My suit immediately sent an alarm to the tactical network we were using, and started streaming everything I was seeing and sensing from the suit.
A woman’s voice, presumably FourD, quickly spoke. “It’s going to explode in another ten seconds, after it completely stabilizes in this dimension. The explosion will be non-nuclear. Some sort of cluster munitions.”
Obstacle spoke up immediately. “Activate the shield generators, including the top shield. Full containment!”
A nuke would have popped a fully-enclosed shield, like what would happen if you tried to hold a powerful firecracker in a clenched fist. The shielding had been designed to either be able to direct blast upwards or fully enclose it.
Not important to me. Stay on target.
The suit started to indicate the presence of shields on all sides and above me. It was no longer possible for me to get blown away from the site as Strangest. If the explosion was energetic, I would bounce against the shields and stay in the safe zone around the emergence point, still close enough to affect the incoming attackers.
Where is Disco Wolf?
I had the suit show me where Disco Wolf had moved to. The suit indicated he had moved at a phenomenal speed, and was outside the shield perimeter talking to Obstacle and the other heroes near him. He definitely hadn’t teleported, but he didn’t move air around as he moved at such absurd speeds, so I was at a loss. According to what I had read while he was walking towards me earlier, he had almost been classified as a speeder instead of a savage. According to many, the reason he was classified as a savage was because he had many of the physical features of a wolf. All I had to do was see the number of posts in that thread, and I knew there was no useful information there, so I had stopped reading and moved to the next section on him.
Alpha male, indeed.
I was tempted to stay suited until the explosion hit, so the suit would be damaged. Bringing back an undamaged suit would give Valsom and his crew idle time to play with “improving” it.
Like the self-destruct option.
Why didn’t I just say no?
As far as I knew, I would survive a self-destruct explosion due to my body’s reaction to harm being a shift to my other body. Valsom and his crew guaranteed me that there was no way the explosion would be set off accidentally.
When I asked if someone else might be able to bypass my control of the suit manually and detonate it, or force me to detonate it with mental control, Valsom had stopped talking for a moment, muttering to himself. A moment later, he shouted with audible glee. “Safety Features! The boss wants safety features! Let’s get to work!”
I had a sneaky suspicion that if I had been able to see Valsom and his crew, they would have been throwing their hats in the air and hugging one another in celebration.
I wasn’t quite that cavalier about damage to myself or the suit, however, so I made a final report into the tacnet by radio. “Shifting to Strangest now. Out.” The instant shift in my visual perspective from six feet in the air to ten feet in the air was very strange, but I was starting to get used to it.
I detected no mental presence, so the bomb wasn’t some sort of suicide bomber in a box.
Provided that I can detect whatever race they are.
We’ll find that out soon enough.
The shimmer effect around the emerging device was almost completely absent now. An alarm klaxon started sounding. It was eerily familiar, like I had heard it a thousand times before. It sounded like it came from a Hollywood production, rather than a modern alarm, but everyone appeared to get the point. The few people I could see quickly moved into the prepared shelters. The only person I could see out in the open was Octagon, watching from a couple hundred feet away.
I hope Ali is OK, haven’t seen him for a while.
I gave myself a mental shrug before dropping to the ground. Ali probably didn’t want to damage his body, or seeming, or whatever he wanted to call the human shape he wore. It seemed likely that he was watching me from the perimeter, where he wouldn’t be subject to all the weaponry pointed at me.
For the next two seconds, I adjusted my position on the ground so that my face was up, feet facing the bomb, and then put both hands over my eyes, waiting for the explosion. My eyes would regenerate if damaged, but I’d rather not have to wait on regeneration, and I didn’t want to be face down and unable to see after the explosion.
When it came, the explosion was loud and bright, but not very damaging. Apparently only sufficient to burst the shell of the automobile-sized device. After the shell was ruptured, thousands of devices erupted from the protective housing and spread out in a rapidly expanding sphere.
