F@nServicer Diner: Project Skeleton Key The 3'rd draft

Here's a sneak preview of the F@nService Diner:Project Skeleton Key novel. I had to stop midway through my second draft when a conversation with a good friend revealed some major world building opportunities I needed to go back and write in so after some drinking, kicking myself and frantic diagramming I went back to square one and started on the third draft.

So here's the first chapter.

I'd really appreciate any constructive criticism you're willing to give me. 

Again, slight smut warning, but I try to keep it classy.


Chapter 01: Blue Dream

Axol Suloqa: “Are you sure I can't come with you?”
Xilu Tassarra: “I’d really like that. I’d like that alot, but the people need you here. They need you here to let them know it's safe, that we haven't abandoned them. They need to know that we are winning this war.”
Axol Suloqa: “We are winning right?”
Xilu Tassarra: “What? Of course we’re winning, both in space and on the ground. Once our ships appear in the skies above a new world it is only a matter time before it falls to the empire. Why would you even ask that?”
Axol Suloqa: “I know it's just, it’s… it’s probably nothing.”
Xilu Tassarra: “Axol what is it? You usually don’t get like this.”
Axol Suloqa: “I had this horrible dream last night...and I'm, I'm afraid I might never see you again.”
Xilu Tassarra: “Hey, hey don't worry, nothing is going to happen to me or our daughter. The humans are running scared, they don't have the ships to keep this war going much longer.  This last fleet they're throwing at us is just an act of desperation. The war will be over soon, I promise.”

Transcript of a conversation between the Minkan Empress and her mate the High Priest that was intercepted by a United Solar Federation spy ship two weeks before the final battle of the Minkan / Human War.

Kataqura, the minkan home world

Minkan Ship


The starry night sky reflected off the inky black surface of Kataqura’s ocean. Its sister planet, Minka Prime, hung low on the horizon like an enormous blue moon bathing the tropical beach in its soft light.
Beneath the waves titanic sea creatures signaled to potential mates in electric displays resembling undersea thunderstorms. The males communicated their interest in arcs of yellow, orange and pink and the females answered in flashes of purple, green and blue. 
Closer to the shore schools of bio-luminescent fish painted the shallows in a turquoise glow. Darting in and out with the waves the tiny minnows chased each other to the ocean’s edge and darted back zigzagging along the white, sandy shoreline. 
Further up the beach, forests of lightning-rod palms swayed and crackled in the tropical night breeze. Hanging clusters of the palm’s pale storm-fruit glowed with ghostly light.
Just beyond the beach’s tree line flickering orangish yellow light cables festooned the sandcrete walls of a fort-like minkan village. Minkan settlements, unlike their human counterparts, never lost their frontier mindset and are still built with protective outer walls and watch towers to protect the inhabitants against the monsters that roam Kataqura’s wilds. At night the outer walls of Bendahgo Village were patrolled by packs of domesticated hammer wawgs. The shark-dog creatures barked and trumpeted to each other as they scoured their territory for intruders. Slobbery, toothy smiles on their boomerang shaped heads conveyed the child-like joy they took in their work.
High above the sleepy, jungle village a copper-colored, delta wedge hovered silently. The minkan ship’s dorsal surface was ringed with a frosted glass guardrail interspersed with alternating storm-fruit torches and red vertical flags that flapped in the windy night air. The Suloqa family banners, were bordered with minimalistically elegant, silver minkish lettering; a combination of solid lines, bold angles, hollow circles and solid dots. A few of the flags displayed a stylized image of the village guardian; a four armed, seventy foot tall, bipedal orca monster by the name of King Kii Squee.
Atop the each of the ship’s wings had been constructed a semi-circular cul de sac of octagon shaped huts topped in red tile chamfered cone roofs. The two symmetrical communities were separated at the ship’s center by an artificial tide pool. Incandescent sea cucumber and starfish-like creatures lit the shallow pool in an inviting, turquoise light while a rainbow of multicolored glow fish swirled across the calm waters like a school of living Christmas lights. A neon-purple spotted ray, who’s  ^ shaped silhouette bore a uncanny resemblance to the minkan ship’s, rippled it’s way across the tide pool’s sandy floor before burying itself in a cloud of white silt.
On the private balcony atop the ship’s starboard wingtip, a compact, human groom and his much taller, blue-skinned, minkan bride reclined on a crescent sofa as they watched the last rays of the sun retreat over the horizon. A miniature cityscape of wine and liquor bottles in varying degrees of emptiness covered the adjacent lounge table like tiny, glass skyscrapers.
“So, that was one hell of a sunset.” The groom mused his drunken attempt at small talk. It had been a mistake to try to keep up with her, drink for drink. One minkan had the alcohol tolerance of an entire fire department. But he didn’t feel right about making love to a woman who was drunker than he was, especially not for their first time. That’s just the sort of man Adam Terranova was.  
“Yeah it was.” The bride replied. “So much pink and orange, it almost didn't seem real.  And the stars, you can see so many of them from here. It's like looking out from inside a painting of the galaxy. So beautiful.”        
“Yup, beautiful and alien, which in my professional opinion,” He mumbled the word professional while curling an imaginary mustache. “is the best kind of alien and the best kind of beautiful, just like you Tevera.”
The statuesque blue-skinned bride giggled. “Aw, that’s so sweet. But look, it’s not that alien. See that yellow star right there?”
“Right where?” Adam leaned in to better see where Tevera was pointing but quickly found himself distracted by her bountiful cleavage. “Whoa.”
“Right over, hey! Focus!” She snapped her fingers in front of his face. 
“Uh, sorry.” He blushed with embarrassment. “ I think I might be a little drunk.”
She flashed him a knowing smirk and he was reminded that they were married now. 
He no longer needed to feel ashamed of the overwhelming lust that seemed to hijack his brain every time he allowed his eyes to linger on her silky smooth, sky blue curves. They had committed themselves to each other in the sight of their families, their friends and The Creator who made both their races. There would be no guilt moving forward. Despite a couple times where they had gotten agonizingly close to the point of no return they had managed to save themselves for this night.  And what a night it would be. His mind raced, thinking of what they should try first. Probably best not to start with anything too creative until they got a feel for the bidness, as he liked to call it. Maybe missionary? That seemed like the traditional starting point but then again he was dealing with a minkan here. Maybe they started with cowgirl. Or maybe they started with some freaky, alien position that involved using her tail for leverage.  
She snapped her fingers again to get his attention. “Wow, again seriously? Sigh, I guess wrangling ADD is the price you pay for marrying a kinetic.”     She didn’t actually sigh. Instead she said the word [sigh] as if she was reading a screenplay. It was one of her weird quirks he found so endearing.
“Hey you knew the risks when you agreed to this.”  He bantered back.
She responded by flicking him on the nose with one of her four index fingers. Minkans have two arms just like a human but unlike humans their elbows split into two sets of forearms giving them a total of four hands. 
“Bad Boy.” She scolded and pointed back to the sky. “Now look, right there. You see it?”
“The yellow one?” Adam asked.
“That’s Sol, your planet’s sun.” She pointed out.
“Huh, so it is.” Adam simultaneously raised and wrinkled his eyebrows. “Wow, I just got the craziest nostalgia-vu.”
Tevera glanced over at him then back up at the stars and smiled as realization washed over her face. “You too huh? Yeah, it reminds me of back when we were kids, when we used to play at The Rocket.”
“That old jungle gym shaped like a retro rocket ship?” He asked.
“Yup, the one at the park behind your house. Remember, we used to play there when sunset shifted to twilight? We timed it so we could pretend we were blasting off into space just as the stars were coming out.”
“I do remember that.” He took sip of the unfamiliar tasting drink that may or may not have been his but was in front of him and he reminisced. “I also remember that once we were in space a certain someone always came up with some excuse for why we had to go back to Kataqura.”
“Oh, remember that too do you?” She asked sheepishly.
“Heh heh,” Adam laughed at the thought of them as kids arguing about what planet they would imagine they were headed to. “Only because it really pissed off Kale.”
“Oh yeah, Kale. Whatever happened to him?” She asked.
“He joined the air force, remember?”
“Yeah I remember. Just, is he still there?”
“I think so. I haven’t really heard from him since the civil war started.” There was an awkward pause as they both pondered how to best move the conversation along. Adam was the first to break the silence. “I hope he made it out alright.”
“Yeah, me too.” She quickly agreed.
“So what was with the whole returning to Kataqura thing? I mean, it’s a nice planet , really nice but…” Adam asked.
“Haha, yeah about that, my parents had just moved us to NPX.”
Adam quickly swallowed his drink so he could chime in. “ (gulp) Don’t get me wrong. I thank God everyday that they did…”
“Awww.” Tevera smiled like a porcelain cat, the kind that waves with one paw at guests, and leaned over him. She noticed the half-empty glass in his hand. “Now I think it’s really cute that you’re trying to impress me but if you keep drinking like that you’re gonna pass out.”
“But I’m not…” He protested as she snatched the drink out of his hand. “Agh, okay fine. You’re right.”
“Of course I am.” She then proceeded to down his glass like it was water. She giggled to herself, making a gargling sound as she swallowed. “Besides, making you pass out tonight is my job.” She slammed the glass down with intention.
It took a second for Adam to connect the dots. When he did he laughed nervously and edged back. He was very much looking forward to ‘passing out’ but this was all new territory for him. As a committed Christian he had waited until marriage to have sex. Now his first time was going to be with a minkan. That was like learning to swim before you could walk, if the things he had heard were to be believed. Minkan sex was even more intense than the human on human variety and frankly a little dangerous if the minkan was inexperienced. Which Adam was fairly confident she was.  “So, uh, why’d your parents pick Neon Phoenix, of all planets. I mean, other than the palm trees and mild winters Neon Phoenix and Kataqura don’t have a lot in common.”
Tevera’s smoldering smirk cooled and her pointy ears dipped slightly. “I don’t know why they did. I was very young at the time.”
“Did you ever ask about it?”
“I did. And I got the impression they didn’t want to talk about it. Well, Mom didn’t want to talk about it. So I stopped asking.” Her ears dipped even lower and she looked down at her feet.
“Oh.” Adam mirrored her, looking down at his own feet.
“I stopped asking why, but that didn’t change the fact that I still had to leave everything behind; the rest of my family, my friends, the forests, the ocean, Brody, Mr. Snugglebug.”
“Brody? Mr. Snugglebug?” Adam looked at her quizzically.
She explained. “The USF didn’t let you bring hammer wawgs or lanu through customs without really expensive permits so we had to leave them behind.” 
“I’m sorry.” He sympathized.
“It’s not your fault.”
“I know, but I am.”
“Awww.” Tevera teased his scalp with her fingertips. He trembled and shut his eyes so she wouldn’t see them rolling back. Her touch always seemed to have that effect on him.
“Nyugh, if you keep touching me like that you’re gonna spoil the moment.” He stiffened and began to lean away from her, eventually falling onto his side like a knocked  bowling pin.
“Haha! You are really sensitive.” Tevera laugh as she slapped him on the butt.
“Ow! All human males are, I think.” He sat back up and absently reached for the drink that was no longer in front of him.
“No, I’m pretty sure you’re a special case.” She poured herself another drink into the glass she had confiscated from him earlier.
“You do? How come?” He asked.
“Haha.” Tevera smirked mischievously as she lifted the drink to her lips. She made a show of looking left then right before downing it in one gulp.
“You’re messing with me again.” Adam rubbed his forehead.
“Mmm, maybe.” She jokingly admitted.
Adam grumbled under his breath.
“Ahaha! You’re so cute when you’re jealous.”
“Heh, that’s lucky.” He laughed grudgingly.
“It is. Anyway, getting back to your question, Kataqura was home for me. There was so much I left behind and I… We just had to leave in such a hurry. I didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye. That’s why I kept dragging us back.” She choked back a giggle. “Kale got so pissed every time I did. It never seemed to bother you though.”
“Well I didn't really care where we were going because I knew as long as we were together we were going to have fun.”
“Awww Honey Badger, you so sweet. Imma eat yo face! Rawwr!" She pulled him close and playfully bit his cheek. Her sharp canines gently raked his skin without breaking it, simultaneously teasing and threatening. His eyelids fluttered involuntarily as he struggled to maintain his composure in response to the disconcerting yet not entirely unpleasant sensation. He was losing control again. He attempted to change the subject.
“Yuh, you know it’s kind of funny.”  
“What is?” She let go of his face and he gasped a sigh of relief.
“This.” He gestured down towards the honeycomb-pattern red stones that had been tiled over the ship's upper hull.
“What? The hotel? You think we might have gone a little too expensive? Don't you worry about it. My Mom's paying for everything.”
“Wait, what! I thought you said not to worry.”
“I did.”
“Being indebted to your scary and possibly racist mother does not lend itself to not worrying.”
“The hotel is Suloqa family owned. She got a very good deal. And don’t be silly. My mom’s not racist. Only humans are racist.” Tevera stated matter of factly.
“What?” Adam cocked his head to the side like a confused dog. “That can’t be true.”
“It is. Minkans didn’t even have a word for racism until humans brought it with them.”
“I don’t think that means…”
She cut him off. “Minkans are just honest. Besides you’ve got nothing to worry about, so long as you can give her a granddaughter to carry on the family name.” She stared at him with bedroom eyes, tilting her chin down and pushing out her chest as she arched her back. 
The vision of her hourglass figure silhouetted against the blue light of the orbiting planet worked as intended and cracked Adam’s reluctance. He was all in now. If Tevera’s sexual inexperience was going to be the cause of his demise then so be it. That was a risk he was willing to take. And quite honestly he could think of much worse ways to go. In fact every other death he could imagine was far worse then getting ‘loved’ to death by Tevera. They would just have to take it slow until she familiarized herself with his fragile human body’s limitations. The only way she was going to get experience was if he gave it to her. So he had better get on that. 
“Oh, well then. In that case we should probably get started as soon as possible.” Adam grinned slyly and then proceeded to enthusiastically lose his shirt. Before the garment could touch the ground a flying creature that appeared to be the alien-pterodactyl equivalent of a pelican swooped down from its perch on the roof of a neighboring hut. Mistaking the shirt for something edible the alien-pelican snatched it in mid-air. 
“Whoa! Hey that's my shirt!” Adam watched in disbelief as the peli-dactyl flew off with the expensive lanu silk shirt he’d bought specifically for the wedding.  “Did you just see that?” Tevera, looked back at him and giggled. 
Undaunted by the loss of his shirt Adam grabbed his tall, curvaceous bride by the waist and pulled her tight against him. He leaned in to kiss her but she stopped him with a hand as she had something she wanted to add. Now in no mood to stop, Adam switched targets from her mouth to her neck, kissing his way down as she spoke.
“Oh, and do try to make our baby girl a kinetic just like you. It would make Mom so proud to have a granddaughter with gravity bending superpowers. Imagine, the first minkan kinetic, talk about OP. The other houses would be so jealous.” She mused while he worked his way to the inside of her shoulder.
“I don’t think that’s how it works.” He replied as he traced his lower lip down her collarbone to the hollow of her neck. He breathed her in and her alien pheromones filled his nostrils with a citrus and spice perfume that made his skin flush and charged his nerve endings with an eager tingle. He gasped as an unexpected rush of adrenaline and dopamine sent his heart racing and his head spinning.
“Mmm. So, what was funny before?”   She asked, interrupting his downward journey towards her cleavage.
“Huh? what? I uh, I don’t remember.” He mumbled as he stared down her dress.
“Yeah you do.” She laughed.
“No I don’t.” He insisted.
“You were saying something about the hotel being funny.”    She reminded him.
“I really doubt it.” He exhaled deeply into her chest, and let his face slide down her smooth skin. His nose brushed against her necklace. At the pendant’s nadir hung an hourglass-shaped cage twisted from a triple-helix spiral of bronze bars. The three bars held two small onyx marbles, one in the top of the hourglass and one in the bottom half. The one on top crackled and buzzed, glowing with a flickering white static.
“Huh? Hey Tevy, your marble’s vibrating.” Adam mumbled.
“What? I thought that was you!” Without warning the freakishly strong bride pushed Adam off of herself and the sofa.
“Wuh, hey!” He objected after his back hit the tile floor. Fortunately he was too numb from alcohol and arousal to feel any pain. “What did I do?”
“Sorry Honey Badger. That marble’s never shown any signs of activity before. I was beginning to think the little guy was dead.” Tevera explained as she shook the cage that was now illuminated like a miniature white lantern. She reached for something that would normally have been at her side. Her eyes widened as she realized that her wedding dress did not have a belt or pockets and that meant that her Mythos Recorder was not where she expected it to be. “Oh vreck! Where’s my bag?” Her three eyes frantically searched the poolside.
“Your bag?” Adam asked as he raised himself up on his elbows.
“My OmniBag. I gave it to Astrid during the dance. Where’d she put it? “It has my Mythos Recorder.” She explained.
“Ugh.” Adam rolled his eyes. “That’s why we stopped, because you forgot to set your recorder?”
“Mythospheres don’t follow schedules, Adam! They’re extra-dimensional messengers. You have to be ready to record when they start to transmit. Now help me find it!”
From his vantage point on the ground Adam was conveniently positioned to spot a pink metal satchel emblazoned with an upside down power symbol logo leaning against the right side of the sofa. It was just under Tevera’s line of sight. He quickly looked away from it so as not to tip his hand.
“Hey Tevy, what do I get if I find your bag?” 
“What! What do you mean? Just help me find it!”
 “I mean, will you make it worth my while?” Adam flashed her an intentionally sleazy smile.
“Adam, I will destroy you!” Tevera screamed
“But like, in a sexy way right?”
 “I’m going to take that as a ‘yes’.” That was as far as Adam was willing to push it. Playful banter wasn’t much fun if only one person was playing. He scrambled to his feet and marched over to where Tevera was sitting. 
“What are you doing?” She was practically vibrating with anxious rage. Adam leaned over the confused minkan and lifted her OmniBag from the side of the sofa, all the while grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
Tevera gasped with glee, all traces of her desperate fury were completely washed away. She snatched the pink satchel out of his hand faster than he could register the motion. Adam shrugged and sat down next to her. She pressed an index finger to the metal surface and traced an intricate pattern only a minkan could be expected to remember. A latch clicked and the chamfered container split open like a lunch box. She pushed the two halves down until they clicked into positions parallel to each other, presenting a single rectangular portal of what at first glance appeared to be crystal clear water but was actually an energy field that shimmered electric blue at its edges. Tevera turned the circular dial that served as a cap for the hinge that connected the two halves of the box. I response to her dialing a Rolodex of square and double-sized rectangular storage compartments zipped by on the inner side of the portal. 
There were far more compartments than a container that size should have been able to hold. But bending the laws of three dimensional space was an OmniBag’s key feature. It was but one of many advancements the OmniSynaptech Interplanetary corporation had made from reverse engineered alien technology. One of the perks of being a company that mapped synapse gates was getting first dibs on whatever technology was found on the other side.
Tevera scrolled just passed the object of her search. She stopped and reversed the dial’s direction. A square storage compartment snapped back into view, filling the left half of the portal. She reached into the shimmering energy field and grabbed the mythos recorder, an inch high black metal box with three and a half inch sides. Tevera swept aside a couple bottles to make room on the table for the device. The recorder, though in relative pristine condition, had the appearance of a machine that had been state of the art 20 or 30 years ago. It was elegantly constructed mostly out of blackened steel with brushed steel accents and corners protected by an archaic yet stubbornly durable plastic. It’s forward side was adorned with a translucent red power switch, two chrome toggles and three analog tuning dials. The top of the recorder was flat except for a brushed steel ant-lionesque funnel insert mounted in its center.
Tevera removed her necklace and unscrewed the top of the hourglass cage. She tipped the cage, dropping the buzzing marble down the chrome funnel where it settled as deep as its circumference would allow. She flipped on the the translucent power switch which backlit its status red as an electric hum emanated from the device. Three lenses projected a concave hologram of white static and noise. Tevera turned the first dial until a discernible red image began to resolve in the static. She fine tuned the image until she was satisfied it was as sharp as it could be before she moved onto the dial that controlled the image’s green channel. Adam focused his attention on the picture that began to take shape. 
The hologram side-scrolled over black space speckled sparingly with stars. What Adam first thought were sun rays turned out to be the foggy rings of a gas giant planet that slowly panned in from the right, blotting out the stars. 
A thick white bar materialized at the top center of the hologram. Below it, in similar white sanserif font, appeared the name Tom Skerritt. Tom dimmed out and was replaced by the name Sigourney Weaver just as a white slash ghosted its way into the top left corner. Sigourney swapped out for Veronica Cartright as a matching backslash materialized in the top right of the hologram. Two more bars appeared to the left and right of the center bar as the names Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm and Yaphet Kotto cycled through. The left slash was joined by a symmetrical twin that turned it into a simplified letter ‘A’. A light bulb went off in Adam’s head as he realized what he was looking at.
“Hey, I know this one! It’s Alie…”
Tevera flicked the recorder’s second toggle switch and Adam was drowned out by jump-scare inducing static. The electric shriek was not unlike a wounded animal screaming into a blizzard. Tevera turned the first dial, reducing the volume to a less jarring level.
“Ah.” Adam rubbed his ears.
“I know right?” Tevera simultaneously tuned the last two dials and the wounded animal shrieking into a blizzard clarified into the soothing sound of spooky wind blowing against the outside of a shelter light years away from anyone who could hear you scream.
“It’s ALIEN.” Adam finished.
“What did you call me?” Tevera playfully arched the black stripes her people had for eyebrows.
“What? No, ALIEN the myth. I’ve seen this one before. It’s freaking terrifying but it’s a really good one.
“Yeah it is.”
“Wait, so you’ve seen this one before?”
“Yeah, it’s only one of my top three favorites. But you knew that.”
“I do? Oh yeah, I do. We watched it together that one night. I knew that. I’m just a little confused. ”
“About what?” Satisfied the myth was being recorded at the highest possible quality Tevera leaned back into the sofa, once again teasing Adam with her enticing silhouette.
“If you’ve seen this myth before then that means it’s already been recorded, probably by professional scientists or something.”
“Mythologists.” Tevera corrected him.
“Right. So if ALIEN has already been recorded and uploaded to the Mythos Library that means you can watch it anytime you want.”
“In 36 Myth Board approved professional edits.” She added, clearly oblivious to the fact that was making Adam’s point for him before he could get to it.
“Right. So if you can watch ALIEN anytime you want, for free, in 36 different versions, then why did you put the brakes on our, uh sex?” Adam swallowed and shifted nervously.
“Because we’re married now.”
“Crap! Kale warned me this would happen.” Adam half joked.
“You can have sex with me anytime you want.”
“What, I can?” Adam perked up.
Tevera looked at the sky as she considered this. “Sure, within reason, privacy and free-time permitting. Female minkans have hair-triggers just like human males do. So it doesn’t take much to get me in the mood.”
“Really? I knew there was something I liked about you.” 
“Aww, only one thing?” Tevera pouted.
“Well I’m sure you have other good qualities.” Adam teased.
“Tell you what. Since you found my recorder so quickly, how would you like me to…” She shifted the tone of her voice to sultry silk.  “…make it worth your while?”
“Wuh uh, what did you have in mind?”
 She leaned over him and whispered in his ear.  “I could show you where all my triggers are and how to set them off.” She gave his lobe a playful tug with her teeth.
Adam gulped and Tevera laughed.
“Ahaha! You’re so cute when you squirm!” She kissed his cheek and bounced back onto her side of the sofa.
“You’re a monster.”
“A sexy monster.” She corrected him.
“(sigh) No argument there. So for real, why all the urgency about recording something you can watch for free anytime you want?”
Tevy looked at Adam then up at the sky and took a deep breath. 
“Well think about what a mythosphere is. It’s an extradimensional being. What we see of them, those cosmic spheres, are just the parts that intersect with our reality. We have no idea what they actually look like or what strange rules govern the places they come from. We didn’t even know these weird little marbles scattered all over the cosmos were connected to them until a astronomer studying a sphere noticed that her marble paper weight started going berserk the same time the sphere became active. Now we have tools to receive and record their messages; histories, science, legends, music, art. It’s the soul of another cosmos. Why wouldn’t you want to own an original edition of that?” 
Adam smiled. “You know I was only kidding about not knowing what your other good qualities were right?”
Tevera snickered and messed her fingers through his hair. “Oh Adam, you take everything so literally. You would have made a good minkan.”
“Well that’s funny because you’re the most human minkan I know.”
“It’s not my fault, it’s peer pressure. There are too many humans in the cosmos. Galactically, humans outnumber us sixty to one.”
“Well hopefully your people don’t try to correct that little error, again.”
“Gah!” Tevera feigned offense. “That was just one time and that’s not what happened. The Empress wasn’t trying to reduce the human population, she was trying to bring humans into the empire’s protection. She didn’t know any better. It was a different time!”
“I was just kidding. Now who’s being literal?”
“Peer pressure, there are too many minkans on Kataqura.” She made a show of loudly slurping the last of her drink through a neon party straw.
“Hey I just remembered what was funny about the hotel.” Adam realized.
“Took you long enough. Humans are such scatter brains.”
Adam shrugged off any possible offense and Tevera continued.
“But that’s one of the things I like about you. I never know what you’re going to say. It keeps life interesting.”
 “Glad to know my ADD is good for something besides telekinesis.” This got a chuckle out of Tevera. “So as I was saying…”
“Hurry up or you’ll forget again.” Tevera interrupted, snickering as she refilled her glass.
“Dammit Tevy! I’m trying! Anyway as you know, a long time ago this hotel used to be a minkan warship, back when minkans were at war with humans.”
“Uh huh.”
“Ships like this one burned human cities into seas of glass.”
“Yeah.” She solemnly stared at the ground, her ears drooping. After what she deemed was a sufficiently respectful pause her ears shot back up. “And now we’re gonna have sex in it! Heh, heh. Yeah that is kind of funny, in a weird sort of way.”
“It’s just surreal, that's all. Seventy years ago, if you were a human and you saw one of these things in the sky it probably meant the world was about to end. I don’t think anyone back then could have guessed that someday our two races would be so uh, friendly with each other.”
She cocked her head to the side and smiled at him.  He returned her smile.
“Well you know, once your people stopped trying to conquer humanity and stuff.”
Tevera narrowed her eyes mischievously and flicked the straw away before downing her freshly refilled drink in one smooth gulp.
“Mmm, You ever think maybe we never stopped trying to conquer humans? Maybe we’ve just adopted more, subtle tactics.”
The statuesque minkan pushed Adam flat onto his back and then in two smooth motion she reached over her shoulder and pulle a silk ribbon out of her white wedding dress. The dress fell off of her in five curling pieces like a ivory nightshade blossom and glided to the floor revealing a shimmering metallic corset that pushed up her already distractingly large breasts into some truly hypnotic cleavage. Adam was so stunned at the sight it took him a few seconds to notice and appreciate the Death Star design embroidered with silver thread into the cup that barely managed to contain her left breast.
“Ohhh, all of my yes...Yuh, you know, I think the warships might actually have been more subtle. If the Empress had tried this humanity would have surrendered the first day. I mean, just wow. Seriously, have you seen yourself?”
He stared unable to take his eyes away. She responded with a quote from the Return of the Jedi myth, delivered in her villain voice
“Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station!” Tevera shimmied her chest back and forth, nearly giving the over-stimulated Adam a heart attack. “From here you will witness the final destruction of the Alliance and the end of your insignificant Rebellion.”
“Keep it down! We’re trying to sleep!” A tired woman shouted from a neighboring hut.
“You keep it down! We’re trying to have sex!” The sexy bride shouted back.
“Yeah well do it quietly you weirdo!”
“But it’s our honeymoon!” Tevera whined.
“Ugh! newlyweds, always experimenting with their bodies, having weird Star Wars sex .” The woman muttered in disgust before slamming her window shut.
“Grumpy, old woman trying to ruin mah sex.” Tevera grumbled in Lolcat Internet speak as she was wont to do. Adam started to laugh.
“What? What’s so funny?” Tevera asked, still fuming.
“Nothing, you’re just really hot when you’re angry.”
“Oh clever boy, you discovered my secret.” A sinister grin crossed her lips. 
“Uh, what secret?”
Her tail coiled around him like a python.  He felt the rapid pulses of both her hearts beating beneath her smooth skin as she pinned his arms to his sides. Her tail’s powerful muscles squeezed him tighter and tighter until he could barely breath. She pulled him into a sitting upright position so his face was an inch from hers. She relaxed her tail slightly and let him catch his breath before she whispered in a tone of ominous sensuality.
“My secret is, I’m always angry.”
She pulled back and waited for a response. A few seconds of awkward silence passed between them before Adam spoke up.
“Did you just quote The Hulk?” He asked.
“Hey, did you just...” Tevera stopped mid sentence and shouted. “Surprise! Guess who!” She announced before shoving his face into her enormous, smothery cleavage. GUESS WHO or HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BREATHING GAME was a whimsical, little HR nightmare of a game she had taken to playing with her coworkers at the diner. It involved sneaking up behind your intended victim, announcing that The Game had begun then covering their mouth and nose before they could ‘guess who’ while urging them not to die.
The fact that her parents owned the diner where she worked may have had something to do with her still being employed.
“Mwahaha! Don’t you die on me mister!” She cackled maniacally.
Traditionally one would use one’s hands to cover the victim’s mouth and nose but Adam felt no compulsion to correct her. Not that he could even if he wanted to. Pound for pound, minkans are about seven times stronger than humans and wiry as a coked up octopus. There was now chance he was squirming out of this and if he struggled it would probably just antagonize her predatory instincts. The best course of action was to conserve his air, enjoy her soft, pillowy embrace and hope she got bored before he blacked out. He wondered if she knew CPR.
“Don’t you give up on me! You’ve got so much to live for! You still need to make sex to your smokin’ hot wife!” She teased, still giggling impishly. This got an involuntary laugh out of Adam. He snorted into her breasts, losing valuable air and making a sound like a whoopie cushion.
“Mwhahaha! Hey no fair, that tickles!” She laughed. Sensing a crack in her armor Adam decide to gamble the rest of his air and exploit it. He blew a raspberry on her chest.
“No! Stop! Heehee that’s cheating!”
He felt her grip on him loosen as her tail thrashed. This was his chance. Now with his arms free he stuck his fingers through the gaps in the side of her corset and started tickling her. 
“Mwahaha! Stop! I’m serious!” She protested.
He threw himself on her, pushing the taller, minkan woman onto her back while continuing to tickle.
“Haha! I’ll get you for this! You’ll pay for your human treachery!” At this point she was laughing so hard she was in tears.
“Well it looks like the big, bad minkan warrior has a weakness after all.” He taunted.
Adam savored the moment while it lasted. He had gotten lucky and caught her off guard, but he wouldn’t be able to hold the upper hand for much longer. As soon as she regained her composure it would take all of two seconds for her to pin him down and wrap him up like a human burrito. He needed to think fast. He reached around her torso, crossing his wrists and pulling himself flat against her. He made sure not to leave any gaps where her tail could snake around him again. At the same time he locked his legs behind hers so that the backs of their knees met and their ankles crossed. This way she couldn’t tuck her legs underneath to push him off. Finally, he tucked his chin down into his chest to protect his neck. Best not to take any chances.
“Okay I stopped.” He offered. “Are we good?”
“Why don’t you let go and find out?” She hissed between caught breaths.
“Uh yeah, that’s okay. I think I’ll pass.”
She grumbled and squirmed, trying to find purchase but even at seven times his strength she just didn’t have enough leverage to pry him off.
“Well you’re a stubborn one.” She sighed in frustration.
“So are you.” He let himself relax somewhat, now that his hold had passed the Tevy Test. He just needed to hold on and wait for her to, uh oh. Her persistent writhing was starting to have a certain affect on him, an affect she would be sure to notice.
“Oh hello there. What’s this?”
“Uh, hi. Nice to meet you, haha.” He laughed nervously.
“Hmm, I see. So you like it when I do, this?” She undulated her body, grinding against him in pleasure inducing waves. He gasped and trembled in response.
“Well well, it looks like the clever human warrior has a weakness too.”
“Ugh, now you’re the one who’s cheating.” He accused.
“Am I now? We never discussed what the rules were. We never even agreed what game we were playing. I wanted to play the breathing game but you decided to play tickle fight.”
“Suh, so what game are we playing now?” He slurred and stuttered.
She cupped the back of his head and pulled him in, resting his cheek against hers. 
“The one where we both win.” She whispered in his ear before pulling it with her teeth.
He shuddered, relaxing his grip around her torso. Her tail took advantage of the situation and slid into the gap between their bodies. It slowly coiled around him only this time it left his arms free and gave him enough slack to breathe.
“Hey relax Honey Badger.” She caressed an index finger along his jawline. “We’re married now so this is okay. Let yourself go.”
“Uh, okay.” He moved with her and it wasn’t long before every nerve in his body went warm and tingly. “Huh, hey Tevy, slow down. You keep this up and I’m not going to last much longer.”
“I know, that’s the idea.”
“It is? But it’s just, I just want our first time to be…”
“Shhh.”    She puts two fingers to his lips. “Don’t worry about it. Nothing in this life is perfect. Just be present, in the moment with me and enjoy what The Creator gives you.”

