XO sat on the edge of the craft, staring down at the city below, racing past in the dawn light. The closer they got to the city centre, the greater their sense of unease. There was something about this city that just felt wrong.
“This feels like a trap,” they said, feeling the need to voice their concerns.
“It probably is,” Ami agreed, leaning with her arms folded. XO met her eyes, and saw the same concerns, only better hidden.
In her armoured bodysuit, she looked so tiny, but she more than made up for it with presence. A natural fit for the group’s second in command.
“So of course we’re going straight in. With no backup,” XO complained.
“Whatever it is, we can handle it,” Gabriel said, speaking from the back of the craft. His easy confidence, once inspiring, now just grated on XO’s nerves.
Unlike Ami, his bodysuit only served to make him look bigger, grander. His body language was regal, bordering on arrogant. If they were being honest with themselves, XO might have admitted they really didn’t like Gabriel, didn’t trust him, but even then, they’d have to admit he was the right choice for leader.
“That’s what you said last time,” they pointed out.
“Last time was different,” Ami interjected. “She had her attack dog with her.”
XO shuddered. Tyson Briggs was a man who was terrifying just by virtue of his presence. The fact that he’d been re-creating and upgrading himself for the past, what, two centuries? Purely for the purposes of destroying Gabriel? That made him an incredibly dangerous man.
“And how do we know she doesn’t this time?” XO asked. “Or worse?”
“She doesn’t,” Haylie said, surprising them. She didn’t usually weigh in on these conversations. “And it’s not a trap.”
Haylie was the only of them them not wearing combat gear. Instead, she wore a plain white shirt under a long red coat, the colour chosen to compliment her long auburn hair. Her yellow eyes, vaguely luminescent, were fixated on XO.
“You’re sure?” Ami asked, clearly as surprised as XO was.
“I didn’t say she’s unprepared,” Haylie clarified. “But she’s here for a reason, and it’s not us.”
“She’s been here for weeks, right?” XO asked. “I don’t see how she can stand it. I hate Melbourne.”
“None of us feel that quite as strongly as you, Exxo,” Gabriel said diplomatically.
“It’s not nothing, though,” Ami contributed. “Especially close to the Tower…”
XO twitched involuntarily, an instinctual reaction to a troubled memory. They didn’t know what was in the Tower, nobody did, but whatever it was, it radiated discomfort. The last time they were anywhere near it, they were overcome by feelings of rage, to the point where they nearly attacked their teammates.
“The screaming?” they asked, shaking the memory from their head as best they could. Ami’s experience was arguably worse; a never-ending tirade of psychic screams.
“I can’t hear it from this far out, at least,” was all she said in response.
The four of them were silent, as they flew closer to the city centre. XO knew the others would be going over attack plans, memorising street and building layouts, rehashing previous encounters. For their part, all they did was try to stay calm.
“I don’t believe the Tower is her objective,” Haylie said, breaking the silence.
“Any idea what is?” Gabriel pushed, trying and failing to disguise his desperation. His hunt for his ‘sister’ had been his focus for as long as they’d known each other, some eighty years.
“She’s building something,” Haylie said vaguely.
“Alone?” Ami asked. It was a good question. Zoe had access to nearly all of the resources Mason could provide, which was significant. She could have had an entire construction crew, a contingent of soldiers, a temporary base of operations.
“It’s odd, I’ll admit,” Haylie said. “But there’s no-one else nearby. Only humans.”
Xo cringed again. Humans were the last thing they wanted to deal with. Vicious pack hunters, with the strength and cunning to make them dangerous even to someone like Gabriel.
“Exxo,” he began, the discomfort in his voice alerting XO to what he was about to ask. “Are we close enough for you to use your… ability?”
XO closed their eyes, blocking out all stimuli. Slowly, silently, remaining completely still, they reached out, searching. It didn’t take long to find.
Most of the mirrors in the city were broken, shattered. That was okay. They were only relays. XO kept reaching, kept searching. Found more, used them to reach further.
