“So, you seem to be handling this all pretty well,” Samaira said as they took off. Chandrali, in her house cat form, curled up in her lap and purred as she closed her eyes. Thick mustache.
“Well it’s either put up a fight or get killed,” Anya said. She checked their heading and speed: almost 7,000 miles to Beijing at Mach-3. The V-187’s stabilizers and anti-grav features didn’t make it seem that fast beyond the initial acceleration though. It would take them just under 3 hours to get to the meeting point at top speed.
“True, but you still seem pretty stable. I thought I was gonna pack it in last night. Did you moonlight as a motivational speaker or a coach? Is that one of your skills?”
Anya laughed. “Nope. Just stubborn, I guess.”
She thought of her first day at work in Manhattan a few years ago, when she’d run into Tori for the first time. She’d stopped just outside her building and stared up and up at the monolithic gray and glass structure. She had been a fresh college grad from Clemson, far from home and everybody she had ever known, on the cusp on bankruptcy thanks to her student loan payments and the cost of her shitty apartment in Brooklyn.
She had thrown herself into the city, into a job she barely felt qualified for handling other people’s money when she barely had any of her own. She had been desperate to get away from Clemson, her mother, her sister, and the weight of their disapproval.
When she had looked up at the building that held her investment firm, she’d had a sudden terrible moment of thinking she had made a huge mistake. She would have to crawl back to Clemson or else wind up on the street, or worse.
She had gone inside and into the elevator on weak legs and ran into a slender blond woman in a smart suit who had taken one look at her and smiled.
“First day?” the woman had asked her. Anya said it was and offered a nervous smile back. “Well, just fake it ‘til you make it. The people here aren’t too bad unless they think they smell blood in the water. I’m Tori, by the way. Accounting department.”
“Anya,” she had said, and spent the rest of the day faking her ass off until she’d gone home and collapsed. She faked that first week: smiling when when she felt like crying, sighing when she felt like screaming, and offering reassurances to her boss when she had none for herself.
And while she never felt she had really “made it,” she got to know Tori, got to know the rhythm of her office, and she survived.
It was all too easy to think about the pit at the back of Anya’s mind that had threatened to swallow her since Friday night. It was a chasm of uncertainty and terror at what she and the planet had become. It would be so easy to run the mental memory reel of the police and Carl dying, of going over the number of deaths featured in the news, of taking a long look at her new body in the mirror and only seeing a phantom of her old self there.
And from there, it would be even easier to just start screaming or laughing and not stop for a long, long time.
Instead, she took a deep breath, and looked at the horizon out the windshield of the V-187 and the bright dot of Beijing thousands of miles beyond the curve of the world.
“Stubborn’s a pretty good thing to be now,” Samaira said from the back.
“Better than dead,” Anya said then spun her pilot’s chair around as the V-187’s autopilot took over. “So did you and Gary know each other before all of this?”
“Nope. We ran into each other right after it got started. I met him and Tyson, the host who uh, passed away Monday night, when we were all in the city. We met Jessica later that night, spent the next couple days getting to know each other and sharing info about the menus.
“Jess wanted to go to the cops right away, but Gary warned against it. Tyson didn’t seem too thrilled with the idea either and I just figured I’d go along with whatever. Gary was planning on building some robots to go talk to the Governor instead of an actual person, but then the aliens invaded. Two of them landed pretty close to us. Still can’t believe we survived.”
“And you decided to look like a magical girl before or after the aliens landed?” Anya asked, hoping to steer the conversation away from death. Fear, despair, everything that came with thinking about that sort of thing wasn’t going to help her now. To her relief, Samaira smiled.
“Before. I watched those cartoons all the time as a kid. I mean, the abilities themselves are pretty diverse, useful, and not necessarily tied to anything specific, but the aesthetic was just for fun. I mean, the outfit’s practical! Lots of defensive spells and auras and stuff. It’s just always something I kinda wanted,” Samaira said and shrugged. She tucked some of her hair behind her ear.
“What about your knight thing?” Samaira asked. “Is that based off anything you like or was it just something you stumbled across?”