“Okay.” He looked deep into her almond-shaped rubicund eyes and felt himself start to melt away.

“Besides,” She added.  “you can always make it up to me after you wake up.”

“After I wake up?” Adam took some offense at this, snapping back into himself.

“Yeah, don’t human men pass out after they pop?” She asked earnestly.

Adam laughed and Tevera stopped undulating.

“What? Isn’t that the joke in movies and stuff?” She inquired defensively.

“That’s an exaggeration, I think. Who knows?”

“People who’ve had real sex know.” She taunted.

“Hey that was on purpose! I was saving myself for you.”

Tevera pretended to flinch away from his outburst, all the while grinning like a giddy schoolgirl. Adam sighed.

“But I guess it’s possible real sex is more exhausting than the single player version.” Adam allowed.

Tevera bit her lip and looked away thoughtfully. She considered what effect minkan nerve-link might have on the equation. It joined the two partners nervous systems, allowing them to share each other’s sensations. It was not a life-force drain, at least not in a significant way. Minkan’s were not sexual vampires like the Seshula, still they were cases of temporary paralysis. 

 “I’ll probably be good to go again in about five to ten minutes or so.” Adam gave her what he thought was an honest estimate.

“Really?” She looked back into his eyes.

“Well I’ve never been with a minkan before so if I do pass out just wake me up in fifteen minutes. I promise I won't be mad.”

She smiled.

“In fact consider that a standing rule for the rest of our marriage. You can wake me up whenever you want, as long as it’s for sex.”

Tevera giggled. “I might make you regret that.”

“Well that’s a risk I’m willing to take. Too much sex is way better than the alternative and I don’t think I could ever get tired of doing it with you.”
“Well in that case Imma go fast now.” Tevera put a hand on the back of his head and pulled him back down into her cleavage as she resumed her undulations at several times her previous speed. The affect on Adam was instantaneous.

“Merrf! No wait! Oh vreck!” His muffled protest went largely unheaded.

“Sorry Honey Badger but you’re no use to me in this state. I wanna get to the fun stuff!”
Then that’s when it all went horribly wrong.  
“No! Tevy! Not like this!” Adam pleaded.
“Yes! Just like this! The library dispatched us to help the purple princess five twelve the undying worm union at OmniTowers.”
“Wait what?”
The bizarreness of her words gave Adam a moment of clarity that snapped him back from the edge of release. He instantly regretted it. In his awareness he noticed that Tevera’s words become more garbled and incoherent. The texture of her silky soft skin changed, becoming rougher and drier, transforming into a cloth like mockery of its former sensuousness.  The sound of her playful siren voice grew more and more distant as it was drowned out by a blaring, electric tone. The erotic tension in his nerves faded away like an aborted sneeze and was replaced by a sense of frustrated heaviness. Harsh yellow light filled his vision and he grudgingly opened his eyes.
Adam Terranova awoke to find himself alone in his bed, drooling into a pillow. His emergency responder radio screamed its call to action from the charger on the nightstand. The EMS tone had finished before he was fully awake and the female dispatcher’s voice was relaying the details of the call to emergency personnel.
“Orbital bombing...drones…FTL communication towers...skybridge 01 heavy damage..Multiple injuries. GU invasion. Alliance forces are being mobilized.” Was all he was able to glean from the radio through his semiconscious haze.
“Galactic Union? I hate those guys.” Adam muttered.

 It had been four years since the United Solar Federation, once the most powerful and prosperous interplanetary nation in the known galaxy, had descended into civil war.
Although the solar system had been colonized by the Hetraxi Empire, the people who settled it were a diverse bunch, representing many different cultures from every corner of the empire. When they rebelled against their Hetraxi overlords, rather than rally around a particular culture or racial identity the Solari united around a set of ideas. They wanted to be treated as equals, for there to be no royalty, nobles or slaves among them. The rule of law would protect all equally and God given rights owed to all sentient peoples made in the Creator’s likeness would be guaranteed to all the new nation’s citizens in its founding constitution.  It was this promise of freedom, fairness and independence that shined like a beacon across the galaxy, calling to its best and brightest. It was their hard work and innovative, pioneering spirit that made the Federation prosperous and strong.  
The centuries went by, one generation passed the torch to the next and over time the Solari people took their wealth, strength and freedom for granted. They grew to believe wealth was something they were owed not something they earned. They lived in relative safety while they critiqued and judged the mistakes made by previous generations who fought and died so they could have the freedom did not appreciate because had never lived without it. They grew to regard their constitutionally guaranteed rights as nothing more than archaic oversights that allowed those stupider or more evil than themselves to cause trouble. Not only did they forget the wisdom and sacrifices of those who came before but they also forgot that which united them. 
Political polarization, antagonized by a ratings hungry press, fringe political activists and foreign interests, divided the nation. However, it would unfair to put all the blame on a biased media, radical special interest groups and 5th columnists. At the end of the day it was the intellectual laziness and shortage of empathy exhibited by the average Solari citizen that did the USF in. When a bloated central government printed too much money in an effort to pay off its expenses it triggered runaway hyperinflation that decimated everyone’s savings and purchasing power. By then the divided citizenry was just waiting for an excuse to separate from their unreasonable neighbors. When hyperinflation hit the central government gave them that excuse. Almost evenly divided along party lines, the Solar congress was unable and unwilling to agree on any solution to the financial crisis. 
When congress failed to act, the governors of most of the outer planets took matters into their own hands. A planetary convention was called to vote on whether to dissolve the Federation. Not taking the bizarre but constitutionally prescribed convention seriously, many of the inner planet’s governors abstained from attending as a gesture of protest and the outer planets were able to secure the votes they needed to secede. And just like that the United Solar Federation was no more. 
The inner planets, those still loyal to sitting President Richard Baytor, formed The Solar Union. Never one to let a crisis go waste, Baytor saw the secession of the solar system’s more stubborn elements as a chance to build the interstellar utopia that had been the pipe dream of his party for generations. He formed The Galactic Union or GU, a galaxy spanning political, financial and military alliance. The Jade Kingdom and the Delta Union, being major holders of Solar debt, were among the first to join and were given much say in drafting the GU’s charter. Like a galactic pyramid scheme, many smaller nations followed the big three’s lead, eager to get in early for a larger piece of the pie. This had the effect of swelling the GU’s ranks with nations that tended to be not doing so well financially and were willing to sacrifice their sovereignty for wealth, power and prestige. Meanwhile prouder nations not interested in joining the Galactic Union watched the growing super power with apprehension.
However Baytor was not the only one who saw opportunity in the crisis. Davin Omni, eccentric trillionaire, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Omni Synaptech Interplanetary Corporation, had seen the writing on the wall long before the government or press acknowledged that hyper-inflation was even a thing that could happen.  He quietly developed Omni Coin, a post-quantum computing secure cryptocurrency tied to the quantity of metals and rare elements mined from asteroids, as a fallback.  He took the lessons learned and the technologies his defense contractors had developed in the Crescent Wars and used them to covertly arm his corporate fleet. When the secession happened, as he knew it would, he used the lax oversight afforded by the chaos to consolidate all his start ups into the wealthiest and most powerful corporation in the galaxy. And finally he built Esther, a prototype Centaur-class artificial intelligence, the most advanced of her kind, to coordinate his company’s vast resources.
He formed an alliance with several like-minded politicians and military personnel. He would sponsor the Outer Planets, providing them with ships, weapons, jobs and a stable currency as long as his corporate creation was given a safe harbor in which to operate. The Kuiper Alliance was formed and the Solar Civil War had begun.
When the GU’s international fleet moved against the outer planets no one expected the Alliance’s defense forces to be able to put up a meaningful resistance. What they failed to take into account was that these volunteer defense forces were led by battle hardened veterans who had spent a good portion of the last decade in The Crescent fighting Hastur’s cultist insurgency. Educated in urban warfare through countless battles with the fallen god’s sadistic hordes they were painfully familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of a space-based invasion force. They had learned a few dirty tricks from their Golden Jihad enemies and now it was their turn to play the insurgents. With each planet the GU invaded their fleet was weakened as ships had to be left behind to support troops bogged down in urban fighting. By the time the fleet reached the notoriously feisty outer world of Jacinto it was at a quarter of its original strength. 
Underestimating the experience, resolve and resources of the Kuiper Alliance’s militias was one but not the only tactical error Union command made.
When the international fleet was put together the decision was made use the USF battle net to coordinate it as it was the most advanced command and control system available. There was just one small problem. The software had been written by a subsidiary of Omni Synaptech which meant the Kuiper Alliance had a back door waiting for them.  The GU fleet’s battle net was hacked just as a reserve fleet of Omni Synaptech Megaliths peaked out from behind Jacinto’s moons and began carving into the confused fleet with heavy lasers and missiles. The hacked battle net hid the Omni fleet in a sea of false signatures, making the fleet appear much larger than it actually was. To add to the confusion, it marked several of the Union ships as hostile to each other. When it was all over more ships had been lost to friendly fire than to the megaliths. In the confusion, a third of the GU’s Solari ships, those with crews who had either planned to defect in advance or had just been on the fence about it, defected to the Alliance side. What was left of the GU fleet fled back to the safety of the inner planet’s orbital defense platforms and established a blockade. 
Things since had mostly been quiet out here. The Union-controlled mainstream press preached doom and gloom to whoever was still listening but the outer planets just got on with their lives and reveled in their new found freedom as though it were a happy dream they might one day wake up from. Things had been good for the time being.  Two years the GU had waited and done nothing.     
‘They couldn't have given me just a few more minutes?’ Adam thought.
Once the seriousness of the situation had sunk in Adam Terranova jumped out of bed.  He frantically pulled on his fire-resistant pants and slipped on his boots without taking the time to zip them up.  He clipped the radio to his belt, grabbed a Henley t-shirt with  black sleeves and red torso reinforced with a honeycomb pattern of black abrasion resistant material. It was emblazoned with his last name on the left breast and stylized eye-logos on the sleeves. He slipped on the shirt and raced out his bedroom door.
He stopped mid-stride and ran back inside to snatch his red OmniBag and Cathurian steel cross necklace off the computer desk.
 He narrowly avoided tumbling down the stairs while trying to pull the shirt over his head.
In the kitchen his little sister Astrid, a petite green-eyed girl with short dark-brown hair she wore up in two Jade Kingdom-style buns was having a heated discussion over breakfast with Tevera Suloqa, the tall, blue-skinned, 4-armed, minkan sex goddess from his tragically interrupted dream. "So the guy asks for an extra bowl of ranch dressing, and not like a little bowl. No, not like the kind of bowl a reasonable person would put ranch dressing in. No he wants a grown up bowl.” Astrid said in an affected rustic accent. “Filled with ranch dressing! He makes a huge mess all over the table and floor…”    She continued to rant before Tevera cut her off.
“Gasp! That’s how we get ants Astrid!”    
“I know right. Hey wait. Did you just make an Archer reference?” Astrid asked, momentarily distracted from her rant.
“Heh heh, yeah.” Tevera admitted.
“Nice one.” Without warning Astrid screamed in a high pitched squeal of faux hysteria. “Ohmahgosh Tevy! Don’t interrupt my story!”    
Which Tevera then mimicked perfectly. “Ohmahgosh Astrid! I’m sorry!”
“It’s okay, I forgive you.” Astrid pretendend to be out of breath. “Just don’t interrupt me again. I don’t like you to see this side of me.” Astrid acted as though it took great effort to compose herself.
“I’m so sorry.” Tevera whispered soothingly.
“It’s okay.” Astrid whispered back. “Now where was I?”        
Tevera’s ruby-colored eyes unfocused into a thousand yard stare as she reenacted Astrid’s rant word for word with identical inflection. “Filled with ranch dressing! He makes a huge mess…”
“Oh right. Tevy I love you. You’re like a parrot.”
“Aww thanks Astrid.”
“Don’t interrupt me.” Astrid whispered.
“Ok.” Tevera whispered back.
“Ok, back to my story. Now do you think Mr McRanch Party left a tip?”
“I'm gonna say no.” Tevera responded.
Adam finished zipping up his boots before attempting to get the girl’s attention.
“Morning girls.”
“Don’t interrupt me!” Astrid hissed.
“Okay. Hey remember that thing we were talking about the other day, the thing we were saying would never happen?”
“What thing?” Astrid asked, her feigned rage now gone.
The walls shook with a loud ‘boom’ that rattled the hanging pictures a split second before the kitchen lights went out.
“Oh, that thing.” Tevera remembered. 
Adam rummaged through his bottomless Omnibag, looking for his vector gloves. Vital tools for any kinetic, they helped him to focus his gravity-bending powers into something more useful than an imprecise and dangerous shockwave.
 He snapped opened his Omni bag which was pretty much identical to the one he had found for Tevera in his dream, except his was red instead of pink. Adam thumbed the wheel and the glowing blue portal cycled through its Rolodex of storage compartments. He found the compartment he was looking for and pulled out a pair of black gloves with anodized red steel knuckles and some orange-lensed smart goggles.
 He put on the gloves and goggles. He tapped a button on the goggles’ frame and the lenses fill with green light as the holographic HUD (heads-up-display) came online.
The HUD showed him information about the current pull of gravity in a 25 foot sphere around him, which if he left it alone was 1.63 hetras. Neon Phoenix’s gravity was slightly above average for such a small planet, an affect of the high concentrations of stem matter in the planet’s core. The HUD also showed a 3D representation of his gravitonic vectors. These appeared as a gray wireframe representation of two giant, floating hands that mimic the movement of his physical hands. Vectors are tools made of concentrated gravity focused by motion capture gloves. When manifested, these vectors can either repel or attract any object they touch at a desired percentage of the gravity in the kinetic’s sphere of influence.  
“Well, looks like it’s time to play hero.” He dropped into a wide stance and threw a fist in the air. “Avengers ensemble!”
The air around him reverberated with the hum of flexing gravitons and all the shadows within twenty five feet of him darkened slightly.
“Seriously?”  Astrid rolled her eyes.
“Huh?”    Adam asked, suddenly embarrassed. 
“That’s not how the quote goes.” Tevera explained on behalf of Astrid who then looked at her as if to say, ‘That’s not what I was gonna say ya big blue nerd.’  “It’s Avengers assem…”
“Yeah, I know. I was just trying to be funny, or something.”
“Oh. Hahaha!” Tevera’s sympathy laugh probably came off a little too enthusiastic but hey it’s the thought that counts.
“Thanks Tevy.” Adam blushed and scratched the back of his neck.
“Haha! You’re welcome!”
Astrid rubbed her forehead.  “No! Seriously? Things were just starting to get back to normal around here. I thought the Union had given up trying to take back the outer planets after half their Solar army went on strike. ”
“Actually it was more like a third but yeah.” Adam corrected her. 
"Well they must have found some replacements because they're back.”    Tevera concluded.
 “And on that note I need to get going. The department was paged out. Just to be safe you two should hide in the bathtub until the bombing stops.”    Adam added.
“Ha!” Astrid laughed.
 “What? That should protect you from shrapnel and stuff. The bathtub is the safest place in the house. I don’t know. I heard that somewhere.”    Adam insisted.
 “Like we’d both fit in there. There’s barely enough room for Tevera and her boobs.” Tevera gasped in affected offense while Adam blushed and looked away. “Worse comes to worst I’ll just hide behind her.” Astrid suggested mockingly.
“You trying to say I’m fat!” Tevera objected.
“No, I’m trying to say you’re six foot seven and have bulletproof skin. Do your people even get fat?” Astrid asked accusingly. Tevera shrugged.
“Seriously, I have never seen a fat minkan.” 
“It’s actually the fat that blocks bullets.” Tevera explained.
“Really?” Astrid poked her in the stomach. “Then why are you so squishy?”
“Minkan fat cells work kind of like the shields in Dune.”
“Speak Common Tevy, I haven’t seen that movie yet.”
“It’s a novel Astrid!” 
“Hey Astrid, could you call Mom and Dad as soon as the bombing stops to let them know we’re okay.” Adam interjected.
“Wait a minute! I’m an EMT. Why didn’t I get a paged out?”
“Hey yeah that’s right.”    Adam scratched the back of his neck as he waited for an answer to materialize.
“Because you left your ambulance radio in the car.” Tevera reminded her.
“What? Oh crap!” Astrid ran out the front door. Seconds later there was a bass thump followed by an electric hum that faded into the distance as her hover car raced to the hospital.
“How do you remember these things?” Adam asked Tevera.
 Her pointy ears flicked and turned like radar dishes zeroing in on far away sounds which were inaudible to him.
“Eidetic memory, most minkans have it. The Creator just made us genetically awesome.”
“No argument there.”
This got a smile out of her. The two locked eyes and Adam’s heart started racing.
“Okay well, gotta go Tevy. Uh, be careful while we’re gone.”
“Don’t worry Honey Badger. If The Union decides they want to waste their bombs on a random apartment complex full of civilians I can always just hide behind myself.”
“Heh heh right.” Adam laughed nervously.
“Hey Snacksize?” She asked playfully. The sensuous tone in her voice reminding him of his unfinished dream. He gulped and took a step closer, trying not to stare at her breasts. This was made all the more difficult since they hung out at around his eye level.
“You should get going. The other firefighters are gonna leave without you.”
“Oh crap!” He ran out the door.