They inhaled sharply as the world burst into light and colour around them, as they attuned themselves to the mirrors, seeing through the reflective surfaces. As they focussed, glass and polished metal began to resonate as well.
It was’t quite a complete picture of the city, but it was a lot, massive amounts of information that threatened to overwhelm them. It took a few more moments of calm, and forced breathing, before they were able to open their eyes again, adding their normal vision to the supernatural expanse their power provided them.
“Not yet,” they said, replying to Gabriel’s question. “But it’s always weaker here.”
“She’s set up a large number of traps,” Haylie said. “And she knows we’re coming.”
“We stick to the plan,” Gabriel said, clearly frustrated. “We can handle this.”
“That’s what you said last time…” XO repeated. Gabriel said nothing.
“We can’t fly any closer,” Haylie announced. “Setting us down on the closest rooftop.”
“I still can’t see her,” XO said.
A 3D holographic map of the city materialised in XO’s vision, through the visor across their eyes. Another layer of vision to try and wrap their head around.
A symbol lit up a particular building in the 3D map.
“She’s here,” Haylie said.
It was within XO’s range, but in the middle of a black spot.
“No mirrors,” they said. “Right.”
“Don’t be reckless, Exxo,” Ami cautioned. “Gabriel, stay focussed.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said coldly. “Everyone ready?”
“Then let’s go,” Gabriel said. “Don’t let her get away again.”
XO waited until last to move. They weren’t as strong as the others, not as fast or as durable. In a one-on-one fight, Zoe would tear them apart. Chances were they wouldn’t even make it that far, with all of the traps.
Gabriel and Ami were Inheritors. In addition to everything else, they could heal almost indefinitely, from all but the most grievous of wounds. Haylie was, well, Haylie didn’t need to worry. There was a reason she didn’t need to wear armour.
Through the reflections, XO watched as Gabriel descended with an almost ethereal grace. His body moved so quickly, his weight placed on surfaces that shouldn’t support it just long enough, from just the right angles, that he wasn’t even slowed down.
Gabriel was known for being strong and fast, and he certainly was those things, but they weren’t what made him dangerous. He was able to process and analyse information as fast as any computer, able to make thousands of tiny decisions in fractions of a second, and his body was fast enough to keep up. Brilliant, analytical, and a master strategist. Just like his sister.
Ami was far less delicate with her descent, but no less graceful. She leapt off the side of the building. The fall wouldn’t have killed her, would barely have slowed her down, but she didn’t hit the ground. Telekinetic forcefields bloomed around her, providing platforms for her to leap across the air, covering ground almost as quickly as Gabriel.
It was a facade, XO knew. Ami presented her telekinetic abilities as large, brutish even, even claimed fine control was impossible. The reality was that she could sever every major artery in a person’s body from across the room in a single instant, without so much as blinking. If you were alive in her presence, it was because she wanted you to be.
Haylie was slower, more methodical. She was capable of moving as quickly as Gabriel, had the mobility of Ami. She didn’t need it. Haylie was patient, and nothing would slow her down.
As XO watched, a pack of humans, roused from sleep, snarled and snapped and took off, chasing down Gabriel. XO considered a warning, but Gabriel’s senses were sharper than most, and he doubtless already knew.
Eight of them leapt from the shadows, each one a biological machine of destruction, all muscle and bone and fury. Gabriel tore through them, not even bothering to use a weapon, barely losing any forward momentum. Blood dripped from his boots and gauntlets.
In any other team, XO’s ability would have been useful. Awareness of an entire battlefield, a subconscious ability to process it all, they’d have been able to coordinate, to direct and control the flow of battle. Instead, they’d been teamed up with three people with absolutely no need for their ability. With Haylie on the team, XO was almost redundant.
XO knew why they’d been assigned to this team, though. Everyone else was frightened. XO was an anomaly, an impossibility, and Genesis only felt safe with XO being watched by the most powerful, dangerous people they had on hand.
