the order to. Still, he’s using his head, and his tools.

With the hulking monstrosity gaining ground, Rue lifts her rifle. “Okay, fucking now get the fuck behind something!” she shouts over the sound of warning klaxons and scraping metal on metal. “I mean, unless shrapnel chic is the look you’re going for this season!” Aiming down the scope, she follows the movements of the joint grinding down on the C4. Drawing in a breath, she holds it, and pulls the trigger.

Explosions are an Amarok Hound's best friend. The number of times that C4 — or any sort of volatile compound really — has saved Devon and his team is innumerable. True, the ulcer and migraine count of those who are on the team is likely higher, but it's the results and not the collateral that counts, right? Right.

His recklessness is renowned, even still. The sweet, rotten whispers of foreboding have either lost their sway over him or have taken a firmer grasp. Retreat comes only in the form of him dropping to the floor under the partial cover of the opened doorway.

Laying prone, Devon lines up a shot. His rifle isn't the fancy sort, with two settings for ammunition's feed and a utilitarian design — it's the Huffy of rifles to Rue's Schwinn model. It's switched from burst mode to single rounds with a flip of his thumb, and he looks through the low-powered scope to track the bear's knees. His next shot will follow Rue's, to buy time if they need it.

Screaming metal turns into a windmill of explosive shrapnel when the robotic bear’s other front leg is blown off at the knee by the C4 brick. It plunges face-first into the street, flips end over end, and then like a high speed NASCAR wreck begins cartwheeling end over end in a shower of sparks, smoke, flames, and shrapnel.

Devon, Rue, and Dearing all pull back as the high-speed machine careens toward them, all the while the slow whine of hydraulic doors creep incrementally closer to closed. But it isn’t fast enough. The machine smashes through the opening, catching one side of the door with a bent back leg, and comes to a stop mere feet from the Hounds.

The bear rears up on jagged, sparking stumps and opens its massive hydraulic-press jaws and unleashes a bestial roar of grinding gears and churning mechanical components. The doors close around it like a vice, and as the bear lashes out with snapping jaws and flailing stumps at the Hounds, the sound of groaning metal grows louder and louder.

Soon, the hydraulics in the door fail to provide enough pressure to crush the bear any further. But as the doors close down around its shoulders, crumple its central chassis and its power plant into scrap metal, the bear’s eyes flicker out one by one. Eventually, the behemoth becomes an inert lump of smoking scrap. The doors, too, are equally ruined by pressing down on the metallic obstruction. Judging from the screaming sound of bending metal inside the walls, they may never open again.

At least there’s enough space to crawl out, over or under the bear. Should it come to that.

Everyone prays it doesn’t.

“I don’t know if that was ours.” Josiah says with a shaky voice, his back pressed up against a shipping container. “If it was, nobody told me about it.”

Only now does Scott breathe, slouching away from the machine wreck to wipe sweat away from his brow.

When the sounds of crunching and screeching metal finally stop, Rue is left standing with her rifle still ready to fire, catching her breath from the terror that’s made her heart hammer in her chest. Her hands are steady, but the rest of her is trembling. She gives herself the space of three breaths before she forces herself to finally relax, easing down her weapon, and letting it hang from her shoulder again.

“Give the man back his weapon, Hark,” Rue directs with a tilt of her head in Josiah’s direction. Obviously the sort of shit they’re likely to come up against going forward isn’t going to be as affected by a Banshee as she might have hoped, and she’s not about to force him to be a sitting duck.

Then, she turns to face Devon. “And Clendaniel,” she begins tersely. With her visor flipped up, he has the full benefit of the anger that’s threatening to break the surface tension of her face. “The next time I give you a direct order? You fucking follow it.” Just because it paid off this time doesn’t mean it will the next time.

They lost him once before. If Lancaster has any-fucking-thing to say about it, they won’t lose him again. Not on her watch. “Come on. We’ve got more fuckin’ teeth to kick in.” Flipping down the visor on her helmet finally, Rue starts leading the way forward again. “Sanderson, with me.”

They may be shit at following orders sometimes, but if their new guide tries to pull anything on her, she knows the others will make him regret it.

After picking himself up, Devon drops the magazine from his rifle. He begins fitting rounds into it again, replacing those he'd used, while he turns away from the twisted, crushed metal that was the bear and door. Behind his own visor, surprise flickers briefly when he finds Rue facing him.

The dressing down isn't a shock, he'd expected to hear something about his choices. There are often disagreements with his choices when it comes to strategy. Silence meets the statement. As much as he disagrees with the strategy of running and hiding when he's got something to contribute, anything he could say now would be argumentative and out of line. So he says nothing.

He watches as the lieutenant takes point again, fingers push the final rounds into the magazine then slide that into the rifle. He falls into position in the back of the pack.

Dearing doesn't turn his back on the robot, not for a long and silent moment. When he finally does, he walks past the Katsch and hefts the machine gun over his shoulder, checking how much more of the belted ammo he has left.

Scott gives Rue a long, thoughtful look and then hands Josiah his sidearm back. There's a warning of don't make me regret that in his eyes when he does. Josiah checks the gun, then holsters it at his side for now.