Chapter 02: Homecoming

Chapter 02: Homecoming

High orbit over the planet Neon Phoenix

Space Force Tech Sergeant Kale Hill stared out the tail ramp of a Galactic Union dropship at the sprawling city of Arcadia that covered a good portion of the red desert planet as another wave of heat-shielded drone pods descended like meteors on his childhood home.
The drone blitzkrieg had caught the sleepy world off guard.  The Jade Kingdom had spent the last three months quietly smuggling drone carriers disguised as cargo freighters into the outer solar system through the Kuiper Gate.  These took up strategic positions throughout the system. When activated early that morning they went to work clearing the way for the rest of the invasion. Their first targets had been quantum entanglement towers that allowed faster than light communications.
The second target had been military infrastructure,  early detection systems, orbital defense platforms, air strips and anti-air defenses. There were still several hardened facilities buried under mountains that had escaped mostly unscathed. It would require much heavier ordnance than the drones could carry to deal with those. After achieving air superiority they attacked starports and  skyroads. If anyone wanted to leave the planet they would have a hard time doing it. Unless of course they had a starship that could take off without a runway.
Taking out the communication towers to stop Neon Phoenix from calling for help was a necessary step but now that communications had gone down it was only a matter of time before the other outer planets figured out  what was happening. And even if they didn’t, all it would take is just one ship getting off world to send word to the rest of The Alliance.
Sergeant Hill could already see several of the spacecraft, civilian or otherwise, escaping the atmosphere like glittering, silver insects fleeing a kicked patch of grass. 
“It really is a beautiful planet, very different from what I’m used to but still quite beautiful, like a ruby floating in space.” Captain Zhisheng had snuck up behind him, not hard to do what with the persistent rumble of the dropship’s engines. Still Kale found the Jade Kingdom Officer’s penchant for appearing in his blind spot unnerving.
“It’s alright, if you’re into hot and dusty.”    Hill replied.
“You are from this planet?”
Sergeant Hill was caught a little off guard by this question. The officer must have been given access to his personnel records. It also seemed a strange coincidence that Kale was not the only local in this squad. Senior Spaceman Jenkins was also from Neon Phoenix. It was such a strange risk to take. The GU had lost over a third of their former USF military to desertion ever since the battle of Jacinto. Why would they deploy Solar troops in their own backyards? Did they want them to make a break for it? Maybe the GU brass still had some Alliance sympathizers and they were giving him a way out. That would be nice. It was the only explanation that made sense. Of course the GU never shown an abundance of sense.
“I wasn’t born here. My parents moved to Neon Phoenix when I was a kid. I joined the space force as soon I turned 18 to get off this rock.”
Hill played it close to the vest so as not to give the foreign officer any reason to suspect his loyalty. It really was an indicator of how bad things had gotten when Solari troops were now being commanded by Jade Kingdom officers. The Jade Kingdom had gotten a much better deal in the GU charter and had much more incentive to see the Galactic Union succeed.
“It doesn’t seem so hot. The net is saying it is 22.2 degrees on the ground.”
“Oh, my apologies. I forgot you Solari still use F-scale. I meant 72 degrees.”  
“Right, sure the weather seems nice now. It is, but you don’t wanna be here when summer rolls around. Last time I was here it got up to 120 degrees.”
“Ahhahaha!” Captain Zhisheng bellowed an over-enthusiastic belly laugh that Kale found slightly disturbing. “Oh don’t worry. We won’t be here that long.”
Kale wasn’t sure whether to be concerned or relieved. What did he mean by that?
“Operation Jade October may look like the start of an invasion but I assure you it is not.” 
“Oh that’s a relief. Let me tell you, an invasion would not go well.”
“Why do you say that?” The captain asked.
“Neo Phoenicians love their guns, like a lot.”
At this Zhisheng allowed some annoyance to show on his face. Kale didn’t take the hint. “I’m talkin’ 3 to 4 guns to a house. We’d be fighting street to street, getting shot at from every angle.”
“We'll like I said before. We are not here to occupy the planet. Your squad will be tasked with helping us retrieve a valuable war asset.”
“A war asset? What kind?”
“An OmniSynaptech war asset.”
“Oh, shiny.” 
This could get tricky, thought Sergeant Hill. OmniSynaptech PeaceTroopers, despite their non-threatening name, are recruited from former USF special forces and are some of the best trained and equipped warriors in the known galaxy. Only the Cathurian Paladins and Minkan Praetorians come close and the latter haven’t been heard from since they vanished at the end of Galaxy War 2. Kale looked around the cabin noticing, in addition to his four Jump Troopers, one heavily armored marine wearing desert camouflage. He was petting a Cathurian steel mag-hammer as if it were a cat. Nope, nothing unusual here.
“What’s the asset?” Kale asked.
“That is classified.” The captain replied. Sergeant  Hill tried very hard not to roll his eyes. “Your mission is only one piece of a larger puzzle.”
“Are we talking like one of the edge pieces you can work your way in from or is it one of the weird little ones in the middle that just confuse you if you start with them?”
“Puzzle pieces.”
“Oh, It’s the second one, very small, very confusing.”
“Thought so.”
“Any more questions before I brief your squad?” The Captain asked.
“Yeah, who’s the new guy?”  
“Oh the marine? That’s Gunnery Sergeant Max Shoeman.”
“What’s he doing here? You know, on a space force op? ”
“He was transferred to your squadron as part of some, what did they call it? Oh yes, they called it a force consolidation program. His entire squad was wiped out and command thinks his particular skillset might be useful on this mission.”
The marine tapped the floor with the butt of his mag-hammer as if checking its integrity.
“What skillset is that?” Kale asked skeptically.
“Sergeant Shoeman is an expert in urban warfare, anti-armor tactics, demolitions, and close quarters combat.”
“Huh. So his whole squad was wiped out. What happened to them?” Sergeant Hill asked.
The Jade Kingdom Captain shuffled uncomfortably.
“Oh well, it’s kind of funny actually. You see, he, he kill them.”
“What!” Hill blurted out.
“They were trying to defect to the enemy and well he…” 
Kale’s eye twitched.
“…He killed them all, with his hammer, including the commanding officer. Isn’t that funny?” Zhisheng giggled nervously.
Sergeant Hill blinked. “Yeah.” He lied.
“Now don’t worry, you will still be in command. Sergeant Shoeman may technically outrank you but you have more experience leading this squad. He is only coming along to advise and assist with the operation. You will be acting Team Leader.” 
“You’re not coming with us?” Hill asked.
“Ahaha! Oh no.” The captain let out another overly enthusiastic laugh. Kale laughed along nervously. Sergeant Shoeman slowly turned his Easter Island-shaped head to look in their direction. The marine’s villainously scarred right eye burned with a malevolent, yellow light. Captain Zhisheng turned away and lowered his voice.
“Your state department believes putting foreign boots on the ground might have the unintended effect of rallying the local population to The Kuiper Alliance’s cause.”
“So that’s why we’re going in with such a small team.” Hill observed.
“Yes, that’s part of it.”
“What’s the other part?”
Captain Zhisheng looked over his shoulder to see if the marine was paying attention. “I’m not going to lie. Sergeant Shoeman scares the poop out of me.”
“Uh huh.” Sergeant Hill nodded slowly.
“Don’t worry, you’ll do fine. I have total confidence in you.” Captain Zhisheng patted him on the shoulder and walked back towards the front of the dropship where the rest of the squad sat, waiting to be briefed on the mysterious operation. Kale stole one last glance out the ramp at the red planet below.

Arcadia Fire Station 5, Arcadia, Neon Phoenix

Adam drifted his compact hover car into the fire station parking lot just in time to see Engine 512 flip on its lights and sirens as it drove away, the bay doors closing behind it.“Crap!”
He sprinted to the side door and fumbled his OmniPhone out of his pant pocket. He thumbed the menu to bring up the key chain app. He holds it up to a pad on the wall and typed in his security pin. An LED on the pad flashed green and chirped pleasantly as the door unlocked. He ripped it open and raced to his locker.
“Hurry up Nova! We’re waiting on you!” Chief MacGraw nursed a packet of chewing tobacco from the driver seat of Rescue 506. The large red pickup truck had been modified with lights and sirens and had it’s open bed replaced with a series of industrial sized toolboxes full of rescue equipment.
“Sorry Chief!”
Adam threw on his fire resistant jacket and its electroluminescent orange safety stripes flicked on like a light switch. He then grabbed his rebreather helmet and harness off the rack.
Another firefighter ran through the door with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder. It was filled with  rifles and shotguns.
“Hey Chief I got the guns!”
“And him.“     Adds the chief.    “Hurry up Leroy!”
Adam put on the rebreather harness like a backpack and jumped into the backseat before fastening the chest and waist buckles. Leroy hefted the duffel of guns into the middle seat bumping up against Adam who raised a quizzical right eyebrow.
“That’s a lot of guns.”    He commented.
“I know right?” Leroy smiled beneath his blonde, handlebar mustache.
Chief MacGraw hit the garage door opener clipped to the sun vizor. The bay door opened like a giant, rectangular eyelid letting in the sunlight.
Outside, smoke rose from several locations on the horizon. The white trails of drone pods plummeted through the atmosphere like meteors. The unsettling roar of many small drone jets firing in unison broke the silence as a segmented shadow resembling an 8-bit centipede momentarily darkened the parking lot.
The firefighters held their breath until the drone formation was out of sight.
“José show us en route.” Chief MacGraw said to the firefighter riding shotgun.
“Sure thing Chief.” José lifted the radio receiver to his mouth as they drive out the bay door. “Dispatch this is Rescue Five Six.”
“Copy that, Five Six.” The female dispatcher replied.
“Please show us en route.”
“Copy that, showing Rescue Five Six en route.”
Two more centipede-shaped, single file, drone formations zig zagged overhead.
“So what’s the plan Chief?” Adam asked.
“We do our jobs. The GU’s toys just bombed the ramps to Skyroad 01 and now there a lot of people stuck up there. It’s our job to get them down before those Union goons decide to bring the whole thing down.” 