“Definitely just stumbled across it. It’s really growing on me though. Especially Flame Dominion. It’s handy and…I dunno. The skill gave me this thing, Sun’s Heart, and it feels really good. Like I’m walking around with my own personal star or something. That reminds me: Felix!”
“Yes!” Felix said as they popped into being.
“What was up with that redacted skill? Abyss Dominion?” Anya asked.
“There’s a redacted skill? Boo, bring it up,” Samaira said as her menu and mopey AI appeared.
“Sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I should’ve thought of that,” Boo heaved the words out like they each weighed a ton.
“It’s fine,” Samaira said as the skill appeared in front of her. Her eyebrows raised as the skill, unlike any other, had a blank information page apart from the name of the skill itself.
“I have absolutely zero information on this skill, aside from the name,” Felix said. “I can tell you that it was selectively removed, however. Or there was an attempt to.”
“What do you mean?” Anya asked.
“The skill was initially included in the menu system like all the others. It being redacted isn’t a glitch though: the creators of the system selected it specifically for removal. As well as any related skills. Super mysterious, right?”
“I don’t like mysteries. They’re scary,” Boo pouted.
Old mustache styles
“What related skills?” Samaira asked.
“Abyss Travel, Abyss Connection, and something called ‘Voice of Qoth,’” Felix said. Boo hung her head and pointed at each skill as it appeared on Samaira’s menu and Felix narrated. Like Abyss Dominion, all the skills were blank but for their names.
“That last one doesn’t sound related,” Anya said and squinted at her menu. “Why that one? The other three are all related to this Abyss, but the last one isn’t.”
“Sorry, but I still have no idea. Only that it, like the Abyss skills, are the only redacted skills in the entire systems. Just those four,” Felix said. “There may be other skills that don’t exist on the menu system at all, but that would be because the system hasn’t encountered them out in the universe. These four skills exist, but they were removed by whoever made the menus,” Felix said.
“Good job Felix,” Anya said. “Thank you.”
“Aw, it’s my pleasure!” Felix said and did a victory pose.
“Sorry I wasn’t as good as Felix,” Boo said and faded away.
“Oh my goodness, Boo, seriously,” Samaira said. “She is such a baby.”
Anya stayed quiet. She suddenly felt very lucky to have Felix as her AI. Their exuberance didn’t seem nearly as annoying as it first had. She tapped her chin and continued to stare at her menu.
“Why those skills? It’s not like the alien engineers who made this thing were concerned about safety. They put nukes and worse in the store, and any one of us is capable of hurting a lot of people with our skills, including ourselves. Why would they redact those four skills?”
“I’m not sure I really want to know,” Samaira said. “If it scares or is of enough concern for these ‘engineers,’ it must be something really awful.”
“Have to ask Gary about it later,” Anya said and then trailed off into silence.
“Does your family know? About everything?” Samaira asked a few moments later. Anya winced.
“Eeeeh,” Anya said and shrugged. Samaira chuckled.
“I’m in the same boat. My parents and my brothers have no idea. I was planning on telling them after the initial shock wore off, but then the aliens showed up a year ahead of schedule and I’ve just been trying to keep my head up since then. I know I should give them a call since things could get crazy at any second but I just…I don’t know. How do you even start with something like this?”
“Tell me about it. My mom is going to throw a shit-fit,” Anya replied, then steered the conversation away from family to their powers, their stats, any weird skills they had seen on the menu. The hours passed, and before they knew it, they were nearing Beijing.
“On the side of that mountain, looks like,” Anya said as they soared over the dense city below. It was just past 4:00 AM on Thursday morning local time, and Beijing was a mass of lights in the hazy darkness. The mountain in question rose up along the western edge of the city, a conspicuous jagged wedge of darkness amidst the sea of light around it. There were a few lights halfway up the mountain that came from a small temple.
“Woo-oooow,” Felix said as he floated beside Anya’s head and her ear beeped. “There are a lot of hosts down there.”