Eighty years ago, they’d woken up with no understanding of the world. No language, no memory, barely able to control their own body. Genesis had found them, an infant in an adult’s body.
Genesis had experimented, of course. It would have been foolish not to. Had XO understood enough to consent, they’d have given it. That they couldn’t, and didn’t, was a minor issue in their mind.
The more Genesis discovered, though, the less warm and welcoming they became. XO learned quickly, absorbing language, culture, history in days and weeks. It didn’t take them long to be able to differentiate between the lies and the truth, the subtext and the stated facts.
Gabriel, Ami, Haylie, the many other superhuman entities in Genesis’ employ, they were all understood. They could be explained, if not replicated. They knew their own origins, the ways they functioned. XO defied all reason.
When their powers had begun to develop, it had gotten worse. There was no reason, no science behind what they could do. It broke their laws of physics, where the Inheritors just bent them. XO was impossible, and therefore, XO was dangerous.
Back to the present. XO leapt off the building, activating a gravity distorter before they hit the ground. It provided only a second’s reprieve from gravity, warped it, and they landed softly.
Like Ami, the fall wouldn’t have killed them, would barely slow them down, but it felt unnecessary, brutish even.
With their ability to see almost the entire battlefield, it was easier to avoid the humans than to engage them. XO wasn’t fond of violence, another thing that set them apart from the others. Gabriel could almost sadistic in combat, Ami was cold, unaffected. Haylie was a mystery, but she certainly didn’t seem adverse.
Without warning, six humans materialised in Ami’s presence. That didn’t make sense. There was nowhere for them to have come from.
The moment they appeared, they’d entered the field of Ami’s telekinetic awareness. She knew about them, no need to warn her. Within a second, they were dead, torn apart from the inside out.
Five more appeared, around XO this time. How? There were none nearby a second ago. No, there was something.
Through the mirrors, XO could only see. Complete sight, but no other senses. They could lipread, but they were still limited. Now, with the humans appearing so close, XO’s other senses contributed.
A sound, soft, like a distant crack.
A smell, metallic and acidic.
A taste in the air, chemical.
A feeling, a disturbance in the air, like a brief gust of wind.
And XO knew. The humans had been teleported.
“Haylie. Teleporting humans,” they said, activating their mic. “How?”
“Not sure,” came the response, almost immediately.
The humans attacked, and XO was forced to respond. Leap over that one’s head, only just agile enough to avoid being torn in two. Gun drawn, safety off.
The humans were fast, vicious, coordinated. Not just that, they looked different. Slimmer, sleeker than they should have been. Their eyes, eerily focussed. Calculating.
XO fired, a headshot, right between the eyes. The human was knocked backwards, but stood back up, the wound closing over, the grey skin knitting together.
What about Ami’s lot?
They’d stayed down. Why were XO’s different?
Another group appeared, teleporting around Gabriel.
“They heal, even from a headshot. And they look different. Almost like-“
“Zoe’s blood,” Gabriel interjected. “She’s injecting humans, turning them into soldiers. And teleporting them right to us.”
Another human attacked. XO twisted out of the way, holstering the gun, pulling out a short blade. A press of a button, and the air around the blade began to twist and distort. Gabriel had pulled out a pistol.
“But how?” Ami asked. “We can’t even manage teleportation, how did she figure that out?”
A human lunged. XO moved in, running on instinct, slicing through the chest. Human physiology wasn’t that different. The blood should have crystalised in the same place…
“It’s not a technological limitation,” Haylie said. “We understand how to do it, but the energy required makes it unfeasible at best, impossible at worst.”
The human collapsed, twitching but not getting up. Gabriel unleashed a barrage, still not breaking his momentum. All of his humans were hit, right in the chest. None of them got up.
“So where’s she getting the energy from?”