Operation Jade October
G.U. Dropship, Slightly lower orbit over Neon Phoenix

The jumptroopers and the marine gathered around a small hologram projector as Captain Zhisheng gave his briefing. The hologram showed a uncannily photogenic dark-haired man in his early twenties wearing a white, armor-plated jumpsuit.  Both jumpsuit shoulder pads were inset with glowing, blue, Omni corporate logos. 
He had his arms thrown out to the sides as if he was holding back the storm of explosions and floating bullets that filled the air around him. Whatever he was doing appeared to be working because the fire, shockwaves and projectiles were deflected around spherical force fields that seemed to be emanating from his hands.
“Your target is Hiro Nishimoto. He is a kinetic in the employment of the treasonous OmniSynaptech Corporation.”
Senior Spaceman Loyd Jenkins whistled. “He’s pretty.”
The other Jumptroopers snickered.
“Really Jenkins?” Senior Spaceman Martinez  asked.
“Well he is. Just look at him.” Jenkins turned to the captain. “Sir, does Hiro have a sister?”
“That is not relevant right now.” The officer answered.
“So he does have a hot sister?” Martinez inferred.
The captain face-palmed in frustration.
“Haha! Sweet!” Jenkins and Martinez high fived.
“Alright stow it Jenkins.” Ordered Kale, barely attempting to hide his amusement. “It’s time to play space force.”
“What do you think I’m doing Sarge?” Jenkins replied and the rest of the team erupted into laughter.
Captain Zhisheng tried to force his way through the rest of the briefing.
“Your target is Hiro Nishimoto. He is a electro-kinetic and vital to the Kuiper Alliance’s war effort. Now our drones have him under surveillance. They are programmed not to engage until your team is in position.”
“Whoa whoa whoa. We’re not going to kill him, are we?” Martinez asked.
“No, killing Hiro is not part of the plan.”
“Fwew! that’s a relief.”
Captain Zhisheng pushed forward with the briefing. “They will not engage Hiro until your team is in position. They are programmed to keep their distance but maintain line of sight.” 
Martinez interrupted him. “Because that would make it super awkward for Jenkins to ask out his hot sister if we killed him.”
“Martinez!” Sergeant Hill half-heartedly scolded while the captain bit his lower lip in rage. Zhisheng took a second to compose himself and continued.
“Once your team is in position the drones will engage Hiro with nonlethal stun-fire. This will keep him distracted and should give you an idea where his shield vectors are so you can shoot around them.”
This time Hill interrupted. “I thought you said we weren’t going to kill him?”    
“You’re not. You will shoot him with this.” The captain produced a metal cigar box containing 3 chrome cylinders. “These were custom made for the operation. They are long distance smart-darts designed to be fired from a 50 caliber rail rifle. The main projectile travels like a conventional fifty caliber magnetic slug to close the distance to its target. When it is within braking distance the aerodynamic casing opens like a parachute, producing drag that slows the projectile’s velocity to subsonic before jettisoning.”
The hologram projector played a 3D render of the smart-darts firing process.
“From here the smart-dart’s stabilizer fins take over, making minor course corrections that guide the dart to the target.”
“Sounds expensive. What’s in the dart?” Kale asked.
“Two things.”
 “One is a quantum entanglement tracking beacon. It’s signal has infinite range, cannot be blocked and is only detectable by it’s matching receiver.” The captain handed Kale a sturdy looking brick of a device consisting of an olive drab steel casing, an inset display screen, a rubberized keypad and a shielded trigger switch.
“Aww thanks captain. Sounds really expensive.”
“It is.”
“A quantum entanglement receiver, you’d think it’d be bigger.” Hill commented.
Captain Zhisheng narrowed his eyes at the sergeant in a way that Kale found unsettling and difficult to interpret. He decided to move the conversation forward.
“What’s this ominous looking trigger switch for?” Kale asked.
“That is for the second thing the smart-dart carries, a powerful sedative.”
“So we’re going to sedate Mr. Nishimoto. Wouldn’t the dart do that anyway? Why does it need a switch?”
“Because it is not a normal dart. The sedative is encapsulated, only to be activated at a time of our choosing.”
“I get that. So what is this, time of our choosing?” Kale asked.
“Your team is part of a much larger operation. That is all you need to know for now.” The captain said coldly.
“Alright, got it. Ours is not to wonder why.” Kale replied.
“Now the dart casing is engineered to vaporize on impact leaving no evidence except for a small welt and the injected sedative capsule. After you have tagged Mr. Nishimoto you are to move grid location delta 4, blend in with the local population and wait for further instructions.”
The JT’s got deathly quiet. Each one of them was afraid of saying what they all knew everyone was thinking. This was the perfect opportunity to get out. Given the dismal state of Solari troop moral why did the GU trust them not to run away?
Sergeant Hill decided the silence was getting a little too suspicious. “So, you have anything else for us?” He asked the captain.
“As a matter of fact I do.” Zhisheng lifted an opened cardboard box out of one of the dropship’s corners and handed it to the nearest trooper. “Take one and pass it down.” He instructed in the singsongy cadence of a bored school teacher.
“Dog collars?” Jenkins asked, holding it at arm’s length like a dead snake.
“Yes, according to our intel all the kids are wearing them these days. You’ll blend right in. It won’t be that weird.” Zhisheng assured the skeptical spaceman.
“I don’t think that’s true.” Jenkins objected.
“It is.” Zhisheng insisted flatly.
“I’m pretty sure it isn’t.”
Jenkins’ and Zhisheng’s little exchange gave Senior Spaceman Franklin Kilroy second thoughts and he tried to remove the collar he had just clipped on. “Hey it won’t come off!”
“He wears the cone of shame!” Martinez pointed and laughed, seizing the opportunity to make an UP reference.
“Don’t worry. It is as designed.” Captain Zhisheng reassured the panicking trooper.
“What does that mean?”    Asked Kilroy, still clawing at his own neck.
“The tracking collar is designed not to come off without the passcode. If someone tries to forcibly remove the collar without first entering the passcode it will detonate a small explosive charge, killing the wearer and sending out a lethal ring of steel bearings killing anything standing too close.”
“Why the vreck would anyone make this?” Sergeant Hill demanded.
“The collars were developed during the Crescent Wars, back when your government was fighting the Cult of Golden Jihad.” The captain explained.
“Oh, ok that makes sense.” Said Hill.
“It does?” Now Captain Zhisheng was confused.
“Yeah, if I got captured by those psychos and rescue wasn’t coming I’d rather blow up and take a few of them with me. It’s better than having your face cut off to make one of their stupid masks. Just one question.”
“We’re not fighting Golden Jihad here! So why are we wearing suicide collars?”
“There was a surplus.” The captain answered sheepishly.
“The collars were developed in response to the situation on the ground but entered production too late. By the time they were ready for field issue your command had pulled most of its troops out and pivoted to a strategy that focused on drones and contractors. So there were a lot of these tracking collars lying around and your command decided to put them to use. Or at least that’s what your command told me.”
“Well isn’t this just magical.” Sergeant Hill remarked while loosening the collar on Kilroy whose face had now turned red.
“Oh thanks. That's much better.” He thanked Hill after catching his breath.
“Don't mention it.” Hill turned to the captain. “I don't suppose there is any other way to deactivate the collar’s explosive charge? You know, for safety reasons. ”
“It was deliberately designed to be impossible to…”
“Ha-ha! Of course it was!”
“You aren't planning on getting captured are you?” The captain asked suspiciously.
“Ah ha-ha! No! Just, what happens if the battery runs out?”
“The battery is good for 35 days.”
“But what happens if it runs out?”
“We won't be here 35 days.”
Sergeant Hill and the captain had a staring contest. The tense silence was finally broken by the electric crackle of Sergeant Shoeman running his index finger a fraction of an inch over the statically charged surface of the mag-hammer’s Cathurian-steel business end, allowing the latent energy to arc the short distance to his fingertips. Shoeman looked up and noticed everyone was staring at him.
“Sorry, nervous habit.”    The marine grunted.
“I love this plan! I’m excited to be a part of it!” Tech Sergeant Kale Hill made a Ghost Busters reference and clipped the explosive tracking collar around his neck. He felt both sick and strangely relieved, like a man who has made peace with a terminal illness. The rest of the JT’s followed his example. Finally the marine looked left, looked right, shrugged and puts on one of the collars.
Captain Zhisheng breathed a sigh of relief.
“Now that that’s out of the way you will be issued your kit for the operation.”
He says as he passed the nearest trooper another cardboard box, this one filled with black, anodized steel Omnibags.
“Sweet! Omnibags.” Martinez plucked on the metal devices from the cardboard box.
“No! not Omnibags. The Galactic Union has sanctioned all OmniSynaptech products. These are EDSCs.” The captain corrected him.
“EDS what now?” Staff Sergeant Freeman asked.
“Extra Dimensional Storage Containers.” The captain elaborated.
“Omnibag knockoffs.” Martinez commented. Captain Zhisheng gives him a dirty look.
“No, these are not knock-offs. If you look closely you will notice there is no counterfeit OmniSynaptech logo. These are generic brand, just as good. Now find the one with your name on it. There will be a manifest taped to the back. Make sure all your kit is working and accounted for.”
The team spent the next 10 minutes pulling weapons, ammo and other equipment from the lunch-box sized portals of rotating storage compartments and checking them against the packing lists. 
Some items on the lists were missing but then turned up as extras in another spaceman’s bag, as per protocol. Kale entertained the idea that Supply did this deliberately to encourage communication and teamwork in the rest of the air force but then thought better of it. They were just lazy and didn’t take their jobs seriously. Just like 98% of the rest of humanity.
In addition to the equipment typical to special operators; silenced JR 300 Jump Rifles, 50 caliber Basilisk Rail Rifles, an assortment of frag, plasma, stun and smoke grenades, the team also found some specialized equipment to help even the odds against the plasma rifles carried by OmniSynaptech Peacetroopers. Magnetized Dust Grenades were designed to fill the air with polarized iron particles that eroded a plasma bolt’s magnetic containment field. This greatly reduced its speed, accuracy and the amount of sun-hot plasma that would reach the bolt’s intended target. That is if it even managed to hit it. Still even at greatly reduced speed and power, a plasma bolt was just as lethal as a conventional assault rifle round. If you got hit by one you would probably still die but at least your torso wouldn’t explode in a cloud of pink mist.
To deal with the dying problem the team was issued a second piece of specialized equipment. The plasma-resistant assault vest was the most recent attempt by the former United Solar Federation to develop a defense for its troops against plasma fire that was cheaper than encasing them in full poly-tube plate powered-armor. The vests were woven from a combination of poly-tube fibers, an extremely strong material that was highly resistant to physical impact damage and micro cables of Cathurian steel. Cathurian steel, as its name implied, was a metal unique to the planet Cathuria, home of the Noir Paladins. To be fair, the raw ore was also found on its evil-twin planet Thaal but only Cathurian steel smiths seemed to be able to work the metal into anything useful. The metal was highly sought after, not only for its uncanny ability to protect wearers from magic spells, but also for the way it conducted energy, be it electric, heat or even kinetic energy away from the point of contact to a discharge point of the steel smith’s choosing. The metal’s ability to transfer incoming energy was directly proportional to its purity. The higher the grade of steel the more energy was safely conducted to the discharge point without bleeding off and damaging whatever was around it. In this case that was 7 nervous spacemen and 1 grizzled marine.
The weak link in the vest’s armor chain was the discharge point. The energy had to go somewhere. While the contractor hired by USF procurement to develop the vest had gone to great pains to secure only the purest Cathurian steel micro cables when it came time to incorporate a method for dissipating the excess heat the project had already gone way over budget.The original plans described a discharge point linked by interdimensional portal to a starship reactor-style 1,000 gallon circulating coolant system that would be shared by the entire squad. However after a congressional investigation attempting to deflect blame and two articles in a well known magazine made the project a symbol for the federal government’s debt problems the contractor was forced to settle for a cheap backpack style radiator system that was heavier than it looked, leaked highly toxic coolant and made an annoying sloshing sound when you ran.
While the original system could, at least in theory, take direct fire from an OmniSynaptech plasma rifle for 5 minutes straight before the vest started to overheat, the vests the team was wearing could probably take 2 and a half plasma bolts before the radiator exploded in a geyser of boiling hot, cancer causing coolant. Still better than nothing. Just don’t stand behind the guy being shot at.
Upon further inspection it was discovered the ESDC’s weren’t just filled with weapons and armor. There were a few unassuming everyday items mixed in as well.
In addition to the uniforms the team was already wearing each man was issued two sets of civilian clothes. As per Supply’s MO these were more often than not the wrong size and seemed to have been selected with the deliberate intention of embarrassing the wearer. The team was informed they were to wear their new civies under their uniforms so as to make it easier to blend in when they hit the ground.A frantic bout of trading and haggling broke out as each man attempted to trade with his teammates for something that fit better and didn’t misrepresent him as a person. After they had finished trading the teeshirts of hated sports teams and children’s cartoons with men willing to wear them, some having to be bribed with extra ammo or grenades, they put their uniforms and jump jets back on over the civilian disguises.
The JT’s retested their jump jets as they had been trained to do every time they put them on. Sergeant Shoeman who had only recently been trained on their use decided to follow their lead.
His helmet’s HUD displayed the status of the Icarus Jump Jet’s system test. First the onboard computer ran multiple simulations to ensure the software was functioning normally. Then the backpack mounted jet turbine would spool up, rising in pitch as it was tested at various RPMs. Max was grateful the helmet had selective noise canceling headphones. The sound of eight jump jet rigs being tested inside a cramped metal cylinder would have been deafening to say the least. Finally the rig tested the jet nozzles mounted on his back, wrists and feet. Minuscule amounts of thrust were blown through each nozzle, not enough to enough to move him if he kept a wide, rooted stance but enough for the system to determine that the jet nozzles and the high pressure tubing that funneled thrust to them from the backpack mounted turbine engine had not been damaged.   
After each jet and the tubing leading to it passed the test it would flash on his holographic heads-up-display with a happy, green checkmark next to it. Finally the whole rig flashed and a computerized female voice speaking in an aristocratic Hetraxi accent announced. “System checks complete. All systems are operational and ready for jump.”
The Jump Troopers, having had OCD drilled into them by space force training paired up and double checked their wingman’s rig for frays in the jet’s tubing or other physical damage the computer might have missed. Nobody found anything but better safe than sorry. The computer had missed things before. 
Staff Sergeant Kale Hill noticed that Shoeman didn’t have a wingman and walked over to help the marine double check his rig.
“First time doing a HALO jump?” Hill asked while inspecting the metal fittings that attached the high pressure tubing to the turbine engine. 
“No, second. The last one was just a training jump though.” Shoeman answered.
“Still that’s better than just VR.  You remember the drill?” Hill asked.
“Keep your head facing the arrow on your HUD and your arms and legs swept back and away from your body. The computer will steer towards the drop zone.” Shoeman answered.
“Those are the basics. If it looks like you’re going to hit the ground remember not to panic, this is normal. At the last second the back and leg jets will fire, tilting you upright for landing. It will feel like someone hit you between the shoulder blades with a baseball bat. Then the majority of the thrust will be shunted to the leg jets slowing your descent. As soon as you feel your feet touch the ground just start running and the exoskeleton will take care of the rest. You probably wont break your legs.” Hill half joked as he finished inspecting the high pressure tubing on Max’s rig. “Okay, everything checks out. Looks like you’re good to go.”
“Don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do after you traded me your shirt.”
“It didn’t fit me anyway.” But I gotta ask, you said Rainbow Dash was a band?”
“Yeah, yeah that’s right.”
“I’ve never heard of them.”
“You probably wouldn’t have. It’s new, one those raver robot bands kids these days like to listen to when they’re dancing on drugs.”
Shoeman grimaces. 
“Yeah I know right. Kids these days have no shame.”  
Meanwhile at the front of the cabin Captain Zhisheng held a hand up to his headset, listening very intently before making an announcement. “Aircrew is telling me we are only a few minutes from the jump zone.”
Outside the ramp the dark night sky had given way to bright blue. The tops of clouds raced by like fluffy white trees by the side of the highway. Far below a mosaic grid of city blocks and farmland peeked out from between gaps in the cloud cover.
“Are there any last questions?” The captain asked, regretting it even before all the words were out his mouth.
“Sir, I have a question.”    Jenkins raised an overly enthusiastic hand. The captain sighed.
“What is it Jenkins?”
“Why is the operation called Jade October?”
The captain made the mistake of allowing his relief to show.
“Oh, it’s because…”
“Sir, is it because it is currently the month of October?”    Jenkins interrupted.
“Partly yes.”
Next Senior Spaceman Raul Martinez raised his hand. “Sir, is it because you’re a huge Sean Connery fan?”        
“I did not name the operation.” The captain replied.
“Who’s Sean Connery?”    Asked Senior Spaceman Kilroy.
“You make me very sad.” Martinez gave Kilroy a disappointed look.    
“I did not name the operation but the explanation I got from command is that it is a reference to a mythosphere myth with its origins in a Tom Clancy novel.” Zhisheng elaborated.
Kilroy raised his hand. “What’s a novel?”    
Martinez answered with a punch to his arm.
“Oww! What? I wanna know.” Kilroy maintained an air of sincerity the rest of the team had learned to take with a grain of salt.
“It’s like a book, only more expensive.” Staff Sergeant Charles Freeman explained deadpan.
“Yeesh okay Martinez, you didn’t have to hit me.”
“Oh but I did Kilroy.”
“Are you two done playing around?” Asked the Captain.
“Sorry sir. We’re done.”    Martinez apologized.
“Yes, please continue.” Added Kilroy.
The captain raised an eyebrow. Kilroy didn’t take the hint and continued to ham it up.
“The sooner we can get out of here the better.  Time is money and I’m kinda anxious to get out there so we can hook up with Hiro’s hot sisters.”
Captain Zhisheng’s right eye twitched in frustration as he watched the conversation get hijacked back to the subject of Hiro’s not currently mission relevant but still undeniably smoking, hot sister. 
“Dude there is only one hot sister we know about and Jenkins already called dibs.” Martinez explained to Kilroy.
“He did not. I never heard him call dibs.”    Kilroy objected.
“Hey we all understood it. By deliberately ascertaining the existence of said hot sister and in the process expressing interest he has called dibs by default.  It was a common-law dibs.” Martinez elaborated and the other spacemen nodded in assent followed by the marine who also agreed with Martinez’s interpretation of The Bro Code.
“He’s got you there Kilroy.” Ruled Sergeant Hill.
“Crap! Well we still don’t know for a fact that there is only one sister.”
“You really think there’s more than one?”    Martinez laughed.
“It’s totally possible. Think about it. Maybe Hiro is the youngest of multiple siblings. Maybe his parents wanted a boy but kept getting girls. Maybe there are enough hot sisters for all of us.”
That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or some other fitting analogy. Captain Zhisheng bent over to take off his right boot. He then aimed it like a baseball pitch at Kilroy’s head. “That’s it! I’ve had it! Enough about Hiro’s smoking hot sister!” Zhisheng hurled the boot and Kilroy barely leaned out of the way just in time, allowing it to hit the unflinching marine in the face. Sergeant Shoeman glared, knowing he should be furious at someone but still trying to piece together what just happened and who should be the target of his rage.
“Oh no. Uh sorry.” The captain apologized.
The tense silence was broken by a blaring buzzer as green ramp lights switched on and the hydraulic tail ramp opened all the way down. The marine scowled for a few more seconds before realigning his jaw and spitting blood on the floor.  
Eager for a change of scenery the team disconnected their helmets from the dropship’s closed circuit intercom system and walked towards the ramp. Captain Zhisheng breathed a sigh of relief and held his hand up to his headset as he listened to the flight crew.
“Flight crew has just informed me that we have entered the jump radius! You may disembark when ready!” The captain shouted over the sound of rushing wind.
“All right! You heard the man! Time to go! Any last questions?” Kale added.
“No wait!” The captain objected but it was already too late. Jenkins raised his hand.
“Jenkins.” Kale acknowledged.
Agh, here we go.” The captain grumbled while rubbing his temples.
“Who’s the bassist for Primus?” Jenkins asked, barely holding back his laughter.    
“Wait, what?” Zhisheng looked up. He must have heard that wrong. Hill shook his head at Jenkins in a half hearted warning he did not heed.
“It’s been bugging me all day and my phone doesn’t have data out here.” Jenkins continued.
Captain Zhisheng rolled his eyes before bending over to untie his remaining boot. This time Sergeant Shoeman saw what was about to happen and took a step away from Jenkins. Just to be safe he took another step backwards before the ship hit some turbulence and a sudden change in the angle of the floor caused him to fall out the tail ramp.
“Did he just?” Jenkins asked.
“Yeah, we should go after him.” Martinez added.
“GO! GO! GO!” Hill shouts as the JT’s poured out the ramp like lemmings.
“Goodbye Captain! I’ll miss you!” Hill waved back, seeing Captain Zhisheng grimace he back-flipped out the ramp.

After a couple tumbles Kale righted himself so he was facing the ground. Below him he saw the other JT’s racing towards a flailing, marine-shaped object who appeared to not be having the best time of it. 
Kale tucked in his arms and legs in order to make himself as streamlined as possible. His dive increased in speed and he quickly gained on the rest of the team. When he got closer he could see Sergeant Shoeman still spinning end over end, although he did not appear to be flailing as frantically as before.
“Don’t worry guys I almost got him.” He heard Kilroy say through his helmet comms.
Kilroy was about 50 feet away from the falling marine when Shoeman finally righted himself. He spread his arms and legs creating wind resistance. Shoeman slowed suddenly and Kilroy rocketed passed him.
“Whoa!”     Kilroy shouted as he narrowly dodged a midair collision.
Most of the team shot passed as the marine applied his air brakes. Hill, having enough time to react, did the same, holding out his arms and legs so he wouldn’t overshoot. Suddenly Shoeman activated his jump jets and rocketed away leaving five white contrails as a path to follow.
“Hey he got it.” Jenkins said over the intercom.
“Looks like we were worried for nothing.” Martinez replied.
“Yeah but now he’s gonna get there first! No, this just wont do.” Kilroy announced as he sent his jets into overdrive.
One after another the JT’s activated their jets and followed the path set by Sergeant Shoeman. Finally Hill activated his own jets by simultaneously pulling both of the rig’s T-shaped throttle handles.

The amount of thrust the jets produced and therefore the flight speed of the wearer was directly proportional to how much cable was unspooled from the mounting points. Left to their own devices the cables would snap the T-handles back into the mounting points like a dropped tape measure. This was a safety precaution that would cut the jets if the pilot lost control. 
Hill held the T-handles at 45 degree angles from his body. This gave him about half the jet’s top speed. He dropped into the tail end of his team’s formation. He settles into a slightly higher altitude giving him a better view of what’s going on below.
The team dived into a dense sea of clouds flying on faith and their instruments. Kale felt the cool, wet air on his face. He saw the rest of his team marked by green, holographic diamonds on his HUD. He trusted that the altitude was what the heads-up display says it was and that he wouldn’t smack into the ground, not without warning anyway.
When they finally broke through the lower cloud layers he was relieved to see the red and silver mosaic grid of farmland and city blocks interspersed with mountains and highways and the white ribbons of gravity-defying skyroads above them. His HUD set a waypoint on a large floating building to the side the nearest sky road’s onramp. That was where they were headed.