I managed to see the first few of them to hit me, the lead elements of the formation. Individually, the body of each of the flying devices was the roughly the shape and volume of a golf ball, but sticking out of each golf ball body were four multiple-segment articulated spikes like spider legs. The last half inch or so of each spike’s terminal segment was glowing with a harsh bright light. I only had time for one thought before the first half dozen in the lead element hit me.
Electricity, or monoblades?
Fortunately, it was monoblades. Any possibility that our dimensional neighbors were planning to talk with us immediately disappeared when the lead elements of the sphere hit me, and immediately dug themselves into my body. Fortunately, like Cog’s suit, when the little machines exposed themselves to my insides by ripping into my body, they went inert. It took a short but measurable amount of time for the failure to happen though, and the assault balls were brutally efficient. The first half a dozen to hit me were actually fully inside me before they became disabled. A non-super, even most supers, would have had the things inside them, tearing them apart from the inside.
Someone’s definitely a bad neighbor.
After the lead elements hit me, and went inert, the rest of the swarm avoided me with amazing agility, looking a lot like videos I had seen of schools of sardines dodging a scuba diver or large predators at sea. In another couple seconds they encountered the shield and started to attack it. I heard the shield generators begin to change tone, rapidly shifting from a slow, powerful hum to a strident shriek.
They are programmed with at least some degree of flexibility.
I stood up, trying to pull one of the assault balls out of my body, but failing. My body healed around them before my too-big, too-spongy fingers could get a grip.
After realizing there was nothing I could do immediately about the assault balls in my body, I looked at Octagon, who was clearly speaking into a hand held device. I saw Obstacle and some super in what looked like a chain mail suit emerge from one of the bunkers. Obstacle stepped out a few steps away from the doorway, and crouched, looking at the shield and clearly speaking into his own handheld device. The guy wearing chain mail took two steps out of the doorway, and looked at the shield over Obstacle’s head. When the wires on the chain mail suit began to glow visibly with a bright blue light, I recognized Faraday. I had looked him up after Octagon mentioned him the other day, but chain mail wasn’t exactly uncommon among supers, and I didn’t recognize him until the wiring outside his suit started to glow.
I could see a few other supers emerging from cover, most of them clearly listening to or talking into handheld communicators. I recognized few of the supers. One of them that I didn’t recognize looked like he was actually half machine. When he saw Faraday glowing blue and getting brighter, he backpedaled into the shelter he had come out of with an “Oh, Hell No!” shout that I could hear over the generator.
I know how you feel, buddy.
Several people were distracted by his outburst and looked towards the panicked super, including Obstacle. A couple supers laughed. Obstacle wasn’t laughing.
I just closed my eyes and waited for the pain. Faraday was one of the most powerful electrical projectors in the Southeast US. It was pretty clear that he was about to throw a charge through the shield and hope to disable the assault balls before they crashed the shield generator.
I couldn’t take my eyes off Faraday. Like a deer staring into headlights, I just waited for what was coming.
Faraday threw out his arms to his side and looked straight up at the sky, screaming incoherently. A lot of people began looking at him in alarm. Then there was a flash of light.
One moment I was watching Faraday push his limits to deliver a powerful attack over a huge area to take out the assault balls. My next coherent thought was that it was dark and smelled like ammonia. I could vaguely recall there being another bright light, and big things attacking me.
I tried to move. It was very hard. Literally, there was something very hard pressed onto me. I could move it, but barely. I started to try to get a bit better leverage and all of a sudden, it shifted off of me, almost like I had pushed it off. I knew I had done no such thing. Looking at the brutally mangled armor leaking something green, it was clear to me that the invasion had started.
I then realized that I could detect a single mind near me. Almost on top of me. Another invader in armor that looked exactly like the leaking suit that had been laying across my head and arms was looking at me. His helmet was torn off, and I could see his face. Definitely not human. More like an insect. The skin showed cracks, not cuts, and was dripping green fluid badly.