“Through this way is the cargo loading dock. My squad was guarding this area, so it should be empty now. From there we can only go up. There's three basement levels above us; research labs and the geothermal power plant.” Josiah says as he motions to a pair of closed doors up ahead.

Josiah stops and considers two other possible exits. “What’re you all here to do anyway? This place is for city blocks horizontal and vertical. Thousands of residences, civilian and corporate. I don't know all the floors but I can try and get you where you need.”

Some of the aggravation-inspired tension winds its way out of Rue’s shoulders when she doesn’t find herself having to argue with Scott. In good conscience, she can’t expect Josiah to lead them through this funhouse of horrors without a means to protect himself. If that makes her the idiot here, then so be it, but he almost certainly can’t take them all out with a single sidearm. Which leads her to another thought that she’ll need to address. Later.

What are they here to do? “Don’t worry about it,” she instructs. “You’re going to show the way to those research labs, for a start.” Rue grasps her rifle with one hand and lifts it up again, gesturing with it toward the doors ahead. “Incidentally, what’s your superpower?” It would be too much to expect that she not be the only mundane in this group. And Monroe isn’t exactly known for surrounding himself with people like her.

“You aren't in any position to ask questions,” Devon points out, giving Rue’s dismissive answer a solid underline and a few asterisks for emphasis. One potential leak in himself is more than enough. The thought bubbles, prompting a brief wondering about his other self, questions that are chased away with a small shake of his head.

Closing in on the door, he moves from the rear of the group to the front. He glances at Rue, then takes a forward position to have guns ready for whatever might be on the other side once the way is opened. He sets up on a knee, in a stance that he can move quickly from. His rifle is brought up, muzzle raised in anticipation of any hostiles waiting.

“I’m just tryin’ t’help,” Josiah says with his hands raised slowly. Scott and Dearing follow on behind as Josiah leads the way to an open doorway off of a loading dock. “This hall leads to the research freight elevators, they’ll require access from someone with a Sigma clearance level.” Conveniently, what Yi-Min’s card possesses. “It’s one floor above us. Elevator will open out into a shipment receival loading dock, no idea what they usually get delivered. Beyond that the lab floor layout is outside of my knowledge.”

Josiah is able to badge through the hallway to the elevator, leading the Hounds past a series of closed doors. Scott looks back at the Katsch, then angles a look at Dearing and nods as the two take up the rear.

“Why’s it so fucking quiet down here?” Dearing asks. “Shouldn’t there be alarms?”

“There will be once security realizes what I’ve done. Maybe five or six more minutes. There’ll be an automated patrol sent down here, like those ‘bots you saw on the way in. But they’ll respond to Central Security, and I don’t have a comm line to them.”

Josiah stops at the large, slatted doors of a freight elevator and motions to the card reader slot. “Whatever you’re gonna do, this place is going to be a hot zone if you need to come back down. And with the door locked, I don’t know if you’ll be able to get your truck out of here.”

“We’ll worry about that when we come to it,” Scott says, moving to one side of the hallway. “How many physical security are in this building, anyway? Flesh and blood and robots.”

Josiah shakes his head. “Not sure precisely. I think there were about two-thousand security officers, but the majority of them left on aircraft a while back with mechanized hardware. Whole place is on a skeleton crew. I think there’s… two or three hundred of the Qing drones left.” He motions over his shoulder, indicating the biped robots. “Scattered across Praxia.”

All of this would be great information to radio ahead to the others, and it frustrates Rue to no end that she can’t give or receive an update. She angles a look back over her shoulder to Dearing. Behind the helmet, she’s glancing between him, his gun, and the belt of ammo that remains, doing mental math on how far that’s going to get them against drone opposition.

The minutes between now and when the alarms will sound will be enough to get them off this level and to the laboratory. It won’t be hard to find them, because the place is almost certainly wired for video corner to corner, but they have time enough to get out of the hallways, probably. Find a chokepoint and then they can…

Rue’s getting ahead of herself. First thing’s first, she scans Yi-Min’s credentials once more to grant them access to the elevator. When nothing nasty greets them as the doors part, she gestures for the rest of her squad to step inside first, holding Josiah back with a hand on his arm. “Last chance, Sanderson. You don’t have to go any further than this.”

“Once we get to the labs… ” Devon’s tone leaves the hanging, like a question. There are too many secrets to share openly — about why they’re on this mission, what's important beyond the basement levels. But the other members of Wolfhound know he should be able to lead the way once there. Somehow, he's sure he can, that he will remember the hallways and rooms much the way one remembers how to ride a bike after years without practice.

Dev is the first on the elevator. After a look at Josiah as he passes the other man, he takes his place at the door opposite the controls. He trades out his weapons once in position, rifle left to hang against his back by its sling so that he can take advantage of the maneuverability of his handgun.

Josiah looks back over his shoulder, then turns back to Rue and Devon. “I didn’t have to go awol when the President ordered me to fire on civilians all those years ago either,” is his simple response. As he steps inside the elevator, Josiah turns and notices an appraising look from Harkness, but neither man remarks on it.

“Sometimes, ma’am,” Josiah says as he watches Dearing close the elevator doors on his way in, “you just have to do what’s right.”

“Even if you might not walk away from it.”

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