Chapter 03: Road rage


Highway 02, Arcadia, Neon Phoenix

“No don’t pullover! It’s overrated!” Chief McGraw shouted out the window at no vehicle in particular. They were all in the way. The Fire Engine’s hover drive had three altitude settings, street level, high and higher. All of which were blocked by stationary traffic. 
“I don’t think they can pullover.” José said as he swiped through his Omniphone. Traffic seems pretty backed up. But I can’t tell how far ahead this thing goes, no signal.”
Adam pulled out his phone to see if he had better luck. He didn’t.
“Yeah, I got nothing too.”
“Well I guess we are going to have to do this the old fashioned way, get out of the truck and take a look. And by we I mean you.”
The two firefighters in the backseat looked at each other, Adam was the last to do so as his ADD had him temporarily preoccupied with the shiny white skyroads that beckoned to him from outside the window.
“Huh, what?” He snapped back, giving the chief his full attention.
“Yes, you two.” Chief McGraw explained. “I’ve got to stay with the truck in case traffic starts moving again and José needs to man the radio.”
José flashed a beauty pageant smile.
“Dispash lies my assent.” He explained, purposely exaggerating his accent for comic effect. “She thinks is sexy.”
“Good enough for me.” Leroy shrugged and hopped out the nearest side door.
The chief waited until Leroy was gone before he leaned over the seat.
“Oh, and Adam.” He lowered his voice.
“Keep an eye on Leroy. The mayor wants him on a short leash. You know — after what happened last time.”
Without warning Leroy popped his head back into the cab.
“Yep, it’s true.” Leroy agreed and the chief flinched his eyes shut — how did he hear that?
While the chief’s eyes were closed Leroy took the opportunity to quickly reach into the dufflebag and retrieve an oversized, chrome magnum-revolver which he subtly stuffed into his fire-resistant jacket. Adam pretended not to notice.
“Just make sure he stays out of trouble.”
“I’ll try.”
You’ll do fine.” The chief assured Adam. Although Adam was pretty sure the chief was mostly trying to reassure himself. Adam nodded and stepped out, feeling the crunchy asphalt under his vector-boot’s thick, rubber soles.
He nodded at Leroy and the two firefighters pushed forward, weaving through rows of stationary vehicles. Once they were out of sight of Rescue  Truck 512 Adam’s eyes were once again drawn upward towards the contrail-like, white ribbons of sky-road that crisscrossed the sky. They really were beautiful and surreal. Adam was only twenty two years old but that was still old enough to remember a time before they had been built — before they had made rush hour traffic a thing of the past. Well, mostly.
The option to use them as an alternative to the congested ground-level streets and highways was always open to him but the thought of driving hundreds of feet in the air with only a translucent sheet of energy between him and a terrifying , splattery death scared the crap out of him.  The current predicament — hundreds of motorists trapped in the sky, did nothing to alleviate his fears.
“Hey Leroy?” Adam asked the other firefighter as he squinted at the tiny cars floating high above on white ribbons.
“A sky-road has never failed and dropped someone to their death, right?” Adam asked.
“I’ve never heard of it happening.” Leroy shrugged.
“Well that’s good. I guess if it had happened the news would never have let us forget about it. Right?”
“Wouldn’t know. Don’t watch the news.” Leroy replied.
“Oh. Yeah — me neither.” Adam realized. “Not anymore.”
“Don’t worry about it. I hear Omni over-engineered those things with back-ups on top of back-ups on top of more back-ups. The kind of firepower it would take to bring one down would kill anyone still up there way before they fell to their deaths.” Leroy said cheerfully.
“That’s comforting.” Actually it was. If Adam had to chose between death by a quick massive explosion or by falling from terrifying heights he would chose the explosion every time. At least it would be epic and he probably wouldn’t see it coming. Although if he had a say in how he died, he’d prefer it be by getting suffocated by an overzealous Tevera — during sex. Dammit, now was not the time those perverted thoughts. People were depending on him. He refocused on the task at hand.
“Hey Leroy?” He asked.
“How many people you think are up there?”
“Hard to tell from this angle. I think this is the only sky-ramp that’s blocked.”
“That means everybody who could, probably got off at the next ramp.” Adam stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“Makes sense.” Leroy agreed.
“So it’s just the cars that tried to exit the ramp before it was blocked.”
“Yeah probably.”
“So if we screw up…” Adam usually started by thinking of the worst case scenario when attempting to see the glass half-full. It was a kind of ‘tell me the bad news first’ approach to life. If you start withe worst possible outcome then there was nowhere to go but up. At least that’s how he saw it. It could also be the reason he hadn’t worked up the courage to ask out Tevera yet. 
“Hey man don’t talk like that!” Leroy stopped him.
“Okay.” Adam forced an awkward smile.
“We’re not going to screw this up!”
“No — yeah I know.” Adam deflected.
“Dude, just focus on what’s in front of you.”
“Hmm.” Adam raised a thoughtful eyebrow as he looked up and to his right. “Don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” He replied.
“Huh? Who said that?” Asked Leroy.
“The Jesus — Like from the myth?”
“I think it’s more than a myth. You know the minkan and Cathurian religions are very similar to large parts of it.”
“Oh right — you’re one of those…” Leroy stopped himself.
“One of what — Christian?”
“Yeah that. Nothing personal man — they’re nice people. You just shouldn’t take it too seriously. That’s all.”
“How come?”
“Too many rules.”
“Love God by treating others the way you would like to be treated?”
“Yeah, that’s too many. I’m not sure I believe in God and besides, if I treated girls the way I’d like to be treated I’d get arrested.”
“Yeesh.” Adam laughed. “I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.”
“Whatever, aren’t Christians not supposed to have sex unless they’re married or something?”
“Uhhh.” Dammit! Adam’s V-card had been a source of embarrassment all through high school. Thankfully it hadn’t come up much since then. Once you got to a certain age people just assumed you weren’t a virgin anymore. Being a kinetic firefighter didn’t hurt either. Truth is he could have lost it a couple times if he wasn’t holding out for Tevera. But he didn’t expect Leroy to understand that. He frantically searched for a way to change the subject — and he soon found it. “Hey Leroy, you notice anything weird about these cars?”
“Well, now that you mention it.” Leroy looked to his left and then to his right. All the vehicles he passed were missing their drivers. “Where’d all the drivers go?”
The two firefighters took off running with a sense of urgency. Highway 01 traveled up and around a bend that blocked their view but it wasn’t long before they could see people up ahead. Leroy approached a tall woman wearing an expensively tailored pantsuit who was busy checking something on her Omniphone.
“Hey there.”
The annoyed woman looked up from her phone.
“What happened here?” Leroy asked.
“What do you mean — ‘what happened here’? The sky-ramp is out. Don’t they tell you people anything?” She retorted.
“Yeah I noticed. But why is everybody out of their vehicles?”
“They wanted to get a better view.” She returned her gaze to her phone.
“Of what?” The smile in Leroy’s voice hinted that he was starting to enjoy wasting the rude woman’s time.
“The kinetic.”
Leroy glanced over his shoulder at Adam.
“Word travels fast I guess.” Adam shrugged.
“Yeah, but they’re looking in the wrong spot.” Leroy pointed a thumb in Adam’s direction.
“Shh, don’t tell anyone. I work better if nobody’s watching.” Adam half-whispered.
The woman looked up from her phone.
“What are you two talking about?”
“Nothing, just Adam here is the kinetic they sent. You’re welcome.” Leroy explained.
“What? — No he’s not.” She retorted.
“I’m not?” Adam raised an eyebrow and scratched the back of his neck.
“Now now, I know he may not look like much —”
“Thanks Leroy.” Adam sighed.
“Don’t worry. I’m getting to the good stuff. As I was saying, Adam may not look like much. He’s short and his hips are kind of wide for a guy.”
“And his right eyebrow looks like it’s trying to escape his face whenever he gets confused — which is most of the time. But don’t let that fool you. This guy’s the kinetic honey badger of the department. I once saw him lift a semi-truck all be himself. And this other time the building was about to come down — we had to get out of there fast — so he juggernauted through a cinder-block wall, just like the Kool-aid man.”
“Oh yeah!” Adam added in a voice that was probably closer to Macho Man Randy Savage than the Kool-Aid Man.
“Well I wouldn’t know about any of that. I just know Omni sent one of their kinetics to fix the ramp.” She said.
“Oh — Well that’s awfully nice of them. Where is this guy?” Leroy asked.
Pantsuit’s left eye twitched.
“That’s kind of sexist don’t you think? The kinetic could be woman.” She corrected him.
“Well yeah — sure. But I’ve never seen one in real life.”
“That’s not true.” Adam interjected. “You met Samantha at the EMS dinner party last year.”
“The hot red-head? — She was a kinetic?”
Pantsuit sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, a hydro.” Adam answered.
“Huh, I thought they had several heads or something.” Leroy mused.
“No that’s a hydra. Sam manipulates water the way I do fire.” Adam explained.
“Wonderful. See? There are female kinetics. You learned something new today.” Pantsuit said condescendingly.
“I guess so.” Leroy ignored her tone. “So where is this guy?”
Pantsuit grimaced and almost dropped her phone.
“No, see — that’s sexist. You’re assuming the kinetic is a man.”
“I think I can clear this up.” Adam stepped in between them. Now close enough to read the woman’s metal name plate, he could see her name was Overton. He considered addressing her by name. He was trying to get better with using other people’s names. It’s just how you showed you cared, but Overton seemed like the kind of person who would bite his head off if he used the wrong pronoun so he decided against it in this case.  “Leroy’s not assuming anything about the kinetic’s gender. He uses the word ‘guys’ in the Tolkien sense.” Adam explained.
“The Tolkien sense?” Overton asked.
“Yeah, In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien used the word ‘men’ to refer to humans in general. Leroy does the same thing with the word ‘guys’.” Adam elaborated.
“Yeah well Tolkien was a misogynist.” She spat.
Adam laughed. Overton did not laugh with him. 
“Ahaha — Oh, you’re serious. Well — this is awkward.” Adam looked away and scratched the back of his neck.
Her expression did not change.
“Look, that’s not true.” He insisted.
Overton remained stone-faced. 
“Oh come on. Have you even read Lord of the Rings?” He asked, thinking the story of Eowyn killing the Witch King of Angmar would change her mind. Oh — spoiler alert.’
“I don’t read fiction.” Overton said with disdain.
“You’re missing out. What’s the last thing you read anyway?”
“Well if you must know, right now I’m reading through the works of Karl Marx.
“I thought Marx wrote fiction.” Adam said with genuine sincerity.
“That’s inconclusive.” Overton said quickly.
“Well I hope it’s fiction. If anyone ever tried to put those ideas to work in a real-life nation it would be a freakin’ disaster. Most people would lose the motivation to work, creators would lose the motivation to create, the only people who could become rich would be those in the government who would then have to lock up anyone who disagreed with them to stop the masses from rebelling once they saw they were getting screwed. And since everything would have to be micromanaged by those rich guys at the top, if they ever screwed up millions would starve to death.” Adam laughed. Overton apparently did not share Adam’s assessment of Marx’s policies.
“Look, nothing personal but I don’t want to talk to you anymore.” She said flatly.
“Oh — okay, that’s fine. I was just trying to explain Leroy, so — I’ll just let him do it. Have fun with life and stuff.” Adam walked passed Overton, somewhat relieved he didn’t have to talk to her anymore. At the same time he couldn’t help but think that this was a perfect micro-example of the political fracturing that had divided the USF in the years leading up to the Civil War.
Adam was only 22 but even that was old enough to remember a time when people were more willing to hear each other out. He racked his brain, trying to think of what had the Solar System so polarized. No doubt social media had played a part. In the past when the mainstream media needed ratings and decided to give the soapbox to a crazy person with a controversial position that crazy person would at least have had to have gotten published. Now the barrier to entry for publishing was pretty damn low, a fact proven by the existence of this book. 
The upending of the economy probably played a part too. OmniSynaptech’s rapid technological advancements have had a seriously disruptive affect on many industries that most people viewed as stable pillars of the economy. 
The times were uncertain, that was for sure, but Adam wondered why it affected some people worse than others. Maybe it was his Christian faith that let him watch with relative detachment the world shaking events that seemed to drive others insane. It did help knowing that no matter how crazy things got there was an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful God beyond it all. And at a time of his choosing, whether in this life or the next, he would make it right. Adam thought about what he would put his hope in if he didn’t believe in God. He didn’t like his options. He’d seen enough of government in action to ever put hope his hope it. With its tendencies towards corruption, inefficiency and a systemic drive to grab power it was never intended to have; government was a limited but necessary evil at best and a dehumanizing prison at worst. He’d also seen enough of humans in action to know that despite popular opinion, humans are not born basically good. Any honest person who has spent time around toddlers will tell you that. Being good is something some humans learn to do by internalizing a moral code stemming from something bigger than themselves. The rest just do the bare minimum to pass for good so they can get by in society. But rest assured they will drop the facade if they think it’s in their interest and they can get away with it. No, Adam did not like his chances putting hope in humanity. Sure there were good people in the world but as far as Adam was concerned, they were the outliers. He still found it best to treat everyone he met as though they were good, until they gave him reason to believe otherwise but he was very reluctant to trust anyone he didn’t know. The thing Adam felt most inclined to put his hope should he ever lose his faith was technology. Technology had managed to cure diseases, to feed the hungry, to make it possible for one person to do the work of hundreds, to let humanity colonize the stars and decode messages from other universes. And if the hype is to be believed, Omni Synaptech may be on the path curing death itself. It was definitely an exciting time to be alive, but at the end of the day, unlike God technology is not good. It is not evil either. It is a tool, an impersonal force subject to the will of humanity, which we already established was not basically good. Technology can do great wonderful things and it can do great terrible things if it falls into the wrong hands.
Maybe that was why so many people these days seemed to come unhinged we they encountered somebody who didn’t agree with them. If you don’t believe in a God then the ultimate power in the universe is the collective will of humanity. And the idea that that will may run contrary to your own values is a terrifying thought. Adam had spent most of his life trying to align his values with those of his God. When he came up short he accepted that it happened because he was human and flawed, not because God was wrong. When it came to sins like lust, things got a little tricky. Adam accepted that when he lusted he was in the wrong but he reasoned that it was because of his situation. The desire to experience pleasure and give another pleasure in the process was not wrong in and of itself. It was actually good in the context of marriage. The problem was Adam’s current situation did not provide that context. And now he was thinking about Tevera again.
He shook his head and refocused on the task of finding the kinetic who’s gender was yet to be determined. Meanwhile Overton continued trying to educate Leroy on the errors of his thinking. Adam shielded his eyes from the sun and scanned for anyone else wearing eye-symbols on their sleeves. 
Behind him he could hear Overton becoming more and more frustrated as she tried to enlighten the charmingly dense Leroy. Adam didn’t see anyone wearing kinetic garb but on the other side of the highway’s traffic divider he did notice a densely packed ring of people clustered around the base of the broken sky-ramp. Though slightly shorter than most other human men Adam was not terribly sensitive about it. Having the power of a fifteen foot tall cosmic titan at your disposal tended to negate the traditional relationship one had with one’s own height.  Although every now and then Adam’s lack of it was a liability, this was one those times. He stood on his tip toes, trying to see over the crowd. No luck. Well chances were good it was either the kinetic or something kinetic related.
Meanwhile Leroy and Overton continued their dialog.
“Ok, I think I get what you’re saying here.” Said Leroy.
“Finally!” Overton shouted at the sky in exasperation. 
“You’re saying the kinetic is a woman.” Leroy smiled.
“No.” Her shoulders slumped. “No he’s not.”
“Wait, so he actually is a guy? Like for real? Then why’d you correct me?” Leroy asked.
Overton did not answer but appeared to be trying to claw her own face off.
Adam chuckled. “Hey Leroy!”
“Wanna play Giant Firefighter?”
“Like the Scrubs bit?” Leroy asked.
“I think it goes back farther than that but yeah.” Adam answered.
“Well okay but you have to be the legs.”
“Crap! Okay fine. Wait — I was the legs last time.” Adam objected.
“Well you’re so sturdy.”
Adam grumbled something in gibberish.
“Okay fine, I’ll be the legs.” Leroy agreed.
Adam smiled. 
“See ya guy.” Leroy waved and walked passed Overton, instantly memory-dumping their entire conversation. She didn’t say anything back but it looked as though she might have been trying to kill him with her mind.
“Excuse me! Giant firefighter coming through.” Adam announced in a sing-songy monotone voice as though he was playing a South Park character. Reluctantly the crowd parted, letting them through. Although they gave them some odd looks.
Adam sat on Leroy’s shoulders while Leroy did the walking. They had removed Leroy’s turnout coat and tucked it into Adam’s to make it look like it was a much longer coat under which there was not a second firefighter hiding his face and arms. The bit was only partially successful. Under ideal conditions you would have one actually over-sized coat with enough room for the person riding on top to hide their feet. The two combined coats were not roomy enough and Adam’s boots poked out of the back every time Leroy took a step but the illusion was adequate when viewed from the front.
“Alright people, back up. Give us some room to work. Nothing to see here — just a giant firefighter.” Adam chided the spectators in his sing-songy voice. 
Leroy decided he wanted to talk too and mimicked Adam.
“It’s nothing you haven’t seen like ten times before.” 
The sky-ramp was pretty much what it sounded like. The physical highway terminated in a 40 foot long, high-angled, metal ramp. It was framed by two 20 foot tall metal brackets bedecked with green traffic signs. Each bracket was sandwiched over a similarly [ shaped energy emitter that glowed like a light blue power crystal from the brackets center. The air between the two brackets shimmered lighter than the air around it. The sky-road itself, a ghostly moving sheet of semi-translucent hard light started at the edge of the the metal ramp and gently sloped upward, joining the next bracket which floated in the air 270 feet away. A stiff desert breeze shone like ripples on a lake against its surface as it resonated with an electric hum and filled the air with a sound like distant wind-chimes.
Adam saw a young man about his age wearing a white, lightly-armored OmniSynaptech jumpsuit. He stood with his back to the Giant Firefighter and looked up at the sky-road, apparently contemplating a problem. Three five-foot long pointed shapes had embedded themselves halfway through the sky-road 30 feet above the ground. The graphite colored, carbon fiber GU drones were shaped like 8-sided dice, or if you’d prefer, 2 pyramids joined base to base. The space between the three drone penetrators was a triangular hole in the sky-road into which the cab of a large semi-truck had wedged itself. The cab sat skewed at an awkward angle, with its windshield below the sky-road staring down at the ground and its trailer resting on the road above. The driver was still inside and he looked pretty terrified, eyes wide as he braced his feet against the dashboard trying to push himself as far back into his seat as possible. Even if the driver had not been too scared to move, exiting the cab would have been a problem. The cab was skewed at such an angle as to have the passenger side door held shut by the hard-light walls of the sky-roads hole. Meanwhile the driver side door was unobstructed but only opened to a 30-foot drop to the ground below.
“Yeesh — that doesn’t look good.” Commented Adam, dropping the Giant Firefighter voice.
The kinetic turned slightly so Adam could see his face. Adam did a double-take to make sure he wasn’t mistaking someone else for his old friend from Psi School.
“Adam?” Hiro smiled.  Damn, his teeth were white.  How did he get his teeth so white? Adam considered asking but then decided against it, that would be weird. Adam was weird — probably a side effect of being home-schooled until high school — but at least he was aware of his weirdness and did his best to keep it in check. The Giant Firefighter bit — well that was different. He had made a decision for fun and now he was going to commit to it.
“Hey I haven’t seen you since Psi School! How have you been?” Hiro asked, apparently oblivious to the Giant Firefighter bit.
“Oh I’m good, you know,  firefighting and stuff.” Adam pointed to his fire resistant turnouts. Leroy peeked out through a opening in the coat’s zipper which he quickly pulled shut when Hiro squinted at him. 
“You look taller than I remember. You have a growth spurt or something?” Hiro asked doing a remarkable job of keeping a straight face.
“I guess so. How are things with you?” Adam asked.
“I’m working for Omni.”    Hiro pointed to the glowing, upside down power symbol logo on his suit’s shoulder.
“Nice, what’s that like?” Adam asked.
“Oh you know.”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s busy, really busy — but the pay’s good. The pay’s really good — and then there are the benefits.”
“Benefits? Like health insurance, dental and stuff?” Adam asked.
“For starters. Sure we get health insurance but with the Omni Nanomeds I haven’t had to see a doctor in since I started working there.” Hiro explained.
“Oh, is that why your teeth are so white? No wait — crap!” Adam’s weird managed to sneak passed his filter.
“That’s weird.” Commented an anonymous Rando from the crowd. 
“That’s weird?” Said a woman standing next to Rando. “He’s two firefighters in a long coat!”
“Yeah, it’s not weird. It’s a classic bit.”
Adam agreed with Rando but he did think it weird that he was sharing a bucket of popcorn with the people around him as they collectively gawked at the situation. Where did he get popcorn on the highway? Do gas stations sell popcorn now? Is that a thing?
“OMG Adam, you can’t just ask someone why their teeth are white.” Leroy said after he revealed himself by letting the coat hang open.
“My God! There’s two of you!” Hiro pretended to be surprised. “Was that a Mean Girls reference?” He asked.
“Maybe.” Leroy feigned guilt.
An awkward second floated by before Adam remembered that in situations like this, where two people he knew met for the first time, the considerate thing to do was introduce them.
“Oh sorry — Hiro, this is Leroy — Arcadia Fire Department. And Leroy this is Hiro — OmniSynaptech Interplanetary. We went to Psi School together.”
“Hi.” Hiro offered his open hand and Leroy shook it — a little too enthusiastically.
“Hi, you’re pretty.” Said Leroy.
“You’re not gonna say ‘that’s weird’?” Asked the woman sharing Rando’s popcorn.
“No.” Rando shoveled another handfull of popcorn into his mouth and proceeded to mumble as he chewed. “It’s gay but it’s not weird.”
“Aww, thanks.” Hiro maintained a professional smile / pokerface while he shook Leroy’s hand.
Okay, the creepy hand shaking was going on way too long for Adam’s comfort, and probably Hiro’s. He should throw his friend a lifeline.
“So nanomeds — are those safe?” Adam interrupted and Hiro took the opportunity to extricate his hand.
“Sure — probably — I think so. I mean, I haven’t gotten sick in three years. So that’s a good sign.” Hiro answered. “We also get paid time off and the facilities are pretty sweet. Great food, state of the art gyms, modified reality arcades — that are also sort of gyms.” Hiro lowered his voice and leaned in so the crowd couldn’t hear. “Free minkan massages.”
Adam’s pupils dilated for a split second before he blinked and shook himself back to the present.
“That — (cough) — sounds nice.” Adam pretended to be less interested than he was.
“What’s a minkan?” Leroy asked.
“What? You know what a minkan is.” Adam said in disbelief.
“I do?”
“Yeah Tevera, my sister’s friend, she’s one.”
“The freaky-tall blue chick with the huge…” Leroy mimes two hand-fulls in front of his chest as Adam cut him off.
“Yes! That’s her.” 
“Oh, she’s super-hot. Your sister’s pretty hot too.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that so I won’t have to react.” Adam stated matte-of-factly. Leroy continued as if he didn’t hear.
 “Kind of a Ginger or Mary Ann thing with those two. I guess it’s just comes down to what you’re into.”
“Still pretending I didn’t hear that.” Adam insisted. “Not reacting.”
“So the sexy, tall, blue people give massages?  I want one.”
“Some of them are purple but yes, they’re the best.” Hiro interjected. “Shiranaksu, I think is what they call it. You ever try it?” He asked Adam.
“Uh, can’t say I have. Tevy gave me a back rub once, when she was drunk. Oh wait, no — I gave her a back rub. And I think we were both drunk. So yeah — no.” Adam stared off into the distance.
“Well you don’t know what you’re missing. With all those extra hands it’s like being massaged by two girls at the same time. And that nerve-linking tail thing they do, it’s like they can read your mind and know just how to touch you.”
Adam gulped.
“When she’s finished it feels like you’ve been taken apart and put back together better than before.”
“Hey Adam?” Leroy looked annoyed.
“Yeah.” Adam said nervously.
“Maybe you should get off my shoulders before things get weird.”
“Heh heh.” Rando laughed through a mouthful of popcorn.
“That’s probably a good idea.” Adam agreed and jumped down.
Hiro laughed silently. “You should stop by the Initiative and try it sometime.”
“Yeah, maybe, some day.” Adam trailed off as he unclipped Leroy’s coat from his own and gave it back to it’s owner.
 “Oh, I almost forgot the best part.” Hiro added.
“But wait, there’s more?” Leroy troped with manufactured enthusiasm.
“Yup. Did you know that each megalith has a pool on the roof?” Hiro added.
“I did not know that.” Said Adam.
“Well, it’s not technically always the roof.”
“I’m not sure I follow you.” Adam cocked his head to the side.
“In space there’s no up or down.”
“Tell that to the enemy’s gate.” Adam interjected.
“What? Oh Ender’s Game, right.” Hiro placed the reference. “That’s a deep cut.”
“Sorry, I have a problem.” Adam apologized.
“No need. Anyway, megalith’s were built to resemble the company logo.” Hiro pointed to the upside down power-symbol on his shoulder. “It’s a thing. So if you’re looking at it that way it would actually be the basement, but the pool is at the end of the lowercase (i) tower.”
“They put a pool in space?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, they have this force field that keeps the air in and the meteors and cosmic rays out. The stars are so bright up there too. Let me tell you from personal experience, the ladies love it.”
“Sounds nice. We’re supposed to get a new station soon — if the town approves the bond measure. They never do but we’ve got a good feeling about it this time.”
“Hey, I don’t mean to be rude.” Said the truck driver cowering thirty feet in the air. “But can you guys catch up after you GET ME DOWN FROM HERE!” The driver shouted as he braced his feet against the dash.
“Right — sorry.” Adam apologized. “So what’s the story here?” He asked Hiro.
“It’s a weird one. I was on my way to work when I got this message warning me that Union drones were attacking the city.”
A ways off, Leroy spit at the word ‘Union’.
“—Anyway that didn’t really change my plans any — I figured Omni could put my skills to good use up there. I was just about to take the sky-ramp up to the OIF Initiative when three drones dove out of the sky. Just before they reached the ramp they discharged a pulse of blue light. The sections of sky-road inside the pulse went dim for a second. In that time these three drones buried themselves halfway through the hard-light structure before it could re-solidify. That’s what’s causing the hole. Thankfully the first vehicle to fall into the hole was this truck, which was too big to fall all the way through. So — so far, nobody’s been hurt. I’d like to keep it that way.” Hiro explained and Adam nodded in agreement.
Leroy radioed back to the truck explaining the situation.
“So what’s the plan?” Adam asked him.
Leroy lowered the radio. “Chief’s saying we should unplug the hole and get the driver down. Should be really easy with two kinetics. He’s having José bring us a ladder.”
“ I don’t think we’ll need the ladder.” Hiro commented as he eyed the sky-road and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“You don’t?” It suddenly dawned on Adam what his kinetic colleague had in mind. “No wait — you’re not thinking…”
“Low-G launchpad maneuver.” Hiro finished his sentence for him.
“I hate that move.” Adam voiced his disapproval.
“What? It’s fun.”
“Yeah, in a thirty by thirty padded room with a seventy foot ceiling and trampoline floors.”
“And it was fun right?”
“Yeah — it was. It was a lot of fun. But I haven’t done that move since Psi School.”
“How come?”
“Because if the person being launched lands outside the low gravity zone they’re still going to fall at full force.”
“Noted. You can still do it though — right?” Hiro did not seem to share Adam’s concerns.
“Show me.”
“Okay Morpheus.” Adam grumbled a Matrix reference.
 He looked around for something heavy. It didn’t take long for his eyes to settle on half of a bookshelf that had been dumped on the highway by someone who had not read the social contract. Adam walked over to it and gave it a light kick to test its weight. The half-shelf wobbled but just barely. It would do. Adam stepped his feet apart and rooted himself into a wide stance. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath in through his nose as he raised his arms. The shadows around him softened and the space inside his sphere of influence glowed brighter than the environment around it as though lit by an invisible flood light. He breathed out through his mouth and opened his eyes. The whites of his eyes glowed with electric intensity and his irises shone a neon green. He glanced down at the half-shelf and gave it a swift kick. The shelf flew, as if kicked by a superhero, and slammed into a concrete soundwall, exploding in a cloud of particle-board splinters.
“Nice! Just like riding a bike.” Hiro congratulated him.
A few spectators gave a smattering of subdued golf-claps, which was enough to make Adam blush and scratch the back of his neck.
“I guess so.” Adam shrugged.
“Great, can you set me up a launchpad just about, oh —” Hiro squinted at the hard-light path. “— five feet in front of the sky-road?” 
“I can, but if you miss your landing it’ll probably break your legs.” Adam objected.
“Don’t worry. It won’t. If I miss the road I’ll just lower my own gravity so I can feather fall down.” Hiro assured him.
“Wait, you can do that?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, you can too. You just have to relax the metaphorical eye-of-the-storm in your gravity field so the change in gravity affects you too.” Hiro explained.
“Sounds hard.”
“It is. Takes a lot of concentration. That’s why I need you to set up the launchpad.”
“Well alright then.”
Adam eye-balled the sky-road and took a position adjacent to but not too close to the hole. Again Adam rooted himself, closed his eyes, breathed in through his nose and then out through his mouth as he raised his arms. Again the space around him glowed in a half sphere dome of brightened low contrast lighting. He opened his eyes which now shone electric white and neon green. He held his arms up perpendicular to his shoulders with the palms of his hands facing the ground.
“Whenever you’re ready.” He signaled to Hiro.
“Alright, let’s do this. LEEROOOY JENKINS!”
“Huh?” Leroy looked up, thinking for a brief second that someone was calling his name and not actually referencing an old Warcraft meme.
Hiro got a running start, sprinting towards Adam from behind.  Just as he was about to pass his kinetic friend he leapt with both feet into the low gravity launchpad. He hit the ground and kicked off like a missile.
“Oh shiiii…”
Maybe he should have tested it first, just to gauge how much force to put into his jump. Hiro soared roughly ten feet over the sky-road and was about to overshoot it.
“No! No! No!” Hiro shouted.
He pointed an angry fist at the sky-road below him as he scrambled to manifest a high gravity field. To the crowd watching he appeared to darken in contrast. Had they been closer they would have noticed that the whites of his eyes had turned obsidian black and his normally dark-brown irises now glowed a neon reddish orange.  He focused all his attention on relaxing the eye-of-the storm that protected his body from his gravity field’s influence. He needed to fall and fast or he would overshoot the sky-road and plummet to the ground forty feet below.
Down below Adam watched Hiro’s arc travel halfway over the road before he realized his friend was in trouble.
“Uh oh. — That doesn’t look — Oh shiii…”  Adam took off, sprinting towards the spot where he thought Hiro would land. If he got there in time maybe he could lower the gravity to soften the landing. He didn’t need to get close enough to catch him, that would’ve been impossible. He just needed to get within 30 feet for the field to have some effect. But the closer the better. 
He looked up, trying to judge the distance. Was he within thirty feet? He wasn’t sure. If he deployed his low gravity field too soon it would be for nothing. If he made it there but didn’t leave himself enough time to lower the gravity it would be for nothing. Just a little further. He glanced at the ground to make sure his path was clear.
Adam looked up again one last time to judge the distance before he skidded to a stop. 
“Oh.” Turns out Hiro hit his mark after all. It really looked like he was going to overshoot but then again Adam always was bad at judging distance. Adam breathed a sigh of relief as Hiro dusted himself and did a victory dance. 
“That was way too close.” Hiro walked over to the cab of the semi that from this perspective looked like it had been driven into a glowing white lake. Hiro had driven on sky-roads pretty much everyday since he started working for Omni butthis was the first time he had ever walked on one. It was an interesting sensation — something like walking on a tightly stretched hammock. He felt each footstep sink slightly into the hard-light. This would be terrifying were it not for the fact that the more weight you put on it the more solid the hard-light became. This was also accompanied by a slight static-electric tingle.
Hiro kneeled down to look through the top right corner of the passenger side window that had not fully descended down the hole. Hiro rapped the window with his knuckles. The driver looked up at him.
“Relax man, we’re gonna get you out of there.” Hiro reassured him.
He stood back up and flexed his fingers. He then brought his fists together in a Pacific Rim-style Jaeger handshake. The air reverberated with a low bass shock wave as two giant, invisible, floating hands manifested about ten feet in front of him. Hiro reached out with his vectors and grabbed the cab, feeling the weight against his physical hands reflected by feedback in his vector gloves. He groped around trying to find the chassis’ points before he decided to exert any real force. This appeared to be the trailer / axle thing underneath. Hiro didn’t know truck parts. He just knew he didn’t want to crush the cab like a soda can — especially with the driver still inside. This would complicate things. Grabbing exclusively from the bottom was not the most ergonomic option. If he could place against the top of the cab he’d have better leverage to keep it from tilting as he lifted, but he wasn’t sure how much stress the the roof could take — to say nothing of the windshield.
“Here goes nothing.” Hiro lifted, his physical hands acting as controllers for his titan-sized vectors. The semi truck groaned and shifted as Hiro pulled it back. Inside the driver appeared to be losing his mind. This was more than Hiro feared. The cab tilted as he  pulled and it caught on the hard-light sides of the hole. As if that wasn’t bad enough the trailer also seemed to be resisting any progress he made.
Down below Adam turned to see José cutting through the crowd, carrying a ladder that was meant to be carried by two people.
“Hey can you give me a hand with this?” He asked.
“Oh crap, yeah sure thing.” Adam jogged over but Leroy was closer and beat him to it. Leroy stopped José and threaded an arm through one of the ladder’s rungs. The two firefighters then proceeded to carry the ladder as it was designed to be carried. Adam caught up.
“Need a hand?” He asked.
“No, I think we got it.” Leroy replied.
Adam raised his right hand and the world turned a lighter brighter as he reduced the gravity till the ladder weighed almost nothing.
“That works too.” José smiled.
“Wait —” Leroy looked at Adam in disbelief. “You can make everything lighter? Why don’t you do that all the time?”
“Because I don’t want to get used to it and get all fat and lazy.” Adam answered.
“From now on that’s your new job — making us fat and lazy.” Leroy joked as he and José carried the ladder up to the sky-road with Adam holding up his right hand a couple steps ahead of them.
“Well thanks for the ladder but I don’t think we’re going to need it.” Adam pointed up to Hiro.
“You have got to be kidding me!” José looked crestfallen. “How did he get up there?”
“He jumped.” Answered Leroy.
José dropped his end of the ladder.
“Sorry.” Adam apologized.
Meanwhile up top Hiro released the semi truck. He had reached the conclusion that if he kept this up he was only going to break something. He needed a change of tactics. The truck groaned as its weight settled back down. Hiro took a step back, shook his fingers loose and shouted down to Adam.
“Looks like we’re going to need that ladder after all.”
“Oh, nevermind.” Adam shrugged at the other two firefighters.
José smiled like an emoji.
It didn’t take long to get the ladder set up. Soon Adam was standing a few steps below the topmost rung. He was so close he could’ve reached out and touched the truck if he really felt like it, which he didn’t. Adam had never been a fan of heights nor did he like the idea of standing under a semi truck that was poised to fall on him. So standing on a ladder thirty feet in the air underneath a dangling semi truck was not an ideal situation for him. Still he was a firefighter and this needed to be done so he stood there stoically and tried not to think about all the ways this could go horribly wrong.
“You ready down there bro?” Hiro asked.
“I was born ready!” Adam stared straight ahead, doing his best to maintain a stone cold poker-face. He mostly succeeded except for a slight trembling in his right eye.
“Aw yeah! It’s kinetic time!” Hiro performed some sort of martial arts hand motion and dropped into a power ranger-esque battle stance. “Utah Raptor!” Hiro shouted and tapped a button on his wrist. In response his jumpsuit changed color from white to green, completing the illusion of a power ranger style transformation. Hiro held the pose for a little longer than was comfortable before he glanced down at Adam.
“Hey don’t leave me hanging.”
“Huh? Oh right.” Adam did a version of Hiro’s power ranger dance while trying not to fall off the ladder. “Dimetrodon!” He shouted and pressed a button on his turnouts. The electro luminescent stripes that were designed to make him more visible to oncoming traffic changed color from red to orange.
Hiro performed a new set of martial gestures as he monologued.
“With our powers combined!..”
He was interrupted by the truck driver.
“What are you two doing? This is serious.”
“So is this.” Hiro replied.
“You’re supposed to be professionals. What are you doing referencing old kid’s shows?”
“You’re an old kid’s show!” Hiro shot back.
“What does that even mean?” The driver raised a confused eyebrow.
“It means it’s time to be heroes!” Hiro announced as he did the Captain Morgan on top of the truck’s hood while pointing a purposeful finger at the sky.
Adam rubbed his chin thinking he must have misheard the last part. 
“Well technically only one of us is named Hir… oh — the other kind of hero. Okay I see what you did there.” Adam caught up.
“The time for words has passed! Now is the time for action!” Hiro declared.
“Hell yeah!” Adam threw a fist in the air.
Hiro was now in full Kamina from Gurren Laggan mode. When he got like this it was almost impossible to stop him, not that you’d want to.
“Do it now — for glory!” Hiro ordered.
“Wait what? Do what?” The driver retreated further into the back of his seat.
Adam shut his eyes and started a low growl as he held his opened right hand in front of him while his left held on to the ladder with a white-knuckle death grip. The shadows cast on him by the semi truck above softened. He opened his glowing eyes and his low throaty growl became a shout.
Up above Hiro watched amused as his own hair began to float in the low gravity as though it were underwater.
“His power-level’s over 9,000.” Hiro tossed out a Dragon Ball Z reference.
“What does that even mean?” The terrified driver asked.
“It means —” Hiro moon-jumped off the hood to a spot on the opposite side of the hole in front of the truck. “— he’s Kakarot!!!” Hiro screamed the name in the manner of Kakarot’s arch rival Vegeta before he gripped the underside of the semi with his vectors and pushed / lifted it out of the hole. 
“Wow, that is way easier.” Hiro observed.  “Adam!” He shouted down.
“I’m gonna hold the truck up. I need you to get rid of those drones. When the drones are gone the hole should close up on its own.”
“I can’t make vectors and lower the gravity at the same time.” Adam cautioned.
“That’s okay. Now that the truck’s out of the hole I can hold it here pretty easy.” Hiro reassured him.
“You sure?”
“Just hurry!”
Adam released the low gravity field and manifested his vectors. 
Hiro instantly noticed the difference in weight but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. Now that he had a better angle he didn’t have to worry about crushing the cab or letting the truck tip over. All he had to do was hold it up.
Below him Adam was having a harder time prying the drones loose. Buried halfway through the sky-road the halves facing Adam looked like black carbon fiber, upside down pyramids. Their smooth angled surfaces were not the easiest things for his over-sized gravity fingers to grip. The tighter he gripped the drone the more his vectors slid up their slanted surfaces towards the tip allowing the pyramid to slip out of his grasp.
“Come on!”
Adam leaned up into it and twisted. There was a loud snap followed by a metallic twang as the bottom half of the drone was sheared off. It slipped out of Adam’s giant, invisible hand and tumbled to the ground below.
Adam watched it fall in the slow motion provided by an adrenaline rush grateful no one had been standing under the ladder. At the same time a ripple of sparks shot through the hard light where the bottom half had been and the top half of the drone was ejected up into the sky like a rocket.
“Whoa!” Hiro almost flinched.
“Sorry.” Adam apologized.
Having lost one of its three anchor points the triangle-shaped hole shrunk down to a single line, the width of a drone, that stretched between the two remaining robots.
“Don’t be sorry. Get the other two so I can drop this thing.” Hiro goaded.
Realizing there was no elegant way to remove the drones in one piece Adam opted to smash them out. He hit the remaining two with overhead hammer strikes, bludgeoning off their lower halves and launching their top halves into the air. Hiro watched expectantly as the hole below the truck closed like rising water over a stepping stone. He walked backwards, slowly lowering the truck’s front tires onto the road. Electric waves rippled out through the road from beneath the wheels. The semi groaned as its weight settled onto its suspension. The driver breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed into his seat.
Hiro took a step back to admire his handiwork. He made a show of dusting off his hands while he smiled smugly. His self-satisfaction was interrupted when one of the drones’ top halves came crashing back down. It exploded against the hard-light road close enough to pepper his left boot with ineffectual composite shrapnel. Hiro looked up and instinctively raised his vectors into a sky-facing shield even before his eyes acquired the other two drone halves that were falling towards him. The first one missed him entirely. The second smashed into his vector shield, temporarily silhouetting a giant fist in a cloud of smoke, shrapnel and orange plasma.
“Lookout!” Adam warned a split second too late but Hiro hadn’t needed the warning and it was the thought that counted.
Hiro stepped forward over the hole that was no more and patted the side of the cab as he walked up to the driver-side window.
“Is the truck still good to go?” he asked the driver.
The driver looked down and put the truck in gear. The wheels pulsed with a ring soft blue light around their rims. This was accompanied by an electro-magnetic hum. The gravity-drive wheels tilted so the bottom portion of the wheel that touched the road angled inward underneath the vehicle while the topmost portion angled out from the side of the truck. The semi rose in sync with the of its wheels until it hovered two feet above the sky-road.
“Looks like everything checks out.” The driver said reluctantly.
“And would you say you were satisfied with your rescue?” Hiro asked.
“Wait what?”
Hiro responded by handing the driver a silver dollar-sized, power symbol-shaped chrome and pearl-white coin. The driver eyed the Omni-coin wallet suspiciously while Hiro typed something into his wrist gauntlet.
“Just take that to any Omni Synaptech vehicle maintenance facility and they’ll get your truck checked out for you free of charge.”
“Oh, thanks.”
“While you’re there feel free to fill out the quick survey to let us know how we did.”
“Do I get a free donut?” The driver joked.
“I think all our vehicle maintenance facilities have free donuts.” Hiro answered.
“Oh, sweet.”
Hiro made a show of looking around to see if anyone else was listening before  leaning into the window.
“If you fill out the survey could you leave out the whole Power Ranger, DBZ thing?”
“Uh, yeah — sure. You know, I should probably get this truck moving before the people behind me lynch us both.” The driver suggested.
“Good thinking. You have yourself an Omni-day.” Hiro suggested in a comically positive tone.
“A what?”
Hiro patted the side of the cab again and stepped back, giving the confused truck driver room to drive off.  Hiro turned to walk back down through the breakdown lane. At the end of the ramp he saw the firefighters doing their best to disperse the crowd now that traffic had started moving again. The spectators reluctantly returned to their vehicles. Some were visibly upset that with the internet still down, they were unable to upload the cool videos they just took. 
Adam was coming down the ladder. Hiro waved to him and was almost run over by a black pickup truck.
“Well that was some nice...woah hey!” Shouted an annoyed Hiro. He used his vector boots to give the truck’s bumper a subtle warning-kick, much to the surprise of its driver.
“Did you see that guy?” Hiro asked Adam as he hopped down the ladder’s last rung.
“I seen him.” Adam replied.
“Seriously, some people’s children. Now where was I? Oh yeah, that was some nice teamwork.” Hiro complimented.
“Have you ever thought about going into the private sector?”
“Huh?” Adam cocked his head to the side.
“Working for OmniSynaptech. They’re always looking to hire more kinetics.”
“Oh uh, I thought about it, but I kind of like what I’m doing now. You know, helping people and stuff.” Adam shuffled nervously.
A car honked angrily as it passed, a little too close for comfort. The two kinetics’ heads turned in sync as they watched the jerk drive away.
 “Uh huh — You can still help people by working at Omni. In fact I would argue that working at Omni, opening up paths to new star systems, helps more people than firefighting.” Hiro made a compelling case.
“Hmm.”     Adam considered this.
“At least there you can make loads of money while you’re doing it.”
“I’ll think about it. But I just finished going through firefighter 1 and 2 training. I wouldn’t feel right jumping ship on them as soon after I became useful.”
Rescue Truck Five Six pulled up, angling itself into a fend off position behind the disabled semi. Chief McGraw stepped out and started setting down orange cones.
“Tell you what.” Hiro said as he started tapping on his wrist gauntlet.
“I’m going to message you a temporary VIP pass. This will get you inside so you can have a look around the megalith’s facilities and I’ll set it up so you can bring a guest. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“I’m working on it.”
“Minkans are hard to read and kind of intimidating.” Adam explained.
“Kinky and ambitious. Say no more, I’ve been working with this purple one for a special project. They do have a certain scary hotness to them. Not really my type — massages aside, but I see the appeal. Invite her to the rooftop pool. Trust me on this. She’ll love it.”
Meanwhile in Adam’s head. Adam and Tevera reclined on the Baja shelf of a mood-lit swimming pool under a nebulous sky pregnant with stars.
“Ohmahgosh! It’s so romantic up here!” Exclaimed fantasy sequence Tevera as she gazed up at the ring of the spiral galaxy. “Gasp! I just got a crazy idea.”
“Tell me your crazy idea Tevy.” Said fantasy sequence Adam while swirling a martini. Adam’s not even sure why he’s drinking a martini. He hates green olives but it seemed like the thing to do in this scenario.
“We should totally get married.” Tevera said giddily, her large eyes glowed ruby in the low light.
“That’s not crazy.” Adam encouraged her, speaking more slowly and confidently then he would in real life, given the situation. “That’s not crazy at all. We’ve known each other since we were kids, you’re really fun to be around and you’re the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen in real life.”
 Adam took a detached sip of his drink and made a face.
“Does the drink taste funny to you?” He asked her.
“Well now that you mention it.” 
Tevera raised her glass and squinted. She saw a distorted shape that didn’t look like it belonged. She made tweezers with her fingers and craned out an ice cube — with a wedding ring inside it. Tevera gasped.
“It’s nice to know we both have the same ‘crazy’ ideas.” Adam smiled.
“Oh I’m so happy!” Tevera clawed at the ice-cube like a cat, trying to extricate the ring from its cold, slippery packaging, to no avail. Seeing this as a fruitless endeavor, Tevera changed tactics and popped the cube into her mouth to melt the ice off the ring. “Kiss me you little honey badger!” She mumbled through a mouthful of ice.
Fantasy sequence Tevera bent over him, leaning in for the kiss.
“I’m so happy too, mmmfff!” Tevera’s lips and tongue silenced Adam with a sloppy, ice-infused kiss. She embraced him while continuing to lean forward, pushing his head underwater. His feet thrashed as he started to drown.”
Adam snapped back to reality with a shudder.
“Safe words don’t work underwater.” He said cryptically.
“What?”    Hiro squinted.
“Uh nothing.” Adam shot a sideways glance at the empty bag of popcorn that marked the spot where Rando would provide running commentary on what was weird. Thank God he had must have returned to his vehicle. “I’ll do that — thanks.”
“Mother of crap! You kinetic freaks are multiplying!” Having finished setting up the cones, The chief walked up, a cheshire cat grin on his face. “Who’s your new friend?” He asked.
 “Hey Chief, this is Hiro. He works for OmniSynaptech. We went to Psi School together.”
“OmniSynaptech huh?”    Asked the chief.
“Yeah that’s right. I was on my way to work when all these drone shenanigans went down. It’s almost as though they were trying to shutdown the sky-road.”
“No almost about it.” Said the chief. “I’ve just received word this offramp wasn’t the only place they hit. They also punched holes in all the star-port exits.”
“The Union doesn’t want anyone leaving the planet.” Hiro said somberly.
“Certainly looks that way.” Agreed the chief.
“ Although I guess The Union wasn’t counting on having two kinetics in the area.” Hiro said gleefully.
“I guess not. We’re going to be heading up to the Copper Starport to see if we can’t clear its exit. Don’t suppose you’re headed that way? We could use the help.” The chief suggested.
This was news to Adam who tried not to let his fear of heights show.
“Truth is I was already heading that way. My bosses want me on board the Initiative ASAP. If I have to smash some Union hardware out of an exit to get there then that’s an added bonus.” Hiro shook the chief’s hand.
 “Speaking of of your bosses — does Omni have a plan for dealing with all these Union death bots?”
Hiro straightened his back, attempting his best impression of an OmniSynaptech PR rep.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that Corporate is currently mobilizing an entire fleet of megalith overkill to wipe our skies clean of enemy drones and send the Union fleet yelping all the way back to a very disappointed President Baytor.”
“Heh heh, That’ll be something to see.” The chief savored the thought.
“I’ll bring the beer if you bring the lawn chairs.” Leroy chimed in. 
Hiro continued.
“These drones shouldn’t be a problem for much longer. They managed to sneak them passed our orbital defenses but they’re at least twenty years obsolete. The only reason they were able to inflict any real damage was because our defenses were looking outward. These drone’s launched from the planet’s surface.”
“They built them here?” The chief asked in disbelief.
“Or shipped them here in cargo containers. They must’ve been planning this for a while. Makes you wonder what else they have up their sleeve.”