My still-dazed mind didn’t quite make all the right connections yet. “Antifreeze is dangerous. You shouldn’t drink it, or spill it.”
The bugman started making loud noises at me. The mouth parts were definitely not human, the jaws had four parts, top left, top right, and bottom left and right. There was something inside there that looked like it might be a tongue analog. The sounds were coming from somewhere below the jaws though. Since I certainly couldn’t speak their language, and since he was inside my anger field and I could detect his mind, I suspected that he was yelling something like “I’m going to kill you!” in bugspeak. The fact that he started stabbing me with what looked like a cross between a spear and a rifle made it pretty clear that I was right.
When I tried to fend him off, he proved to be far stronger than me, and far more dexterous, but after a few seconds of exertion, he simply fell over on his side, staring at me with six eyes. It took me a moment to realize they were eyes. The lids moved sideways, and there were three of them in two rows across the top of his head above his mouth parts.
I bet he thinks I’m butt-ugly too.
I laughed, a bit hysterically. He stabbed me again from where he lay on his side. This time he was too slow and I grabbed the rifle-spear from him.
Now that he wasn’t able to try to stab me, I was able to look at him without paying most of my attention to his arm holding the spear. Turns out, that was the only limb he had left. He looked like some sort of cross between a human and a praying mantis. Instead of the giant gripping front legs of a mantis, he had something a lot like human arms and hands. I couldn’t see what they really looked like, because the right arm was in armor, but the shape of the armor indicated two fingers opposed by a single thumb. Apparently he, or she, or it, or whatever had been dragging itself across the battlefield towards me for a while, using its one good limb and five stumps. This was clearly why it had fallen over. It was bleeding to death.
When I realized that it was probably dying, I quickly reached out with my right arm to touch it’s face. Might as well save it the pain. The soldier tried to block my arm with his one remaining limb, but failed. As I touched his face, I felt the mind recede, but not completely, I could still barely sense a presence. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to shift back, but I certainly wasn’t going to be shifting back any time soon, so the point was moot, for now.
Need to get those assault balls out of me.
“Ali, I need you now. If you can hear me, please come here.”
Ali’s voice immediately responded. “I’m here, Zeke. What do you need.”
Without trying to sit up yet, I tapped the dying soldier on an undamaged section of armor. “Think you can stop the bleeding and stabilize this soldier?”
Ali turned to look at the unconscious soldier for a second. “Possibly. I’m not sure though. I would be flying by the seat of my pants and might cause him a great deal of pain. It might even be an insult to his culture to save his life when he’s wounded this badly.”
I thought about it. “Ali, save him if you can. If their culture is that brutal, I’m sure they have established social rules for when they survive terrible injuries. I’d rather give him the option of living, if possible.”
I pushed another dead bugman off my legs.
My leg. Fuck.
My right leg was missing. I sat up and looked around.
God, this is horrible.
The area looked like someone had chopped up a bunch of insects in a blender, then dumped the resulting mess onto a shallow bowl, and poured antifreeze on top, like some sort of over-the-top gruesome Halloween cereal gag. The smell in the air was thick, and strange, vaguely coppery smelling with clear ammonia undertones.
There were only two places where there were mostly whole bodies. One was where I had been, the other was a few dozen feet away. I tried to move my right leg. I saw something shift in the other pile of mostly-whole bodies.
Survivors of the battle must have congregated on my body and my leg, then died due to wounds.
I managed to get myself in a standing position and walk on three limbs to the other pile where my leg was. As I was digging through the pile to retrieve my leg, I saw a cat loping towards me through the chaos. There was a radio duct taped to the cat’s back, the duct tape was wrapped all the way around its stomach.
I simply stared. A cat. With a radio duct taped to it.
Some mentalist had better hope this cat never develops intelligence.
“Strangest, can you hear me?” Octagon’s voice.
Of course. It’s AL, not a real cat.
“Hello, Octagon.” After a second, I decided to be polite. I still wasn’t sure how smart Octagon’s AI cat was. “Hello, AL.”