“I’m so bad at meeting new people,” Boo replied and sniffed.
“Fifty-eight,” Felix said. “Not counting you, Samaira, Gary, and Pan.”
“That is a lot, but considering there’s still hundreds and hundreds of us, that’s not as many as I’d like,” Anya said.
“Maybe that’s for the best. With that many super-powered people, it could be a disaster. It still could be,” Samaira said.
Anya brought up her map and saw a gathering of multi-colored dots clustered in and around the temple. She brought the V-187 in for a landing a short distance from the temple on the slope of the mountain amongst the thick trees. She decloaked it and emerged with Samaira. The other woman changed into her magical girl outfit and Chandrali grew to her larger size. Anya followed suit and donned her armor and glaive. She also replaced the two hellfire grenades she had used during the battle with the fridge. While she’d gotten the first two for free, she had to pay RAC for these: 750 RAC each.
Gary’s truck landed right next to the V-187, and he and Pan got out. Pan waddled over happily and waved at them as he came near.
“Gary is very nice,” Pan said.
“We talked about digging,” Gary said and his thick mustache turned up as he smiled. “Had a job in construction years ago, worked a few machines that dug holes or moved the dirt around. Little fella was pretty fascinated by it all. And his new armor is very impressive, to say the least.”
“We should dig together sometime,” Pan said and Gary laughed.
“You ladies look ready for a fight. Just a precaution or did you see something?” Gary asked.
“Just being careful. Almost sixty other hosts are just ahead, dunno if they’re like us or crazy or what,” Anya said.
“Smart,” Gary said. “I’m gonna send my TV boy in, hang back in case anything goes wrong. Pan, you might wanna summon some of your buddies.”
“For meeting new friends?” Pan asked.
“And just in case the new friends aren’t so friendly,” Samaira said.
“Friends not friendly?” Pan muttered and then shook his tiny head.
“Not everybody is nice, Pan. These people we’re meeting, they might be bad guys, so we’re just taking safety measures. We don’t want to fight, but we want to be careful,” Anya said as she knelt down in front of Pan.
“Careful,” Pan said and nodded. “Okay. Come out friends!”
Pan raised his claws and the dense dirt at their feet trembled and shifted, swirled, and then rose up into two bulky figures. They were halfway between human-and-pangolin-shaped: arms and legs, a flat stumpy tail, and a vague lump for a head with deep pits for eyes and a crude slash for a mouth. They were made entirely of dirt and chunks of stone and each was taller than Pan, but only by a little. He looked up at them and nodded in approval.
“Guuuuu,” one of the golems grunted.
“Hnnnnn,” the other replied.
“Not very good at talking,” Pan said. “We’ll work on that. Just stay close for now and guard us.”
The golems grunted again and shuffled along beside Pan. Gary went back to his truck and took out the TV-headed robot he had made back in New York. It jittered to life and then followed behind Pan.
“I’ll have my other boys ready to go if they’re needed. But if there’s trouble, you all get back here quick. If a fight breaks out, it’s going to be a mess.”
“Yeah, nothing we wanna get caught up in,” Anya said and waved to Gary as she, Samaira, Chandrali, and Pan and his golems left their landing site and headed to the temple.
The woods were quiet but for the sounds of the city below. The lights of the temple glowed ahead and shone through the dark pillars of the trees, and illuminated a number of other vehicles and modes of transport that had been left by their owners.
“Geez,” Samaira said. “Look at all of them.”
Anya nodded. There were flying cars like Gary’s, sleek alien crafts like hers, some kind of surfboard with rockets, a pegasus that whinnied at them as they drew close, a hovering chrome egg the size of a carriage, a feathered serpent as long as a bus that was coiled around the top of a tree, an onyx statue of a sphinx that turned to face them with glowing blue eyes, and dozens of other oddities. Voices drifted out of the temple ahead, and Anya was relieved that none of them sounded angry or agitated. It could have been the sound of pleasant conversation at a garden party, if not for the surreal surroundings.