Meanwhile on the rooftop of a backup power station overlooking Highway 02.

The roof of the coolant silo rushed up to meet Tech Sergeant Kale Hill. He felt his feet make contact with the spongy, sandpaper surface. He started running to gradually slow his momentum without breaking his legs. For a second he was afraid the inertia is going to send him tumbling over the edge but he quickly slowed enough to jog to a stop. At least command had the presence of mind to choose a decent drop-zone. The large, round and flat roof of the coolant silo made a perfect target and its springy surface didn’t put too much shock on the knees during landing.
He was grateful the mission hadn’t called for landing on the planet’s hard, rocky, cactus infested surface. Twisting your ankle on a large rock or getting a leg full of cactus stickers would not have been a promising start to the mission.
Fifty feet away the rest of the team was milling around the edge of the roof overlooking the highway. Jenkins was already lying prone on the ground, looking through his rail rifle’s scope at the traffic below.
Two more JT’s had dropped to one knee with their silenced jump rifles aimed at their respective areas of responsibility guarding the team’s flanks. Kale released his Jump Jet’s control handles and they snapped back to their mounting points like two idle tape measures. He drew his own JR-300 from the EDSC on his belt, looking like some kind of spec-ops magician as he pulled the rifle out of a container that appeared too short to hold it lengthwise. 
“It must have been the wind in my eyes because it looked an awful lot like the marine beat you to the dropzone.” Martinez teased Kilroy as he tapped his goggles. 
Kilroy defended his title as First In.
“First off he cheated, getting a head start like that. Second, he didn’t get here first.”    
“Yeah he did.” Martinez disagreed.
“Ahem.”    Kilroy fakes a cough and gestures towards the maintenance shed Sergeant Shoeman was leaning against. Max looked over his shoulder and squinted at a graffiti tag depicting a cartoon with a long nose peeking over a wall. Underneath the cartoon’s nose was a scribble of text announcing: “KILROY WAS HERE.”
“What the vreck?” The marine muttered.
“How does he do that?”    Freeman asked.
“I got skills.” Kilroy suggested.
“One of life’s great mysteries I guess.” Commented Jenkins as he looked through his sniper scope at Hiro and the firefighters on the highway below. “Hey Sarge.”
“Yes.” Both sergeants replied in unison before giving each other an awkward glance.
“I think I found our Hiro.” Jenkins continued.
“Okay we’ll have to work fast before he gets out of range. I’m not sure if these expensive darts will be effective shooting through car windows.
Disable his vehicle with a conventional round and tag him when he steps out to see what happened.” Kale instructed.
“He’s already out of his vehicle Sarge.” Jenkins replied.
“Really — on the highway?” Kale asked.
“Is his hot sister with him?” Kilroy interjected.
“Nope.” Jenkins replied, not looking up from the scope.
“Well this is convenient.” Kale observed. “Okay tag him.”
“Will do Sarge.”
“Oh, and Jenkins.”
“Try not to damage his face.”
“Way ahead of you Sarge.”

Meanwhile down below on Highway 02.