AL made a pleased meow noise and rubbed against my leg.
“Careful, AL, if you touch any of my wounds, my insides short out electronics. I don’t know if you would survive that.”
AL jumped back at that, at least ten feet in a single bound, hissing at me with arched back and raised tail.
“What the hell are you doing to my cat, Strangest?” Octagon complained loudly, angrily.
“Octagon, stop. I’m protecting AL.” I paused a second. “AL, that was not a threat. I can’t control it.”
AL stopped hissing at me, clearly listening, so I continued. “You can touch my skin where there are no wounds, but it’s hard to tell where I’m wounded, since I’m all spongy and the same shade of black inside and out. It’s probably best that you never touch me if you can avoid it. Maybe your fur would protect you. I don’t know.”
Octagon’s voice came out of the radio strapped on the cat. “What the hell is this? Strangest, you had a monoblade buried in your neck and it came out still working fine. Are your powers mutating?” Octagon sounded a bit panicked.
“No, Octagon, electricity works fine inside me, and a monoblade is just a charge passing through a long chain molecule. Complex electronics are a different story.”
AL moved to about five feet away from me and sat, staring at me, tail twitching like a metronome. He yawned and started to purr.
I guess he forgives me.
“Anyway, we need to get access to that last attacker if possible, if they are still alive. We saw him crawling towards the pile you were in, but FourD said you were still alive in there, so we couldn’t get close. Can you shift back into human form?”
I paused, while using a discarded rifle-spear to lever another heavy corpse off the pile on my leg. “No. I need my leg back first.”
There was a few seconds of dead air. “What?”
“Octagon, my leg was blown off in the battle. I need to get it out of this pile and reattach it before I change to human. Shifting back and forth with pieces missing is extremely painful. I’ve never tried it when I was missing a limb.”
“We need that soldier alive.”
I need my leg back.
I tried to pull my leg out of the pile by its ankle. No luck. “I’ll move to the other side of the safe area when I have my leg. Then I have to remove the assault balls that buried themselves inside me before they deactivated. I’m not shifting back with anything inside me, not knowingly.”
Octagon was silent for a moment. “Hurry, please. This is a new race we haven’t encountered before, and this is the only surviving enemy soldier. All the rest killed themselves when captured; they can apparently suicide at will. If this one is unconscious we might be able to get some information from mental interrogation before it decides to kill itself.”
I thought about it. “I don’t think that’s going to work, Octagon, I suspect the only thing keeping this one alive is a desire to kill me. When I touched it, it didn’t go all the way unconscious, I can still feel its mind. If I move out of range, based on what you told me just now, it’ll probably just kill itself. Ask FourD, if they are available.”
“She was in pretty sorry shape a few minutes ago. I’ll see if she’s up to another use of her power.”
A couple minutes later, I managed to retrieve and reattach my leg.
I think that’s all the pieces.
As I walked back to where Ali was, I looked at the rifle-spear. There didn’t appear to be a way to separate the blade from the rifle like was the case with all human bayonets that I had seen. It was all one piece. Still, it had a blade on it, and even with the size of my fists, I could grip it two handed for better control.
It would do.
“Ali, is the soldier going to live?” I asked as I walked closer to where Ali was kneeling. A dead bugman had been dragged over next to the living one, and there was a stream of liquid passing between the two. I could also see that the soldier now had six limbs again.
Ali looked up at me from where he was kneeling. “I think so. They have fairly simple bodies, just extremely strange brains and body chemistry. Once I finish patching up the holes and replacing fluids, I think it will live.”
I looked at the line of fluid passing from one body to the other, and couldn’t help but shudder a bit.
Shades of Frankenstein.
“What about tissue rejection, Ali?”
“I don’t think that’s a problem. I did a few simple tests for similarity, and they appear to be the same body, just repeated over and over again. There are several different types of bodies on this battlefield, but this one is the same as about nine out of ten corpses. I made sure to get bits and pieces and fluids only from matching bodies.”