XO dispatched the rest of their humans in the same way, taking a hit to the shoulder in the process. The human’s nails, elongated and hardened like claws, tore through XO’s armour. Blood splashed, but the wound began to heal, the suit injecting localised painkillers that wouldn’t interrupt motor functions.
“The Tower,” Gabriel answered. “Now we know what she’s doing. And we’re a test run.”
“She lured us here?” Ami asked, suddenly angry.
“It’s fine,” Gabriel said. “We can handle this.”
“I can’t see where the humans are coming from,” XO said. “They must be gathered in my blind spot. She has an army protecting her.”
“So we dismantle the army,” Gabriel said simply. “I’m not letting her go. Not this time.”
“We should call for backup,” XO insisted. “Aaron, Mia…”
“No time,” Gabriel snapped.
They’d nearly reached the building Haylie had identified as Zoe’s base of operations, right in the centre of the blind spot, each approaching from a separate angle. None of them slowed down.
Ami, still about ten stories up, simply through herself through a window, forming a spearhead of telekinetic energy around her.
Gabriel leapt up the side of the building, magnets in his gauntlets and boots allowing him to ascend rapidly up the smooth exterior.
Haylie simply sauntered in the front doors.
As soon as they entered, they disappeared from XO’s sight.
XO reactivated the gravity distortion bubble, much weaker, attaching it to a grappling hook they fired up at the top of the building. With weaker gravity, the hook flew much further, hitting the top of the skyscraper easily, and latching on. Moments later, XO was pulled up into the air.
They smashed through the ceiling entrance, still reaching out with their power, but it seemed as though every reflective surface in the building had been removed. There was nothing to reach out to. They were going in blind.
A trap, placed in full knowledge of the approach they would use. XO knew the others would be facing something similar. Specimen Z knew them too well, had the same analytic capabilities as her brother. An explosion tore through the stairwell, filling the space in an instant. Nowhere to go.
Tech solution? Kinetic shielding, only good for projectiles. Gravity distortion field, no use against this. Weapons, useless. Comms? Stupid to even consider.
Doing nothing? The explosion would incinerate their armour, including the comms systems. They’d be even more blind, without being connected to the others. Their body would burn, but it would recover, back to the same state it began in, just like always. Zoe knew that. Wanted that. Not an option, then.
In the split second before the explosion reached them, they’d considered all the possibilities, but come up with no solution. That was the difference between them and Gabriel. He would have had a solution. Then again, his trap would have been different, taking that into account.
XO just stood there, letting the explosion knock them backwards, slamming them against the wall. Their armour withstood the impact, but not the heat. It melted, twisted, broke apart. XO’s body was already gone, reduced to nothing more than ash.
The next moment, time had passed. They didn’t know how long. They were naked, but unharmed. The stairwell was scorched. No mirrors. No way of seeing. They ran.
Without their helmet, and the HUD that it provided, XO had no concept of the interior of the building. They hadn’t memorised the layout, didn’t even know what floor Specimen Z would be on.
Down. They needed to descend. Keep going down the stairs, listening for any sound of fighting, or Z’s army, or her device. Anything.
One floor below. Two. They kept going, ten stories down, no signs of anything but calm and quiet.
There was a sound. Above them, somehow. They heard shouting. A familiar voice. Ami’s?
“Found them!” she shouted, to whoever was behind her. Then she dropped. A forcefield caught her, and she landed gracefully, reaching out to XO.
“Let’s go,” she said gently.
They took her hand, and she pulled them onto the forcefield. It rocketed them both upwards, back to the ceiling.
Ami and XO walked out onto the ceiling. Haylie had moved their transport to this roof. XO blinked, not quite believing what they were seeing.
Z was captured. Alive, furious, restrained. Gagged, because even letting her speak was dangerous.
“We did it?” they asked, in awe.
“Mostly Haylie,” Ami said. Gabriel glowered at her, but didn’t say anything. His anger was tempered by victory.