“You know, it’s funny. Other than those three in the sky-road, I haven’t seen the drones attack anything.” Adam remarked. 
“Well they hit military and communications infrastructure pretty hard about half an hour ago.” Replied Hiro.
“Yeah, I was asleep.” Adam admitted.
“Wow, really?” Hiro gave him a slightly judgmental glance.
“It was a late night.” Adam shrugged.
“Huh, well according to Omni intel —” Hiro pointed his wrist gauntlet. “the drones seem to have gone into some sort of standby / surveillance mode now that they’ve run out of targets. Which means they will be operating on United Systems rules of engagement.” 
Leroy’s eyes bulged out of their sockets as he noticed a drone peaking over the highway’s sound barrier wall at Hiro. The rest didn’t notice this and obliviously continued their conversation.
“So what does that mean — United Systems rules of engagement?” The chief asked.
 “It means they won't attack unless we shoot first.” Hiro explained.
“So when we do start shooting back we should make sure we all do it at the same time.” Adam observed.
“That’s the plan.” Hiro replied.
“Watch out! That one’s looking at you!” Leroy shouted as he pulled an oversized, scope-mounted magnum revolver out of his turnout coat. The group turned to see what had him so excited, took note of the drone and then their eyes widened as they realized what was about to happen. In what felt like slow motion they turned back to Leroy who had already drawn a bead on the drone.
“No wait!” Hiro warned.
There was a deafening boom and the drone vomited a tongue of flame before falling out of the sky. The downed robot squealed in a high pitched tone sounded to Adam like a baby goat getting kicked off a cliff. He felt sorry for the killer robot, that is until what happened next.
When the drone fell it revealed that floating directly behind it was another one. The second drone’s red eye tracked its brother’s plummet to the ground before it looked back up at his murderers. The drone synthesized a machine language curse that sounded like an electronic war horn. It vented four bursts of flame in an X pattern as it powered up its weapons. 
Behind it five more drones that had also been hovering single file revealed themselves. They floated out and then forward, organizing themselves into a wall formation. Once in position they also began to power up their weapons.
“Dammit Leroy!” The chief shouted.
“Sorry Chief.”
The drone directly to the lower right of the leader swooped towards Leroy, screaming like an angry megaphone being poked with a magnet. Leroy brought up the revolver but not quite fast enough. 
Hiro snapped up his hand in a claw gesture aimed at the charging octahedronal drone. It was only ten feet away when suddenly it stopped. It bounced back slightly as though it had run into an invisible net. The furious machine vibrated like an angry bee as it tried to shake free of Hiro’s invisible vectors.
“Hyahhhh!” Hiro yelled and closed his hand into a fist. The drone crumpled like an empty soda can and the red light coming from its central eye flickered out. Hiro swung his arm back and the dead drone traveled backward in a downward arc before pinballing  forward into the wall formation taking out two other drones.
“Chief I grabbed their aggro! Get your men out of here!” Shouted Hiro.
“Like hell! We’re not leaving you here to fight these things alone!” Said the chief.
“There are other people who need your help and I have a natural force shield! I’ll be fine.” Hiro insisted.
“Not all the way around you don’t! All they have to do is attack from your blind side. You need somebody to watch your back.”
“Okay you make a valid point. Mind if I borrow your kinetic?”
Chief McGraw considered this. He looked over at Adam who had locked eyes with the three remaining drones.
“Are you okay with this?”     The Chief asked him.
Adam remembered how his honeymoon-dream with the voluptuous Tevera had been cut short by the drone invasion and he bristled like an angry dog. The air around him crackled with a static charge and the shadows he casts appear to darken in contrast. The gravel at his feet vibrated to the pulse of his heart.
“I am become death. The destroyer of worlds.” Adam growled.
The chief took a step back away from Adam.
“Huh, I’ve — never seen him like this before. I’ll take that as a yes. He’s all yours Hiro.”
“I’ll take good care of him Chief.” Hiro replied.
“Just try to bring him back in one piece.” The chief said as he stepped back in the truck.
“And don’t feed him after midnight.” Leroy added a Gremlins quote before he shut the truck door.
The truck turned on its emergency lights and flipped a U-turn. The drones did not give chase. It appeared Hiro’s theory about grabbing the aggro was correct. ‘They must be programmed to go after whatever is the biggest threat.’ He thought.
The floating octahedron to the left of the lead drone trumpets a synthesized, machine-language curse before starting to spin on its central axis like a drill bit.
The spiraling drone advanced slowly towards Hiro. After covering half the distance it suddenly increased its speed. At thirty feet away it darted to the left, trying to get around Hiro’s vectors.
Adam swept his right hand across his body and the drone was swatted into the highway’s sound barrier where it exploded in an orange fireball.
“Adam has joined the party.” Commented Hiro.
“Yeah, guess I’m in it now.” Adam agreed.
The two kinetics brought up their fists, assuming low boxing stances as they squared off against the hovering machines.
The lead drone shouted something unintelligible in its megaphone voice. The drones fell into formation 50 feet parallel to each other. There was a mechanical click and a hiss of steam as the drones’ octahedron shells split down the middle to expose the power cores to the cool, oxygen rich air. This had the effect of making each drone look like two horizontal pyramids joined at their bases by a metal cage holding a small, orange sun. The drones’ two pyramid-shaped forward and aft sections started to rotate counter to each other, spooling up like a jet turbine. As the jet whine rose in volume and pitch the exposed power cores shifted from an orange glow, to yellow and finally to white hot. An incandescent glow glared from each of the plasma launchers inset into each of the four facets surrounding the drone’s central camera. This forward section’s high speed spin blurred the glow of the four canons into a halo of white light around the drones’ red eye.
“Get ready! They’re going to fire!” Hiro shouted over the noise.
“What? I can’t hear y…” Was as far as Adam got before the drones fired their canons.

Chapter 04: Not a Hiro


Meanwhile on the roof of the water silo overlooking Highway 02.

Senior Spaceman Jenkins watched through his rail-rifle’s scope.
“Alright hold still you beautiful bastard. Woah! — What the? — Sarge!”
“I see it too. What’s going on down there?” Asked Sergeant Hill.
“Oo — that’s a lot of plasma fire.” Martinez commented.
“The drones went all aggro!” Jenkins shouted.
“Isn’t that part of the plan? They’re supposed to keep him distracted when we get in position.” Hill asked.
Jenkins momentarily popped out from behind his scope.
“They just shot a firefighter!” 
“That is not part of the plan.” Said Hill.
“I did not sign up for this sh…” Martinez added.
Jenkins returned to his scope.
“Oh wait he’s okay. He just got knocked off balance. Huh, that’s interesting.”
“What is?” Asked Hill.
“I think the firefighter might be a kinetic.”
“What? Two kinetics?” Hill raised his JR’s scope to try to get a better view.
“Yeah, looks like he’s blocking the plasma bolts with invisible hulk hands.”
“Well this is a freaky, random coincidence but I’m sure it won't affect the mission.” Hill foreshadowed with unwarranted confidence as he lowered the jump rifle’s scope.  “Tag that beautiful bastard Jenkins.”
“Well I wouldn’t call him beautiful Sarge. He’s still a decent looking guy, slightly above average, maybe somewhere between a high six, to a low eight. You know, depending on present company.”
The other spacemen look at each other just to make sure they weren’t the only ones who were confused.
“Jenkins, what the?” Hill asked.
 “Oh, you were talking about Hiro. — That makes way more sense.— Will do.”
“Jenkins, are you sure you don’t want to forfeit your dibs on Hiro’s sister to Kilroy?” Hill asked.
“Yeah — I’m sure.”
“Nobody’s going to judge you.”
“That’s not true!” Shouted Staff Sergeant Freeman from the far side of the roof.
“Nobody besides Freeman is going to judge you.” Hill corrected himself.
“Heheh, yeah I will. I’m set in my ways.” Freeman laughed.
 “I’m just secure in my sexuality and I think out loud when I’m sniping.” Jenkins explained without looking up from the scope.
“Yeah, you should probably do something about that.” Hill suggested.
“Uh Sarge, those drones are firing stun blasts right?”  Jenkins asked.
“That is what they’re supposed to be doing. Why do you ask?”
Jenkins watched as a plasma blast ricocheted off one of Adam’s invisible, force fields into a discarded mini fridge which exploded in a ball of neon orange flame. The blast sent the fridge’s door spinning end over end, trailing a streamer of smoke over 50 feet in the air.
“Just a feeling. I don’t want my shot to throw him off if it turns out the drones are shooting to kill.”
“Ugh — let me check with command.” Hill pressed the talk button on his wrist communicator. “Command this is…”
The communicator squawked to life. 
“这是谁? 你的工作号码是多少?” It did not sound happy.
Hill released the talk button. In the past USF military communicators had real-time translation built into them. However, the industry standard translator was an OmniSynaptech product and could no longer be trusted. The Galactic Union bureaucracy was still in the process of trying to find a suitable replacement.
“And the operator doesn’t speak common, why am I not surprised? — Classic GU.” Sergeant Hill muttered then turned to his team. “Does anyone speak Jade Imperial?” He asked.
Kilroy stepped forward. “Now my Imperial’s a little rusty but I’ll see what I can do.” Hill depressed the talk button and held the communicator up to Kilroy’s head. 
“¿Donde esta tu cuarto?” Kilroy said with a straight face.
Hill nodded at Martinez who took off his hat and used it to smack the back of Kilroy’s head.
“That one’s on me.” Sergeant Hill apologized. “I should have seen that coming.” He turned to Jenkins.
“Sorry Jenkins, but I don’t think we’ll be getting any answers from command for the time being. Just try to shoot when the drone’s aren’t.”
“Well okay, here goes, uh oh.” Jenkins squinted into the scope.
“What is it now?” Asked Sergeant Hill, growing a little impatient.
“I can’t get a clean shot. The kinetics pulled back and took cover behind a traffic divider.”
“Well isn’t this just…”

Meanwhile behind the traffic divider.

“...Freakin’ magical! Hiro voiced his frustration.
“They’re too high up! I mean sure we can block their fire all day long but we can’t hit them either.”    Adam added.
“We need a plan.” Hiro stated.
“Or some guns. Leroy had a whole duffel bag full of them in the truck. I wish he had left us a couple.”
As Adam was talking he noticed a holster clipped to Hiro’s lower back which held some kind of futuristic, folding pistol. The gun’s pearlescent white pistol grip and beveled, rectangular barrel folded around a bushed steel ring that made up the trigger guard.
“Is that a plasma pistol?” Adam asked.
“Oh this?” Hiro drew the pistol from it’s holster. The barrel rotated around the circular trigger guard, opening like a pocket knife. It snapped into place with a click and the rear facing display screen illuminated with a green glow that signaled the pistol was primed to fire. “OmniSynaptech standard issue. What, you guys don’t get these at the fire department?”
Adam furrowed his brow.
“Hey wait a sec. — You wanna shoot it?” Hiro suggested.
“Okay I get it! OmniSynaptech has loads of money. OmniSynaptech is Sexy. OmniSynaptech gets minkan massages. OmniSynaptech gives its employees badass plasma pistols. OmniSynaptech is awesome! Everything is great when you’re part of a team!” Adam ranted.
“That’s all true but, — did you just make a Lego Movie reference?”
“Heheh, yeah.” Adam admitted.
“Oh okay, but I’m being serious here. There’s this move I wanna try. I’m pretty sure I can do it by myself but just to be on the safe side I want to have both hands free. So I need you to operate the plasma pistol.”
“Oh, well now I feel like a jerk.” Said Adam.
“That’s okay.” Hiro patted him on the back.
“Wait, is it okay that I was a jerk? Or is it okay that I feel like a jerk?” Adam asked.
“Um — yes.” Hiro gave an ambiguous answer.
“Okay, yeah I’ll shoot it.” Adam agreed.
“Great!  Here, let me set this up so you can fire it. I just need to set up a guest profile so the gun will read you as me.”
The pistol’s screen flashed angry red.
“Ugh! Yes I’m sure. — And scroll through fifty pages of lawyer talk. — Yes I accept the risks and done.”
Hiro removed the pearly white gauntlet that housed the pistol’s power source and firing computer from his wrist.
“Are you right or left handed?”    Hiro asked.
“Good. Left handed people are evil.” Hiro stated as a matter of fact.
“They are?” Adam raised an eyebrow.
“Everybody knows that. Hold out your hand.” 
Adam complied and Hiro clipped the gauntlet to his wrist.
“Do they now? I don’t think they do.” Adam questioned.
“Yeah, my sister’s left handed and she’s been evil since the day she was born.”
“Aurora? That’s a shame, she is crazy hot.”
“Hey, dude.” Hiro gave him a dirty look.
“Oh crap — I said that out loud huh?”
“Afraid so.”
“Sorry, didn’t sleep well last night.”
“No problem.” Hiro locked the gauntlet’s clasp into place.
Adam tried to explain himself but only succeeded in making things worse.
“It’s just that all the guys were talking about her. She kind of made an impression that one time she stopped by the school.”
“No, It’s cool. We all talked about your sister when you’re weren't around too.” Teased Hiro.
“Wait, what?”
Hiro connected the dots on a security pattern that lit up beneath the gauntlet’s ceramic skin. It flashed green and chirped pleasantly. There was a locking click and Adam felt the gauntlet’s inflatable cuff tighten around his wrist.
“Sweet! Now as far as the OmniNet is concerned you are officially me.” Hiro informed him.
“I don’t know Man. I still feel five foot six.” Adam joked.
“Haha, well at least you’re not sensitive about it. Alright now pull the trigger half—” 
Hiro’s instructions were interrupted when Adam pulled the trigger all the way back, firing the pistol.
There was a flash of green light a split second before the two kinetics were pelted with pebbles that used to be part of the street. The scent of ozone and hot tar lingered in the air. They both stared at the dinner plate sized crater of melted asphalt left by the plasma blast. A single flame flickered, candle-like, at the crater’s center as the pavement cooled from orange to black.     
“Woah! — Dude!” Hiro exclaimed.
Adam and Hiro stared at each other for a second before they both started to smile.
“Uh sorry. This thing is freakin’ awesome!” Adam half-apologized.
“I know right? Now listen to me. I just need you to pull the trigger halfway. ”
Adam eyed the pistol, being very careful to keep it pointed in a safe direction.
“Half a trigger pull — okay that explains a lot. Got it — oh.”
A bright green star formed an inch from the barrel’s tip. Hiro cupped his vectors around it as if catching a firefly. He moved his hands and the star moved with them, leaving a flowing trail of  green energy back to the gun barrel.
“Well look at that.” Said Hiro.
“You’re a wizard Hiro.” Adam made a Harry Potter reference.
The star continued to grow in size and luminosity the longer Hiro held it.
“Haha! It works just like I hoped it would. Now for a firing test.”
A drone floated around the corner of the truck. It’s red eye burned with simulated bloodlust.
“Huh, why didn’t they do that sooner?” Hiro commented on the drones’ lack of initiative in failing to outmaneuver them while they got their act together.
“Uh.” Adam had no answer.
“Hadoken!” Hiro thrust his hands forward and the star shot out like a green missile. The drone exploded in a burst of emerald light and orange embers. Bits of composite shell arced away from the explosion, trailing streamers of black smoke. Hiro and Adam look at each other and an infectious grin crossed their faces.

Meanwhile on the rooftop of the backup power station overlooking Highway 02.

“What just happened?”    Sergeant Hill asked.
“I think they have a plasma cannon.” Jenkins answered.
“Yugh, I don’t like plasma cannons Jenkins.”
“Noted Sarge.”
“Correction, I don’t like being shot at with plasma cannons. They vaporize you if you’re not wearing some kind of magnetic armor. (Shudders) Damn things give me the creeps.”
“Noted Sarge. — Hey looks like they’re coming out.”
Jenkins watched as the two kinetics broke cover and charged the drone formation.
“Haha! Maybe Jenkins can join them.” Freeman chimed in from across the roof.
“Guess I walked into that one.” Jenkins sighed.
“That you did. Nice one Freeman.” Laughed Hill
“I do what I can.” Freeman smiled.
“So what kind of plasma cannon are we dealing with here?” Hill asked
“Well I guess my initial assessment was wrong. I wouldn’t really call it a cannon.” Jenkins corrected himself.
“What would you call it then?” Hill asked.
“It’s more of a pistol.”
“A pistol — a plasma pistol did that?” Hill pointed at the cloud of smoke that had once been a drone.
“Must have, I don’t see anything else.” Jenkins insisted.
“They probably have some new Omni-weapon we don’t know about yet.” Sergeant Hill theorized. “Stay frosty boys. These guys are definitely professionals.”

Meanwhile back on Highway 02

“Oh yeah! I’m da Jugganaut byatch!” Adam shouted as he jumped out of cover.
The two kinetics rushed towards the last remaining drone. Adam held his left hand out in front, fingers spread to cover as much area as possible with his vector shield. With his right hand he pointed the pistol back, the trigger half-pulled.  Hiro followed close behind, careful to keep the shield between him and the drone’s line of fire. He held the plasma star as close as possible to the pistol’s barrel to avoid breaking the stream of energy.  
The attacking drone spun like the barrel of a gattling gun, throwing a steady stream of plasma into Adam’s shield where it dispersed harmlessly like orange smoke.
“Hey Juggernaut! Here’s good, stop!” Shouted Hiro.
“I can’t stop! Do you know who I am?” Adam referenced an old Juggernaut meme.
“Hey!” Hiro was starting to get annoyed. 
“Uh sorry, got lost in the character.” Adam snapped back to serious.
“No worries.”
They stopped about fifty feet from the drone who continued to hurl plasma.
“Kamehame! Imma firin’ mah lazor!” Hiro dropped another Dragon Ball Z reference combined with an Internet meme as he launched the the plasma ball just like before. This time the drone had extra distance on its side and moved out of the plasma bomb’s way.
“Crap!” Hiro shouted in frustration.

Meanwhile back on the roof of the  backup power station overlooking Highway 02.

“Huh, so that’s how they did it.” Jenkins observed through his scope.
“What did they do?” Sergeant Hill asked.
“They used their kinetic powers to siphon plasma from the pistol’s overcharge feature into a bomb they can throw.” Jenkins explained.
“Why wouldn’t they just use the pistol like normal?” Hill asked.
“I’m sure they have their reasons.”

Meanwhile back on Highway 02.

“That was way less cool than I thought it it would be.” Said Hiro.
High above, the drone bobbed up and down, making a mechanical buzzing that sounded eerily similar to laughter.
“The blast just doesn’t travel fast enough.” Commented Adam.
“I wonder if I can steer it mid-flight. — I’ll need another.” Said Hiro.
“On it.”
Adam overcharged the pistol again and Hiro formed the ball of plasma into a bomb. Hiro looked up at the drone, the green light from the plasma bomb giving his face a villainous countenance.
“Yeah laugh it up you floaty toaster son of a…”

Meanwhile on the roof of the back up power station overlooking Highway 02.

“Bitch!” Freeman said out of nowhere.
“Huh what?” Hill asked for an explanation.
“Oh sorry, I was just thinking about something sexist.” Freeman explained matter of factly.
“I know you were Freeman. Don’t you go changing for nobody. — Alright, I think we’ve waited long enough. Tag that Hiro Jenkins.” Hill ordered.
“I don’t think now’s the best time to...” Jenkins objected.
“That’s an order Jenkins!” Hill insisted.
“Why are you yelling at me like we’re in the marines? — Uh, no offense other Sarge.”
Shoeman grunted apathetically.
“Well here goes — ooh rah and stuff.” Jenkins sighed as he squinted through his sniper scope.

Meanwhile back on Highway 02.

“Don’t you think you’ve made it big enough?” Adam cautioned, not sure how big you could make a plasma bomb before it popped like a balloon. They weren’t a lot of manuals written about combining kinetic powers with plasma weapons, at least none he had read. They were kind of in uncharted territory here.
“Hell no! He’s not dodging this one!” Hiro shouted back.

It was at that moment Adam noticed a bright green dot buzzing around on Hiro’s chest.
“Hey Hiro there’s something on you.” Adam pointed and Hiro looked down.
“I don’t see anything.” Said Hiro. 
“I think it’s supposed to be invisible — infrared or something, but my goggles picked it up.” Adam explained.
“What, is it a spider?” Hiro asked, trying to hide his smile.
“No it’s infrared.” Adam said, raising a confused eyebrow at his friend’s question.
“Is it a infrared spider?” Hiro added.
“No it’s a dot — Hey, I love Red versus Blue!” Adam figured out where Hiro was going with it.
“For a second there I didn’t think you were gonna get the reference.” Said Hiro.
“Are you kidding? That show got me through high school. Well them, Homestarrunner and Penny-Arcade.” Adam reminisced.
“The Big Three.” Hiro commented.
“Yeah they were the ones who inspired me to…”
THWACK! Jenkins’ smart dart buried itself in Hiro’s thigh.
“Ah! Spider bit m…”
BOOOOM! The plasma bomb exploded.

Meanwhile back on the roof of the backup power station overlooking Highway 02.

“Oh Gawd why! — Hiro’s hot sister I’m so sorry!” Jenkins lamented.
“You blew him up. I didn’t tell you to blow him up.” Hill accused.
“He must have lost control of the plasma bomb when I shot him. I did say now wasn’t the best time.” Jenkins theorized.
“Damn — you’re right. I guess this one’s on me.” Hill admitted.
Jenkins looked through the scope again.
“Wait he’s not dead!”
“Seriously?” Hill asked.
“Yeah he’s all smoking and covered in black stuff but he’s getting back up.” Jenkins described what was happening as the smoke cleared.
“That’s one tough son of a bitch.” Hill commented.

Meanwhile back on Highway 02.

“Ugh — ah my everything hurts. Oh God, why am I still alive?” Adam groaned as he stumbled to his feet.
His fire-resistant turnouts had been blackened by the blast. The electric luminescent orange strips had melted clean off the front of his suit. He tried to wipe something crusty off his left arm. The charcoal shell crumbled off revealing bright red blood. Adam panicked, clenching and unclenching his left hand to make sure it still worked. The blood isn’t his. — Oh no! 
 “Hiro? Hiro!”
He didn’t see his friend anywhere.
“You! You blew him up you eight-sided bastard!” Adam pointed an accusing finger at the drone who was just as confused he was. He gritted his teeth and half-pulled the pistol’s trigger, sparking another green star.
All kinetics have the ability to manipulate gravity. But each kinetic is also born with a secondary elemental power. Hiro’s was electromagnetism. By shaping the plasma pistol’s magnetic containment field he was able to make a larger container for the plasma to flow into.
Adam, on the other hand was a pyrokinetic. The ability to manipulate flames had served him pretty well on the fire department. Ironically Adam did not know that fire is actually a form of plasma. What he did know was that plasma was hot, made light and burned things, just like fire. So maybe the same rules applied. When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail, but in this case it was totally a nail, a fiery, burning nail.
He cupped his free left hand over the green star as if warming himself by its light. The star flared erratically, growing in size and shifting its’ color from green to teal as its temperature increased. When the plasma star had reached a diameter of roughly four feet across it coalesced into the shape of a hand.
“Wow, I did not know I could do this.”
Plasma was even easier to bend than fire. He had just never had the chance to try. Plasma weapons weren’t exactly common — or cheap, but then again neither were pyrokinetics. Okay, maybe Adam was cheap, but firefighting was a good cause. This looked like it was going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The drone saw what was about to happen and spun up to fire. Adam flattened his hand into a blocking gesture just as a salvo of orange blasts streaked towards him. He focused on the hand-shaped plasma vector, flaring its heat and increasing its density.
He felt the drone’s blasts impacting his hand-shaped plasma shield like a tingly burning in the meat of his palm. Instinctively he flexed. His stubbornness manifested as a gravity field that reinforced the back of the plasma construct. The drone’s blasts sink into his plasma shield before dissolving like creamer into a cup of coffee. The hand-shaped vector changed to a greenish yellow color as the drone’s orange blasts added their power to it.
Eventually the drone’s barrage of fire would punch through but the gravity shell that reinforced the back of the vector redirected the plasma back into the main body of the shield where Adam was able to assume control of it.
“Well this is interesting.”
He closed his hand into a fist. The vector mirrored his gesture, continuing to grow as it absorbed the incoming fire.
The heat felt warm against his skin. It didn’t hurt or burn, it gave a texture to his rage — red tunnel that blurred his vision of everything around the path to the robot that he believed killed his friend. 
“This one’s for Hiro!”
He launched the fist of fire and the world is lit in a monochromatic flash of green. The plasma bomb flew towards the drone, absorbing its fire before flaring up and prematurely detonating halfway to its target.
Adam and the drone stared at each other for an awkward second before the drone spun up to resume its barrage. An embarrassed Adam barely raised his gravity shield in time.
“You didn’t see that!”    He shouted at the drone and whoever might be watching on the other side of its camera.
“Okay, next one’s for Hiro.” Adam corrected himself.
What did he do wrong? Of course! He was controlling the plasma directly. There was no magnetic containment field holding it together. It was much too big for that. Once the bomb left his sphere of control it dispersed into the air. This was a problem. In the past Adam had been able to shut down whole house fires that extended far beyond his pyrokinetic range. As long as he had an unbroken chain of flames, or in this case plasma, he could extend his range to encompass it. He had an idea.
He took aim with the pistol and momentarily lowered his shield to fire a few green blasts. The first two shots missed. The third grazed the drone’s lower left panel, leaving a fiery gash. The drone wobbled as its balance was thrown off. Its shots fell in a wider cone around Adam instead of impacting on his shield. The drone flipped and spun to make itself a harder target to hit while it recalibrated for its new aerodynamics.
Now at this point it would have been perfectly reasonable to keep shooting the pistol as intended by its designers until you knocked the drone out of the sky but  Adam was not thinking reasonably. 
He had just watched his friend die trying to pull off this move and was not about to let his death be in vain. Also he was very stubborn. He took advantage of the gap in the drone’s suppressing fire and charged up another fist-shaped plasma bomb. This time he took care to anchor a tether of charged plasma particles from the back of the bomb to the barrel of the gun.
He launched the bomb. It left an unbroken, pencil-thin chain of plasma in its wake which Adam used to maintain control after it had left his sphere of influence. The drone saw it coming and strafed to avoid it.
“Heheh, Not this time.” Adam laughed.
With his free hand Adam pointed a finger-gun at the drone, tracing its movements. The plasma bomb followed his course corrections and arced into the robot, incinerating it in a flash of turquoise light.
The loud thunder clap of displaced hot air combined with the magnetic hum of the popped containment field and echoed off the highway's sound barriers. Something dark and smoking rocketed up out of the explosion. Sparks of green lightning arc through the cloud of smoke that used to be the Jade Kingdom drone. Adam hearted a distant whistling sound and instinctively raised a protective fist above his head just in time for the drone’s black box and camera assembly to crash land on his invisible shield and tumble to the ground at his feet.
“Nice try.”
He noticed the drone’s camera had landed in just such a way that it seemed to be staring at him. He nudged it away with the toe of his boot. He turned towards the evacuated highway. 
“Uh boy. How am I supposed to get back to the station.”
He reached for his radio. He thumbed the talk button and took a deep breath.
“Dispatch this is Five Two Seven.” The radio squawked as he released the talk button and waited for an answer.
“Dispatch copy Two Seven.” The female dispatcher replied.
“Dispatch I'm on Highway Two, close to the Fortieth Street exit. Um — I don't know how to say this. My ride got blown up. Can somebody come pick me up?”