The temple was a short, square yellow building with octagonal windows. Stone lanterns flanked the wide entry gate, and paper lanterns hung from the edges of the sloped brown-tiled roof. The thick wooden doors of the entrance were open wide, and revealed a wide stone courtyard flanked by short, neatly trimmed trees and circular doors that opened onto tiny rooms and shrines.
The fifty-eight hosts stood in the courtyard or sat on steps (and a few hovered in the air). Anya’s first impression was of an epic Halloween party. There were so many different looks and styles in such extremes fashions that there was no other comparison she could make.
A muscular Asian man with an almost comically square jaw was dressed in white spandex with blue and red accents and a flowing blue cape. A young black man wore a mix of some kind of tight body suit and robotic accoutrements. A stout old woman with dark skin and white hair was dressed in simple but colorful robes and held a gnarled staff tipped with a glowing white orb. A pair of people, a man and a woman both in normal clothes, stood off to one side, but were surrounded by a small pack of bizarre alien creatures that were simultaneously cute and frightening.
By far the most intimidating looking of the assembled group were two masculine figures near the center of the courtyard and Anya stopped in her tracks as she stared at them. The first was a towering wall of muscle in futuristic black body armor and a face-concealing helmet. He was taller than Anya by over a foot, making him close to eight-feet tall, and his biceps were larger than her head. He said nothing, did nothing, but his posture spoke of impending violence and fury, like an avalanche seconds before it swept down the side of a mountain.
The other figure and the target of the big man’s threatening posture was what had made Anya pull up short. He was also tall, about Anya’s height, and quite muscular, but he wasn’t human. He had human arms and legs and a torso, but a long tail tipped with a sweeping fin stretched behind him, another sharp fin rose out of his back, and his head was a wide bump between his two broad shoulders. His eyes were as black as tar pits and his smile was enormous and filled with wide triangular teeth. Gills opened along the side of his thick neck, and his skin was a steely gray along his back and sides and white along his belly. He wore a pair of brightly colored floral swimming trunks and equally garish flip-flops. A joint the size of a fat cigar was clamped between his teeth, and the smoke billowed out of his gills in thick clouds.
“Is that a shark?” Samaira asked as she stood beside Anya. Chandrali growled.
“I think so,” Gary replied from the TV.
“You don’t get outta my fuckin’ face we gonna have some fuckin’ problems, mate,” the shark man said in a thick Australian accent. “I haven’t had a bite in almost two hours cause of the trip up here and you look very meaty to me.”
“Brody, Jesus, easy there,” another man said from behind the shark. It was a testament to how bizarre the tableau before Anya was that she hadn’t seen him: he was wearing a kind of robotic suit, and his helmet folded back away to reveal a rugged, tanned face with sandy brown hair as he put his hand on the shark. He also had an Australian accent, and looked up at the huge man facing the shark with obvious anxiety.
“Sorry about this, mate,” the man in the robot suit said to the man in the black tactical armor. “Brody here, he’s only been around since Saturday, still getting used to the whole not eating everything that moves idea. Brody, let’s maybe step outside and have a toke okay?”
“I can have my fuckin’ toke right here,” Brody said. “Biggun’s the one shoved me.”
The towering man in armor said nothing, did nothing. Anya saw his chest rise once and fall, but nothing else. She took a step forward, unsure what she could do but determined to keep the meeting from devolving into violence before it could even start.
That was when another figure appeared. He didn’t come out of thin air, but Anya wasn’t sure where he had come from, or if he had been there all along. He was about her height, and wore a long coat. Other than that, she couldn’t focus on him. She had the impression of long blond hair, a calm expression, but no more than that. As she looked at the hazy figure, she felt a calming sensation settle over her, like she’d been submerged in a warm bath.
“My friends,” the figure said in a deep voice with a northern European accent, “We’re all on the same side. There will be plenty of fighting later, I suspect. We should just relax for now. I’m sure it was just an accident that this gentleman bumped into you Mr. Brody. The temple is very crowded, after all. And as Mr. Brody’s friend here has pointed out, he has only been sapient and aware of human customs for a few days. Just a misunderstanding.”