This was what he’d wanted, what he’d been working towards for two hundred years. He didn’t seem happy.
Both Ami and Gabriel’s bodysuits were wrecked. Whatever had happened, it had been one hell of a fight. XO had missed it entirely.
“Where is Haylie?” they asked, looking around.
“In the ship,” Ami said. “She took some damage, more than us. She’s resting.”
XO breathed a sigh of relief. Haylie was the closest thing they had to a friend. They respected Gabriel, liked Ami even, but the two of them were cautious, distant. With orders to keep an eye on them, it made sense. That didn’t make it any less uncomfortable.
Haylie was always kind, gentle. Understanding, even. She wasn’t frightened of them, not even concerned. Maybe she sympathised a little. Those who knew what she was, what she really was, tended to treat her similarly.
“Let’s go,” Gabriel said, tense, almost hostile. He disappeared onto the ship.
“What’s with him?” XO asked, once he was out of sight, knowing he’d hear anyway.
“They talked,” Ami said, shrugging.
“They..? Oh. Oh.“
Gabriel and Z, they weren’t accidents. Every part of them had been designed, for very specific purposes. Of all their siblings, living or dead, they were the two that had the most in common.
Part of their design was a vicious social cunning. XO had seen it in Gabriel, knew Z was capable of the same. He picked up social cues, processed and analysed them like combat data. He was an expert on knowing exactly what to say and how to say it, to get the exact outcomes he needed.
Z had needled him, gotten under his defences. The only way he was really vulnerable. Gabriel must have reached her first, and she’d been prepared.
XO didn’t even want to think about whatever she could have said to get to him.
Ami climbed into the transport, offering her hand to XO again. Once on board, she handed them a spare bodysuit, unarmoured. They’d forgotten about being naked. It didn’t bother them, but for modesty’s sake, they dressed.
The ship took off, rising into the air. In the distance, XO could see the Tower. It sent a chill down their spine, unsettling in a way they didn’t understand.
“I can’t believe we did it,” XO said.
“Believe it,” Ami said, placing a hand on their shoulder. “We-“
She didn’t finished whatever she was going to say. A scream filled the air, deafening, painful. XO dropped to their knees, clutching their head, trying in vain to block out the sound.
Ami collapsed to the floor, eyes glazing over. Not an audible scream, then. A psychic scream. One they could all hear.
Gabriel was frantic, panicking. XO had never seen that before. He looked at Zoe, accusatory, but she looked as bad as he did, overcome by fear.
No, not fear. Pain. The scream was one of pain, and they all felt that pain. It overwhelmed them, filled every part of their being, threatened to tear them apart.
XO staggered to the cockpit, looking for Haylie. She looked unconscious, slumped in the seat, eyes closed. XO looked ahead, saw the sky tear open in front of them. Another world expanded, unfolded before them.
The voice filled their head, alien. It was their voice, but it wasn’t.
You cannot enter.
I don’t want to enter, XO thought in response.
The ship kept flying straight ahead, right into the tear, almost as if it were opened just for them. XO tried to seize the controls, but they were non-responsive. Nothing they could do.
The ship hit the tear, began to pass through it. XO did not. Like hitting an invisible wall, their forward momentum was arrested.
The ship continued forward around them, and they were torn out of their seat, thrown to the back of it. The momentum of the ship kept pulling it forward. XO became an immovable object. The ship strained, but it was more than its own engines pulling it forward. The tear had a sort of gravity of its own.
The back of the ship tore apart, rent in two. The ship launched forwards, and XO fell, reaching helplessly.
As they plummeted back towards the ground, knowing the fall would rip their body apart, watching their teammates disappear through a tear in reality, into another dimension, they felt something else. Something new.
A tiny sliver, barely noticeable. Almost nonexistent. They were aware of it, until it passed through the tear. The moment it did, it disappeared from XO’s awareness.
Part of them, gone forever.
Their team, gone forever.
They hit the ground.
The sliver was still gone.