Meanwhile back on the roof of the backup power station overlooking Highway 02.

“Well there goes the last drone. I can see why these guys are so dangerous. Good thing we have that.” Jenkins gestured to the tracking receiver / sedative killswitch that seemed to be telling Sergeant Hill something he didn’t understand or want to hear.
“So Sarge, is our work done here?” Jenkins asked.
“I — don’t — know.” Was Hill’s reply as he squinted at the tracking receiver.
“Que?” Martinez asked, looking over Hill’s shoulder.
“Well — we can see Hiro moving but the dot on the tracker that’s supposed to tell us where he is hasn’t moved since the explosion. —Could you have missed him?” Hill asked Jenkins.
“Not likely. I saw him flinch.” Jenkins answered.
“Hmm, maybe the blast damaged the tracking device somehow. I don’t know how plasma weapons interact with quantum tangly tracking stuff.” Hill rationalized. “Better tag him again just to be sure.”

Down below Adam talked with Dispatch.

“All units are occupied right now. Have you tried calling a DrivR?” The dispatcher asked.
“Not really, the phones are down.” Adam explained. 
“OmniSynaptech says they’re going to reroute all cell traffic through The Initiative. You should have reception soon, just sit tight.” Instructed the dispatcher.
“Copy Dispatch.”
Adam pocketed the radio. He then fumbled with the plasma pistol, pressing every button on its side until he found the lock release. He folded it up like a pocket knife and slid it into his pants pocket. He adjusted the pocket closure, trying to find two matching spots where the velcro hadn’t been melted off. As he did so he noticed a green dot dancing around on his chest. He swatted at it and the dot jumped onto his hand. He flicked his wrist and the dot jumped back to his chest. He lifted his goggles to discover he could no longer see the dot. When he put his goggles back on the dot returned. Yup, it was definitely infrared. Wait — uh oh. It scurried down his body to rest on his thigh. Then it exploded.
“Ah! Mother of!”
He stumbled from the pain. Looking up he saw a flickering green light, twinkling like a laser pointer coming from the roof of one of the sky-road’s cylindrical backup power stations that floated over the highway.
“What the vreck?” He muttered.

Back on the power station’s roof.

“Uh oh. I think he sees us.” Jenkins observed through his sniper scope.
“There’s no way he sees us and even if he did there’s no way he could hit us at this ra…” Hill’s dismissal was interrupted by the sound of a plasma pistol.
There was a flash of green light and the concrete lip they had been using as cover exploded, pelting the team with rubble.
“Nuts! Take cover!” Hill ordered.
“What was that? I’m sorry. I couldn’t hear you over the sound of him shooting at us!” Jenkins joked from behind cover.
“I didn’t know a plasma pistol had that kind of range.” Said Hill.
“Heat rises, so there’s no bullet drop. He probably has some really good smart sights on that thing too.” Jenkins theorized.
“Wonderful.” Hill said sarcastically.
“Do we return fire?” Jenkins asked.
“Yes but don’t hit him. Just make it look like you’re trying to. We don’t want him to figure out that our mission was just to tag him.” Said Hill.
“Well at this range I don’t think that’ll be a problem.” Said Jenkins. 
“Alright boys time to play space force.” Laughed Freeman as he leveled his rifle.

Adam was not surprised when the Union insurgents responded with a barrage of automatic fire and colorful language. What did surprise him was how long it had taken them to react. He had been able to get off two over-charged blasts before they retaliated. Why did they take so long to shoot back when they already had him in their sights? His sore thigh was proof of that. Thank God he could still walk. That first shot just have just grazed him. He better not give them another free one. He dropped to one knee to make himself small enough to hide behind one vector shield. With his other hand he overcharged the plasma pistol. Its holographic smart sights zoomed in, giving him a decent view of the shooters, not close enough to see their faces clearly but he could make out their uniforms. As he suspected they were Galactic Union troops, probably special forces. Adam did not like this. Fighting robots was one thing. That was fun. Adam loved a good fight. Physical combat made him feel focused and alive. What he did not like was inflicting pain and he definitely didn’t enjoy killing. Adam didn’t even like talking shit, probably a side effect of being homeschooled. That circuit just never developed. To make matters worse, those GU uniforms they were wearing were almost identical to those worn by USF troops before civil war had split the solar system. Not too long ago they had been the good guys. Had things gone a little different Adam might very well have been up there with them. Back before the war he had thought about joining the space force with his friend Kale. Adam sure hoped he was doing alright. In the end he had decided to become a firefighter because it let him help people without having to take life. Although, on the other hand they were trying to kill him and they had already killed Hiro. If he didn’t stop them they would probably kill many more people. He couldn’t let that happen. A switched flipped in Adam’s brain. He no longer saw the troopers shooting at him as people. They were the enemy of him and everything and everyone he loved. He needed to take them out. He would start with their commander. It was probably the big guy wearing desert camo, standing out in the open. Why wasn’t he taking cover like the others?

Back on the power station’s roof.

“Shoeman what are you doing? Take cover!”    Hill shouted at the marine.
“I make my own cover.” Was his gruff reply.
He stood in a relaxed but rooted stance, his knees slightly bent and his body angled to give the kinetic a narrower target.
Hill noticed that the big marine appeared to be missing his hammer.  In its place a leather wrapped handle of Cathurian steel hung from a ring on his belt. Shoeman drew the handle and tapped it against the gauntlet he wore on his left wrist.  There was a subtle flash of white light and a firecracker-like pop as the gauntlet swapped out for a massive Cathurian steel shield that it had essentially been a scaled-down replica of. At the same instant the mag-hammer’s head expanded outward from the unassuming cap at the tip of the handle. It took Hill a second to recognize what had just taken place. He had seen something similar demonstrated in a documentary. Through some barely understood quantum phenomenon the atoms of the other-worldly element commonly called Cathurian steel were pulled from another plane of existence and used to build up the hammer and shield from miniature, dimensionally compressed blueprints.
Though the hammer and shield were made of Cathurian steel it had not been Cathurians who forged them. Cathurians could shape the metal. Some master steelsmiths could even inscribe their creations with runic blessings. These blessings, though difficult to test in laboratory settings, produced effects their users swore by. That is as long as the user believed in said blessings. But this level of quantum architecture was beyond even the most skilled Cathurian steelsmith’s abilities. Cathurians didn’t forge Sergeant Shoeman’s hammer and shield. 
These were arhken relics. Just about every known culture has an arhken legend of some kind. According to Cathurian legend it was they who taught the Cathurians to shape and bless the metal they seeded the planet with when they split Pan Cathuul in two. 
The minkans credited Dedara, the Arhken Queen of Gates, with kindling the first minkan’s soul, setting their people on a path as nurturers and protectors of the innocent.
To some the arhkens were gods, to others angels. Some legends claimed the arhkens were primordial paragons of what humanity was originally intended to be before the fall. Some, like Sergeant Hill, thought it more likely the powerful and elusive beings were either time travelers or some highly advanced alien race. No one knew for sure.   Which parts of the legends were true was up for debate but the arhken legacy was undeniable, scattered across the universe. It was plainly visible to those who knew what to look for and the hammer and shield Shoeman wielded were definitely part of that legacy.
  The shield was a Cathurian-style eagle worked into the shape of an arrowhead, flat at the top and pointed at the bottom, with a notch in the middle between the wings and talons. It was probably a mistake to call the idealized, angular style Cathurian. In all likelihood it was imitation of Arhken relics like these that produced the iconic Cathurian style. Still it didn’t make sense to call it Arhken style either. Not all Arhken relics followed the same design aesthetic. There was great variety in the cosmetic elements of Arhken relics as though each one were custom designed by its original owner. 
The concave, steel eagle held three stones. A large, green hexagonal stone was embedded in it’s chest. In its talons it held two smaller circular stones; one red, one blue. Around each stone and connecting them to each other was engraved a circuit of indecipherable runes that gleamed with unnatural reflectivity.
From the front, the shield appeared completely opaque, as a metal shield would be. However if viewed from the back the shield had a rather generous window of one-way steel from which to see out.
Down below the kinetic fired another over-charged plasma bomb.
The runes bordering the shield’s window glowed with an intensity that shifted and waned as Sergeant Max Shoeman angled the shield to face the incoming ball of turquoise fire. In response to Max’s movements the runic glow shifted so its brightness was equal around the entire window before changing from white to blue. Satisfied the shield was precisely where it wanted to be, Max locked his knees and leaned into the shield. 
His shield caught the plasma bomb in its center. The air crackled with energy as the bomb’s containment field collapsed. Plasma licked the shield like green fire burning in reverse. The shield’s runes glowed bright green as they soaked up the energy. Matching runes on his mag-hammer illuminated as they received the energy siphoned by the shield. The hammer vibrated, humming with electro magnetic power. The shield drank up the last of the plasma and the runes cooled from green to silver.
“That was badass! I want one.” Shouted Martinez.
Down below a puzzled Adam watched through the smart sight as the big man in desert camo banged his hammer against the shield in a taunting gesture.
“What the? Okay so he’s got a shield. Well I’ve got something for his punk ass.”
Shield Guy was daring him to try again, which he did. Adam aimed his next plasma missile so it flew just high of Max’s shield range. He steered it with his index finger so it arced straight up into the air before slamming back down into the roof behind him. Max barely had enough time to spin his shield around as he reacted to the rune’s warning.
“Ah! Son of a!”
The rest of the team is showered with rubble from the exploded roof. A geyser of steam shot up through the hole where the plasma punched through into a water coolant line.
“What was that?” Shouted Martinez.
“That’s new.” Hill observed.
Another blast shot overhead, this one did a playful loop before crashing into the roof way too close for comfort.
“Mission and hot sisters be damned! I’m taking Hiro out.”
Jenkins ejected the last smart dart from his rail rifle and loaded an armor piercing 50 caliber slug.
“Stand down Jenkins!” Hill ordered.
“But Sarge!”
“Don’t worry. I got dis.” Hill flipped up the red trigger guard on the tracking receiver’s killswitch. “Nighty night you little psycho.”
He flipped the switch and the sedative capsule in Adam’s thigh started to dissolve. 

Down below.

 Adam overcharged the pistol, in preparation to make another missile.
“Woo! Some people call me the Space Honey Badger! Some people call me Maureee...yugh.” Adam felt the strength drain from his legs as his vision doubled. “It can’t be this late…The sun’s still out.”
He loosened his grip on the trigger as the powerful sedative ran through his veins. The green star at the barrel’s tip dispersed with a pop. He tried to take a step forward but stumbled, over-corrected and fell onto his back. Thankfully enough remained of  his melted and blackened  helmet to keep him from cracking his skull on the asphalt.

Back on the roof Team Jade October collectively breathed a sigh of relief and dusted themselves off.
“Fwew! That was way too close.” Commented Jenkins.
“Yeah it was. And now we just burned our trump card. Captain Z is not going to be happy about this.” Added Sergeant Hill.
“What? You don’t think that was the ‘time of our choosing’?” Joked Jenkins.
“I do not.” Hill replied.
“You want me to tag him again? You know — so we’ll have a dart we can activate when it is that time of said choosing?” Jenkins asked, holding up the last smart dart.
“Let me think...yeah sure.” Hill shrugged.
Jenkins ejected the 50 caliber round and loaded the smart dart. He took aim at the unconscious kinetic just as Kale changed his mind.
“No wait!”
The dart thwacked into Adam’s other thigh. Both Jenkins and Hill sighed with frustration at themselves and each other.
“You told me to…” Jenkins started.
“I know. It’s probably nothing. — Maybe OmniSynaptech won’t run a blood toxicology test, start looking for the cause, find our second capsule and figure out what we are up to.” Hill ran a worst case scenario.
“Oh yeah, that sounds like the kind of thing they would do. They didn’t get to be the biggest corporation in the known galaxy by not being thorough.” Jenkins mused.
“You’re really not helping.” Hill shot back.
Shoeman’s gruff voice added itself to the conversation.
“None of that matters. What’s done is done. Activating the dart was a bad call.”
At that Hill grimaced. Shoeman continued, oblivious to his reaction.
 “We should have laid down covering fire, dropped smoke and used our jump jets to put some distance between us and Mr. Nishimoto. But that’s not what we did. — That’s my fault.”
Shoeman took the blame on himself. Sergeant Hill did not see that coming.
“I should have called it sooner but I was having too much fun and got tunnel-vision.”
“Yeah about that, where’d you get Arhken Relics? I doubt those are marine-issue.” Hill asked.
 “It’s a long story.” Shoeman dismissed the question and continued. “Now we need to do the best we can with the reality we’ve been given. We used the dart prematurely.”
At that Kilroy snickered and held up his hand for Martinez to give him a grudging high five.
Shoeman sighed. “Ugh, guess I walked into that one. Anyway — tagging him was our mission so that’s what we did, twice. What command decides to do with it is their business.”
“Still, I’m pretty sure it will end being our business pretty soon.” Hill said. “Why else would else would they give us the tracking reciever?”
“That makes sense.” Jenkins agreed. “I just wish they would’ve told us the whole plan from the get go.”
“Maybe they’ll tell it to us now.” Hill retrieved his radio.
“What are doing?” Shoeman asked.
“I’m gonna radio Captain Z, tell him what happened and see if that changes the plan at all.” Hill palmed the communicator and pressed the talk button. “Command this is…”
“Uh, remember what happened last time?” Jenkin’s reminded him.

The communicator squawked to life. 
“被告知! 这是一个官方频道!”
“Oh right. No hablo Common.” Hill lowered the communicator’s volume to just barely audible and waited for the enraged Jade Kingdom operator to stop berating him in a language he did not understand. At least Hill assumed he was being berated just going off the tone. Some methods of communication were universal. Example and mostly random fact; when a bearded dragon waves at you it means he’s willing to share the territory. Kind of crazy that humans and lizards share a gesture that means pretty much the same thing. Anyway back to the story.
  The unintelligible tirade finally went silent. Hill sighed. 
“Oh well, looks like we’re done here — for now.”
“So what’s our next move?” Freeman asked.
Hill kicked a piece of rubble with the toe of his boot and watched it tumble off the roof’s edge. “Our orders were that after we tagged him we were to blend in with the local population. So that’s what we’re going to do until Command gets someone who speaks Common to call us back and give us the rest of our mission.”
“Well this is your home turf. Where do you suggest we that?” Asked Freeman.    
After a thoughtful introspection Hill answered.
“I know a place.”     
“Wait, are you thinking The Diner?” Jenkins asked.
“I am thinking The Diner.”
“The Diner?” Freeman asked.
“The FanService Diner.” Hill elaborated.
“FanService? Like what kind?” Kilroy asked. “Curvy eye-candy fanservice or pop culture referencing fanservice?”
Kale reflected on the question. The truth is both definitions applied.
“Mmm, yes, but spelled with an @ symbol, you know, for trademark reasons.”
“That’s weird.” Shoeman said.
“Well take it up with the owners.” Said Hill.
“Who are the owners?” Shoeman asked.
“It’s owned by a family of minkan immigrants.”
“Yeah, they built the diner inside one of their old decommissioned warships.”
“What! How big is this warship?” Martinez asked.
“Uh, corvette class, I think. You know…diner-sized.” Hill explained.
“I’ve heard of minkan families doing this. It’s not that weird.” Shoeman added.
 “Anyway, I used to eat there all the time back in high school and I was friends with their daughter. They freakin’ love me!” Said Hill. 
“Hey I was there too.” Jenkins interjected.
“Oh right. They also tolerate Jenkins.” Hill laughed.
At that moment all their phones began to buzz in unison. In keeping with his idiosyncrasy Kilroy was the first to read the message.
“Uh Sarge I hate to interrupt your trip down memory lane but we gotta go now!”
Hill read the text message.
“Team Jade October,
Warning! An OIF Sharkbat class gunship has broken the drone blockade and is inbound for your position. Break contact now!
-Love Captian Z”
“Oh no.” Hill closed the message.
“Oh no is right. I don’t know a ship could look pissed but here you tell me.” Kilroy showed Sergeant Hill the drone camera’s live feed.
“Oh yeah that is a pissed off gunship.” Hill agreed. 
The sleek black and white striped ship, as its class suggested, resembled the unholy love child of a shark and a bat. Judging by the diamond-shaped head atop an elongated neck it appeared as though a rattlesnake may have been involved too. The nose mounted plasma canons were angled in such a way as to remind Hill of enraged eyes.
“Green Badger huh?” Shoeman observed the ship’s nose art.
 “Definitely a merc.” Hill concluded. “The crew probably fought in The Crescent Wars.” 
At this the marine began to nervously stroke his beard. He did so until he caught Hill watching him do it. Hill quickly looked away and Shoeman stopped touching his beard.
“Alright then. JT’s, we out! We don’t want none of this shit.” Hill announced.
The team rushed to the side facing the sky-road below, activated their jump jets and jumped off. The jets gave a small boost right before they hit the hard light road. Half way to the ground they jumped again and the jump jets slowed their descent. The team landed in a parking lot on the other side of the highway’s sound barrier. Shoeman almost tripped, landing on a food truck’s roof but managed to catch himself before tumbling over the side. He was still getting the hang of his jet pack.  He jumped off the back of the truck and joined the rest of the team.
They frantically changed out of their battle dress uniforms and into their civilian disguises. They stowed their weapons, jet packs and other incriminating gear into the knockoff-omnibags just as the sonic boom of the gunship was heard overhead

“Please tell me you already called our DrivR.” Hill asked Martinez.
“He should be here in the next minute.”
A black SUV pulled up, it’s hazard lights blinking to warn other drivers not to queue up behind it and start honking. The driver also did this to make himself easier for the riders to find, but mostly he was just sick of the honking.   
“Oh wait, there he is.” Martinez waved at the SUV.
The human driver rolled down the window, a confused but mostly disappointed look on his face.
“Jessica?” He asked one eyebrow cocked skeptically.
“That’s us!” Martinez smiled.
Team Jade October piled in.
“So where to?” The driver asked. “You didn’t put in a destination.”
“Oh don’t worry about that. These are my old stomping grounds.” Hill said. “I’ll tell you which way to go.”
“Of course.” The driver sighed.
“Turn left here.” Hill pointed just as The Green Badger settled into a hover above the highway, just a little too close for comfort. “No right!” Hill corrected.
“Whoa, hey look a gunship. What’s it doing here?” The driver did not share Hill’s sense of dread.
“You stay away from that gunship!” Hill reprimanded.
“What? Okay.” 
“Keep your distance but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance.” Hill directed the driver.
“The road goes right by it. How am I supposed to..?”
 “I don’t know just drive casually.”
Hill slipped in one last Return of the Jedi reference as they drove away. He watched as the gunship lowered it’s tail ramp and a fire team of white-armored PeaceTroopers jumped the fifty feet to the ground as easily as if it were five. He didn’t let himself relax until they were far away from the highway, safely hidden in rush hour traffic.
Meanwhile Adam lay unconscious on the highway as the OmniSynaptech recovery team closed in on the plasma pistol’s automated distress signal that identified him as Hiro Nishimoto. 
The captain caught sight of the unconscious kinetic. 
“There he is. Secure the perimeter.” Ordered the Peace Trooper captain who in my head cannon sounds an awful lot like Adam West. Rest in peace old chum.
The troopers took up firing positions in a triangle facing outward around Adam while the captain checked his vital signs. Adam’s face and hair had been blackened and his fire resistant turnouts were charred beyond recognition. A quick DNA scan of the blood on his suit incorrectly confirmed his mistaken identity. 
“It’s him.” Said the sergeant.
“Is he alive?” Asked the captain.
“Yeah, he’s still breathing.”
The captain noticed that even while unconscious Adam still had the plasma pistol clenched in a Chuck Heston grip.
“This Mr. Nishimoto is one stubborn son of a bitch.” 
“You sure it’s him? His bio says he’s supposed to be six foot even.”
“Dammit! What did those GU bastards do to you? Don’t worry, we’ll get you home and fixed up in no time.” The captain waved over the rest of the fire team.
With all the speed and efficiency of a Formula 1 pit crew, the troopers put a cervical collar on his neck, and strapped him to a stretcher before loading him aboard the gunship that hovered a precise three feet off the ground. They would have put an oxygen mask on him as well had his suit’s rebreather not still  been functioning properly. It also appeared that his mask had melted to his face so best to let the doctors aboard Initiative deal with that.
“The VIP is secured Ma'am. We are clear for dust off.” The Peace Trooper captain said into his helmet comm right before the ramp closed and the ship screamed into the sky.