“Yeah I s’pose,” Brody said and let another cloud of smoke puff out of his gills. “I’d kill for a goddam tuna though. How much of that RAC stuff do I have left, Cooper?”
“More than enough for a few fat tunas. Let’s go get you some dinner ya big dickhead,” Cooper, the man in the robot suit, said and began ushering Brody away with a pat on his back. The shark pulled up his deep blue colored menu and began searching through a huge variety of fish as he walked past Anya, Pan, Gary’s TV bot, and Samaira and out the temple’s front doors.
The huge man in armor watched them go, then walked into a corner of the courtyard and leaned against the wall. The man with the hazy features was already gone, though Anya couldn’t remember where or when exactly he had left.
“Crazy, right?” the young black man in the bodysuit said with some kind of South American accent as he approached Anya. He had short black hair, and a transparent lime-green visor curved in front of his eyes and connected to a pair of chrome earpieces. He extended a hand and smiled. “I’m Jairo. Welcome to the party.”
“Thanks. I’m Anya,” she said.
“Samaira. Nice to meet you. This is Chandrali, she’s safe,” Samaira said and gave her cat a scratch behind the ears. Chandrali sat on her haunches and licked her lips.
“I’m Gary. Good to meet you, kid,” Gary said from the TV and the robot extended its hand. Jairo shook it without hesitation.
“Hello! Pan here!” Pan said and waved as he stepped forward away from his golems. Jairo raised his eyebrows behind his visor.
“Another non-human?” Jairo said and squatted in front of Pan. He laughed and his smile grew. “Good to meet you, Pan.”
“How long have you been here?” Anya asked.
“Maybe ten minutes,” Jairo said. “I was one of the first ones. It’s been pretty easy-going for the most part. That shark guy and his friend showed up right before you.”
“Any sign of that Renn guy from the TV?” Gary asked and his screen swiveled on the robot’s thin neck as he looked around.
“Not yet. Although to be fair, it’d be kinda easy to miss them in this crowd,” he said. Anya nodded in agreement.
“Surprised nobody has taken notice of our gathering yet,” Samaira said. “This isn’t exactly a subtle group.”
“Well there’s no way anybody but hosts would know where the meeting place is unless a host told them. But was this temple just abandoned?” Samaira asked.
“You saw that guy who was kind of, ah, see-through? There and not there,” Jairo said. “I don’t know the exact word, sorry. My English is only a 5.”
“Way better than my Spanish,” Anya said.
“Well, Portuguese. I’m from Brazil. But you saw him? Sort of?”
“Sort of,” Samaira agreed.
“My camera picked him up a little. Very blurry though,” Gary said and once again rotated his screen to scan the crowd.
“I guess he convinced the monks to go for a long walk in the city. He was the first one here, at least I think he was. Nobody remembers seeing him show up, just that he was kind of here or there.”
“Weird skill,” Anya said and made a note to ask Felix what kind of skill would make a person not-quite invisible and possibly affect memory or perception. She was about to ask Jairo about his skills to pass the time when there was a loud gong from inside the temple shrine. Everybody looked toward the sound, and Brody and Cooper strolled back into the courtyard. Brody held half of a huge fish in his hands, raw flesh and scales dangling from the corner of his mouth. Cooper held and smoked what remained of the huge joint.
“Thank you for coming,” a familiar voice said from all around the temple courtyard. “I had hoped for more of us, but this is a very good start.”
Three figures stood on top of the squat tower, looking down at the assembled crowd of hosts below: a man in a long white coat and a robotic helmet with a reflective gold face plate, a beautiful pale woman in an elegant robe over sleek armor and with spiky sea-green hair, and a broad man in strange metal and leather armor with a dark red hood.
Renn and the other two from the broadcast.
“You got us here, so now what?” Brody said around a mouthful of tuna. Anya saw several people pull out devices, crystals, or other small objects that whispered or displayed words to their owners in Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, and other languages.
“I’m so glad you asked,” Renn said. “Now, we talk about how we’re going to save the world.”