Octagon spoke up, sounding cautious. “It’s AL, Strangest, not Ali. It’s not a doctor, and it’s certainly not a bug doctor. Why are you asking it these questions? FourD refused to answer me, but I spoke to some mentalists who had tried to get something from living bugs, while they were fighting, and they agree with you. Tentatively.”
I looked up, spinning until I saw what I expected to see. Octagon was hovering and there was a person in his carrying harness below him, and two others flying beside him. He was gripping his carrying harness in one hand, and a radio in the other.
I looked at Ali. I thought he had been visible and audible to everyone, but apparently not. “Ali, can you make yourself visible and audible to everyone, so Octagon doesn’t think I’ve completely lost my mind?”
AL was simply staring at me. Apparently he couldn’t see or hear Ali either. His attention never wavered.
Ali grinned at me. “Sure, why not. I’ll even wear a costume!” He had been wearing a pair of jeans and a short sleeve shirt with some sort of cartoon of a sponge, or piece of cheese on it. Those clothes blurred and seemed to flow like water across his skin, and within seconds Ali was wearing a red vest over a green short sleeve shirt, with green underwear over white tights. I saw his feet last, green low boots with pointed toes.
I just stared at him for about two seconds, speechless.
Ali’s grin got bigger. A black strip of cloth suddenly covered his eyes.
“As much as I would love to see the reaction to that costume, I don’t think it’s a good idea, Ali.” I managed to get out, trying my best to keep from exploding in laughter.
“Spoilsport.” Ali stuck his tongue out at me before he changed back to what he had been wearing.
Octagon was apparently still only hearing only my half of the conversation, and snapped at me, sounding angry. “Stop playing around, Strangest. You sound too deliberate to be going insane, so stop trying to pretend you are. I’ve got people with me that need to get in there and try to work with that soldier. We need to get in there now, and it’s going to take us a little while to establish the exact range of your power, so we can get as close to it as possible. Badger is also on his way to construct and modify restraints at need.”
Ali was looking at me, and then up at Octagon and the people with him. While he was looking up at Octagon, Ali said “Watch this!” and snapped his fingers.
AL was about three feet from Ali when Ali became visible, and instantly yowled like someone had stepped on his tail as he leapt what must have been the better part of twenty feet, far further than his leap to escape me earlier. This time he didn’t stop and arch his back, he simply ran.
Octagon dropped his harnessed passenger, who screamed briefly before Octagon dove and grabbed the harness again.
“Ali, you can detect where my power’s radius ends, precisely, and mark it for them?”
“I can, and will, Zeke. I need to do my duty soon though, and it’s going to take several trips.”
Oh, the souls in the soul well.
Apparently it worked against bugmen.
As I walked away from the bugman soldier Ali had been tending, I noticed AL paralleling my path.
Octagon spoke to me through the radio which was still taped on AL. “I’m going to need answers, Strangest. Later, but soon.”
I knew he wasn’t going to like it, but I had to set some ground rules. “No, Octagon, you want answers, and I don’t know how many I can give you yet. I no longer work alone, and my partner has a say.”
Octagon growled in a very angry tone. “Strangest, if you’re dragging a minor into fights, especially fights like this, no matter what powers they have, it’s wrong. You had damn well be ready with answers the public can accept, because a lot of what just happened has been recorded on news video. You did a great job in there and are getting some good press, but this? Fuck.” He stopped speaking for a second, and resumed, sounding a little more calm. “I can’t think about this. Your partner is showing us where the border of your power is. Keep going ten feet and then stop, we’ll be close enough.”
I said nothing else, I didn’t trust myself to not say something inflammatory. I took two more steps, stopped, and then sat down and started angrily using a rifle-spear to cut assault balls out of my body.
Disco Wolf came out from behind a large piece of rubble a few dozen feet away from me, and started speaking with clear undertones of humor. His tongue was hanging out the side of his jaw in his canine grin. “Seems like you have a bit of a problem. Maybe I can help?”